Iraq 21 Years after Saddam’s Overthrow

Officials and experts to Asharq Al-Awsat: It has been two decades of violence, corruption and recovery

A store owner and his son watch Saddam Hussein deliver a televised speech on January 17, 1997. (Reuters file photo)
A store owner and his son watch Saddam Hussein deliver a televised speech on January 17, 1997. (Reuters file photo)
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Iraq 21 Years after Saddam’s Overthrow

A store owner and his son watch Saddam Hussein deliver a televised speech on January 17, 1997. (Reuters file photo)
A store owner and his son watch Saddam Hussein deliver a televised speech on January 17, 1997. (Reuters file photo)

Twenty-one years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, the formation of eight governments and staging of six parliamentary elections, current and former officials believe that the “experiment of the new Iraq has yet to succeed.”

On this day in 2003, the United States declared the success of Operation Iraqi Freedom that ousted the regime. The lasting image from that period was the toppling of Saddam’s large statue in central Baghdad.

Washington invaded Iraq in 2003 under the allegation that the country possessed weapons of mass destruction and because its regime posed a global security threat. No evidence that Iraq possessed such weapons was ever found.

Iraq does not officially celebrate the overthrow of the regime even though members of the former transitional council had called for naming it a national holiday. Political and popular interest in the anniversary has waned drastically over the years.

Several officials told Asharq Al-Awsat that the democratic experience in Iraq has been impeded by political rivalries and regional meddling.

Uprooting Iraq

Former Electricity Minister Karim Wahid told Asharq Al-Awsat that Washington wanted to use its invasion to “uproot Iraq from the Arab national security defense system and destabilize the regional balance by establishing a new weak regime.”

Wahid, who served in Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's government, said the imbalance in Iraq began when officials took political decisions that were motivated by revenge.

“Such an approach was never going to succeed after decades of totalitarian rule,” he remarked.

In the past two decades, Iraq had to contend with security and political crises that started with sectarian violence in 2005, years of terrorism fueled by al-Qaeda and then ISIS, the spread of rampant corruption, rising regional meddling in its affairs and the emergence of militias that enjoy wide political influence in the parliament and government.

In March 2023, Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani said his government was working on combating corruption that has taken root in the majority of state institutions, leading Iraq to be ranked 157 out 180 most corrupt countries in the world.

MP Hussein Arab, a second generation politician, described the post-invasion phase as an occupation whose price is still being paid to this day.

It will take more time for democracy to be consolidated in the country, he told Asharq Al-Awsat.

“The parties that adhere to political Islam have tarnished democracy and turned it into a system of extortion and illicit enrichment,” he went on to say.

He predicted that the first generation of politicians who emerged after Saddam’s ouster would themselves be voted out of the scene during the next parliamentary elections.

Results of the change

Head of the Kulwatha Center Bassel Hussein said the outcome of the regime change are “modest” and have not favored the Americans and others.

It did, however, pave the way for regional meddling in Iraq, he told Asharq Al-Awsat.

“The region has become more turbulent and it is becoming worse due to Iran’s growing expansion in Iraq,” he noted.

“Since the invasion, Iraq has become an affiliate of Iran and a pawn in its conflict with the West and Arab surrounding,” he remarked.

On the future of democracy in Iraq, Hussein said the political system “teeters between various contradictory political, legal and social models. Elections have also produced a form of authoritarian competition that has nothing to do with the concept of democracy as understood in mature countries.”

Important accomplishment

In spite of this, Iraq’s most important accomplishment since 2003 has been ending the totalitarian state and one-party rule, said researcher and academic Akeel Abbas.

Aside from this, “the new regime has consistently failed because the ruling political-partisan system has sought its own interests at the expense of society,” he added.

The system has formed the state according to a “wrong and short-sighted vision”, he explained.

Head of the Center for Political Thinking in Iraq Ihssan Shmary said the political class that came to power post-Saddam should have separated powers and achieved social justice.

“Over the years, the political system has shifted from consensual democracy to one led by influential leaders, thereby destroying the essence of the change,” he remarked.

This has given way for more demands for system reforms and constitutional amendments, he noted.

The negatives, however, don’t deny the fact that Iraq gained after Saddam’s ouster the concept of the peaceful transition of power, which should be seen as a sign of recovery in the country, he stressed.



