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The decade after

March 27, 2013

AS President Barack Obama started out on his journey to the Middle East, Iraqis were marking the tenth anniversary of the invasion of their country — an invasion that was supposed to liberate them from the dictatorial Saddam regime and set new standards of democracy and stability for the Middle East.

What the Iraqi people have instead is a country divided, with Kurds striking out on their own, Sunnis struggling to retain some elements of power. What they have is corruption so rampant that Iraq is now termed the 169th from the bottom with Afghanistan as a point of comparison being at 174th. As one Iraqi analyst bitterly puts it, “Iraqis now expect most politicians to spend the duration of their time in power securing prestigious appointments and corrupt deals in order to make enough money for a comfortable retirement outside Iraq.”

What they have is a series of car bombs and suicide attacks on mainly Shia districts in Baghdad and other cities last Tuesday, to mark the anniversary and an assertion by the Islamic State of Iraq — another name for Al Qaeda in Iraq — which claimed responsibility for the attacks, that “what has reached you on Tuesday is just the first drop of rain, and a first phase…” What they have is a resurgence of suicide bombers with two suicide attacks being mounted every week since January this year, far less of course than the level of violence that prevailed a few years ago but an ominous harbinger of things to come as the domestic and regional situations cause the sectarian divide to widen.

What they know is that in 2003 there was, as Western experts also concede, no Al Qaeda presence in Iraq. Today, Al Qaeda in Iraq is a formidable force with off-shoots in Syria, Lebanon and Libya. More and more, it seems that Sunnis, feeling disenfranchised — the Sunni vice president has sought asylum in Turkey after Maliki’s government issued warrants for his arrest and the Sunni finance minister has sought shelter with his tribe in Sunni-dominated Anbar province after an effort was made to arrest him — and encouraged by the Syrian situation are looking perhaps to such extremist organisations to win back the political power they lost after the American invasion.

What they have is an increase in oil production to 3.6 million barrels a day, well above the 2.8 million barrels produced in 2003 but lacking the infrastructure to produce electricity, leaving much of the country with less than eight hours of electricity a day.

What they have are 2.7 million people who have fled their homes and whose resettlement remains an unresolved problem exacerbated by the return to camps in Iraq of those forced out of Syria where they had initially sought shelter. What they have is Iraqis in the thousands seeking to emigrate to Europe and other destinations.

On the brighter side, what they also have, however, is an advance on building an Iraq-Jordan pipeline that will enable Iraq to export its crude, by-passing the Straits of Hormuz and enabling increased exports of Iraqi crude, the production of which can be increased according to the International Energy Agency to 6.1 million barrels a day in 2020 and 8.3 million barrels a day in 2035. What they also have is the possibility of recommencing work on the Iraq-Turkish pipeline once the Kurds can be persuaded not to pursue oil export deals with Turkey independent of Baghdad.

In this context what they have to ask is whether there is a possibility that the recent agreement between the Turkish government and the Kurdish leader on a ceasefire, and an acceptance that the Kurds will seek the satisfaction of their demands through the political dialogue that the Erdogan government has agreed to, will be sufficient incentive for Turkey to tell the Iraqi Kurds to work with Baghdad and treat themselves as a part of Iraq.

What they have is a strategic framework agreement with the United States, the American commitment which was reiterated by Secretary Kerry during his recent visit. While there are now no American troops in Iraq the strength of the American embassy was 16,000 in early 2012 and has now been reduced to 10,500 with the plan being to bring it down by the end of the year to 5,100. And yet this strategic framework agreement and the substantial diplomatic presence notwithstanding, Kerry found during his recent visit that he could not persuade Nouri Al Maliki to halt Iranian flights over Iraq carrying arms to Syria. So far, it seems that he has had little success in persuading Maliki to seek reconciliation with his Sunni colleagues or to persuade the Sunni speaker of the Iraqi parliament to get Sunni members of the Iraqi cabinet to resume attending cabinet meetings and by so doing to rescind the earlier decision taken in their absence to postpone provincial elections, originally scheduled for April in the Sunni-dominated provinces of Anbar and Nineveh. Iraq’s role in Syria will not be what America wants.

The Iraqi analyst quoted above is right to ask, “What did the United States gain from spending more than $2trillion on its war? If it had really been for oil, then why does it seem that China will profit more from developing Iraq’s lucrative oil contracts? Did American forces, which withdrew in December 2011, snatch Iraq away from Saddam’s hands only to place it in Iran’s?”

Writing in 2009 when the American withdrawal from Iraq was under way, a Guardian columnist said: “There is no question that the US has suffered a strategic defeat in Iraq. Far from turning the country into a forward base for the transformation of the region on Western lines, it became a global demonstration of the limits of American military power.” One could add that it also converted the Arab Middle East into a cauldron in which every one’s interests have been jeopardised.

But who, then, won? Undoubtedly Israel. More on that next week.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.