x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Beyond the headlines, the Iraq war's legacy is sadness

Never mind the high strategy and the geo-politics: the real cost of the long war in Iraq is the long list of victims of the bloody chaos, Iraqis foremost among them.

In the end, what was it good for? The withdrawal of US troops from Iraq marks the end of one of America's longest wars, and one of its worst. For the United States, the Iraqi occupation was a disaster.

The violations of international norms that gave birth to the war still reverberate; the war devastated an increasingly fragile economy; and the horrors of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib destroyed America's moral view of itself. But it was upon Iraqis that the weight of the past decade has most harshly fallen.

The departure of America brings to an end a war that has defined a region and dominated so much of my career this past decade. The spectre of Iraq, its refugees, its arguments, its legacies, have followed me across the Middle East, to Europe and America, even to Africa and the edges of Indonesia. For precisely 10 years, no month has passed that I haven't spoken about, written about or argued about Iraq.

But at the end of it, at an end that is really a beginning, my instinct takes me to the human side of the invasion, to the millions of people affected, the tens of thousands of people killed and maimed. I've heard the stories of Iraqi mothers clinging to their children as they leave for school, unsure if they would ever return, and of those - so many, too many - who never did. The empty seats at the dinner table and the empty space in family photos. The fiancé looking forward to his wedding, blown apart on the streets of Baghdad. These are fragments of a big story, the story of a country and of a decade, but I can't forget them.

Such stories were the reality of an invasion that was never a celebration of freedom, but a swift, long descent into chaos, created in enormous part by policy disasters by people who should have known better but didn't care to. As American troops left, I tried to think of what good the occupation brought to ordinary Iraqis, and it was hard to think of much. Saddam Hussein may be gone - that is no small thing - but the brutality of his rule has been replaced by near-chaos. For Iraqis, the occupation has brought so little good, an occupation that has been an utter disaster, from controversial start to hasty withdrawal, a disaster personally, politically and morally.

Sometimes it is the mundane that brings home the horror. Using WikiLeaks data, The Guardian created an infographic of all the deaths of Iraqis, with red dots representing dead Iraqis superimposed over a map of the country. (Perhaps nothing shows best the invaders' contempt for Iraqis so much as the utter absence of an official attempt to count the number of Iraqi dead. Every coalition soldier has - rightly - been named, counted and remembered. The Iraqi dead are invisible.)

The map is stark, particularly in Baghdad. No part of the city escaped death. The area around Baghdad University, where young men and women, their lives ahead of them, studied and dated, is speckled with red dots. In the north, around the ancient Mustansiriyya School of the Abbasid era, there are streaks of red. The historical centre, the commercial centre, even parks and recreation grounds, nothing escaped the horrors of the last few years.

For those people, the Iraq occupation has been an unremitting calamity. I wonder if anything can make up for the loss of a brother or sister, a daughter or son. That so many deaths were caused in the name of freedom, rather than during the raw brutality of Saddam Hussein's rule, that they were discounted so easily as collateral damage, that we witnessed the horror and arrogance of people far from the conflict deciding if the invasion was "still worth the price", somehow makes it worse.

Up and down Iraq, thousands upon thousands of children were woken in the middle of the night as the doors of their homes were kicked in by the boots of soldiers. Innocent men were pulled from their beds, tied up and taken.

No one escaped. Not the Muslims, not the Christians, not the Jews, nor the Yazidis, nor the Chaldeans. This was the daily reality for millions and millions of Iraqis. That is no small thing. It is not something easily forgotten, a trauma that will take a long time to heal.

Even those who didn't experience the worst of the worst - exile, the night arrests, the beatings, the torture in dark places far from the eyes of the world - heard about it and knew it could reach them anytime. Security ceased to be a noun and became only a slogan.

What is left in Iraq? What is the legacy of US involvement?

Much will be written about the politics of the beginning and the politics of the end: about the rise of Iran, about the imperial over-reach of America, about the troubles of Iraq's politicians.

But in the end, I fear the lasting legacy will be the horrors inflicted so unnecessarily on the people of the country. A lack of stability, a lack of infrastructure, the fragmentation of a once unified country. Is there more opportunity? Maybe. Is there a better chance for a better Iraq today than in 2002? Hard to say. Even a year ago, maybe, just maybe, it could have been argued that the occupation brought changes that could not otherwise have taken place.

But now, after the winds of change have swept across the Arab World, after Arabs everywhere have stood up and toppled dictators for themselves, it is hard to believe this was the only way.

They is no inevitability to history. The war could have been avoided; the descent into chaos was not the result of one decision, one policy, one person. The failure in Iraq had many fathers.

But as US troops leave Iraq, perhaps they will ponder that it could all have been so different. Iraqis will ponder that too, even as they pick up the pieces of their destroyed nation.



Follow on Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai