Iraq: what happened next…

Issue: 161

Philip Marfleet

In the summer of 2018, years of repeated mass protest in Iraq culminated in furious demonstrations against the Baghdad regime.1 Centred on the oilfields of the south, they targeted the regime’s corruption and self-serving economic policies. Protestors highlighted problems of unemployment and poverty wages, attacking the offices of parties and militias that had prospered under the political system installed by the United States after the invasion in 2003. They demanded radical change—an end to corruption and sectarianism and to interference in Iraq by both global powers and neighbouring states.2 This mass movement, which has received little attention in North America or Europe, is a marker of the comprehensive failure of Washington’s strategy for Iraq after Saddam Hussein. Rather than a stable base for US interests, Iraq is highly volatile—its politicians the focus of mass hostility, its youth insistent on societal change.

Demonstrations that began in the oilfields in July 2018 spread to every major city of south and central Iraq, targeting politicians said to have stolen much of the country’s oil revenue, leaving the mass of the people destitute. One banner read: “2,500,000 barrels per day; $70 per barrel; 2,500,000 × 70 = 0. Sorry, Pythagoras: we’re in Basra”.3 Protestors torched government buildings and the offices of all the major parties, including organisations that had hitherto dominated regional politics. In Najaf, one of the historic centres of Shi’a tradition and of political “quietism”,4 they stormed the airport, halting air traffic. In Hilla, they attacked the offices of the Sadr movement, which had earlier supported mass protests but was also seen as part of a corrupt political establishment.

The demonstrations have been described as “leaderless”,5 with the implication that no specific political current initiated them or played a leading role in events. Based in activist networks that began to emerge in 2015, they have been centred on the youth of “Generation 2000”—Iraqis who became young adults after the invasion. They are vocal in calling for an end to the US-enforced muhasasa ta’ifia (“allotment”/“apportionment”) system of ethno-sectarian preference and corruption. In July 2018 their slogan “al-shaab yurid isqat al-nizam” (“The people demand the fall of the regime”) was seen on mass protests in Baghdad.6 Such emulation of the revolutions of 2011 in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and other states across the Arab world illustrates the pace of change in Iraq, where in 2003 the US declared the foundation of a new “Free Iraq” that would be a stable ally and a developmental model for the Gulf region. The post-invasion order has not only produced an Islamist/Salafist revival in the form of Islamic State (ISIS) but also a movement for change based in the oilfields, where American corporations had expected to secure an unquestioned grip on Iraqi resources.

Vision and reality

Discontent was already evident when millions abstained in the parliamentary election of May 2018. Joost Hiltermann suggests that the low turnout, at less than 45 percent, showed that Iraqis “reckoned that their votes would not produce the kind of change they seek, namely a dramatic overhaul of a political system that thrives on nepotism, party-based patronage and outright graft”.7 Final results showed a collapse in support for the parties led by former prime minister Haider al-Abadi and favoured by the US. The largest number of seats was won by the Sairoon (“Forward”/“Alliance for Reform”) bloc—an ­apparently unlikely grouping led by former Shi’a militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr and including the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP).8 In Baghdad, Sairoon won almost 25 percent of the vote—more than twice that of any of its rivals. The ICP’s Suhad al-Khateeb was the first woman to be elected in Najaf; Haïfa al-Amin, also a member of the party, was elected in the province of Dhi Qar. Al-Khateeb said: “We [Communists] want social justice, citizenship, and are against sectarianism, and this is also what Iraqis want”.9

While electoral blocs haggled over positions in a new government, Abadi remained in office, attempting to conciliate protestors by sacking local officials and suspending the electricity minister—a figure of popular hostility as Iraqis sweltered in temperatures of over 50°C and power cuts continued for days at a time. Abadi also promised billions of dollars for development in the south. In August the government announced record oil revenues, with income of $7.7 ­billion: in September, when the money promised for development projects failed to materialise and thousands of people in Basra fell ill from drinking polluted water, new demonstrations called for Abadi to stand down; protestors declared: “We are thirsty, we are hungry, we are sick and abandoned”.10

Basra has long been the centre of workers’ struggle in Iraq and has recently seen the revitalisation of trade union organisation. In 2017 strikes among power workers led to the formation of a new union; in March 2018 thousands of workers responded to victimisations by occupying power plants. Union members have since been active participants in mass protests. Demonstrations in July started at the West Qurna-2 oilfield and spread to others including the huge Rumaila oilfield, moving into the city of Basra. When protestors occupied an installation operated by the Russian company Lukoil, minister for oil Jabbar al-Luaibi was compelled to issue statements reassuring international corporations: “Security forces in Basra took measures to protect oilfields and foreign employees,” he said: “Our message was clear and strong to oil majors that Iraq is safe and what is happening in Basra was [sic] a passing cloud that passed peacefully”.11

Iraq’s oil sector now employs 80,000 workers—just one percent of the labour force of some eight million.12 However, their importance to the economy—and their industrial power—can hardly be overstated. Oil workers are densely concentrated in areas of upstream and downstream production and have a long history of collective organisation, all the more important since the destruction of much of Iraq’s industrial base during the invasion and subsequent conflicts and in recent fighting with ISIS in Mosul and cities of the west. According to Hassan Juma’a Awad, president of the Federation of Oil Unions in Iraq: “The demonstrations in southern Iraq are not an accident. They are the accumulation of 16 years of rage”:

