Fifteen years after George W Bush invaded Iraq to destroy Saddam Hussein's imaginary "weapons of mass destruction", what have the Iraqis got to show for it?

There was a great deal of death and destruction (around half a million Iraqis have died violently since 2003), but they do now have a democratically elected government. Sort of ...
Iraqis voted in their fourth free election last April — or rather, fewer than half bothered to vote, so pessimistic were they about the notion that voting can change anything.

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Almost six months later, the many political parties were still bickering over which of them would be in the government, and which would give them access to the huge amounts of money available to government ministers in one of the world's most corrupt countries.

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But last week the Iraqi parliament elected a prominent Kurdish politician, Barham Saleh, to the largely ceremonial office of president.

The president then has 15 days to nominate the new prime minister (who really runs the government), but Barham Saleh did it within hours.

The new prime minister will be Adel Abdul Mahdi — which may be a signal of big changes coming.

Abdul Mahdi is not a revolutionary figure. He is a former finance and oil minister who, like Barham Saleh, has been a familiar fixture in Iraqi politics. (A stock Iraqi joke claims that the country has the most environmental government in the world, since it constantly recycles its old politicians.)

But Abdul Mahdi is the figurehead of a coalition in which a revolutionary outsider, Muqtada al-Sadr, will be the dominant influence.

His party has been among the least corrupt on the Iraqi political scene, and he is a nationalist who is equally opposed to American and Iranian meddling in Iraqi politics.
He has disbanded his own party's militia and urges others to do the same. and he promised to appoint non-political technocrats.

That promise will be hard to keep, since the fragmentation of Iraqi politics means all governments must be broad coalitions.The coalition Sadr leads includes the Iraqi Communist party, which more or less shares his goals, and the group led by former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, which does not.

Maliki, in power from 2006 to 2014, proved viciously anti-Sunni, largely subservient to Iranian interests — and, of course, monumentally corrupt.

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It will be difficult to hold this coalition together, let alone to carry out Sadr's programme of sectarian reconciliation and government by technocrats.

Gwynne Dyer
Gwynne Dyer

Corruption in Iraq is a system, not a series of individual crimes. The parties use it not only to finance their activities and reward their members, but to build a large support base through bribery, mostly in the form of jobs.

There are 37 million people in Iraq. In most other countries, a population of that size would require between 600,000 and 700,000 employees to provide the functions of government.

The Iraqi government employs 4.5 million people to do the same jobs ... very badly or not at all.

Many of them rarely show up at work, and since they are on the take themselves, they don't protest when the senior politicians in their party steal millions from public funds.
This system was tolerated during the 15 years of war because people's first priority was survival. Now that the fighting has died down, people are starting to protest, and Muqtada al-Sadr has become the repository of their hopes. He will have a hard time living up to them.

Gwynne Dyer's new book is Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)