Why Libya Is Not Iraq


The imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya has been accompanied by a slew of articles by conservative commentators who see this development as an endorsement of their support for George W Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I was in Fallujah in early 2004 researching a book, during which time I had many conversations with tribal Sheiks and local leaders who continually emphasised the reasons for their growing resistance to the US occupation. The people I spoke to told me they had supported the American forces coming in — but wished they had been given the chance to overthrow Saddam themselves. Attitudes to the occupation were changing then, and soon their town would become the centre of the Iraqi resistance. This was the period when four American "contractors" killed by militants were burnt and hung from a bridge in Fallujah. Later, two devastating retaliatory attacks would virtually wipe Fallujah off the map.

The Iraqis I spoke to were suspicious of the American forces and it was the random shootings and arrests by those forces that fuelled their resentment. It was what would eventually turn these men into insurgents. The Americans had turned their supporters into enemies and, as I was told many times, if they had helped the people overthrow Saddam instead of invading, there would have been no insurgency. If George W Bush had followed a course of action similar to what is being done now in Libya the end result would have been the removal of Saddam Hussein by his own people — instead of the terrible insurgency we have witnessed in the past eight years.

According to the latest figures from Iraq Body Count, which tabulates Iraqi civilian deaths reported in the western press, the civilian death toll in Iraq is now 109,366. The organisation acknowledges that its figures are likely to significantly underestimate the actual figure as many deaths are not reported. Add to that the 4400 US soldiers killed and 32,000 wounded and the true extent of the cost of the Iraq war becomes clearer.

To claim, as Gerard Henderson did this week, that Iraq is now a democracy that is a kind of model to Arab nations seeking to overthrow their leaders is an uninformed — almost laughably so — assessment of the situation. Henderson calls Iraq a "nascent democracy", writing: "There is free expression in Iraq but this is tempered by the terrorist attacks of Islamists on their fellow Muslims and on the minority Christian population."

"Iraq is the only Arab country to embrace democratic forms, including free elections. This came about as a consequence of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime due to the efforts of the Coalition of the Willing led in March 2003 by the US, Britain, Australia and Poland," he continues.

According to the UN, more than 4.7 million Iraqi refugees are unable to return home. Daily bombings and attacks on government employees, police and security personnel continue. Roadside bombs kill civilians, government officials are assassinated with "sticky bombs" placed under their cars, kidnappings of people who are likely to be able to pay a ransom are still prevalent. After eight years of war the electricity in Baghdad and other major towns is still not back to pre-war levels. Attacks against Christians are common. Sunni-Shia tensions remain high with many areas of Baghdad out of bounds for each group.

In short the "liberation" of Iraq has produced a violent, shattered and divided society whose infrastructure is in ruins and whose previously secular society is now demarcated, often by concrete blast walls and checkpoints, along sectarian lines.

Ironically it was only once the Americans started to deal with the disaffected Sunni elites, like the ones I was talking to in Fallujah in 2004, that the violence began to stabilise to an extent that allowed the US to withdraw 80,000 of their troops. There are still 50,000 troops and thousands of foreign contractors in Iraq and they will be for years — otherwise the government would not be able to function.

If George W Bush had only been interested in democracy in the Middle East, he could have saved the Iraqi people years of bloodshed by supporting them to overthrow Saddam. But as they told me over and over again in Fallujah, no one had ever asked them what they wanted. They believed the Americans had just invaded to steal their oil.

By waiting for the UN to act, Barack Obama allowed the Libyan people to own their freedom as Iraqis never could. If the Libyan people can liberate themselves it is not because of a wave of freedom that was started by George W Bush, it is because finally Western support has been withdrawn from the Gaddafi regime.


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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.