Iraq after five years of war

by Gwynne Dyer

LONDON — March 20 marked five years since U.S. President George W. Bush launched the invasion of Iraq. Can Iraq emerge from this ordeal as a place where people lead reasonably safe and happy lives?

The American troops will leave eventually, and probably quite soon, but that is unlikely to be followed by an orgy of violence. The civil war has already happened, and most formerly mixed neighborhoods and villages are now exclusively Shiite or Sunni. That, as much as the “surge” in American troop numbers, is why the civilian death toll has dropped significantly over the past year.

Between 4 million and 5 million Iraqis have fled their homes (out of a population of less than 30 million), and most of them will never be able to return to those homes. Half of them are still in Iraq, and most of the rest are in neighboring countries and will ultimately have to return. They will eventually find somewhere safe to live, and they will start to rebuild their lives.

It sounds callous to talk this way when so many have suffered so much, but after every war there is a return to normality. It may be a new normality where some of the things that used to be possible, like freedom of movement and equal opportunities for women, are no longer available, but the danger level drops and everyday concerns replace the obsession with mere survival. The best analogy is the aftermath of the Lebanese civil war.

Lebanon’s tragedy was largely self-inflicted, and the various sects had more clearly defined identities before the war began, but it is what happened after the shooting stopped there in 1990 that concerns us. Most of the refugees found somewhere to live, the shattered buildings were rebuilt or replaced, and within 10 years a reasonably healthy economy emerged from the ruins.

With oil at more than $100 a barrel, Iraq certainly has the money to rebuild, even if oil production has not yet recovered to the pre-invasion level. And there is now a kind of democracy in Iraq, although it is heavily distorted by sectarian and ethnic rivalries — not all that different from Lebanon’s democracy, in fact.

There is little chance of another strongman like Saddam Hussein seizing power in Iraq, because power is now so widely distributed among the different factions and militias. Iraqi democracy may even survive the departure of U.S. troops.

So was it all worthwhile?

That’s a different question, because the implicit comparison is between the future of the country as it is now and the conditions that reigned five years ago when Hussein was still in charge. Even that comparison yields an ambiguous answer, for Hussein’s Iraq was a secular society where people were safe unless they trespassed into politics, and women enjoyed an unusual degree of personal freedom. But it is also the wrong comparison.

This was the trick that the old Soviet Union played endlessly, comparing the wonders achieved under communism with the horrors of poverty and oppression under the czars — as if Russia would have stayed forever frozen in 1917 if the Bolshevik revolution had not happened. The Chinese communist regime plays the same game now, pretending that it would still be 1948 in the country if they had not seized power. It’s utter nonsense, and that applies to Iraq, too.

Hussein was only executed a year ago, so he probably would still be in power today if the United States had not invaded Iraq, but he was not going to live forever. It’s not possible to know what would have followed him had he stayed in power and died a natural death, but would it have involved hundreds of thousands of Iraqis tortured, shot or blown up? Would it have led to the permanent alienation of Sunnis and Shiites? Probably not.

In the meantime, Hussein posed no serious threat to his neighbors, as his army was largely destroyed in the 1991 Persian Gulf war and never rebuilt (due to sanctions). He posed no danger at all to the U.S., since he had absolutely nothing to do with al-Qaida (as was confirmed by a recently released Pentagon study of more than 600,000 Iraqi documents captured after the U.S. invasion).

The number of Iraqis who were tortured and murdered by Hussein’s security forces in an average year was in the thousands, no more than the monthly civilian death toll from sectarian violence in recent years. Occasionally, when there were uprisings against his rule, Hussein killed far more people, but the last time that happened was in 1991.

Nine-tenths or more of the Iraqis who have been killed in the horrors of the past five years would probably still be alive if Hussein was still in power. So would 4,000 American soldiers.

The real question is what will Iraq be like 20 years from now, and what would it have been like in 20 years if the U.S. had not invaded. But it can never be answered, because that alternative future was canceled by the invasion.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist. His new book, “After Iraq,” has just been published in London by Yale University Press.