Toxic legacy

Print edition : April 27, 2018

An aerial view of the old city of Mosul. Picture taken on February 24, 2018. Photo: ALAA AL-MARJANI/REUTERS

The U.S. invasion of Iraq, which started 15 years ago in March 2003, has resulted in untold damage, death and displacement and triggered a global refugee crisis, but Washington seems determined not to learn its lesson.

More than 1,65,000 Iraqis lost their lives in the aftermath of the invasion of their country by the United States code-named “Operation Iraqi Freedom”. The invasion, which started on March 19, 2003, and the military occupation that followed cost the lives of more than 8,000 U.S. military personnel and contractors. The situation in Iraq, which was under draconian international sanctions since the 1991 Gulf war, went from bad to worse after the U.S. and British troops marched in. Up to 5,00,000 Iraqi children died in the decade before the second Gulf war. International sanctions prevented the Iraqi government from buying cheap life-saving drugs, adequate medical facilities and medical instruments. The under-five mortality rate tripled in 1990-2000.

In the years following the invasion, four million Iraqis were displaced from their homes and forced to live in squalid refugee camps in neighbouring countries and within Iraq. Many of them have since returned, but the refugee crisis in the region has become even more critical after the intervention by the U.S. and its allies in Syria. The war in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya triggered a global refugee crisis. The ravages caused by the U.S.-led invasion continue to have an adverse impact on Iraqi society and politics. Hospitals and schools that were bombed by the invading force have not all been rebuilt. The electricity grid and water supply systems, which were deliberately targeted by the invaders, are yet to be fully functional. Iraq once had the best medical infrastructure in the region, manned by highly qualified medical professionals, but most of the doctors and nurses fled the country and millions of Iraqis, afflicted by disease and malnutrition, had no caregivers. More Iraqis were killed by the damage the U.S. invasion caused to the country’s infrastructure than as a result of actual combat. A study by the British scientific journal The Lancet, published in 2006, estimated that as many as 600,000 Iraqis were killed in the first 40 months of the war and occupation of the country. Another 54,000 Iraqis were killed in non-violent but war-related incidents.

War of blatant lies

The war against the Iraqi people, mounted at the behest of George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, was launched on the basis of false pretexts and blatant lies. The U.S. and British governments told the international community that the Iraqi government was in possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and was on the verge of using them. Another bald lie that was propagated was that the government of Saddam Hussein was in league with Al Qaeda, the group responsible for the 9/11 terror attacks on U.S. soil. Saddam Hussein was running a secular government and was an avowed enemy of fundamentalist Sunni groupings. Osama bin Laden had urged all Arabs to unite against Saddam Hussein after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. After the U.S. got bogged down in Iraq, Osama did acknowledge that Iraq had become “a point of attraction and the restorer of our energies”. Al Qaeda made its first appearance on Iraqi soil in 2004, one year after the U.S. launched Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The war on Iraq was preceded by the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Since the “war on terror” started that year, the U.S. government, according to a study by Brown University’s Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs, has spent $5.6 trillion. Another study by the National Priorities project estimated that the U.S. had been spending $32 million an hour to conduct its ever-expanding wars since 2001. Since the Iraqi invasion, the U.S. Army and Special Forces have been involved in Syria, Somalia, Libya and Yemen. In 2017 alone, more than 40,000 civilians were killed as a direct or indirect result of U.S. military involvement in Iraq.

The U.S. air assaults on civilian areas in cities such as Mosul, Ramadi and Fallujah, which had fallen into the hand of Sunni extremists, were especially brutal. The 2010 U.S. offensive to recapture Fallujah, according to the journalist Patrick Cockburn, had left behind a “toxic legacy” that rivals Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The first Gulf war itself had left behind a legacy of diseases caused by the widespread use of depleted uranium by the U.S. forces. Depleted uranium will remain a hazard to the Iraqi people for a long time as it remains radioactive for over four billion years. The U.S., which claimed to have invaded Iraq to destroy “weapons of mass destruction”, ended up poisoning the Iraqi soil and environment with its non-prohibited weapons of destruction. Earlier, the U.S. used the banned defoliant “Agent Orange” in the Vietnam War. A generation of Vietnamese children born with deformities have had to pay the price.

In the second Gulf war, the U.S. was accused of using more toxic materials. According to Mozhgan Savabiesfahani, an internationally recognised toxicologist based in Michigan, U.S., the occupation forces were responsible for expending “around six billion bullets into the Iraqi environment” between 2003 and 2005 alone. This is not counting the bombs and other munitions such as white phosphorous used on Iraqi soil. Hundreds of Iraqi children were born with chronic deformities. Fifteen years after the invasion, Iraqi children are still waiting for help from outside. The Iraqi health system still has a long way to go before it can be of any real use to its citizens.

