Those that have not followed the twists and turns of Iraqi politics may be surprised to know that the current regime in Baghdad is very pro-Iran. This has naturally dismayed US diplomats, who expected that by toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003, they would create a liberal democracy in Iraq that would instinctively be pro-US and, hence, anti-Iran.
Sometimes, a truly delicious piece of news goes unnoticed. One example was a new item early this month saying the Iraqi Supreme Court had issued a warrant for the arrest of former US president Donald Trump. This produced a roar of laughter from all to whom I related the news. Could anybody after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 have predicted this outcome?
I was also astonished to find this was not really news at all. The court had issued a similar arrest warrant back in 2021. It was incensed by Trump’s targeted assassination by a drone attack in 2020 of Qasem Soleimani, commander of Quds Force, a key division of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), while he was in Iraq. Trump ordered the attack in response to the storming of the US embassy in Baghdad a few days earlier and many earlier attacks by the Quds Force on US forces.
Since the two countries are not formally at war, some Iraqis condemned this as murder (and called the killing of US soldiers just ‘self-defence’). Last week, Iraqi prime minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani and other top officials attended a commemoration ceremony for Soleimani’s death and said ‘his death must not go in vain’.
Those that have not followed the twists and turns of Iraqi politics may be surprised to know that the current regime in Baghdad is very pro-Iran. This has naturally dismayed US diplomats, who expected that by toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003, they would create a liberal democracy in Iraq that would instinctively be pro-US and, hence, anti-Iran. Critics of the US invasion are utterly gleeful at the turn of events.
Yet, what the court warrant shows is that major critics of the US invasion were dead wrong in their criticisms. In some ways, the so-called neoconservatives – neocons – who wanted to create a democratic Iraq have succeeded, though not in the manner they expected.
Analysts differed greatly on the reasons for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The formal reason given by the US was that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and so must be toppled. Other analysts theorised that US president George W Bush wanted to complete the task started by his father, George H Bush, who rolled back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, expecting that this would automatically cause the Iraqi leader’s ouster, but in vain.
Many analysts felt the main motivation was that of neocons like Paul Wolfowitz, who believed the US should use its military power (and sole superpower status) to promote democracy across the world. Some claimed the real game was to get US control of Iraq’s oil industry, and highlighted the fact that vice-president Dick Cheney had been head of Halliburton, a top oilfield services company. Still others painted the US as a fundamentally neo-colonial power determined to invade and take over country after country.
Most of these analyses have turned out to be rubbish. Saddam Hussein did not have any WMD, and so the official US reason was plain wrong. The notion that the US was out to grab Iraq’s oil industry turned out to be plain wrong too. The Iraqi government kept firm control of its oil industry, and expanded production steadily without providing a dominant role to Halliburton or any other US company.
Far from becoming a neo-colonial occupier, the US sacrificed the lives of many soldiers for many years before leaving the country, never showing any intent to occupy it permanently. Indeed, Barack Obama, Trump’s predecessor, was determined to stop US involvement in what he saw as hopeless wars abroad. Instead of being the start of a US neo-colonial push, the 2003 Iran invasion marked the beginning of a major US retreat from armed intervention abroad.
Wolfowitz, Scott Libby and other neocons were castigated for their naivete and its bloody consequences. They had thought the US invasion would usher in a Western-style democracy in Iraq, ignoring the prior social and institutional requirements for a democracy to work. The result was a terrible civil war between Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, and later between pro-Iran and anti-Iran factions. Estimates of the total death toll range from 150,000 to over 1 million.
And, yet, you can argue that Iraq is finally a democracy today. It has many flaws, but so do other countries that are called democracies. Iraq holds elections and incumbents have allowed a peaceful transfer of power when beaten at the polls. Muqtada al-Sadr, a fiery politician once despised by the US for being pro-Iran, now heads a virulently anti-Iran party. Oil production has crossed its earlier peak. An uneasy peace holds with the autonomous Kurd region. Many refugees from the civil war have returned. Per-capita income has gone up to almost $5,000, against $1,250 just before the 2003 war.
Far from becoming a US colony, Iraq has proved to be fiercely independent. It has neither fear or compunction in castigating the US and calling for Trump’s arrest. This does not justify the 2003 invasion. Yet, it is a democratic win of sorts.
This article was originally published by The Economic Times on Jan 17, 2023