CAIRO -- President George W. Bush kept it simple in his short television address the evening of March 19, 2003: U.S. forces had begun their campaign to unseat Saddam Hussein, he said. The goals, he outlined in his first sentence, were straightforward: “to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.” Some 522 words later he promised the result: “We will bring freedom to others and we will prevail.”
As he spoke, members of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force were already crossing from Kuwait, where they’d been preparing for weeks, into southern Iraq. In those sands, it was Thursday, March 20, the dawn of a new day.
Ten years later, the era that dawn ushered in looks anything but simple. After tens of thousands of deaths, not just of Americans, but also of Iraqis – many, if not most, at the hands of other Iraqis – that country is still in turmoil. American troops are gone and a democratically elected government rules. But bombings and massacres continue, and the country remains mired in sectarian feuding between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
Elsewhere, conflict rules – in some cases, coincidentally, with anniversaries that fall also around this weekend:
– In Libya, French planes under NATO command opened the campaign to topple Moammar Gadhafi on March 19 two years ago. Today, a democratic government is in place, though it controls little in the face of Islamist militias whose unchecked presence frequently forces the national assembly to cancel sessions. Libyan weapons, taken from Gadhafi’s unguarded stores, were crucial to the advance of Islamist fighters in Mali.
– In Syria, the civil war marks its second year on Friday, with most observers calling the conflict a stalemate and the death toll likely to have passed 70,000 – and rising every day. The Obama administration has called for the defeat of President Bashar Assad even as it denounces as a terrorist group the most effective anti-Assad rebel military faction, the Nusra Front – a branch of al Qaida in Iraq, the same radical Islamist group that the U.S. fought in that country and that the current Iraqi government also is battling.
– Even the relatively peaceful January revolutions that ushered in what came to be known as the Arab spring two years ago are unsettled. In Egypt, the world’s most populous Arab country, a religiously affiliated political party fights to establish its pre-eminence against a group of revolutionaries who demand a share of political power but seem incapable of organizing for upcoming parliamentary elections. Anti-government demonstrations have become so frequent that they hardly deserve news coverage, and the economy is in free fall.
Never has the region seen so much change in the nine decades since the end of World War I, when Western powers carved up the territories of the defeated Ottomans by drawing lines across a map.
The role in that turmoil of U.S. intervention – direct, in the cases of Iraq and Libya, and through rhetoric, in Syria and Egypt – remains an open question.
In Iraq, the people think their security situation is better since American troops left the country at the end of 2011. A Gallup poll released earlier this month found that 42 percent think that, despite the occasional car bomb, the security situation has improved since U.S. troops withdrew. But they have doubts about their government. Only 11 percent said there was less corruption and only 9 percent said there was less unemployment.