13 Jun 2014

Things fall apart in Iraq – are we to blame?

It was some time in 1980 that I first visited Baghdad. It was a very certain city – controlled, despite the chaotic mix of traffic and people in the streets. Saddam’s image was everywhere, on buildings, lampposts, and café walls.

The war with Iran was far away south, and though we’d been to the monstrous war front, smelt the gas, heard the whistle of bullets, seen the blood on the road, the scent of war was absent in Baghdad.

You could not visit Iraq in those days and not be aware of the tender balances beneath Saddam’s oppressive portrait. Confident Shia attending their shrines; Sunni mullahs bellowing from their minarets; and the unmistakable Kurds with their baggy trousers and head windings.

Though I went half a dozen times in between, it was in 2002 that I was conscious again of those balances. Sanctions, and a 13-year-old no-fly zone enforced by RAF pilots, had reduced Saddam by now to rump dictator contained within his own borders. His influence inside and outside the country had faded quite a bit by now.

Members of the Kurdish security forces take part in an intensive security deployment on the outskirts of Kirkuk

When George Bush Junior and Tony Blair started talking about the menace of Saddam, I remember wondering whether they were stuck in a timewarp. Saddam was far from the strident military tyrant I had encountered along the banks of the Shat-al-Arab waterway outside Basra in 1982.

Shock and Awe, they called it, and in that moment those of us who knew Iraq knew that whatever was started this way would probably not end happily. History tells us repeatedly that extreme, violent, neo-fascist religiously fuelled fanaticism has only ever been contained by secular tyrants. Decapitate the tyrant and the things fall apart – as in Iraq, as in Libya.

And now? Saddam’s old Ba’athist mates have been restored by the Isis insurgency to run both Mosul and Tikrit. Iraq is being fast triangulated – Kurds are seizing Kurdish lands; Sunni Isis is seizing the minority Sunni sector; and Iran is moving her forces to secure the Shia majority portion.

The entity of Iraq itself, which Britain invented early in 20th century, cannot hold.

The utter foolhardiness of the Iraq adventure of 2003 is exposed. It has incubated and infected Syria and exposed Saudi and other Arabian influencers. And where is Iran? Potentially the most stable and powerful land in the region. Funny old world – did this outcome ever cross the minds of the architects of that shocking awe?

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