US Leaves Behind Murky Picture in Iraq

WASHINGTON

US combat troops pulling out of Iraq can claim the ouster of a brutal dictator as a clear success but otherwise leave behind unresolved questions about democracy, terror and neighbouring Iran’s power.

With Washington about to declare an official end to the combat mission in Iraq more than seven years after the invasion, analysts say it is hard to draw clear conclusions.

“In many ways, the most important point to make about this (invasion aftermath) is it’s more complicated than it often looks,” Stephen Biddle, an analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations think-tank, said.

The clearest result of the war was obviously the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein, but most other consequences are loaded with ambiguity, he said.

Take the controversial issue of weapons of mass destruction, for example.

A standard view is the war was carried out on a false premise as president George W. Bush invaded Iraq to learn that Saddam no longer had the nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs he was suspected of possessing.

Although Biddle said he thinks the invasion was not worth the terrible costs, he urged people to consider what the Gulf might have looked like had the invasion not occurred.

“It’s a closer call than people usually suppose,” he said.

With years of UN Security Council sanctions steadily eroding, Biddle said, Saddam may well have found a way to avoid the constraints and reconstitute his former nuclear program, thereby fuelling an arms race with Iran.

At the same time, a weaker post-Saddam Iraq is often viewed as having removed a check on the power of Shiite Muslim but non-Arab Iran, emboldening Shiite Arabs in Sunni-dominated Arab countries.

But it is not so simple, said Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Arab governments fear “the idea of Shia power and the possibility that there is going to be collusion between Shias in Iran and Shias in Iraq,” she wrote in a piece on the Carnegie website.

“These fears are overblown – they are exaggerated because Iraqis are Arabs and Iranians are not. Additionally, Iranians already have problems trying to get what they want from Iraq,” Ottaway said.

Michael O’Hanlon, an analyst with the Brookings Institution, said: “I don’t know that Iran is more of a threat than it would have been otherwise.”

With Saddam gone, Iran is now seen for the threat it is to the region, he said.

“This simplifies in some ways our alliance management because pretty much all the Arab states feel an even stronger need to be in some kind of a military partnership with us,” he said.

O’Hanlon and Biddle also said it is unclear whether the invasion of Iraq will amount to a net loss for the US-led war against Islamist militant groups like Al-Qaeda.

“Al-Qaeda found it a recruiting tool. Al-Qaeda also took some lumps in public opinion by the way it (brutally) waged the war in Iraq. So I’m not sure how that nets out,” Biddle said.

“I don’t think Iraq was a net boon for Al-Qaeda,” he said.

As for the damage to America’s image abroad, “we’re in a much happier place now,” with Barack Obama as the US president and the violence having declined from its peak a few years ago, O’Hanlon said.

And the jury is still out on whether democracy will take root in Iraq, not to mention produce a domino-effect through a region dominated by autocratic rule.

“The question for Iraq now is whether its recent election will confirm the power of Nuri al-Maliki – through maneuvers that are not wholly democratic – or establish the principle that a prime minister can be voted out of office,” Ottaway said.

“This is important for the future of democracy in the country and it would be a major step in the right direction, not just for Iraq, but for the region if a new prime minister was chosen.”

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