It is a bleak anniversary. Five years have passed since the US-led invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein’s edifice of tyranny in Baghdad, but there is still little hope of a stable and prosperous future for Iraq. The architects and advocates of the war were adamant that the results would vindicate the military action. Yet telltale signs of the folly of the invasion and the miseries it has caused the Iraqis are everywhere. If anything, Iraq has been pushed back deeper into the Dark Ages, and Iraqis have found themselves leaving one nightmare only to be thrown into another.
For those enchanted by figures, the numbers paint a chilling picture of the costs of US president George W. Bush’s misadventure in Iraq. By conservative estimates, anything between 150,000 and 600,000 Iraqis have lost their lives to the whirlpool of violence and bloodshed engulfing the country since the invasion; some sources put the number at more than a million. At the height of the civil strife between Sunnis and Shi‘as that followed the bombing of the ‘Askariyyah shrine in Samarra, about a hundred Iraqis were meeting a violent death every day. Suicide bombings that target civilians have cost the lives of as many as 13,000 Iraqis; such incidents continue with reckless abandon. More than 2.5 million Iraqis have fled the country and become refugees; the violence has also forced another two million to become internally displaced.
Not only has Iraq’s social fabric been shattered by civil strife, nihilistic violence, rabid sectarianism and widening ethnic and tribal divisions, but the Iraqis’ living conditions have seen little improvement. Iraq, though it is rich in natural resources, has been reduced to poverty, deprivation and want; its officials roam the world, can in hand, begging donors for aid. A recent report by the International Committee of the Red Cross says that 40 percent of Iraqis are eking out a living on less than a dollar a day, which is the UN threshold for extreme poverty. The report further notes that most of the population has no access to clean water, proper sanitation and reliable electrical power. Only 19 percent of Iraqis have access to a good sewage system, 32 percent have access to safe clean water, and 25 percent are dependent on UN food rations. There is only an average of eight hours of electricity a day in the capital, Baghdad, and less than ten for the rest of the country. Even more disconcerting is the collapse of the healthcare and educational systems because of the exodus of skilled professionals, lack of proper equipment, and shortage of medications and other supplies. This gloomy picture is of a country that one of the leading advocates of the war, a former US deputy secretary of defenses, had averred “can really finance its own reconstruction.”
In a similar vein Amnesty International reports pervasive abuses involving police and security officials who have been reliably implicated in widespread acts of torture, kidnapping and murder. The one high-profile prosecution of two senior health-ministry officials, former deputy health minister Hakem al-Zamili and former chief of the ministry’s security Major Hamid al-Shummari, collapsed in February after the charges of kidnapping, extrajudicial killing and corruption against them were dropped. It is widely believed that key prosecution witnesses were threatened and intimidated into withdrawing their testimonies. This abysmal human-rights record is compounded by the lack of transparency in government, which breeds rampant corruption. A report prepared last summer by US advisors to Iraq’s anti-corruption agency stated: “Corruption protected by senior members of the Iraqi government remains untouchable.” It pointed an accusing finger at the office of prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, saying: “the prime minister’s office has on a number of occasions intervened on cases involving political supporters.”
For the US, the costs of war have been exorbitant, and Iraq is now a nightmare for American troops. By laying bare the limits of raw military might, the Iraq war has shattered America’s arrogance and hubris. About 4,000 US soldiers have so far been killed and another 30,000 injured. In terms of money, recent figures are that US tax-payers will have footed a $607-billion bill for war expenses by September this year, though most of this money is still within the US economy. Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel-prize-winning economist, has estimated that the total, long-term, direct and indirect, costs have passed the $3 trillion mark, and are still increasing. The figure takes into account the costs of specialised medical care and disability stipends for injured veterans for the rest of their lives. Ultimately, the costs of the war have contributed to the US’s staggering debt, which is now more than $9 trillion.
For decades historians will debates whether this is an acceptable cost for ending Saddam’s brutal rule. But one thing is certain: post-Saddam Iraq is not the beacon of freedom and democracy that the architects of the war had claimed it would be. Nor does it provide any inspiration to neighbouring countries or the Middle East in general. If anything, the flawed democracy foisted on Iraq inspires horror, dread and revulsion. Aside from the merits of unseating a dictator and toppling a tyrannical regime, the morality of the war has been undermined from the very beginning by the fact that it was launched under two false pretenses: that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and that Baghdad had ties to Usama bin Laden and al-Qa’ida.
