Bitter lessons of war in Iraq

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 March, 2013, 5:33am


The drumbeats of war were thundering loudly this day 10 years ago. Then US president George W. Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair had for months been making their case for the invasion of Iraq. They argued that the removal of dictator Saddam Hussein would lead to the unearthing of weapons of mass destruction, the crushing of terrorists he supported and the blossoming of Western-style democracy in a part of the world that needed it most, the Middle East. Unable to put their case convincingly to the UN Security Council, they decided to go it alone. The Pentagon's operation, codenamed Iraqi Freedom, was launched just before dawn on March 20, with air strikes and a ground assault.

Less than six weeks later, standing before a banner reading "Mission Accomplished", Bush declared victory on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. But his speech was vastly premature and a decade on, Iraqis are not in agreement that their country has changed for the better. Saddam and his brutal regime are gone and the nation is able to decide its leaders. But instability from sectarian, ethnic and class violence and extremist groups is rife, corruption rampant and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's opponents accuse him of having autocratic ambitions. The war is over, but peace does not reign.

The conflict has had a heavy cost. At least 116,000 civilians are believed to have been killed along with 4,800 allied soldiers. Bombs still regularly claim lives. The price tag of the war for the US is officially US$802 billion, although Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz puts it closer to US$3 trillion, which is about one-fifth of American national debt. The oil contracts the US had planned to win instead mostly went to China. Iran, the US' arch-enemy in the region, now has wide influence in Iraq.

Memories are short when it comes to foreign policy, but the Iraq war is a lesson that must not be forgotten. Pre-emption has to be rejected in favour of multilateralism and international co-operation. At all times, there has to be diplomacy. To do otherwise is to repeat the mistake of Iraq.