Syrians in Lebanon Fear Unprecedented Restrictions, Deportations 

A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)
A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)
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Syrians in Lebanon Fear Unprecedented Restrictions, Deportations 

A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)
A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)

The soldiers came before daybreak, singling out the Syrian men without residence permits from the tattered camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. As toddlers wailed around them, Mona, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon for a decade, watched Lebanese troops shuffle her brother onto a truck headed for the Syrian border.

Thirteen years since Syria's conflict broke out, Lebanon remains home to the largest refugee population per capita in the world: roughly 1.5 million Syrians - half of whom are refugees formally registered with the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR - in a country of approximately 4 million Lebanese.

They are among some five million Syrian refugees who spilled out of Syria into neighboring countries, while millions more are displaced within Syria. Donor countries in Brussels this week pledged fewer funds in Syria aid than last year.

With Lebanon struggling to cope with an economic meltdown that has crushed livelihoods and most public services, its chronically underfunded security forces and typically divided politicians now agree on one thing: Syrians must be sent home.

Employers have been urged to stop hiring Syrians for menial jobs. Municipalities have issued new curfews and have even evicted Syrian tenants, two humanitarian sources told Reuters. At least one township in northern Lebanon has shuttered an informal camp, sending Syrians scattering, the sources said.

Lebanese security forces issued a new directive this month shrinking the number of categories through which Syrians can apply for residency - frightening many who would no longer qualify for legal status and now face possible deportation.

Lebanon has organized voluntary returns for Syrians, through which 300 travelled home in May. But more than 400 have also been summarily deported by the Lebanese army, two humanitarian sources told Reuters, caught in camp raids or at checkpoints set up to identify Syrians without legal residency.

They are automatically driven across the border, refugees and humanitarian workers say, fueling concerns about rights violations, forced military conscription or arbitrary detention.

Mona, who asked to change her name in fear of Lebanese authorities, said her brother was told to register with Syria's army reserves upon his entry. Fearing a similar fate, the rest of the camp's men no longer venture out.

"None of the men can pick up their kids from school, or go to the market to get things for the house. They can't go to any government institutions, or hospital, or court," Mona said.

She must now care for her brother's children, who were not deported, through an informal job she has at a nearby factory. She works at night to evade checkpoints along her commute.

A sign that reads "The return of the displaced is a right and a duty", is placed along a highway in Jounieh, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)

'WRONG & NOT SUSTAINABLE'

Lebanon has deported refugees in the past, and political parties have long insisted parts of Syria are safe enough for large-scale refugee returns.

But in April, the killing of a local Lebanese party official blamed on Syrians touched off a concentrated campaign of anti-refugee sentiment.

Hate speech flourished online, with more than 50% of the online conversation about refugees in Lebanon focused on deporting them and another 20% referring to Syrians as an "existential threat," said Lebanese research firm InflueAnswers.

The tensions have extended to international institutions. Lebanon's foreign minister has pressured UNHCR's representative to rescind a request to halt the new restrictions and lawmakers slammed a one billion euro aid package from the European Union as a "bribe" to keep hosting refugees.

"This money that the EU is sending to the Syrians, let them send it to Syria," said Roy Hadchiti, a media representative for the Free Patriotic Movement, speaking at an anti-refugee rally organized by the conservative Christian party.

He, like a growing number of Lebanese, complained that Syrian refugees received more aid than desperate Lebanese. "Go see them in the camps - they have solar panels, while Lebanese can't even afford a private generator subscription," he said.

The UN still considers Syria unsafe for large-scale returns and said rising anti-refugee rhetoric is alarming.

"I am very concerned because it can result in... forced returns, which are both wrong and not sustainable," UNHCR head Filippo Grandi told Reuters.

"I understand the frustrations in host countries - but please don't fuel it further."

Zeina, a Syrian refugee who also asked her name be changed, said her husband's deportation last month left her with no work or legal status in an increasingly hostile Lebanese town.

Returning has its own dangers: her children were born in Lebanon and do not have Syrian ID cards, and her home in Homs province remains in ruins since a 2012 government strike that forced her to flee.

"Even now, when I think of those days, and I think of my parents or anyone else going back, they can't. The house is flattened. What kind of return is that?" she said.