The southern regions in particular suffer from clear negligence by successive governments, although these areas are the richest in Iraq, where 75 percent of the oil is produced. Yet they suffer from marginalisation and deprivation… The Federation of Oil Unions is very involved in these demonstrations. From the beginning Basra has been the spark of this movement, and our union has been a key player. We will not abandon the defence of our nation and our people.13

The protestors’ key target is corruption. In an assessment of the political economy of Iraq since 2003, Joseph Sassoon concludes that corruption has become ubiquitous.14 Every sector of government and local administration is affected by fraud and outright theft, he says, and efforts to scrutinise these practices have been continuously prevented by those who benefit most. Corruption emerged as a systemic problem during the 1990s, when the US organised comprehensive sanctions against the Saddam Hussein regime, bringing the collapse of the local currency and encouraging smuggling and the emergence of an informal “grey” economy. While chronic shortages of key goods, notably medical supplies, affected the mass of Iraqis, those at the centre of the regime benefited from their links to the smuggling networks, accumulating vast sums of money as well as strengthening their grip on the state apparatus.15

After a decade of sanctions, estimates put the informal economy at some 35 percent of Iraq’s gross domestic product (GDP).16 Following the invasion of 2003 and several years of US occupation it grew to a colossal 65 percent of GDP.17 This was an outcome of practices purposefully pursued by the occupation forces as a means to facilitate their control and to benefit American corporations and business networks. The US in effect constructed a state of corruption in which bribery, embezzlement and nepotism were routine. Bolstered by new political structures based on sectarian identity, the system allocated resources and opportunities by means of confessional networks, excluding the mass of Iraqis of all ethno-religious affiliations.

Hassan Juma’a Awad places responsibility on the US:

The root of our problems in Iraq is the American government… The [US-imposed] parliamentary system in Iraq is a failure and corrupt to the bone, filled with ­politicians who pass laws just to advance their own self-interest. This is an ­inevitable result of the system of political quotas, which has caused us great harm… This corrupt system is responsible for the massive theft of public funds. This despicable conduct is basically stealing from the poor.18


The economic and political order imposed in Iraq was conceived in the US in the years before the 2003 invasion—an era of assertive neoliberalism and of American triumphalism marked by the emergence of the neo-conservative current of foreign policy strategists. The “neocons” were committed to a vision of global change in which the US had missionary responsibility. This aimed ­ostensibly to liberate the economic potential suppressed by regimes such as Saddam’s Baathist state. According to the neocons’ zealous neoliberalism, “regime change” would free market forces in Iraq, allowing the generalisation of prosperity and the embrace of pluralist democracy on the American model.

The guru of neoliberal theory, American economist Milton Friedman, had argued in the 1960s that governments should remove all regulation inhibiting private accumulation and profit. They should sell state assets and cut state-sponsored social and welfare programmes, revising public perceptions of rights and entitlements in order that, he maintained, expectations of state intervention would be changed for good.19

These principles were first implemented in the Global South in 1973 when a group of Friedman’s acolytes—the “Chicago Boys”—were in Chile to witness a CIA-sponsored coup that removed the elected government of Salvador Allende and butchered thousands of workers, radical activists and others deemed enemies of the nation. They were soon appointed to advise the junta under Augusto Pinochet, which proceeded to implement deregulation, privatisation and cuts to public ­spending—what Friedman called “shocks” that would facilitate an “economic miracle”.20

Christopher Doran argues that Chile in 1973 was “the blueprint for Iraq”.21 Although similar principles guided US strategists in Iraq, their intervention was direct and unprecedentedly violent—even by the standards of the Pinochet coup. This reflected both the self-confidence of the neocons and their concern that Iraq had failed to fall into line with US prescriptions for the Gulf region, which they viewed as a key zone of influence.22 From the 1970s, variants of Friedman’s theories had shaped policy-making in international financial institutions (IFIs), notably the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). By the 1980s they underlay programmes of “structural adjustment”—a key means by which the agendas of corporate capital and the preferences of dominant states were imposed worldwide. Most states of the Global South were burdened by debt, having responded to aggressive campaigns by international banks to “borrow for prosperity” by taking out large loans to fund infrastructural projects and welfare schemes. By the 1980s, scores of governments, under pressure to meet massive debt repayments, turned to the IFIs, which provided further loans on the basis of “conditionality”—the acceptance of the abrupt enforcement of neoliberal measures.

Iraq was not among these states. Although the Baathist regime embraced private capital, its power lay primarily in control of public resources, overwhelmingly oil—Iraq had the world’s second-largest oil reserves. This was an issue of growing concern in Washington. The ideology of globalisation and the agendas of the IFIs were facing concerted opposition. In 1998 attempts to introduce a Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI)—a mandate for aggressive neoliberalism—collapsed in the face of opposition from new protest movements worldwide. In 1999, these reached the US, where the conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Seattle was halted by mass demonstrations. Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist at the World Bank, observed that almost every meeting of the Bank, the WTO and the IMF was “the scene of conflict and turmoil”.23 These developments challenged Washington’s neo-cons, inflated by triumphalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union and by decades of neoliberal change they had seen as confirming the US role in policing world affairs.

Iraq became a special target. Its oil reserves were of global importance, sustaining what George W Bush called a “rogue” state—one that evaded the usual economic disciplines and appeared to challenge “liberal capitalist democracy”.24 In addition, more than 10 years of sanctions had failed to destabilise the Baathist regime, which in 2000 announced that it was to begin pricing oil in euros rather than US dollars, hitherto the unquestioned mode of exchange in the world oil economy. In 2001 an official US commission on energy policy recommended that the government should “conduct an immediate policy review towards Iraq” to include “military…assessments”.25 And in 2002 the American under-secretary of commerce said that a war in Iraq “would open up this spigot on Iraqi oil”.26 Bush soon confirmed a Chile-plus intervention in Iraq—a mission to secure the oilfields and to shape a new economic order facilitated by frontal assault on the entire state—a form of “shock therapy” that even Friedman had not envisaged.

