On April 3, 2003, as US troops entered Baghdad, I was invited to the BBC’s flagship politics show, This Week, presented by Andrew Neil. We had something of a disagreement.
My host’s view was that the war had been won and that within 18 months, Iraq would be prosperous, a model of democracy and a shining example to the rest of the Middle East. I said I feared that the real war had not even begun, that a long term US occupation would destroy Iraq and that even after 18 years, Iraq would still be completely unstable, if not a failed state.
I challenged Andrew Neil to invite me back in 18 months so that we could compare notes. He did not.
By 2006, even US troops were telling the BBC that intervention had created a catastrophic mess. In one interview, an officer told Hugh Sykes why they couldn’t withdraw: “We gotta fix what we broke, or we’ll be the laughing stock of the world.”
In December 2011, the last US soldiers abandoned the country, battered and bruised, to its uncertain future.
What did this military exercise, which cost almost 1.5 million Iraqi lives and displaced millions more, achieve?
The claim that Saddam Hussain had weapons of mass destruction, which he intended to use against the West, was discredited before the invasion began.
Among the real reasons was regime change, and that, of course, was achieved; but with it came a disastrous catalogue of unintended consequences.
First of all, Saddam was a tyrant, yes, but a tyrant who presided over a united country, with a good infrastructure and public services for its citizens. The West’s choice, Nouri Al Maliki, who has been prime minister since 2006, has been described as “a worse dictator than Saddam” by his predecessor, Eyad Al Allawi and “tyrannical” by the powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr.
Under Al Maliki, the Iraqi people do not have adequate clean water, electricity or sanitation despite $7 billion (Dh25.69 billion) having been spent on the latter. Like all Middle Eastern dictators, Al Maliki retains power by giving his friends, family, tribesmen and loyalists the cream of commercial contracts. Officials admit that either the commissioned sewers were not installed at all or done very badly. Unemployment stands at 30 per cent, and many of those who have a job will have paid an official to secure it. Bribery is endemic from politicians to prison officers.
Administratively, the country is paralysed because many top managers, appointed through corruption, lack the talent and experience necessary to get the country back on its feet.
Some claim that Iraqis are now free of censorship, but the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists reported that, in 2012, “central government officials used threats, harassment, attacks, and imprisonment to suppress critical news coverage throughout the year”. Journalist Hadi Al Mahdi was assassinated in September 2011, just one of many killed for speaking out.
The coalition which Al Maliki heads is called the ‘Rule of Law’. but that does not, apparently, mean that the law should be obeyed; particularly when it comes to international Human Rights legislation. Critics of the regime or political opponents regularly find themselves falsely imprisoned, without the prospect of a fair trial, in jails where torture and rape are common. ‘Corruption investigations’ are themselves used as a political tool against former friends who have fallen foul of the regime.
Rahir Al Ugaih, the former head of the ‘Integrity Commission’, ostensibly tasked with rooting out corruption, resigned in September 2011 when government officials actively blocked court proceedings he had instigated against certain regime-linked individuals running ‘shell companies’.
Nor are fellow government ministers immune from persecution. The day after the last US soldier left the country, the most senior Sunni in the coalition government, vice-president Tariq Al Hashemi, learned that a warrant for his arrest on charges of ‘terrorism’ had been issued. He fled to the Kurdish regional capital, Arbil, and was sentenced to death in absentia by a court in Baghdad. He now lives in exile in Turkey.
Transparency International produces an annual ‘Corruption Perceptions Index’. In 2003, Iraq was the 63rd most corrupt country out of 176. Ten years after the US intervention it is the seventh most corrupt.
Iraq’s population of 33 million is composed of three main groups: 60 per cent are Shiite, 20 per cent Sunni and 20 per cent Kurdish. The first rumbles of disunity began during the 1990s as US sanctions against Sunni Saddam’s regime began to bite. The US invasion saw Sunni-Salafist Al Qaida enter the country amid the chaos, and it was quick to foment sectarian tensions. In 2006 alone, 30,000 Shiites died in sectarian attacks and communities were torn apart. Those who had been friends and neighbours now lived in mutual distrust and fear.
As people relocated along ethnic or sectarian lines, the country became increasingly compartmentalised and is now divided into three undeclared states: The Kurds in the north, the Shiites in the south and the Sunnis in the centre.
Despite having entered Iraq under the banner of the ‘war on terror’, the US occupation of Iraq provided Al Qaida, which had been virtually destroyed in Afghanistan in 2001, with a rallying call and a new safe haven. Al Qaida and similar groups are now stronger and more widespread than ever, and Al Qaida fighters from Iraq were among the first to enter neighbouring Syria when that uprising began.
Encouraged by the successes of the ongoing rebellion in Syria, Iraq’s own Sunni minority has begun to protest against the Shiite dominated regime. Since December there have been ongoing demonstrations in Anbar Province and Nineveh. Al Qaida elements are actively inciting a full-scale Sunni rebellion and are behind the recent spate of suicide bombs on Shiite targets.
The concept of a government of national unity, representing all groups within Iraqi society, offers the greatest hope for the nation. However, the current model is riven by factionalism and the inability to agree on anything or compromise.
One thing most agree is that Al Maliki should go — his party only polled 24 per cent of seats in the last parliamentary elections — but none can agree on who should replace him.
The US occupation has transformed Iraq from a regional heavyweight to a crippled state and this has wider regional implications. The balance of power between Iraq and Iran, which was tested by the 1980-88 war, ensured that no one power could dominate the region. Now, however, by weakening Iraq and placing at its head politicians who have deep-rooted ties with Iran, America has effectively handed the country over to its own nemesis, Tehran. As a result, Iran is emerging as a hostile regional superpower, overtly opposed to Israel.
I cannot imagine that any of this is what Neil anticipated when he spoke of Iraq becoming the jewel of the Middle East. I was never invited to participate in his show again (despite having been a regular before our disagreement), but if he would like to invite me to review the situation with him now that ten years have elapsed since George W. Bush declared victory, I am more than willing to oblige.
Abdel Bari Atwan is editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi. His latest book is After Bin Laden: Al Qaida, the Next Generation.