Ten years of hell

Print edition : April 19, 2013

A family flees past a destroyed Iraqi T-55 tank in the southern city of Basra in March 2003. Photo: Chris Helgren/REUTERS

A father-son duo hospitalised after being wounded in a bomb attack in a market in Hilla in June 2006. Photo: Mushtaq Muhammed /REUTERS

Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki. His country is in a state of almost total disrepair. Photo: Saad Shalash /REUTERS

A statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled in Firdaus Square, Baghdad, in April 2003. Photo: Jerome Delay/AP

An anti-government demonstration by Sunni Muslims in Ramadi on February 22. Photo: Ali al-Mashhadani /REUTERS

A house damaged in a car bomb attack in Kirkuk, on February 19. Photo: Ako Rasheed/REUTERS

November 2004: U.S. Marines pass by dead bodies in the western Fallujah after U.S. forces 'occupied' the city. Photo: Anja Niedringhaus/AP

An Iraqi army armored vehicle that was destroyed in the 2003 war, in a village near Karbala, on March 19. Photo: Mushtaq Muhammed /REUTERS

Tariq Aziz, Foreign Minister in Saddam Hussein's Cabinet, who is languishing in jail. Photo: Hadi Mizban/AP

Former U.S. President George W. Bush (right) and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the architects of the war. Photo: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP

On the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion, Iraq remains strife-torn with its people steeped in misery.

IT has been 10 years since former United States President George W. Bush launched his “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq. The consequences of that invasion, launched on March 19, 2003, have been genocidal for the people of the region. Almost a million Iraqis have perished and a larger sectarian war looms on the horizon. Around four million Iraqis were forced to flee their homes and more than a million of them are yet to return home. A million more are internal refugees. Since 2003, there has been an exodus of Christians, who were increasingly targeted in sectarian attacks; only around 200,000 of them remain out of an original population of over a million and a half.

The use of munitions containing depleted uranium in the wars of 1991 and 2003 has poisoned the environment, causing cancer and other deformities among the Iraqi populace. A report published by a Dutch peace group in the third week of March says there are around 300 sites in the country contaminated by depleted uranium. According to authoritative studies, an estimated 400 tonnes of depleted uranium was used in the bombing campaigns led by the U.S. in the first Gulf War alone.

A recent paper published in Germany by the Bulletin of Contamination and Toxicology reports that around half of the children it had surveyed in the Iraqi cities of Basra and Fallujah were born with birth defects. The study estimates that approximately 2,000 tonnes of depleted uranium may have been used in Iraq after 2003. Basra had come under heavy bombardment in 2003. The rate of childhood leukaemia has more than doubled in Basra between 1993 and 2007. In 1993, the annual rate of childhood leukaemia was 2.6 per 100,000 individuals. By 2006, it had reached 12.2 per 100,000.

Fallujah was singled out for a brutal military attack in 2004 for being the centre of the armed resistance to the American invasion. A Pentagon spokesman had admitted to the use of “white phosphorous” as a weapon against “enemy combatants”. When a person comes in contact with this chemical, it burns the skin off the bonesIraq, which was once among the most prosperous countries in the world, is teeming with unemployed and impoverished people now. The country once had the best health and education infrastructure in the region. Now it is in a state of almost total disrepair.

Iraq is threatened with partition as the Kurds in the north have virtually seceded. In the rest of the country, sectarian warfare has erupted. And 10 years after the Americans “liberated” Iraq, the county remains under the stringent Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, under which the war on the country was imposed.

Cost of the war

The U.S. is estimated to have spent around $810 billion on the war effort in Iraq. The Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and a fellow economist have together put the estimate at a staggering $3 trillion. During the eight years of occupation, 4,488 American soldiers were killed and 32,220 wounded in action. Hundreds of foreign “contractors” fighting side by side with the U.S. and British military were also killed. The British lost 426 soldiers.

On February 15, 2003, millions of people marched in many cities across the world to protest against the impending American-led invasion of Iraq. London, for instance, witnessed one of the biggest anti-war demonstrations. But President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were unmoved by the scale of public protests and warnings from other governments about the illegality of waging a war on Iraq and its inevitable consequences. The U.S. and British governments kept on insisting that Iraq posed an imminent threat to the global community because it was in possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

The U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, on the basis of which Iraq was attacked and occupied, was passed on the strength of dossiers fabricated by U.S. and British intelligence agencies. Leaders of both the U.S. and Britain had claimed at the time that they would “without doubt” find Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s WMDs. The then U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, went to the extent of saying that evidence on Iraqi training for Al Qaeda cadre in the use of WMDs would be unearthed. Right from the beginning it was clear that there were no moral or legal grounds for invading Iraq.

Unmitigated disaster

The occupation of Iraq only brought about unmitigated disaster for the people there. After the first Gulf War of 1991, Iraq was subjected to more than a decade of punitive sanctions. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), more than 500,000 children under the age of five perished as a result of the economic blockade. The economic war against Iraq had started a decade before the actual invasion in 2003. In all, according to estimates by international agencies, including U.N. agencies, more than a million Iraqis perished as a result of the draconian sanctions the country was subjected to in the decade before the American invasion.

