As the West doubles down on its commitment to the conflict in Ukraine, many have paused over the past few days to look back at the invasion of Iraq on its 20th anniversary. In Iraq itself, there is no great commemoration, rather a sombre reflection. All Iraqis over a certain age will remember where they were when the first US bombs rained down on the Tigris. Iraqi journalists and commentators have looked on in horror at anniversary coverage portraying the invasion merely as a piece in the puzzle of Western history. To ask Iraqis whether it was “worth” toppling Saddam Hussein would be disingenuous, forcing a nation to choose between tyranny or years of slaughter. Few would want him back. But the true question is whether this is how he should have been toppled. As Iraqi poet Sinan Antoon wrote in a personal essay this weekend, “I had always hoped to see the end of Saddam’s dictatorship at the hands of the Iraqi people.”
To compound the issue to many here, it seems that the West has learned little from its misadventure. Current analysis casts it as a memory, a moment in the careers of politicians who have left the world stage. But for the Iraqi people, that fateful decision has defined their past, present and future. The bad governance in place since 2003 is still rife and the sectarianism stoked by the invasion continues to infect politics at every level.
And yet, there is probably more to be hopeful about today than at any point since 2003. Despite the sombre anniversary, the mood in Baghdad is bright, as construction and business investment soar and young people seek new opportunities. The tragedy they have endured means that Iraq’s next generation is tough, optimistic and ambitious. A country led by them could become the independent Iraq that the US and its allies tried – and failed – to create by force 20 years ago.
Leila Molana-Allen is Monocle’s correspondent in Beirut.