Iraqi private sector languishes 20 years after US invasion • Stimson Center

Iraqi private sector languishes 20 years after US invasion • Stimson Center

The United States invaded Iraq when I was just seven years old. War in the eyes of a child is a terrifying reality. When your neighborhood is being bombed and the conversation with friends and family turns to condolences, your worldview undergoes a paradigm shift. You ask yourself questions like, “How will I survive? What will become of my family? What will my country look like when this is all over?”

It’s that last question—What will my country look like?—that we young Iraqis are now confronting. Our social fabric has been torn apart. Our economy is extremely fragile. Our politics are under perpetual uncertainty. It’s been 20 years since America’s invasion, and I believe we need its help now more than ever to answer that question and construct a truly new Iraq.

Since 1910, my family has been a leader inside Iraq in the business community, regardless of the leadership of the Iraqi government, in industries ranging from agriculture to banking to construction to hotels. Because my family has been one of Iraq’s leading employers for more than a century, staying out of politics and focusing on serving the Iraqi people, we firmly believe that just as we Iraqis once lived in prosperity as the cradle of civilization, we can do so again.

Yet despite the hundreds of billions of dollars in economic assistance provided by the United States since 2003, endemic corruption and mismanagement has left the Iraqi people without confidence in their prospects and still in need of practical solutions for the future. The Iraqi people never truly felt the benefits of this aid. This needs to change and this is why, to recover from the war, the Iraqi private sector needs to be revitalized.

My family is doing our part, but many obstacles remain. These include resolving issues that have harmed our company’s ability—and by extension the Iraqi private sector’s ability—to recover from the war and flourish for the benefit of ordinary Iraqis.

For example, my family has documented several instances of American military actions that damaged and destroyed our business properties during the war. The Army, through the U.S. Army Claims Service, compensated us for two of these claims. We put those funds back into those two companies, which are now operational and employing Iraqis. However, another claim involving one of our family’s businesses has gotten lost in paperwork, as the mechanism that provides compensation is not functioning properly.

Specifically, our company has been waiting for nearly 15 years for compensation for the Army’s destruction of one of our agricultural properties. In 2008, the Army promised us payment so that we could restart operations and employ Iraqis. Yet the commitments made at that time have not been honored, with the failure to pay blamed on lost paperwork and internal Army issues. The damages to this integrated agricultural project on the Tigris totaled in the millions of dollars, costing us not only our ability to conduct business, but also undermining our ability to employ more Iraqis so that they can earn money, feed their families, and revive the economy.

From our perspective, the United States must compensate private firms like ours that were directly damaged by the American military. Doing so will rebuild both Iraqi lives and the trust between our two countries. As we saw during the war, Iraqis without employment became Iraqis with guns, fostering the violence that followed. We do not want that reality to return.

It’s worth noting at this point that the United States has spent over two trillion dollars on the war in Iraq, from 2003 – 2019. That’s nearly $10 billion per month over 17 years, on military, health care, economic, and diplomatic activities. Yet the Iraqi people have not seen commensurate economic benefits. Most of these funds were spent by the U.S. government on U.S. vendors or contracted to American defense firms. We Iraqis were left on the outside, unable to access resources to lift up our people, adding insult to the injury of being invaded and occupied by a foreign power.

Fortunately, the U.S. government can still right this wrong and help make a strong Iraq. And it’s in America’s national security interests to do so.

One thing is clear: the future of Iraq cannot be divorced from the United States. Our two countries are bonded together, and most Iraqis are hungry for the American-Iraqi relationship to blossom to the benefit of both our peoples.

This means that it is past time for the U.S. government to rectify the wrongs that are still with us, including those impacting my family’s ability to create Iraqi employment. Doing so will help a new generation—my generation—to lead Iraq towards a better future. It is also incumbent on Iraqis to work to reform their political institutions to curb corruption and mismanagement. All this will show that the high costs of the U.S. invasion, including the loss of thousands of American and Iraqi lives, were not in vain.

Ahmad Bunnia is the son of one of Iraq’s oldest commercial families. He is pursuing a Masters in Law degree at Georgetown University. Photo: Jeff Werner.

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