Britain urged to use leverage to challenge Iraq’s 'toxic' political elite

New generation of Iraqis demanding equal prospects across society

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Britain has a unique role to play in holding the Iraqi government to account and should encourage change within the country’s “toxic” political system, an expert has said, nearly 20 years on from the invasion.

The UK and the US spearheaded the West’s efforts to bring stability to the country in the years after the war (2003-2011) and downfall of dictator Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime.

The 2014 rise of ISIS, during which the terror group seized vast areas of Iraq and drove soldiers and police officers from their posts, was evidence of the instability that ran like an undercurrent in the country in the post-conflict era.

While UK troops no longer engage in combat in Iraq, the British Army plays a leading role in the 67-member coalition working alongside Iraqi and Kurdish security forces to prevent a return of ISIS.

Corruption is a silent killer

Against the backdrop of security concerns, a new generation of young Iraqis have been born and raised in a country where basic necessities such as education and health care are not guaranteed.

Corruption is endemic and the bright dawn of opportunity and prosperity so many had hoped for looks no more than a distant dream.

Medicines given to patients at hospitals are routinely past their use-by date, schools lack the resources to equip children with the foundation they need to excel and employment prospects are grim for many graduates.

The mounting hurdles facing Iraq’s 40.2 million citizens have caused many to question why they have to battle for the basics in their oil-rich nation.

Renad Mansour, who conducts research on Iraq at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, said the injustices blighting the country were causing people to suffer and die unnoticed.

The influence Britain continues to have in Iraq cannot be underestimated, said Mr Mansour. He wants to see the UK government step up and use its unique leverage to challenge decision makers in his country and hold them to account.

In an interview with The National, Mr Mansour stressed that “Britain has a role, not just in short-term stabilisation” of Iraq. At a minimum, it should check that those backed up by the UK’s support “are not harming the people”, he said.

“The key is having a strategy for the longer term while firefighting the current crisis.

“Britain has focused on the rule of law but the key is to move away from supporting personalities and towards ensuring coherent, accountable institutions.

“Iraqis often say that they have one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but they neither see nor benefit from this wealth. When you go to Basra, for example, you would have no idea you are standing on so much wealth. It remains an impoverished area.

“Many of the ruling elite do not use the state’s own services. They go to hospitals outside of Iraq, they send their children to schools outside of Iraq.

“These elite have taken a significant amount of Iraqis’ wealth. It is this toxic system that harms so many people.”

A protester burns tyres during a rally in Basra in June. AP

‘Victims of structural violence’

While Mr Mansour acknowledged it would be “difficult for Britain to try to fix these challenges in state-society relations” because there are no simple solutions, he said the government in Westminster should “call out” the unfairness running through Baghdad’s political establishment.

In October 2019 mass anti-government protests sprung up across the nation as widespread corruption propelled citizens to take action.

Authorities brutally clamped down on protesters and more than 600 were killed while tens of thousands more wounded. The sentiments that drove demonstrators to take to the streets live on, and more protests were held last week in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to mark the third anniversary.

Mr Mansour said regardless of what religion a person follows, or what their views are on influential cleric Moqtada Al Sadr or former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, their sentiment about the systemic corruption is the same.

“It is less about ethno-sectarianism and, instead, about the political system, which is the biggest killer in their eyes,” Mr Mansour said.

“They have been victims of structural violence since 2003. Their number one issue is the system and the corruption that underpins it. It has created this massive inequality.”

‘Attempts at reform have not worked’

Prime Minister Mustafa Al Khadimi rose to power in 2020 on a wave of promised reforms and new freedoms of speech after months of political instability.

But two years on, the incremental changes so many voters had pinned their hopes on have failed to materialise and their day-to-day lives have not improved.

“None of it has worked in a sustainable way,” Mr Mansour said of the efforts to bring about positive change in Iraq.

The researcher said the grim situation shocks him every time he sets foot in his homeland and convinces him that the quiet voices seeking reform need outside backing.

“Seeing the despair and disillusion, I know I am able to leave and go home but there are millions who don’t have these prospects,” he said. “They suffer without basic rights.”

People don’t have prospects, some don’t feel as if they have a future.

“The solution, to some extent, has been ‘how do you empower reformists?’”

Updated: October 09, 2022, 6:00 AM