It’s not revelatory to claim that Iraq is not the ready-made democracy that some in the George W. Bush administration hoped. Bush and his aides were surprised by the brutal sectarian violence that broke out after the 2003 American invasion. In the aftermath, many Sunni Arabs were unwilling to accept their minority status, Kurds sought to reclaim traditional territories, and Shia militias formed to exact revenge on Sunni neighborhoods. Bush administration officials did not anticipate that the Iraqis had such a weak national identity.
Nearly 13 years later, Iraq continues to lack strong, stable, and virtuous leadership. Iraqis struggle with dysfunctional and corrupt political institutions, foreign interference, economic deprivation, and domestic insecurity. The majority of Iraqis say that the country is heading in the wrong direction. Importantly, however, there are promising trends that Iraq is entering a post-sectarian era and embracing a new national identity. The rise and fall of ISIS, a general distrust in organized religion, the fear of Iranian hegemony, and the emergence of a unifying leader are all indicators that Iraq is on the right track. These are broad national trends that can lead to strong political development.
Before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Sunni Arabs were the politically dominant class, even though Sunni Arabs comprised only 15 to 20 percent of Iraq’s population. Saddam Hussein and his Baathist Party were the main conduits for Sunni power, and in an effort to stabilize his regime, Saddam maintained a large military apparatus, which was often used to suppress Shia and Kurdish uprisings.
After the 2003 American invasion, Sunni Arabs were relegated to a minority role in politics. When the American government disbanded the Sunni-dominated Iraqi army, these former soldiers either joined Al Qaeda or formed their own militias in an effort to gain income, exact vengeance, or defend themselves against the rise of new Shia militias. What followed was a sectarian civil war, with American troops caught in the middle. In late 2006, President Bush announced a new approach, which incorporated a surge of US troops and a counter-insurgency strategy, in the hopes of stabilizing the country. When the violence dramatically decreased, politics became the substitute to express sectarian tensions, with most of the parliamentary parties representing a sectarian identity.
Trending Away from Sectarianism and Towards a National Identity
Only after the rise of ISIS in 2013 and 2014 did Iraqis begin to identify with a national identity, instead of their individual sectarian identities. A 2019 study by Al-Mustakella for Research
(IIACSS) confirmed this trend. After the territorial defeat of ISIS in 2017, 80 percent of Iraqis identified as “Iraqi above all.” In 2018, that percentage dropped from 80 percent to 65 percent, but that number is still higher than the immediate post-invasion period when the percentage stagnated in the 20 percent range. Additionally, 76 percent of Iraqis describe relations between the different religious sects as good. All of these spikes in unity are developing in the aftermath of ISIS’s defeat; more importantly, these numbers are remaining stable. ISIS was such a large existential threat to the country that it required the people to unite against a common enemy, and as demonstrated by the above statistics, ISIS’s defeat was the first major national unifying project.
This emerging post-sectarian attitude is undergirded by a larger trend in Iraqi society: distrust in organized religion. In 2019, only 41 percent of Iraqis trusted their religious institutions, down from a high of 80 percent in 2004. During most of post-invasion Iraq, more than 80 percent of Iraqis believed government laws should be based entirely on Islamic law: in 2019, about 75 percent of Iraqis believe there should be a separation between religion and politics. The sectarian violence that Iraq experienced in the aftermath of the US invasion was animated by religious fervor; today, Iraqis do not identify with that fervor. While Iraqis remain very religious and continue to subscribe to their specific sect, it is no longer their animating identity.
Iran is one of the major losers in Iraq’s new post-sectarian mood. In 2016, 75 percent of Iraqis saw Iran as a reliable partner for the future. By the end of 2019, that number dropped to 25 percent, with more than 80 percent of Shia believing that Iran is having a negative impact on Iraqi politics. Iran, a Shia-dominated theocracy, played a large role in arming and supplying the Shia militias that instigated much of the sectarian violence. The Shia militias remain Iran’s most influential tool to affect Iraqi politics. However, as Iraqis move beyond their sectarian past, they are no longer galvanized by religious violence. The most troubling sign for Iran is the precipitous drop in Shia support. With a high degree of trust in Iraqi security institutions, the Iraqi Shia now largely rely on the central government to guarantee their security. Increasingly, Iran is left without Iraqi public support.
The New Post-Sectarian Prime Minister
On May 7th of this year, the Iraqi parliament approved the appointment of Mustafa al-Kadhimi as the country’s new prime minister. Before becoming prime minister, Kadhimi spent much of his adult life in exile in the United Kingdom, being an outspoken critic of Saddam Hussein. From 2016 to April 2020, Kadhimi headed up the Iraqi National Intelligence Service. During his tenure there, he played a critical role in developing the agency’s counter-terrorism capabilities and playing an integral part in the fight against ISIS.
After several ineffective prime ministers, Kadhimi came to the premiership on the coattails of a popular movement against corruption, economic stagnation, and Iranian influence. In September 2018, protestors took to the streets attacking the Iranian consulate in Basra. In November 2019, protesters in the majority-Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala attacked Iranian consulates and defaced posters of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As mentioned abover, a growing number of Iraqis are tired of Iran destabilizing the nation; these demonstrations are real-world representations of what the data indicates. Iraqis are looking to address national problems, and they see Iran as standing in the way.
Iran saw further setbacks in early 2020 with the U.S.-backed high-profile killings of Iranian Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, leader of the Iranian-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah. These individuals were important supporters of Iraq’s Shia militias, who continue to undermine Iraq’s national government, and hope to return the country to a state of sectarian civil war; they stood as major barriers to Kadhimi’s appointment. The Shia militias see Kadhimi as a pragmatic, national figure, whose technocratic style can organize the national government and threaten the militia’s political power.
Kadhimi is uniquely suited to post-sectarian Iraq. On a trip to the former ISIS capital of Mosul, Kadhimi said, “Without tolerance we cannot live together and our diversity must be a source of strength for us.” He strikes an exceptionally different tone from his predecessors. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki advanced his pro-Shia, sectarian agenda. What makes Kadhimi all the more unique is the broad support he garners from the Iraqi people despite worsening conditions due to the coronavirus health crisis and the precipitous drop in oil prices. According to a June poll, 64 percent of Iraqis have a favorable view of Kadhimi. Compare that to his predecessor Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who could only garner 36 percent favorability one month into his appointment. Even more important, Kadhimi holds support from 60 percent of Iraq’s Shia population, according to the June poll.
This broad support is crucial if Kadhimi is going to be successful in helping foster an Iraqi national identity. Where before the country was constrained by the heightened sectarian tensions, today, the country has a leader and an attitude that looks beyond that. However, Kadhimi has to provide clear deliverables on anti-corruption campaigns, health management, and economic stability if he is to give the democratic government legitimacy, which remains low.
Beyond crucial domestic initiatives, Kadhimi is pursuing a pro-Iraqi sovereignty strategy aimed at bringing more legitimacy to the central government. Kadhimi is crafting a plan to target illegal Shia militias, which have plagued Iraqi politics since the U.S. invasion. These militias were originally formed to provide security and services in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. Fueled by Iranian arms and sectarian hatred, Shia militias quickly transformed into an autonomous political force. As mentioned earlier, the US killings of Soleimani and al-Muhandis significantly contributed to the disorganization of these militias. In addition to a disrupted leadership structure, the militias are constrained by anti-sectarian and anti-Iranian attitudes in Iraq. Buoyed by a high trust in security institutions, Kadhimi has been utilizing the security forces to combat the remaining Shia militias. Kadhimi’s first major strike was in June during a raid against Kataib Hezbollah, after accusing them of firing rockets at American forces. The Shia militias are one of the last major vestiges of Iraq’s sectarian past; ridding the country of their influence will not be an easy endeavour. The militias still have significant backing from Iran, and they maintain close ties with much of the Iraqi political establishment. If Kadhimi can succeed, the destruction of the Shia militias as a political and social force will go a long way to legitimizing the national government and ushering Iraqis into a new national epoch.
In many ways, Kadhimi is the personification of a new post-sectarian Iraq. However, tensions in Iraq remain high and trust in the central government remains low. To build trust and take advantage of Iraq’s post-sectarian moment, Kadhimi must tackle unemployment, stifle corruption, and guarantee Iraqi sovereignty. Kadhimi should work with the United States to secure international financing in order to expand Iraq’s oil output thereby creating jobs and revenue for the state. Corruption remains a debilitating feature in Iraqi politics. To build consensus, Kadhimi should establish a cross-sectarian commission to investigate corruption and recommend reforms. To build legitimacy for this commission, representatives from the security ministries should play a prominent role due to the public’s high trust in those institutions. Finally, to secure Iraqi sovereignty, Kadhimi must play a careful balancing game between the United States and Iran. However, Kadhimi should expand diplomatic ties with the Persian Gulf states, in an effort to build international support against a hegemonic Iran. A broad, informal coalition against Iran will satisfy the Iraqi people’s concern about Iranian interference. Iraq still has a long and arduous path before it can become a stable democracy, but if the central government can demonstrate that it is delivering on the public’s demands, it may be able to steer the country’s democratic trajectory.
Connor Fiddler is pursuing a master’s degree in Security Policy Studies at George Washington University. His specializations include U.S. national security, conflict studies, and Asian security.