"Was It Worth It? Iraq, Ten Years On" is the subject of a major debate, organised this week by The Huffington Post. It is the first of many such debates marking the tenth anniversary of the liberation/invasion/intervention/occupation of Iraq - take your pick.
The debate on this vexed question remains as vivid and divisive today as it was ten years ago. My own emphatic answer is that it was worth it. The main positive change is that Iraq is no longer ruled by a regime based on the worst aspects of those of both Hitler and Stalin: labour fronts instead of independent trade unions and other civil society bodies, bloody and capricious one party rule, a command economy that only worked for the elites, external aggression, mass murder and genocide at home.
We are not only marking the tenth anniversary of the fall of Saddam but the 50th anniversary of the beginnings in 1963 of a campaign of demonisation of the Kurds that proceeded to full-blown genocide, most notably at Halabja where 5,000 people were killed and many more hideously injured by Saddam's Weapons of Mass Destruction. It is also the 25th anniversary of that terrible event.
My focus here is on the Iraqi Kurds who Saddam was determined to eliminate and who are about one fifth of Iraq. Saddam was only stopped by chance when he over-reached himself and invaded Kuwait which forced the UN to step in and evict him. He crushed the Kurdish and Shia rebellions and was proceeding to finish the Kurds off as they fled into the mountains for shelter. The public outrage then forced the US, the UK and France to establish a no-fly zone and allow the Kurds to return home but with Saddam's tanks a constant menace across the Green Line, which also truncated the Kurdish region to a substantially smaller territory.
Figures on the number of people killed by Saddam are very difficult to establish. The mass graves are still being discovered. A Kurdish official memorably told me that there is another Iraq under Iraq. One estimate of the number of Kurds killed in the last stages of the genocide in 1987/88 is nearly 200,000 but a probably larger number perished before that. In addition, about 250,000 members of the now ruling Dawa Party were murdered, to the third degree of familial relationships, in revenge for an attempted assassination of Saddam. Then there are the Marsh Arabs and the general and routine repression of Iraqis across the country and across decades. Plus all the soldiers killed in the Iran-Iraq war.
Kurds are emphatic, as I have frequently been told on ten trips there since 2003, that they were liberated from this menace first by Sir John Major and then by Tony Blair.
Some people will say, well, they would say that, wouldn't they. Well, yes, they would and they would be entitled to say so. A regime that targeted one fifth of its population for extermination deserved to be overthrown. It is such a shame that it wasn't done well before 2003. It is to the eternal shame of the whole international community that it neither sought to stop the genocide in real time but that some powers colluded with Saddam, who was a tactical ally, and even sought to blame the Iranians for these atrocities. The eventual action against Saddam was justified but late.
The best way of assessing the worth of the liberation is to look at actually existing Iraq. The brightest scenario is now seen in the Kurdistan Region which is picking itself up from decades of dictatorship.
Things are proving much slower and more difficult in the rest of the country and the Arab part of Iraq is in crisis, with an increasingly authoritarian administration in Baghdad but one that does not remotely resemble the dark and savage days of Saddam's Republic of Fear.
It is not altogether surprising that a society ravaged by fascism for 40 years will find it difficult to get on its feet in such a relatively short time. The physical and psychological legacy of fascism lays heavily on Iraqi society. Iraq has a fledgling democracy with regular elections but the guiding notion of many parties is the quest for total power and centralisation. What we have we hold and using power to root themselves in for the long term. It is what politics under Saddam was all about. It will take time to overcome.
But the departure of a fascist regime that committed genocide and mass murder and the efforts to build a new federal and democratic Iraq are unequivocal gains for the Iraqi people and the international community.
The e petition to recognis the genocide against the Kurds is still open at http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/31014
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