From the outset the decision to go to war was contentious. In Europe, the purpose was to tackle the threat of weapons of mass destruction. The US was more explicit in its aim to remove Saddam Hussein. In the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks on 11 September 2001, there were fears that the threat was grave. Millions in cities from London to Japan took to the streets to protest, calling for a diplomatic solution, but the military invasion continued as planned.
Shock and awe were the words used to describe the war’s early stages in March 2003. For days capital city Baghdad was pounded relentlessly as thousands of bombs were dropped from British and American planes. In the first three months, an estimated 35,000 civilians died. There were no weapons of mass destruction, but the war, resisted fiercely by Iraqi militias and insurgents, did not cease. Saddam was captured and hung, while across Iraq gruelling and bloody battles ensued.
US political strategist Joe Trippi remembers the period well. In the build-up to the invasion he was working as national campaign manager for democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, who mounted the only major opposition campaign against the war. Trippi also served as an adviser to Tony Blair in 2005, and has since visited Iraq, where he helped Iraqis organise grassroots political campaigns.
“I still believe the war was a mistake,” he says, speaking over the phone from Maryland in eastern America. “But having done it, it was clear to me that things were not going to go well when we left. One of the problems is that there isn’t any heritage of holding elections – you know, how to organise a party, how to campaign, how to build a political party to build a democracy.”
While in northern Iraq last year – before US troop withdrawals – Trippi witnessed the presence of low level corruption. So long as US representatives were not present at security checkpoints, he noticed it was possible to pay Iraqi police to get through without being searched.
“Being someone who was against the war, against us having troops there, feeling responsibility for what would happen when we left, it was very disconcerting,” he says, adding that the visible presence of US nemesis Iran was equally unsettling. “It was very clear that Iran was trying to exert as much influence as possible... They [the Iranians] were everywhere, much more than any American influence I think, in terms of people on the ground.”
But continued US occupation may have only delayed the inevitable and resulted in more lives lost, Trippi believes. “It became clearer to me that, stay or leave, I feared I had been right. The war had been a blunder from the beginning.”
In the weeks since the final US troops left Iraq, a spate of sectarian violence has left hundreds dead, leading some to suggest that the country could now be on the brink of civil war. Though coalition forces are no longer present in the country, officials who cooperated with them are being targeted. Tensions between regional Sunni, Shia and Kurdish groups continue to rise, and Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has flouted the country’s new constitution by trying to force his deputy, Saleh al-Mutlaq, out of office without the due process stipulated in law.
“Maliki may or may not be deliberately manoeuvring to make himself the new dictator of Iraq but his political instincts are very problematic regardless,” warned Kenneth Pollack, a prominent former US government intelligence analyst, in a recent article for Washington think-tank the Brookings Institution. “He is paranoid and prone to conspiracy theories. He is impatient with democratic politics and frequently interprets political opposition as a personal threat. And when faced with opposition, he often lashes out, seeing it as an exaggerated threat that must be immediately obliterated through any means possible, constitutional or otherwise.”
Last month an arrest warrant was issued for Iraq’s Sunni vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi – a fierce critic of al-Maliki – over allegations he has links to terrorists, prompting him to flee to the Kurdish-controlled north of the country and eliciting a statement of “surprise” from the president, Jalal Talabani. Amid the controversy, the Al-Iraqiya bloc, which represents most of the country’s Sunnis, staged a boycott of parliament, accusing al-Maliki of abusing his position.
The situation is volatile, according to Pollack, who was himself an initial advocate of the 2003 invasion. “The future of Iraq is hanging by a thread, but no one knows whether the thread will break, and if so, where the country will land. Civil war? A new, unstable dictatorship? A failed state? A messy partition? All of these are plausible scenarios and none of them will be happy outcomes for Iraq, for the region, or for the United States for that matter.”
David Siegel, professor of political science at Florida State University, thinks that the fate of the country will depend critically on the government being “sufficiently inclusive” of Iraq’s various minority groups. “Corruption must be minimised,” he says. “It also will depend on the degree to which the Iraqi people are able to maintain patience in the face of inevitable attacks.”
For ordinary Iraqis, over the course of the last nine years, violence has become an almost ever-present feature of everyday life. The departure of all foreign troops from their country will undoubtedly mark a new and historic chapter, and it is significant that a basic democratic framework in the form of an elected government is now established. But the grim reality is that, despite this, the country looks to be more unstable now than before the war began.
“It has already levelled out in a sense – it’s not really getting any better,” says Hamit Dardagan, co-founder of Iraq Body Count (IBC), an organisation that has monitored civilian casualties throughout the Iraq War. “It seems to have settled into this steady background level of violence. The first signs are that it is not going to go away because the US has left, as clearly there’s been a noticeable increase in violence just recently.”
IBC has documented 114,247 civilian casualties in Iraq between 2003-2011, a figure that includes over 3,900 children under the age of 18. A total of 4,802 soldiers – 93 per cent of them American – were also killed during the course of the war. Since US forces left Iraq in the week before Christmas, bombings have continued to be a weekly occurrence – with some of the worst violence in months inflamed by disputes between warring factions.
“Obviously US forces directly won’t be killing anyone anymore, but that doesn’t mean there won’t still be people getting killed because there are attacks going on,” Dardagan says. “The one thing about this is that it’s possible for the United States to bring war to Iraq – but the only people that can bring peace to Iraq is the Iraqis.”
Obama's 'moment of success'
Although it was his predecessor George W. Bush who launched the Iraq War, President Barack Obama inherited it in 2008 when he was elected to the White House. Obama had previously called the conflict a “foreign policy disaster” and said he wanted all troops removed from the country as soon as possible. After coming to power, however, his position changed. The Obama administration had wanted to keep troops in Iraq into 2012, but after negotiations with the Iraqi government fell through – a particular sticking point was the Iraqis’ reluctance to grant American soldiers immunity from prosecution for killing civilians – the troops were pulled out hurriedly at the end of 2011.
Addressing US forces at Fort Bragg in North Carolina on 14 December, Obama said: “It’s harder to end a war than begin one. Indeed, everything that American troops have done in Iraq – all the fighting and all the dying, the bleeding and the building, and the training and the partnering – all of it has led to this moment of success. Now, Iraq is not a perfect place. It has many challenges ahead. But we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.”
For and against
There are strongly contrasting opinions about the Iraq War and its consequences. For former US marine Brian Bresnahan, who served in Iraq, it was an overwhelming success.
“In our wake we leave a free nation with democratically elected leaders free from the brutal oppression and torture of a tyrannical dictator,” Bresnahan wrote in a US newspaper. “Though the Iraqis face the challenges of building a representative democracy, they now have freedom like they’d not known before.”
Critics of the war point to the high number of civilian casualties and reported human rights abuses – such as the torture of Iraqi inmates at US run Abu Ghraib prison – as examples of why it was a failure.
“There is no victory and no victors in the war,” says Iraqi-born political analyst Raed Jarrar. “Except for a few war profiteers, everyone has lost... Iraq is far from having a functional democratic government. It is the fourth most corrupt country in the world, according to Transparency International.
“Withdrawal is great news for the millions of Iraqis and Americans who have opposed this war all along. But ending the occupation does not end the US’s moral and legal obligations to compensate Iraq and Iraqis for the crimes and mistakes committed.”
This article first appeared in issue no.910 of The Big Issue in the North.