After the U.S. military announced in December that its combat mission in Iraq had ended, conventional media outlets, think tanks and social media were quick to compare America’s outcome in Iraq with its failure in Afghanistan. Specifically, they declared Iraq a fragile, if not necessarily a failed, state. However, these blanket labels do not reflect the reality on the ground, where Iraqis are changing their country for the better.
Setting aside the long-debated question of whether the U.S. should have ever invaded Iraq, common perceptions of Iraq as a lost cause are in need of serious revision. The naysayers believe they have convincing arguments. They point to well-meaning leaders, such as Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi, for failing to curb government corruption and the rampant violence committed by renegade, Iranian-backed Shia militias — and indeed, Iran’s determination to keep Iraq walking a tightrope between a functioning nation and an economically-dependent client state is certainly destabilizing.
However, several developments indicate Iraq is turning around. To begin with, parliamentary elections held in October were the strongest evidence to date of Iraq’s altered political landscape. Political parties comprising independent candidates and young activists from the protest movement – a movement against corruption, sectarianism and economic mismanagement that took to the streets in October 2019 – won nearly 10% of the seats in the 329-member parliament. One of these parties, Imtidad, won nine seats and would have done even better if more young Iraqis had voted — instead of boycotting the elections because they did not want to participate in what they believe is an illegitimate electoral process.
In all, independent candidates, many of whom were aligned with the protest movement, captured 30 seats. This was the first time since elections began in 2005 that independent candidates won seats in the parliament. The protest movement also championed women’s rights helping a record 97 women win seats.
Conversely, parties affiliated with violent, Iranian-backed Shia militias, who have been major players in Iraqi politics for years, suffered serious losses. One such party, known as Fatah, secured only 17 seats, a decline from the 48 seats it won in 2018. Other established Shia political elites, whom the protesters blame for Iraqi government corruption, were also turned back.
The defeat of the Iranian-backed parties and militias reflects widespread sentiment among Iraqis, who are increasingly opposed to Iranian military and political intrusion in their country. The protest movement demanded an end to Iranian influence in Iraq. In turn, Iranian-backed Shia militias, with help from Iraq’s security forces, killed more than 600 demonstrators, kidnapped others and intimidated young candidates trying to compete in the elections.
Meanwhile, unfavorable attitudes toward Iran among Iraqis have been on the rise, according to Munqith Dagher, who has conducted polling in Iraq since 2005. In 2020, Dagher’s survey showed Iran’s favorability rating at only 15% — a dramatic decline from 70% in 2017. With Iraqi public opinion decisively turning against Iran, the Islamic Republic will find it difficult to sustain its dominant influence, which up until now has posed a major obstacle to Iraqi sovereignty and self-governance.
Today, Iraq’s political factions and parties are trying to form a government. As in previous years, internal conflicts among the Shia factions could delay the appointment of ministers and ultimately a new prime minister for months. Muqtada al Sadr, who is known for using his Mahdi Army to fight U.S. and coalition troops after the fall of Saddam Hussein, unexpectedly won 73 seats in the October elections. Thus, his coalition has a greater say than most in the government formation.
Despite Sadr’s mercuriality, he vows to put Iraq’s national interests ahead of sectarian ones, decreasing the influence of all foreign powers inside Iraq, particularly the United States and Iran. Since the election, he has tried to curb infighting by bringing other Shia factions into a coalition under his leadership. However, he refuses to ally with a key Shia leader, former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose State of Law coalition has 30 seats in the parliament. While their differences go back years, Sadr appears concerned about Maliki’s former close affiliation with Tehran.
In addition to a changed political landscape and declining Iranian influence, Iraq’s new political and economic connections to the wealthy Gulf states are another important indication of the country’s turnaround. Last spring, Prime Minister Kadhimi signed investment agreements with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates totaling $6 billion. The Saudis and Emiratis view Iraq as a new and important market for their energy – particularly for electricity and transport fuel, which Iran supplied to Iraq for years. For these two Gulf States, deals with Iraq produce two benefits: They create business for Saudi Aramco and Abu Dhabi’s National Oil Company, and they decrease Iraq’s dependence on Iran for its energy.
In Washington, the Biden administration, too, is searching for ways to engage Iraq through non-military means. The first Middle East leader Biden called as president was Prime Minister Kadhimi. And since President Biden took office, Washington and Baghdad have held a round of talks, known as the U.S-Iraq Strategic Dialogue, in which the United States pledged to encourage American companies to invest in Iraq to create jobs and aid the country in combating COVID-19.
In the long term, Biden’s efforts will bolster U.S. leverage in Iraq and weaken Iran’s footprint in the country. Iraqis generally support an American presence in Iraq, as long as it’s not a military one. Iraqis often complain that the United States’ historic role in Iraq has focused solely on security issues. But my several visits to Iraq since 2016 show the younger generation, in particular, welcomes U.S. investment in the economy and in education.
Even those most pessimistic about Iraq’s future, such as former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack, who was instrumental in the United States’ decision to invade Iraq in 2003, agree that Iraq could become a stable, democratic state with increased American investment and decreased Iranian malevolence.
As the United States pursues a policy of military exit from the broader Middle East, Iraq should not be abandoned. There are many reasons to believe the country is on the mend. Far from an Afghanistan scenario, a younger generation of Iraqis is pulling the country, with all its complications, in a positive direction.