Worse still, the war was begun on the misguided assumption that the Iraqis, who had been reeling under sanctions and a repressive regime, would welcome foreign occupation with open arms. In the words of US vice-president Dick Cheney, “the streets of Baghdad are sure to erupt in joy”; Republican senator and presidential hopeful John McCain assured the world that “the Iraqi people will greet us as liberators.” Subsequent events have proven that these flights of fancy were born out of gross ignorance of Iraqi history. In 1917, when British troops conquered Baghdad, British commander Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Stanley Maude issued the Proclamation of Baghdad, which assured Iraqis: “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.” Yet in 1920, some three years later, a ferocious armed revolt engulfed tribal areas in central and south-central Iraq.
It is true that some progress has been made over the past year. The US “troop surge” which started in February 2007 has led to some tactical military results. According to figures released by American military commanders, violence in Iraq has ebbed by some 60 percent. The significance of these figures should not be exaggerated, as the current violence is still at 2005 levels, which were shocking. The policy of agreeing local ceasefires with former insurgent groups, and providing them with financial and material support to fight the al-Qa’ida Organisation in Iraq and refrain from attacking American and Iraqi troops, has been a notable success. These moves were by-products of the bottom-up rather than top-down counter-insurgency vision propounded by General David Petraeus, the commander of US forces in Iraq.
However, a closer look reveals the potentially fleeting nature of this progress. Massive uncertainties throw a thick pall of doubt on the durability of these achievements. The sustainability of the progress depends on success in addressing a number of fundamental issues related to national reconciliation, distribution of oil-revenues, and political compromises that will determine the future of the country. The predominantly Shi‘a government of Nuri al-Maliki is still reluctant to empower Iraq’s Sunni community, which has played a disproportionate political role in the modern history of the country, and has been sulking in the belief that the political processes of post-Saddam Iraq treat Sunnis unfairly. US officers have promised Sunni Arab insurgents and tribesmen who turn against al-Qa’ida that they will be incorporated into Iraq’s security forces. That has been happening so slowly that it is creating bitterness and resentment. Two recently enacted laws, reversing “de-Ba’athification” and offering amnesties to former insurgents, have been worded so vaguely that the predominantly Shi‘a government can limit the scope of their application. The new provincial elections that Sunni Arabs and many Shi‘as, especially the Sadrists, have been demanding for some than two years now have once again been postponed. The law on these elections was recently passed by parliament, only to be vetoed by vice president ‘Adel ‘Abd al-Mahdi, whose party, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council headed by ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Hakim, dominates most provincial councils in the southern provinces and prefers to avoid taking any new chances at the polls. In an atmosphere charged with sectarian passions, in which Sunni Arabs and the Shi‘a opponents of Maliki’s ruling coalition place little (if any) trust in the goodwill and fairness of the government, this state of affairs is a recipe for future conflict.
Without a grand political bargain that resolves these issues, it is highly unlikely that the local ceasefires and reduction of Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence can be maintained for long once the reduction of US troops on the ground begins. Conceivably, the Awakening (Sahwa) Councils, Support (Isnad) Council, and Concerned Local Citizens will turn their US-supplied weapons on the militia-infested Iraqi government security forces. Distrust between these insurgent-cum-paramilitary formations and the Iraqi government is still strong. Durable concord between the two sides remains elusive, as shown by recent events in the province of Diyala, to the north-east of Baghdad, where thousands of Concerned Local Citizens have stopped working, closed their offices and staged street rallies to protest sectarian-inspired activities of the local police force and Ghanim al-Qurayshi, its chief lieutenant general. Little wonder that General Petraeus, who recommended the surge, has been warning against a fast-paced troop-reduction because of the fragility of the security gains that have been achieve so far. Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, US ambassador to Iraq, are scheduled to submit a joint report to, and testify before, Congress in mid-April.
Five years on, with no end in sight, Iraq finds itself ensnared in a catch-22 situation. The vicious cycle of violence unleashed by the presence of foreign troops has brought Iraq to the edge of inter-communal catastrophe. All the evidence indicates that the departure of these troops is unlikely to bring Iraq any sort of peace. This is just one of the many difficulties that Iraqis continue to find themselves mired in five years after the fall of Saddam. There is no knowing how many more half-decades must pass before Iraq’s Islamic activists and groups pull themselves together and cut the Gordian knots that entangle their country and their people.