EXPLAINER: How The 2003 Iraq Invasion Led To The 2014 Disaster


One question which arises now and then in discussing the disaster in Iraq today is the role of the 2003 invasion. To what extent is the rise of ISIS a result of the invasion? What kind of mess did we create?

I have argued that Western support for jihadis in Syria played a crucial role in the rise of ISIS. But there were other factors that led to the rise of ISIS. One was popular dissatisfaction with the government, particularly among the Sunni Muslims of Iraq, who were unhappy with the overtly sectarian government of Nouri al-Maliki. The US government recognised the crucial role of Maliki in creating the conditions that allowed for the rise of ISIS, and demonstrated this when it quietly overthrew him – the supposedly democratically elected leader of Iraq.

We might conclude that sectarian politics in Iraq, and the current dominance of Shi’ites, has helped pave the way for a sector of the population disaffected enough to be sympathetic to ISIS. Did the 2003 invasion contribute to this at all?

The short answer is yes. However, such things are easier said than proven. So I will turn to the analysis of Toby Dodge. Dodge is an academic specialist on Iraq at the London School of Economics. He has written three books about Iraq, and occasionally advised David Petraeus about it – Petraeus being one of the US’s leading military figures in the occupation of Iraq.

Dodge’s latest book on Iraq sets out clearly the role of the invasion in fostering sectarianism in Iraq.

After the US and its allies invaded Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, the senior UN representative in Baghdad, “convinced the United States that some form of receptacle was needed for Iraq’s abrogated sovereignty.”

So Paul Bremer, the civilian head of the occupation, created the Iraqi Governing Council, with Iraqi leadership. As Dodge notes,

the IGC became the domain of a small number of formerly exiled political parties, which used it as a platform to solidify their group on the Iraqi state. Members of the IGC were not chosen in an open or indeed consultative process, but after a period of extended negotiations between Bremer, de Mello and the six dominant, formerly exiled parties…

Bremer claimed that the politicians “represented the ethnically and religiously divided nature of Iraqi society: 13 Shi’ites, five Sunnis, a Turkoman and a Christian.” You can get a sense of the tone-deaf nature of these appointments, in that a member of the Iraqi Communist Party was picked as a Shi’ite representative. Only two of the Sunnis on the IGC belonged to any political party. The result was that most of them served on an unpopular body which represented few, posing problems later when they couldn’t deliver any Sunni support for the US imposed political processes in Iraq.

As Dodge wrote:

the manner of the IGC’s selection caused consternation across Iraq’s newly empowered civil society. Criticisms focused firstly on the divisive nature of the selection process, which was seen to have introduced an overt sectarianism that had not hitherto been central to Iraqi political discourse.

Dodge, citing Stefan Lindemann, explains the concept of “elite bargains” which are “inclusive” and thereby promote stability, and those that are “exclusive and prone to drive countries back into conflict.”

In Iraq, the political settlement created by the United States after the invasion, institutionalised by the new constitution and legitimatised by two national elections in 2005, was undoubtedly an elite bargain of the exclusive variety. It played a major role in triggering the insurgency and driving the country into civil war. The settlement was designed to exclude key indigenous political elites from any role in government.

To explain:

The democratic process was inaugurated by the election of 20 January 2005, which selected an interim government to rule for a year. The vote itself was held within one nationwide electoral constituency due to security and logistical concerns. This removed local issues and personalities from the campaign and marshalled the politicians and parties that controlled the IGC into large coalitions, most of which played to the lowest common denominator, deploying ethnic and sectarian rhetoric to maximise their vote.
This dynamic was exacerbated by the exclusion of the Sunni community…

Sunnis overwhelmingly boycotted the first elections due to various political grievances. The election was held anyway, rather than trying to conciliate a major part of the community.

This was then followed by the process of creating a new Iraqi constitution. A 55 member Constitutional Drafting Committee was formed from the members of the assembly elected in January 2005. However, Dodge writes that “the assembly and the committee were sidelined by early August. To quote Jonathan Morrow, who was involved in the process as an adviser in Baghdad, “the Iraqi constitutional process was remarkable in the way in which members of the assembly, though legally charged with responsibility for writing the draft, were not involved.”

Instead, “the parties at the centre of the exclusive elite bargain took control.” The constitution was essentially written by a “leadership council”, made up of two Shi’ites and two Kurdish leaders. Dodge wrote that “This high-handed, opaque and undemocratic drafting of the constitution caused resentment not only in the excluded parliament, but also across Iraq.”

