What Went Wrong

The Struggle for Iraq's Futureby Zaid Al-Ali

Yale University Press. 304p $35

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, many exiled Iraqis expressed the cautious hope that the U.S. occupation would wind down in a few years and that the country would become a viable democracy. For Zaid Al-Ali, whose family had left Iraq before he was born, this meant leaving a lucrative commercial litigation and arbitration legal practice in Paris in 2005 to work for the United Nations in Iraq drafting a legal framework for the Iraqi parliament, judiciary and executive agencies. After five years, however, the political situation became so hopeless that Zaid decided he had no choice but to leave Iraq. He emigrated to Cairo. The Struggle for Iraq’s Future explains from an Iraqi’s perspective what went wrong and offers modest technical proposals to reform the country’s legal framework and reduce sectarian tension.


American readers are by now familiar with the history of the second Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq in March 2003 with the stated goal of eliminating weapons of mass destruction. Not only were the weapons never found; the Coalition Provisional Authority—the governing authority of the U.S.-led occupation—made several colossal errors that increased sectarian violence and delayed the transition to Iraqi rule. The C.P.A. had no plan to control the looting of government ministries and museums, and backed Iraqi exiles—notably Ahmed Chalabi, a banker who fled Jordan in the wake of shadowy financial transactions—who lacked visible support by the Iraqi population. L. Paul Bremer, the C.P.A. head, later conceded in his memoirs that the Iraqi exiles “couldn’t organize a parade, let alone run the country.”

Overruling a U.S. State Depart-ment plan to restructure and retain the Iraqi military, the C.P.A., under the direction of the Pentagon, dissolved the army, thereby creating a pool of unemployed soldiers available to join the insurgency, and banned the Baath party from government work. As implemented by Chalabi, the de-Baathification order added to the ranks of the unemployed and left state agencies without skilled workers to provide basic services. This litany of mistakes was, according to Zaid, “a lot to swallow,” for any Iraqi considering working with the C.P.A. in the nation’s reconstruction. Many Iraqis stayed away or joined the insurgency.

The C.P.A.’s misguided focus on divisions in Iraq between the majority Shiites and the minority Sunnis became manifest when it insisted on a strict sectarian formula for determining the membership of the committee that drafted the 2005 constitution. Although, according to Zaid, Iraq lacked a history of sectarian violence, the C.P.A. made such violence a self-fulfilling prophecy by creating an unrepresentative and secretive committee.

Apart from the C.P.A.’s numerous miscalculations, Zaid primarily focuses on the Iraqis’ corruption and environmental mismanagement, which he terms the second and third insurgencies. Zaid believes that by 2008 most Iraqis were rejecting the ethnic politics of the extreme religious parties and occupying the moderate center. However, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki rejected calls for national unity and returned to sectarian-style politics following his Dawa Party’s poor showing in the parliamentary elections of March 2010. Zaid explains how Maliki stirred religious animosities as an excuse to seize control of the army and internal security apparatus and to systematically purge the government of Sunni opponents. When the last U.S. combat forces left the country on Dec. 18, 2011, Maliki’s first act was to call for the arrest of Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, the highest-ranking Sunni official. Not surprisingly, the country has experienced an upsurge in sabotage and killings since U.S. forces have left and can no longer influence Maliki’s moves against his opponents.

This is a complicated story to tell and Zaid’s dense narrative is sometimes difficult to follow. His writing style is less than graceful and occasionally suffers from jargon. He sometimes presents a blizzard of details and at other times does not provide sources for his assertions, as when he reports what former exiles felt when they returned. On the other hand, the reader can trust Zaid’s eyewitness accounts of his meetings and conversations with Iraqi tribal heads, religious leaders and ordinary citizens.

The general reader will have difficulty understanding the background of Iraq’s political parties and their relationship to broader regional politics. In particular, Zaid does not explain Iran’s influence over the Dawa party and Maliki’s associations with Iranian agents, many of whom have participated in murders of U.S. diplomats and soldiers in the region. In fact, Zaid scarcely mentions Iran at all, except to explain the need for regional cooperation in preventing dust storms and preserving wetlands.

Zaid also ignores the role of the U.S. embassy in engineering Maliki’s election as prime minister in 2006, a story Dexter Filkins recently told in The New Yorker. Filkins explains that the United States was eager to replace Ibrahim al-Jafaari, whom the Bush administration regarded as indecisive and unable to stem sectarian violence, with another Shiite. The C.I.A. vetted Maliki as “clean.” Ironically, Maliki has spent a clandestine career supporting Iran and opposing U.S. interests in the cause of fighting the entrenched Iraqi Sunni minority, a record that contradicts Zaid’s downplaying of sectarian divisions. Perhaps it is Zaid’s readiness to assign primary responsibility for the mess to Iraqis rather than the United States that explains his failure to hold the United States fully accountable for its manipulation of Maliki’s election and his ensuing attack on fragile Iraqi institutions.

Given the gravity of the problems Zaid describes, the remedies he proposes seem very small and unlikely to restore calm and permit the country to function. He proposes, for example, that political parties refrain from hate speech, a sound idea, but one unlikely to curb Maliki’s eagerness to destroy his Sunni opponents. Zaid also suggests that a more representative body of Iraqis redraft the 2005 constitution, a proposal that raises the question of how democratic institutions can function when regime opponents are being methodically eliminated.

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