The Lessons Yet to be Learned from the Iraq War

The Lessons Yet to be Learned from the Iraq War

By Emil Turdukulov; Image by GettyImages

March of this year marked the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Using the justification that Saddam Hussein had a stockpile of Weapons of Mass Destructions (WMD’s), the architects of the invasion had meant for the liberation of the country from the clutches of the Saddam Hussein regime and the halt to the proliferation of WMD’s; during the process, the Iraqi people would welcome their liberators and rejoice that their oppressor would be dethroned. 

But that all turned out to be nothing more than wishful thinking, and the harm done in Iraq outweighs any measurable signs of good. 

For one, the government in Iraq that the U.S. has sponsored has consistently fallen short on serving and protecting its people; the governments that had been set up since the invasion have proven to be corrupt and ineffective with maintaining law and order and implementing working economic policies. In a country divided along religious and ethnic lines, the central government has been unable or unwilling to bridge differences among their members. In one instance, the Shiite politician Nouri al-Maliki, who was elected as Iraq’s president in 2006, had used his powers not to unite the Iraqi people, but to punish the Sunni minority for enjoying their greater power under Saddam’s rule. In another case, merely on the basis of religious differences, he had also disbanded the Sahwat paramilitaries, groups of tribal members who worked with the U.S. to provide security in the predominantly Sunni areas; doing so had facilitated the overrun of those areas by Islamic State jihadists in 2014.

Iraq also became a breeding ground for Islamic terrorism; the conditions that followed Saddam’s downfall were conducive to the formation of militant armed groups and a greater insurgency, which was epitomized by the rise and rapid expansion of the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria in 2014. If the goal of the U.S. invasion was to create a representative democratic state that would pose no threat to the U.S., the exact opposite was achieved in Iraq with the arrival of the Islamic State, which would call on Muslims living in the West to carry out lone wolf attacks. 

Thanks to U.S. airstrikes and Iraqi armed forces on the ground, the Islamic State was largely eliminated in 2017. However, the threat that emerged and that remains to this day is Iran. The majority of Iraq’s population is Shiite, which aligns them with the religious background of Iran. Iraqi Shiites are also sympathetic to Iranian involvement in Iraq, as Iran provides a major source of economic activity and local security. Even some Iraqi paramilitaries are wholeheartedly loyal to Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei and would follow the words of the Iranian supreme leader over the commands of their Iraqi superiors in government. Iran’s control of Iraq is real and should not be taken lightly considering Iran has a reputation for its use of proxies to gain leverage and control in the Middle East, such as Syria’s Assad regime, Lebanon’s Hizbullah, and Yemen’s Houthi movement. 

Perhaps the lessons from Iraq have yet to sink into the mind of the U.S. For starters, aiding the Iraqi government with clearly delineated objectives in mind would be best. The U.S. does not need an embassy in Iraq; it needs a stable mission that can help Iraq address both its civil and security needs. The U.S. must have concrete plans for its levels of aid that will be provided over time, maintain a level of presence that provides support that is needed, and demonstrate that it is acting in the interest of every major element in Iraq. Making Iraq a strategic partner is desirable and could have long-term benefits for both countries, but creating a strong and independent Iraq is the goal that ultimately matters.

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