Though many of the sanctions were lifted after the toppling of the Iraqi government in 2003, U.S. actions, notably the sacking of civil servants and the disbanding of the Iraqi army, prepared the ground for chaos and anarchy. WikiLeaks published a secret U.S. State Department document which said that more than 109,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed between 2003 and 2009 alone. Most of those killed were innocent civilians. Prestigious publications like The Lancet have put the death toll of Iraqis under American military operations at over a million.

In the first three years of the occupation, especially during the initial “shock and awe” phase, the U.S., according to investigative reports, killed around 10,000 Iraqi civilians every month. The Iraqi Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs has reported that an estimated 4.5 million Iraqi children are now orphans. After the 2003 American invasion, 70 per cent of Iraqi children lost their parents. Many of them are now street children without access to food and shelter.

The American occupation also prepared the ground for a new Iraq that would be ripe for the growth of sectarian politics. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was no doubt dominated by Sunni officials, but it was also a fiercely secular government. This correspondent had been to Iraq several times before the invasion and had never witnessed any overt discrimination on sectarian lines. Many leading members in Saddam Hussein’s Cabinet were Christian and Shia members of the Baath Party. Until the overthrow of the Iraqi government in 2003, Sunnis, Shias and Christians coexisted happily. During Saddam Hussein’s time, jehadists and extremists were dealt with a tough hand. There were no suicide bombers either. Between 2003 and 2008, there were more than 1,100 suicide bombings inside Iraq. Iraq, along with Afghanistan, had become an incubator for extremist groupings like Al Qaeda. Militants keen to create an Islamic emirate in the Arab world made a beeline for Iraq after 2003.

Discriminatory policies

The Americans had initially introduced discriminatory policies in their efforts to prop up a client regime in Iraq and to drum up support for it among the majority Shias. The Sunni minority, based mainly in central Iraq, felt justifiably sidelined. The Kurds, based in the north, were anyway long-standing allies of the Americans. In the 1990s, the U.S. had helped the Kurds to establish an autonomous Kurdish enclave in the north of the country. After the invasion, the Kurds are virtually running their own affairs, rarely bothering to consult the central government in Baghdad. They have been arming fellow Kurds in Syria who are gearing up for the end game there, despite protests from the central government in Baghdad. Northern Iraq has emerged as an independent oil exporter. In comparison to the rest of the country, it is today a haven of peace and prosperity. Besides the Americans, the strongest backer of the Kurds in the region is neighbouring Turkey, which is either buying or transporting most of the oil produced in northern Iraq.

The rest of Iraq seems to be spiralling into a renewed round of violence and bloodshed despite the U.S. troops formally ending their occupation in December 2011. Around 17,000 American military contractors have remained behind ostensibly to protect the massive U.S. embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone, a fenced-off high security area. This is the biggest embassy in the world. In the first two weeks of February, there were two major terror attacks targeting Shia areas, in which more than 50 people were killed. Thousands more have been killed as a result of the escalating sectarian divide. The civil conflict in Syria has had an impact on Iraq as they share a long and porous border.

Sunni militants, many of them affiliated to the local Al Qaeda franchise, have crossed over to Syria to fight against the Syrian government. In the Anbar province, near the border with Syria, 49 unarmed Syrian soldiers and eight Iraqi soldiers were killed. The Al Nusra fighters spearheading the fight against the Syrian government were quick to claim responsibility. The Syrian soldiers had escaped across the border after a battle with the rebels and were being repatriated back to their country when they were killed in cold blood. There are reports that fighters belonging to Shia militias have also gone over to Syria to protect their compatriots and important places of worship. Many important Shia shrines are located in Syria. Though regime change in Syria appears to be a distant possibility at the present juncture, a Sunni-dominated government in Damascus would create more complications in Iraq. The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has warned that a regime change in Damascus could spark a full-scale war in the region.

The real war criminals

The international community has a responsibility to ensure that those responsible for the death of countless Iraqis and the destruction of an entire society be held accountable. The U.N. Secretary-General at the time, Kofi Annan, had stated that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was an “illegal act” that contravened the U.N. Charter. International legal luminaries, including those from the U.S., are unanimous in their view that the Iraq invasion was a “war of aggression”. Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, has written that the war was an “unprovoked use of armed force against a sovereign state in a situation other than self-defence”. Falk went on to remind the international community that the Nuremberg and Tokyo War Crimes Tribunals convened after the Second World War had declared such aggressive warfare to be “a crime against peace”. German and Japanese leaders were duly punished by the War Crimes Courts as “war criminals”.

Bush and Blair, along with others in their administration, should have been facing a War Crimes Tribunal for their role as architects of the so-called pre-emptive war on Iraq. Instead, all of them have hit the lecture circuit and are minting millions of dollars. On the other hand, Saddam Hussein and his associates were sent to the gallows after a show trial. His close associate and former Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz, also facing a death sentence, has been languishing in jail for the past 10 years.

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