Iraq five years later

2008-03-20 00:00

It is five years since U.S. President George W. Bush launched the invasion of Iraq (March 20). Can Iraq emerge from this ordeal as a place where people lead reasonably safe and happy lives?

The American troops will leave eventually, and probably quite soon, but that is unlikely to be followed by an orgy of violence. The civil war has already happened and most formerly mixed neighbourhoods and villages are now exclusively Shia or Sunni. That, as much as the “surge” in American troop numbers, is why the civilian death toll has dropped significantly over the past year.

Between four and five million Iraqis have fled their homes (out of a population of less than 30 million), and most of them will never be able to return to those homes. But half of them are still in Iraq and most of the rest are in neighbouring countries and will ultimately have to return. They will eventually find somewhere safe to live and they will start to rebuild their lives.

With oil at over $100 a barrel, Iraq certainly has the money to rebuild, even if oil production has not yet recovered to the pre-invasion level. And there is now a kind of democracy in Iraq, although it is heavily distorted by sectarian and ethnic rivalries — not all that different from Lebanon’s democracy, in fact.

There is little chance of another strongman like Saddam Hussein seizing power in Iraq, because power is now so widely distributed among the different factions and militias. Iraqi democracy may even survive the departure of the American troops.

So was it all worthwhile, in the end? That is a different question, because the implicit comparison is between the future of the country as it is now and the conditions that reigned five years ago when Saddam was still in charge. Even that comparison yields an ambiguous answer, for Saddam’s Iraq was a secular society where people were safe unless they trespassed into politics, and women enjoyed an unusual degree of personal freedom. But it is also the wrong comparison.

This was the trick that the old Soviet Union played endlessly, comparing the wonders achieved under communism with the horrors of poverty and oppression under the Tsars — as if Russia would have stayed forever frozen in 1917 if the Bolshevik revolution had not happened. The Chinese communist regime plays the same game now, pretending that it would still be 1948 in the country if they had not seized power. It’s utter nonsense and that applies to Iraq, too.

Saddam was only executed a year ago, so he probably would still be in power today if the United States had not invaded Iraq, but he was not going to live forever. It’s not possible to know what would have followed him had he stayed in power and died a natural death, but would it have involved hundreds of thousands of Iraqis tortured, shot or blown up? Would it have led to the permanent alienation of Sunnis and Shias? Probably not.

In the meantime, Saddam posed no serious threat to his neighbours, as his army was largely destroyed in the first Gulf War of 1991 and never rebuilt (due to sanctions). He posed no danger at all to the U.S., since he had absolutely nothing to do with al-Qaeda (as was confirmed by a recently released Pentagon study of more than 600 000 Iraqi documents captured after the U.S. invasion).

The number of Iraqis who were tortured and murdered by Saddam’s security forces in the average year was in the thousands, no more than the monthly civilian death toll from sectarian violence in recent years.

Occasionally, when there were uprisings against his rule, Saddam killed far more people, but the last time that happened was in 1991. Nine-tenths or more of the Iraqis who have been killed in the horrors of the past five years would probably still be alive if Saddam was still in power. So would 4 000 American soldiers.

The real question is what will Iraq be like 20 years from now, and what would it have been like in 20 years if the U.S. had not invaded? But it can never be answered, because that alternative future was cancelled by the invasion.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries. His new book, After Iraq, has just been published in London by Yale University Press.

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