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How the United States broke Iraq, 20 years after invasion

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“You break it, you own it.” That’s the so-called Pottery Barn rule, famously invoked two decades ago by Secretary of State Colin Powell to President George W. Bush ahead of their administration’s decision to launch its invasion of Iraq. In February 2003, Powell staked his considerable reputation on a presentation he delivered at the U.N. Security Council, offering to the world “facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence” about the Iraqi regime’s possession of so-called weapons of mass destruction.

In later years, he would lament the defects in the U.S. intelligence process that led him to that moment, which preceded the Bush administration’s decision to launch its invasion. Critics contend that figures in the Bush administration deliberately lied to get the war they wanted, but, whatever the case, Powell, who died in 2021, voiced more remorse than many of his immediate colleagues. And he was at least partially right about the Pottery Barn rule.

With little doubt, the United States broke Iraq. U.S. forces succeeded in the campaign to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, shocking and awing their way to Baghdad in a matter of days. But what followed turned into a debacle for U.S. grand strategy, and a traumatic nightmare for much of Iraqi society. An oppressive regime was ousted, but the initial glimmers of hope and optimism felt by some Iraqis faded as a dysfunctional, unstable status quo took root, shaped far too often by sectarian enmities and kleptocratic elites.

The war, driven by the hubris of the Bush administration and a supportive Washington establishment — as well as what has to be described at this point as a vengeful post-9/11 bloodlust that permeated American society — is now widely seen as a generational American mistake. Iraqis paid the biggest price: According to Brown University’s Costs of War project, as many as 306,000 Iraqi civilians died from “direct war related violence” between the 2003 invasion and 2019, a span of time that saw Iraq convulsed by waves of insurgencies and counterinsurgencies, and its cities ravaged by terrorist attacks and airstrikes.

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The consensus now, even among formerly hawkish Republicans, is that the United States should never have invaded Iraq 20 years ago. But an older genre of conventional wisdom in Washington maintains that the Bush administration’s real failure came only after it deposed Saddam, when it turned out that the United States didn’t have a real strategy for managing what came next.

“Had we gone to war with a real plan for what we would do once we liberated Baghdad,” wrote former Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran this week, “had we sent language-proficient reconstruction experts instead of political sycophants, and had we sought to heed the wishes of millions of Iraqis to help them create a multi-sect, multiethnic, big-tent government, the history of the United States in Iraq over the past two decades would almost certainly look very different.”

That alternate reality is nice to consider when you have to gauge the actual reality. Many Iraqi critics of Saddam’s regime lament what was lost in his overthrow.

“Iraq quickly fell prey to chaos, conflict and instability, experienced an uncountable number of deaths and displacements, and the erosion of health, education and basic services,” wrote Iraqi academic Baslam Mustafa. “Behind the statistics, there are untold stories of agony and suffering. The structural and political violence would spill into social and domestic violence, affecting women and children. With every life lost, a whole family is shattered. From day one, the conditions were forming for the emergence of terrorist groups and militias.”

Saddam’s nominally secular regime carried out hideous atrocities against ethnic Kurds and rebellious Shiites. But it still presided over a united sense of Iraqi identity that was, to a certain extent, broken up by the U.S. invasion and its aftermath. “One bloody dictator was killed and replaced with countless petty tyrants. Baghdad itself is no longer the city it was,” wrote Feurat Alani, a French-Iraqi journalist and author. “With rare exceptions, Sunnis live in Sunni neighborhoods, and Shiites in their own. In the rest of the country, the ‘soft partition’ of Iraq into a Kurdish north, a Sunni west and center, and a Shiite south — an idea Joe Biden once championed — is a reality.”

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In recent years, Iraqis of all backgrounds have tried to reclaim a sense of nationhood, despite the prevailing political order. A youth-led protest movement has bitterly clashed with the Iraqi state and affiliated powerful militias; one of its cries is simply “we want a homeland.” Many in their ranks are from a new generation that barely knew of life under Saddam.

Noor Alhuda Saad, 26, a PhD candidate at Mustansiriya University who described herself to the Associated Press as a political activist, told the news agency that she and her compatriots are fighting for a more democratic and inclusive country that has so far failed to emerge two decades after the invasion.