The US exit from Iraq was a humiliation for the world’s biggest superpower. Barack Obama wanted to fulfil his commitment to pull out of Iraq by 31 December 2011, but he also wanted to leave some troops in place. He didn’t get his way. The Iraqi authorities refused to extend an agreement of immunity from prosecution for US troops beyond 2011 – so Obama had to pull them all out.
Obama once described Iraq as the “dumb war”, yet in his speech to soldiers in the US marking the pull out he called it “an extraordinary achievement”.
But there is no glory in this exit from a war that saw the death of over a million Iraqi civilians. Torture that mimicked that of the deposed dictator Saddam Hussein became rife in his old prisons like Abu Ghraib. And in a war of atrocities, some stood out. The assaults on the town of Fallujah mean that name will resonate for generations as a byword for imperialist brutality.
The occupation forces also paid a price. Nearly 4,500 US soldiers lost their lives and 30,000 were injured while 179 British soldiers also died.
So what exactly is the “extraordinary achievement” of this bloody war? Certainly not peace and stability. In 2011’s final days, 23 Iraqis died in one day in bomb attacks in Baghdad. The media spin describes these as due to “sectarian” violence by forces previously held back by the presence of US troops. Nine years of invasion and occupation tell a very different story. The roots of the violence lie in the process of imperialist domination that deliberately fostered divisions in order to take control more easily, with even the partition of Iraq proposed at times as a possible “solution”.
The infrastructure and public services of the country have been destroyed. Millions of Iraqis live as refugees and 50 percent live in slum conditions, up from 17 percent in 2000. There are estimated to be 4.5 million orphans, hundreds of thousands of them living in the street.
The legacy of the West’s role in Iraq reaches back before the 2003 invasion. Years of economic sanctions had a devastating impact. In 1996 then US secretary of state Madeleine Albright was asked if the deaths of half a million Iraqi children due to sanctions were justified. She replied, “We think the price is worth it.”
One reason the Iraqis paid this price was so that the US could win back control of Iraq’s immense oil and gas resources from Saddam Hussein, its former ally. The strategic importance of these resources remains, so the US plans to maintain its ability to intervene in Iraq.
It has built the largest and most expensive embassy in the world in Baghdad, covering one and half square miles with 15,000 personnel. While many ordinary Iraqis struggle without access to basic amenities including clean water, within the vast embassy grounds outdoor water-misters keep the embassy staff cool as they walk between buildings.
This is what liberation from dictatorship means when done by US imperialism. The invasion and occupation of Iraq denied its people the chance to bring down their own dictator. Instead of the magnificent scenes of the mass movements of the Arab revolutions over the last year, Iraq had a stage-managed stunt when Saddam’s statue was pulled down for the Western media.
The Arab revolutions have already reshaped the world’s political map. They have brought down Western imperialism’s dictator friends and given hope to millions, not just across North Africa and the Middle East but across the globe. They offer the alternative to imperialist domination and repression. The US ruling class thought that after 9/11 they would have a free ticket to intervene anywhere. Iraq was the opportunity to rid themselves of the Vietnam syndrome – the idea that US military intervention abroad was doomed to failure.
But there is no victory to celebrate in Iraq. The war in Afghanistan is in a bloody stalemate with the West desperate to extricate itself. The ghost of Vietnam has not been banished. Opinion polls show that a majority of Americans believe that the war in Afghanistan will end in defeat like in Vietnam. There is no appetite for more war.
However, the US remains the world’s biggest military power, even in the depths of economic crisis, and a superpower threatened with losing its status remains dangerous.
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