“Economics 101”

According to Paul Bremer, appointed by Bush in 2003 to lead the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) that ran the US occupation during its first 14 months, Washington’s orders were to “eliminate the remnants of Saddam’s regime”, to “wipe the country clean of the Baath Party’s ideology” and to void the role of the state in economic affairs in order that new entrepreneurial activity could flourish.27 For Bremer, state engagement in economic affairs was anathema: market forces alone would shape a new Iraq. He aimed, he said, to “corporatise and privatise state-owned resources” and “to wean people from the idea that the state supports everything”.28 This was straight from the Friedmanite textbook: in Bremer’s own words, it was “Economics 101”.29

A contradiction long inherent in neoliberalism became the key feature of US policy for Iraq: change based on principles of the “free” market required enforcement by an authoritarian state. Washington mobilised forces that in March 2003 soon overwhelmed the Iraqi army.30 Within weeks, the CPA had dismantled key institutions and imposed sweeping changes aimed, according to Bremer, at producing “wholesale relocation of resources and people from state control to private enterprise”.31 He reduced the minimum wage, removed key tariffs on imported goods, announced a programme of privatisation of public enterprises, invited foreign companies to enter Iraq with full rights to repatriate profits and eliminated the Baathist system of graduated income tax, cutting corporation tax from 40 percent to 15—the same rate paid by the mass of Iraqis. The US would not tolerate opposition to any of its reforms, he said: “We dominate the scene and we will continue to impose our will on this country”.32

“State-corporate criminality”

Following the 1973 coup in Chile, local capitalists were allocated the key role in transforming the economy. In fact, the first years under Pinochet saw a surge of cheap imports and a speculative feast for financiers—“the piranhas”—who profited from a weak currency and hyperinflation. Local industry collapsed and resources flooded out of the country. The industrial lobby protested: the head of Chile’s National Society of Manufacturers complained of “chaos” and “wildcat speculative operations”.33 Friedman’s former student, the political economist Andre Gunder Frank—then in Chile—complained to his mentor that, according to the Chicago formula for change: “The public sector has to wither away, but the state has to be reconstructed to exercise brutally efficient authority for the care and feeding of the private—and foreign—sector”.34 This observation proved prophetic of many later experiences of structural adjustment—and could be applied with precision to the experience in Iraq in 2003, although here core public institutions did not “wither away” but were demolished within weeks of the invasion.

Bremer’s reforms were initiated by edicts issued by the CPA. Its Order 1 implemented “de-Baathification”, directing that all members of the former ruling party were to be removed from their positions and banned from future employment in the public sector. Order 2, issued a few days later, disbanded the key institutions of the state—the armed forces, the intelligence and security services and the ministry of defence. More than 500,000 Iraqis abruptly lost their jobs: millions were affected directly and indirectly and employment rose to over 50 percent of the workforce.35

In this chaotic situation the US went about looting public resources. Claims on the state for compensation for the activities of the Baathist regime meant that vast sums of money left the country. Within the first two years of occupation, Kuwait received $19 billion in relation to claims over Saddam’s invasion in 1990.36 Almost $2 billion was paid to international corporations—ostensibly as compensation for “lost profits” or “decline of business” said to have occurred during the 1990 events. Chief among these were US-based enterprises—Sheraton received $11 million, Bechtel, $7 million, Pepsi, $3.8 million and Mobil, $2.3 milllion—even Kentucky Fried Chicken received $321,000 and Toys R Us received $190,000.37 Israeli farmers meanwhile received $8 million for market produce they were unable to harvest, they said, due to restrictions on movement imposed because of Iraqi military threats; Israeli hoteliers and travel firms received $15 million.38

US corporations, especially those linked to leaders of the Republican Party, were encouraged to view Iraq as an economic free-fire zone. Thomas Foley, an investment banker, Republican Party donor and personal friend of George W Bush, who appointed him to stimulate corporate involvement in Iraq, declared: Iraq is now a free and open market…we encourage and welcome all who want to come and participate”.39 He presented Iraq as a corporate bargain-hunt, exhorting businesses not to languish, or “all the best opportunities may be grabbed”.40 Only approved companies would be considered for contracts however. These would be issued solely to businesses based in countries that had supported the invasion—in effect to US corporations (with a modest proportion to the UK), to be paid from the revenues of the Iraqi state of which 95 percent came from oil production.41

During the first year of the occupation, US corporations obtained almost $50 billion of “reconstruction” contracts—more than 80 percent of all major projects commissioned by the Authority;42 during the same period, Iraqi firms received a mere 2 percent of the value of all contracts.43 As in Chile, and in many other interventions by IMIs in the Global South, “opening” of the economy had brought a swift predatory offensive from international capital. David Whyte describes a process of “economic colonisation” that encouraged the systematic theft of public funds—a form of “state-corporate criminality”.44 The CPA ­repeatedly blocked investigation of its activities. When auditors appointed by the US ­government eventually reported, they found that at least $12 billion in oil revenue could not be accounted for. In 2011 the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, established by Congress, estimated that up to $60 billion had been lost to fraud in the two states—of which the bulk had been misappropriated in Iraq.45 Whyte observes that vast sums had been acquired by means of “bribery, over-charging, embezzlement, product ­substitution, bid-rigging and false claims”, amounting to “one of the most audacious and spectacular crimes of theft in modern history”.46

