The state's reduced role in post-2003 Iraq

The replacement of Baathism with a plural constitutional system has given rise to a more assertive society

People walk at Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Iraq, last May. Reuters
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Something new and different is happening in Iraq that most international commentators with an interest in the country appear to be missing. Society is now, for the most part, out of the state’s control and is charting its own destiny, in ways that are now unpredictable.

Since 2003, Iraq-watchers and analysts have been consumed with the same concerns, chief among which is Iran’s influence. According to one view that is dominating western commentary on Iraq, the government is now firmly under the control of Iranian-aligned militia that is in the process of dragging the country firmly into Tehran’s orbit. Others still have been arguing that the government is reasserting control and moving the country more towards a neutral position in international affairs.

What is remarkable about both of those narratives is that they are anchored by a western worldview in which countries such as Iraq only feature in so far as western interests are at play. They are both motivated by a desire to either see western power unchallenged in the region, or to see it reduced.

Meanwhile, on the ground, a far more important dynamic has taken hold, one that hardly features in international conversations about Iraq. On the ground, people on the whole are wholly unconcerned by Iranian and American arm-wrestling and are busy building narratives of their own. Because they are unconcerned and unconnected with western interests, these developments are taking place largely unnoticed by western eyes.

The origins of this new chapter can be found in the pre-2003 era.

For decades, the Baathist state prioritised internal security and assumed that the only path to achieving that aim was full control over every aspect of society. This was to the extent that young men had to be careful about how they trimmed their moustaches for fear of appearing subversive.

Young Iraqis are exploring new forms of expression, including alternative approaches to music, art and sport

Just as with everything else, the relationship between state and society that the Baathists had established was ruptured by the 2003 invasion. The state and its primary institutions were dissolved, which had the effect of releasing society from state control.

In its place, a parliamentary and plural constitutional system was adopted, a by-product of which was that a single group or coalition could no longer hope to seize complete control. Political pluralism means that near-consensus must be reached before any decision can be made, and many political groups do not favour moving the country back to a situation of prospective control.

The new constitutional system has also slowed down decision-making considerably in comparison to the now-defunct Baathist presidential system. That carries with it the obvious disadvantage that necessary reforms can, at best, be adopted only very slowly, but it also means that the state’s ability to adopt legislation encroaching on basic liberties is now greatly reduced.

The consequence is that the state and senior political actors remain relevant but are now incapable of leading society in the ways of the past.

From this vacuum, something new has emerged. Society is setting its own path and evolving without the overwhelming influence of a political movement or of state institutions.

In this new context, young Iraqis are exploring new forms of expression, including alternative approaches to music, art and sport. Technology is playing an important role, as people are creating their own networks, and forming their own opinions about the world that they live in.

Through increased interaction, new opportunities are being created, and people have been learning each other’s languages in ways that were considered impossible in 2003.

Today, it is society that casts judgment on the state and not the other way around, and it is society that largely decides what its priorities are. An obvious illustration is how indifferent the large majority of Iraqis are when tensions rise between the US and Iran-aligned militias. In this context, elections are merely a blip in the lives of most Iraqis.

That dynamic is what led to the 2019 uprising, the largest event of its kind in Iraqi history. Such events will be rare, but they will also be a necessary feature of life in the country, as state and society continue to collide.

Iraqis are also interacting with the outside world in unprecedented ways. For the first time in the country’s history, international conferences on democracy are being organised without any intrusion by state institutions on the substance of what is discussed. Iraqi scholars and thinkers can interact and exchange views with each other freely, building their own views about how their future should be formed.

Middle-class Iraqis are travelling around the world in increasing numbers. Because of improved economic conditions, many from the diaspora are returning to the country. More foreigners are living in or visiting Baghdad, including from Arab countries, from Asia and Africa, and are being more warmly welcomed, in customary Iraqi fashion. Everywhere you look, exchanges with members of those countries are happening without fear or any form of control.

None of this is to say that the government, parliament and state institutions have no influence whatsoever over society, or that there are no limitations on expression. But today, the state is only one source of influence among others, and it is not even clear if it is the main source of it.

Iraq’s past has seen the emergence of civilisation upon civilisation, and it has left its mark on the world more than once. Perhaps the past two decades of tragedy and suffering will nurture a new chapter in the country’s rich history, despite – and not because of – foreign powers and ruling political elites.

Published: March 20, 2024, 4:00 AM