A resident rests among debris after Tuesday's bomb attack in Baghdad's Alawi district April 7, 2010. Coordinated bombings across Baghdad destroyed seven buildings and killed at least 35 people on Tuesday, authorities said, fuelling fears of a surge in vio REUTERS / Thaier al-Sudani
Commentary / Middle East & North Africa 8 minutes

Iraq Twenty Years After

The architects of the 2003 invasion of Iraq had grand visions of transforming the Middle East in favour of U.S. interests. Two decades later, it is clear that the venture was a failure not just in that respect, but in most others as well.

Propelled by a group of ideologues known as the neoconservatives, the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq started as a gambit by the George W. Bush administration to re-engineer the Middle East. Though justified as a response to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s supposed involvement in the 11 September 2001 attacks in the U.S., and his alleged possession of capacity to make biological or other weapons of mass destruction, the reported purposes were broader. The war’s architects sought to make the region more friendly to U.S. interests, isolate Iran and, by turning out a member of the “rejectionist” Arab bloc, foist a “Pax Israeliana” on Palestinians – who had again tried, in a second intifada that began in 2000, to shake off Israeli military rule. Other motives were evidently at play as well: to exercise brute force as a way to demonstrate U.S. power after the 9/11 attacks and, for some neoconservatives, to prove that a democratising mission could counter the appeal of radical Islamist movements in the region.

If the venture began in hubris and aspiration, it ended in tears. Its proponents’ unrealistic objectives combined with the law of unintended consequences to expose their ignorance and arrogance. Instead of causing democracy to sprout in the Middle East, the invasion created a security vacuum in the heart of the region. It unleashed an Iran intent on taking revenge for Washington’s backing of the Shah and the Hussein regime’s “imposed war” launched in 1980 to bring down the Islamic Revolution. It fuelled the rise of sectarian discourse, which helped turn political polarisation in Iraq into three years of brutal civil war. It punctured the myth of U.S. military might, leaving the country’s post-Cold War reputation as the sole superpower, one uniquely able to impose its will well beyond its shores, in tatters. It generated a new wave of jihadist groups, culminating in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, which not only exploited the chaos in the invasion’s wake but also deepened it further. The ISIS offensive in 2014 drew U.S. troops back to Iraq years after Washington had tried to wash its hands of the mess it created. Last but hardly least, the 2003 invasion made a mockery of the twin rationales the Bush administration had publicly offered for it: investigators found neither Iraqi weapons of mass destruction nor a link between Hussein’s regime and the 9/11 attacks.

Anatomy of a Failure

Iraq under the rule of Saddam Hussein’s brutal Baath party apparatus and security agencies was a nasty place, yet the joy his downfall brought many Iraqis – Kurds and Islamist Shiites, in particular – quickly faded. The ambivalence became evident very soon after the April 2003 “liberation”, when during a visit to Baghdad I was asked by hopeful denizens, who had welcomed U.S. troops’ arrival, why the soldiers had not restored public order, leaving gangs to ransack government buildings and make off with priceless loot from museums and the national library. These Iraqis found it incomprehensible that the U.S. military would allow such a mess; they interpreted it as malign intent – a conspiracy to advance imperial domination through destruction. The suggestion by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that “freedom’s untidy” did not appease them. They were further enraged by frequent Western media references to the “fall of Baghdad”, which inevitably invoked the Mongol sack of the city in 1258, when it was the centre of the Abbasid Empire and the cultural effervescence of the time, rather than the “fall of the regime”. Their Arab nationalist-inspired anti-invasion sentiments were widely shared in the Middle East, where the deposed regime had enjoyed significant popular support precisely for bucking the perceived U.S. agenda. (Many were unaware of, or closed their eyes to, what was happening inside Hussein’s prisons.)

Twenty years later, it is clear that the invasion was an abject failure in most respects.

Twenty years later, it is clear that the invasion was an abject failure in most respects, due not just to the lack of planning in the enterprise but also to the subsequent series of cock-ups that marked it. The U.S., almost from the get-go, lost the hearts and minds of many of the people it had come to liberate. The latter backed, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, the actions of a small minority who gravitated toward ever more violent resistance to what they correctly termed an “occupation” – a status confirmed by the International Committee of the Red Cross, guardian of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, as well as the U.S. itself. Whatever legal protections this standing afforded Iraqi civilians, it also connoted a level of foreign domination that went down poorly with many of them.

Within weeks, more blunders followed. They started with the installation of a U.S. proconsul, L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer, with sweeping powers and limited knowledge of the country. Then came the disbandment of the army by his hand, even though of all Iraq’s myriad security structures, the army had exhibited the least obvious loyalty to the regime, and had an officer corps that could have been reformed to provide countrywide security.

Another massive misstep was the purge of former Baath party members from the state, a move pushed by the vendetta-driven Shiite Islamist parties that were angling for control. As carried out by the U.S., de-Baathification was indiscriminate, with all officials from the party’s senior layers removed; but it wound up being selective, as the Islamist parties subsequently quietly pardoned many of the Shiite Baathists (except a few who had been regime henchmen) and gave them positions in the new order, but not the Sunnis.

