“My friend, Iraq is a rich, virgin country!” one of its richest men, Namir al-Akabi, told me with a startling enthusiasm when I met him earlier this year at his office in Baghdad. Akabi is the chairman of the Almco Group of Companies, a conglomerate he built from nothing in the wake of the American invasion in 2003. What makes Iraq’s economic potential so great, he explained, despite everything, is not just its abundant natural resources — it is the shattered state of Iraq itself: the damage done by the American war, but also the long, steady decay under Saddam Hussein, from the war with Iran that began in 1980 through the invasion of Kuwait a decade later and the crushing international sanctions that followed the first gulf war. The country has been decimated, and therein lies its potential.
The war in Iraq is widely seen as a colossal blunder of American hubris that killed tens of thousands and displaced many more, leaving a shattered, sectarian wreck of a country. Even now, as President Obama withdraws the last of nearly 50,000 American troops by the end of the year, the insurgency simmers and the state is neither stable nor fully democratic. The government is rife with corruption and paralyzed by an ossified bureaucracy. And yet also, undeniably, Iraq has turned a corner. After years of war, looting, sectarian bloodshed and political infighting, Iraq’s economy is beginning to take off, fueled by a resurgence in oil exploitation — and soon natural gas — and an influx of foreign capital that has swelled despite the protracted political impasse that followed Iraq’s parliamentary elections in March 2010.
The International Monetary Fund recently estimated that Iraq’s gross domestic product grew 2.6 percent last year — nearly as much as the struggling American economy did — and it projected astonishing increases exceeding 11 percent this year and next. Some say Iraq’s economy — estimated at roughly $80 billion today — could expand six or seven times in the next decade as it increases oil production to a level rivaling Saudi Arabia’s.