‘They just can’t get it done’: A report card for post-withdrawal Iraq

November 1, 2013

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki meets with President Obama in the Oval Office. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraq has had an uneven two years since the United States formally withdrew its last combat troops in December 2011, a process that President Obama began in 2009. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who's held the job since 2006, is in Washington this week seeking U.S. support for efforts to curb his country's worsening terrorist violence.

To get a sense of how Iraq has been doing, I talked to Kirk H. Sowell, an Amman-based analyst who edits the e-mail newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics and runs the consulting firm Uticensis Risk Services. I asked Sowell to grade Iraq's performance in six areas. Here's his report card, with brief explanations for each grade. The marks are pretty low, with a grade point average of about 1.1, a weak D+.

Democracy and political development: C

"There are certainly things that are not democratic about the system," Sowell said, though he noted that elections are competitive. "It's just hard for small parties to compete, and the security environment can be intimidating in Shi'a areas because of the militia threat." He points out that Maliki's ruling party lost seats in the most recent election, which does lend some credibility to the system.

Sowell concluded of the country's progress toward democracy, "It's not gone backwards, but it's not really advanced."

Sectarian issues: B

Sectarianism has long been a huge problem in Iraq. Saddam Hussein's government privileged the country's Sunni minority and oppressed the majority Shiites; during the worst years of the war, many Shiite militias exacted revenge against Sunni civilians.

Sectarian killing is still a problem, but Sowell gives the country a B -- the highest mark he offered on any area -- as "a trajectory grade." He explains that although Shiites still dominate the country's powerful security agencies, "there's an increasing amount of decentralization" away from the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government, so that provincial governments have more autonomy. "This country went through a sectarian civil war just five or six years ago," he noted. "Think about where the American South was six years after 1865" when the Civil War ended.

Human rights: D

The country's legal system has "no transparency," Sowell said, and is marked by indications of corruption and incompetence. He said a particularly severe problem is the tens of thousands of Iraqis in prison, including "a high percentage who have never been tried."

"I don't think there's any reason to be real confident of a fair trial or getting any trial at all," he said. "There's no transparency for anyone."

Economy: F

Iraq's economy has actually been growing in recent years, driven by rising oil prices, but Sowell warned that the country is not investing the money wisely or building an economy that could absorb a drop in oil prices. "This is not sustainable economic growth," he warned. "The banking sector is not very effective."

"There are all these ministries that can't complete projects," such as roads and hospitals, he said. "They just can't get it done, they're so messed up from a bureaucratic standpoint."

The country is providing jobs for people, but by using oil revenue to hire them to government positions that don't actually help the economy. "Basically, they have a huge number of [government] personnel. It's not sustainable. The economy has improved over the last few years, but it's 100 percent because of oil prices, nothing else."

Security: F

The death toll from terrorist attacks in Iraq has been rising rapidly over the past year, which Sowell did not hesitate to lay at the government's feet. "No hesitation," he said of his F grade. "There are so many examples one could give" for how Iraq is failing to protect its citizens. "They're completely on the defensive in the Western desert against ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a Sunni terrorist group]. They had 500 al-Qaeda members escape from al-Ghraib."

Again, Sowell cited corruption and governmental incompetence as the causes. "Systemically, there are several things. Maliki's appointments are really bad," he said, noting repeated high-level failures. "There doesn't appear to be any kind of accountability system." Allegations are widespread, he said, of officers bribing their way into high-level positions and then using the security apparatus to extort bribes from civilians.

Maliki's government does have certain "material needs" if it is to deal better with internal threats, Sowell acknowledged, such as attack helicopters and intelligence, which the prime minister is currently seeking from the United States. "But I would say that's about 20 percent of it; the other 80 percent is just complete and total incompetence."

Regional foreign policy: C-

Sowell gave Baghdad positive marks for substantially reconciling with Kuwait, which Hussein's Iraq had invaded two decades earlier. Iraq settled a Hussein-era reparations claim from Kuwait; Kuwait in turn helped to finally lift, in June, Chapter VII U.N. sanctions that had been in place since 1991.

However, Iraq has played a complicated role in the conflict in neighboring Syria. "They're not neutral at all," he said, pointing out that Baghdad had granted Iran use of Iraqi airspace to fly regular arms and aid shipments to Syria in support of leader Bashar al-Assad.

Maliki's primary foreign policy goal, Sowell explained, is to promote Iraqi sovereignty. That's not been easy sitting right next to Iran, which has significant influence in Iraqi politics and society. "The thing is, he is allowing Iranian-backed proxies to operate in Iraq," he said. "But he may feel that he doesn't have a choice, that he needs their support or at a minimum their not-opposition."

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Max Fisher | November 1, 2013