Unsurprisingly, Sunni Iraqis “overwhelmingly” rejected the Constitution. Dodge notes that “Both the election of January 2005 and the constitution became the encapsulation of the exclusive elite bargain around which Iraqi politics were organised.”

Next came the 2005 December elections. Dodge explains that sectarian coalitions dominated, and “the main losers were those attempting to rally a secular nationalist vote.”

From July 2003 onwards, the Iraqi political parties that had gained prominence during their long exile successfully leveraged their alliance with the United States to control government. This, in combination with the radical de-Baathification pursued by both the United States and the new Iraqi government, created an exclusive elite bargain that consciously excluded, and indeed demonised, not only the old ruling elite, but also the whole Sunni section of Iraqi society from which that elite had largely come. This exclusive elite bargain brutalised Iraqi politics by dividing society into religious and ethnic groups.

The formerly exiled politicians “exacerbated sectarian tensions”, by legitimising “their hold on power through the exclusion of others from government by reference to sectarian imagery”.

So why was there violence? Because there was a strong Sunni constituency for a rebellion against the essentially sectarian, Shi’ite dominated government that had been imposed by the invaders.

Dodge explains that the insurgents

were fighting to reverse the political transformation put in place by the invasion and its immediate aftermath. Throughout 2005 and 2006, this conflict took on an overtly sectarian tone as both sides increasingly deployed religious imagery to justify the struggle. Those now in charge of the state rallied their supporters and demonised their enemies through appeals to Shia religious imagery and the defence of their community defined in terms of religious exclusion. Those battling to remove them from power deployed a radicalised Sunni Islamism to justify their own use of violence, claiming to defend their community from those forces wishing to drive them into the political wilderness.

The winners and losers of regime change both deployed violence. One side used it to solidify and make permanent their dominance, the other to overturn the post-war settlement.

Mohammed Nafez divided the insurgents into the “more radically Islamist and sectarian”, and others who were more secular and nationalistic. However,

political violence was increasingly justified by 2005 in terms of a militant, violent and sectarian political Islam. This was a reaction to the solidification of the victor’s peace, the exclusive elite bargain that deliberately demonised those who were associated with the old regime and celebrated the Shia identity of the new state. In opposition to this settlement, the main insurgent groups found ideological coherence by fusing a powerful appeal to Iraqi nationalism with an austere and extreme Salafism, which in turn became increasingly sectarian.

There were Shi’ite militias, particularly the Mahdi Army and Badr Brigades, which committed numerous atrocities against Sunnis, as the insurgency and counter-insurgency morphed into sectarian civil war. The Shi’ites who controlled government used it to continue their battle against the Sunnis: “Throughout 2005 and into 2006, the Special Police Commandos/National Police, controlled from the Ministry of Interior, acted as a major sectarian death squad, frequently resorting to extrajudicial execution and torture.”

We would not expect a government set up by these processes, whose primary goal was entrenching sectarian advantage and victory, to deliver great outcomes for the Iraqi population. Its failures can be seen in its inability to supply electricity for Iraqis. Meanwhile, as Dodge reports, in “both 2010 and 2011, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index placed Iraq at 175th out of 182 countries… A leaked US Embassy report concluded in 2007 that ‘Iraq is not capable of even rudimentary enforcement of anti-corruption laws.’”

That is not the end of the story, but it gives a good sense of the disaster we, who invaded Iraq in 2003, created. As Dodge warned “The great danger is that Iraq’s democracy will be swept aside because its institutions are not valued, or seen as worth defending.” The blatant disinterest of the Iraqi army in fighting ISIS reflects this this problem.

The fact that the Iraqi army is so dysfunctional portends other disasters for Iraq, because the result of its failures in confronting ISIS has been the return of Shi’ite militias in Iraq. Westerners might forgot their bloody record during the civil war in Iraq, but Iraqis presumably have not. In particular, Sunni Iraqis now have an additional reason to worry about what might happen if ISIS is defeated.

I suspect that the horror people in the West have expressed at sectarian murders by ISIS may be forgotten if and when Shi’ite death squads reprise their old habits. Just as beheadings are apparently only barbaric and unforgivable when carried out by those not allied to us.

To return to the questions posed at the start of this article: if you want to understand Iraq today, you need to understand the devastating legacy of our invasion in 2003. There are other factors involved in the rise of ISIS, but we who invaded Iraq created the environment and institutionalised in government the sectarianism that is devastating the country, and has since spread to neighbouring countries in the Middle East.

We should take responsibility for the terrible legacy of our invasion of Iraq. The first step to doing so is more Australians understanding exactly what that legacy is.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.