Topping it all off was the creation of a governing structure modelled on Lebanon’s muhasasa system of political representation of ethno-confessional communities by their supposed demographic size. Such an arrangement may encourage consensus-driven politics, but it militates against effective governance: everyone has a seat at the table, but no one can make decisions. It breeds all manner of corruption, as politicians dole out patronage to their constituents, which their counterparts cannot challenge, lest they bring down the entire edifice. Together with the failure to stop the looting, these actions were the occupation’s original sins.

A Tale of Two Themes

The two overarching themes of the past two decades, however, have been, first, how the U.S., in concert with returning exiles, consistently defined Iraq as comprising three main communities – Kurds, Shiites and Sunni Arabs – and relegated the last group, in a single undifferentiated blob, to being the official losers. Iraq became a textbook case of how exclusion – in this case of disempowered Sunnis under what emerged as Shiite Islamist rule – breeds grievance, the accumulation of which can spawn violence.

With the Sunnis out of power, an insurgency led by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) thrived amid the disorder, which the U.S. was unable to remedy and, arguably, uninterested in fixing. Not wishing to be mired in the region one day longer, Washington had largely pulled its troops out by the end of 2011, only to return three years later as ISIS (which sprang from AQI) seized territory in northern Syria and Iraq. Today, ISIS may have been suppressed by military means, but grievance simmers, fed by neglectful governance, political underrepresentation and lack of access to patronage. The populations of Falluja, Ramadi, what remains of Mosul and a host of smaller towns in the west and north west have, in effect, received the blame for all the old regime’s depredations. ISIS remnants, hiding out in rough terrain, carry out local operations while waiting for the day that Baghdad’s power weakens once more.

The U.S. occupation enabled Iran to spread its influence through Iraq ... up to the borders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria

The second leitmotif is how the U.S. occupation enabled Iran to spread its influence through Iraq – via sympathetic political leaders and proxy militias – up to the borders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria, suggesting a belated Iranian victory in the 1980-1988 war. Iran’s fate in that war provides the motive today for its use of Iraq as strategic depth against a mostly hostile Arab world, as well as a settling of scores. Tehran already sensed that constraints on its regional power projection had been fatefully loosened, after the October 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan had dislodged the Taliban, another of its rivals.

Iran’s rise in Iraq and the Middle East more broadly is often attributed to an ascribed aspiration to regional hegemony. It may harbour such ambitions. Yet one could argue with as much justification that Iran proved particularly adept at exploiting favourable conditions that came its way. It helped establish Hizbollah in Lebanon in response to the 1982 Israeli invasion of that country, which hurt not only Palestinian refugees but also the majority-Shiite population. It extended its reach in Iraq thanks to the U.S. invasion. It rushed to the aid of its Syrian ally Bashar al-Assad when the latter’s regime faltered in the face of popular protests and armed insurgency in 2011. Finally, it threw its weight behind the Huthi rebels in Yemen following the botched yet enduring Saudi-Emirati military intervention in 2015. In Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, Iran benefited also from the presence of Shiite Islamist groups keen to ride to domestic power with its help.

To contain Iran will require confronting it with a set of unfavourable local conditions. The reconstitution of Arab states based on popular legitimacy, including in Iraq, would be the most consequential change in this regard. In 2011, eight years after the Iraq invasion, Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Syrians, Yemenis, Bahrainis and others showed what remaking the regional political order could look like if done from the ground up. But beleaguered regimes cracked down fiercely on the protesters in the squares, while regional powers such as Iran, the Gulf Arab states and Türkiye subverted their efforts, especially in Syria. These developments made the outcomes of that hopeful moment throughout the region just as dire as what many Iraqis experienced after 2003, if not more so. Still, ways to achieve more promising governance other than external intervention or domestic insurgency can be imagined, and Iraq, which retains a certain national coherence twenty years after the invasion, may well be able to provide usable ideas, because at least it has had some positive developments as well as a result of the U.S. invasion.

Still Here

Contrary to some observers’ predictions (and, in some cases, even their wish), the invasion did not spell the end of Iraq. The borders proved durable and Iraqi nationalism rebounded despite an initial outburst of sub-national sentiments. (The Kurds succeeded in gaining a greater measure of autonomy, but not the full independence they have long coveted.) Iraqi society came to enjoy a modicum of freedom. The country has a multiparty system for the first time in its history, repeated and relatively fair parliamentary elections, and a free (but easily intimidated) press. Under Iraq’s current set-up, no authoritarian leader can act with unfettered dispatch. But the very weakness of the centre, headed by a corrupt political class incapable of providing even a semblance of good governance, that enabled these important features also gave rise to predatory militias and repeated intrusions by neighbouring Iran and Türkiye.

How these outcomes amount to a discernible benefit to the U.S., despite its great expense in blood and treasure, is anyone’s guess, with the U.S. arms industry and other corporate interests being the only exceptions that are readily imagined. There are those who argued before the war that the Bush administration’s proposed venture was ill-conceived, based on bad information from a small band of Iraqi exiles who had their own narrow agendas. As such, it could never have succeeded, even if the invading and occupying force had been less disastrously incompetent than it turned out to be.

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