A Democratic Beacon in the Fractious Arab World

Nearly a decade after the US overthrew Saddam Hussein, Iraq is emerging as an increasingly free and prosperous society

Amir Taheri

At noon, on a building site in Najaf, workers down tools to perform one of the five mandatory prayers of the day. They are a happy lot. For as their foreman explains after the prayer they are constructing what is intended to be the largest Shia Muslim seminary in the world which will take several thousand students. The site is located opposite the golden-domed mausoleum where, according to tradition, lie the mortal remains of Ali Ibn Abitalib, the fourth Caliph of Islam and the first Imam of Shiism. As a result,  Najaf is the most sacred city for the world’s estimated 300 million Shias. Last year, over 12 million pilgrims visited the Shia shrines along a route that leads from Najaf in the south to Karbala, Baghdad and Samara in the north, making Iraq the top tourist destination in the region.

The new seminary is not the only building project in Najaf. In fact the holy city resembles a vast building site where hundreds of projects are taking shape. These include five-star hotels for rich pilgrims and bed-and-breakfast outfits for those with modest purses. There are also shopping malls, restaurants and cafés, not to mention hundreds of housing units across the price range. The unprecedented boom in property prices in Najaf has attracted billions of dollars in foreign investment from as far away as Brazil, where the Shia community has established direct links with Iraq for the first time. Other big investors come from neighbouring Iran, where Shias are a majority of the population, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and India.

More importantly, perhaps, after a hiatus that lasted six decades, Najaf is regaining its prestige as the heart of Shiism. Over the past few years thousands of clerics have moved to Najaf from the Iranian city of Qom, hitherto regarded as the principal centre of Shia learning. Unlike Qom, where the Khomeinist regime in Tehran tries to control everything through a mixture of bribery and violence, Najaf is a free and open space in which theological speculation can be developed outside partisan political considerations. In Qom, five ayatollahs appointed by the government and on its payroll are presented as the highest religious authority in the land — just below the “Supreme Guide”, who claims to be the sole leader of all Muslims. There are no such outlandish claims in Najaf. There, the hierarchy of religious authority is established through traditional mechanisms developed over centuries. This is why Najaf’s senior clerics, notably Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani, are emerging as de facto religious leaders of Shias everywhere, including Iran itself.

Ten years ago, all this would have sounded like an impossible dream for Najaf. Surrounded by Saddam Hussein’s armed units, the city resembled a vast prison on the edge of the great Arabian desert. No new buildings or even repairs of crumbling historic sites were allowed. Saddam wanted Najaf to die. In fact, he wanted Shiism, the religion of a majority of Iraqis, to die, so that his dream of an empire based on a mixture of Sunni Islam and fascism would be realised in the name of pan-Arab unity. To destroy Najaf as the heart of Shiism he expelled thousands of non-Iraqi seminarians and stopped the flow of private donations to theological schools and faith-based charities. He also executed hundreds of theologians on spurious charges. Where he could not do so openly he arranged for the assassination of senior clerics, including two grand ayatollahs.

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime in April 2003 changed all that. At the time, of course, no one knew what the invading armies, led by the United States, might do to Najaf, indeed to Iraq as a whole. For over a thousand years, Najaf had witnessed the arrival of numerous foreign invaders including Mongols, Ottomans and Wahhabis from the Arab Peninsula. Each time, Najaf had ended up as a heap of rubble, its inhabitants massacred or driven out and its historic monuments set on fire. In 2003, however, things turned out quite differently. First, the invaders did not even enter the holy city. Next, they did not round up people for mass execution or expulsion and, more surprising still, provided funds for the rebuilding of the shrines damaged or destroyed by Saddam Hussein. Clerics imprisoned or exiled under his regime were released and helped to return to Najaf. The supreme surprise came when the invaders simply agreed to leave without securing any special interests in Iraq.

Najaf is not the only part of Iraq to experience a fresh start after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Further south, Basra seems to be waking up from a sleep of decades during which it had morphed into a ghost town. Once the largest port in the Persian Gulf, Basra lost its access to open waters in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war. The Shatt al-Arab estuary, linking Basra to the waters of the Persian Gulf, was turned into a graveyard of ships, tankers and fishing boats sunk by Iranian forces to block marine traffic, virtually transforming Iraq into a landlocked nation. Today, like Najaf, Basra is a boomtown. Walking along the corniche, abandoned for years but now being cleaned and opened to traffic, a British contractor tells a reporter he dreams of the day Basra becomes “a second Dubai” and a hub of international trade for the oil-rich Persian Gulf. Between 1980 and 2003 Basra lost almost half its population. Many moved to other parts of Iraq and some went into exile, as far away as Latin America. Between 2003 and 2008 a second wave saw many Sunni families moving out of Basra as it fell under the domination of militant Shia groups backed by Iran. Today, the flow is reversed and many families are returning. According to the provincial governor, over the past five years Basra has gained more than 100,000 people, a development that has fuelled a real estate boom.

