It's been 17 years since the United States led an international coalition to invade Iraq and topple the authoritarian regime of its former ally and later opponent, Saddam Hussein, and to allegedly democratise the country. Seventeen years have passed, and we still cannot find a single valid indication that the US had any intention of establishing a stable and prosperous democracy in Iraq. The occupation resulted following a series of failed attempts: deadly 13-year-long sanctions and a destructive Desert Storm Operation which devastated the country's infrastructure.
Today's Iraq is experiencing all kinds of challenges and possibilities. Youth unemployment in 2019 was at 25.14 per cent; there were around 2 million orphans, around 1.5 million internally displaced people, 96.4 per cent of the population without health insurance, and illiteracy at 39 per cent among the rural population.
From the very early stages of the military intervention and the occupying force under the administration of Paul Bremer, the United States seemed to be keen to disband the armed and police forces and leave a militarily vulnerable country to greedy regional power players. The occupying force wanted to replace Hussein's regime with exiled politicians, without any democratic elections. They were keener on implementing a de-Ba'athification process, which aimed to eradicate the culture and influence of the former regime's Ba'athist political party from Iraq's political and social arenas, rather than implementing a successful democracy with strong state institutions to protect it from corruption and chaos.
The United States promised Iraqis democracy and prosperity in a post-Hussein world. But the democratic project resulted in more violence, extremism, rampant corruption and unemployment in the years following that.
Former US President, George W. Bush, promised in his March 2003 war speech an end to aggression and terror and the revival of a free Iraq. Following the US-led invasion, which witnessed human rights violations against innocent Iraqi civilians, Al-Qaeda broke into the newly disarmed country, non-state militias overruled the political arena, sectarian violence erupted on the streets, and social schism continued to be utilised by political interests.
Iraqis were promised human liberty and a peaceful and self-governing nation. Iraqis today are putting their lives at risk if they are to criticise and speak up against the governmental shortcomings towards their economy and security. Iraq today is a battlefield between regional power interests, with political parties functioning as proxy players serving external agendas before the prosperity and stability of the country.
Bush utilised hatred against America as a motive as to why military intervention is necessary in Iraq and beyond. Reversely, anti-Americanism in the region has grown throughout the years due to the military role performed by the US.
The first meeting for strategic dialogue between the US and Iraq took place last June. The talks aimed to find a way out from the recent broken relations, and arguably found it as an opportunity with the newly-appointed prime minister and former intelligence chief Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, considering his good relations with the US in a country where Iranian influence dominates major political decisions.
The talks mainly focused on the presence of the US military in Iraq. The next meeting is scheduled to take place in Washington DC through an official visit to the White House by Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi.
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Certain events motivated both sides to revamp their bilateral relations. In particular, the American raid which assassinated the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Qassem Soleimani and the deputy chief of the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Units Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis in early January 2020. The attack came as a result of a series of confrontations between US forces and pro-Iran militias in Iraq in late 2019.
Consequently, the Iraqi parliament voted for the withdrawal of US military forces from Iraq under severe pressure from parties or blocs loyal to Iran's influence in Iraq. Despite the absence of Sunni Arab and Kurdish political parties during the vote, the US did not welcome the Iraqi parliamentary decision and viewed it as if Baghdad was taking Tehran's side on the US-Iran confrontations on Iraqi soil.
The official statement from the June 2020 talks discussed US support in providing economic advice through American consultancy and in cooperation with global financial institutions regarding resolute plans to enact basic economic reforms for the country. The question here is, how transparent and proactive will this consultancy be with Iraq's economic and political reality?
There will be no benefit from this assistance if it does not translate into the importance of tackling corruption and charting for the country a way out, gradually, from the structured administrative corruption within state institutions.
In Iraq 16.2 trillion dinars allegedly disappear annually from Iraq's imports of oil derivatives, with the knowledge of the oil and finance ministries.
It is worth noting that one cannot expect the US to fully demilitarise its approach in Iraq considering the nature of Iran's presence and the number of US military bases it has there.
The US did not invade Iraq with a failed strategic plan in its alleged attempt to establish a democracy in the region to simply get out of it and have Iran permanently control it. Other than political interests, there are American economic and geopolitical interests dependent on their continued military presence in Iraq.
The US has seven military bases in the provinces of Kirkuk, Erbil, Salah Al-Din, Baghdad and two in Anbar. Many of them are infested with anti-terrorist forces, defensive missiles and attack aircraft, missile depots, and transit points for US forces between Syria and Iraq.
It would be unusual to witness a superpower voluntarily giving up all of this influence and military presence in an oil-rich country that is considered a regional strategic centre.
However, it could present a new step in the relationship and develop trust if Iraqis finally witness more effective and implemented economic reform plans in Iraq beyond the oil sector and beyond the military presence.
The US can only set a democratic example of Iraq against its rivals in Damascus and Tehran by rebuilding the infrastructure its invasion destroyed. It is unemployability and poverty that recruited thousands of young people into extremist groups. It is time for the US to minimise its focus on the number of troops and military bases and start looking at how many Iraqi factories it could reopen through US investments and training, which will boost Iraqi domestic economy and create more jobs for the unemployed youth. It is time for the US to showcase its significant role in today's globalised economy and invest in Iraq's technology sector through grassroot entrepreneurial initiatives that would allow creativity and inventions to overshadow years of terror.
Iranian influence and state corruption will not disappear with more soldiers and weaponry. It will disappear when a more sustainable alternative is available for the victims of both platforms. This is not in denial of the security situation in Iraq, which is shaken by the presence of militias across all political and social forms. However, it should not be the only topic discussed. Defeating extremist or limiting the influence of extremist groups in Iraq, such as Al-Qaeda between 2004-06, the Mahdi Army in 2008, Daesh in 2017, and now the pro-Iran militias assassinating activists, protesters, and academics, will only produce temporary solutions if there are no drastic efforts and changes to laws that would eliminate the ethno-sectarian role in governance, failed electricity services, water scarcity and most importantly re-enhance an economy beyond the traditional industries that would could save the environment and decrease the alarming increase in youth unemployment.
Beyond the military business the US must showcase its commitment to education and economic development. Iraq has much more potential than just being a strategic geopolitical arena in the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.