The March 19, 2003 launch of the US war against Iraq continues -- only somewhat abated -- into March 2011. It is now the longest war in US history excepting Vietnam and Afghanistan.
This was a war sold to the American people as a “necessary” war to bring democracy to the Middle East, albeit out of the barrels of guns.
The consequences of the war have been devastating: 4,600 soldiers killed, 60,000 wounded and an estimated 300,000 with some kind of emotional illness and/or disability. As many as 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed, unknown numbers of soldiers and thousands of others from other causes.
In a recent study, Professor Linda Bilmes of Harvard University notes that 500,000 claims for disability have been filed by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, most of them by veterans of the Iraq war. Around 600,000 of these veterans are being treated at Veteran Affairs (VA) medical facilities. The cost of their lifetime care and benefits over the next 40 years is estimated to be between $589 and $934 billion “depending on the duration and extent of the wars.” While the Obama administration and Pentagon have stated that US combat troops will be withdrawn by the end of 2011, most Middle East analysts think that up to 20,000 combat troops and other security personnel will remain. The State Department and Bureau of Diplomatic Security intend to employ another 10,000 to 12,000 security contractors. This indicates the US plans to have a substantial presence in Iraq for the foreseeable future including air bases.
The Iraq war resulted in several fundamental changes in the geopolitical and geostrategic posture of the US in the Middle East and North Africa. The first change was the bifurcation of Iraq into Arab and Kurdish sectors resulting in the Kurdish sector becoming de facto completely autonomous from the Arab sector. The corollary of this division was to compel Turkey to become a major geopolitical player, not just in Kurdistan-Iraq and Arab Iraq, but also in Syria, Lebanon and Iran and to challenge more strongly US policies in the region. Turkey was forced to this policy in order to meet the challenges of Kurdish nationalist movements within Turkey itself as well as within Iraq.
Ankara was compelled toward this policy in order to meet the growing nationalist challenges of Kurds within Turkey, especially the 8 million living in southeast Turkey along the Iraqi and Syrian borders. The US war against Iraq obliged Turkey to fundamentally change its foreign policies toward neighboring Arab states, especially Syria, Iraq and also Iran, and seek to create a policy of “zero sum problems” with them. This policy was also intended to establish stronger economic and trade relations and to better manage the growing challenge of Kurdish nationalism among the three states and Iran. The strident Kurdish nationalism resulting from the US war in Iraq and the challenges it presents to the Turkish state have embittered Turkish officials and diplomats.
Another major geopolitical consequence of the Iraq war is that it has fundamentally changed the balance of political power between Sunni and Shiite Arabs, with the Shiite now the dominant group with 60 percent of the population, while Sunnis have only 20 percent (the other 20 percent being Kurdish). The US war contributed to making Iraq the first country in the Arab world, indeed the world, ever to be governed by a majority Shiite population -- a development vehemently disliked by Sunni governments, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- both strong US allies.
Being the only Arab Shiite dominant country will, it seems for the foreseeable future, impel the Shiite government in Baghdad to have close relations with Iran, a country which itself is 90 percent Shiite, in order to protect itself from Sunni subversion and destabilizing tactics, especially from Saudi Arabia. Of course, a US and/or an Israeli attack on the reigning government in Iran would change this policy.
The Iraq war has gone badly for the US and its neoconservative supporters. Contrary to Washington’s expectations, Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran have grown in strength. In February 2011, Lebanon, a country with 38 percent of its population Shiite, for the first time in its history nominated a Shiite as prime minister and he has vowed to have good relations with Iran.
It is possible that the two aforementioned emerging geopolitical paradigms will be challenged by the political upheavals that have engulfed North Africa and the Middle East over the past two months. Notably, the US and its client regimes have been unable, up to this point, to manage to their satisfaction the political dynamics in Yemen, Lebanon, Gaza -- and as we have seen in the past month and a half -- the political dynamics in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain.
In March of 2011 it is unclear whether the US and its client regimes will be able to continue to suppress the desire for freedom and dignity among the Arab peoples with perfunctory reforms. It seems that the US will continue to rely on its and its allies’ massive military power to dominate the Middle Eastern and North African oil and gas pipeline networks and to secure Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem and the water and land resources of the West Bank -- there is no indication that Washington will change these policies.
*Published in Turkey's TODAY'S ZAMAN on March 12.