One year after the start of the Iraq war (20 March 2003), the U.S.-British decision to jointly topple Saddam Hussein remains a divisive subject. Proponents of the action argue that Washington and London acted as liberators, while critics say their unilateral operation smacked of imperialism. But even as the debate continues, the world community is increasingly coming to terms with the war's results.
Prague, 18 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- To remember just how controversial was Washington and London's decision to invade and occupy Iraq, it is enough to listen again to the angry international debate on the eve of the war.
As it became clear that the more than 200,000 U.S. and British soldiers massed in Kuwait would sweep into Iraq with or without UN support, France's foreign minister did not hide his frustration. Dominique de Villepin, speaking to the UN Security Council in mid-February, repeated France’s contention that arms inspections were already containing any threat from Iraq and that they were a far better approach than armed intervention.
"By contrast [to the use of force], the inspections offer an alternative that will allow us to move closer and closer, day by day, toward an efficient and peaceful disarmament of Iraq. We should ask ourselves whether, ultimately, this option would both be the safest and fastest solution," de Villepin said.
But speaking to the UN on the same day, the U.S. Secretary of State said Washington's patience with such arguments had run out. Colin Powell faulted Iraq for failing to cooperate with arms inspections and said anything short of using force would be "walking away" from the problem. "We now are in a situation where Iraq's continued non-compliance and failure to cooperate, it seems to me in the clearest terms, requires this council to begin to think through the consequences of walking away from this problem or the reality that we have to face the problem," he said.
A year later, these strong differences of opinion continue to be reflected in the official positions of many countries toward the Iraq war. Countries which supported the U.S.-British invasion -- notably Italy, Poland, and Spain -- have since dispatched troops of their own to help reconstruct the country. But capitals that argued against the invasion a year ago continue to regard the occupation of Iraq as an overbearingly U.S. affair and several have called for Washington to turn over its control of Iraq's security to NATO or the UN instead.
Berlin, which has said it sees no role for German troops in Iraq, has said that it would not block a NATO-led deployment provided there was a full consensus within the alliance. Paris has said it could envision a NATO force if it were approved by a sovereign Iraqi government and by the UN, but has not offered French troops. And Spain's prime minister-elect said this week he would withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq unless the UN takes charge there by mid-year.
Russia and many Arab countries that called for solving the Iraq crisis within the UN framework have shown no interest in contributing troops under the U.S.-led occupation.
But even as the international community clearly remains highly divided over the Iraq war one year later, it is increasingly coming to terms with the war's results.
One sign of wider acceptance came in October, when the UN unanimously adopted a U.S.-sponsored resolution endorsing the progressive handover of power to Iraqis and encouraging international support for peacekeeping and rebuilding. After the vote, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan -- who has been a critic of unilateral U.S. and British policies -- called the resolution a sign of the world community's desire to "place the interest of the Iraqi people" above political divisions.
"The outcome is a clear demonstration of the will of all the members of the Security Council to place the interest of the Iraqi people above all other considerations. Our common objective is to restore peace and stability to a sovereign, democratic and independent Iraq as quickly as possible," Annan said.
A week after the vote, the United States and other countries pledged a total of more than $33 billion in grants and loans for Iraq's reconstruction at a donors conference in Madrid. While more than 50 percent of the money came from Washington, U.S. officials called the results a measure of growing global willingness to share the financial burden of rebuilding.
Meanwhile, within Iraq, the United States is coming under increasing pressure to accept broader international involvement in the country's political development. Iraqi leaders requested the UN in February to advise them over the feasibility of holding elections and accepted the world body's conclusion that "credible elections could not be held" before the United States transfers power to a caretaker sovereign government this summer.
It remains too early to say how quickly post-Hussein Iraq will evolve into a country that is widely regarded by other states as being fully in charge of its own affairs. U.S. and British officials have suggested multinational forces will be needed to maintain stability there for at least two more years.
But as the date for the formation of the new sovereign government approaches, the Iraqis themselves appear increasingly eager to set their own policies.
A recent poll of 2,500 Iraqis conducted by a group of international broadcasting organizations, including the BBC, showed that a majority of respondents regarded the U.S.-British invasion as a positive intervention but are opposed to the continued presence of foreign authorities. Some 49 percent of those questioned said the invasion was right, compared with 39 percent who said it was wrong. Fifty-one percent of those polled said they were opposed to the continued presence of foreign forces in Iraq, against 39 percent who supported it.