Ten years on

A decade after the US-led ‘shock and awe’ assault on Iraq, and the country faces a future with an unpopular leader, a lack of basic services, and a damaging civil war taking place on its frontier

Ten years ago when the statue of Saddam Hussein fell at Firdous square in Baghdad, George Bush and Tony Blair were banking on the country serving as template for change in the Arab world, a litmus test that could according to them eventually redraw the balance of power in the region and pave the way for greater democracy.

The former Iraqi regime fell, Saddam Hussein had no connection to the 9/11 attacks or weapons of mass destruction (which for Washington and London were grounds for the invasion) and was tried and executed. Elections took place, however the country is hardly the beacon of democracy that Bush and Blair claimed it would be. The de-Baathfication and disbanding of the Iraqi army set in motion a flawed process that not only sowed the seeds of militancy and attracted al-Qaeda sympathisers and agents, but more importantly polarised the political landscape of the country. It also set off bloody sectarian fighting pitting Sunnis against Shi'as and the targeting of minorities.

“Iraqi officials purged the nation of the Baath Party through a sweeping, unfair process that contributed to destabilising the country, with many lasting impacts,” says David Tolbert, president of the New York based International Center for Transitional Justice.

To date, nearly 200,000 people have lost their lives in the violence (the vast majority of whom are Iraqi civilians) and about 1.6m Iraqis were internally displaced. The conflict has cost the US just over $800bn and when looking at the total bottom line, which takes into account costs for veterans of the war, the amount will exceed $2.2 trillion, according to a study by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies.

“At the end of the day you have to ask yourself was it legitimate to go in? And if it was about regime change, I’m afraid that doesn’t make it legal,” John Prescott, deputy prime minister under Blair said this month.

The impetus for change in the Arab world would come eight years later from a poor street vendor in Tunisia who would spark a wave of protests across the region after setting himself on fire. His death would not only end the 23-year rule of Tunisia’s long-term dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali but instigate revolts that toppled Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and forced Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down after 33 years in power. After two years of unabated violence, the regime of Syria’s Bashar Al Assad’s is also teetering on collapse.

In Iraq, Saddam Hussein may be gone but the country remains in crisis from a political perspective, says Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group.

“Those who regret the previous era either don’t know or want to forget what it was really like,” he says. “An unbearable standstill has been replaced by a somewhat different, but equally appalling status quo. One would have hoped so much suffering would have served a better purpose.”

A public showdown with a Sunni deputy and former finance minister, sidelined by Shi'a Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki has polarised the political landscape and renewed sectarian tensions which threaten the country’s stability. Opposition to Maliki’s rule has increased from both Sunnis and Kurds in the northern part of the country.

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