The legacy of seven years in Iraq


Has anything good come out of the occupation of Iraq? In the week that President Obama formally declared an end to the US combat mission there, commentators are starting to count the final cost of George Bush’s nation-building project, writes LARA MARLOWE, Washington Corresponent

THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION gave four justifications for its invasion of Iraq: Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons; Iraq was involved in the atrocities of September 11th 2001; Saddam’s overthrow would lead to a flowering of democracy throughout the Arab world; and the Iraqi people were suffering and deserved to be liberated.

The first three reasons proved fraudulent, so the argument that Iraq had to be invaded on humanitarian grounds became the most compelling. In the week that President Barack Obama declared US combat operations in Iraq to be over, it provided the only rationale for an occupation that led to chaos and slaughter on a scale no one had imagined.

If the people of Iraq are better off in 2010 than they were in 2003, so the argument goes,then perhaps the war was worth it.

Whether one agrees with this or not usually depends on whether one supported or opposed the invasion. The conservative view was expressed by David Brooks in an opinion piece entitled “Nation Building Works” in the New York Times this week. In an article packed with statistics, Brooks gloated over what he sees as Iraq’s thriving economy.

Prof Juan Cole, of the University of Michigan, is representative of liberals who opposed the war. “Iraq has been put through the gates of hell,” he says. “The US invasion didn’t cause everything in a direct way, but it set off everything that happened. It’s a wounded society . . . Brooks’s faith in nation building, based on statistics, is typical of American positivism, but doesn’t reflect reality.”


Were Iraqis safer under Saddam Hussein? In the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of men were sent to die in Saddam’s war with Iran. Kurds and Shia Muslims were massacred in the 1980s and in the repression that followed the 1991 Gulf War. But after the US imposed no-fly zones and “kept Saddam in his box” – in the words of then secretary of state Madeleine Albright – the Iraqi police state was safe for those who avoided politics.

“If your number-one goal was to put your head down and stay out of trouble and lead a quiet life, you were better off then,” says Michael O’Hanlon, of the Washington-based think tank, the Brookings Institution. “Today’s Iraq remains difficult, unsettled and dangerous compared to the 1990s.”

O’Hanlon believes that Saddam killed three-quarters of a million of his own citizens, and that between 100,000 and 150,000 Iraqis died violent deaths during the US occupation. Other estimates, notably a study published by medical journal the Lancet, in 2006, calculate that as many as 655,000 Iraqi civilians were killed. Some four million people were internally displaced or fled abroad to escape war.

The violence peaked in 2006, when according to the Iraq Index compiled at Brookings under O’Hanlon’s supervision, 34,500 Iraqi civilians were killed. That figure dropped to 3,000 last year. The US government says between 200 and 300 Iraqi civilians are still being killed each month, though the Iraqi government says twice that many continue to die in political violence.

“There were bodies lying in the street every morning, and no one dared move them because they might be booby-trapped,” says Mina Al-Oraibi, an Iraqi who is Washington correspondent of newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat. “Over the last couple of years, that ended, but everybody I know has lost a loved one.”


Under US occupation, Iraqis gained freedom of expression, freedom to vote, to demonstrate and to stand for public office, to an extent never dreamed of under Saddam. In 2005, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Iraq the fourth freest country in the Middle East, after Israel, Lebanon and Morocco.

But, cautions Prof Cole, “a lot of Iraq’s new freedoms exist on paper”. For example, “you couldn’t travel before because you couldn’t get permission from the secret police. And you can’t travel now because you’re afraid you’ll be robbed on the journey.”

It is extremely difficult for Iraqis to obtain visas to travel abroad, so freedom of movement is relative, says Amjad Saeed, a university-trained interpreter who left Baghdad in January and now delivers pizzas in Virginia. According to Saeed, the appearance of freedom must not be equated with western democracy. In the wake of the invasion, US administrator Paul Bremer gave out government jobs along sectarian lines, and Shia, Sunni and Kurds treat government ministries as fiefdoms, which officials are loathe to leave.

