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After 20 years of trauma, Iraq struggles to recover

Aafter two o’clock After decades of rampant violence and political dysfunction, Iraq is finally showing signs of recovery. Much of the concrete blast wall dividing the city has collapsed. The capital, Baghdad, is being revived, with a new central bank towering over its head. The road to the airport, once dubbed the most dangerous road in the world due to snipers along the way, is lined with private universities and residential areas. “Before, we had to clear the roads of mines,” said the head of the paramilitary engineering unit. “Now we clean up people’s sewage.”

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Representative democracy has been achieved, although politics remains chaotic and corrupt, with parliament and government subject to bitter deals between political parties and sectarian militias. The Shia majority, crushed under Saddam Hussein’s vicious Sunni dictatorship, is now safe and sound, with its leaders content to reap power and patronage in return. The application of religious law has softened. Unveiled women take to the streets again.

A major reason for the return to relative normalcy is that violence has decreased considerably. About 60 people were killed each month last year, according to the UK-based monitoring group Iraq Corpses, and at the height of the sectarian civil war that followed the US invasion in 2003, the daily death toll was often more than a hundred. The market kills the entire crowd. The last big bomb in Baghdad was more than a year ago.

However, the trauma of the past two decades cannot be easily erased. At least 270,000 Iraqis, more than half of them civilians, and more than 8,000 U.S. servicemen and contractors died in the violence during that period, according to a Brown University monitoring project. Mosul, the country’s third-largest city and the heartland of the Sunni north, was ruled by the caliphate from 2014-17 as the central government recaptured it from Sunni jihadists. Dominated by most of the north and west.

Many of Iraq’s ancient minorities, especially Christians, have been driven abroad or to autonomous Kurdish havens in the north. Under the caliphate, tens of thousands of Yazidis — adherents of a sect in northern Iraq that drew elements from Christianity and Islam — suffered what amounted to almost genocide.

Only the Kurds can claim a period of more or less uninterrupted progress and calm due to the US invasion. Their autonomous region, initially protected by U.S. troops and their own militia, has been far less affected by the violence that has devastated the rest of the country. Their government in Erbil continues to function while the rest of Iraq descends into bloodshed and chaos. But Kurdish efforts to gain full independence appear unlikely to succeed; in 2017, forces backed by the Baghdad government recaptured swathes of Kurdish-held territory, including oil fields in Kirkuk.

Ordinary Iraqis have yet to benefit from the oil wealth of the world’s fifth-largest producer. About 25 percent of the population has incomes below the national poverty line, the government says. That’s because billions of dollars in oil revenue have been lost to corruption and public services have been overwhelmed, even as Iraq’s population soared from 27 million in 2003 to a last guess of 44 million. A third of young Iraqis are unemployed. The school is dilapidated. Electricity was on and off as it had been since the US invasion.

The failure of the Iraqi government has made America’s promise of democracy look increasingly worn out. Elections were held on time but were rigged by militia leaders. Turnout has steadily declined. Free speech, a big benefit of Saddam Hussein’s ouster, is on the decline. Journalists who criticize the militia may be killed. Protesters who take to the streets are vulnerable to shooting.

Yet the younger generation, whose American invasion is a distant memory, has not given up hope. In late 2019, massive protests toppled a prime minister and called for better services and an end to corruption. The protesters were brutally suppressed. But their desire for decent government and a decent society cannot be forever denied.

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