Iraqi policemen examine remains of a car bomb in Baghdad's Sadr City on March 19, 2013 after a series of coordinated car bombs and blasts hit across Baghdad and south of the Iraqi capital on the tenth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion.

© 2013 Reuters

What is there to show for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq 10 years ago? Many are quick to insist that Iraq is better off than it was under Saddam, but that is a low bar, given Saddam’s genocide against the Kurds, mass slaughter of Shia who rose up against him, and unspeakable brutality against anyone perceived to challenge his rule.

Sadly, one cannot say a lot more. Despite the massive military and financial commitment, and the sacrifice of thousands of Iraqi and American lives, the United States left Iraq a weak foundation for democracy.

It is not as if no effort was made. The U.S. government helped to draft legislation and a new Constitution, trained judges and lawyers, and supported civil society and independent media. But that enormous effort could not overcome the negative precedents set during the U.S. military deployment. From the brutality of Abu Ghraib and other detention centers, to the repeated use of excessive force to protect American troops and contractors, to the creation of Iraqi security units that allegedly tortured and abused with impunity, the U.S. military left the impression that achieving its goals took precedence over such niceties as respect for international rights standards.

Nor did the United States do any better on departure. Washington withdrew U.S. forces in their entirety rather than acquiesce to Baghdad’s insistence on subjecting them to Iraqi prosecutorial oversight. The Iraqi government had good reason to distrust U.S. self-policing, given how little the United States has done to bring to justice its own perpetrators of abuse.

The United States also left much to be desired in its political decisions in Iraq. Its overbroad deBaathification process – firing people because of their association with the ruling party rather than any particular crime or misconduct – set a precedent of revenge in lieu of justice, and left a sea of angry men who were easy picking for armed insurgent groups. The U.S. military also dissolved the Iraqi security forces and filled the void with a rapidly created substitute that was prone – and often encouraged – to abuse.

The rights record of the Iraqi government that emerged from these uninspiring examples is deeply troubling. Arrests occur routinely without warrants. Thousands of people are held without charge with no end in sight, sometimes in unofficial detention facilities. Torture during interrogation is common. People brought to trial are often convicted through coerced confessions and secret informant testimony. Corruption is reportedly rife in the Interior Ministry, and collusion between officials and judges is said to be common. Judges typically close their eyes to evidence of torture, and due process at trial is rare. Executions are skyrocketing – 129 in 2012 compared with 62 the prior year – with few details available about the identity of those condemned or the charges against them.

The government justifies many arrests in the name of fighting “terrorism,” but the common denominator among those caught up in this system of injustice is perceived opposition to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Rather than build a broad political coalition, al-Maliki has used repression to address political threats.

Even semi-autonomous Kurdistan, the brightest spot in Iraq, is beset by assaults on free expression, with government opponents and critical journalists under attack. Many of the problems seen in Baghdad have their parallel in the Kurdish north, if on a less severe scale.

Iraq’s parliament recently adopted legislation that would prevent al-Maliki from serving a third term after his current one ends in 2014. But he is challenging that law before the Supreme Judicial Council, whose head is a close ally. Meanwhile, al-Maliki’s narrow political base – built on a seeming combination of loyalty to Maliki and fear of the alternative – is fueling sectarian tensions and aggravating regional differences.

A strengthening of clan-based structures is making life worse for women, who ironically under Saddam’s brutal rule enjoyed some of the highest levels of equality and social participation in the region. Today’s revival of local customs has meant more tolerance of domestic violence and “honor” crimes. In a government where jockeying for power seems to take precedence over all else, Baghdad shows no interest in standing up to abusive clan leaders whose support it might need.

The government says it is open to reform. Following mass protests in majority Sunni areas in December after the arrest of the finance minister’s bodyguards, the government formed several committees to respond to protester demands. But there is little to suggest they will address systematic problems in the justice and political systems, or that illegal arrests, abusive interrogations, coerced confessions, and unfair trials are being curbed.

Can anything be done to reverse this disturbing course? It’s not easy to rectify past mistakes that are so fundamental. One way to start would be at least to acknowledge them and openly seek improvements. Yet the U.S. ambassador seems to refrain from even discussing al-Maliki’s deep flaws, as if they are too painful a reminder of an episode of U.S. military adventurism gone awry that is best forgotten.

Worse, the CIA is reportedly building up its assistance to an elite anti-terrorism unit that reports directly to al-Maliki’s office and has been synonymous with the torture, abuse and “disappearance” of detainees. Nothing the United States could say to encourage greater respect for human rights is likely to counter such a direct manifestation of indifference. After 10 years, Washington should have learned that it cannot improve a government’s human rights conduct when it joins that government in demonstrating indifference to basic rights. At minimum, continuing security assistance should be conditioned on respect for these rights that are so lacking in today’s Iraq.