In the presence of Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and Army General Lloyd Austin, commander of US forces in Iraq, the US military operations in Iraq is now officially over. Started in March 2003 as Operation Iraqi Freedom, the war has cost the lives of 4,500 US soldiers and more than 100,000 Iraqis. In economic terms, the price tag is in excess of US$ 1 trillion.
The US intervention “has helped the Iraqi people cast tyranny aside [. . .] to offer hope for prosperity and peace to the country's future generations," Mr. Panetta said in his address. But many Iraqis will wonder how positive the US presence will have been. Yesterday, in the city of Falluja, people expressed their view by burning US flags in celebration at the withdrawal.
The US action in Iraq has had highs and lows, ambiguities and moments of heroism. The Bush administration launched its attack ostensibly because Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, a claim that turned out to be false. At the same time, it overturned a brutal dictatorship and in a few weeks, the country was released from the bonds of the Ba’ath party.
The collapse of the old regime and of its military enabled hitherto oppressed groups, the Kurds and Shias, to be free; however, it also brought chaos as the old administration imploded and the situation got out of control.
Confessional differences between Shias and Sunnis turned violent; al Qaeda terrorists targeted foreign and local troops as well as ordinary people in an escalation of cruel acts of violence.
In 2004, the Abu Ghraib scandal broke as pictures emerged showing US soldiers torturing and showing contempt for Iraqi prisoners.
In 2006, General David Petraeus shifted strategy, and launched a “surge”. Quickly, US troops reached 170,000 and brought a semblance of security in Baghdad and elsewhere.
Afterwards, the US started its withdrawal as it accelerated the training of Iraqi soldiers to take over eventually security once US troops pulled out.
Still, terrorist attacks have not ceased, whilst tensions between Kurds, Shia Arabs and Sunni Arabs for control over the country and its oil resources remain high.
Security is precarious. Acts of religious extremism continue like the massacre in Zakho on 2 December.
Some observers now expect Iranian influence to increase with the US pullout, something that could split the country along ethnic and religious lines. This will increase insecurity for minorities, including Christians, who have been among the most affected by communal violence.
In the past few years, a number of bishops and priests as well as hundreds of Christian believers have died, either killed individually or slaughtered in groups; last year’s bombing in a Baghdad church is one example.
The net result has been that about half of Iraq’s Christian community has fled, to Syria, Jordan and to a lesser extent, to the West.