The worst violence in six years defined the backdrop for the Iraqi elections in April. The vote, the first to take place since the US troop withdrawal in 2011, briefly pushed the beleaguered country back onto the news agenda. Before then, it seemed that only particularly bloody days would register in the Western press. How did it come to be that the mass Western investment of blood and treasure in the country in 2003 transformed into such indifference?
Iraq has become a family secret, the hideously malformed child hidden away in the attic whose presence is only acknowledged on rare and awkward occasions. In the UK this is particularly true, with the Chilcot Inquiry, ongoing since 2009, testing the patience of the prime minister as to when it will reveal its findings. Iraq’s state of permanent chaos, of market bombings and assassinations, has turned it into a toxic issue politicians avoid—one that bores the public and that the media struggles to contain into a coherent narrative.
Meanwhile, violence in the Anbar governorate has displaced over 400,000 Iraqis, a number that fails to compare with Syria’s exodus but shows how bad the ‘norm’ for the country has become. As the world’s eyes turned on the country for its election, Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki made sure the cracks were firmly plastered over. Security forces flooded the cities, checkpoints flowered, and cars were banned from accessing huge swaths of the country. To protect voters, Iraq’s economic and social arteries were essentially shut down. The operation was largely successful, and those seeking to use violence for political theater were denied their chance to make headlines. However, at least 14 people were killed in or near polling stations while 12 million Iraqis braved the dangers and went to the polls, resulting in a voter turnout of 60 percent—slightly down from 62 percent in 2010.
Those who thought Iraq’s new democracy might result in a more regular change of leadership are likely to be disappointed, as Prime Minister Maliki remains favorite to lead the government for a third term. Despite results being far from clear and months of horse-trading potentially lying ahead, Maliki spoke confidently after casting his vote saying, “our victory is ensured, but we still need to determine how big this victory will be.” Even though he may be right, what democracy has delivered for the country is a complex ethno–sectarian patronage system and changing alliances that would give most Game of Thrones fans a run for their money.
This system is filled with powerful lords looking to secure the spoils of the state for contested constituencies from a delegitimized budget almost totally made up of oil revenues. Iraq has neither proper taxation nor effective representation, with the country still suffering from a lack of statesmen able to paint a vision of the future. Of greater concern for some is the creeping tendency from Maliki towards a more authoritarian centralization, with the incumbent premier warning ominously that “partnership with other political factions has hampered the government’s performance.” Ironically enough, the greatest check on Maliki’s ambitions for power may not come from the Western architects of the new Iraq, but rather from neighboring Iran, whose role as kingmaker in the predominantly Shi’a country was never in the script for George W. Bush’s vision for the country.
Sadly, interest in this fascinating case of intervention gone astray left with the last US troops, and only moments of high political drama—such as the recent elections—now register on the global agenda.
This article was originally published in The Majalla.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine or Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.