Five years after it was invaded, Iraq has been broken as a country. Already traumatised by tyranny and war, it has now been torn asunder by an occupation that was certain to ignite violent insurgency, and by a savage sectarian struggle for supremacy. Triumphalist claims by President George W. Bush that the year-long US troops “surge” has turned Iraq around merely add another sorry chapter to this saga of serial delusion and epic bungling.
By any measure, Iraqi society has all but dissolved. Ethno-sectarian cleansing has cut through the tissue of the nation like acid, not just by region but street by street. Iraq has not just fragmented into three big chunks, a Shia south, Sunni centre and Kurdish north; Iraqis were never that neat. The country has unravelled into a terrifying patchwork under the control of competing militias in a multi-sided civil war. Yes, Saddam Hussein, a vile dictator, has gone. But dozens of little Saddams have taken his place.
Probably hundreds of thousands have died. There has been a middle-class exodus, of teachers and doctors, civil servants and entrepreneurs: a haemorrhage of Iraq’s future. About one in six Iraqis has been uprooted by this cataclysm. The 2003 invasion was supposed to enable Mr Bush and his acolyte, Tony Blair, to pursue a radical new freedom agenda (tough on terrorism, tough on the causes of terrorism) and bring democracy to Iraq and the Arabs. Instead it has scattered Iraqis across the Middle East.
Strategically, Iraq is a catastrophe, confounding two of the main (if undeclared) aims of the war: to deter all but the most determined opponent of US interests by an awesome demonstration of American military force; and by conquering Baghdad to establish hegemony in the Gulf and provide the tools to refashion the whole Middle East in America’s democratic image.
Instead, these five years have provided the most public demonstration of the limits to American power – watched live on satellite television throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds like a modern version of the Crusades. Having casually overturned the Sunni Arab order in Iraq and empowered the Shia in an Arab heartland country for the first time in a millennium, hugely enlarging the power of the Shia Islamist regime in Iran, the US now finds itself dependent on Tehran-aligned forces in Baghdad.
Caught between the need to crush the Sunni jihadism the invasion has proliferated, and fear of Shia radicalism and Iranian meddling, US forces are backing Sunni insurgents who have turned on al-Qaeda in central and western Iraq – one reason the Bush administration and its allies believe the surge is working.
The surge has more than halved civilian deaths – from a daily average of 65 – and improved security in Baghdad, a city ghettoised by blast-walls. But Mr Bush’s assertion on Wednesday that the US is in sight of “a major strategic victory” is a fantasy. The surge is only one of five factors behind the relative fall in violence – all of them temporary.
The recourse to 80,000 Sunni tribal militiamen to combat al-Qaeda will eventually rebound – unless the Sunni become resigned to Shia supremacy in Iraq, and there is no sign of that. The decision by Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical leader of the Mahdi army, to stand his forces aside – for mainly intra-Shia reasons – is coming under heavy pressure as US forces use Shia tribal levies to pick off Sadrist cadres. Iran’s recent willingness to co-operate in helping stabilise Iraq has a price; the US is not meeting it. Even though ethno-sectarian cleansing has been largely completed in Baghdad and central Iraq, it could flare up again if large numbers of refugees start returning. And current US troop levels are temporary.
A new wave of violence is under way, anticipating the end of the surge – and as the US presidential campaign raises the question of withdrawal. There are, it should be clear, no good options left.
Iraq could become a shell state, like post-Soviet Afghanistan, prey to warlords and militias and an incubator of jihadi totalitarianism. One side – the majority Shia – could win and impose its writ. Or – the least bad outcome – Iraq could emerge exhausted into a loose confederation, with a weak central government with agreed tasks such as allocating oil revenue.
To achieve that, the US needs to stay long enough to avert a bloodbath, but leave soon enough to make Iraq’s high-wire faction leaders – their safety net removed – reach some sort of modus vivendi.
This outcome would be eased by a broader rapprochement in the region between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia (which is possible) and if Washington buried the past and sought a diplomatic grand bargain with Tehran – which might be made possible by a new US leader.