LONDON – Twenty-five years ago, on March 16, 1988, Saddam Hussein’s troops spread poison gas through the Kurdish town of Halabja. The attack, which killed an estimated 5,000 people and injured up to 10,000 more, remains the largest chemical-weapons attack ever to target a civilian population.
In the light of the Halabja atrocity, and the regime’s broader genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds, and massive repression throughout the country, the question “Is Iraq better off now than it was under Saddam Hussein?” requires no great deliberation. Iraqis are rid of a dictator responsible for the deaths of at least one million Iraqis, a man who plunged the country into three wars in 24 years, and whose policies (with the international community’s complicity) kept ordinary Iraqis under the strictest sanctions ever imposed by the United Nations. Yes, Iraq is better off without this absolute despot.
But, for those of us who participated in the effort to reconstruct Iraq starting in 2003, this answer is far too glib. We set the bar far higher. The success of the war must surely be measured by whether its goals – particularly the establishment of a constitutional democracy and the country’s economic reconstruction – have been achieved. By this standard, the war in Iraq was a monumental failure.
The United States-led Coalition Provisional Authority empowered a new group of political elites who fundamentally distrusted one another and, more important, failed to coalesce around a shared vision for governing the country. Rather than giving these new politicians time to broker compromises, the Americans imposed a divisive constitutional process that exacerbated existing fissures, leading to the civil war of 2006-2007.