Intervening in Iraq was no mistake

By James Le Grice

It’s been a war of mistakes, there’s no denying that. I won’t list everything that Bush, Blair and Co. bungled up; you can find all that in any newspaper’s coverage of ‘Iraq – Ten Years On’ from the past three weeks. The Guardian and Independent are good places to start. The success stories of Iraq remain, as ever, overlooked. But amongst the successes, there’s one particular biggie: ten years since the invasion of Iraq, the free world is still fighting terrorists; it is not fighting a nascent Islamic empire.

Saddam Hussein’s threat to the world may have been exaggerated, but the threats posed by those who tried to take his place have been anything but. To appreciate the nightmare that could have been, there are a few inevitabilities and some unsettling realities to consider.

The first inevitability is that Saddam Hussein’s rule would come to an end at some point. He was not an immortal god, no matter how much his propaganda made him seem that way. And if alive today, he would be nearing 76.

Inevitability number two is that the end of Saddam’s rule would be violent. Modern Iraq has been particularly prone to coups and revolutions, even within the same factions, but at no other point in its history has power been so monopolized by one single person for so long. Saddam’s end would leave an incredible void, not one that his playboy son and heir Uday could easily fill. There would be a scramble for power, and the sectarian tensions between Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds, deliberately exacerbated by Saddam’s method of rule, would be unrestrained to boil over. Whoever was to fill the post-Saddam void would get there by strength of arms.

Now for the unsettling realities. The religious revivalism of the 20th century gave rise to a new jihad amongst the extremists in the Islamic world: overthrow the nation-states in Muslim lands, replace them with the rule of Islam, and purge these societies of everything un-Islamic.

The threat of this jihad was compounded in the time since Saddam Hussein came to power by the rise of two opposing entities seeking to redraw the map of the entire Islamic world.

The first of these is the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose main foreign policy objective is to export its revolution. At its heart is the belief that the Mahdi, the messianic figure of Shia Islam, is returning imminently with Jesus to lead the faithful to victory in an epic war against the unbelievers, and that the Supreme Leader of Iran is a guardian sent to ready the world for the Mahdi’s rule.

The second of these entities is al Qaeda, which seeks to build a new caliphate and make it the supreme world power after bankrupting the United States.

By the 2000s, these entities had grown strong enough in their financial, military and human resources to be major game players in the internal affairs of Muslim countries. And that’s exactly what happened in Iraq.

Their proxies fought under the banner of anti-Americanism, but they would have been there even if America hadn’t. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al Qaeda’s proxy, was in Iraq before the Americans got there, building links between his Jordanian group, Jama’at al Tawhid wal Jihad, and anti-Saddam rebels in the northeast. The Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr, whose militias received training and weapons from Iran, is the son of the most prominent anti-Saddam Shia leader of the 1990s. And even if these specific two did not enter the post-Saddam void, al Qaeda and Iran would have found other proxies, because controlling Iraq is a vital necessity for both.

Iraq was the first country Osama bin Laden sought to gain after forming al Qaeda. In 1990, he appealed to the Saudis to give him and his holy warriors, fresh from fighting the Russians in Afghanistan, a base from which to fight Saddam. The Saudis snubbed him for the US military instead. As for Iran, it has been boxed in since its revolution by a hostile Iraq, a country home to the holiest sites of pilgrimage in Shia Islam.

Most importantly, Iraq is the golden ticket that would allow both to stop fantasizing about a new Islamic empire and start building it. Iraq is an industrialised nation strategically located at the heart of the Islamic world. It offers a forward operating base to spread directly into Western Asia, the Levant, and the Arabian Peninsula, and more than enough oil to fund it all.

So what might have happened without America’s intervention? Saddam would have probably faced a rebellion; the conditions were ripe for it in 2003. Twelve years of UN sanctions had devastated the country, and while his people starved, Saddam built himself more palaces. There were rising defections within the regime, and a well organized and internationally funded opposition. If a rebellion didn’t kick off then, it certainly would have by the 2011 Arab Spring.

And we know what this would look like. In March 1991, the Iraqi people rose up against Saddam and took control of 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. Armed with helicopters and chemical weapons, Saddam crushed the uprising, displacing 10% of the population, draining the southern marshes and obliterating the centuries-old livelihood of the Marsh Arabs, and killing some 180,000 people in one month. As perspective, Iraq Body Count estimates that the civilian death toll in Iraq from the last ten years of fighting is 122,115.

But with a strong al Qaeda and Iran supporting Sunni and Shia proxies, rebellion would not be so easily crushed. Their involvement would turn this into a long protracted civil war, costing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives.

Al Qaeda would have the advantage to come out on top. In search of an endgame, it is not unlikely that the Baathists and al Qaeda would form a united Sunni front against their common Shia enemy. Together they could defeat them and that would then pave the way for al Qaeda to get rid of Saddam and his family and turn Iraq into an emirate with Zarqawi in charge.

Then Sunni extremists in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Iran could escalate their jihads to overthrow those states, safe in the knowledge that from just over the border, they’d have a steady supply of soldiers, weapons, and money, as well as the backing of one of the most powerful militaries in the Middle East.

The West would get drawn into the conflict eventually, once it’s oil supply, Turkey, or Israel came under serious threat. Except in this case, they wouldn’t be fighting terrorists armed with just AK-47s, RPGs and IEDs; they’d be fighting suicidal jihadists armed with Iraqi tanks, scud missiles, aircraft, and possibly biological and chemical warheads.

So thank goodness that didn’t happen. Thank goodness the coalition forces managed to overthrow Saddam Hussein in just 20 days. Thank goodness the Americans and British won the battle of Fallujah, denying al Qaeda one of their most important Iraqi strongholds. Thank goodness Zarqawi is dead, courtesy of the US Air Force. Thank goodness the Americans, British and Iraqi government forces won the battle of Basra, leading Muqtada al Sadr to disband his militias, and adopt a peaceful cooperative strategy. Thank goodness that al Qaeda and the Sadrists are fringe movements in Iraq today, not the dominant powers. Thank goodness the dominant military force in the post-Saddam void fought to give democracy to the victims of totalitarianism, rather than to give them a new totalitarianism. Thank goodness that intervening in Iraq was no mistake.

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