The occupation caused massive dislocation of economic networks, shortages of food and clean water and a collapse in energy supplies. While Iraqis struggled for survival, the CPA ensured that the new Iraq would be entrapped in debt relations with institutions including the IMF. In 2004 the government in Baghdad, under US control, received approval from the Fund for loans of $436 million for “post-conflict assistance”—the “conflict” having been a war initiated and pursued by the US military.47 Eric Herring and Glen Rangwala comment that the loan was directed “towards preparing Iraq for debt management and marketisation”: “The Iraqi state has borrowed money which it is going to use to reshape itself into the mould desired by the IMF, so that it can repay that and other money, and borrow more”.48

Meanwhile, Foley announced that, notwithstanding international laws that prohibited the sale of assets by occupation governments, all state-owned enterprises would be privatised within 30 days. “I don’t give a shit about international law,” he said, “I made a commitment to the president that I’d privatise Iraq’s businesses”.49 Washington’s “year-zero approach” obliterated international laws and agreements to which the US had for decades been a signatory.50

A new politics

The Iraqi economy was to be a model for the region. So too a new political system said to serve all Iraqis: according to Bush this would guarantee a future of “democracy and living in freedom”.51 US plans for Iraq excluded the mass of people, however, in favour of a minority linked to Washington who were to benefit from sectarianism and patronage.

US strategists were influenced by ideas about the Middle East rooted in European colonial traditions, most importantly the conviction that the region was shaped by religious cultures—primarily by Islam, which was seen as perverse, backward and highly resistant to change. These views were reinforced after the Second World War by Cold War agendas, especially by the idea that political movements that appeared to challenge colonialism and the hegemony of “the West” were new totalitarianisms. The key figure in formulating these ideas was Manfred Halpern, an intelligence officer at the US State Department, who in 1963 published The Politics of Social Change in the Middle East and North Africa, soon a key text in Middle East Studies and among US foreign policy advisers.52 This approached the Middle East as a region fundamentally different to “the West”—one in which Islamic traditions shaped societies “almost continually beset by rivalries, assassinations, rebellions and wars”.53 Unlike Western Europe, Islamic traditions were not open to “renaissance or reformation”, said Halpern, and Muslims would be unable to overcome “ignorance and poverty” unless they embraced the ideas and practices of the West.54 The process of change presented special dangers, he said, in particular the emergence of “Communist totalitarianism” and “neo-Islamic totalitarianism”.55 Movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which had dominated the anti-colonial movement in Egypt, “had the same attraction that the National Socialist Party held for despairing ­conservatives in Germany”, Halpern argued.56

These ideas complemented the views of contemporaries such as Bernard Lewis, the British-American historian who in the 1950s, first proposed that conflicts in the Middle East were associated with a “clash of civilisations” in which the “Judaeo-Christian heritage” was challenged by other cultures, notably Islam.57 The “clash” appeared repeatedly in various forms among American academics and lobby groups, notably those supportive of Israel, and was refurbished in the early 1990s by another conservative analyst, Samuel Huntington, whose assessment of contemporary politics as dominated by a global clash of cultures exerted growing influence in Washington.58 Huntington maintained that, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world order was being shaped by conflicts between cultural blocs. The most important “clash”, he argued was that between “the West” and “Islam”, with its “bloody borders”.59 In the absence of a global threat from Communism, it was Islam that challenged Western civilisation and, most importantly, the US. He also maintained that Saddam was a key threat to the US and its allies, noting that during the Gulf War of 1990, Arab elites had “cheered him on”, that the mass of Muslims had backed Saddam and that “Islamic fundamentalist movements universally supported Iraq”.60

By the time Bush became president in 2001, the neo-cons had developed an amalgam of ideas in which nationalism, Islamism, Communism and fascism combined in various ways to challenge American models of economic freedom and pluralist democracy. After the 9/11 attacks against targets in the US in 2001, Bush announced “a crusade”—“a war on terrorism” to be directed primarily against Iraq (notwithstanding that none of the 9/11 activists had originated there).61 For Lewis it was “Time for Toppling [Saddam]”.62 He drew parallels between the Iraqi regime and fascist and Stalinist dictatorships of the 20th century. Pointing to righteous struggles undertaken against the latter, he argued that new initiatives could remove the Arab tyrannies of the 21st century: “As with the Axis and the Soviet Union, real peace will only come with their [the Baathists’] defeat”.63 Now Saddam Hussein was not merely a recalcitrant Arab nationalist but a totalitarian Muslim whose conduct required exemplary action by the US. Bush’s “crusade” would free Iraq in the same way that the Allied powers had freed Europe from fascism. Just as Germany had been reconstructed after the Nazi era, Iraq would be reshaped and revitalised.


