The nation is no longer defined or notably influenced by its relationship with the United States, despite an investment of about $1.7 trillion and the loss of 4,487 American troops. In the end, Washington failed to carve out a role as an honest broker in postwar Iraq, an aspiration born out of the recognition that the country’s future may again have explosive implications for the region.
The contrasts of today’s Iraq are as sharp as they are dangerous. The autonomous Kurdish region in the north is thriving, inching ever closer to independence, buoyed by an oil boom and bold, ambitious leaders who have kept the area safe. The Shiite provinces in the south are enjoying a renaissance, reaping millions from improved security and the exponential growth of religious tourism.
(From March 20, 2003: Explosions rip through the quiet of morning)
Predominantly Sunni areas, meanwhile, are seething. The minority, which enjoyed elite status under Saddam Hussein’s autocratic reign, views itself as increasingly disenfranchised in the Shiite-run state of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; its members have resorted to large-scale protests in a bid to claim a fair share in the new Iraq.
Drawing on Sunnis’ widespread anger and frustration, remnants of Iraq’s once-mighty insurgency remain a threat, periodically striking at the heart of the state. On Tuesday, a series of bombs detonated in the capital, killing at least 48 people in predominantly Shiite neighborhoods. It was the deadliest spate of violence in Iraq so far this year.
Undercutting Iraq’s quest to regain a seminal position in the region are the politics of Baghdad, which have become more intractable and poisonous since the U.S. military withdrew at the end of 2011. They have widened Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian fault lines and called into question the viability of a parliamentary democracy in a country accustomed to strongman rule.
Pockets of the new Iraq are brimming with optimism. To drive around the southern province of Najaf, home to one of the most sacred shrines in Shiite Islam, is to behold the type of Iraq that the United States once hoped to leave behind.
Cranes are ubiquitous as a construction boom reshapes the provincial capital. Struggling to accommodate the more than 2 million pilgrims who annually visit the Imam Ali Mosque, the holy site is adding wings. Najaf’s streets are wallpapered with campaign posters for upcoming provincial elections.
“Most people now have a good job and lots of opportunities,” Gov. Adnan Zurfi said in a recent interview as he listed a flurry of initiatives the province is funding to improve health care, housing for the poor and education. Baghdad’s dysfunctional politics notwithstanding, he noted, democracy is thriving in Najaf.