30 years since the start of the US military engagement in Iraq: How has Iraq been affected?
The effect of 30 years of US involvement
30 years ago, in 1990, in what would be a catastrophic decision in the long term, Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in the early hours of 2 August and, by the afternoon of the same day, had concluded decisively the main objectives of their campaign to conquer and occupy the diminutive, wealthy Arab Gulf state. Within hours, the capital city of the small oil-rich country had fallen, while Kuwait’s head of state, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, had fled to Saudi Arabia.
“When I heard the news that morning, I was overcome by an overwhelming sense of pain and despair,” said Subhi Tawfiq, a retired general of the Iraq army at the time. “It was a dreadful day for both Gulf countries, but definitely the beginning of the end for Iraq,” he said, recalling the events 30 years ago. Although this was perhaps the easiest military operation ever conducted by Iraq, and was a resounding success, its resultant strategic effect on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and even the long-term fate of the country can only be described as catastrophic.
What is commonly left out of the modern narrative is that Saddam infamously conferred with April Glaspie, a senior American ambassador, weeks before the invasion. Glaspie was unambiguous when she stated that the US had no opinion on Iraq’s decision to invade its neighbour, more or less giving Washington’s blessings for the expedition. However, this would soon manifest itself as a curse that lasts until the present day.Saddam’s spirits may well have been high considering how quickly the Iraqi military smashed Kuwait’s defenders in early August. However, and almost immediately, the US backtracked on Glaspie’s promises and began to threaten and impose sanctions on Iraq. Saddam had been played and was now cornered.The invasion was met with swift condemnation by the international community which moved to isolate Iraq politically and economically.
However, by late November, Kuwait was still under Iraqi occupation. The UNSC then authorised the use of “all necessary means” to force Iraq out of Kuwait if its troops did not withdraw by January 15, 1991. In the meantime, US President George Bush sent troops to Saudi Arabia and assembled a US-led international coalition with the goal of intervening if the deadline was not met. As the deadline passed with Hussein refusing to retreat, the US-led coalition launched Operation Desert Storm on January 17, 1991, with the fierce bombardment of targets in both Kuwait and Iraq. The 43-day operation ended on February 27 after a 100-hour ground offensive forced Iraq to withdraw its troops. After nearly a seven-month occupation, Iraq had finally accepted all UN resolutions – but only after suffering thousands of military and civilian casualties and extensive damage to its infrastructure.
For Iraq, however, the invasion opened the door to decades of devastation. In 2003, a US-led invasion devastated the country and was followed by a bloody sectarian conflict and the emergence of ISIL (ISIS) that seized large swaths of the country’s territory between 2014 and 2017. While the 2003 Iraqi armed forces promptly crumbled in the face of the coalition’s superior firepower, the U.S. quickly became embroiled in an occupation and conflict against various insurgents. Its early decision to disband the old Iraqi Army proved fatal since it antagonized tens-of-thousands of Iraqis who had military training overnight.Until today, the country suffers from a lack of basic services and deep-rooted corruption amid growing anger over a sectarian ruling elite that has done little to alleviate the suffering of common Iraqis.
The U.S. military achieved some success in building up a new Iraqi government and army and briefly afflicting a series of strategic defeats against Al-Qaeda in Iraq. However, the Iraq War became widely opposed in the U.S. and viewed by many in retrospective as a costly and shameful blunder.
Iraqis also continued to suffer under crippling sanctions and years of embargo imposed by the UN. “The sanctions and isolation brought Iraq to its knees. After the war, my whole monthly salary – a substantial income at the time – could barely buy me a pack of cigarettes,” recalled the retired army general Tawfiq.
Today, 30 years after U.S. troops began their deployment to Saudi Arabia in response to Saddam’s aggression against Kuwait, the U.S. military retains a troop presence in Iraq and remains active in that country. If the incumbent President Trump loses this year’s presidential election, then the fifth Iraq handoff will automatically commence. In other words, a Joe Biden administration will become the fifth U.S. administration in a row that inherits a status-quo in which the U.S. military has substantial involvement in Iraq.
Iraq’s struggling economy and politics
Now, Iraq is facing the effects of the last 30 years, as well as the recent incompetency in government. The country has been plagued with economic and political problems. The Coronavirus crisis has only increased and magnified these issues.
Iraq’s finance minister has warned of “severe security consequences” if its economy is not “restructured radically”, as the coronavirus crisis wreaks havoc on business and an oil price crash hits state revenues. “Issues which were buried because of large and growing oil revenues are now crystallising,” said Ali Allawi, the country’s new Harvard and MIT-educated finance minister, referring to bloated spending and a monthly wage bill of $5bn for its vast public payroll. This includes payments for what he estimated are 300,000 “ghost” or fictional employees.
Crude prices have more than halved compared with last year, dealing a devastating blow to the finances of Opec’s second-biggest producer. The country’s oil export revenues fell from $6.1bn in January to lows of $1.4bn in April, according to the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. While global oil price crashes hurt Iraq’s economy before, Mr Allawi says Baghdad can no longer count on prices to bounce back, arguing this may spur reforms: “There’s now a growing recognition that we’re moving into an environment of relatively low oil prices.
