Has Iraq's ordeal been worth it?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 March, 2008, 12:00am

It is five years since US President George W. Bush launched the invasion of Iraq. Can the nation still emerge as a place where people lead reasonably safe and happy lives?

US troops will leave eventually, perhaps soon, but that is unlikely to be followed by an orgy of violence. The civil war has already happened, and most formerly mixed neighbourhoods are now exclusively Shiite or Sunni. That, as much as the 'surge' in US troops, is why the civilian death toll has dropped significantly over the past year.

Between 4 million and 5 million Iraqis have fled their homes (out of a population of less than 30 million), and most of them will never be able to return to those homes. But half of them are still in Iraq, and most of the rest are in neighbouring countries and will ultimately have to return. They will eventually find somewhere safe to live, and they will start to rebuild their lives.

With oil at more than US$100 a barrel, Iraq certainly has the money to rebuild. And there is now a kind of democracy in Iraq, although it is heavily distorted by sectarian and ethnic rivalries.

There is little chance of another strongman like Saddam Hussein seizing power, because power is now so widely distributed among the different factions and militias. Iraqi democracy may even survive the departure of the American troops.

So was it all worthwhile? That is a different question, because the implicit comparison is between the future of the country as it is now and the conditions that reigned five years ago when Hussein was still in charge. Even that comparison yields an ambiguous answer, for Hussein's Iraq was a secular society where people were safe unless they trespassed into politics, and women enjoyed an unusual degree of freedom. But it is also the wrong comparison.

The old Soviet Union endlessly compared the wonders achieved under communism with the horrors of poverty and oppression under the Tsars. The Chinese communist regime plays the same game now, pretending it would still be 1948 in the country if they had not seized power. It's utter nonsense, and it applies to Iraq, too.

Hussein would probably still be in power today if the US had not invaded, but he was not going to live forever. It's not possible to know what would have followed him, but would it have involved hundreds of thousands of Iraqis tortured, shot or blown up? Or to the permanent alienation of Sunnis and Shiites? Probably not.

Hussein posed no serious threat to his neighbours, as his army was largely destroyed in the first Gulf war of 1991 and never rebuilt (due to sanctions). He posed no danger at all to the US, since he had absolutely nothing to do with al-Qaeda.

The number of Iraqis tortured and murdered by Hussein in the average year was in the thousands, no more than the monthly civilian death toll from sectarian violence in recent years. Occasionally, when there were uprisings, Hussein killed far more people, but the last time that happened was in 1991. Nine-tenths of the Iraqis who have died in the horrors of the past five years would probably still be alive if Hussein was still in power. So would 4,000 US soldiers.

The real question is what will Iraq be like 20 years from now, and what would it have been like in 20 years if the US had not invaded. But that can never be answered.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries