Twenty-five years ago, on March 16, 1988, then-Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s troops spread poison gas through the Kurdish town of Halabja. The attack, which killed an estimated 5,000 people and injured up to 10,000 more, remains the largest chemical-weapons attack ever to target a civilian population.
In the light of the Halabja atrocity, and the regime’s broader genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds, and massive repression throughout the country, the question “Is Iraq better off now than it was under Saddam Hussein?” requires no great deliberation.
Iraqis are rid of a dictator responsible for the deaths of at least 1 million Iraqis, a man who plunged the country into three wars in 24 years, and whose policies (with the international community’s complicity) kept ordinary Iraqis under the strictest sanctions ever imposed by the UN. Yes, Iraq is better off without this absolute despot.
However, for those of us who participated in the effort to reconstruct Iraq starting in 2003, this answer is far too glib. We set the bar far higher. The success of the war must surely be measured by whether its goals — particularly the establishment of a constitutional democracy and the country’s economic reconstruction — have been achieved. By this standard, the war in Iraq was a monumental failure.
The US-led Coalition Provisional Authority empowered a new group of political elites who fundamentally distrusted one another and, more important, failed to coalesce around a shared vision for governing the country. Rather than giving these new politicians time to broker compromises, the US imposed a divisive constitutional process that exacerbated existing fissures, leading to the civil war of 2006 to 2007.
The Kurdish and Arab Shiite religious parties sought a very weak central government in Baghdad, the latter because they feared a return to Sunni minority rule. The Sunni Arab parties initially rejected any notion of a confederated state, but in time they came to believe that the Shiite parties would never share power voluntarily. The ongoing cycle of violence is a legacy of this struggle for control.
Today, many Sunni Iraqis aspire to the same autonomy from Baghdad that the Kurds enjoy in the north of the country. The Shiite parties, having tasted real power in Iraq for the first time, are now attempting to create a much more centralized state than either the Kurds or Sunni Iraqis — or the constitution, for that matter — will tolerate.
Indeed, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has largely succeeded in concentrating power in his own hands. He has created a network of military and security forces that report directly to him, often outside the legal command structure. He has intimidated the judiciary into ignoring institutional checks on his power, so that constitutionally independent agencies, such as the electoral commission and the central bank, are now under his direct control.
Moreover, Maliki has used the criminal courts to silence his political opponents. Iraq’s Sunni vice president is a fugitive in Turkey, with multiple death sentences rendered against him for alleged terrorist activities, though the judgments were based on the confessions of bodyguards who had been tortured (one died during the “investigation”). An arrest warrant has now been issued against the former finance minister, also a Sunni, on similar charges.