08/03/2013 10:05 GMT | Updated 08/03/2013 10:05 GMT

An Audit of Iraq Ten Years On

The acerbic arguments about Iraq return this month with the 10th anniversary of the intervention. This milestone coincides with the 25th anniversary of the Kurdish genocide which itself began 50 years ago. It is a year of anniversaries.

Lest we forget: 16 March 1988. Halabja, a small town, where 5,000 people were killed by weapons of mass destruction: mustard gas and nerve agents. Many more were hideously injured and their ailments persist. So does the discovery of mass graves. There is another Iraq under Iraq, as a Kurdish official memorably told me.

The last months of the genocide took about 200,000 Kurdish lives with many more before that. Overall, Saddam's death toll across Iraq runs into the hundreds of thousands and well over a million with the conscript soldiers who died in the Iran-Iraq war.

Given Halabja and his refusal to cooperate with the UN, I then accepted that Saddam had maintained his WMD, was a serial offender against mandatory UN Security Council resolutions, and was a destabilising factor in the Middle East. It is shameful that the world permitted Saddam's war crimes and genocide.

The Kurds, in particular, are categorical about describing the intervention in 2003 as 'liberation'. I often see people's jaws drop when I mention this, but how could it be otherwise? Some say that the plight of the Kurds, a large minority in Iraq, could not by itself justify intervention. I ask how their persecution could justify non-intervention.

But the question now is not so much about intervention - supporters and opponents are certain of their case - but also the conduct of the occupation and whether Iraq is now a better place.

Those who differed over the intervention generally unite in criticising the occupation as disastrous. Yet we should acknowledge how difficult it was to reckon the depth of the physical and psychological legacy of Saddam. The context of decades of one-party rule, the crushing of independent thought and action, mass terror and genocide still frame Iraq's efforts to democratise.

Given this, progress has been mixed. The Kurdistan region is clearly thriving as the safest, most stable, and prosperous part of Iraq, with a headstart of 12 years of relative freedom from Saddam. The number of deaths through terrorism is about 200 since 2003. It has built a major energy sector from nothing in just a few years. And it has helped stabilise the rest of Iraq and could be a model for it to follow.

Kurdistan faces the problems of transition from a war-torn and dirt-poor command economy but has the resilience to reform further and faster. Its different order of problems flow from growth and prosperity. These include how to reduce inequality, boost independent civil society, involve youth, increase the power of the private sector and ensure better public services. Iraq and Kurdistan are heavily reliant on energy revenues and need to avoid the curse of natural resources which can obstruct a more diverse and sustainable economy.

The picture in Arab Iraq is worse. Violence is dramatically down but still very serious. Despite vast energy revenues, the condition of the masses is pitiful. There are just a few hours of electricity each day compared to almost continuous power in the Kurdish north. Other services are poor. Unemployment, often masked in increasingly bloated ministries, and corruption are soaring.

Baghdad is bottom of the list of 221 cities for quality of life while the Kurdish capital, Erbil, is ranked high in lists of places to visit and, in a sign that tourism is becoming important, is due to be 'Arab tourism capital' in 2014.

Baghdad has the form, but not yet the content, of a functioning democracy. Its parliament meets irregularly, although it has recently agreed a two-term limit for the prime minister, who is unconstitutionally accumulating power.

Iraq is a part of the Middle East which is very much a man's world. The position of women is improving and women are better represented in its parliaments than they are here. But access to work, 'honour' killings and female genital mutilation are live issues, although Kurdish political leaders in particular are making strong moral and legislative moves to accelerate cultural change.

Sunni and Kurdish minorities, beneficiaries and victims respectively of Saddam, increasingly have more in common as they reject centralisation and what Sunnis see as ghettoisation.

The main aim of Labour Friends of Iraq was to unite those who differed on the invasion in supporting the unions, which had been all but liquidated by Saddam but sprang back to life in 2003.

An LFIQ team visited Baghdad in 2008 to talk with the prime minister about lifting Saddam's old restrictions and to embrace labour laws in tune with international norms. He praised unions and independent bodies effusively, but did nothing. Indeed, such groups have been the victims of increasingly sectarian and authoritarian politics in Baghdad.

Iraq inhabits a very tough neighbourhood and is increasingly embroiled in the wider Sunni-Shia geopolitical schism. Iraq aligns itself with Iran, which has bloody fingers in many pies. Turkey's astonishing detente, based on hard-nosed commercial considerations, with the Kurdistan region could also help end the long and bloody war between it and the PKK.

A domineering Arab, though Shia, nationalism is bubbling in Baghdad and could splinter Iraq. American troops used to help check these tensions but their withdrawal immediately sparked a series of deep and still-unresolved crises over the past year.

Solutions to these problems lie in Iraq. There is a deep respect in Iraq for British businesses, services and institutions. Friends here and elsewhere can disagree about intervention but can help Iraqis make the federal and democratic settlement work and lay the ghost of Saddam to rest forever. This work could only begin when the monster had gone but it is still a long road to recovery in Iraq.

A longer version of this appears at Progress