As the summer turns to autumn, there is a distinct sense of end of era about the US adventure in Iraq. The violence, which had been in decline, is on the rise again. The United States is in the last stages of withdrawing its combat troops, leaving a non-combat force of only 50,000 for another year. More than five months after its elections, Iraq is still failing to translate the results into a government. And a year after the last British forces left southern Iraq, Tony Blair has announced that he is donating the proceeds from his autobiography to the Royal British Legion for an armed forces rehabilitation centre. Iraq seems increasingly to be gazing into an uncertain future, even as everyone else is starting to look back.
Yesterday's was only the latest, but by far the most costly, bombing of recent weeks, with dozens of Iraqis killed and more than 100 injured at a Baghdad army recruitment centre. July had already brought the highest number of casualties of any month for two years. Clearly, there are those who want to exploit the climate of uncertainty for their own advantage as the US military presence winds down. But the suicide attack also demonstrated once again the shortage of jobs and the desperation of Iraqis seeking employment. This, not just sectarian violence, is the malign legacy that the military intervention and the occupation that followed leave behind.
Nor are there convincing signs that any improvement in Iraq will be rapid. In the United States, the mood that accompanies the end of combat operations ordered by President Obama remains downbeat – a far cry from George Bush's prematurely triumphal claim of "Mission Accomplished". For quite other reasons, the timetable for the US withdrawal is not entirely welcome in official Iraqi quarters either, where the army commander says his country might not be ready to take control of its own security for another 10 years. That is hardly a vote of confidence either in the state of Iraq's newly trained armed forces or in the good faith of the Americans. It does not bode well for what is to come.
The long post-election political stalemate is only making matters worse. The Prime Minister, Nouri Maliki, is still refusing to cede power to Ayad Allawi, whose bloc won two more parliamentary seats than he did. Yesterday's bombing followed Mr Allawi's decision to suspend talks on forming a coalition.
There is speculation that the political vacuum is allowing al-Qa'ida to make new inroads. Valid or not, the speculation itself is corrosive. It also underlines a bitter irony: that the very threat the West's operations in Afghanistan were intended to avert may now have implanted itself in Iraq. And it supplies fresh proof of how badly this misguided invasion has rebounded: rather than reinforcing the West's security, it has compounded the threat.
This was a part of the background against which Monday's unheralded announcement from Tony Blair has to be seen: that of an imprudent, mismanaged and probably illegal war to which the then British Prime Minister committed his support. Not only his personal support either, but the good name of the country, the lives of its troops and a large slice of the national budget. The other part of the background was the domestic mood in Britain.
The Iraq war may no longer feature regularly on the front pages now that British troops are no longer there. As the impassioned response to Mr Blair's donation has shown, however, this war remains as fresh in the memory – and almost as divisive as it was when it began. That there will now be a positive aspect to Mr Blair's legacy, and one that implicitly recognises the human cost of his fateful decision, deserves to be recognised. But it cannot erase, nor will it compensate for, the irreversible damage that has been done.
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