Iraq may be seen in Britain as Tony Blair’s nemesis but Iraqis yesterday greeted his departure with utter indifference. Asked what they thought about it, most simply shrugged their shoulders and looked surprised at being asked the question. Others said they saw him as a surrogate for President Bush.
It is easy to see why Mr Blair is not regarded with more affection in Iraq. On 8 April 2003, just before the fall of Saddam Hussein, British troops distributed a leaflet in Arabic containing a message from him to Iraqis. It promised “a peaceful, prosperous Iraq which will run by and for the Iraqi people”.
Iraqis are all too aware this never happened. Four years after the letter, Iraq is perhaps the least peaceful country in the world. Baghdad is gripped by terror. On a quiet day yesterday police picked up 21 bodies of murdered men. Nobody knows how many corpses lie at the bottom of the river or in shallow graves in the desert.
It is not just the economy that is in turmoil. Much of the population is close to malnutrition with 54 per cent of the population living on less than one dollar a day, of whom 15 per cent seek to survive on just 5 cents.
Some 60 per cent of people are unemployed. Of the 34,000 doctors in Iraq in 2003, 12,000 have fled the country and 2,000 have been killed, according to the United Nations.
Mr Blair has also failed in Iraqi eyes to fulfil his other promise that the country would be run by Iraqis. A poll this spring showed that 59 per cent of them believe that Iraq is controlled by the US and only 34 per cent think it is being run by the Iraqi government.
In Britain criticism of Mr Blair has mainly revolved around the decision to go to war, the “dodgy” dossier and the absence of the weapons of mass destruction. This has been to his advantage. He has repeatedly said that Saddam Hussein was an evil dictator and does not regret removing him.
Many Iraqis would agree. They did not fight for Saddam–not even the supposedly super-loyal Special Republican Guards–and most were glad to see the end of his disastrous rule. But within a month of the supposed end of the war, Blair went along with what was essentially a US decision to remain in occupation of the country and remake Iraq as it wanted. It was from this decision that all the present disasters flowed.
Mr Blair never gave a sense of knowing much about Iraq when he invaded it or learning anything over the past four years. His speeches and statements about it were often puerile.
The first year after the fall of Saddam saw a thorough-going occupation. The second offered nominal Iraqi independence under unelected pro-Western Iraqis.
The elections of 2005 saw the triumph of the Shia religious parties to the dismay of the American and British embassies. Ever since they have sought to neuter their influence.
It has always been difficult to know how much of his own propaganda Mr Blair actually believed. Again and again he would say that much of Iraq was at peace, the press was exaggerating its miseries and progress was being made.
He had the great advantage that these placid provinces were in reality so dangerous that no reporter could go there to refute the Prime Minister’s claims.
No successful political or military policy could be based on the nonsense that Mr Blair repeatedly spoke about Iraq.
He said that the insurgency was isolated when from an early stage in the war it had wide support among the Sunni community. By March this year, 78 per cent of Iraqis opposed the presence of US and British forces according to a wide-ranging poll.
There was a further ugly consequence to this. In Afghanistan al-Qa’ida had little support. Its numbers were so small that, for its promotional videos showing its fighters in action, it had to hire local tribesmen by the day. In the first months of the occupation of Iraq, al-Qa’ida for the first time found a sympathetic environment in which to grow.
The “terrorism” that Mr Blair was so regularly to denounce incubated and flourished in conditions that he helped create.
Iraq exposed not only Mr Blair’s weaknesses but Britain’s. It has been strange over the past four years for me to return to London from Baghdad wondering if people really knew what was happening in Iraq.
I found almost immediately that, from taxi driver to general and senior civil servant, they knew all about the mistakes made in Iraq but they were also resigned to the fact that they could do nothing about them.
Mr Blair is not unique among prime ministers in making catastrophic errors in the Middle East.
It was said that Lloyd George could remain prime minister for life as the architect of victory in 1918 but four years later he was forced to resign after trying to go to war with Turkey.
In 1956, Anthony Eden disastrously invaded Egypt claiming, in words echoed by Blair almost half a century later, that Nasser was a threat to the Middle East.
Lloyd George and Eden were swiftly evicted from Downing Street. Mr Blair clung on. It is this that makes his legacy in Iraq so poisonous.
For four years he has nailed British colours to a failed US policy over which Britain has no significant influence. He has advertised a humiliating British dependency on Washington without gaining any advantages.
As for Iraqis, despite all his rhetoric about rescuing them from Saddam, he has been surprisingly indifferent to their fate.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.