For 90 odd years it stood between Iran and the western Middle East. It once upon a time had the fourth largest standing army in the world. Its oil reserves were amongst the biggest in the world. Its women enjoyed rights that the women of nowhere else in the Arab world did – they could drive and wear make up, hold down well paying jobs. Its economy was comparatively well performing compared to others in the Middle East. The lands that were irrigated by the great rivers that are the Tigris and Euphrates were fertile and provided much a good source of electricity. Such was Iraq.
In 1920, out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, the British and French established two states. One of them was Iraq, and grew out a revolt against the British out of fear that they were going to be ruled by a European colonial power. Its borders, like those of neighbouring nations, paid little regard to ethnic boundaries, cutting across Shia, Sunni and Shiite lands alike. The colonial occupiers cared little for their subjects, which Winston Churchill considered to be uncivilized. Iraq formed in 1920 after Britain was awarded the Mandate for Iraq. For the next twelve years it was British controlled country, before becoming a fully sovereign nation in 1932. The Hashemite kingdom lasted until 1958, when an Iraqi army coup toppled it and established a regime friendly to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. From 1968-2003 the Ba’athist party ruled Iraq, first under Hassan al-Bakr and then under Saddam Hussein.
Saddam Hussein’s reign was to prove long and bloody. It involved three hugely damaging wars that largely crippled Iraq as a nation. His human rights record over the 24 years of his reign were as brutal as that of any other post-war dictator. He used chemical weapons against Iranian and Iraqi civilians. He built fabulous palaces using slave labour. He was a shrewd ruler who figured out how to manipulate the West for his own gain. But his personal demise was characteristic of his reign.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait on 02 August 1990, Saddam Hussein claimed to be retaking a long lost 19th province. The world saw it as an attack on a sovereign nation. As the months passed, led by the United States a military force not seen since Vietnam began to assemble, and a U.N. mandate to liberate Kuwait by military force was sought and subsequently granted. An air campaign starting on 17 January 1991 followed by a short but devastating ground assault routed the Iraqi forces.
There is a very good reason why the subsequent Operation Desert Storm stopped at the Iraqi border. Aside from lacking a United Nations mandate to go any further and Iraq wanting a ceasefire, the planners knew that if they went to Baghdad and ousted President Saddam Hussein, they would unleash the genie of sectarian schisms from its bottle and that there would probably be no putting it back in. Dick Cheney, who was Secretary of Defense at the time admitted this in a 1994 interview. It was a decision that angered Israel and hard line conservatives in the United States at the time, but it was fundamentally the correct one.
After the 2001 al-Qaida authored terrorist attacks in the United States, the U.S. Government began looking at potential threats to the United States. Although some efforts were made to get the world onside for an invasion of Iraq, the failure to demonstrate decisively that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and suspicions about the true motives of the administration of George W. Bush meant the U.S. failed to gather the support it had in 1990-1991 for an invasion.
When the invasion began in March 2003 it had about 150,000 soldiers compared with around 500,000+ for Desert Storm. These low numbers backed by the failure to adopt a detailed plan – though it is known one did exist – for managing post-Saddam Iraq meant precious time establishing a new government and getting the country running was lost. Sectarian violence by tribes that were bottled up by Saddam now began to explode forth as old scores began to be settled. Although vast amounts of aid were pouring into Iraq, it distribution was being managed by private firms with no regards for Iraqi’s or Iraq at large.
Iraq as we know it is finished now. It is an awful thing to say about a nation, but as appalling as his regime was, Saddam Hussein and his predecessors were the glue that held Iraq together. With that glue gone, it is unravelling, just as Mr Cheney said it would. Which begs the question:
Does Iraq actually WANT to be saved?
I am not sure it does.