Bremer, who had jetted into Baghdad in May 2003 as head of the CPA, viewed Saddam as a contemporary Hitler. “Like Adolf Hitler”, he wrote, “Saddam was convinced destiny had chosen him for greatness.” Saddam had remained in power three times longer than the Nazi dictator, Bremer noted, and the effects of his rule “were deeply woven into the moral and psychological fibre of Iraq society”. Bremer’s key task was to remove the dictator and his party, facilitating the building of a “New Iraq”.64

Ali Allawi, later a minister in successive Iraqi governments, observed: “The planners of the war, especially those in the Pentagon and the vice-president’s office, saw the Baath Party as an ideological block that had to be removed and its influence excised, a Nazi Party in all but name”.65

De-Baathification was a form of collective punishment. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, among whom most had earlier been compelled to join the party, abruptly lost their jobs and income. Millions in their families, kin networks and communities were also affected, and key economic and social networks were disrupted. According to the developmental model favoured in Washington, Iraq—like Germany in the post-Nazi era—would now be rejuvenated. However, the policy had other implications. Allawi, who witnessed the imposition of the CPA measures, notes: “De-Baathification was also equated with ­de-Sunnification…and its unrestricted application would exacerbate sectarian tensions in post-war Iraq”.66

The assault on the Baathist state was part of a strategy to control Iraq by distributing resources on the basis of confessional identity. Thabit Abdullah comments that, for the US: “Iraqis were a backward people who had little to offer the reconstruction project”.67 At the same time, because a majority were Muslims they could be managed on the basis of their underlying atavistic commitments to Islamic tradition. As the CPA dissolved the key institutions and agencies of government it also facilitated the emergence of Shi’a organisations and militias, and began to distribute resources nationwide on the basis of ethno-religious affiliation. In July 2003 it established an Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) with 25 cabinet members selected on the basis of ethno-religious identity and Washington’s own assessment of Iraq’s demographic/ethnic composition. The Authority chose 13 Shi’a Muslims, five Sunnis, five Kurds, one Turkmen and one Assyrian Christian. Control of the ministries of oil, finance and foreign affairs and—crucially—the interior ministry were also allotted on the basis of sectarian identity. The Baathists had operated a regime based on Sunni privilege but not even Saddam Hussein had recognised confessionalism as the formal basis of the political order. Under US rule, observes Saad Jawad, the Iraqi state was being reduced to “a collection of Shias, Sunnis, Kurds and other minorities”.68

Contrary to the views of generations of colonial administrators, academics and foreign policy analysts, Iraqi society had not been characterised primarily by religious affiliations. All manner of relations and solidarities have made claims on the mass of people: kinship, class, neighbourhood and national identity have often been as strong, or stronger than confessionalism. Countless families, especially in urban areas, have included people of varying ethno-religious and linguistic identities. Among the Muslim majority many Iraqis belong to kin groups that embrace both Sunni and Shi’a. In some regions specific religious traditions are dominant; others have much more complex patterns of attachment. Baghdad and northern Iraq, for example, have been areas of particularly diverse religious and ethno-linguistic character. In a major study, Sectarianism in Iraq, Fanar Haddad observes: “The fact is that there is a venerable history of sectarian coexistence in Iraq and examples of sectarian harmony and cooperation can be found throughout Iraqi history”. There have also been periods of sectarian hatred and animosity. During Iraq’s modern history, however, these diminished to the point where, by the mid-20th century, “sectarian identity was often irrelevant”.69

US strategists nonetheless viewed Iraqi society on the basis of primordialist conceptions about ethno-religious identity and, in 2003, began a process of embedding sectarian difference within the political system. This built on the legacy of the Baathist state, which had worked systematically to privilege specific Sunni communities. While with one hand the Authority dismantled ­the institutions of the Baathist era, with the other it formalised sectarian structures that had become increasingly important to the Saddam regime.


The Baathists’ sectarian agendas drew upon the practices of the colonial state. After the First World War, when the European powers dismembered the Ottoman Empire, Britain seized control of Mesopotamia, drawing borders that gave access to the whole region south of Anatolia and east of historic Syria. Here, using their wide experience of divide et impera, they based control of the new State of Iraq on networks of patronage founded on ethno-religious and “tribal” affiliation. They were unable to suppress local resistance, however, or an emerging anti-colonial movement that had a strong radical colouring.70 Iraqi nationalism drew support from across society, including in an emerging working class based in the oilfields and railways. In the 1940s Iraqi Communists succeeded in building a party that engaged people of all religious affiliations and regions. When a mass movement emerged after the fall of the pro-British monarchy in 1958, there were expectations of revolutionary change across the Gulf region.71 CIA director Allen Dulles described the situation in Iraq as “the most dangerous in the world today”, fearing that “the Reds are near control” and that they posed a serious challenge to US hegemony in the Gulf oilfields and its emerging states.72 The CIA worked with the Baath Party against the movement, facilitating a violent assault on the Communist Party which in 1963 left thousands dead.73 Five years later the US backed a coup by the Baathists that eventually brought Saddam Hussein to power. According to one former CIA officer, the US had unquestionably been midwife to the Saddam regime.74

Allawi observes that a “sense of benign indifference between the sects” was the norm in Iraq until the 1970s.75 As the Baathist regime consolidated, however, it used the organising principles of the colonial state to privilege Sunni networks. Faleh Jabar describes the emergence of “a formidable control system” in which “the ruling elite, which controlled the administration, the military, the security forces and the sensitive [Baath] party organs, formed a small unique class-clan in its own right”.76 This became an organising centre for Sunni families of the Tikrit area, from which Saddam originated. His networks of patronage exploited ethno-religious affiliation, elevating Sunnism over Shi’a traditions. It was in these circumstances that consciousness of religious difference became more general. Hitherto largely passive Shi’a organisations developed wide popular support—a process accelerated by the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), the regime’s ideological offensives on Shi’a Iran and, following a national uprising in 1991, the regime’s bloody assault on opposition activists. This intifada was brutally suppressed as the government promoted communal slogans including “No Shi’is any more”.77

