It’s with some hesitation that I write anything on this subject – partly because it’s not really what this website is about, and partly because so much has been written on it already I don’t want to waste time going over well-trodden ground. However there are a few aspects of Iraq’s recent past which are rarely discussed, and I think it worth people considering them when forming an opinion.
It’s pretty obvious that Iraq is in a right mess just now, and it’s also pretty obvious that not much good came out of the Western military intervention in 2003. What is less clear, in the light of the Arab Spring and recent events in places like Syria, is how much better or worse things would have been if the West had never intervened. Personally I think that question is unanswerable. However it is fairly obvious there would have been a pretty severe uprising, though just how brutal the ensuing conflict would have been is impossible to know. If Syria is anything to go by it would have been pretty bad.
The Middle East is riven by a massive sectarian divide between the Sunni’s and the Shia’s, a divide that runs from Iran, through Iraq, Syria and the Lebanon, down through Kuwait and Bahrain. This is the source of much ethnic tension, particularly in places like Syria (where a Shia minority rules a Sunni majority) and Iraq (where, under Saddam Hussein, a Sunni minority ruled a Shia majority). Of course ethnic tension doesn’t have to lead to conflict, but the recent history of that part of the world has been a powder-keg of problems.
The entire region was part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire until the First World War. In the First World War Turkey sided with Germany, and after being defeated, the area came under control of the League of Nations. In 1920 the country of Iraq was created, with France and Britain setting-up rather arbitrary borders which took little account of what the people in that region actually wanted. Full independence came in 1932, and the country was a monarchy until 1958, when there was a military coup, after which it was ruled by a series of dictators. Unfortunately this coincided with the cold war between Russia and the West, which meant that, all over the world, lots of nasty regimes were propped up as allies in a vast geopolitical game. Thus the repressive regime in Syria was supported by Russia, while in Iraq, Saddam Hussein skilfully played off the various factions so that he was at different times supported by both the Soviets and the West, both of whom were happy to turn a blind eye to his appalling human rights record. The net result of this was that the ordinary people of these countries never had the chance to express their will or guide their countries in the way they would have liked, ethnic tensions simmered, and brutality and violence became the norm. Under such circumstances extremism thrives, as ordinary people become ever-more desperate for change, and are ever-more likely to resort to violence as a means to achieve it. History also shows that whenever repressive regimes fall, things invariably get very much worse before they get better (think for example the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution and, more recently, the dreadful genocidal war after the fall of Tito in Yugoslavia).
Against that backdrop it was pretty inevitable that when the repressive Iraqi military regime fell, all the simmering tensions between the Shia’s and the Sunni’s would burst forth, and bloodshed would be inevitable. Of course the Western Intervention in 2003 brought that moment forward – and any glimmer of hope that transition to a new system of government could be done relatively peacefully, was dashed by the absolutely unforgivable incompetence of Blair and Bush in having no post-invasion plan whatsoever. (They seemed to think that dismantling every organisational structure of Saddam’s regime and simply uttering the word ‘democracy’ would lead to a positive outcome – for that criminally negligent act alone they should stand trial.)
So, in my view, the problems we are witnessing now are not really the result of the 2003 invasion (though it may have made things worse) but the result of decades of Western support for a brutal regime simply because it was seen as a regional ally against Soviet Russia and, later, Iran. (During his 24 years in charge it is estimated that Saddam Hussein murdered some 250,000 of his own people in order to stay in power – and one can only wonder at the psychological effect on the population of having to live so long with such violence, fear and brutality.) If during all those years the people could have expressed themselves properly, things wouldn’t have got so severe that extremist violent views could now become acceptable to such large parts of the population. (It’s also worth noting that even now the same policy is being pursued with Saudi Arabia, where a brutal repressive regime is supported, because the West regards it as a regional ally.)
So, the people of Iraq are now suffering a catastrophe for which we are, at least partly, responsible. What can we do about it? The answer now, sadly, is probably very little. The situation is too complex for us to be able to see our way to a solution, and it is highly unlikely that any Western intervention would achieve anything anyway other than to put more lives at risk. It will be painful to watch, but the people in that region have to find their own answers, something which for far too long we’ve stopped them from doing.