In light of the expected salary deductions by the government, and the current financial crisis that has led to a delay in paying salaries in the majority of government departments, tenants are beginning to experience an emerging crisis, not only for commercial shops and institutions but for residential housing as well. Basem Khamis, professor of financial policy at the College of Administration and Economics at the University of Baghdad, told Al-Monitor, “Deducting salaries means decreasing the overall demand of the Iraqi market, which indicates that the economy is entering into a recession. We have witnessed this recession with a decrease in the total consumption and an increase in savings in anticipation of the expected salary deduction.”
Furthermore, availability of safe water is eroding and could fuel greater tensions, security experts warned. Hospitalisations due to worsening contamination from sewage, agricultural runoff and chemical dumping are high, especially in southern Iraq, and families now reliant on bottled water may struggle to afford it as incomes dive, they said. “There are layers and layers and layers of problems,” said Azzam Alwash, founder of Nature Iraq, an environmental organisation that has helped restore drained marshes in southern Iraq, during an online event Wednesday. The conflict-riven country has seen its water infrastructure degrade over decades both from neglect and war damage, said Tobias von Lossow, a water security expert at the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch international relations think-tank. Construction of new dams over the decades in upstream Turkey, Syria and Iran has choked off some of the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers the country depends on, he said.
Iraq’s political scene accurately reflects the economic situation. Mustafa al-Kadhimi became Iraq’s prime minister on May 7, after five months of political deadlock in Baghdad, Last week, the prime minister called for early elections — on June 6, 2021, a year ahead of schedule. But Iraq’s circumstances, as seen above, have deteriorated so much in the three months since he took office, Kadhimi will have a much harder time convincing Iraqis to give him a mandate to rule.Governing Iraq through the next 10 months will present a series of Herculean challenges for Kadhimi. The first will be to get parliament to agree to the new election date. The political elite is thoroughly discredited and few parliamentarians have any hope of being reelected, so they will want to cling to their positions and privileges for as long as possible. The announcement, in reality, puts the onus for holding fresh elections onto Iraq’s competing political factions because they must reach a consensus over a new election law, and parliament will need to agree on its own dissolution.
The United Nations mission to Iraq welcomed the call for early elections. “Properly conducted credible, free, fair and inclusive elections can re-energize the political system and build public confidence, giving the people a voice and realizing their aspirations for better representation,” said Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the U.N.’s highest official here. It remains to be seen how the elections will develop, and whether they will take place.
Iraq has a rough road ahead, both when looking at its economy, and its political reconstruction, as well as relaitons with the US. US-Iraq ties strained after repeated attacks on US bases by various militias. In the latest one, Iraqi Camp Victory Army Base at Baghdad International Airport, which houses US forces, was targeted by rockets late Tuesday, according to local media. No statement has been made from the Iraqi government on the issue yet. On Monday, al-Taji Military Base, located 85 kilometers (some 53 miles) north of the capital Baghdad, was targeted by four Katyusha rockets, according to Capt. Ahmed Khalaf. Al-Taji base houses joint forces, including Iraqi and American soldiers as well as other foreign forces from the US-led international coalition. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack.
Meanwhile, a positive sign is present, the US is gradually withdrawing from Iraq as promised. The US and its allies are continuing their retreat back to Baghdad, 17 years after invading Iraq and overthrowing President Saddam Hussein’s regime. On Saturday the US and Spanish militaries withdrew from Basmaya base, south of the capital, and handed it over to their Iraqi counterparts. On Friday the Iraqi military said four rockets had been fired at the base but no casualties were reported. The US and Spanish troops at Basmaya had been training the Iraqi military to help them defeat ISIS.
In 2017 the Iraqi government said the Islamic extremist fighters had been defeated. Despite having lost almost all their territory, they still launch attacks. On Saturday last weekm the Iraqi military said ISIS had launched an attack on a village in northern Saladin province. Turkey’s Anadolu news agency reported that the mayor of Semun village and four others were killed. The US and its allies will re-base in Baghdad and at the Ain al-Asad Airbase in the country’s western desert. They say they will still assist Iraqi forces with air support and surveillance, but significantly cut back on training and ground operations.
However, The top U.S. military commander in the Middle East is expressing confidence that talks with Iraq will keep U.S. military troops in that country. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, visited Baghdad on Tuesday and met with new Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi, who has taken steps to take on an Iranian-backed Shiite militia group that has attacked American forces. “I believe the government of Iraq recognizes the true value that the coalition brings to the fight against Daesh (another name for ISIS) in Iraq, and I believe that going forward, they’re going to want us to be with them,” McKenzie said in an interview with a small number of reporters.
Iraq faces severe economic and political issues that will only be worsened should the US presence continue, hence the US withdrawal from Iraq is key in order for Iraq to solidify and develop its government, as well as economy, with the many militant groups’ presence at the moment, largely a response to US presence. Iraq needs to regain its status as a safe arab power that can be safely traded with.