A recipe for chaos

U.S. policies in Iraq implemented after the occupation were a recipe for the chaos that followed. One of the first acts of the Bush administration was to disband the Iraqi army and bureaucracy. The army during Ba’athist rule was a highly disciplined force and the bureaucracy had kept the country running after the introduction of harsh international sanctions. An efficient rationing system ensured that no Iraqi family starved during the tough economic times the country faced between 1990 and 2013.

The Iraqi soldiers, who found themselves without jobs overnight after the U.S. took over, melted into the populace with their guns. Many of them joined the insurgency and later went on to occupy senior positions in the Daesh (Islamic State). Their military acumen and experience proved handy as the Daesh swept across the Mesopotamian plains and created a de facto state in 2014. The occupation exacerbated the latent Shia-Sunni schism. The U.S. invasion had the unintended consequence of paving the way for Shia politicians close to Iran to return from exile and become power brokers.

Reviving the sectarian divide

With the Ba’ath Party banned, the field was left open to sectarian and ethnically oriented parties. Parties such as the Iraqi Communist Party, once the biggest communist party in the country and the Arab world, had faded. The numerically stronger Shia, who constitute around 60 per cent of the population, rallied around parties propagating their cause. The secular Ba’ath government had kept the sectarian schisms under check but following the invasion they resurfaced with a vengeance. Despite the best efforts of the U.S., a broadly pro-Iranian government has been in power since general elections were held in 2004.

The suddenly disempowered Sunni elite raised the banner of revolt. Much of the fighting in Iraq involving the occupation forces occurred in central Iraq, the Sunni homeland. Cities such as Fallujah and Tikrit became the centres of the insurgency. The Sunni insurgents were initially led by a Jordanian, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who owed allegiance to Al Qaeda. The U.S. managed to temporarily quell the insurgency by ordering a “surge” in its military deployment in Iraq.

The radicalised Sunnis soon had their revenge after their fighters coalesced into the Daesh fighting force. The new Iraqi army, trained and armed by the U.S., proved no match for the Daesh as it swept into Sunni-dominated Iraqi cities such as Mosul and Ramadi in 2014. The U.S. also encouraged the Iraqi Kurds in the north to raise the banner of revolt against the central government in Baghdad. Mosul and the other cities occupied by the Daesh could only be liberated after three years. The Daesh targeted all non-Sunnis, believers and non-believers alike.

39 Indians killed

Among the thousands killed in the three-year-long Daesh rampage on Iraqi soil were 39 innocent Indian construction workers. The news of their tragic demise was common knowledge, but the Indian government, for unspecified reasons, continued to insist on their well-being until as late as March this year. The liberation of Mosul and other cities with the help of U.S. firepower resulted in a large number of civilian casualties.

According to the Associated Press, between 9,000 and 11,000 people were killed in the nine-month-long battle to recapture Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. A third of the casualties were caused by bombardments by U.S. and Iraqi forces. Mosul had a population of more than a million. More than two-thirds of the civilian deaths in the four-year-long fight against the Daesh happened after Donald Trump took over as President of the U.S. in January 2017.

Illegal war

Under international law, the George W. Bush/Tony Blair-instigated war on Iraq was illegal. Bush and Blair should have faced the International Criminal Court. Instead, a kangaroo court was arranged for the President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, by the occupiers, so that he could be sent to the gallows. Slobodan Milosevic, the President of Yugoslavia, was hauled before the ICC. His country, too, was invaded by U.S.-led NATO forces and bombed relentlessly for more than 70 days. Milosevic died abandoned by the international community, in a prison in The Hague.

Meanwhile, Bush and Blair are leading peaceful lives. The former now spends his time painting portraits while the latter is still busy minting millions of dollars as consultant to rich oil sheikhdoms and conglomerates.

The Iraq war also gave legitimacy to “war hawks” in the United States. Far from being humiliated at the outcome of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, the “neo-con” lobby in Washington has, in fact, become further emboldened. Three former military men, Jim Mattis, John Kelly and H.R. McMaster, held some of the most important posts in the Trump administration. All of them had made their reputation conducting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Kelly did not last long. McMaster is no longer National Security Adviser. A bigger war hawk, John Bolton, has replaced him.

Bolton, who was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Bush presidency, is among a handful of “war hawks” who continue to justify the invasion of Iraq. He told a British tabloid in 2016 that Iraq was suffering not because of the U.S. invasion but because of the Obama administration’s decision to withdraw the bulk of the troops from the country in 2011. “Don’t blame George W. Bush or Tony Blair for that failure. Blame their successors,” Bolton had said. The new National Security Adviser has, on various occasions, advocated the bombing of Iran and North Korea.

The lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan have apparently not been imbibed by those who are in charge of policymaking in Washington. Trump has increased the number of American soldiers in northern Syria and seems determined to continue with the American military presence in Afghanistan, even as he talks tough on Iran and North Korea.