The Struggle for Iraq’s Future


How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy


Since the withdrawal of US occupying forces, international attention has shifted away from Iraq – but life for Iraqis has become no easier. Deadly bombings are still all too common, sectarian violence has soared and all-pervading corruption means that massive inflows of aid and oil income have made very little difference to crucial issues like security, healthcare and power availability. Now, Iraqi lawyer Zaid Al-Ali sets out why and how the post-occupation Iraqi government has failed to achieve legitimacy or improve its citizens’ lives. He argues that the ill-planned US intervention destroyed the Iraqi state, creating a black hole which corrupt and incompetent members of the elite have now made their own.

In particular, Al-Ali argues that the manner in which the constitution was drafted deliberately created a cleavage between large segments of the population, rather than bring people together. He also demonstrates that the system of government that the constitution establishes is so dysfunctional that the political class has refused to apply it. All constitutional frameworks depend on the capacity, professionalism and good faith of political elites to be successfully implemented, but in Iraq’s case, given that the politicians refused to apply the rules that were provided for in the constitution, state and society were left completely at their mercy. From 2006 onwards, the prime minister, the government and the parliament improvised the rules as they went along, deliberately and explicitly violating the constitution. In that context, Al-Ali argues that Iraq’s most senior politicians (most of whom spent decades in an unproductive exile) have no professional skills that are of any use to the state, are lazy, corrupt, very willing to engage in moral compromise, and conspiratorial in their thinking. Finally, rather than engage with the public and try to address its failures, the government has instead resorted to sectarianism to defend itself and stave off any criticism. The result is that Sunni/Shia/Kurd divisions have worsened since 2003.

Al-Ali describes in detail how the absence of any constitutional rules to govern the state’s behavior, and the politicians’ incompetence and lack of compassion have degraded the state from within. The legal system is in crisis, human-rights abuses are commonplace and the natural environment, already degraded by Saddam Hussein’s destructive projects, is worsening every day. The book nevertheless ends on an optimistic note, arguing that the basis for a democratic culture already exists within Iraq. Al-Ali states sets out the fundamental components of any comprehensive programme for Iraq, and also sets out the beginnings of a strategy for how such a programme could be implemented in the country, despite the political class’ failings. Such an effort would take years to get off even partially off the ground, but efforts are already underway.


“Zaid al-Ali’s [book is a] well-researched study of how Iraq has gotten into its current, worsening, and possibly terminal mess. The Struggle for Iraq’s Future is not a pretty story. Indeed it seems to be populated entirely by villains, from Saddam Hussein to criminally stupid or negligent American occupiers to the rapacious, self-serving, bloody-minded, and frequently murderous group of Iraqi politicians who have insinuated themselves into power in the Americans’ wake. […] Ali’s analytical clarity and his inside knowledge fill the gap in understanding Iraq that, for non-Iraqis at least, has widened markedly since America pulled out of its misadventure, abruptly withdrawing its last occupation troops in December 2011.

Ali proves his case with lawyerly aplomb. What he shows is that while history may have dealt Iraq a hard hand, and perhaps also subtly inculcated destructive pathologies of power and violence, the terrible failure of post-invasion Iraq is mostly a product of specific policy choices made by particular individuals”. Read the full review.

Max Rodenbeck is an American journalist and author. He writes for the Economist magazine, the New York Times and the New York Review of Books.


“This furious, analytically acute book traces how and why Iraq failed to consolidate into a democratic state following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Ali’s primary academic and professional focus is on the constitution, and he lays bare the compromises and procedural failings that helped to distort that document. His analysis goes further than the legal texts, however, as he unpacks the logic of the corrupt, sectarian state that emerged from the long years of occupation and civil war. His searingly critical perspective on these failings should be required reading for those trying to make sense of the rise of the Islamic State, the limitations of state-building in post-Saddam Iraq and the deeper failings of the U.S. occupation.”

Marc Lynch, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University, and Director of both the Institute for Middle East Studies and the Middle East Studies Program.


“In this devastating book on Iraq and, by implication, much of the Arab world, Zaid Al-Ali brings together the best practices of a lawyer, constitutional practitioner and independent analyst. He identifies the terrible combination of problems in recent Arab state-building due to both indigenous miscreants and foreign arrogance and militarism. The book is painful reading sometimes, but is absolutely essential reading for a clear understanding of why the Arab world is in the throes of so many citizen revolts against domestic and foreign tyranny”.

