Iraq Fifth Anniversary

18 March 2008

Iraq Fifth Anniversary

 By Gwynne Dyer

It is five years since President George W. Bush launched the invasion of Iraq (20 March). 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 thirty 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.

It sounds callous to talk this way when so many have suffered so much, but after every war there is a return to normality. It may be a new normality where some of the things that used to be possible, like freedom of movement and equal opportunities for women, are no longer available, but the danger level drops and everyday concerns replace the obsession with mere survival. The best analogy is the aftermath of the Lebanese civil war.

Lebanon’s tragedy was largely self-inflicted, and the various sects had more clearly defined identities before the war began, but it is what happened after the shooting stopped there in 1990 that concerns us. Most of the refugees found somewhere to live, the shattered buildings were rebuilt or replaced, and within ten years a reasonably healthy economy emerged from the ruins.

With oil at over a hundred dollars 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 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 Hussein 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 United States, 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 US 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 four thousand American soldiers.

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


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“It sounds…ruins”)