Further south, on the Kuwaiti frontier, the port of Um al-Qasr is back in operation for the first time since 1980. In 2002, I visited Um al-Qasr with a United Nations peacekeeping officer as guide. It, too, was a ghost town, where stray dogs fought on what had been the port’s principal boulevard. Ten years later, the port is a hub of business activity that helps supply Iraq’s economic boom.

Najaf, Basra and Um al-Qasr are not alone in experiencing an unprecedented peace and the promise of prosperity. With slight variations, one can witness a similar picture in every part of Iraq. In the three northern provinces, under an autonomous Kurdish government for more than 20 years, the transformation is even more dramatic, with pockets of prosperity that look more like Switzerland than the remote mountains of north-eastern Iraq.

Baghdad, where some streets even at the centre of the city were no-go areas until 2008, has been slower in moving beyond the nightmare of despotism, war and sectarian violence. Nevertheless, even there a new atmosphere of peace and hope is gradually setting in. The dismantling of most of the walls and barbed wire that chopped the city into an archipelago of armed camps is restoring a measure of harmony without which this majestic capital could not realise its dreams of grandeur.

By all measures, Iraq is experiencing an economic revival:  living standards are on an upward trend for the first time since the 1970s. For much of the past decade, Iraq’s growth rate has hovered around 12 per cent, according to estimates by the World Bank, making it the fastest growing economy in the Middle East. The Iraqi dinar, the national currency, has more than quadrupled in value, outperforming the region’s other oil-based currencies including the Kuwaiti dinar and the Iranian rial. Three factors have contributed to this “economic miracle”. The first is the return of stability after the “surge” in 2008. Over the past five years, the number of terrorist operations has dropped by almost 90 per cent, although the country is still hit by occasional spectacular attacks. At the same time the disarming of militias, including the Mahdi army, has reduced criminal activities by rival sectarian gangs.

Stability has encouraged private investment and the mushrooming of small businesses throughout the country. The government claims that since 2010 it has been issuing an average of 8,000 new business permits a month. The revival of the private sector, with small and medium businesses taking the lead, represents a change of economic model in a country used to the domination of the public sector in a centrally planned and controlled system of government. Saddam Hussein, who presented himself as the champion of “Arab socialism”, would have complained of wild capitalism spreading throughout Iraq. Most Iraqis, however, seem to enjoy the opportunity to return to business traditions rooted in thousands of years of history.

Also helping the economic uplift are the nation’s growing oil revenues. In 2007, Iraq’s oil income fell to just a few hundred million dollars. By 2011, however, it had reached $87 billion, an all-time record. The industry is still far from realising its full potential. Iraq now meets the export quota fixed for it by Opec. But it could double output to around six million barrels a day. Over the past five years, Iraq has signed oil exploration and exploitation contracts with over 70 companies from 40 countries.

Opponents of the toppling of Saddam Hussein claimed that the US invaded Iraq to “steal its oil”. However, American oil giants have been strangely reluctant to commit to Iraq, leaving the field to companies from nations that opposed the war, notably France, Russia, India, Turkey and China. One reason for American oil’s low profile may be a desire not to ruffle feathers in Saudi Arabia and other Arab oil countries still unable to gauge the impact of the Iraqi return to centre stage. There is also the fact that some of Iraq’s most important oil reserves are located astride borders with Iran and Kuwait, forcing would-be investors to take the possibility of future conflicts into account. Another problem is the inability of the Iraqi National Assembly to reach final agreement on laws concerning the granting of oil contracts and the sharing of oil revenues in accordance with the country’s semi-federal political structure. Nevertheless, boasting one of the largest, if not the largest, reserves of oil in the world, Iraq is destined to emerge as an energy superpower.

There are, of course, dark patches on what is a bright economic picture. Some cities, including Baghdad, still suffer power outages for several hours each day, a hard-to-bear fact of life especially in the summer where temperatures can reach 50°C. The whole country is dotted with half-finished and, in some cases, abandoned public projects. There are roads that lead nowhere and huge ditches dug and abandoned for no discernible reason. Many of these public projects served as conduits for corruption on a gargantuan scale. The Anti-Corruption Committee in Baghdad estimates that since 2003 a whopping $50 billion may have been siphoned off through such projects.

