The long shadow of Saddam’s dictatorship in Iraq


Twenty years have passed since the US-led invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. The political class that assumed power in Iraq on a promise to do away with the Baathist regime’s authoritarianism and uphold democratic values has failed to deliver.

In fact, it has used the same oppressive tactics deployed by Saddam to protect the ethno-sectarian power-sharing system, known as “muhasasa ta’ifia”, which was established after 2003 and protects its narrow political and economic interests.

The biggest challenge to this system came in 2019 when Iraqis took to the streets en masse to demand political and economic change reflecting the promises they were given in the 2000s.


The response from the political class was merciless. It has unleashed a deadly wave of violence and, under the current government, has sought to use all legal and legislative means to further entrench its repressive grip on power and quash dissent.

The US-led invasion of Iraq was premised on the idea that deposing Saddam would allow democracy to flourish and human and civil rights to be upheld.

Yet even the 2005 constitution, written by exiled Iraqi politicians and foreign allies who made these promises, contains vague wording, which allows for the easy abuse of civil rights.


For example, it says freedom of expression is guaranteed but only if it does not infringe on “morality” or “public order”. This, of course, has allowed the arbitrary and indiscriminate use of this provision to muzzle the Iraqi media and government critics.

The silencing of critical voices along with the deployment of political violence has allowed the Iraqi political elite to rule as it pleases and enrich itself on the backs of the Iraqi people.

But changing one oppressor for another is not something the Iraqi people have been willing to accept.

As early as 2011 when the whole of the Middle East was in upheaval, trying to do away with dictatorships and oppression, Iraqis took to the streets against their new rulers’ failure to provide basic services and a reasonable standard of living.

In the following years, protests continued as the political and economic situation in the country worsened.

In October 2019, years of built-up anger erupted into mass protests across central and southern Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated for weeks on end, demanding not just a dignified life but also an overhaul of the country’s failed political system. The protests also brought to the fore the issues of freedom of speech and human rights, raising awareness of their critical importance.

Despite deadly violence unleashed against the protests by state and non-state actors, demonstrations persisted. The nationwide solidarity they received delivered a major blow to the political elite, which thrives on sowing division and maintaining a culture of fear. It also led in 2021 to an electoral defeat of the parties that incited the violence against the protesters.

The political forces that were punished by Iraqi voters in the last parliamentary elections for their corruption and participation in the crackdown on the 2019 protests came back with a vengeance last year.

They formed a coalition known as the Shia Coordination Framework, (SCF) and after the withdrawal of Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr’s bloc from parliament, which had won the largest number of votes, they were able to exploit certain constitutional provisions to gain power.

The SCF allied with Sunni parties and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to form the State Administration Coalition and control the parliament. Since then, the group has launched what can only be described as a “counterrevolution” against important gains made after the October 2019 protests.

The SCF-led government has restricted the space for free speech and criticism. Articles 225-227 of the Penal Code, which were frequently used by the Baathist regime, have been used to target civil rights activists simply for expressing their opinions on social or in traditional media.

They contain vague and broad language that allows Iraqi authorities to prosecute anyone who “insults the government”, “military forces” or “semi-official agencies” and sentence them to up to seven years in prison.— Al Jazeera

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