This article was originally published as part of MEI’s Special Briefing on “The legacy, lessons, and future course of Iraq 20 years since the U.S. invasion.

I was 11 years old and cheering gleefully as I watched Saddam Hussein’s statue being toppled in Firdous Square on the TV screen. Sitting beside me was our fellow Iraqi neighbor, a Sunni, who shrugged at me while asserting defiantly that the Iraqi Army would take back Baghdad from the American olouj (or parasitic worms) in a matter of hours.

That never happened and the rest — mistakenly — is history.

For the rest of the world, March 20, 2003, marks the beginning of the ground invasion of Iraq, but for Iraqis, it was the start of a struggle to build a nation — one that is still ongoing today.

Back then, for Iraqis forced to flee prosecution from Saddam’s “Republic of Fear” and those who considered themselves, in one way or another, part of the opposition to the Baathist regime, it was a triumphant moment. Yet it also felt bittersweet. Immediately after the statue fell, the question arose: What happens next?

In the midst of the confusion, one could only think of abstract utopian ideas of a democratic Iraq rising from the ashes. Post-9/11 America was also keen to set an example for the Middle East. The era of strongmen had ended, and democracy, if not willingly taken up, could be induced.

The painful reality for Iraqis and Americans alike was that Washington’s hastily cobbled together ethno-sectarian political system, known as the muhasasa, ended up doing the opposite of what it intended. It made sectarian identity central to Iraqi politics rather than empowering Iraqis to truly choose those who could fulfill their aspirations of economic prosperity and political stability.   

The domino effect in the region was also the opposite of what the U.S. had hoped for. The bloodshed and waves of recurring violence made Iraq a cautionary tale that regimes could use to undermine the democratic desires of their own populations. What good can democracy bring if it only leads to chaos?

Perhaps one gain Iraqis could take solace in after 2003 is the ability to freely choose their leaders — a right, it could be argued, they had never enjoyed since the formation of the modern Iraqi state. But what 20 years of muhasasa have created is a private club of elites that even a popular uprising by Iraqi youth in 2019 could not break into.

If anything, the politics the U.S. has given birth to in Iraq is not so dissimilar to that in the rest of the region. Iraq is ruled by a closed pool of muhasasa elites who are in the process of passing the reins of power on to a carefully selected second and third generation of party loyalists.

The electoral system, despite reforms that are soon to be reversed, has failed to convince non-politicized voters to cast their ballot. In the last parliamentary elections in 2021, only 44% of those eligible to vote did so.

The difficult year that it took Iraq’s politicians to form a government after the elections almost brought the country to its knees. If anything, that only proves how disconnected the political class is from the needs of the public — a dynamic that is not likely to change anytime soon.    

The Iraq War was not merely an adventure in over-simplification, false claims, and gross miscalculations, it was also a campaign of financial exhaustion. Combined spending by the U.S. Defense and State departments on the country to 2020 amounted to nearly $2 trillion.

For Iraq, the cost is ongoing. It can rightfully be argued that Saddam and the Baath regime were corrupt and monopolized control of the country’s economic resources. The post-2003 “New Iraq” needed to set a better example. Sadly, that has not been the case.

Ask any pundit for a single word to describe post-2003 Iraq and the answer would doubtless be “corruption.” In 2021, former Iraqi President Barham Salih said that at least $150 billion had been stolen and smuggled out of the country since 2003. If anything, that’s an underestimation.

In the run-up to the war, those of us who were so eager to see Saddam toppled argued that we would even be happy to split the revenue from every barrel of oil with America if that was the price to be paid. Those who opposed the war often saw it as Vice President Dick Cheney’s crusade for oil — what British Prime Minister Tony Blair liked to call the “the oil conspiracy theory.”

The fact is that black gold played and continues to play a definitive role in shaping Iraq’s economy. In 2003, when U.S. soldiers left every government institution in Baghdad an easy target for looters but stood guard outside the Ministry of Oil, Iraq only made $8 billion in oil revenues. Last year, it made around $116 billion.

Throughout those 20 years, the Iraqi government saw $1.17 trillion in oil revenues enter its coffers, but Iraqis saw little in return. According to Salih’s estimate, Iraq lost a mere 12.8% of that total to theft. But where did the rest of the money go? Electricity is still unreliable, like it was during the era of sanctions in the 1990s, and the rest of the country’s infrastructure and public services are lacking and dilapidated despite years of Iraqi government spending and U.S. and international aid.   

As for grabbing Iraq’s oil, former President Donald Trump was right: The victor, after all, did not grab the spoils. ExxonMobil entered the country in 2009 and after years of decrying the tight terms offered by the Iraqi government, is now in the process of exiting entirely. Meanwhile, Chinese firms are steadily expanding their footprint in Iraq’s oil industry.   

While 20 years have passed since President George W. Bush decided to change the regime in Iraq, the consequences — whether political, economic, or social — are still felt by Iraqis and those across the Middle East today. It is no exaggeration to say that the world as we know it now has been scarred by the war.

Washington’s policy in the Middle East has since become more cautious, causing dismay among regional partners and allies, who, prior to 2003, saw America as a reliable security partner. All U.S. presidents and candidates after Bush have sought to distance themselves from the decision to invade or for having ever voiced support for regime change or nation building in Iraq or anywhere else.

Iraq has become the embodiment of the naivety of change. For Iraqis, they continue to be stuck with a political system that has bred corruption, mismanagement, and desperation while falsely promising them representation; for Americans, Iraq remains a cautionary tale of misjudgment and hubris.  


Yesar Al-Maleki is an energy economist and consultant with an extensive knowledge of the intertwining subjects of energy, geopolitics, and economics in the region. He is also a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute (MEI).

Photo by Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images

The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.