Sectarianism “takes wings”

Bush and his team were uninterested in Iraqis’ political preferences. Their ­priority was to impose the authority of the CPA, ensure control of oil revenues and promote Washington’s almost messianic vision of a New Iraq. Their information on the country came almost exclusively from Iraqi exiles with whom the CIA had worked for years, often members of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) founded by Ahmed Chalabi, a Shi’a businessmen and failed banker strongly promoted in Washington by Lewis and the neo-cons.78 The INC endorsed proposals for a new confessional politics and Chalabi became president of the sect-based IGC appointed in 2003. This established principles to be followed by all post-invasion governments, in which positions and resources were allocated on the basis of confessional constituencies. It ignored evidence from repeated surveys that showed only “weakly held sectarianism” among the mass of people.79 Polls held in Iraq from August to September 2003 showed that only 29 percent of Iraqis believed it was important that a political leader should represent “my sect”. According to results published by the US Department of State:

For the most part, average Iraqis seem careful not to draw attention to the Shia-Sunni power struggle that is often described in international media…many Iraqis are uncomfortable identifying themselves as Sunni or Shia, preferring to describe themselves as “just Muslim”.80

The US nonetheless continued to make political appointments on the basis of sectarian affiliation. In an important observation, Herring and Rangwala observe that “Sunni Arabs and Shi’a now had to sell themselves on the basis of sectarian identity if they wanted employment from the Coalition; political leaders had to become sectarian entrepreneurs”.81 In the chaotic conditions that followed invasion, de-Baathification, economic collapse and increasing resistance to military occupation, Iraqis were compelled to engage with parties and militias that enjoyed access to resources by virtue of their place in the confessional system. Herring and Rangwala conclude that sect-based alignments were the outcome of a “collapse of institutions of the Iraqi state and the reconstruction of their fragments along sectarian lines”.82

In 2005, said the International Crisis Group, “sectarianism took wings”:

With mosques turned into party headquarters and clerics outfitting themselves as politicians, Iraqis searching for leadership and stability in profoundly uncertain times essentially turned the elections into confessional exercises. Insurgents have exploited the post-war free-for-all; regrettably, their brutal efforts to jumpstart civil war have been met imprudently with ill-tempered acts of revenge.83

By 2006 sectarian militias were pursuing ethnic cleansing across the country: some six million people were displaced and Iraq was soon the world’s leading state of origin for people making claims for asylum. Iraqis with money, documentation and/or influence were the first to leave for Damascus, Amman and Cairo; the poorest struggled for survival as settlements of dispossessed people appeared outside cities across the country.84

When Washington’s economic miracle failed to materialise, its key figures in Iraq sought scapegoats. Having successfully “de-Nazified”, said Bremer, the country “needed a vibrant private sector to succeed”.85 When “responsible Iraqi ­businessmen” did not fulfil their allotted roles, Bremer complained: “There’s no Ludwig Erhard in Iraq—or at least we haven’t found him yet”.86 (Erhard, who eventually became chancellor of West Germany, had been a key figure promoting capitalist revival in Europe in the post-war period.) A US government report displaced responsibility for economic failures onto the Iraqis. It listed problems including “rampant post-invasion looting”, “weak Iraqi implementation capacity” and projects “jeopardised by crime, sabotage and insurgency”—as if the occupation forces had not dismembered much of the Iraqi state, paralysed key public institutions and launched massive violence against those who resisted.87 The report identified a legacy of entrenched corruption in Iraqi economic management: “Replacing the culture of corruption with a culture of responsible stewardship was a daunting task. As one coalition official noted, ‘Iraqis consider what we call corruption to be either the cost of doing business, or the way you do business’”.88

Washington’s “way of doing business” had set the agenda for the post-invasion economy, draining billions of dollars from public funds as corporations, protected by their links to the Bush administration and the CPA, operated with impunity. Many Iraqi business people left, transferring their activities to Jordan or the Gulf States. In 2008, Abadi, later to be prime minister, admitted: “For all the talk about the private sector taking off in Iraq, it didn’t materialise”.89 Hassan al-Shammari, the minister of justice, observed: “The private sector does not exist”.90 In July 2017, over 14 years after the invasion, foreign minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari pleaded with a business conference in London: “Now we need a Marshall Plan”.91

“Fight or flight”

The US promoted corruption on a massive scale and Iraqi parties and militias joined the spree. Successive governments operated networks of patronage based on access to public resources, which they looted systematically. The oil industry, construction and the reconstituted armed forces provided ample opportunity for plunder and senior figures in government worked effectively to prevent scrutiny of their activities. For the mass of people, access to jobs in the state sector now came through possession of a tazkiyah—a letter of recommendation from the parties and militias that controlled specific ministries. In 2003 there were some one million public sector jobs: by 2015 the total had reached three million, accounting for 30 percent of total government expenditure.92 This expansion was not associated with the growth of education, health or welfare services, which had been savagely cut under the CPA. Rather, “ghost employment” had become a key feature of the muhasasa system, as confessional networks distributed resources on the basis of patronage. Most Iraqis, especially young people, were locked out of the system. Iraq is one of the youngest countries in the world; in 2016, 59 percent of the national population was under 24 years of age and a third of young men and almost two-thirds of young women were jobless.93 When the ICG conducted a nationwide survey it concluded that many young people were confronted with a stark choice—“fight or flight”—affiliation to one of the sectarian militias, or high-risk journeys to uncertain destinations outside Iraq.94

