By Arab News
By Osama Al Sharif
One of the most controversial wars in recent history may have come to an end with the last batch of US troops in Iraq leaving for good nine years after President George W. Bush orchestrated a full-scale military invasion of that country.
About 4000 US soldiers perished in that war, many more were injured or maimed, but the true brunt of the occupation was borne by the Iraqi people. More than 100, 000 Iraqis, mostly civilians, lost their lives as a direct result of the Anglo-American occupation.
This costly and unpopular war may have ended for the US, but the same cannot be said of Iraq, whose future and integrity as a country are in doubt. In reality there is nothing to be proud of by the Americans who have destroyed most of the country and failed to rebuild it. Iraq remains one of the most unstable and dangerous places on earth. It is a country where sectarian violence, suicide bombings, rampant corruption, lawlessness and internal divisions have become part of daily life for millions of Iraqis.
But while US military presence has ended, the responsibility of maintaining ties with Iraq has been transferred to the State Dept. At least 16000 US personnel, mostly contractors, trainers and security, remain in the American embassy in Baghdad and two consulates in the south and north. Even with 1700 diplomats it is the largest foreign mission in the world. The size of US diplomatic presence reflects America’s concern about its future relationship with Iraq. At one point US troops administered 505 military bases across the country. It is difficult to understand what the US goals and objectives were, how they have changed and what they have become today.
The US withdrawal from Iraq is part of a general draw down of troops which includes Afghanistan, where thousands of American soldiers will begin to go home by mid next year. There the Americans too have failed to rebuild the country or bring peace to it. The repercussions of those two misadventures will haunt the people of the region for many years to come.
But it is impossible to consider the future of post occupation Iraq without looking at what is happening in the entire region. The invasion of Iraq remains one of the most devastating geopolitical earthquakes in the Middle East. It has disturbed a fragile political landscape by forcibly toppling an Arab leader, unleashing destructive forces in the form of Al Qaeda and sectarian militias, empowering Iran to play a decisive role in Iraq’s future and triggering a process of the slow disintegration of that country. Whether the Americans did that on purpose or not is irrelevant. The reality is that Iraq’s survival has never been in doubt as it is today. And the fact that its breakup will affect the stability of the entire Gulf region is an understatement.
When American politicians talk about Iraq they inevitably praise the fact that it was they who liberated the country from a mad despot and brought democracy to the Iraqis. No one regrets the fact that the war was launched under false pretences and that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis lost their lives as a result. Iraq’s democracy is a showoff; a circus where sectarian discord has become institutionalized. It is also transitional. Democracy in Iraq is yet to rid that country of massive corruption and graft, a permanent state of lawlessness, sectarian and ethnic divisions and terrorism among many others.
The big question now is will the US return to Iraq if that country collapses? US troops remain close by in bases in Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar. Iraq’s close political ties with Iran, through Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki and others like Muqtada Al Sadr, will feature in any future confrontation between Tehran, on the one hand, and Washington or Tel Aviv or both, on the other. Now that US troops have left some observers believe this will give Israel the window of opportunity it was looking for to launch a pre-emptive attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
But even without a new regional crisis, Iraqis are weary of a number of potential domestic conflicts including separatist movements by the Kurds in the north and in most Sunni governorates. The specter of a civil war is not farfetched if sectarian and ethnic violence spills over.
America’s celebration of the war’s end may prove to be premature. Iraq’s problems are only beginning and they will affect the entire region; from Turkey to the Gulf, and from Iran to Pakistan. A troubled America, which is battling economic malaise and facing acute cuts in military spending, will soon be challenged again in Iraq. It is only a matter of time before the ghost of Iraq will reappear in Washington.
This will happen at a time when the US faces more challenges in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan in addition to the emerging new realities of the Arab Spring. America’s invasion of Iraq has freed many demons and while it is easy to pretend that the war is over, the fact of the matter is that it will take many years for that conflict to come to a final closure!
— Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.