Iraq in 2023 is a very different place to 2003 Iraq

Iraq Daily Life
This aerial photo shows sunset over the capital of Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, March 22, 2023. (AP Photo/ Hadi Mizban) Hadi Mizban/AP

Iraq in 2023 is a very different place to 2003 Iraq

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — The Iraqi capital in 2023 is far different from Baghdad in 2003. Ramadi and Fallujah, once the hotbed of insurgency, are not only peaceful but also booming with construction and commerce. Sectarianism is, at least among the 50% of the population born after the war, in the rearview mirror. The parking lots of Baghdad’s malls and shopping centers are full of cars from Iraqi Kurdistan, predominantly Shi’ite southern Iraq, and largely Sunni al Anbar province. Baghdadis from across the religious and ethnic spectrum flock to the new cafes and restaurants that open on a daily basis.

On the 20th anniversary of the war, I visited a new complex developed by the mayor of Baghdad. Hijab-wearing Iraqi women and old men sat next to young boys and girls dressed in the latest Western fashions to smoke shishas and watch soccer games on huge flat-screen televisions. Every hour, they would watch an hourly light and water show on the Tigris with fountains set to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” or Giacomo Puccini’s famous aria “Nessun Dorma.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Corruption throttles Iraq’s potential. Political parties across Iraq no longer openly fight for turf, but they act as mafias who drain Iraq’s economy and the aspirations of the youth. Many of the same political power brokers whom Americans engaged during the occupation remain paramount influences today. Time matters, though. Ayad Allawi, the one-time darling of the Central Intelligence Agency whom the United States installed as Iraq’s caretaker prime minister prior to the country’s 2005 elections, is nearly 80 years old and is in ill health. Former Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is only in his early 70s but is ailing. Masoud Barzani, whose family dominates Kurdish business, security forces, and politics, is also in his late 70s and in poor health.


Time matters. Few, if any, of Iraq’s top warlords or political bosses will be alive to mark the 30th anniversary of the war, let alone the 25th. The question then becomes what impact their deaths will have on Iraq’s political environment. Outside Iraqi Kurdistan, where Masoud has appointed his eldest son Masrour heir apparent and where Patriotic Union of Kurdistan founder Jalal Talabani’s sons have already taken over from their late father, it is not likely that sons will succeed fathers or that political machines will stay alive.

Prime Minister Muhammad Shia’ al Sudani marks a generational change in Iraq’s political leadership. He is the first post-war prime minister who was never in exile and who rose up through layers of bureaucracy from a low position. This pedigree undermines the populist appeal of Muqtada al Sadr, the volatile cleric who has long sought to cloak himself in Iraqi nationalism by juxtaposing his presence in Saddam’s Iraq with those who escaped to London, Damascus, or Tehran. Muqtada, however, is young: just 48. He will remain a force, though perhaps not as potent as in recent months. His own actions belie his anti-corruption rhetoric, and Iraqis resent his followers’ violence. His constituency is also soft. The fight against the Islamic State created new heroes, none of whom came from a Sadrist background. While Iraqis venerate his late father, the passage of time loosens Muqtada’s claim to their loyalty.

Qais Khazali, a U.S.-designated terrorist, former prisoner, and current political leader, is also under 50 and a growing force. While he once killed Americans as head of Iran’s Special Groups in Iraq, he now signals a desire to work with the United States. While Washington has rebuffed his outreach, he will be important for a generation.

Washington need not rehabilitate Qais but as Iraq begins its third post-war decade, the Biden administration must focus more on the future than the past. It should stop puffing up aging warlords like Barzani, who holds no position but whom Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin nevertheless met, or believing would-be warlords like Muqtada are messiahs. It is time to end the era of personality-based diplomacy behind it, stop seeing Iraq only through the lens of Iran, and respect rather than undermine Iraq’s democracy at this time of generational change.


Michael Rubin (@mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential. He is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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