Violent responses by the government to mass protest increased recruitment to the militias. Protests had begun in 2010, with demonstrations over unemployment, shortages of electricity and for political reform. In Baghdad in 2011, thousands marched under the slogans: “No, no to terrorists; No, no to Baathists; No, no to [prime minister] Maliki!”95 There were also demonstrations in Mosul in the north, in the predominantly Sunni towns of Anbar in the west and in the largely Shi’a areas of the south. Further mass protests continued in successive years. Almost invisible in European and North American media, these called more insistently for change, for an end to corruption and for the resignations of ministers and officials. In 2016 demonstrators occupied the Green Zone in Baghdad—the fortified area established by US forces that had become the headquarters of the Iraqi government. The key characteristic of participants, said the ICG, was their youth—a “new generation mobilised by a desire to challenge the status quo”.96 Those in power had exploited their vulnerability: “the political class’ response has been to protect its interests by divide and rule, redirecting anger into fratricidal tensions”.97

ISIS had been founded in the late 1990s as a Salafist micro-group associated with Al Qaeda. After explosive growth during the conflict in Syria, its progress in Iraq was facilitated by government attacks on demonstrations in mainly Sunni towns. Key to its success, concludes the ICG, was the organisation’s ability “to direct youths’ anti-establishment sentiments against the entire political class and redefine a confrontation that began between [the] Sunni street and Sunni elites as a sectarian one”.98 A parallel process was under way in predominantly Shi’a areas. Here Iranian Revolutionary Guards recruited young men desperate for employment and fearful of the advance of ISIS, with its violent assaults on Sunnis and minority communities such as the Yazidis. Youth across Iraq were “increasingly socialised within communal confines and left to the mercy of radical groups that promote dehumanised, even demonised perceptions of one another”.99

Back to the streets

After the military offensives launched by ISIS in 2014, the Abadi government attempted to rally Iraqis with a project of national unity in the face of Islamist aggression. In 2015 demonstrators in Baghdad raised slogans that challenged his hypocrisy: “Parliament and the Islamic State are two sides of the same coin!”; “Daesh [ISIS] was born out of your corruption!”; “In the name of religion, they [politicians] act like thieves!”; “No to sectarianism, no to nationalism, yes to humanity!”100

Aware of the change in mood, one political leader adjusted his approach. Muqtada al-Sadr had been leader of the Mahdi Army, which after the 2003 invasion recruited in predominantly Shi’a areas and periodically contested US forces. Bremer described him as a “rabble-rouser” who had “the potential to rip this country apart”.101 He was not a conventional sectarian chief. In 2004 Muqtada sent forces to support resistance in the largely Sunni city of Fallujah, then under siege from the US military, and called for jihad against the occupation. He had long been hostile to Iran, with its strong influence on many Shi’a organisations and increasingly presented himself as an Iraqi/Arab nationalist.102 As the ­occupation continued, with mass impoverishment of Iraqis, he moved from military means to a programme of economic and political reform. When mass protests began, Muqtada aligned with the demonstrators and encouraged his followers to join them. In 2016 he supported the occupation of the Green Zone, describing the government as “a bastion of support for corruption”.103 In 2018 he joined with secular organisations including the ICP in the Sairoon alliance.

Sairoon’s electoral success is one marker of the desire for change in Iraq. However, it holds a host of problems. Following the 2018 election, and after months of horse-trading with other parties, Muqtada sealed a deal with the Fateh alliance of pro-Iranian organisations to begin forming a new government. His aim, observes Toby Dodge, was “to reconstitute the muhasasa ta’ifia system he campaigned so vociferously against. This cannot but alienate his supporters and delegitimise him as an agent of much-needed political reform”.104

The Communist Party secured two seats of the 54 won by the alliance. Its influence in the secular civil trend movement (al-tayar al-madani) is shaky, with the party seen by many young activists as compromised by links to Muqtada and likely to be marooned by deals in government. The party is dogged by a long history of compromise and retreat. During the revolution of the late 1950s, it made concessions to nationalist currents that eventually derailed the movement; in the 1970s it entered government with the Baath Party, which only a decade earlier had murdered thousands of its activists. The Baath again suppressed the ICP, excluding the left from national politics for the next three decades. After the invasion of 2003, ICP secretary general Hamid Majid Mousa joined Bremer’s IGC, ostensibly as a representative of Shi’a communities. “From that day onwards,” says Iraqi activist Sami Ramadani, “the party was seen by most Iraqis as a collaborationist force, with some of its leaders receiving their salaries from the occupation authorities”.105 In 2018 the party turned its back on the Taqaddum alliance that had most strongly supported mass protests, allying instead with Muqtada.

Young Iraqis have declared a crushing verdict on the US invasion, the ­occupation and the sectarian order. Their protests have continued despite repression, stimulating a mood of resistance in which workers have developed new confidence. Radical currents have an opportunity to make rapid progress. Their key resources will be the rich history of mass struggles in Iraq and the recent lessons of the Arab Spring—above all the importance of independent organisation based on the movement from below.

Philip Marfleet is Emeritus Professor of Social Sciences at the University of East London.


1 This article examines economic and political developments in Iraq after the invasion of 2003. It does not address the complex developments in Kurdistan, for which further analysis is required. Thanks to Anne Alexander, Jad Bouharoun, John Rose, Alex Callinicos and Ali Ali for their comments on the article in draft.

2 In a significant development, protestors attacked the Iranian consulate in Basra—Abdul-Zahra, 2018.

3 ICG, 2018.

4 “Quietism”—a long-established current, especially strong in Shi’a Islam, in which religious leaders advocate withdrawal from political affairs.

