The Ides of March

The Ides of March

March 20, 2003. For many people in Arab Gulf and Middle East countries it was difficult to forget the date as it changed the course of history in one...

March 20, 2003. For many people in Arab Gulf and Middle East countries it was difficult to forget the date as it changed the course of history in one of the most sensitive and oil-rich regions in the world. Even before the sun was up on the Arabian Desert landscape, American heavy bombers started pounding Baghdad and other key towns in Iraq and missiles fired from aircraft carriers anchored off Gulf began illuminating the Iraqi sky with thunderous blasts. A day earlier, the then President George W Bush, after issuing a series of warnings to Iraqi strongman President Saddam Hussein to give up power and surrender his so-called weapons of mass destruction, told Americans and the rest of the world in an evening TV address that the US forces had begun their campaign to unseat Saddam Hussein. The goals, he said, were "to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger." Those who had listened to him live on the TV thought that the war was a few days away, not a few hours, and when Bush was announcing the imminence of marching troops into Iraq, they had already crossed the border of Kuwait where they had been preparing and awaiting orders from the Pentagon. Within three weeks of the first missile struck Baghdad, the American-led forces entered the Iraqi capital on April 9 and ended the tyrannical rule of Saddam with the pulling down of his statue from the centre of Baghdad. It was symbolic of the downfall of an Arab leader who, at one time, rubbed shoulders with western leaders, particularly the US which propped him up along with Arab Sheikhdoms to check the influence of Iranian mullahs in the region as well as a warning to others. What followed during and after the war was history. Eight years of destructive and deadly campaign involving US troops and Iraqi rebels, what the George W Bush government had achieved in Iraq was sending Saddam and his most dreaded henchmen to gallows and establishing a pro-American government in Baghdad. Despite combing the desert, destroying Saddam Hussein's palaces, flattening towns and cities and suspected weapons sites, the US and its allied forces couldn't find a single weapon of mass destruction. On the other hand, their operations and insurgents resisting the American military presence in Iraq had claimed lives of over 100,000 civilians and 4,000 occupation forces. Ironically, when the US launched its offensive "to eliminate the most dangerous man in the world" and "to protect Iraq's neighbouring countries from belligerent Saddam," President Bush and his deputy Dick Cheney's avowed aim was to accomplish the mission within a month and hand over the country to elected Iraqi representatives to run their own country and bring back all the American forces. However, Washington had never been able to realize the initial deadlines that kept changing as it got bogged down in Iraq. Finally, it was Bush's successor Barack Obama who had to close a bloody chapter in Iraqi history � and the US -- as the Pentagon could not afford two wars at the same time � the other being Afghanistan � with a peace and security agreement. Ten years later and after tens of thousands of deaths, not just of Americans, but also of Iraqis � many, if not most, at the hands of other Iraqis � that country is still in turmoil. Saddam and all his men were gone and all the vestiges of his and Baath Party were obliterated. Two parliamentary elections were held amidst tensions and mutual recriminations that saw people's representatives ruling the country in what was hailed as birth of democracy and a triumph over autocracy. Despite a modicum of governance, largely run across sectarian lines, peace is a chimera for Iraqis and establishment of law and order is still eluding them. Bombings and massacres are order of the day as the country has remained mired in bitter and deadly feuds between Sunnis and Shias on one hand and the lumpen elements of Saddam era on the other. Post -war Iraq is in a shambles. It is still to build the oil-based economy devastated during the American invasion. Years of UN sanctions had either crippled or destroyed the local industry. Reconstruction of the war-torn country with little outside help is a herculean task for a coalition government with partners constantly feuding over power and position. In other words, the misery of Iraqis who had suffered under Saddam rule due to his decade of senseless war with Iran and later occupation of and retreat from Kuwait after the US intervention and endless UN sanctions for not complying with the world body's resolutions, has not ended with the 'liberation' of Iraq. The promised golden era after the fall of Saddam Hussein seems to be a mirage for a majority of Iraqis, making them wonder whether their lives would improve at all under the present political dispensation riddled with dissensions. Some Arab intellectuals rue bitterly, Americans got rid of Saddam, alright, but can they transplant democracy? Iraqis are yet to get a hang of it; whether the experiment is succeeding or failing depends on how one perceives it. But, generally, opinions are coloured since the country is run on Shia-Sunni-Kurd basis rather than on a unified national policy. Not surprisingly, Saddam sympathizers in the Middle East say, in Saddam's days there was a government and law; now neither exists. Also, there is widespread criticism against Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, a Shia, who is known more for his manipulative skills than governing acumen. A dysfunctional democracy plus poor law and order have added to the woes of people. In the beginning, soon after Americans handed over power to the civilian government, Al Maliki had inherited some of the post-war problems. But he can't keep blaming them for all the ills of the country. The biggest challenge his government faces is unity, with Shias, Sunnis and Kurds pulling Iraq in three different directions. Fissiparous tendencies had never been allowed to grow under the iron hand of Saddam whose suppression tactics of marginalised Kurds and majority Shias were notorious. But now, they want their pound of flesh and in the bargaining process the nation has unwittingly become a victim. Iraq's fault lines run along the sectarian divide. The Sunnis, who make up some 30 percent of Iraq's 31.1 million population, rail against the Prime Minister for cornering, directly and indirectly, all the security portfolios to intimidate Sunni politicians. But their main bitterness is Iran's involvement, in cahoots with Shia politicians, in Iraq's internal affairs. Ethnic Kurds, consisting of at least 15 percent of the population, are angry for not resolving key issues like oil sales by the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government. Even Shias who make up 60 per cent of Iraqis are bitter as the government is unable to provide basic facilities like water and electricity despite oil income flowing into the country. What it means is rampant corruption at every level. In the absence of socio-economic reforms, nearly 40 per cent of the working age population is unemployed or underemployed and they are providing a fertile ground to terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda which has already taken roots in some of the lawless areas of the country. In the coming days, militant outfits with extra-territorial links and sectarian rivalries will pose a bigger threat to national unity and Iraq's existence as one country. They are more dangerous than weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein was alleged to have contemplated and can trigger an Iraqi implosion.
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