From a bird’s perspective, there is no conflict that in the last ten years has taken more of the world’s attention than the war in Iraq. Both politically, militarily and in international news coverage, the war in Iraq was by far the overriding issue in international politics in the period 2002–2007. And the main reason for this is quite obvious, namely the drama of the situation. During the period, at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians lost their lives. As many as 4,000 American soldiers were killed, more than 20,000 were seriously injured and al-Qaeda – or other terrorist groups – carried out more than 650 suicide bombings, far more than any other terrorist attack in the world combined.
- What has happened in Iraq?
- Who are the parties?
- Is the war over?
- Will Obama succeed in his strategy of withdrawing all US troops from Iraq during 2011?
But then, a couple of years later, Iraq has largely disappeared from the international news picture. In recent months, even key foreign policy observers in Washington have begun talking about the United States having “won” the war in Iraq.
2: Looking back
First a quick look back: As far as we now know, the US decision to invade Iraq was made once during the summer of 2002. This was less than a year after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, and only a few months later. that the United States, with broad international support, removed the Taliban from power in Afghanistan.
The official US justification for the invasion of Iraq consisted of two main arguments: The United States claimed:
- that Iraq had a large, illegal, arsenal of chemical and bacteriological weapons (so-called ” weapons of mass destruction”), which the country refused to dispose of voluntarily. There were also fears that the country was well on its way to acquiring nuclear weapons.
- that the then president, Saddam Hussein, had close ties to international terrorist networks, and thus posed a significant threat to international peace and security.
However, these were hardly the real motives behind the invasion of Iraq. In recent years, a number of books have been published, and many hearings and investigations have been carried out both in the United States and in the United Kingdom. These suggest that the actual main objective of the war was to remove Saddam Hussein from power. In other words, the invasion of Iraq was what we might call a ” regime change war .” The purpose of such a war was – it was said – partly to democratize Iraqi society, with the hope that this would push other dictatorships in the Middle East in a more democratic direction, and partly to secure the United States’ own strategic and political interests in the Middle East.
The actual military campaign against Iraq began with airstrikes on the capital, Baghdad, in early March 20, 2003. On the same day, the United States and Britain launched a joint ground invasion. At the same time, Saddam Hussein disappeared underground, and his political party (the Ba’ath party), which had ruled Iraq since 1968, lost power.
3: The Civil War
To begin with, the invasion of Iraq was described by most as a military success. However, this success was very short-lived. As early as the summer of 2003, just a few weeks after the United States took power in the country, the first signs of what became a protracted and well-organized Iraqi uprising came directly against the United States and its allies in Iraq. The majority of Iraqis did not support this uprising, but it was nevertheless extensive and involved from 2004 to 2008 at least as many as 100,000 armed Iraqis.
The consequence was that what initially seemed to be a US military success developed into a full-scale war. When the war was at its most dramatic in the summer of 2007, it was the world’s bloodiest conflict. 4,000 to 5,000 civilians were killed every single month.
According to smartercomputing, this war has had three main parties:
- The new Iraqi government in Baghdad, which is led by Shiite Muslim parties and which the United States gave power to and has supported in the years since the invasion.
- The Iraqi national rebel movement, which is fighting both the United States and the government in Baghdad.
- In between stood al-Qaida and other pure terrorist groups that not only fought against the government and the United States, but also against parts of Iraq’s national rebel movement.
In short: The war in Iraq was a war with two dimensions of conflict.
- One was a traditional war against the US occupation of Iraq and US supporters.
- The second was an internal conflict over influence in Iraq between different sections of Iraqi society, which eventually developed into a purely ” sectarian war .” That is, a war between religious or ethnic communities. In Iraq, the sectarian conflict was mainly concerned with competition for influence between the country’s Arab Shiite Muslim majority and an Arab Sunni Muslim minority.
4: What went wrong?
Could the civil war in Iraq have been avoided? In retrospect, the answer is probably yes. The war was not inevitable, and it was primarily due to mistakes on the part of the United States in the first months after the invasion itself. These are in particular the following three factors:
- The United States implemented an overly radical regime change. The US goal of the war was to remove Saddam Hussein’s regime from power in Iraq. But in practice, the United States went much further. Instead of just fighting the Ba’athist regime, the United States decided to oust virtually the entire political, economic and cultural elite that has been at the heart of the Iraqi state since World War I, and largely recruited from the Sunni Muslim part of the population. The United States thus pushed aside a significant part of the population and replaced them with a new political elite, which mainly wanted to advance the interests of the Shiite Muslim majority. One of the consequences was that what had kept Iraq together, the very formation of the state, in practice collapsed. The United States thus lost the ability to govern Iraq.
- The United States dropped the army. As in Afghanistan, one of Iraq’s main problems after the invasion has been the lack of its own well-functioning army and police force that can keep order. In the case of Iraq, this has been a problem that was largely created by the United States. As part of the US regime change policy, Washington surprisingly chose to disband the Iraqi army and police as early as the summer of 2003. As a result, the Iraqi state lost its monopoly on violence. And many former soldiers joined the national resistance movement.
- The United States was unable to provide security and economic development. Iraq is really a rich country with huge oil deposits. (Probably well over 100 billion barrels of oil – at least ten times as much as Norway.) Due to the war between Iraq and Iran in the years 1980–1988, international economic sanctions in the 1990s (after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait) and Saddam Hussein’s misrule Iraq was still a poor country when the United States invaded in 2003. Many Iraqis therefore had high expectations of a better future. In addition, the invasion caused major damage to the infrastructure – with a failing electricity and water supply as a result. The United States also lacked plans and the ability to act quickly to resolve Iraq’s fundamental development problems. On the contrary, the situation worsened, and many Iraqis lost confidence in the United States.
5: The breach
In the summer of 2007, hardly anyone had much hope for Iraq’s future. The then president of the United States, George W. Bush, nevertheless decided to send more soldiers in an attempt to settle the war against the rebels and reverse the development in the country. However, many politicians were deeply skeptical of the president’s decision, including then-Senator Barack Obama. The decision to increase the number of troops in Iraq in 2007 has been called “the Surge” recovery. Interestingly, the strategy is very reminiscent of the strategy that President Obama has now decided to implement in Afghanistan.
Three years after Bush’s decision in 2007, the situation in Iraq has significantly improved . The war is not over, but the security situation is completely different. For example, November 2009 was the first month with fewer than 100 civilians registered as killed in Iraq since May 2003. Opinion polls also show that Iraqis are generally more optimistic about the future than in many years. The economic situation is still bad and burdened by a lot of corruption. But Iraq has entered into comprehensive new oil production agreements with international oil companies, and developments are moving in the right direction in most of the country.
Another sign of good weather is that in the winter of 2010, the United States will begin withdrawing its first troops from Iraq . The country still has more than 120,000 soldiers in the country. Obama’s plan is to reduce this number to 50,000 by the end of August this year. This is partly related to developments in Iraq, but is also closely linked to Obama’s plan to send another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. By the end of 2011, all US forces will be out of Iraq. The Iraq war will thus – from the American side – be over.