WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Dr. Feisal Istrabadi, an Iraqi-American professor at Indiana University, told Kurdistan 24 of his dismay with the political class that has emerged in Iraq some 15 years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Istrabadi is the Founding Director of the Indiana University Center for the Study of the Middle East and was an Iraqi representative to the UN between 2004 and 2007, both as ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative.
Istrabadi’s words are sobering as Iraqis head to the polls for their fourth national elections since 2003.
“Collectively, Iraq’s political class has failed to engender institutions of government,” he said, “which, unfortunately, were dismantled when the Americans arrived in Iraq in 2003.”
“It is, collectively, corrupt, and has not demonstrated competence in governance, nor demonstrated an ability to govern a country such as Iraq,” Istrabadi bemoaned.
Indeed, Transparency International (TI) counts Iraq among the most corrupt countries in the world. With number 1 being the least corrupt, TI’s most recent report ranks Iraq as number 169 (out of 180.)
Afghanistan is even worse, however: number 177. That would seem to suggest the problem lies not only with Iraq’s governing class but with the US’ approach to its post 9-11 wars.
A key US objective has been good governance. The US overthrew two regimes, but the successive governments have been extremely corrupt.
Moreover, poor governance has been accompanied by unending violence, turning “the long war” into “the forever war,” as the US public, and political leaders, including President Donald Trump, conclude that the US has made a major investment in the Middle East, with scant returns.
Istrabadi speaks about contemporary Iraq with a language that echoes a classic of modern Middle Eastern history, The Struggle for Syria, written some 50 years ago by the British journalist, Patrick Seale.
Istrabadi complained about the impact of regional powers—Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia—as they compete for influence in post-Saddam Iraq.
“Too many of the Iraqi political class tend to be very close, too close in my opinion, to foreign powers,” Istrabadi said.
A sense of national identity is weak within these artificial states—Syria and Iraq were created by France and Britain after World War I, and competing regional powers cultivate, capture, and promote different segments of the population to further their own interests.
Iraq’s first ruler, the Hashemite King Faisal, installed by the British, famously wrote in a confidential memorandum, cited in another classic of contemporary Middle East history, Hanna Batatu’s The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: “There is still— and I say this with a heart full of sorrow—no Iraqi people, but unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie.”
“Even now,” Batatu, a man of the left and not, by political temperament, friendly to tradition, wrote in 1978, “The influence of the old norms, if considerably reduced, nonetheless persists,” even in urban areas. “The psychology and ways of the old order—the work of long centuries—are still embedded in the life of broad strata of the people.”
“Most crucial is the fact that the new national loyalty, while more in keeping with new conditions, is still hazy, uncertain of its direction (Iraqism? Pan-Arabism?), unacceptable to the Kurds, poorly assimilative of the Shi’is, and lacking the normative ethics, the warm intimacy, and the sustained emotional support once associated with the old loyalties,” he concluded.
Forty years later, is Iraq really so different? Except that Shi’a domination has replaced Sunni Arab dominance.
Speaking in late April, before Trump renounced the Iran nuclear deal, Istrabadi expressed his concern that if the US left the agreement “one of the places where Iran can respond is Iraq.”
“It’s important that Iraq not be expected to join some sort of an effort against Iran,” he affirmed.
“Iraq is very delicately poised among three currently much stronger neighbors—Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia,” he said. “Iraq needs to remain neutral” and not “be drawn into a larger, regional dispute.”
At the root of this problem is Iraq’s weak national identity and the lack of consensus among its three major communities—the same challenge that Batatu described 40 years ago, and King Faisal fifty years before that.
Yet Washington acts as if this problem does not exist, or there is something that might happen, like an election, which would make it go away.
Editing by Nadia Riva