Life may be better, but the future is still far from rosy

April 9, 2004

A year after Saddam's statue came down, we reflect on two acts of iconoclasm and ask Middle East experts for their views on the war and its effects

Some think conditions have improved for many of the people of Iraq but violence continues to hang over the region, reports Harriet Swain

Two years ago, with tension mounting in the Middle East and US military action in Iraq becoming increasingly likely, The Times Higher contacted academic experts with a professional interest in the region to get their views on the situation. On the first anniversary of war in Iraq, we contacted them again to see if their views had changed and to ask them what they believed should happen next.

In spring 2002, most experts agreed that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons, and some thought it also had nuclear capabilities, but none thought that immediate military action was justified. Although opinion differed on whether getting rid of Saddam Hussein would improve life for Iraqis, they agreed that it was likely to destabilise the region as a whole. But not all thought war was inevitable. Some believed that the UK and US governments were trying to force Saddam into a tighter bargaining position and that alternatives to war did exist.

Today, there is broad agreement that many Iraqis have benefited from the war. Opinions are divided about its effect on the region, with some emphasising that it led to more instability and others saying it has increased openness and dynamism. What has emerged more strongly as a casualty this time around, however, is international stability. Most of those consulted felt there was general cynicism in the Arab world about governments that appeared to have flouted international law and to have misled their people about the reasons for going to war. They also identified increased anti-Americanism and an enlarged pool of potential terrorists as direct results of military action.

All said that any hope for the future depended on a major role for the United Nations in postwar Iraq and renewed efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Gerd Nonneman, reader in international relations and Middle Eastern politics at Lancaster University, says the US' popularity in the Middle East has "plummeted lower than it has ever been", that support for al-Qaida has increased - "but you have to distinguish between active support and grudging sympathy" - and that many of the positive changes in the foreign-policy stances of countries in the region, such as Libya and Iran, were already under way before the war.

However, "within Saudi Arabia there really has been a questioning of life there", he says. "Debate about the school curriculum, the position of women, control of some charities and where the money goes are now being discussed, which has never been the case before."

Nonneman agrees that the recent opinion poll showing that most Iraqis felt that life was now not bad was an accurate reflection. "There has been serious improvement in the situation in Iraq - a lot of violence has been focused on the central area of Iraq, around Baghdad. Look at the whole country, and the impression comes that the situation is better for most Iraqis than it was before."

He says his views on the justification for war have not changed. He always believed that there was a good case for military intervention - on the basis of Saddam's refusal to comply with UNSecurity Council demands and on the basis of genocide - but not on the basis of weapons of mass destruction being a direct and imminent threat. He is also highly critical of "post-victory" organisation in Iraq, accusing Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, and Paul Wolfowitz, his deputy, of ignoring the numerous studies about Iraqi society and the many specialists in postwar reconstruction in favour of "young thrusting ideologues" with little knowledge of Iraq and none of Arabic. As a result, he says, they were unprepared for the initial violence and looting that led to weapons being spread around militant factions and criminals. They also made a mistake in disbanding the army.

Nonneman wants the UN to be brought in "as an organisation that is going to get Security Council support and really run the constitutional process".

Then it should tackle the lack of contact between the Coalition Provisional Authority and society - "the people they talk to are always the same hand-picked interlocutors". Finally, under no circumstances should it follow the new Spanish prime minister's suggestion of pulling out. "There must be a real commitment to seeing it through to the end."

Tim Niblock, director of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies and professor of Middle Eastern politics at the University of Exeter, agrees that the UN has to be brought in to oversee political development.

He believes that war has led to instability in most countries in the region, that Islamic radicalisation has increased and that the benefits to Iraq are not clear cut. He recently attended a conference with strong Iraqi participation and found opinion divided about the war's impact on Iraq itself - even within the same parts of the country. "Some people were saying that life was unstable and dangerous. Others were trying to emphasise more positive dimensions. The degree of sectarianism bitterness was much greater than in the past. Iraqis were almost forced into sectarian frameworks."

His opposition to the war had been reinforced by its aftermath, he says.

"There needed to be a change in Iraq, but it needed to be in a framework where living conditions improved a bit."

