‘We have one thousand Saddams now’
The Chilcot inquiry has turned attention back to Iraq, a country now ravaged by terror, violence and corruption. Would it have fared better if its former dictator was still in charge?
Just after midnight on Sunday, in Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, a lorry packed full of explosives sat near a shopping centre which was crowded with busy families preparing for Eid-al-Fitr. Then the lorry exploded — and the area was engulfed in flames. At least 250 people were killed; it was Iraq’s worst terrorist attack since the war that began 13 years ago.
As the country mourns, few Iraqis are concerned about the details of yesterday’s Chilcot report, which condemned Britain’s role in that war. Most made up their minds long ago: the violence and instability it suffers now can easily be traced back to the moment the US-led coalition of which Britain was part invaded in 2003.
The war freed the Iraqi people from the dictator, Saddam Hussein. But the peace they were promised did not appear. Saddam was replaced by a corrupt, sectarian government; the security vacuum was filled by aggressive militias; al-Qaeda arrived, and was reborn as Islamic State — the group responsible for Sunday’s bombing.
Tony Blair, prime minister at the time, has always insisted that Britain and America were right to oust Saddam whose reign was brutal: murder, torture, chemical weapons, secret police and costly wars were inflicted on ordinary people, leading to crushing UN sanctions.
So when the regime was toppled by the US, the UK, and allies, many Iraqis celebrated. Among them was Kadhim al-Jabbouri, a weightlifter who used to repair Saddam’s own motorcycles. He spent two years in prison after he refused to continue working for the regime, which had killed 14 members of his family.
On April 9th 2003, as US tanks arrived in Baghdad, Kadhim took a sledgehammer to Firdous Square and began hitting Saddam’s statue. Soon the US military arrived and helped pull it to the ground. The moment was broadcast live on international television.
But now Kadhim says he wishes he had left his hammer at home. ‘It wasn’t like this under Saddam… Saddam never executed people without a reason. He was as solid as a wall. There was no corruption or looting, it was safe. You could be safe. Saddam has gone, and we have one thousand Saddams now.’
‘Better and safer’
Iraq was difficult before 2003, admit many Iraqis, but at least Saddam’s regime provided some stability in their day-to-day lives. Now, when someone leaves the house, their family cannot be sure if they will return. It would be better if Saddam had stayed in power.
But Blair insists this is not true. Saddam would have continued to develop chemical weapons, putting Iraq and the rest of the world at risk. Had Iraq then joined Syria in the Arab spring, it could have led to a similar civil war. Iraq is far from safe — but it is safer without Saddam.
- Would Iraq be better off if Saddam Hussein was still in power?
- Is asking ‘what if’ a useful historical exercise?
- Write an account of the three main lessons to be learned from the Iraq war.
- Imagine that in 2003, the US-led coalition had not invaded Iraq. Saddam Hussein remained in power, and his people rebelled against him in the Arab spring, alongside Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria. Write a diary entry describing this alternative world from the perspective of an Iraqi teenager.
Some People Say...
“History is always speculation.”
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Q & A
- I can’t even remember 2003. How does the decision affect me?
- Even without Chilcot, the spectre of the Iraq war is still hovering over British politics: it is there in Labour’s divisions between the anti-war leader Jeremy Corbyn and the ‘Blairite’ MPs hoping to oust him. It is there in the public mistrust of politicians’ advice which led to the Brexit vote. And it is there in the ongoing threat of terrorism from Islamic State.
- Did the war cause Islamic State?
- Not directly. While IS did not appear until 2013, it grew out of al-Qaeda, the terrorist group which was responsible for 9/11 in 2001. However, many believe that extremists took advantage of Iraq’s instability after the war, and those extremists went on to use the West’s intervention in the Middle East to radicalise more followers.
- A Muslim holiday which marks the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. It was celebrated yesterday.
- Terrorist attack
- Although Sunday was the worst single attack, hundreds have been killed by extremist groups since 2003: in 2014, Iraq suffered a third of the world’s terrorism fatalities. Many Iraqis blame their government for the lack of security.
- Divided along Sunni and Shia lines, two opposing denominations of Islam. The current government is accused of favouring Shia Muslims.
- Iraq’s militias often fight against Islamic State alongside the Iraqi army. However, they can also be violent towards civilians.
- A ban on trade with Iraq in 1991 caused deep poverty and food shortages.
- Chemical weapons
- Saddam’s regime killed thousands with chemical weapons throughout the 1980s and in 1991. The US and UK feared that he was still developing more of these when they invaded, although that turned out to be untrue.
- Arab spring
- A wave of Middle Eastern rebellions during 2011. Dictators fell, but most of the countries still face violence and instability.