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Iraq Ten Years On - Was It Worth It?

19/03/2013 11:51 GMT | Updated 18/05/2013 10:12 BST

Ten years have passed since American and British troops invaded Iraq on 19 March 2003. Much has happened during that decade, not least the downfall of an infamous dictator and the establishment of a democratic political system. A question that seems to be on everyone's mind these days is whether it was worth it?

According to recent figures, 115,376 Iraqi civilians were killed as a direct consequence of the war between 2003 and 2011. In addition 4,488 American and 179 British military personnel died during the conflict as well. On the ground, a country was utterly destroyed. Was it worth it?

The question undoubtedly has a moral undertone. As a historian, I know that there cannot be a single answer. The assessment whether it was 'worth' it depends entirely on the perspective.

From the personal perspective of Tony Blair, the Iraq invasion was clearly a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it was his 'Falklands moment' where he could show belligerent masculinity and the decisiveness of a world leader. On the other, his manipulation of intelligence in the run-up to the war, not to mention going against the wishes of hundreds of thousands who took to the streets to protest against the war, meant that his popularity dwindled. Today, despite taking Labour to a landslide election victory in 1997 and winning again in 2001 and 2005, he will forever be remembered as the prime minister who took the country to (what some say was) an 'illegal' war. Like Anthony Eden in 1956, the Iraq War was Blair's Suez.

From the perspective of George W. Bush, much the same can be said. American opposition to the war was not as strong as British at the outset, but as American troops began to come home in coffins, whilst at the same time no WMDs were found, Bush's popularity too took a knock.

From a general American perspective, the Iraq war was a mixed bag. It removed Saddam Hussein, who certainly had been a thorn in their side for decades, despite a brief period of US support of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War (Rumsfeld's notorious handshake with Saddam). At the same time, however, it revealed the weakness of US policy in the Middle East. Despite possessing the most lethal killing machine in the history of mankind, the US was incapable of militarily subduing the Iraqi insurgency - just as the British had been unable to crush Iraqi resistance without a political solution in 1920.

The toppling of Saddam, whilst removing a symbol of anti-Americanism, also opened up a can of worms in terms of sectarian, communal and religious strife that for decades had been suppressed by the strongman. Inadvertently, and very unfortunately from the American perspective, the ease with which Saddam's regime was overthrown emboldened people in the region to challenge authoritarian rulers. Indirectly this led to the Arab Spring. Once the Emperor had been revealed to have no clothes, Libyans were no longer afraid of Gaddafi, Egyptians feared not Mubarak, Tunisians opposed Ben Ali and Syrians are currently trying to oust Bashar al-Assad. Far from creating a more stable and pro-American region, the decade since Saddam's overthrow has witnessed the Middle East descend into chaos and what comes out of this turmoil is neither stable nor pro-American.

From the point of view of Western commentators who for political or ideological reasons supported the war, it has definitely been worth it. The dictator who killed his own people is gone, democracy has been established, and that seems to be the end of the story. On to the next project in Syria. Never mind the consequences on the ground, because, after all, they will not have to live there.

From the point of view of Iraqis who supported the war for ideological or political reasons, the initial reaction was similar: Saddam is gone, now we can rebuild an inclusive, modern and democratic nation. After decades spent in political exile in Europe and elsewhere, thousands of Iraqi activists returned to their homeland to join the political process and rebuild the country. However, as the Americans dismantled the whole governmental apparatus and pursued a policy bent on punishing Sunnis who had supported the regime, Iraqi politics became increasingly sectarianised. On the streets terrorist gangs attacked Shi'i communities and religious symbols, and when revenged, a full-blown sectarian civil war ensued. Ten years on, Nuri al-Maliki has entrenched himself in power as a result of stirring the Shi'is by appealing to sectarian fears. Instead of a Sunni strongman, Iraq has a new, albeit elected, Shi'i strongman.

For those who opposed the war, whether Iraqi or non-Iraqi, it has been an atrociously tragic decade. A country once famed for its religious tolerance, its progressively-minded intelligentsia and its rich cultural heritage has been reduced to an uncivilised, brutal and torn-apart country where people hide their sectarian affiliation out of fear of getting killed for belonging to the 'wrong' sect!

The greatest losers, however, were ordinary non-political Iraqi citizens; people who lived normal lives under Saddam without getting involved in politics. Ironically, this group - the absolute majority of the population - has been completely written out of history. Nobody asked them before the war whether they wanted a foreign military force to invade their land, kick in their front doors in search of terrorists, beat their sons to death in custody or torture them at Abu Ghraib. Nobody asked them whether it was morally defensible to dismantle a whole state just to make an ideological point. Nobody asked them if having no electricity or running water in 50°C was humane and civilised. Nobody asked them whether it was justifiable to be shot by private security firms if failing to understand a command to stop in a Texan accent. Nobody asked them whether it furthered the democratic cause to allow widespread looting of cultural heritage, libraries and public records in the name of de-Ba'thification.

To the great masses of the population who on a daily basis have to live with the consequences of foolish warmongering, no ideological or political justifications for the war make sense. To them the question whether it was worth it must seem preposterously hollow.