Op-Ed

Iraq: Winners and Losers at Five Years

Bruce Riedel

Five years after the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq began we can provide an interim report on the winners and losers. We can not be certain what the final verdict will be now, but the interim balance sheet is probably a fair projection on the long term.

Iran is a big winner. Its greatest enemy, Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Iraq, is dead and gone. Saddam’s Iraq fought an eight year war to destroy the Islamic Republic killing hundreds of thousands of Iranians and devastating its economy. In its place is a Shia government in Baghdad filled with former exiles that spent that war in Tehran. Baghdad and Tehran have ever closer relations: Iranian intelligence operates throughout the country; pilgrims visit the Shia holy cities. Iranian President Ahmadinejad visited Baghdad on the eve of the fifth anniversary. His visit was announced in advance and he traveled around the capital, where he signed billions of dollars in new economic deals. With oil prices over a hundred dollars a barrel, no wonder he was smiling everywhere. All that was missing was a mission accomplished banner.

The Shia are also a winner although a battered and bruised one. For the first time in five centuries they control Mesopotamia’s Shia holy sites and they control the oil rich southern part of the country and its only outlet to the sea. Their triumph has sent shock waves through the Islamic world from Lebanon to Pakistan and encouraged Shia everywhere.

The Kurds are a winner too. An all but independent Kurdistan exists in the north of the country, making oil deals with outsiders independently of Baghdad. It has its own army and police force loyal to the two Kurdish warlords. A Kurd is President of Iraq yet the Iraqi flag does not fly in Kurdistan. Meanwhile an anxious Turkey watches as its Kurds use Iraqi Kurdistan to stage a revived insurrection in Turkey.

The Sunni Arabs are losers despite the tribal awakening in Anbar province against al Qaeda in Iraq. The Sunnis have inherited the most desolate and resource poor parts of Iraq. Rulers of Anbar and middle Iraq leaves them with no oil and no outlet to the sea.

The Sunni Arab neighbors, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are losers too. They have lost what they once called the Eastern flank of the Arab Sunni world which guarded the gate against Shia Persia. Now Iran is strong and closer than ever.

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Israel is a loser too. Its nemesis Iran is strong and has clients in southern Lebanon and Gaza which are causing Israel great anxiety and concern. To add insult to injury, the new government in Iraq has not made peace with Israel and did not even show at the American peace summit in Annapolis.

America is a loser despite the improvements of the surge. Its leaders visit Baghdad in stealth and secrecy. Its honor has been besmirched by abu Ghraib, its intelligence services humiliated by no WMD, its diplomacy sullied around the world, its economy battered by the expense of a war that was supposed to pay for itself, and its basic competence called into question as a super power. It has no clear way out of a war it did not need to fight, a quagmire that has no exit strategy that won’t be painful and damaging. There was no al Qaeda in Iraq before 911 and no connection between Saddam and 911 but now al Qaeda has been rescued from destruction by Iraq, revived in Pakistan, and uses Iraq to recruit throughout the Islamic world. Starved of resources by the war in Iraq, that battle against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan has suffered grievously. Iraq is no model of democracy for anyone in Arabia, and the road to peace in Jerusalem has not come through Baghdad.

Yet the President has succeeded in pushing the mess down the road and leaving it for his successor. Rather than facing the consequences of his blunders, he has left the moment of decision to his successor. He or she will face a monumental challenge of how to find a way to end a war we never needed to fight but whose legacy will haunt Americans for decades to come.

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