Many Iraqis worry about their country’s future. The shockwaves the US invasion caused nearly nine years ago, in and around Iraq, are still being felt—and are likely to rumble on for years to come. “Too many conflicts have yet to be resolved,” Dutch journalist Judit Neurink says from northern Iraq.
“Here in the north things are going well. The economy is booming and security is much better. But the rest of the country is at a complete standstill,” says Neurink, who heads a school for journalism in Kurdish Iraq.
Borders wide open
Ibrahim Al-Saadi, of Iraq’s Radio Demozy FM, foresees a new wave of violence. Local structures are too weak still to offer protection against militias and regional forces eager to exert influence in Iraq: “With the last US troops leaving the country, our borders are wide open for anyone to enter. America’s withdrawal is without question a victory for the militias.”
Neurink also says Shi'ite groups are gearing up for a power struggle. “In the past, Iraqis had no idea whether their friends were Shi'ite or Sunni,” she adds. “Mixed marriages were frequent; now they are rare. The Americans have based their political system entirely on sectarianism and that is affecting all of society.”
At the same time, Iran is strengthening its grip on Iraq: “That influence is already huge. It's evident in the economy—there are lots of Iranian cars, for example—but especially in politics. Iraq’s current leaders listen to what Iran says.” Analist Ossama Al-Sharif agrees: “The US invasion has turned Iran into a serious political factor in Iraq.”
Iran, moreover, isn’t the only threat to Iraq’s precarious balance. Countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia are too. The pro-Iranian course that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki steers is far from popular among Iraq’s Arab neighbours. Al-Sharif:
“On top of that, there is the Kurdish problem, Iraq’s position towards Syria, the nuclear issue. The Americans pretend they are leaving behind a safe country, when in fact it's full of local and international time bombs ready to explode at any moment.”
The coming years will reveal who will gain the upper hand in the region. “The outcome of the war will show how much power the Americans have retained in the Iraq,” Neurink observes. “The US won’t let go of Iraq just like that,” predicts Al-Saadi. “The visible withdrawal is unquestionable. Bases are being dismantled, soldiers and weapons flown out. But the political influence will remain.”
In addition, the US will maintain a physical presence. The US embassy in Baghdad is believed to keep some 15,000 people on its payroll. “They can’t be all diplomats,” Neurink says. “The US will continue to keep an eye on potentially threatening groups, and the Iraqis remain heavily dependent on US intelligence.”
“The US invasion has caused a geopolitical earthquake in the Gulf region,” Al-Sharif concludes. “Everything is connected. By toppling one system—whether good or bad—, the Americans have put the entire region under pressure.”
Al-Sharif expects that the war in Iraq will continue to reverberate throughout the region for a long time. The entire Arab world has experienced the consequences of the US invasion—for good or for ill, directly or indirectly.