Rami Khouri, Visiting Scholar and lecturer at Princeton University, Spring 2014; Director of Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut; and Syndicated columnist, at the Agence Global Syndicate, USA, and The Daily Star


The book is a “brave, disturbing and excoriating survey of Iraq’s political cesspit…The Struggle for Iraq’s Future has an explosive beginning. Al-Ali describes how, even after it had been discovered that widely used British explosives detection equipment was completely bogus and ineffective – in 2013 the inventor was jailed for 10 years by a UK court. The prime minister Nuri Al Maliki flatly refused to accept this with a callous disregard for the truth and for untold numbers of Iraqi lives. Much of this book, in fact, can be read as a passionate polemic against Al Maliki who, with the Americans, must surely take a great share of the responsibility for the unholy mess in which Iraq is now stewing. Instead of seeking to build an Iraq that eschewed sectarianism, al-Ali writes, “his sole concern became to capture the state and to divide and conquer opponents, to remain in power for as long as possible”… Al-Ali’s detailed and thorough critique of the Iraqi constitution and the highly flawed process that engendered it, is principled and compelling”. Read the full review

Justin Marozzi, author of ‘Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood’, published by Allen Lane (2014)


“[The] forgotten side of the twenty first century’s most ill-advised war – the institutional history of Iraq’s last ten years – is the subject of The Struggle for Iraq’s Future, Zaid Al-Ali’s important new book.[…] The Struggle for Iraq’s Future is recent history, not memoir, but the grim anecdotes and constant disappointments of Al-Ali’s experience sharpen his narrative, and provoke the rage which he does such an admirable job of channeling”. Read full review

Greg Waldmann, Senior Editor at Open Letters Monthly


“In this fascinating story of Iraq’s first decade following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Zaid al-Ali merges a technocrat’s expert knowledge with a patriot’s zeal to expose the corruption, incompetence and malfeasance that have brought reconstruction to a virtual standstill and governance to the breaking point. He infuses his distressing analysis with insightful anecdotes based on his own experience as part of the rebuilding effort, in which he played a somewhat invisible yet important part, and contends that when the foundations – notably the 2005 constitution – are flawed, the structure erected on top of them is no less so, to deleterious effect. The way forward, he suggests, is to pursue a reset – a fundamental overhaul that Iraq’s current rulers are certain to reject and resist, and to therefore ground this effort in the stratum of mid- to senior-level state officials who are highly skilled, tireless, and imbued with a strong sense of duty to their country, and who have kept things going, incredibly, as the politicians have made an utter mess of things. This book is one of the very few in-depth studies to emerge from inside Iraq’s system so far this past decade, and hands-down the best”.

Joost Hiltermann, Chief Operating Officer at the International Crisis Group, and author of ‘A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja’, published by Cambridge University Press (2007)


“A genuinely engaging book written by someone with deep expertise, [The Struggle for Iraq’s Future] offers a strong analysis of what went wrong. For anyone who has an interest in the string of catastrophes and failings that had such a tragic impact on the country, it is required reading. But the book deserves a wider audience than that […] given its important yet sobering discussion and conclusions”. Read the full review

Matthew Gray, Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at ANU


“Zaid Al-Ali tells a story of almost continuous political crisis, caused not only by ‘corruption, incompetence and sectarianism’ but also by the failure of the constitution making effort as well as of the resulting constitution.  For Al-Ali the American war and occupation, and especially the disastrous conduct of the latter are at the root of political and constitutional failure, that the externally imposed Iraqi elites in charge did very little to rectify.

In his presentation, the ethnic and sectarian divisions of Iraq were at best intermediary causes, not historically deep-seated, and they were greatly exacerbated by the occupation’s policies.  Al-Ali’s narrative is well written, argued and documented, paying equal attention to constitutional process, administrative decisions, party politics, economic policy and local struggles, both during and after the formal American occupation. It will be invaluable for all those seriously concerned with Iraq and its region”.

Andrew Arato, Dorothy Hirshon Professor in Political and Social Theory, New School, author of ‘Constitution Making Under Occupation: The Politics of Imposed Revolution in Iraq’, published by Columbia University Press (2009)


“As a meeting of senior-level officials of the United Nations in 2008 to evaluate reclamation projects in Iraq approached its conclusion, an Iraqi said ‘Wait, we haven’t discussed whether any of this has had any impact.’ The man leading the session replied, ‘We don’t have the luxury to discuss impact.’

Alas, in the decade since the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein, virtually no one, it seems, has come to terms with the impact of the invasion, occupation and the subsequent withdrawal of American troops on the lives of Iraqi citizens.

