A bleak end in Iraq

The year ended in Iraq with a string of bombings that killed and wounded hundreds of people and sharpened a political deadlock that has gripped the country since the departure of the last American combat troops on 18 December.

The carnage was a tragic closing chapter to the US occupation of Iraq, marked this month by a ceremony presided over by US President Barack Obama nearly nine years after former president George W Bush sent American forces into the country to topple the regime led by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein with a promise to replace it with "a free and democratic Iraq."

In less than half an hour last Thursday 16 explosions ravaged mostly Shia neighbourhoods of Baghdad, shattering buildings, slaughtering civilians and leaving Iraqis in fear that the withdrawal of the last American troops might lead to further disasters.

Dozens of bomb blasts hit the capital and other Iraqi cities over the following days as sectarian tensions mounted against the backdrop of another government crisis.The fear is that the crisis has now escalated to make-or-break levels, with the Shias, the country's majority sect, and the Sunnis, the minority that lost power after the 2003 US-led invasion, struggling for position in the wake of the US withdrawal.

It took only a few hours after the last American convoy left for the latest sectarian crisis to flare up after Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki fired his Sunni deputy on charges of disloyalty and turned against the country's Sunni vice-president, accusing him of terrorism.

However, what has most preoccupied Washington is whether it should still sound a muted victory cheer for Obama's decision to fulfil his promise to end the US military presence in Iraq ahead of next year US presidential elections.

For the administration's policymakers and many in the US media, the chaos of the last few days is just a precursor of the sort of political drama that Washington should have expected in Iraq after the withdrawal of the last US troops.

Yet, this narrative still refuses to admit American defeat or accept responsibility for the mess in Iraq in the wake of the US withdrawal. Many in Washington are trying to wash their hands of what might happen next, observers anticipating Iraq's final collapse after the US withdrawal.

Countless articles in the US media have praised the withdrawal and tried to justify the departure of the US forces, while telling Iraqis to take things into their own hands and try to make their institutions function.

They all seem part of the "happy ending" stereotype of America's pre-emptive wars or covert operations abroad, aiming to "change the world and leave" and superbly scripted in Tom Hanks's award-winning film Charlie Wilson's War that recounts US involvement in the war against the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan and its handing of the country over to the Taliban.

This is why Iraq's current tragedy and the larger political drama now expected to unfold are the results of both Obama's "stupid withdrawal" and of Bush's "stupid war."The present writer expressed his doubts about the US-led invasion of Iraq as soon as the Bush administration's plans became known. In articles in this newspaper and elsewhere, it was argued that the US-led invasion of Iraq would swiftly turn into catastrophe.

Three months before the war started in 2003, this writer commented in the Arabic-language newspaper Al-Hayat that the Americans, bolstered with their military might, would defeat Saddam's forces but that disaster would ensue, leaving the country in ruins.

A column that appeared in December 2002 was entitled, "I was fully aware of what would be destroyed. I did not know what would be built from the ruins," the lengthy title being borrowed from Kazantzaki's novel Zorba the Greek.

The theme of the article, later expanded in a book entitled Atop the Ruins, was that the United States would go to war with Saddam and destroy Iraq, but that it would be unable to build a democratic state in the country.

The American project in Iraq, the article said, "is a recipe for chaos and the creation of a new autocracy" in the country. It was based on a reading of the history of US interventions, with this imperial superpower failing to help nation-building anywhere it has set foot in the world since it first appeared on the global stage in the late 19th century.

From the Philippines to Cuba, Panama, Nicaragua, Haiti, South Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, and of course, Iraq, America's history of foreign interventions shows that it has had a record of disaster.

West Germany and Japan have been the only exceptions to this rule, and these were already modern industrial nations with great material and human potential when the American intervention took place at the end of World War II.

In Iraq, there were concerns about the war's planning and US objectives in post-Saddam Iraq. Miscalculation, arrogance and deception were evident in the way the Bush administration prepared and fought the war.

Even after the invasion had taken place, the Americans saw Iraqis as ungrateful people who had not done enough to welcome their "liberators" with flowers. To the Americans, the Iraqis were a bunch of Shias, Sunnis and Kurds fighting each other for control of Iraq's wealth and territory.

The results of the US-led invasion have been predictable. Almost nine years after the invasion, the war that was once declared "mission accomplished" by Bush seems to be never-ending, and Iraq looks set to suffer many more years of violence and conflict.

Some 225,000 Iraqis have been killed since 2003, according to some estimates. Approximately 1.3 million people have been displaced inside Iraq, and some one million are living abroad.The country's social fabric has been torn apart, and ethnic and communal animosities have replaced efforts to solidify national identity.

Car bombings and the execution-style killings of officials have become routine. Iraq remains a battleground for rival Kurdish, Sunni and Shia groups, while the loyalty of the army and police is questionable amid ongoing security threats.Corruption is unprecedented and Iraq's economy has been ruined, and its once-flourishing industrial and agricultural sectors are at a standstill.

Iraqi government institutions remain weak and corrupt, with ministries being run as party fiefdoms. Public services, including electricity, water and healthcare, are dire or non-existent.Professional people, including doctors and university professors, have fled the country in their tens of thousands, and they have yet to return.

Looming flashpoints include endemic political divisions and long-standing disputes over sharing land and resources between the country's Kurds, Turkmen, Christians, Yazidis, Shias and Sunnis.Moreover, the ramifications of the disastrous situation in the country are not confined to Iraq.

The US occupation raised tensions in an already tense region, and the American departure has created a political and security void in the country that could trigger a broader regional struggle.Iraq's neighbours are poised to try to expand their influence in Iraq further, raising fears of a regional Sunni-Shia conflict.

The political standoff and violence that have followed the withdrawal of the American troops mark a new and dangerous phase in the conflict in Iraq that will cause many Iraqis to be even more fearful of the future.Nevertheless, few Iraqis will have lamented the Americans' departure.

While Iraq is a complex country having diverse ethnicities that have not always been able to forge a unified national identity and lay the foundations of a strong nation-state, it is also true that many of the country's troubles are the work of corrupt and bigoted leaders.

Yet, these leaders could not have achieved the power that they have without the destabilising influence of the US-led invasion.

Salah Nasrawi, Al-Ahram

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