The gravy train did not carry only Iraqis; hundreds of small and big Western, Turkish and Iranian companies and thousands of foreign consultants and advisers also hitched a ride. Stories about high officials or their relatives running away with suitcases filled with crisp dollar notes are part of the weekly fare in the Iraqi press, alongside reports by investigative journalists exposing fictitious posts for influential individuals. It is hard to gauge the actual extent of the corruption or to discover the precise identity of all those on the take. However, ostentatious signs of wealth indicate the emergence of a nouveau riche elite bent on repeating the worst excesses of other “oil Arabs”.

 There may, however, be one difference between post-Saddam corruption and the period under the Baathist regime. Under Saddam, the ruling Takriti clan claimed the lion’s share in corruption, leaving others with mere crumbs. At the same time, Saddam funnelled funds to some officials at the UN and several hundred politicians and opinion-makers in Western Europe and the Middle East. Today, corruption has become “democratised” in the sense that the oil “rent” is divided among sects and ethnic and religious communities through political networks at national and local        levels. 

The number of outsiders receiving a share of Iraqi corruption has also multiplied, as Baghdad has become a top destination for all sorts of snake-oil merchants. In the Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad, a visitor can run into a European gentleman charging $1.5 million for an 11-page report on how to resume archaeological digs in southern Iraq. Another gentleman, once an adviser to a former French president, has received almost as much in consultancy fees to tell Iraqis to increase their oil production, which they were trying to do in any case.

Worse still, part of the corruption money goes into financing terrorist groups that are either kept dormant for a rainy day or unleashed every now and then in support of a political scheme at local and/or national level. Here, too, the Iraqi media often provides chilling reports indicating that the nation’s political elite has not yet fully liberated itself from the violence that has marred the country’s politics for six decades. 

A good part of the new elite comes from clandestine political parties and armed groups that operated outside the law, often with bases in exile, against successive despots. Unable to engage in normal political activity, they were often forced to resort to violence, and terrorism, to exert pressure on the government or simply to prove that they continued to exist.

In today’s Iraq there is no need for such tactics as the system of power-sharing allows everyone a place in the system. The Iraqi parliament is the only one in the region where Communists sit alongside monarchists, liberals and conservatives. As for ethnic and religious communities, even the smallest have representation. The decentralised system introduced by the post-Saddam constitution also allows for greater and more active political representation alongside the central government in Baghdad. All the 56 registered political parties in Iraq receive an allocation to finance their publications and election campaigns. In other words, a party no longer needs to murder an official or blow up a building to hit the news. Nevertheless, a tradition of faith in violence as the most effective means of political communication is not easy to shed. The hope is that a new generation of politicians raised in a different and democratic atmosphere may be able gradually to gradually shed that tradition.

 Leaving aside a few old hands, most Iraqi politicians are in their thirties and forties, which means they have spent their formative years in the new Iraq, learning the rules of democracy. Conversations with dozens of them over the years indicate that almost all are determined to make democracy work in Iraq. This new generation is at the heart of a consensus that governments should be formed and changed only through elections and parliamentary methods set down by the constitution. 

Iraq is at present the only Arab country where such a consensus exists. That consensus in turn may have made Iraq the only Arab country with a decent prospect of stability. This was part of the reason Iraq hosted the latest Arab summit in March. It was the only Arab state considered to be peaceful enough to ensure the security of such a summit.

 In May, it was the turn of the Islamic Republic in Iran to acknowledge Iraq as a stabilising force in the region by suggesting that talks with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany be held in Baghdad. 

In Baghdad the coalition government led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki may collapse at any moment with the defection of half a dozen members of parliament to the opposition. A new general election could also change the political configuration throughout Iraq. It is so far the only Arab country to have held three free general elections and have experienced three changes of government through changes in parliamentary majorities. 

Elsewhere in the Arab world, however, people still think of revolution, coups, armed struggle and dynastic change as the only ways of changing governments. The future of countries that have experienced the Arab Spring revolts is too difficult to predict at this point. They may, as we all hope, seize the opportunity to move towards democratisation. However, they may also relapse into despotism either in the name of Islam or that of law and order. Thus Iraq remains the best hope for democratisation in the Middle East.