But for Anoush Ehteshami, professor of international relations at Durham University's Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, "it's like giving a patient the wrong medicine and watching him recover slowly over time. The logic and reason for going to war were warped. But if one were to look at it historically, you could certainly make the case that the fall of Saddam was not only good for Iraqis themselves in the long run but for the whole region in political, economic and cultural terms. Now, for the first time in modern history, Iraq is emerging as a really progressive modern country."

Ehteshami concedes that it will take decades for Iraq to recover from its three wars and that security in the country is still a big problem, but says the fact that Iraqis can articulate opinions in public without fear of Saddam's security forces is a huge transformation and that it will be boosted by more international cash than it could ever have hoped for under Saddam. "Iraqis can jump the last quarter of the 20th century into the 21st," he says.

Hussein Sirriyeh, senior lecturer in the Arabic department at Leeds University, takes a similarly optimistic view. What is needed, he says, is a detailed provisional timetable for setting up the new government and a presidential council made up of one representative each from the Kurd, Shia and Sunni communities.

The relationships between Iraq and Iran, Kuwait and Turkey also need to be addressed, and there needs to be some institutional mechanism to ensure that Iraq will not pose a threat again. He approves of dissolving the army "because it has always been a destabilising factor", but says this can be done only if Iraq's external boarders are guaranteed.

In time, if all this is achieved and Iraqis are convinced that the coalition troops are going to leave, "it will solve the problems", he says.

"The region is unstable now, but if they take positive steps in Iraq and in the Arab-Israeli conflict, they could reduce terrorism."

Sirriyeh is the only expert to suggest that the war was at all justified.

He believes that Iraq did have weapons of mass destruction and that there may even have been some truth in the claim that they could have been deployed in 45 minutes. "I do believe that if the British and Americans hadn't acted when they did in Iraq, the risks would have been greater."

Yasir Suleiman, director of Edinburgh University's Institute for Advanced Study, disagrees. "People in the Arab and Muslim world don't really have much confidence in the reasons that the Americans and British government put out to justify actions in the region," he says. "They have also been dismayed and angered by the fact that US and UK involvement in Iraq has been met by disengagement from what most people in the Arab world view as the core issue - the American-Palestinian conflict." In addition, they have become cynical about attempts to promote democracy. "How could people who disregarded the illegality of what Israel does, who occupy Iraq, who have not been truthful to their own people, be champions of democracy for the Arab world?"

Eugene Rogan, director of the Middle East Centre at St Anthony's College, Oxford, agrees that "Iraqis would be more satisfied with the fall of Saddam had they achieved this themselves, rather than through the unwanted American and British intervention".

He says that continued US pressure on Middle Eastern regimes and the failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have made the region more volatile than ever.

"The only way forward seems to be a withdrawal of Britain and America from Iraq and their replacement with a UN political overseer and a combined international and Iraqi military force to address security. This prospect is clouded by an anticipated unwillingness by America and Britain, which have already spent enormously on the Iraq war, to foot the bill for rebuilding that on which they spent so much money destroying."

Charles Tripp, reader in the politics of the Middle East at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, does not believe the situation would be better if Iraqis alone had removed Saddam because, he says, more blood would have been shed. What worries him now is the CPA's two different approaches towards future administration of Iraq - on the one hand, strong central control; on the other, the encouragement of local power structures and "so-called traditional leaders". These could, he says, end up clashing once the coalition government bows out. He warns of future "Lebanonisation" of Iraq, with a breakdown between different power groups in the country and the various factions eventually appealing for help from outside.

"There is a huge onus of responsibility on the Iraqis who will have to deal with all this and on the Americans to let them."

Most pessimistic is Magnus Ranstorp, director of St Andrews University's Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. "Unless there is a Marshall Plan for the Middle East, we are going to be firefighters putting out fires in different quarters, sometimes leading to major interstate confrontations, sometimes leading to US interventions," he says.

"The region isn't facing a bright future."

Although what has happened in Iraq has been good for many Iraqis, it represents only a chapter in a region suffering endemic problems, and has meanwhile been a propaganda godsend for al-Qaida.

"From the point of view of terrorism, Iraq has become like Chechnya - a cause cel bre for anyone opposing US hegemony," Ranstorp says. "For the next 20 to 30 years the Middle East is still going to produce individuals who will engage in asymmetric violence against the US in particular, but also the West as a whole."

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