How failures of successive governments led Iraqis to utter despair
BEIRUT - US troops marched into Baghdad 16 years ago, fully occupying the city and ending 24 years of Saddam Hussein’s rule. The 36,000 Republican Guard soldiers stationed to protect the city crumbled at advances of US forces, which were making 1,000 air sorties per day.
Images of Saddam’s statue, erected one year earlier to mark the dictator’s 65th birthday, being torn down in Firdos Square made world headlines.
US troops entered Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit on April 15, 2003, after overrunning his lavish palaces and airport in Baghdad. The Iraqi National Library was set on fire and the country’s national museum was looted, most of its 170,000 priceless artefacts, some 7,000 years old, stolen or smashed.
The horrific event had a tremendous effect on all those who lived it but many hoped that it would usher in a new period of democracy, state-building and rule of law. They were grossly disappointed — to say the least — as Iraq collapsed into lawlessness and sectarian strife, suffering from chronic corruption at every level of government, plagued with the rise of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS).
For years, death squads roamed the streets of Baghdad, blowing up shrines and mosques, assassinating mosque preachers, scientists and community leaders. The results of the “liberation of Baghdad,” as many called it in 2003, could not have been worse for the people of Iraq.
Saddam had created an elaborate network of tunnels and safe houses, packed with weapons and explosives to be used in the event of an Iranian invasion. It was a counter-insurgency underground that the Ba’athists knew inside out but ending up using to wage war not against Iran but at the Americans, launching the then-called Sunni insurgency with al-Qaeda, which later morphed into ISIS.
Saddam’s troops threw off their military fatigues, grew their beards and pledged the oath of allegiance first to al-Qaeda founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and then to self-styled ISIS caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Under his command and thanks to the high number of Ba’athists among his ranks, ISIS swept into Mosul in 2014, quickly overrunning Falluja, west of Baghdad, and Baiji in the Iraqi north. Tikrit soon succumbed without a fight.
The post-Saddam Iraqi Army, which cost the Americans $41.6 billion to build, collapsed at the feet of ISIS in just 100 days. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki tried to position himself as a champion of the fight against ISIS, although many blamed him for the fall of Mosul and Tikrit.
In return for ridding them of ISIS, Iraqi citizens had to cope with extremely poor governments that failed to provide security, electricity, water and job opportunities.
“For content’s sake, 50% of Iraqis have no personal memory of Saddam’s era,” said Iraqi analyst Abbas Kadhim. “For these Iraqis, it is meaningless to blame any shortcomings on the previous regime. Saddam surely did terrible harm to Iraq but they had 16 years and $1 trillion US to fix the country. They failed to do much.”
Kadhim, author of the seminal work “Reclaiming Iraq,” added: “That is not to say that we sweep the sins of the past regime under the rug. It simply means we do not mix the fields of history and governance. Sixteen years after its collapse, a regime must be viewed as a chapter of history, no matter how injurious its legacy may be.”
“Collective agreement among Iraqis says that they have moved from former regime to a corrupted one,” says Iraqi analyst Safaa Khalaf. “They have given up on reforming the ‘new’ regime, whose entire legitimacy is now at stake, due to its gross failure at building a state of institutions and ridding itself of both Iranian and US tutelage.”
That, he claims, has “ruined the entire experiment.”
“Even elections are no longer appealing, as all they do is recreate the existing regime.”
When asked why some Iraqis are romanticising the Saddam era, he explained: “This is out of ill feelings for the current regime and not a call for a return of the Ba’athists. It’s due to the colossal failure of the present regime — in all sectors — triggered by despair. Excessive optimism has led to excessive despair.”