US vice-president Joe Biden claims that Iraq’s inability to form a government six months after parliamentary elections proves that “politics is breaking out” in Iraq.

“Politicians are not killing each other, like they were a few years ago,” says Stephanie Sanok, senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “They’re negotiating with each other.”

“Removing Saddam Hussein can only be good for the long term,” says journalist Mina Al-Oraibi, “but the political system is dysfunctional and we are suffering from it.”


Transparency International last year ranked Iraq the fourth most corrupt country in the world. Iraqis tell of policemen demanding $25 bribes from motorists caught without seatbelts. Prof Cole, meanwhile, cites the system of political patronage – for example, a Shia friend of his from Najaf told him it was impossible to enroll in university if one did not belong to the right Shia party.

Sanok, of CSIS, says that fighting corruption in Iraq “is like trying to turn an aircraft carrier”. The flood of international assistance “feeds into a culture that I might see as corrupt but others might just call doing business”. Contractors subcontract to subcontractors who subcontract in turn – it is a system where a host of middlemen skim off commissions “and you end up with a $100,000 school that cost $1 million”.


According to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, Iraq’s GDP tripled between 2002 and 2008, the sort of statistic that cheerleaders for the invasion point to as proof it was beneficial. David Brooks, the conservative columnist, says Iraq has the world’s 12th fastest-growing economy, with 7 per cent annual growth. But critics point out that the country was so devastated by a decade of US and UN sanctions that tripling its economy doesn’t mean much.

Estimates of unemployment vary widely, but experts agree that something like one-third of Iraqis are unemployed or under-employed.

Because of the sanctions, imported merchandise all but disappeared from Iraq in the 1990s. Since the invasion, a plethora of consumer goods are available, imported from Dubai, Iran, Syria and Turkey.

Brooks points to the increase in telephones (from 833,000 before the war to 1.3 million landlines and 20 million mobiles now) and internet service (from 4,500 Iraqis in 2003 to 1.7 million now) as evidence of rising living standards. The telephone market is dominated by high-ranking politicians and their cronies. “They’re giving priority to telephones and the internet, when people really need water and sewerage,” says Amjad Saeed. “That’s because mobile phones are fast money for the government.”

Baghdad is still scarred with the wreckage of buildings bombed seven and a half years ago. Roads were chewed up by tanks, and there has been almost no reconstruction. Property prices have sky-rocketed.

Petroleum and international assistance are the mainstays of the economy. Agriculture and industry have been all but abandoned. Since 2008, Iraq has pumped crude oil at close to its pre-war level of 2.5 million barrels per day.

“The neo-liberals in the Bremer administration destroyed the state sector, which was the only functioning sector of the economy ,” says Prof Cole. “Cellphones are easy; building things is not. Iraq clearly needs several electricity generating plants. It takes five years and several billion dollars to build one. They haven’t even started.”


In August 2003, Bremer promised that “about one year from now, for the first time in history, every Iraqi in every city, town and village will have as much electricity as he or she can use and will have it 24 hours a day, every single day.”

Seven years later, residents of Baghdad say they receive 10 to 12 hours of electricity from the government each day. Privately owned generators produce up to 4,500 megawatts of electricity, compared to 5,880 megawatts produced by the national grid in July, according to Brookings’ Iraq Index – and some of that is purchased from neighbouring Iran and Syria. The Multinational Corps in Iraq reported that, by February 2009, only 45 per cent of Iraqis had access to potable water and 20 per cent were linked to a sewerage system.

The health and education systems are also worse than before the war, mainly because tens of thousands of doctors, nurses, pharmacists and teachers fled the country. Literacy rates are declining.

Conditions began improving in 2008, but experts such as O’Hanlon and Sanok say it is too soon to say whether Iraq benefited from seven and a half years of US occupation.

Amjad Saeed showed his lack of faith in Iraq’s future by voting with his feet. In his heart, he says, he’s glad to see the Americans pull out. But in his head, he worries that violence will flare.

“Iraq is well rid of Saddam,” says Mina Al-Oraibi. “But you can’t say we’re better off because of what the Americans did. They showed a fatal mix of arrogance and ignorance.”