Iraq: Now We Must Learn Our Lesson

It’s election year in the USA and, I suppose, that we can only expect even less statesmanship than normal to be coming from President Obama. However, his statement in the dying months of last year that he was withdrawing United States troops in their entirety from Iraq because the country was now, ‘…stable and sovereign,’ is risible. I suggest, that Western involvement in Iraq has been nothing short of disastrous both for the people and for the Allies who tried to set the place to rights. If we concentrate on Britain, this ill-starred adventure not only brought down a government but it also caused very serious questions to be asked about the probity and efficiency of the British Army – an institution that many of us hold dear. On top of all this, of course, can the long list of widows, mothers who have lost sons and broken families find solace in the state that Iraq has been left in today?
You have to look carefully, but every day there is one or another crisis in Iraq. You have to look carefully because most of the news from that part of the world is dominated by the looming crisis with Iran. And it is important to understand just what Iran’s intentions are towards her close neighbour. First, we got used to hearing about the infamous ‘Sunni Triangle’ during the Western invasion of Iraq. A casual observer could have been forgiven for thinking that the country was dominated by Sunnis who were by far and away the most troublesome and dangerous minority. But that cloaks the constant involvement of Iran with the Shias inside the country, as Iran is Persian rather than Arabic and largely Shia.
But, as Iraqi friends of mine say, secular Iraq has now been replaced by sectarian Iraq, based on the widely accepted misconception that Shia Muslims form the majority of the Iraqi population. In fact, there are no reliable statistics on the number of Sunni or Shia Muslims in Iraq as the indigenous birth certificate simply states whether the holder is Christian, Jewish or Muslim, without any differentiation within that creed. In fact, the truth hardly matters, for the perception is that Iraq is now a Shia country which, perfectly logically, leans towards her Shia neighbour Iran. Also, crucially, it musn’t be forgotten what a very long shadow the 1980s war Iraq and Iran still castes.
Ask anyone of an age in Tehran what the impact was of that fatal struggle and a dark, bitter story emerges. The casualties ran into the millions and the fact that weapons of mass destruction (chemical and biological weapons) were used throws some light on why Saddam Hussein continued to be so well prepared for that type of warfare in the future. It also exposes why Iran is so single minded about her quest for nuclear power. I don’t believe her rhetoric that she would only use such power for domestic purposes – Iran knows better than any other country what WMDs can do. And on top of her nuclear brinksmanship she is turning Iraq into something that is not better than a client state of hers or even a colony.
It might be worth looking at President Obama’s claim in a bit more detail. First, just how sovereign a country is Iraq now that US and Allied troops have left? Remaining are more than a hundred and fifty thousand contractors who are principally American. These people are American troops by any other name although their duties are meant to be defensive and protecting commercial interests rather than fighting for any national cause. However, a hundred and fifty thousand is still considerably larger than the entire British Army and their presence hardly underlines the nation’s sovereignty.
Then there are Iraq’s own troops. The footage of them showed smartly uniformed, well armed and apparently disciplined units who, at a brief glance, looked more than ready to take over from their American mentors. They were certainly dressed and equipped like those who had taught them. But, the three quarters of a million ‘soldiers’ who have now been brought into existence are very far from the unified army that a sovereign state should possess. The reality is that they are a disparate bunch of militias almost all of whom owe their loyalty to tribal heads and then to Iran rather than to the state of Iraq. Added to that, the country is now effectively configured as 18 self-governing regions. There appears to be no central government control of any of its resources. Again, how does any of this sit with the concept of sovereignty?
Second, turning to stability, the country still has to cope with 4.5 million refugees, 1.5 million dead, 1.2 million displaced internally, 2 million orphans and slightly less than 1 million widows. Clearly, a country that has been wrecked by a series of wars isn’t going to recover quickly. However, the West led by America has done very little to cope with this level of turbulence and within that turbulence lie the seeds of further dissatisfaction. Look, for instance, at travel insurance. If you want to go to any of the world’s hotspots and you need to be insured, you’ll find that Iraq costs you more to visit than any other part of the world, including Afghanistan. But, when the number of killed each month still averages out at about five hundred, which is far greater than the numbers dying in Syria or Somalia, then it becomes clear that Iraq, far from being a ‘stable’ state, has yet to emerge from being a failed one.
Then there are the country’s finances. The US Federal Audit Office cannot account for $12bn of US aid that was sent to Iraq whilst $1.5bn of frozen Iraqi assets flown from Iraq to the US now appears to have been lost. Meanwhile, UNICEF has reported that the Iraqi education system is now less than half as effective as it was under Saddam Hussein. And UNICEF, of course, is in a unique position of being able to judge these things. Two decades ago, it also gave Iraq the prize five years running for the most effective eradication of illiteracy.
How alarmist is it to suggest that Iraq, now that the US troops have finally gone, is on the brink of a coup? In October last year the Shia Government arrested two thousand people in an attempt to emasculate any intellectual opposition. For example, Tikrit University was almost completely denuded of staff through a programme of arrests targeted at professional people. It was alleged that these were all Baathists who were combining to oppose the Government. Three months on, many of these individuals remain under arrest whilst the university and similar institutions are still not functioning properly.
It is also interesting to see how many of Iraq’s new generation of MPs are Iranian by birth. Some would suggest it is as many as 60%. On top of that, the intelligence apparatus inside the country now seems to be almost entirely dominated by the Iranian Al Quds Brigade. Much of the media is fed from this source and little of the government rhetoric can be divided from that of Iran. In short, President Obama’s ‘stable and sovereign’ country now looks little better than an Iranian satellite.
To put this in perspective, it’s got to be remembered that US viceroy Paul Bremer dissolved the Iraqi national forces without a UN resolution or international authority, only adding, some would say, to the charges of illegality that surround the whole intervention in Iraq. This, combined with almost palpable US anxiety to get out of Iraq and so minimise the political damage to Obama’s administration, has meant that the country has effectively fallen into the clutches of an aggressive and jingoistic Iran with not just the tacit approval of the USA but with the physical help of that country.
Another aspect of this sorry tale is the breaking of UN sanctions against Iran via Iraq with the full knowledge and connivance of that country’s government. Many prohibited imports that are entering Iran from Iraqi soil are, it is widely believed, being paid for by oil that is siphoned off from Iraqi pipelines.
Britain’s part in the future of Iraq is crucial. Not only does she have the legacy of her imperial past there and the symbol of so many young lives having been sacrificed there over the past decade, she also has a degree of influence with the Iranian regime that far exceeds her size and clout. When I’ve visited Tehran, I’ve always been surprised at how pivotal Iranian officials believe British thinking and policy-making to be. It’s almost as if Britain is seen as the intellectual master of the USA and the West. Whilst this may not be wholly accurate, it is a club that the British Government should not be slow to wield, and a club that must be used to help Iraq return not just to prosperity, democracy and real freedom but also to true stability and sovereignty. Patrick Mercer, OBE MP, is a retired Colonel who severed in Sherwood Foresters (Notts & Derby Regiment), the British Army. He is Conservative Party politician in the United Kingdom, representing the constituency of Newark in Parliament, and a former BBC journalist. This article is published jointly with The London Magazine.