For a brief moment, ordinary Iraqi's experienced what it feels like to have politicians on their best behaviour. That was a week ago, and the Pope and the world's attention are no longer there.

There was a dizzying array of pomp, ceremony, and symbolism surrounding Pope Francis’ historic visit to Iraq, a land ravaged by almost continuous war for almost half a century and presided over by one of the most kleptocratic and violently sectarian political system in the world today. 

Of course, the hope was that the Pope’s visit would herald a new beginning for Iraq, allowing not only the heavily depleted indigenous Christian population to begin to heal, but as a wider message of peace and reconciliation in Iraq.

That was a week ago. The Pope’s vestments from the trip have barely been laundered and already Iraq’s broken system is back in full force, stamping out hope and lives with equal gusto now that it has been given a fresh lick of paint by a high-profile papal visit. 

A missed opportunity for accountability

But no matter how much effort is expended in refurbishing Iraq’s global image as a failed state, it has proven impossible to paper over the cracks. Indeed, they have now become more like gaping gashes, gushing forth with the blood and tears of the innocents who have been trampled beneath the sheer weight of the system.

Although many Iraqis were cynical about the long-term impact of Pope Francis’ visit, it is fair to say that an equally large number of them had high hopes that the pontiff would raise their plight not only with Iraq’s leaders but by publicly mentioning them in his speeches that would be broadcast to the world. 

This would have put the Iraqi authorities and their allied Shia militias under the intense glare of international scrutiny. Instead, the Pope gave more general messages of hope and peace, calling on Iraqis to come together and to move forward.

While that is not in itself a bad thing, it was certainly a missed opportunity for the many Iraqis who are languishing in what can only be described as prison camps for the crime of being related to a Daesh member, or the Iraqis who have faced closures of their internally displaced refugee camps, or the Iraqis rummaging through what is left of their decimated cities that have not been rebuilt almost four years on since Daesh’s defeat in 2017 despite numerous promises from the federal government in Baghdad and the international community.

In fact, Pope Francis led a prayer and gave a speech from within the ruins of Mosul, one of Iraq’s largest, most populous, and most historically significant cities. No surprises, then, that Mosul is a Sunni Arab city that has been utterly neglected by the sectarian and Iran-backed Shia dominated government in an act that can only be described as collective punishment due to their religious affiliations. 

Even the trees that were planted for the purposes of beautifying the city for the papal visit were shown no mercy and were immediately uprooted the second the Pope had left.

After the fall of Mosul to Daesh forces in 2014, an Iraqi parliamentary probe found that the virulently sectarian Nouri al-Maliki, former prime minister and well-known Iranian stooge, was responsible for the fall of this most important city due to his policies and wilful neglect.

Back to the business of brutalising Iraqis

But it is certainly not just the Sunni Arabs who have continued to suffer under this oppressive system. Since 2019, a protest movement was launched in Baghdad and large swathes of the Shia south against the corruption of the political elites, the total lack of a viable economy, and the incessant state-sponsored violence against the people. 

More than 600 Iraqis were brutally murdered by state security forces and allied Shia militias for having the temerity to call for real democratic change and accountability. While Shia militias– who enjoy significant backing from Iran – almost hilariously agreed to a full cessation of their militant activities for the duration of the Pope’s visit, his plane had barely dipped over the horizon on its way back to Rome before the amnesty was over.

Literally the next day, militants who are thought to be connected to Kataeb Hezbollah – blacklisted as a terrorist organisation by the United States – kidnapped the 10-year-old son of a well-known Iraqi activist, Ayoub al-Khazraji, who was forced to flee to Erbil following the outbreak of violence in 2019.

Amazingly, and rather than expend every effort to rescue the child, the interior ministry instead released a statement saying the boy had simply gone with Shia pilgrims to the Kadhimiya district of Baghdad. Khazraji then leaked a chilling message he had received from the militants: “Come back to Baghdad, and then we can come to an understanding about your son, you traitor.”

The next day, the outspoken father of a human rights lawyer who was forcibly disappeared by the Shia militias in 2019 was shot dead. Since his son was abducted on 8 October, Jaseb Hattab had made numerous television appearances and appeals to the government to find his son, including meeting with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in September who promised to help him. 

In November, Amnesty International reported that not only had nothing been done for Hattab and his family, but that the lack of progress was “now compounded by repeated threats to his family.”

Last October, the Associated Press asked Hattab if he was afraid. He answered: “I am afraid…But I lost what was most valuable to me, so I’ve got nothing else to lose.”

Sadly, he has now also lost his life to a system that is so totally bereft of legitimacy that not even a man dubbed “His Holiness” can cleanse it of its myriad sins. 

Iraq does not need visits from men of peace. It needs total and complete structural reform, and the entire system needs to be drained of the corrupt elites and foreign interlopers that continue to hamper its recovery. Only then will the people of Iraq find peace, prosperity, and, hopefully one day, unity.

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