How bad is the situation?
It's extremely grim. When U.S. soldiers withdrew in 2011, President Obama boasted they were "leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq." Three years later, the country is under the thumb of an authoritarian ruler, riddled with corruption, and trapped in horrific sectarian violence. Nearly every day, mammoth explosions rock the capital, Baghdad, and other cities, tearing apart restaurants, public markets, and government buildings; in April alone, 750 Iraqis were killed in bombings or in the fighting between government forces and a formidable Sunni extremist insurgency. If the increasingly authoritarian Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki manages to secure victory in April 30's parliamentary elections — the results of which will not be known for weeks — it could ignite a full-fledged civil war. "We were happy when the old dictator went," said Ramadi resident Faleh Shahooth, referring to the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein. "But democracy has brought a new dictator. If the election produces the same thieves again, then it's time for revolution."
What kind of leader is al-Maliki?
In power since 2006, al-Maliki secured re-election in 2010 by promising to form a national "unity" government with his rivals from the Sunni minority, who had previously governed Iraq under Saddam's Ba'athist regime. But within days of America's withdrawal, al-Maliki instigated a brutal crackdown on Sunnis from his vice president downward, purging the Iraqi National Intelligence Service and the government of sectarian rivals. Tens of thousands of political prisoners now wallow in Iraq's jails, while al-Maliki — who has declared himself commander in chief — has built up a series of intelligence files on his political opponents, ready to "call them out," in his words, if they dare criticize him. "Maliki could have been a historic figure," said former Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi. "The Shiites supported him; he had the support of the Sunnis and the Kurds." Instead, he has alienated large swaths of the population, and opened the door to a resurgence of Islamic militants. Jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), an al Qaeda–affiliated organization, are now firmly in control of Anbar province, the hard-won western Sunni heartland where some 1,300 U.S. soldiers lost their lives. ISIS is also waging war in neighboring Syria as part of a wider regional Sunni-Shiite struggle.
What about corruption?
It's blatant and widespread. In fact, al-Maliki's government has become a symbol of bribery and theft, with corrupt politicians siphoning off millions of dollars' worth of oil revenues from within the comfort of Baghdad's Green Zone. Abdul-Mahdi estimates that almost $220 billion has been allocated in the last few years to some 6,000 shady government projects, and another $70 billion in government loans has been handed out without being repaid. "The corruption is unbelievable," says political scientist Ghassan al-Atiyyah. "You can't get a job in the army or the government unless you pay; you can't even get out of prison unless you pay." That, combined with a dire lack of public services — including constant electricity shortages — has led to the sense that the overall standard of life in Iraq has only deteriorated since Saddam was toppled.
Are women at least better off?
Their political situation has improved: Under Iraq's postwar constitution, women are guaranteed 25 percent of the seats in parliament. But as conservative Shiite forces have gained a foothold within the government, the average female Iraqi has found herself with fewer rights than under Saddam. More than a quarter of women over the age of 12 in Iraq are illiterate; only 14 percent are either working or actively seeking employment. Perhaps the greatest symbol of Iraqi women's plight today is the Jaafari Personal Status Law, draft legislation approved by Iraq's Council of Ministers in February that lowers the marriage age for girls to 9, forbids women from leaving their homes without their husbands' consent, and legalizes marital rape. "This law means humiliation for women and for Iraqis in general," said female legislator Safia al-Suhail. "It shows that we are going backwards."
Will the elections change anything?
That all depends on who wins. If al-Maliki gets a plurality of votes and remains prime minister, more division and bloodshed are inevitable. He has already insisted he will use all his "energy and effort" to keep his fellow Shiites in full control, and spurn a "unity" coalition government with his Sunni and Kurdish rivals. Having painted himself as a heroic fighter against the Sunni "terrorists," al-Maliki enjoys significant support among the Shiite population, but is widely loathed among Sunnis, who see him as a despot and Iranian stooge. Backroom negotiations to select a prime minister are expected to take months, during which time al-Maliki is likely to use his considerable influence over Iraq's judiciary to get his desired result. "If we know anything about Prime Minister Maliki," said Ahmed Ali, an Iraq analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, "it's that he doesn't retreat easily."
The Kurdish success story
One part of Iraq has proved a surprising exception to the country's grim norm: the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, which lies 200 miles north of Baghdad. Kurdish Iraq is largely peaceful, prosperous, democratic, and secular. Corruption exists, but at a tolerable level: "In Kurdistan, the leaders steal about 20 percent," a Kurdish local told The New Yorker, "but 80 percent makes it to the people. In Baghdad, the percentages are reversed." Although already effectively independent from Iraq's central government, the Kurdish regional government has until this point eschewed formal independence in order to capitalize on Baghdad's oil revenues. But having apparently discovered its own huge oil reserves, the regional government is increasingly considering splitting with its violent southern neighbors. "We are talking about a culture of life," said Fuad Hussein, the Kurdish prime minister's chief of staff. "They are busy with a culture of death."