Ten years ago today, the day Baghdad fell to American troops, I wrote that with the downfall of Saddam Hussein, I finally felt free as a journalist to criticize the Iraqi regime under my own byline without fear of reprisal from Saddam’s henchmen in Beirut, where I then lived. The evening that I called "my first day of freedom," when Iraqis pulled down Saddam's statue in Fardous Square, I decided to return to Baghdad. It was my first trip back in 21 years. Reconnecting with relatives, I was at my aunt's when her husband, Jaafar, said Saddam's demise was the end of a nightmare. "The new Iraq belongs to you and Sadeq," he said, referring to his son, my cousin.
The next morning, Jaafar was gunned down by looters who ransacked his house. Though grieving for his death, I decided the murder was a hiccup in the bigger scheme of things. American friends had just arrived from Beirut to launch an English-language magazine. I offered them the family house to use as a dorm and an office and as part of my investment in the project that we called the Baghdad Bulletin.
Iraq's looting metamorphosed into organized crime and an insurgency. By September 2003, it had become too dangerous for foreign journalists to stay in Iraq. Investors too pulled out. The Baghdad Bulletin had to shut down. As disappointed as I was, I never stopped defending the moral imperative behind the Iraq war: There was not, and will never be, anything wrong with toppling a dictator, let alone one as bloody as Saddam.
When I moved to Washington in 2004, I found a different debate, with rampant finger-pointing, and one-time supporters of the war turning against it. Opponents of the war argued, among other things, that the United States had committed a fatal mistake by disbanding the Iraqi army. That myth needs to be debunked. Saddam's army was divided into two: the loyalists and the corrupt. Had Coalition Provincial Authority chief Paul Bremer reconstituted brigades like Fidaeyee Saddam or the Republican Guard, such a step, with their commander-in-chief still at large, would have been akin to inviting Saddam to return to lead his troops one more time. Other Iraqi brigades, though not loyal to Saddam, were too corrupt to stand, and even if they did, they would have had a hard time policing the country without the intelligence branches, and Saddam diehards.
In retrospect, we know that post-invasion lawlessness helped breed civil war. Perhaps the United States should have trained an Iraqi police force before the invasion, and inserted it into the country after. But even that could not have guaranteed law and order. Neighboring Syria is proof of that. Even without foreign invasion, Syria has become a bloodbath that—judging by the numbers of casualties and refugees—makes the Iraq civil war look like a picnic.
Moreover, the continuing violence in Iraq, even after the U.S. withdrawal, is proof that not all of the Iraqi rage was because of American occupation. Self-criticism is good, and there are lessons to be learned from American mistakes in Iraq—whether the error was abandoning the Kurds and the Shia in 1991, or not planning for lawlessness in 2003. Nonetheless, America handed back to Iraqis a country that, by the standards of the Arabic-speaking Middle Eastern, is closest in the region to being a normal one. Americans paid dearly for that, not only in lives lost, and money spent, but also because of a bruising debate that divided Americans and made them lose faith in their country's power and role on the world stage.
Now it’s time for Americans to stop feeling guilty about Iraq. The United States went to war in good will and wanted to spread democracy. But the Iraqis were not, and are still not, ready for democratic government. The fact that the whole Middle East has devolved into a Sunni-Shia war tells us that the chaos in Iraq that followed the U.S. invasion was only a small reflection of the problems in a region that was on fire long before 2003. We should also recognize that the United States still has a large role in influencing events in its interests, and shaping them according to its ideals.
Over the last ten years, the pull that Iraq once exerted on me has lessened. The house the family has owned for half a century is up for sale, and now I call America, the country where my son was born, home. When my son reads the history of the Iraq War, I want him to know that his father, and many like him, Iraqis and Americans, tried to spread freedom there. As we move on to other things, other concerns, we still leave evidence of our fight.