The Age

By Tom Switzer

Old myths never die. Unlike old soldiers, they do not even seem to fade away. So it is with the fable told by many supporters of the US-led Iraq invasion, which began 12 years ago today.

The fairytale goes like this: that US President George W. Bush left Iraq in pretty good shape in 2008, but President Barack Obama's withdrawal of US troops in 2011 created not just the conditions in the Sunni heartland for Islamic State terrorists to thrive, but also a strategic opening for the Islamic Republic of Iran today.

The unintended consequences of the war were not just the costs in blood, treasure and prestige for the US, and the hundreds of thousands of deaths of Iraqi civilians. They were what amounted to a strategic victory for Iran.

According to the neoconservative Wall Street Journal's editorial last week, Iran occupies Iraq - and the culprit is one Barack Hussein Obama. The failure to deploy US ground troops or rally a coalition of surrounding Sunni states to fight Islamic State, we are told, created security vacuums for Tehran to exploit.

Never mind a couple of obvious weaknesses of this interpretation. For one thing, the hatred and rivalries that are so much a part of Iraqi religious and tribal animosities were bound to erupt in the absence of a strong unitary state.

For another thing, US troops left Iraq according to the very timetable president George W. Bush himself had negotiated with Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2008. As James Mann makes clear in his new book, George W. Bush, the outgoing president negotiated two written agreements that paved the way for America to remain in Iraq for a time but also set a deadline for removal of all US troops by the end of 2011. At the time, moreover, polls showed most Americans and Iraqis supported the withdrawal.

But the overriding point here is that American neoconservatives, like most supporters of the decision to invade Iraq, still can't acknowledge the taproot of today's disaster: the toppling of Sunni rule that led to the Shiite ascendancy in Baghdad.

Go back to those heady days before Operation Iraqi Freedom. The hawks from left to right had confidently predicted that the "liberation" of the Iraqi people from a brutal dictatorship would lead to a flourishing democracy and viable state.

But the unintended consequences of the war were not just the costs in blood, treasure and prestige for the US, and the hundreds of thousands of deaths of Iraqi civilians. They were what amounted to a strategic victory for Iran – the very state the US Republican Congress appears desperate to wage war on.

Tehran's presence in the Shiite south, moreover, was felt well before the withdrawal of US forces. Recall that General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards' Quds Brigade, spearheaded Iran's political and military involvement in Iraq a decade ago.

By toppling a Sunni regime and bringing democracy to Iraq, the US-led coalition brought to an end the sectarian imbalance that had been in place for generations. The Baathists, like the Hashemites, British and Ottomans before them, had kept in place minority rule, giving Sunni Arabs a disproportionate share of power and resources while brutally suppressing the Shiites.

The invasion - premised, let's not forget, on a falsehood that Iraq had WMD - upended that sectarian imbalance. In the process, democracy meant that the majority Shiites became the new winners in post-Saddam Iraq; and the minority Sunnis the new losers. The former turned to their Shiite brethren in Tehran for support; the latter turned to a Sunni insurgency that has morphed into a plethora of Sunni jihadists, including Islamic State.

Now the chickens are coming home to roost. The Iraqi state, as the world has known it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago, is coming apart. Portraits of Iran's late ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei litter central Baghdad. And the only group capable of liberating Sunni strongholds from Sunni jihadists are the Iranian-backed Shiite militias who scare the living bejesus out of the marginalised Sunnis.

In hindsight, the war was bound to be so messy and so dangerous that it was not worth so much blood and treasure. This was a point well made by (of all people) Dick Cheney. That's right: a decade before the 2003 invasion, the future vice-president believed that toppling Saddam Hussein's regime would not be worth it.

As Cheney put it in 1994: "Once you got to Iraq and took down Saddam Hussein's government, what are you going to put in its place? That's a very volatile part of the world. You take down the central government in Iraq and you can easily see pieces of Iraq fly off ... It's a quagmire."

Quagmire indeed.

This article originally appeared in The Age.