For many of those who opposed the toppling of Saddam Hussein this is hard to accept. Some opposed the liberation of Iraq out of an anti-American reflex. After all, anti-Americanism, at times with a dose of anti-Semitism added for good measure, is what is left of many old ideologies ranging from Communism to Khomeinism. In the US, from 2006 onwards, opposition to the war in Iraq was the backbone of a Left unable to find a new ideological niche. After all, Barack Obama created his electoral machine with the help of anti-war militants.

To all of the above, the prospect of success in Iraq is a blasphemy brought about through a sacrilege. They would dearly love to see Iraq relapse into violence and chaos so that they could claim they had been right in opposing action to remove Saddam Hussein. Some late opponents of the war who had initially supported the removal of Saddam Hussein, Vice-President Joe Biden for example, would settle for a dismemberment of Iraq so that they could claim that “the Bush project” had failed. (Biden wrote the introduction to a book suggesting that Iraq be divided into three or more mini-states.) As for Obama, so keen was he to make Americans forget Iraq that he engineered a hasty total withdrawal at a time when Iraqi parties were united in their demand that the US maintain a significant military presence for many more years.

Obama has tried to keep relations with Iraq as low-profile as possible. Apart from kissing the hand of the Saudi King Abdullah, the US president makes a point of “consulting” other Arab allies while keeping Iraq at arm’s length. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spends a good part of her time in Arab capitals other than Baghdad, making sure that Arab allies are consulted on a range of issues, most recently the popular uprising in Syria. Iraq, however, is pointedly left out of the loop. This is both unwise and sad. For Iraq may be the only Arab state at this point where the US is genuinely popular — because it is seen as a liberator that manifested an unexpected degree of altruism.

Nothing is likely to change the minds of diehard nostalgists for Saddam Hussein. To them, the liberation of Iraq is akin to the concept of original sin, a monstrous error that nothing could reverse. Even when they are forced to admit that Iraq may be doing better than most other Arab nations, they would still claim that “the Bush project” has failed because Iraq has become a satellite of the Khomeinist regime in Tehran. That claim, too, does not check against reality.

 Iraq, still trying to rebuild itself as a nation state while reviving its security forces, cannot afford to have strained relations with Iran, a nation with which it has a history of conflict and war going back to the very beginnings of Iraqi independence in the 1920s. Geography and history dictate that Iraq, especially when in a position of weakness, maintain working relations with Iran. Ninety per cent of Iraqis live within 60 miles of the Iranian frontier. Ethnic Kurdish and Shia Arab tribes are present on both sides of the Iran-Iraq frontier with countless mixed families and clans. More than 60 per cent of Iraqis are Shia Muslims, sharing the faith of 85 per cent of Iranians across the border. Iraq’s Shia majority would have far preferred the US as its protector against Sunni revanchism at a time when sectarian sentiments are being pushed to fever pitch throughout the Middle East.

However, the US refused to offer that protection, even preferring to side with the Sunni Arab bloc led by Saudi Arabia. To Iraqi Shias, Saudi Arabia recalls the invasion of 1802 that led to the destruction of Najaf by a horde of Wahhabi jihadists. As long as it has not gained enough strength to protect itself, Iraq will need a powerful foreign ally. In the absence of the US, only Iran can play that role, regardless of who rules in Tehran.

The Iraqi leadership is fully aware of the true nature of the Khomeinist regime. Many of them spent years in exile in Iran and have a close knowledge of how the Islamic Republic works. They also observe Tehran’s support for client groups, including armed gangs, in southern Iraq and the mullahs’ fear of seeing Najaf re-emerge as the centre of Shiism. Thus, despite the apparent entente between Tehran and Baghdad, the Iran-Iraq relationship is riddled with tensions. This is why Tehran’s thinly disguised strategic goal is to carve itself a foothold in southern Iraq by creating an autonomous Shia region in the name of federalism.

From the point of view of American geostrategic interests, shunning Iraq is a big mistake. Of all the Arab states, only Iraq has the population, the natural resources and the strategic location needed to keep the hegemonic ambitions not only of Iran but also of Turkey in check. Iraq also boasts a sizeable middle class with distinctly pro-Western sentiments. It is no accident that Iraq has decided to look to the US to equip its fledgling air force. Helping Iraq speed up the rebuilding of its state structures and armed forces is in the interests both of regional stability and democratisation throughout the Middle East. It would be a pity if domestic political considerations, including a refusal to admit that toppling Saddam Hussein was a good deed, prevented the US and its European allies from helping Iraq on its democratic journey. 

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