History has been particularly unfair to Iraq. The country has repeatedly tried to gain prestige and claim the foothold it deserves within the Arab world and the Middle East. But any prolonged stability or progress for Iraq seems to have been constantly barred. Nevertheless, the country might be finally ready to act and become truly independent again.
In the late 1960s, Saddam Hussein concentrated control of what became known as Ba'athist Iraq. Saddam wielded absolute control over institutions, packing higher offices with family members to ensure loyalty, putting Shiite-majority Iraq under the total command of minority Sunnis. The Shiites revolted, but Saddam violently crushed demonstrations. He also led the ethnic cleansing of minority Kurds in the north, using chemical weapons to decimate hundreds of thousands of people.
Saddam was a racist, hateful and arguably sadistic leader, but he had one asset: his belligerent temper. Saddam knew the power of his silent Shiite majority and knew Iran would try to influence them to interfere in Iraqi affairs. Barely a year after Ayatollah Khomeini declared the Islamic Republic, Saddam went guns blazing and declared war on his neighbor. Despite Saddam’s quick advancement and the favor of Iraq’s formidable military, the conflict turned into one of the late 20th century’s bloodiest, costing millions of lives. Although it ultimately ended in a stalemate, Saddam had effectively braced Iran, earning him credit and financial support of Arab counterparts who shared his goal of preventing Iran’s expansion.
That is where Saddam made his first mistake. Already filthy rich with oil, he led the invasion of Kuwait in retaliation for their refusal to forgive upwards of $8 billion of debt from the Iraq-Iran War. The move cost Iraq the support of the Gulf states. Saddam’s continued aggression towards Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries led to the U.S. assembling a coalition under Operation “Desert Storm.” A massive war ensued, and Saddam was utterly defeated.
The invasion of Kuwait justified the First Gulf War, but the Second Gulf War may as well be known as the biggest disaster in the modern history of U.S. foreign policy. The operation was fueled by false reports of Iraq’s nuclear ambitions. The U.S.-led coalition entered Iraq and again wiped out the Iraqi army, finally deposing Saddam in 2003. Notably, inspectors visiting the country after the invasion found no signs of weapons of mass destruction.
What ensued was a systematic dismantling of Iraqi institutions. The U.S. dissolved the Iraqi armed forces and jailed Saddam’s commanders, leaving Iraq without a sovereign army and with a host of disgruntled, experienced, minority military leaders. Many of them were radicalized in American prison camps and subsequently formed the backbone of what is known today as ISIS. The void left by the army's dissolution enabled the formation of several Shiite paramilitary factions similar but smaller in scale to Lebanon’s Hezbollah. They signaled Iran’s entry into Iraq’s political scene after Saddam had, for decades, successfully prevented interference and unleashed a barrage of military attacks on U.S. forces, plunging Iraq into political chaos and steering it away from independence.
But resistance has formed in Iraq. A faction of independent Iraqi politicians and religious figures have spearheaded a shift towards a more sovereign government, rejecting foreign interference or striving to attenuate it by repositioning the country as a broker between much more powerful powers.
After a series of anti-government demonstrations over corruption and Iranian influence, Mustafa Al Kadhimi replaced Adil Abdul Mahdi as Prime Minister in 2020, promising to investigate the wrongful deaths of protestors. The former government, aided by pro-Iran militias, had led a heavy-handed repression campaign that led to dozens of casualties amongst protesters. Kadhimi is known for his ties to factions of all boards of the political spectrum, projecting a very strong message of neutrality. This did not please Iran-backed militias, who see him as a threat to their influence. Indeed, Kadhimi was targeted by an explosive drone attack on his residence in the heart of Bagdad. He emerged unscathed and continued urging for retenue. Kadhimi decided not to run in the parliamentary elections, eager to conserve his image of neutrality. Meanwhile, another figurehead of Iraqi sovereignty scored a major victory in the legislative arena.
Moqtada al-Sadr transitioned from an anti-American militia leader into the leader of Iraq’s largest parliamentary bloc. Sadr, a Shiite cleric, was born and educated in Iran but has consistently opposed Teheran's attempts to interfere with Iraq, meaning he retains unusual neutrality in a region where powerful patronage is needed to survive in politics and making him a prime candidate to redefine Iraq. Sadr has repeatedly advocated for the withdrawal of U.S. forces while successfully fighting to diminish the role of Iran-backed militias. He is now leading talks to form a new government, and Iraq has started to find a new calling. Al Kadhimi is expected to be re-appointed by the Sadrists, a move that guarantees leadership stability rarely seen in Iraq’s recent history. Additionally, the country is hosting the first rounds of talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia in years. It is progressively becoming a regional broker between powers. By staying friends with everyone, while politely refusing to be stepped on, Iraq is on the road to regaining sovereignty, not through belligerent weapon wielding and autocracy, but rather through clever diplomatic maneuvering.
The West should now politely exit the Iraqi political scene. Most U.S. troops have already left the country, but America should now throw its weight behind continuing to curb Iran’s capabilities to interfere with its neighbors. These efforts should be made outside of Iraqi territory. Actions such as the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad have only fueled the Iranian propaganda machine and bolstered resistance to the positive changes happening in Iraq. Sanctions alone have proven quite effective at limiting Iran’s expansion, and the U.S. should ensure a renewed nuclear deal doesn’t give Iran too much breathing room to continue its expansionism.
Iraq is leaving behind its status as a proxy battlefield and setting an example for countries similarly submerged by Iranian belligerence. The Middle East stands to witness comprehensive changes in its balance of power: Iraq’s renewed independence could be the first step in a transition away from a Cold-War-type standoff between Iran and Saudi Arabia to a much more diverse political landscape. Iraq may now prove that neutrality is still a viable option in an otherwise increasingly polarized world.