Nahlah Ayed: The Iraq invasion 10 years on, was it worth it?

The world disagrees on the Iraq war because, unlike Iraqis, we only tuned in to parts of it, Nahlah Ayed writes. But its legacy can be seen in the refugees streaming out of Syria and the sectarian violence that now dominates a region.

The Iraq war legacy, millions of refugees, sectarian strife and a region in turmoil

A cycle continues: Syrian families wait to register at a refugee camp in Jordan. Ten years ago it was Iraqis spilling from their homeland. (Muhammad Hamed / Reuters)

We will never, ever agree on Iraq. Not even those of us who spent time there in the 10 years since the U.S.-led invasion, and smelled its decline up close.

Each of us wanders with our own frightful version of Iraq's war in our minds, a unique view of its success or failure, distorted by time and muddied by our unreliable memories.

We can ask ourselves: Was that invasion 10 years ago this month worth it? But the answer isn't obvious.

I can tell you that even among Iraqis, the question almost always elicits a pause first before any attempt at an answer.  Yes, it was a desperate, oppressed, suffocated nation that was finally liberated from the yoke of Saddam Hussein. Iraqis needed to be set free. But then what?

Destruction, bloodshed, civil war, lives lost. Those are the facts, too, but it's the interpretations that differ.

The world disagrees on the Iraq war because, unlike those who have lived there during this past decade, we only selectively tuned in to parts of it.

Most of us remember shock and awe, or at least the phrase; and we remember those images of U.S. tanks and armoured vehicles briskly crossing the desert on their way to Baghdad.

Most of us remember well enough the short-lived euphoria of that statue of Saddam Hussein coming down in Ferdous Square (whether we saw it on television, or in person, as I did).

Yet not everyone remembers the firefight that erupted simultaneously nearby, nor the reports of a smiling, defiant Saddam walking the nearby streets just a short while after, signaling the fight-back that was still to come.

Deadly morass

Similarly, no one can forget the images of a disheveled Saddam having his teeth checked when he was finally captured. But few knew that countless Iraqis were convinced — for years — that this man was a body double, or understood the constant fear that came with that.

Iraqi minesweepers explore for unexploded ordnance near Basra. According to UN, there are some 20 million anti-personnel mines in Iraq's border areas and southern oilfields. (Atef Hassan / Reuters)

Many remember the sad memorials for fallen U.S soldiers, and yet not everyone recalls the bombing of a Shia shrine — the al-Askari mosque in Samarra in 2006 — that opened the sectarian floodgates and sent Iraq reeling into civil war.

And few, save for most Iraqis themselves, saw that all those secondary elements — the birth of an insurgency, the ongoing fear, the widespread, unchecked weapons and the latent sectarian resentment — were making way for the tragedy that is Iraq today.

Over these 10 years, many a foreign soldier saw Iraq simply as a morass and a death trap.

Journalists reported its tragedies, yet sometimes dug up tiny stories of hope; while Iraqis saw it as a place to hold on to, even as they desperately wanted to flee. A place to love and yet hate for all the wrong it had done them.

The point?

Those convincing, still-raw images of Iraq's failures were constantly being challenged by the powerful messages of those who supported the war — from George W. Bush and then-British prime minister Tony Blair, on down.

These people had their own views, too, and they desperately wanted Iraq, and its war, to work.

A war of 'liberation'

Once the weapons of mass destruction failed to materialize, the Iraq invasion was transformed into a liberation war only, one that would supposedly bring freedom not only to Iraq, but to an entire region.

Bush's supporters were convinced the Arab Spring (at least back when it was seen in those circles as a positive thing) was the fruit of his labour in Iraq.

Residents gather around a car bomb in the Hurriya district in Baghdad in January 2013, where three people were killed in the ongoing sectarian violence. (Reuters)

We need look no further than the findings of American bureaucrats themselves to see how wrong they were.

Yesterday, for example, the last of several audits to Congress by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction reported that the U.S. has spent almost $90 billion on reconstruction and police training efforts in Iraq over this period, much of it wasted, he said, lost in a fog of both U.S. and Iraqi corruption, and indifference.

Iraq, in fact, is as rife with corruption as ever, if not more so. Of late, it has also been rocked by anti-government protests, mostly by Sunni citizens who feel marginalized by the Shia-dominated government.

Callous car bombings happen almost daily. Lack of electricity — one of the earliest and perhaps what should have been one of the most solvable of Iraq's problems — is still a daily challenge.

But the overarching legacy of the Iraq war is what has spilled out beyond its borders, and is just as important as the aftermath of the Arab Spring in predicting "what next" for a region that now constantly defies most predictions.

A big part of that legacy is this: It was in Iraq and its civil war that the region's oldest religious conflict — between Sunni and Shia Muslims — cracked into the open again, re-awakening the latent resentment of co-religionists from neighbouring countries.

That conflict was first seen in Lebanon in the mid-2000s, but has now raised its head in Syria's ongoing civil war, where a mostly Sunni opposition (the majority) is trying to shake off its privileged ruling minority who are mostly Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam.

Supporters on both sides line up according to sect — Iraq included. Its government has fallen in decidedly on the side of Syria's embattled al-Assad regime, along with Iran, once Iraq's fiercest enemy.

This is not likely what George Bush had in mind when he "liberated" Iraq.

Displaced and forgotten

The other indisputable legacy of the Iraq war is the trail of homelessness it left behind — the millions uprooted.

As the millionth Syrian refugee was counted outside that country's borders this week, it is easy to forget about the millions of Iraqis who remain in limbo as a result of a conflict that the West feels is ostensibly over now that it has withdrawn.  There are still Iraq refugees, though, in places like Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and even Syria, though many fewer than the million or so Iraqis sheltering there before the current conflict.

Ten years on, at least one million Iraqis are still internally displaced, still wracked by poverty, and still on a quest for stability.

Their ever-worsening and largely forgotten situation, married to the added pressure of all the displaced Syrians, puts this region in as precarious and fragile a position as ever.

Iraq's legacy also serves as a warning about the future of those Syrian refugees.

Will they and their misery be forgotten, too, one day? Who decides when that will be?

The imprint of one Mideast war is now being compounded by that of another.

Ten years after the Bush invasion, Iraqi refugees are still waiting for a way out that avoids going back to their troubled home.

That's why most of us will never agree on Iraq or its war. Until those refugees can find a decent life somewhere, their Iraq war isn't over. And few, save perhaps for humanitarian workers who still help them, see these past 10 years this way.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.