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Sunday, December 28, 2014

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Iraq: 10 years after the war

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American forces roared into Baghdad 10 years ago this month, virtually completing the three-week invasion of Iraq and toppling one of the most repressive Arab regimes in the Middle East.

In a crowning touch heavily laden with symbolic implications, U.S. troops helped rapturous Iraqis tear down a towering and glowering statue of Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, in the heart of the city. Few Iraqis outside ruling Baathist party circles were unhappy that his regime had finally been overthrown.

A brutal autocrat who ruthlessly crushed his opponents and plunged Iraq into the long night of totalitarianism, he was a greatly disruptive force in the region, lending political and financial support to radical Palestinian factions bent on destroying Israel, meddling in the affairs of his Arab neighbours and sending armies to invade Iran and Kuwait in 1980 and 1990 respectively.

Saddam’s eight-year war with Iran, which essentially ended in a draw, weakened Iraq. But Iraq’s naked aggression in Kuwait was even more disastrous. The 1991 Gulf War, which broke out in reaction to Iraq’s imperial designs on Kuwait, brought Iraq to its knees. As the United States assembled a coalition to push Iraq out of Kuwait, the United Nations imposed severe economic sanctions on Iraq and sent inspectors there to ensure that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were disabled or destroyed.

As Iraqis crowded around the statue in wonderment and amazement, perhaps reflecting on the disasters Saddam had inflicted on Iraq, Iraqi mobs ran amok in an orgy of looting, creating an indelible impression of unbridled anarchy. Watching these developments unfolding, the U.S. secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, made a flippant observation that may haunt him for the rest of his days. As he said, ”Stuff happens and it’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.”

Little did he know that the United States had embarked on a risky military adventure – Operation Iraqi Freedom – that would cost it dearly in blood and treasure, divert resources from the war already raging in Afghanistan and diminish its international standing and prestige.

The victorious and largely unopposed American march into Baghdad on April 9, 2003, generated self-serving illusions in Washington that the war would soon end on a triumphant note and enable American soldiers to return back home.

With a spate of suicide bombings killing U.S. troops, and with an insurrection building, clear-eyed foreign correspondents covering the fighting drew a more sober conclusion. In a story published on the front page of the New York Times on April 12, Dexter Filkins presciently wrote, “But the fact is the war is not over.”

Almost a decade would elapse before the Americans withdrew from Iraq. During the interval, 4,484 Americans lost their lives and 32,200 were wounded in a mission that would cost an estimated $3 to $4 trillion, a gargantuan sum that could have been used to battle poverty in urban ghettos, or establish a long overdue universal health-care system.

George W. Bush, the U.S. president who launched the invasion, initially justified it on the basis of two rationales. Iraq’s chemical, biological and nuclear weapons were a regional threat, while Iraq’s relationship with Al Qaeda represented a clear and present danger.

When these claims turned out to be bereft of substance, Bush and his secretary of state, Colin Powell, adopted a different approach, claiming that the ouster of Saddam would usher in a new era of democracy in the Middle East and inspire a push for democratic reforms throughout the region.

Ten years on, with Saddam dead and buried, Iraq possesses the trappings and veneer of a parliamentary democracy. Elections have taken place and a constitution has been written.

But Iraq, riven by deep sectarian divisions pitting Shiites against Sunnis, has been thrown into chaos. The current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, has been accused of concentrating power in his hands and marginalizing the Sunnis, the big losers in postwar Iraq.

The insurrection, which broke out as the Americans and their allies rolled into Iraq, is mainly an expression of Sunni anger and resentment with the new political order. Although the revolt is not as toxic as it was in its early phase, it continues to simmer and claim victims.

Since 2003, 110,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in a variety of violent incidents. As the 10th anniversary of the invasion was marked in Iraq on March 19, 17 car bombs exploded throughout the country, killing some 60 civilians and wounding 190. Al Qaeda took responsibility for the bombings, underscoring its ability to sow mayhem in a war-weary nation struggling to regain its footing after so much bloodshed.

Oil production is back to 1990 levels of three million barrels a day, but power outages are still common. Once-scarce western consumer goods, embargoed by UN sanctions, are now widely available. But youth unemployment has reached appalling heights. A grasping nouveau riche elite has arisen to grab the spoils, but for the vast majority of Iraqis, relatively little has changed and life remains exceedingly difficult.

The Kurds, having established a semi-autonomous enclave in northern Iraq, were one of the chief beneficiaries of the war. But now that they enjoy a degree of independence just short of actual statehood, they have been thrust into an adversarial contest with the central government over control of Iraq’s lucrative oil wealth.

The long-oppressed Shiite majority gained much from the American invasion. Sidelined by Britain, the colonial power in Iraq from World War I until 1932, the Shiites were repressed by a succession of Sunni-dominated Iraqi governments after the British left. Under Saddam, a Sunni, too, the repression worsened, particularly after Iraq crushed a Shiite uprising in southern Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War.

The emancipation and empowerment of the Shiite community, a U.S. war objective, has produced noxious blowback. Saddam checked Iran’s hegemonic ambitions, but with his removal, a worthy outcome of the war, Iran’s influence in Iraq has never been stronger. Iran, a bastion of Shiite Islam, has forged cordial relations with the current Iraqi government as the volume of bilateral trade has increased significantly.

For Israel, the American invasion has turned out to be a mixed blessing.

The elimination of Saddam’s regime was a strategic victory for Israel. Saddam allied himself with Israel’s enemies and fired 39 Scud missiles into Israel during the Gulf War. But now that Iran has gained ascendancy in Iraq, Israel is faced with a serious strategic problem that may well grow worse in the future.

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