TEN years ago, hundreds of North troops were on standby as we geared up for war. Tony Blair and George Bush told us how Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction.
And the first soldiers marched into the country in March 2003, sparking a long-running and bloody conflict. But now the dust has settled on British involvement in the country, do we look back on it with pride or regret?
“The hope when we went into Iraq was that we would unseat a tyrant and bring in a new order of liberal democracy,” said Dr Nick Megoran, senior lecturer in human and political geography at Newcastle University.
“Ten years on, one tyrant has gone but it would be hard to say the country is a democracy. It might be moving in that direction … or it might be more of the same.”
Dr Michael Patrick Cullinane, senior lecturer in US history at Northumbria University, described the war as “an immediate failure”. “It was so poorly managed, there was no exit strategy,” he said.
“Military intervention is a solution to problems, so you can make the argument that Iraq was a success as there is now a quasi-democracy and gradual improvements in equality. But at what cost? “The loss of life, the nation-building which America imposed … you have to wonder if that is what success looks like.
“Last year, after the withdrawl, Iraq disappeared from the Press, but we shouldn’t forget the depression and post traumatic stress soldiers are still suffering.” A total of 179 British troops died in Iraq, and it has been estimated that 150,000 Iraqis were also killed.
Dr Megoran believes the true figure could be much higher, while millions of ordinary people were also forced to flee abroad. “There is ongoing civil strife,” he said. “The social fabric of the country has been torn up. “Iraqis might question whether it was worth it. At this stage, I think the balance sheet would still come out in the red.”
The West, and Britain in particular, is still dealing with that ongoing legacy. “I often work in the middle east and central Asia and before 2003, people said they respected and admired Britain,” said Dr Megoran.
“Now, I am sometimes harangued in the streets. It has definitely changed the image of Britain around the world. “I think it has led to a violent response from Islamists. I don’t think the London bombings would have happened if we hadn’t gone into Iraq. That legacy will take a long time to deal with.”
But Dr Cullinane believes opinions are changing under President Obama. “In 2003, there was outrage that Bush invaded Iraq,” said Dr Cullinane. “But the turnaround in recent years has been swift. Obama is completely untainted by the war, he was one of the few US senators who opposed it.”
For Zainab Radhi, Iraq is home. But she said there is a long way to go before Western ideas will be reconciled with Iraqi mindsets. The writer, who made Tyneside her home after fleeing her native city of Baghdad aged 16, returned to live there again in 2009.
She has now moved to Oman, where she teaches at Sultan Qaboos University. “Learning about people’s motives played a large part of my stay in Iraq,” she said. “Iraqis dream of no more than a slightly modified version of the present.
“A consistent electricity supply, an educational body that teaches, or someone in whom they can entrust their lives. Survival is their first instinct. “Once I understood this, I realised my dreams and actions are too Western for them. I left, feeling that home has become a safe haven for those that feed from destabilising the country, where the current crisis is no longer a solvable issue, but a steadily worsening condition.”
But she still sees a future for her homeland. “Before I left, I took some wisdom from some of my Iraqi friends that are fighting for Iraq with all their might,” she said. “We are enriched and humanised by rising above failure and tragedy. No threat will stop me from returning, one day.”
Have we learned our lesson here in the West? Dr Megoran thinks so. “It politicised a generation,” he said, referring to the thousands who protested against the war in Newcastle, London, and across the globe in 2003.
“The populations of Western countries have become far less willing to countenance the use of that amount of force for ideological projects.” But for Dr Cullinane, it’s less certain. He said: “If you look back, this was something which didn’t have to happen. It was something which was on the agenda of the warhawks.
“In the 2000s, the people in power in the US had forgotten the lessons of Vietnam in the 60s and 70s. “For the next five years, certainly for the rest of Obama’s administration, those lessons will be remembered. But 20 years down the line, I’m not so sure.”
By Joanne Butcher