Iraq shows a political settlement without accountability cannot deliver peace

Twenty years after the invasion, corruption has prevented the delivery of real democracy.

Expert comment Updated 13 December 2023 Published 7 November 2023 3 minute READ

It has been 20 years since the United States and United Kingdom invaded Iraq with the promise of peace and stability. ‘The removal of Saddam Hussein is an integral part of winning the war against terror,’ said President George W Bush, adding that ‘a free Iraq will make it much less likely that we’ll find violence in that immediate neighbourhood. A free Iraq will make it more likely we’ll get a Middle Eastern peace.’ 

Events in Israel and Palestine today remind us that the US-led invasion did not create a more peaceful neighbourhood

But instead of stabilizing, Iraq fell back into cycles of conflict, with violence becoming part of everyday life for ordinary citizens. The ripple effects shook the region too, and events in Israel and Palestine today remind us that the US-led invasion did not create a more peaceful neighbourhood.

The world is watching as another conflict erupts following Hamas’s 7 October attack on Israeli civilians, leading the UN to warn of a potential genocide in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt), while armed groups threaten to intervene from Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere, increasing the risk of regional escalation. Shattered, for now, are the hopes of regional stability, regional integration, and normalization of ties with Israel.
Why did the invasion and occupation of Iraq not lead to peace and stability? And what lessons can be drawn to help navigate today’s conflicts? The case of Iraq teaches us that achieving genuine peace from any conflict requires more than a military response and a political settlement. It needs accountability.  

Just weeks after bombing much of the country, Bush declared victory aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, in front of a banner that proclaimed ‘mission accomplished.’

His successors have made similar declarations that followed collapses in peace – most recently, President Donald Trump, after the territorial defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS). Yet Iraq still struggles to reach and stay in the ‘post-conflict’ stage.  

Iraq has the trappings of a liberal democracy… but they alone have not led to a lasting peace

Iraq has the trappings of a liberal democracy, such as local and national multi-party elections and individual freedoms enshrined in a constitution, but they alone have not led to a lasting peace.

Instead, the political settlement has divided power along ethno-sectarian lines, creating new elites with boundless opportunities to plunder the state’s wealth. These leaders could get away with it because neither the government nor the public had the ability to check their impunity.
This impunity has proven destabilizing. Iraq has become one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and this corruption kills. In the health sector, the ruling elites have diverted government contracts for their own profit, resulting in the majority of medicine being fake or expired, harming and killing the public every day.

Corruption and conflict has also made Iraq the fifth most vulnerable country to the deadly impacts of climate change. Across the critical aspects of every day life – from education to electricity – corruption and elite impunity have undermined any potential sustainable peace.

Lack of accountability has made the state incoherent. In the security arena, the new elites used their impunity to keep their own private armed groups, which remained loyal to them instead of the government. At times, they deployed violence to negotiate and compete for power, often after elections or key political moments.
We see the incoherence in Iraq’s foreign affairs too. External governments – namely Iran and the US – pursued their interests by relying on personalities instead of building institutions.

Tehran developed a network of vanguard armed groups that could be deployed not only in Iraq, but also across the region. They were not under the command of the central government in Baghdad, but often allied with Iran.

Washington also sidelined accountability for its own national interests. On a number of occasions, the US backed their preferred prime minister even if it meant sidelining allegations of human rights abuse.

The result: Iraq turned into a playground for regional escalation

The result: Iraq turned into a playground for regional escalation, while these external actors also enjoyed impunity.

Iran uses its power to exert its influence in Iraq. Washington regularly strikes the bases of armed group linked to the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) along the border with Syria or sanctions banks linked to Iran from trading in Iraq.  

Turkey has increased its military strikes on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish militant political organization and armed movement. The Iraqi government is unable to exert sovereignty or hold any of these players to account.
With oil prices high and the security situation seemingly stable, today’s government in Baghdad, like others before it, hopes to turn a corner in the state building process, pursuing a development plan that includes improvements to infrastructure, outreach to countries in the region and further afield, and promises of much-needed reform.

But still, the roots of conflict are unresolved, and with one of the highest youth populations in the region, the governing system of corruption struggles to employ new cohorts of hundreds of thousands of graduates each year, leading to high unemployment rates that strain the political settlement.  

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The lack of accountability and the elites’ impunity will mean that today’s peace is unlikely to last, unless reforms are enacted that meaningfully tackle corruption and provide more coherence to the state and its ability to govern.

This will be the theme of this year’s Iraq Initiative conference at Chatham House, where policymakers, analysts, and activists will discuss the steps required for reform initiatives to better mitigate the peaks and troughs of Iraq’s struggle to build a coherent state and push past the cycles of conflict. 

A more sustainable political settlement requires including the voices of the public

A more sustainable political settlement requires including the voices of the public, who had little say and were handed a political system designed by the US and Iraqi exiled leaders returning to Baghdad in 2003.

Connecting public pressure, which still matters, with reform-minded individuals across the state is key to developing a more strategic and concerted effort to tackle corruption and elite impunity.

Any peace should not look to support certain individuals over others for the sake of short-term stability, but should instead ensure that accountability mechanisms like an independent judiciary, parliament or commission of integrity are able to guarantee the rule of law.

If this is achieved, it will improve institutional coherence, increasing the likelihood of a stable and peaceful future.