US withdrawal leaves Iraqi society in a shambles


ANALYSIS:THE FLAG of US forces in Iraq was yesterday lowered to mark the withdrawal of combat troops nearly nine years after the US invasion and occupation of that country. The occasion was low key, the departure of troops has been surreptitious.

When the Bush administration invaded Iraq in March 2003, US officials correctly expected the early ousting of the Baathist regime but nothing else went according to plan. Instead of adhering to Washington’s design by becoming a stable, peaceful country and a model for the region, Iraq collapsed into anarchy and chaos once the US disbanded the armed forces, police and civil service. Promising unity, Washington installed in power communalist exiles who divided the country into hostile Shia-Sunni and Arab-Kurd camps. Tens of thousands of Iraqis died and hundreds of thousands were displaced in sectarian bloodletting between 2006 and 2007.

Washington pledged democracy but Iraqis are ruled by prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shia fundamentalist and Iranian client, who permits no challenges to his authority. The Bush administration proclaimed that the Iraq enterprise would be self-financing, paid for by Iraqi oil sales. However, crude production fell and export revenues plummeted, forcing Washington to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in its Iraq adventure.

Contrary to Bush administration expectations, the US will retain no strategic military bases in Iraq. Consequently, US defence secretary Leon Panetta did not declare victory when he attended ceremonies ending the US deployment. “To be sure the cost was high – in blood and treasure for the United States and for the Iraqi people. But those lives were not lost in vain – they gave birth to an independent, free and sovereign Iraq,” he said.

Iraq, however, is not independent, free or sovereign. Iraq’s government remains dependent on Washington and its regional rival in Tehran. It has no frontier force, navy or airforce. Neither police nor army, now 800,000 strong, can ensure security or provide protection from external attack or meddling.

Seventy-five per cent of US citizens do not believe the mission has been worth the “blood and treasure” and are happy to see their forces return home. Some 4,500 US troops have been killed, 30,000 injured and a trillion dollars spent on the campaign.

A majority of Iraqis are celebrating the US pull-out. US flags were burnt in the town of Falluja, a symbol of resistance to the US occupation, devastated by US forces in 2004.

Iraq’s post-invasion fatalities are estimated to be between 150,000 and 400,000; more than 2.5 million Iraqis, notably professionals and educated people, have fled the country; half of Iraq’s Christians have left; and 1.3 million Iraqis are displaced within the country. Seven million out of 30 million Iraqis live below the poverty line. The number of Iraqis still being killed by regular bombings and shootings is high – the toll for last month was 187.

Iraq’s future is far from being secure. On the domestic front, attacks on local government offices and security installations continue. Shia militias target Sunnis who helped US forces defeat an al-Qaeda that could make a comeback. Conflict could erupt in the north between Arabs and Kurds determined to annex to their semi-autonomous region large tracts of land belonging to neighbouring Arab majority provinces.

Iraq’s economy is stagnant. Critical of Baghdad’s inept and graft-ridden rule, provinces in both north and south seek autonomy. Politicians elected to office in the 2010 parliamentary election are squabbling and cannot pass legislation. Protests against the regime have been suppressed, critics arrested and murdered. Iraq is rated seventh most corrupt on a listing of 182 countries drawn up by Transparency International.

On the regional level, Iraq is caught between the US, which retains major military facilities in nearby Qatar and Bahrain, and Iran which is determined to exploit its ties to dominant Iraqi Shia fundamentalists. Tehran seeks political and economic advantages and to draw Iraq into Iran’s sphere of influence.

Iraq’s government could very well demand Iranian protection if unrest persists in neighbouring Syria. Iraqis fear both Syrian sectarian conflict, which could spill over the border into their country, and the rise in Damascus of hardline Sunni elements who could challenge Shia rule in Iraq.