With Iraq on the verge of civil meltdown, it is tempting to view a discussion of its economy as academic, secondary to the more pressing issues of impending civil war and chronic insecurity. Yet, this essay seeks to do precisely that: shift the focus in order to place economics at the center of the discourse about Iraq. In doing so, the article argues that an assessment of economic policies and conditions is vital to understanding the current social turmoil. While it does not deny the role of non-economic forces in the present violence, the essay posits that economic policies--which signaled a strategy on the part of the United States to radically restructure Iraq's economy--have greatly exacerbated rather than ameliorated existing social fissures and structural difficulties. It is shown that far from lacking a plan, the United States had a thorough and purposeful economic strategy for Iraq. Indeed, it is not the dearth in planning, but the details of the plan that have promoted insecurity. Viewed in this light, the present conditions of turmoil in Iraq are not exclusively--nor perhaps even primarily--the result of stubborn ancient animosities or absent planning: they are the consequence of a complex interaction of unfavorable initial conditions and subsequent erroneous strategy.
The lack of attention to the economic roots for the violence in Iraq is reinforced by the prominence given to two ever-present themes. These are, one, the prevalence of sectarian rivalries, usually portrayed as timeless and unyielding, and two, the lack of post-war planning on the part of the United States--underlined in the popular imagination by the scenes of anarchy and looting immediately following the invasion. The first exemplifies what Roger Owen (2004, xii) has called "an unhelpful notion of an unchanging East in which ... things remain much the same, whether in terms of tribalism, dictatorial rule or the local people's compulsion to kill each other in the name of religion." Accordingly, Iraq is portrayed as the venue for stubborn ethnic and sectarian cleavages and hatreds. How post-invasion economic policies facilitated a rise in sectarian tensions between the Sunnis and Shi'a is rarely discussed. (1) The second premise presupposes that the United States lacked a post-war plan for Iraq, including insufficient troop levels, which allowed a minor rebellion to gain strength. Thus, depending on which aspect is stressed, the current turmoil in Iraq is presented as an almost inevitable--certainly understandable--result of age-old antagonisms, absent planning and/or disastrous tactics.
This study contests both arguments, demonstrating that there was nothing inevitable or natural about the violence. This does not deny the existence of historic cleavages and structural difficulties in Iraq, but argues that post-invasion U.S.-sponsored policies, which centered on arguably the most radical market "shock therapy" tried anywhere (Stiglitz 2004), were acutely unsuited to assuaging these divisions and difficulties. It is shown that the economic policies of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) inflamed sectarian divisions, fuelled insecurity and consequently impeded the rebuilding of Iraq's shattered infrastructure. As such, this essay carries important implications for development policy, history and economic theory. In terms of policy, Iraq serves as yet another case study in which market shock therapy has proved misguided. The essay is pertinent to history as it details the content and consequences of CPA policies and contests the repeatedly voiced claims that the United States lacked a post-war plan for Iraq. And, the essay is important to theory in that it illustrates the inherent perils in the reflexive application of economic strategy, without regard to the social or economic context.
The essay begins with the discussion of two key challenges in Iraq, one political and the other structural (or economic). These are the sectarian cleavages--which to some extent overlap historically with divisions of class and have been exacerbated by the decline in the institutions of civil society--as well as the technical constraints associated with rebuilding, much aggravated by the successive wars, economic sanctions, and since 2003, U.S.-sponsored economic policies. This is followed by a discussion of the content and consequences of post-invasion economic policies, in particular those of the CPA, and closes with a discussion of current conditions.
