Monday, June 01, 2009

Iraq was a just war

Here's my latest article on The Australian:

THE war in Iraq is officially moving to an end. Six years after Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled, several coalition members have ended their missions in Iraq - including Australia, which pulled out its troops 12 months ago - and the US is preparing to wrap up its military involvement in the country.

Many still ask: Was it worth it?

If we examine the question from an American, British or Australian perspective, then it would be difficult to present an answer that could convince all critics. For the coalition members this was a war of opportunity, not a war of necessity. Going to war or not was never an issue that could affect the existence of a coalition member, nor was winning or losing.

For Iraq and its people however, this war was the beginning of a struggle for rebirth, a very difficult but necessary one, for sure.
People of my generation who were born in democracies may take the freedom they enjoy for granted. This is certainly not the case for me or my people. I was born a decade after the murderous Ba'ath Party grabbed power in Baghdad in the sinister coup of July 1968. To us, the war brought an end to that 35-year-long nightmare and the beginning of an era of freedom, thanks to our friends in the coalition.

For me and many Iraqis, it was certainly worth it. Life is better today than it was before 2003. That is even though we were on the receiving end of this war in all its phases, from initial invasion through the bloody sectarian violence and terror that paralysed the country for years. Despite the high price in blood, today is brighter than yesterday. Above all, we have hope - something we did not have under Saddam's dictatorship - that tomorrow will be even brighter.

I would like to share two snapshots from Iraq that I hope will help you see why I believe Iraq is making solid progress towards liberty, prosperity and the rule of law. Recently, two stories dominated the media in Iraq. The first started when the ministry of trade was bombarded with allegations of rampant corruption. Corruption is a serious problem, but worse than corruption itself is if there is a lack of checks and balances that can stop it. In Iraq this used to happen all the time, but now a wind of change is blowing.

Pressure from the press, the public and partners in the Government forced the minister of trade to submit his resignation. Resignation alone was not deemed enough. The minister was arrested on Saturday as he was attempting to flee the country. He will join other corrupt officials in custody awaiting trial. The fascinating thing about this case is that the indicted minister is a member of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party.

Then there is the case of Kitabat, the prominent Iraqi online journal.

Kitabat, founded in 2002 by an Iraqi expatriate, has somewhat served the role of a shadow parliament in which people from across the Iraqi spectrum voice their opinions without censorship. Five months ago, Kitabat published an article in which the author accused the office of Maliki of nepotism and abuse of authority.

How did the Prime Minister respond to these, indeed unfounded, accusations? In Saddam's days the case would have been closed with a bullet to the dissident's head. It was common practice to send embassy officials on assassination missions armed with silent pistols or even axes, as was the case in the attempt on former PM Iyad Allawi's life in London in 1978. Instead, Maliki opted to go to a court of law and sue the author and the owner of Kitabat. Maliki's decision came under severe criticism from free press advocates who saw his action as an attempt to restrict freedom of speech.

Maliki ultimately yielded and dropped the case.

The economy is also making strides as violence ebbs and the country transforms into a free market economy. One striking piece of evidence in this regard is the phenomenal boom in the Iraqi stockmarket. While the market is still tiny, the rate of growth cannot be overstated. The size of transactions in April this year amounted to 105 billion dinars ($111.6million); in April 2005 that figure was only 31 billion dinars. The market index quadrupled in the past five months and skyrocketed from 67 points in January to 281 by the last session in April.

Despite all this progress in security, the rule of law and the economy, there is still anxiety about the sustainability of these gains. The question is whether Iraqis are able to maintain the progress and build on it following a US withdrawal. Of course no one can tell the future with 100 per cent certainty. The institutions of the Iraqi state are not yet fully mature and there is no shortage of threats that could undermine stability.

I believe that even though the threats are serious, a democratic Iraq will endure and prevail.

The main reason for my optimism is that most Iraqis have learned the lesson the hard way.

Sunni Arabs discovered that resisting democracy and taking the path of extremism put them on the losing side. Despite a recent government crackdown on some leaders of the Sunni Arab Awakening Councils (also known as Sons of Iraq) the co-operation between these groups with the US forces and central Government in fighting al-Qa'ida terrorists continues.

The Shia population voiced its rejection of the rule of militias and hardline religious parties loud and clear. The provincial elections earlier this year showed beyond doubt that a great majority of the Shia population wants a moderate Muslim government, not an extreme Islamist one that imposes its vision through intimidation and violence.

Iraqi Kurds, too, learned the lesson. Despite the belligerent tone of some of their leaders in addressing the outstanding issue of the so-called disputed regions in Kirkuk and Mosul, Kurds realize they can survive and protect their hard-earned freedom and autonomy only as part of the Iraqi nation. Kurds have long rejected the national Iraqi flag because they see it as a symbol of Arab chauvinism. However, when Turkey escalated operations against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) insurgents last year, Kurds hoisted the Iraqi flag on border outposts and went to the central Government for diplomatic support and protection.

The enemies of a prosperous and democratic Iraq no doubt will intensify their attacks as the US prepares to leave. They will try to take advantage of the anxiety associated with this transition to cultivate disunity and violence. However, they failed when they were strongest and Iraq was weakest. Today, the tide has turned. Iraqis are closer together and the prospects of a prosperous and democratic Iraq become greater day by day.