5 ICG, 2018.

6 El-Ghobasy and Salim, 2018. “The people want/demand” was the slogan first raised in the mass movement in Tunisia in December 2010, which subsequently removed President Zine al-Abideen Ben Ali, and soon adopted in Egypt by the movement that in February 2011 removed President Hosni Mubarak.

7 Hiltermann, 2018.

8 The Sairoon bloc included followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, the ICP, the Youth Movement for Change Party, the Party of Progress and Reform, the Iraqi Republican Group and the State of Justice Party.

9 MacDonald and Abu-Sneineh, 2018.

10 Karim, 2018.

11 Al-Ansari, 2018.

12 Sassoon, 2016, p23.

13 Bacon, 2018.

14 Sassoon, 2016, p25.

15 Mazaheri, 2010.

16 Sassoon, 2016, p27.

17 Sassoon, 2016, p27.

18 Bacon, 2018.

19 Friedman, 2002.

20 Friedman, quoted in Klein, 2007, p83.

21 Doran, 2012, p27.

22 On US strategy in the Gulf in the context of imperialism and regional “sub-imperialisms” see Alexander, 2018.

23 Stiglitz, 2002, p3.

24 Henriksen, 2001: See also the analysis by The Project for the New American Century, a key neocon grouping committed to the idea of “the American peace [sic]”. This lauded “the dominant role played by American military might” in world affairs, focusing on Saddam Hussein—a “regional aggressor” who the US should “deter, defeat, or remove from power”—Project for the New American Century, 2000.

25 Moran and Johnson, 2002.

26 Moran and Johnson, 2002.

27 Bremer, 2006, pp39, 65.

28 Bremer, quoted in Chandrasekaran, 2007, p68.

29 Bremer, 2006, p65.

30 Initial plans for the invasion assumed a force of 380,000 troops. After US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld demanded a “leaner” force, the invasion army was reduced to 275,000—a number later seen by American critics of the strategy as inadequate to retain control of Iraq—National Security Archive, 2007.

31 Bremer, quoted in Doran, 2012, p139.

32 Bremer, quoted in Doran, 2012, p139.

33 Orlando Saenz, quoted in Klein, 2007, p80.

34 Frank, 1974.

35 In 2004 the CPA recorded a 25 percent unemployment rate; the Iraqi Ministry of Social Affairs suggested 48 per cent; Cockburn proposes that the real rate was closer to 70 percent—See Marfleet, 2007.

36 Herring and Rangwala, 2006, p254.

37 Klein, 2004.

38 Herring and Rangwala, 2006, p254.

39 Foley, 2003.

40 Foley, 2003.

41 Sassoon, 2016, p23.

42 Whyte, 2007, p187.,

43 Whyte, 2007, p187.

44 Whyte, 2007, p177.

45 Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, 2011, p1.

46 Whyte, 2007, p185.

47 Herring and Rangwala, 2006, p254.

48 Herring and Rangwala, 2006, pp254-255.

49 Chandrasekaran, 2007, p140.

50 Whyte, 2010, p142.

51 White House, 2003.

52 Halpern, 1963.

53 Halpern, 1963, p20.

54 Halpern, 1963, p28.

55 Halpern, 1963, pp135-136.

56 Halpern, 1963, p140.

57 Glass, 2004.

58 Huntington, 1993.

59 Huntington, 1993, p9.

60 Huntington, 1993, p35.

61 Carroll, 2004.

62 Lewis, 2002.

63 Lewis, 2002.

64 Bremer, 2006, pp38-39.

65 Allawi, 2007, p151.

66 Allawi, 2007, p152.

67 Abdullah, 2006, p102.

68 Jawad, 2013, p3.

69 Haddad, 2011, pp55-56.

70 At the same time, Britain faced repeated waves of Kurdish resistance and insistent demands for Kurdish national independence—see Stansfield, 2003.

71 Batatu, 1978; Ismael, 2007; Alexander, 2008.

72 Schmidt, 1959.

73 Matthews, 2011; Jacobsen, 2013.

74 Morgan, 2003.

75 Allawi, 2007, p236.

76 Jabar, 2003, p61.

77 Jabar, 2003, p271.

78 Lewis proposed that Chalabi and the INC should be the nucleus of a new government in Iraq—Bonney, 2008, p63.

79 Office of Research, 2003, p5.

80 Office of Research, 2003, p6.

81 Herring and Rangwala, 2006, p152.

82 Herring and Rangwala, 2006, p155.

83 ICG, 2006, p1.

84 Marfleet, 2007; 2012.

85 Bremer, 2006, p200.

86 Bremer, 2006, p201.

87 Henderson, 2005, p8.

88 Henderson, 2005, p16.

89 Robertson, 2008.

90 Robertson, 2008.

91 Watling, 2017. Following the Second World War the US placed some $13 billion in a European Recovery Program (ERP or the Marshall Plan) to aid capitalist recovery in states of Western Europe, notably the UK, West Germany and France.

92 Dodge, 2018.

93 ILO, 2016.

94 ICG, 2016.

95 Healy and Schmidt, 2011.

96 ICG, 2016.

97 ICG, 2016.

98 ICG, 2016.

99 ICG, 2016.

100 Bacon, 2018.

101 Bremer, 2006, pp120-121.

102 On Muqtada’s early opposition to the US occupation see Alexander and Assaf, 2005.

103 Reuters, 2016.

104 Dodge, 2018.

105 Ramadani, 2004.


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