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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Iraq: A war of delusion sold on a false premise

'The first mistake was to invade. The second was to believe it was going to be easy.'

President George W Bush declares the end of major combat in Iraq aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the California coast on May 1, 2003. J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo
President George W Bush declares the end of major combat in Iraq aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the California coast on May 1, 2003. J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo

Iraq remains a subject of vicious disagreement 15 years after George W Bush and Tony Blair decided to remove Saddam Hussein and, in their eyes, reshape the Middle East.

In the most basic sense, they succeeded. A dictator was quickly toppled, along with his statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. By all other measures borne over time the US and British invasion and occupation was a misbegotten military exercise with no end date. The Middle East has changed; just not in the way Mr Bush or Mr Blair intended.

For all the speeches about the merits of a democratic Iraq it is essential to remember that better governance was not the reason given for the invasion. Instead, it became the last plausible excuse when no weapons of mass destruction were found.

Some had no choice but to back the war out of a sense of duty to political masters. Many others, however, did so on account of ideological zeal, mendacity and overconfidence.

While president Bush would declare aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln that major military operations had ended, three weeks after Saddam’s statue had fallen on April 9, 2003, his words bore a deeper message that US military power could conquer all.

“Operation Iraqi Freedom was carried out with a combination of precision and speed and boldness the enemy did not expect and the world had not seen before,” he told the assembled sailors, and television viewers.

“You have shown the world the skill and the might of the American armed forces.”

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Fifteen years after Saddam fell, where does Iraq stand now?

Beyond the Headlines Podcast: Saddam Hussein's downfall, 15 years on

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It is not possible to know what Lincoln would have made of such salesmanship, conducted below a Mission Accomplished banner. But it is undoubted that the democracy that replaced a despot was not the government of the people, by the people, for the people that the 16th president of the United States professed as a model to be proud of.

Iraqis instead got Paul Bremer, who had left the US diplomatic service in 1989. It says a lot about the misadventure Iraq would become that a man from the private sector would be chosen to head the Coalition Provisional Authority of Iraq rather than a serving diplomat.

With his desert boots, dark glasses and renown for not listening to anybody, Mr Bremer was permitted to rule Iraq by decree. This he did by immediately banning the Baath Party in any form and, fatefully, disbanding the Iraqi Army. No orders that Mr Bremer would later issue are thought to have been more responsible for creating the conditions for the maelstrom Iraq would become.

Overnight, millions lost their jobs in the institutions of Saddam’s government. Many thousands of them were military men with access to weapons. An Interim Governing Council was chosen from a list of Iraqi groups and individuals that had supported the invasion. Mr Bremer retained the power to veto any decision made by those he had hand-picked. All along he conveyed an image of the occupier, a figurehead unacquainted with a complicated region, combined with a transparent lack of cultural sensitivity. If the potential for discord was not discernible then, it at least is understood now.

“Nobody really knew what they were doing,” is the assessment of Christopher Hill, who later would become the US ambassador to Iraq, of the initial American attempt to move toward civilian rule.

The lack of security planning became plain through the consequences of decisions made by Mr Bremer’s CPA. Government offices, apart from the oil ministry, were looted because the men paid to guard them had been sacked.

Iraqis watch a statue of President Saddam Hussein falling in Baghdad's Al Fardous (paradise) square on April 9, 2003. Patrick Baz / AFP Photo
Iraqis watch a statue of President Saddam Hussein falling in Baghdad's Al Fardous (paradise) square on April 9, 2003. Patrick Baz / AFP Photo

The meltdown of institutions that would lead to a sectarian insurgency remains manifest in the corruption that pervades Iraq today. One dictator was replaced by many little ones. Fortunes — both personal and political — depend on a system of patronage rather than competence. What has emerged from the shadow of one-man rule is a brutalised political environment where power is treated as a zero-sum game whether the players are Shiite, Sunni or Kurd. Factional advantage is pursued over national interest. The long-term survival of a unitary state remains in doubt, given the desire of Kurdish leaders to become independent despite a bungled referendum last year.

Whether by naivety or negligence, the invasion of Iraq broke a country that had already been on life support for decades. When the euphoria of toppling Saddam was replaced by the horror of burned American corpses hanging from bridges the need for an exit became overwhelming.

Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency having pledged to withdraw from Iraq, matching the American public mood. It was his administration that chose Mr Hill to serve in Baghdad between 2009 and 2010. By this time Iraq was also changing.

When the government of Nouri Al Maliki, the prime minister eventually backed by Mr Obama, was threatened by ISIL in 2014 it was largely because of decisions that the former had made. American forces — not wanted by Iraq’s leaders, and threatened by militias close to some government figures — had long gone.

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In sadness or anger, Iraq is a country many do not want to go back to

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It is perhaps a sign of how bleak Iraq’s prospects have become that the emergence of ISIL and subsequent replacement of Mr Al Maliki, who had sacked competent generals and replaced them with placemen only to see his forces melt, is seen as a first step that the nation’s democracy may be maturing.

“The key ingredient is time and that is what we had least of,” said Mr Hill of the Obama administration’s rush to leave, arguing that the fact that Iraq’s elite was prepared to ditch a prime minister is proof of progress.

“It says things are getting better. Fifteen years in, we are going to see where this can go.”

Other experienced Washington figures say the lessons of Iraq are deeper, if unacknowledged politically.

The limits of military power have been proven. What has not is the ability of the United States to shape the Middle East, according to James Dobbins, a former ambassador who served the administrations of Mr Obama, George W Bush and Bill Clinton.

“The first mistake was to invade Iraq on an erroneous rationale. The second was to believe it was going to be easy,” he said.