When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, its chest was swelled with self-confidence: A new democratic state would rise and prosper once Saddan was ousted. Nine years later, we know how unfounded that optimism was. The future of Iraq will not be controlled from Washington but by the sectarian forces unleashed after the invasion.
In invading Iraq in March 2003, the United States intended to create a tabula rasa on which it could erect a new state, friendly to US interests, a reliable buffer against Iran, an investment paradise especially in the energy sector, and equipped to set off a democratic domino effect throughout an autocratic neighbourhood. However, in ignoring and failing to grasp the nature of Iraqi society, with its deep fractures, bottled-up grievances, and a political command culture inculcated by decades of tyrannical rule, the administration of George W. Bush accomplished something quite different.
It created a political, managerial and security void that was filled by militias with competing agendas and by former-exile politicians who were distrusted and resented by ordinary Iraqis. It unleashed countervailing social forces that engendered extreme ethno-sectarian polarisation and civil war. And after it finally took action to reduce violence, it established a political system that invited all political actors around the table in a dysfunctional national unity government, which could barely see beyond each group’s partisan interests, was defined more by what divided them than what brought them together, and utterly failed to govern.
Yes, the Bush Administration removed a nasty regime and organised relatively free elections. Many Iraqis thank it for both these feats but wish it had not made all the mistakes that ended up making their lives miserable, giving rise to endemic insecurity, an uncertain power supply, severely frayed inter-communal relations, and rule by a central government unresponsive to their needs.
After a few years of managing Iraqi affairs in a disinterested and scattershot fashion, Bush decided to put a time horizon on the US military presence. He sent his diplomats to negotiate a troop withdrawal agreement, which his successor, Barack Obama, who had campaigned on an anti-war platform and was keen to relieve the Iraq war’s severe stress on the US budget and military, implemented to the letter.
Whatever the US’s original hopes for the emergence of a flourishing democracy might have been, it is clear, now that the last US soldiers have gone home, that the best it could realistically expect is something far less: an Iraq without a unifying identity, propelled by a fraught political process, producing a fragile stability that could falter at any point.
The first signs of it appeared the moment the last departing troops closed the door on this madcap adventure in late December: In a pre-emptive move against his rivals – also his governing partners – Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, an Islamist Shiite, accused Vice President Tareq al-Hashimi, an Islamist Sunni, of carrying out assassinations as part of a plot against the new order. As both Hashimi and Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlak, a secular Sunni, fled to the safety of the Kurdish north, the so-called national unity government began to unravel and currently is hanging by a thread.
Just before Christmas, the Obama administration rushed its top guns to Baghdad – CIA Director David Petraeus and General Ray Odierno, both former commanders of US forces in Iraq – to calm the situation and get the politicians back to the table. Yet US leverage is much reduced, and it has become crystal clear that Iraq’s future will be determined less by anything Washington does than by the naked power of the ethno-sectarian forces it unleashed in its thoughtless, reckless thrust into the unknown almost nine years ago.
Joost Hiltermann is the Middle East Deputy Program Director at the International Crisis Group.
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