Ethnic and Sectarian Divisions
The ethnic and sectarian tensions in Iraq, particularly the Shi'a-Sunni schism, are known to most by now. The religious basis to the split originates from a seventh-century conflict over the rights of succession to the prophet Mohammed (Sluglett and Sluglett 1978; Kelidar 1983). Repeated exclusion from power along with relative economic deprivation over time nurtured a political outlook of the "underdog" on the part of the Shi'a population (Batatu 1978, 45). This was reinforced during the period of Ottoman control with policies that deliberately discriminated against the Shi'a of Iraq. Fearing that the loyalties of members of the sect resided with the Persian (and Shi'ite) state .rather than their own, the Ottomans in effect barred the Shi'a from the bureaucracy and army, which offered the children of modest Sunni Muslim families an avenue for upward mobility. These mostly Arab Sunni bureaucrats and officers came to dominate the nascent Iraqi state after the First World War (WWI), even though the majority of the population was (and still is) Shi'ite. Although precise data are unavailable, Table 1 offers a rough estimate (based on an analysis of Iraq's 1947 census) of the ethno-sectarian composition of Iraq's population. While the Arab Shi'a forms a slight majority of the population, the minority Arab Sunnis have until very recently dominated political life since the forming of the country.
The motif of suffering and deprivation that runs through Shi'ite identity and religious practice was buttressed by a degree of correlation between sectarian and socio-economic position: the Shi'a were generally more economically disadvantaged than their Sunni counterparts, representing a disproportionate number of the poor. However, two points ought to be made in this regard. First, the correlation between sect and affluence is an imperfect one: there were many very wealthy and influential Shi'a and many more poor and powerless Sunnis. Consequently, membership in a sect did not necessarily imply a community of interest within the sect. Indeed, before the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958, Shi'a tribal chiefs were one of the pillars of the state. These sheikhs controlled vast areas of agricultural land and opposed any progressive measure that might have raised the abysmally low living standards of their co-religionist peasants (see Batatu 1978, 63-152). Later, during the 1990s, an emerging class of "nouveaux riches" that included Sunni and Shi'a Arabs as well as Kurds--all with ties to the dominant (and Sunni) Tikritis--benefited handsomely from their (often illicit) business activities under economic sanctions, while the majority of the Shi'a suffered along with other Iraqis (Marr 2000, 90).
This brings forth the second point. It is often assumed that the Ba'thi government that came to power in 1968, having a special hostility towards the Shi'a, acted effectively as the executive power for the Sunni minority's domination. The reality, however, is more nuanced. The Ba'th party's ideology is secular and no more incompatible with Shi'a Islam than with Sunni Islam. In fact, between 1952 and 1963, more than half of the party's leadership (in the "regional command") was Shi'ite (Batatu 1978, 748). The subsequent decline in Shi'a representation had less to do with Ba'thi sectarianism than with internal party politics and the better connections of the Sunni party members: when arrested, Shi'a Ba'this often faced longer prison sentences than their Sunni comrades, who frequently had relatives in the army or police who could intervene on their behalf (Batatu 1978, 1078-9). Sunnis were preferred in the state security apparatus and to a lesser extent in the army under the Ba'th, not because of their sect or ethnicity, but because of their supportive ties of family and tribe and the perceived steadfastness to the regime that that entailed. As the International Crisis Group (ICG 2006, 6-7) notes:
In fact, whatever else can be said of the regime of Saddam Hussein (which gradually shed much of its Baathist ideological baggage), it was an equal opportunity killer at most times, its principal criteria being Iraqis' loyalty to regime, not their ethnic or religious background. Thus, the "principal butcher in the bloody repression that followed" the 1991 uprising of the Shi'a population in southern Iraq would be their coreligionist Muhammad Hamza al-Zubeidi (ICG 2006, 7). However, with its social base of support dwindling rapidly in the 1990s, it was only by resorting to connections of blood and tribe, notably in the Arab-Sunni region, that Saddam's regime was able to maintain its hold on power, harnessed of course through the repressive apparatuses of the state (Baram 1997).
This is not to say that Saddam's Ba'th was averse to exploiting sectarian divisions for political gain. When faced with an uprising in the south following the 1991 Gulf War defeat, and aided by the disastrous rebel proclamations for "Jaafari [i.e. Shi'itel rule," Saddam's government cleverly worked to exploit the fears of the vast majority of Sunnis and many Shi'a over the anarchy and possible civil war that would result from its overthrow (Abd al-Jabbar 1992, 10). Sunnis, in particular, worried that Shi'ite rule implied their political and economic marginalization or, worse, their physical elimination, even though many hated the regime. In turn, middle-class and well-to-do Shi'a feared the lawlessness...