John Simpson: 'The Iraq memories I can't rid myself of'

Image caption, Iraqi families fleeing Basra in March 2003

Ten years after the invasion of Iraq, the BBC's world affairs editor, John Simpson, recounts the country's seismic changes, and remembers the aftermath of a bombing he was caught up in.

During the past decade I have spent more than a year of my life in Iraq.

I saw from close up how the country was scarred by violence, right from the start. During the invasion, a careless US Navy pilot dropped a 1,000lb bomb on a group of American and Kurdish special forces my team and I were travelling with. Eighteen people died, many of them burned to death ('This is just a scene from hell'). There was no proper inquiry afterwards, and no one was punished.

I watched as the turmoil which followed the US-led invasion turned into an outright rebellion and then became a Sunni-Shia civil war, while the American and British forces looked on helplessly (Iraq's descent into bombing quagmire).

In 2006 and 2007, it even seemed possible that the US forces might be defeated. A mood of pessimism had descended on the US command. Plans were drawn up for an evacuation of the so-called Green Zone in Baghdad. American power in the world seemed sharply diminished (Iraq war shows limits of US power).

Then a new commander, General David Petraeus, changed the entire strategy. As a result, the US was able to withdraw without further humiliation (Assessing America's 'imperial adventure' in Iraq). Petraeus later rose to become head of the CIA, until a scandal destroyed his career last year.

Once the foreign forces had left, Iraq was on its own. Elected Iraqi politicians began to establish their authority over the country (Bombers fail to derail Iraq's election success).

The security situation improved markedly, though life is still occasionally dangerous.

Still, the Shia-dominated government has not done enough to reassure the Sunni minority, and there are angry rumblings in the Sunni heartland. The Kurds, increasingly independent and wealthy, show little interest in being part of Iraq as a whole.

Most Iraqis you speak to are deeply pessimistic. And yet, to an outsider, Iraq's future is starting to look brighter - if only its people were allowed a little peace.

So does this mean the invasion was justified? Iraqis are divided about it. Shias and Kurds, the big beneficiaries from Saddam's overthrow, tend to agree. Most Sunnis, the big losers from it, do not.

The invasion certainly brought the downfall of a tyrant who ruled through sheer terror. I once talked to a Baghdad man who was sentenced to death by acid bath for writing a phone number on a banknote with Saddam Hussein's portrait on it. Even his executioners took pity on him, and just dipped him in the acid for a moment. But his back is still hideously scarred.

Few of the assumptions the invasion was based upon have turned out to be accurate. Iraq has not become a major US ally in the Middle East, as the Bush administration believed it would. On the contrary, it is nowadays closer to Iran than the US.

Nor has Iraq become America's big oil provider. American oil companies do have important contracts in Iraq, but so do British, Russian and Chinese companies.

Media caption, Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari: Transformation from dictatorship to democracy "torturous"

The biggest beneficiaries were probably two US companies: Halliburton, with which former US Vice-President Dick Cheney had had connections, and the security company Blackwater, whose reputation was challenged so often that it is now called Academi, which makes it sound entirely peaceable.

We have long known, of course, that Saddam Hussein was not the strategic threat that the British and American governments claimed in 2002 and 2003. One leading American politician says the Bush administration assured him privately that Saddam's missiles could hit the east coast of the US. The British government claimed at the time that Iraqi missiles capable of hitting British bases in Cyprus could be operational in 45 minutes.

In fact, the Duelfer report in 2004 found that Saddam Hussein had halted all nuclear weapons research in 1991, and had ended research into chemical and biological weapons in 1995. Iraq's WMDs had been either destroyed or shipped out of the country.

Most people never really understood what the invasion was all about anyway. A Washington Post opinion poll in 2004 showed that 69% of Americans thought Saddam Hussein had been behind the 9/11 attacks.

Looking back over the past decade, I cannot rid myself of many disturbing images and memories.

In the town of Fallujah, which was hit hard by American troops in 2004, I watched two toddlers sitting silently in their playpen, scarcely moving. They, like a disturbingly high number of children in the town, suffered from birth defects. Not being a weapons expert, I cannot say if these were the result of some particular weapon used by the Americans. But I wish I could forget the picture of those twins, helpless, deformed and brain-damaged.

Image caption, Doctors report that birth defects have soared in Fallujah since the war

Another time I sat and listened to the story of a humble Baghdad family whose main breadwinner was kidnapped by a local gang. The family borrowed and sold everything they possibly could to raise the $20,000 demanded.

When they handed the money over, the gang demanded another $5,000. By superhuman efforts they raised that too, ruining themselves to do it. All they received in exchange was his dead body. He had been murdered within minutes of being captured.

Above all, I can never rid myself of the memory of my young translator, Kamaran, lying against a bank of earth, his feet almost blown off by the American bomb which had been mistakenly dropped on us, his life's blood pumping out of him. "I know it's dangerous," he had said to me a few days before, "but I really want to work with you."

Not a day has passed in these 10 years when I have not thought about him.

The Editors is broadcast on BBC One on Monday 25 March at 23:15 GMT. It is also on BBC World News.

Around the BBC