Iraq war retrospective

The 9/11 terrorist attacks on US soil were a traumatic experience for the country. The subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, where the attack originated with al Qaeda intent on starting a jihad against the United States, was at the time considered by many countries as an understandable response. But to include Iraq as a target in March 2003 because of some supposed terrorist link between the al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's regime was a difficult sell internationally because there was no real evidence to back it up.

But that would not stop the then-president George Bush and his cabal to sex up the plan to attack Iraq because, perversely, the 9/11 tragedy was too good an opportunity to miss to get rid of Hussein who, it was believed, should have been done with the first time around after his defeat in the first Gulf War in the early 1990s. George Bush's prominent lieutenants Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, vice-president and defence secretary respectively, who were also part of his father Bush senior's administration, were not too happy about this unfinished business. What an achievement it would be for the son, Bush junior, to complete what his father did not or could not do, especially when, according to reports, his father did not regard him as too bright when he was growing up! Besides, as George Bush said at the time about Hussein, he "is the guy who tried to kill my dad." That alone might have been enough to start the Iraq War in 2003. But more work was needed to make a plausible case internationally.

At one time, Hussein's regime was building a nuclear reactor that the Israelis had seen fit to blow up in 1981. After Iraq was virtually destroyed during the first Gulf War and was subjected to one of the most stringent sanctions regime, with a no-fly zone over much of the country, Hussein's Iraq was in no position to revive its nuclear programme. But the Bush regime still managed, with the then British prime minister Tony Blair a faithful follower, to build up a case of sorts that Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that he would unleash on his people and the neighbours. The UN Security Council was approached to approve a resolution for the military invasion of Iraq. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) cautioned against it, as their inspectors had not been able to find any credible evidence that Iraq was headed in that direction. Having failed to get the Security Council's authorisation for invading Iraq, the United States decided to go ahead anyway with, what was called, the 'coalition of the willing' that included US allies, including Australia - no surprises there.

However, after Iraq was run over and still the US could not find even a trace of nuclear activity under Hussein, they had to create some sort of a moral case to invade Iraq. No problem there because Hussein was said to be an evil ruler and the world needed to be rid of such evil. Certainly, Hussein was a despot and a tyrant. But the question that pops up is: why didn't the US act against him when he was doing these monstrous things to his people? There are even suggestions that he got his mustard gas and other nerve agents from the US and other western countries. Indeed, at one time, Hussein was the US's preferred despot during his long and bloody war with Iran in the 1980s with US encouragement and arms.

Another reason for getting rid of Hussein was that it was necessary to create a model democracy in Iraq for the region. The debate in the US at the time in the conservative political establishment had bemoaned the lost decade of the 1990s after the US supposedly had won the Cold War - a questionable thesis, though. It was, therefore, necessary for the US under the Bush administration to establish its leadership of the world as a benign new imperial power with a mission to spread democracy, as the US understood it. The Afghan and Iraq wars provided opportunities to unveil a new US to inspire awe and respect. And it made sense, according to this version, because what was good for the United States was also good for the world. And once this was understood, the Middle East will be secured for the foreseeable future for its oil supplies and for Israel's security with all the countries in the region, including the Palestinians, getting the message that the US reigned supreme with no ifs and buts.

We now know that neither Iraq nor Afghanistan followed this neat script. The US is still mired in Afghanistan with plans to withdraw by end-2014. How this disengagement process will unfold, with what disasters during and after that withdrawal, is anybody's guess. But we know that after years of US military engagement in Iraq, the post-war situation in that country is a horrible mess with ongoing sectarian killings and bombs rocking the country every now and then. The Iraqi Kurds now have their own virtual state, and the Sunnis feel excluded from the new Shia-majority political dispensation. There are divisions and schisms even within the Shia political establishment.

The post-war Iraq that was supposed to become a model democracy for the region is in a state of political flux rocked by brutality and violence. With civil war raging in neighbouring Syria, it is slowly but surely getting drawn into that country's intractable mess. Al Qaeda in Iraq is reportedly helping its counterparts in Syria, and Iran is said to be using Iraqi air space for ferrying arms to Assad's Syria. The US is unhappy with the Iraqi government for allowing its air space for Iranian arms flights to Syria. It is ironic that the United States that went to war to 'save' Iraq is finding that country ending up under its Iranian enemy's political influence.

It will not be surprising if Iraq were to become the next regional flashpoint of Sunni Arab rage (particularly of Saudi Arabia and its allied kingdoms) against Shia Iran, with the US inevitably drawn in on their side, particularly on the nuclear question that will also satisfy Israel. In this sense, the Iraq war might not yet be really over as it has so many sideshows to play out. With 300,000 lives lost and a cumulative cost of four trillion dollars to the US treasury (according a new US study) for the Iraq and Afghan wars, it has been a dark period for the US and terribly destabilising for the region.