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Lindsey Hilsum: was it worth it?

By Lindsey Hilsum

Updated on 14 March 2008

Blog: Five years on, Lindsey Hilsum reflects on what the war in Iraq has meant.

The other day a colleague asked if I now thought the war in Iraq had been OK after all, given the improvement in the security situation.

I thought how journalists, obsessed with the day to day, sway like bulrushes in the prevailing wind. We move on quickly, to the next story, to the next country, to the next adventure. I have done it myself. I live in China now, a different story, as far from the war in Iraq as you can get.

I suppose my colleague wanted absolution, for me to say that it's OK now, we can stop worrying.

I can't do that.

On a personal level, it's not OK. I feel I am being asked to say that the deaths of my friends and colleagues: Mohammed Fatnan, Marla Ruzicka, Gailan Ramiz, Margaret Hassan and the displacement of others who have fled to Syria, where they live in virtual penury, were "worth it." That the injuries the brave radio host, Amal al Mudarris, suffered last year when a gunmen shot her on her way to work in Baghdad, are a fair price to pay.

Yet most people of my parents' generation, who lived through WWll, do believe their sacrifices were worth it, so the question cannot be dismissed. Mohammed, our 'minder' in the days of Saddam, believed the war would be worth any suffering, such was his desperation to get rid of Saddam Hussein.

On a personal level, it's not OK. I feel I am being asked to say that the deaths of my friends and colleagues... were worth it."

Marla thought that if she could persuade the American military to look after Iraqis who had been injured, and the families of the dead, that would restore some balance.

Gailan lamented the failure of the Iraqi army to overthrow the dictator, but hoped that his compatriots would now create something better.

Amal relished the early years when she could open the airwaves to the people, and allow them to tell the truth.

Only Margaret believed it would be a disaster from start to finish.

I live too far away to assess the current situation in any detail, but I can see a number of problems.

I know that many neighbourhoods have been segregated, so much of Baghdad is zoned to prevent Sunnis and Shi'as clashing. By definition, that means they don't live together any more.

I understand that the most vicious insurgent group, al Qaeda in Iraq, has been weakened if not defeated, but that group would never have existed if it weren't for the war.

I see that car bombs and other attacks in downtown Baghdad have been reduced, but there weren't any at all before the war.

The analyses I read suggest that the improvement in the security situation is primarily a result of the Sunni militia, which had previously been fighting the Americans, joining forces with them. That's because they realised that only the Americans can protect them from the Shi'a dominated government and its militia allies.

In other words, the Americans have unwittingly swapped sides. When they came in, they made common cause with the Shi'a forces, who were happy to see the end of Saddam Hussein.

As a journalist (sceptical), and a European (pessimistic) I am overwhelmed by doubt.

The Sunnis, some nationalists, some Baathists, some Al Qaeda types from outside, fought what they saw as occupiers, and the new government.

But as the Shi'as consolidated power, the Sunnis realised that only the Americans, their original enemies, could protect them from the Shi'a, who now held power. The equation has changed, but it has not been solved.

This isn't an Iraq which I think my friends would have willingly laid their lives down to create. And what will happen when the Americans leave? Who will hold the ring and prevent civil war?

I frequently hear of opinion surveys in Iraq, and I'm sure there'll be more to mark the 5th anniversary. Do Iraqis believe things are better/worse/the same? Do they trust the government? The American military? The insurgents? The final question is invariably about whether they think things will get better in the future.

The results, journalists say in tones of amazement, are contradictory, people chronicle disaster but then say that they believe everything will get better. Inshallah.

Inshallah. That's the point: if God wills. For Iraqis to predict that things will get worse is like saying they don't believe in God, blasphemy, sacrilege! Iraqi and Islamic culture does not allow for this supremely gloomy, atheistic, European view.

I do not believe Iraq will be a functioning democracy for years to come, nor that the scars of war will easily fade.

The end of occupation has yet to be negotiated, the political role of religion remains ambivalent, the aspirations and power plays of neighbouring countries can still wreak havoc.

Most importantly, the civil war between Sunni and Shi'a has been repressed not resolved. So, as a journalist (sceptical), and a European (pessimistic) I am overwhelmed by doubt.

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