America's delusions in Baghdad cost Iraqis their sovereignty

America's delusions in Baghdad cost Iraqis their sovereignty
Comment: Sixteen years after America's failed 'liberation' of Iraq, its people are still deprived of their sovereignty, writes Nazli Tarzi.
6 min read
09 Apr, 2019
The statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square was toppled on 9 April, 2003 [Getty]
On this day 16 years ago in Iraq's Firdos Square, occupying American forces staged what newspapers would misinterpret as the heroic rescue of a people living miserably under dictatorship. 

The day was April 9th. Foreign troops reached the heart of the capital Baghdad to topple an all important state symbol - the statue of Saddam Hussein. America's assertive and violent rejection of Iraq's former government developed an iconic status of its own. At the Palestine Hotel across the road, foreign journalists were busy staging TV-worthy cathartic shots to legitimise an immoral war waged by George W. Bush and his allies.

What it denied to the people of Iraq, then as much as now, was the chance to recreate the Iraqi nation in their own image. As Al Jazeera remarked at the time, "this is the scene that US television networks have been waiting for" which some likened to the the fall of Lenin or Ceausescu.

Thousands of Iraqis - including my family - rallied around television headsets, listening anxiously as developments unfurled.

Washington's foreign policy intentions were laid bare for the world to see - to unseat Saddam from power. But what happened next, as locals predicted, was the deliberate and wholesale destruction of an industrialised and educated oil-rich state. The promise of a New Regional Order vocalised by Bush quoting Winston Churchill in March 1991, rung in the minds of all Iraqis, as the drums of war began to beat louder.

Liberation was an excuse behind which America hid, as it tore down instruments of organised authority and killed as many as 200,000 Iraqis in the process.

Baghdad was captured, and three weeks later and an end to combat operations was proclaimed, but Iraq's ordeal was only beginning.

Foreign journalists were busy staging TV-worthy cathartic shots to legitimise an immoral war waged by George W. Bush and his allies

After dissolving Iraq's security sector under the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) De-Baathification Order, America sought, yet failed, to build effective and centralised state institutions.

Next to that, 43 alleged politicians and 29 public figures, many of whom were exiled by the former regime, were cherry-picked by American officials to head the Iraqi National Congress.

The top-to-bottom gutting of state institutions by an occupying force marked a watershed moment for not only Iraq, but the entire Arab world.

While my parents and I fled during the previous war on Kuwait, extended family members remained firmly anchored in Baghdad. There was no safe place to which they could turn.

"The landscape was unfamiliar" says 24-year-old Faiq. "The city was smothered under a thick blanket of smoke, stores were shuttered and I still remember my father warning me 'Baba, be careful on your way to school, there's no government'" he recalls. Faiq and his older brother made the journey to school on foot everyday while the city they loved burned before them.

Another former resident, who fled to Sweden following the outbreak of Iraq's civil conflict in 2007, remembers events on Haifa street where he lived - a hotbed of violence during Iraq's occupation.

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"The road was divided, according to the backgrounds of its residents. Attacks were incessant, actors who identified with one religious sect exchanged fire with groups that pledged allegiance to another" the 27-year-old remembers, laughing about having survived some of Baghdad's fiercest battle as a boy of just 14.

The virtual collapse of the Iraqi state left a gaping power vacuum, which brought into existence a patchwork of overlapping and competing forces.

The same forces now occupy important seats in both parliament and key state ministries. In the absence of sovereign rule, militias outfits largely turned to Iran for both logistical and financial support.

Illegal activities such as racketeering, extortion and even illicit oil sales generated a greater flow of income, paving the road to power for these paramilitary groups.

Sixteen years after the fact, Iraqis, including myself, are not shocked, but weary and dismayed at the level of humiliation that our people have been subjected to that continues today.

Events of American making failed to produce the results Washington dreamt of when it enshrined regime change with the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, signed by Bill Clinton.

What it denied to the people of Iraq, then as much as now, was the chance to recreate the Iraqi nation in their own image

"It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power," it read.

The winds of change that swept through the streets and ancient alleyways of Baghdad 16 years ago today unleashed a storm of instability and tyranny that has since swept through much of the Arab world.

America's delusions in Baghdad have cost Iraqis justice, freedom and the nation's sovereignty, and threatened instability in the wider region.

The reinvention of old myths or newly spun tall tales of reform may buy time for Baghdad's ailing government and its allies. But what it cannot do is reverse the perilous state of the country today, or the knock-on effects that America's invasion set in motion.

Iran's eagle-eyed administration awaited the fall of Baghdad perhaps more fervently than the United States, and the fall of Saddam served as a historic springboard for Iraq's longtime foe.

Baghdad was captured, and three weeks later and an end to combat operations was proclaimed, but Iraq's ordeal was only beginning

Today, Iraq's fate and fortunes are closely linked to their turbaned and camouflage-clad allies in Tehran, and policy makers in Washington occupy the sidelines. Both at home and abroad, America stands accused of having handed Iraq to Iran on a silver platter.

Just this week, Reuters reported that an agreement of understanding for Iran to develop Iraq's oil fields on their mutual border had been reached, attributing the news to Iranian state-television and Iranian oil minister, Bijan Zanganeh. In contrast, the Iraqi government's response remains muted.

Iraqis remain sceptical of Trump's strategy in their country, and whether sanctions on Iran will really weaken its influence, given that much of Iran's trade is transacted through Iraq's economy. This business activity is largely cash-driven, entirely opaque, and endorsed by a government that America has spent billions on.

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As America turns its back on nation-building, Iraq contends with a greater dilemma beyond Iranian influence or reliance on Iranian electricity and gas supplies: The absence of a political body able to assert itself, organise its own affairs and remain free from the interference of external powers, which poses a much larger threat for the restless nation.

Few analysts have floated the idea that Adil Abdul-Mahdi's government could take back the reins, instead assuming the middle path as the broker of the prolonged proxy war on its soil.

Proponents of this view overlook the fact that by forfeiting its sovereignty, Iraq is no longer in a firm position to referee the political game within its own borders. The chance to take a stand has long passed, and the idea that Iraq can be its own peace-peddler is fanciful, at best.

Nazli Tarzi is a freelance British-Iraqi journalist, specialising in Middle East politics, with a particular interest in Iraqi affairs. 

Follow her on Twitter: @NazliTarzi

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.