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A jolly Iraq war anniversary

Six years ago the US launched its attack on Iraq and now you’re reading yet another useless anniversary piece. So, let’s make this one special. Call it the first anniversary of the war under the new American president, Barack Obama, piece. Or the first one after Bush has been shooed out of office. Or the first anniversary that takes place amidst the relative stabilisation of Iraq.

These days the sun is shining in Baghdad, which is preparing for a summer of love. Young kids are growing their hair long, light up a spliff and strum their guitars along the banks of the Tigris, humming, “if you’re coming to Baghdad be sure to wear flowers in your hair.” Liquor stores are scrubbing off their sooth-stained shelves and stocking up on the old favs, Johnny and Chivas.

Ok, not quite but the doomsday scenarios of snarky nay-sayers and dead-enders have not come to pass either. The received wisdom is that the Iraq war has been a disaster for that country, the region and the United States and its allies. In terms of lives lost and affected, suffering, damage and disruption, this is partly right. But politically it’s not.

Iraq has suffered terribly from the war and the ill-conceived occupation. But any end of Saddam Hussein and the Baath regime was liable to be bloody. Those who complain about the Shia now running the country and the US having empowered Iran in the process should remember that the Shia are the overwhelming majority and were severely oppressed under Saddam. Also, Iraqi Shia power may at some point in the future serve as a counter-balance to Iran.

As for the region, the post-war tally is still slightly in favour of the US, 2-0. Meaning two countries, Lebanon and Libya, have switched from the anti-Western column to at least neutral. The perceived counter movement, the Hamas win in the Palestinian territories and the popularity of Hezbollah, are largely unrelated to Iraq and anybody who knows the region a bit will recognise that this does not involve double standards. At the very least, no ‘moderate’ or pro-Western regimes have crumbled and the Arab street is still mythical. The US position has not collapsed, on the contrary, and despite the Americans’ perceived unpopularity, in the Middle East it’s still the indispensable nation, in as much as anybody can achieve anything there.

The feared wave of terrorism in the west has not materialised either. Madrid and London, bad as they were, do not a wave make. If conflict areas, such as Israel/Palestine, Iraq itself and Afghanistan/Pakistan are taken out of the equation, the number of terrorist attacks and victims is probably lower on a yearly basis than before 2003. Actually, the demise of Saddam Hussein probably helped end the second Palestinian intifadah, where his financial rewards for suicide bombers’ families may have had more of an impact than has often been suggested. The recent Mumbai attack was appalling but has more to do with sub-continent politics than with Iraq.

So, the Iraqis did not welcome Americans with flowers in 2003 and no, Iraq still is not a pretty sight. And yes, the US has a serious responsibility to fix the country and help it for years to come. The sins of the Iraq war and the American response to 9/11 in general are more on the domestic politics side than in the Middle East or elsewhere. The Bush ideology of conservatism, overblown patriotism and disrespect for all sorts of rights made the Iraq war the lightning rod for a lot of criticism that had not always much to do with it.

Under president Obama, things should be different, if only because the US has committed to a, very partial, withdrawal from Iraq and because the country is doing a bit better. But now the focus of all the criticism is shifting to the west’s involvement in Afghanistan. The quibbles are more or less the same but the situation, including the one in Pakistan, is much worse than Iraq ever was. Afghanistan is Obama’s Iraq and chances are that he’ll be judged on how he performs in that graveyard of empires.