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US in Iraq: They broke it but didn't fix it

After the 2003 invasion, it was the US that propagated the Shia-Sunni divide narrative.

Last updated: 12 Jan 2014 09:52
Rachel Shabi

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel's Jews from Arab Lands.
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The US is washing its hands off the insurgency in Anbar province calling it a fight that belongs to the Iraqis [Reuters]

It must be hard, being the US and having the nations you invade - sorry, "liberate" - let you down so badly. This, at least, is the reading presented by chunks of the US media over the current crisis in Iraq. As Fallujah and Ramadi, in Iraq's Anbar province, are reported to have been seized by al-Qaeda-linked groups, civilians caught in a deadly stand-off between extremists and the government are pouring out of those cities and seeking refuge elsewhere. And so US commentators have been explaining how utterly devastating all this is - for the US. 

"Violence in Iraq threatens to undo US effort," explained a Washington Post  headline, thereby eliding the obvious point that the current violence in Iraq primarily threatens Iraqis. "Who lost Fallujah?" ran a Time magazine headline last week, with the stand first explaining that al-Qaeda had taken over an "Iraqi city that cost 100 American lives a decade ago" - oddly omitting to note how many Iraqi lives were lost at the same time.

US reports focused on the US' "bloodiest combat since Vietnam", and explained why the current scenes from Anbar province are a "bitter disappointment" to many Americans.

Of course, US soldiers, who lost friends or were injured and traumatised by those battles of 2004 when US forces stormed Fallujah, are anguished that their sacrifice might have been in vain.  While soliders do not devise the savage policies they are sent to execute, still, it is revealing that this has become the news story. Because to tell it another way would, of course, necessitate a recasting of the US' role in Iraq. For if American soldiers died in vain, what of the people of Fallujah, hundreds if not thousands of whom were killed in an assault that used cluster bombs and white phosphorous, poisoning the city and reducing it to rubble? Those assaults, often described as massacres at Fallujah, are still crippling the city today, with its population facing an epidemic of birth defects and cancers.

Meanwhile, to claim Fallujah as a past US victory is to almost wilfully misread the legacy of the US' illegal war on Iraq. Leaving half a million Iraqis dead, the US-led invasion dismantled the government, police and security apparatus and then further hobbled the country by backing the corrupt, authoritarian Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister.

US dismisses criticism on Iraq insurgency

His government is routinely accused, among other misdeeds, of incompetence and of fermenting sectarian tensions - privileging one group over another and using anti-terror laws to target Sunnis. The ensuing chaos and mistrust, corruption, lack of electricity and other basics, insecurity, unemployment and unacknowledged injustice is the perfect breeding ground for al-Qaeda - which, it cannot be stated enough, did not exist in Iraq prior to the 2003 assault. Now operating as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and strengthened by the civil war in Syria, it is stepping up bloody attacks in both countries; over 8,000 Iraqis were killed in violence such as roadside bombings last year, according to the UN.

But severed from this essential backstory, the current crisis in Iraq is now portrayed as a bitter sectarian war playing out across longstanding Sunni-Shia fault lines. "People think that Iraqis have always hated each other, but that doesn't correspond with Iraqi history or with reality today," says Zaid al-Ali, analyst and author of The Struggle for Iraq's Future. He cites a study at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs in 2009 involving a cross-section of Iraqi academics and professionals, which reported that sectarianism is a foreign concept in Iraqi history, but was propagated by the US during and after its 2003 invasion.

Today, despite the political provocations, Iraqis are still working together where possible. "Whenever there has been an opportunity for people to go out and work across sectarian lines and across community lines this is what has happened," says al-Ali. "It never makes the media, because it doesn't fit the narrative."

Apparently, it also doesn't fit the preferred narrative to keep banging on about the US' ruinous record in Iraq. When journalists at a press conference tried to ask a US state department official about Iraqi policy in 2011, the spokeswomen refused to go into it because she said: "We're focused on 2014 and where we go from here…" and because to look at past events would not be "a helpful discussion".

But if we do as we're told and focus on 2014, we see that the US position is, military assistance notwithstanding: "This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis," as Secretary of State John Kerry said. This glides over the small matter that US support for al Maliki has constantly fuelled this fight, distorted it and made it worse. In his book on Iraq, al-Ali writes: "The story is a familiar one: Western powers are largely indifferent to governmental practices in Middle Eastern countries, so long as nothing is done to threaten a number of vital interests, including natural resources."

This toxic combination of historical myopia and disappointment with post-invasion outcomes is nothing new - it is, after all, a standard trick for imperialists of all stripes to ruin countries and then blame the locals for the ensuing political dysfunction. "It's a complicated mix of being hurt, rejected and affronted by 'natives'' refusal to co-operate," says the writer and historian, Alex von Tunzelmann. She adds that, as well as the desire for power and resources, imperialism is rooted in a sort of well-meaning paternalism - the kind that results in civilizing missions.

"If 'the savages' throw it back in your face, you feel hurt," she says, citing examples from the British empire through to US imperial ventures in the Caribbean. "That comes across a lot in a lot of empires, and it still exists - there's still this idea that the West knows best how to run a country and a society, which is what it all comes down to."

It doesn't matter how many times this is disproved; even as news from Iraq is overwhelmingly of death, suffering and despair, the US still asserts that its ravaging venture in Iraq was designed to bring stability and democracy. It's as though Iraqis, dealing with the senseless devastation of their country and longing for a normal life, are supposed to remember, above all, that the US is a force for good and that - well, it really means well.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel's Jews from Arab Lands.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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