Iraq’s forgotten lesson
Even when the country begs questions about the anticipated US strike on Syria, the real lesson of Iraq has been forgotten, writes Salah Nasrawi
As the drums of war are being beaten again, the debate over whether the United States should bomb Syria is increasingly being overshadowed by the fiasco of the Iraq war and the systemic devastation it unleashed on the country’s people.
One key question that is being raised as US President Barack Obama crafts his sales pitch on Syria is whether the world has learned any lessons from Iraq and whether it should try harder this time to stop the destruction of another Arab country.
This will not be another Iraq, Obama has argued in the face of bitter resistance to his adventure in Syria, pledging that it would instead be a limited and targeted action with no US land invasion or protracted war.
But if Syria bears any comparison with Iraq, it should not be about the scope of the US assault, or its duration or even its causes, but rather about its long-term objectives and its ensuing far-reaching consequences.
With a decade’s hindsight, the effects of the Iraq invasion are still rippling through the beleaguered country and the rest of the Middle East, and this is where the comparison should be made.
One of the arguments used by the Obama administration to justify the upcoming war against Syria is the protection of civilians, triggering the question of how a limited military strike can change the course of the two-and-a-half year civil war that has left more 100,000 Syrians dead.
Here Iraq stands as a stark precedent of how the international community has failed to help the country recover from the catastrophic legacy of the “pre-emptive” war Obama’s predecessor, George W Bush, launched in 2003. This lasted nine years and ended in Iraq’s ruin.
Today, millions of Iraqis are condemned to lives led in bleak conditions. Though it sits on the world’s fifth-largest proven oil reserves and is the second-largest producer of crude oil in OPEC, Iraq is home to millions of impoverished people.
Since the US-led invasion most Iraqis have been suffering from shortages of basic services, such as healthcare, education, electricity, running water and sewerage as a result of the devastating effects of the war.
Iraq is one of the most corrupt nations in the world, and it ranks very low in indexes of freedoms, human rights and development. Worse, Iraqi civilians lack protection from the random killings that have turned the streets of Baghdad and other cities into scenes of daily carnage.
Deadly nationwide sectarian violence has been on the rise since the US withdrew its last troops in December 2011, and this has led to the deaths of almost 5,000 civilians and injured 12,000 this year alone, according to the United Nations.
The bloodshed raises concerns that Iraq may be edging towards a return to the Shia-Sunni strife that killed tens of thousands following the US-led invasion amid a long-running political deadlock.
There are concerns that a spill-over from the conflict in Syria will further threaten the fragile security situation in the country and worsen sectarian tensions.
Though the most obvious reason for the security setbacks and other shortcomings remains the failure of Iraq’s rival groups to agree on power and wealth-sharing, regional and world powers have also showed ineptitude and grave disregard, exacerbating the country’s dilemmas.
One of Iraq’s major problems is its defective security apparatus, which has failed to curb the violence and terrorism despite the billions of dollars that have been spent on the one million-man force. The Iraqi army and police lack basic training, equipment and intelligence-gathering skills.
As a result, the Iraqi government has been unable to extend its authority to large swathes of the country, enabling extremist groups, Al-Qaeda in particular, to claim considerable operating space.
Even so, this huge security challenge does not seem to have attracted world attention. The United States, which bears special responsibility for rebuilding the Iraqi security forces after dissolving the Iraqi army, has shied away from efforts to aid the Iraqi government handle the security situation.
In recent weeks, Baghdad has been reportedly seeking Washington’s help to train its fledgling security forces to fight the insurgents, but to no avail.
Last month, Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki dispatched trusted aides to the US capital to request that the United States provide assistance in combating Al-Qaeda infiltrators in Iraq.
The US media reported last week that Iraq’s new ambassador to Washington, Lukman Al-Faili, had been lobbying US politicians and journalists to support Baghdad’s request for security assistance.
Iraq is apparently in need of military and security assistance that includes supplies of Apache helicopters and sophisticated intelligence systems to help in counter-terrorism operations, including the fight against Al-Qaeda.
But while Washington says it might supply Baghdad with the required anti-air defence systems, it does not seem to be ready to sell the Iraqis sophisticated weapons including attack helicopters.
In any case, the United States seems to have put Iraq behind it, though it is legally and morally responsible for assisting the Iraqis in rebuilding the damage of the war.
Iraq does not seem to be on the list of the United Nations’ priorities either, or on those of other world and regional groupings. Although the United Nations did not endorse the 2003 war, it agreed after the invasion to help in Iraq’s rebuilding and stabilising efforts.
It established the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), which was supposed to assist the government and people of Iraq on issues such as advancing national reconciliation and promoting the protection of human rights.
The mission was also authorised to provide assistance on humanitarian affairs and the electoral process. One of its obligations was to facilitate regional dialogue between Iraq and its neighbours.
However the United Nations has hardly fulfilled its objectives in Iraq, and the UNAMI’s former head, whose term ended this summer, came under fire from many Iraqis for what they perceived to be his poor performance.
The EU, too, has diverted its attention away from Iraq and has lost any appetite to discuss, much less address, issues of growing insecurity in the country.
The Iraq’s Neighbours Group, formed to help stabilise the war-torn nation after the US-led invasion, has been dissolved after it failed to stop the meddling of regional powers in Iraq’s internal affairs.
The 22-member Arab League has also offered only tepid support for efforts to stabilise Iraq.
Though the league extended diplomatic recognition to the Iraqi governments following the US-led invasion and the toppling of former president Saddam Hussein, it has remained largely ineffective in Iraq.
Its major failure came with the two conferences on national reconciliation in Iraq that never bore fruit. Few Arab states have established permanent diplomatic missions in Iraq, a huge disappointment for Baghdad.
In July, the Cairo-based league closed its offices in Baghdad citing financial difficulties and the deterioration of the security situation in Iraq.
All this shows how little attention the world is paying to Iraq today, except of course when it comes to doing lucrative business and keeping oil pouring into the international energy markets to maintain low prices.
It also leads to the important question of whether the situation in Syria will be different, should the US decide to attack the country.
If Iraq serves any lesson today, it should be as an unmistakable warning to the Syrians that they will soon be forgotten and abandoned after the American media switch off the lights and stop the TV cameras rolling.