In ‘The Struggle for Iraq’s Future,’ Zaid Al-Ali, who served as a legal advisor to the United Nations in Iraq from 2005-2010, tries to do just that. Al-Ali agrees with most critics that the decision of American policymakers to disestablish the Baath Party and disband the Army has had catastrophic consequences, leaving Iraq without a bureaucracy or any effective policing force. He focuses most of his attention, however, on Iraq’s domestic politics, providing disturbing and depressing details about corrupt and incompetent Iraqi politicians ‘who are devoid of any ideology other than personal gain.'” Read the full review

Glenn C. Altschuler, Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University


“In April, Iraqi lawyer Zaid Al-Ali wrote a remarkably prophetic article arguing that Nouri al-Maliki, who had convinced many Iraqi voters in the just-concluded elections that he was a strong man, was actually presiding over a rapidly weakening state. The armed forces were a “paper tiger,” he argued, sapped by corruption and politicization and unwilling to fight. Six weeks later the Islamic State struck and proved Al-Ali right, as Maliki’s forces in the north melted away.

“The full details of just how badly Maliki governed Iraq can be found in Al-Ali’s book, The Struggle for Iraq’s Future, an account of misrule in the country since 2003. One particularly cutting anecdote, in which Maliki kept in use a demonstrably fraudulent bomb detector, apparently to save face, at the cost of hundreds of lives, is excerpted on The Arabist here. Read in light of the fall of Mosul, the accounts dramatize how the same instincts that propel a political leader to extend control over all the institutions of state leave those very institutions fragile, led by opportunists and functionaries. That a ruthless leader does not make for a strong state is a lesson that the Arab world should have had ample opportunity to learn, yet many here still keep falling into the same trap. […]

“Very few general historical overviews have been written on the Iraq war, and particularly not from an Iraqi perspective. Al-Ali was involved in the transition, and it’s extremely valuable to have his insider view of what went wrong. Most of Al-Ali’s observations ring true, and all of the reforms he recommends would probably be a step forward”. Read the full review.

Steve Negus, currently with Associated Press in Egypt, and from 2004 to 2008 was Iraq correspondent for the Financial Times


“In this book Zaid al-Ali sets out why and how the post-occupation Iraqi government has failed to achieve legitimacy or improve its citizens’ lives, covering how corruption has prevented aid and oil income making a difference to security, healthcare and power. Vivid descriptions of the extent of violence and low quality of life that became part of everyday life in Iraq are remarkable and give the reader a much closer understanding of what Iraqis, especially in Baghdad, have been going through”.

Dr Zeynep Kaya is a Fellow at the London School of Economics. She completed her PhD in International Relations at LSE on the interaction between international norms and ethnicist conceptions of territorial identity with a focus on the Kurdish case.


“Focusing on post-2003 problems in the Iraqi political system, this book helps explain some of the reasons why the government in Baghdad was so weak when Sunni militants launched their takeover of northwestern Iraq in June 2014.  A lawyer who worked on UN technical projects in Iraq from 2005 to early 2011, Al-Ali […] describes how incompetent, corrupt political elites and the breakdown in public administration between 2006 and 2008 made it nearly impossible to establish a rule of law or rebuild the country’s infrastructure.  […] [The book’s] earlier chapters paint a devastating picture of the structural political flaws that have brought the country to the point of breakup.”

Brad Dillman, Professor, International Political Economy, Choice Magazine


“Zaid Al-Ali’s book, spread over nine chapters, is the definitive account of Iraqi politics in the last decade, constitutional or otherwise. Though a depressing read that at times may be unbelievable for a reader less familiar with Iraq since 2003, the book’s power comes from an intentional effort to highlight the effects of Iraq’s dysfunctional politics on ordinary Iraqis. Al-Ali sets the scene of the Kafkaesque reality in Iraq by describing in his introduction the use of bomb detectors by Iraq’s security forces to detect explosives at the myriad checkpoints that dot Baghdad’s urban landscape. These purported security devices, sold to the Iraqi government by since-convicted British fraudster Jim McCormick, have proven to be entirely ineffectual. However, the Iraqi government continues to insist they work and still uses them—to the dismay of virtually everyone suffering through Baghdad’s choking rush hour traffic (and unabated violence). The voices of Iraqis living through the country’s challenges colour the entire text and demonstrate the impact of Iraq’s defective politics. […]

“The walled-off ‘Green Zone’ in Baghdad which houses Iraq’s political elites remains ubiquitous and symbolises the disconnect between politicians and the citizenry they purport to represent. Al-Ali’s The Struggle for Iraq’s Future shows the repercussions of this divide. His rewarding approach—telling the stories of ordinary Iraqis living outside the emerald city, while in the process describing the constitutional and political debacle that the country has become—brings human meaning to constitution making in Iraq with devastating effect”. Read the full review.

Omar Sirri, University of Toronto