Iraq Twenty Years On From 2003

Twenty years ago today, a combined fighting force of American, British, Australian, and Polish troops began their initial ground invasion of Iraq.

By Samuel Pennifold

Twenty years ago today, a combined fighting force of American, British, Australian, and Polish troops began their initial ground invasion of Iraq. 7300 days later, was the decision taken by George Bush Jr. to invade Iraq the right one?

In short, no. The invasion, which was later deemed a violation of international law, has arguably become the defining geostrategic disaster of the twenty-first century. American-led Western involvement in the Middle East has had close to an unfathomable human toll, leaving thousands injured or killed and millions more displaced. It has left the Iraqi economy and infrastructure crippled. And the conflict has reshaped the power dynamics within the Islamic world, leading to rising tension.

The buildup to the 2003 invasion can be traced back as far as you like. It is simultaneously an expression of British colonial involvement, religious divides within the Islamic world, American imperialism, and much more. Despite these historical underpinnings for the war, the most direct starting point is September 11, 2001.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the threat calculus in America shifted. Not long after the attacks, Bush, pushed by the neo-hawks in his administration, most notably his vice president, Dick Cheney, and UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, began to make the case for the invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. The central premise of this case focused on Saddam’s continued and flagrant violation of UN resolutions, his historical use of chemical and biological weapons, and erroneous claims of Saddam’s possession of nuclear weapons. Later inquiries found that biases and massive intelligence failures led to many of the top officials of the American and British governments believing Saddam did possess nuclear weapons, despite international inspectors clearly stating that this was very unlikely.

Nonetheless, Bush and Blair continued to push the UN and the Security Council to grant permission for the invasion of Iraq, just as the US had forced the UN to green-light the 1991 Iraq war to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. This time, though, despite the efforts of the US and UK, the UN stood firm. Notably, French President Jacques Chirac and Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin heavily opposed any intervention in Iraq, accurately predicting the disastrous consequences of the invasion. Despite this, Bush and Blair pushed on with their campaign, eventually forming a legal argument based upon former UN resolutions and UN Security Council Resolution 1441. UN Security Council Resolution 1441 gave Saddam’s regime a final chance to comply with previous UN resolutions concerning disarmament and grant entry to UN weapons inspectors.

Before the invasion, the chief UN weapons inspector, Hans Blix, confirmed there was “no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons programme in Iraq.” As we now know, no evidence was ever found of an Iraqi nuclear weapons programme, leaving the US and UK legal arguments impotent, but by this point, it was too late, and it was the eve of war.

Within 20 days of the initial invasion, coalition forces had captured the capital of Iraq, Baghdad, in a six-day siege. Saddam was immediately removed from power, though he was not captured until December 2003. Following his capture by American forces, Saddam was tried in court by the Western-backed Coalition Provisional Authority and eventually convicted of crimes against humanity relating to the killing of 148 Iraqi Shia rebels in 1992. Saddam was sentenced to death and was executed on December 30, 2006.

Following the successful siege of Baghdad, Bush declared the end of major combat operations from the deck of the American aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003, a moment that became infamous for the overly optimistic “mission accomplished” sign that accompanied Bush that day and for the rest of his presidency.

Though several other states joined the ongoing state-building operation following the initial invasion, attempts to establish a functioning Western-style democracy in Iraq were unsuccessful. It was later suggested that it was a foolish move to completely dissolve the established Iraqi state. Former members of the Iraqi army and the ruling Ba’athist party were excluded from the new government and public life. Many would later join insurgent groups and the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist organisation. In the ensuing power vacuum, regional powers within Iraq and outside influences, especially Iran, rushed in. This resulted in a massive and sustained insurgency against the coalition forces and the Coalition Provisional Authority. Even after elections were held in 2005, the violence continued. The election had fundamentally shifted the religious power balance within Iraq, and sectarian violence broke out between Iraq’s Sunni and Shia Muslim populations. Relations between Sunni and Shia Muslims are an extremely complex expression of theological divisions within Islam, divisions that the American-led coalition forces didn’t understand and thus dismissed. The violence grew to such an extent that, in the last year of his presidency, Bush was forced to announce a massive deployment surge of 20,000 additional military personnel.

While this move initially quenched violence, there was worse to come. Of the many disturbing outcomes of the invasion of Iraq, the rise of the terrorist organisation ISIS may be the worst. Many poor comparisons have been made between ISIS and other terrorist organisations. As an organisation, ISIS was fundamentally different in its aims, and the scale of its ambition was never before seen. At the height of its power, ISIS controlled territory across about 40% of Iraq and a third of Syria. Iraq, which had barely recovered from the American-led 2003 invasion, still bears the scars of the fight against ISIS. The damage done by taking back cities and land controlled by ISIS, particularly in Mosul and Fallujah, is still visible today. The religious divisions within Iraq are also still visible. Although this has been one of the longest periods of relative calm within the country since the US-led invasion in 2003, tensions remain high between religious groups.

A significant roadblock to Iraq’s progress and healing has been its stumbling economy. Iraq relies heavily on its crude oil supplies to support the state’s economy. Though this leaves Iraq at risk of global fluctuations in oil prices, it has also led to the creation of a bloated public sector with little other work available for those without the necessary connections. This has left many, particularly young graduates, without work and the state with a large unemployment issue. One of the most complex effects of the American-led invasion and subsequent state-building mission has been the establishment of a culture of corruption and incompetence within the Iraqi government. The practice of Muhasasa Ta’ifia, a process whereby government posts, offices, and departments are shared among the Kurdish, Shia, and Sunni political elites after an election, has led to multiple political crises and failed to produce an effective form of governance. The failure to utilise the massive natural gas resources within Iraq has been a testament to this.

The legacy of the decision taken by Bush and Blair to invade Iraq in 2003 is one of incompetence, death, and destruction. The Iraq war was born of fear and a neoconservative attitude towards peace in the Middle East and beyond. By no measure can one say the invasion was a success. Saddam may have been removed from power, but without a real plan for assuring peace and stability by the US, Iraq fell into the clutches of civil war. The outcome of the Iraq war destabilised the entire Middle East, costing millions of lives and creating a humanitarian disaster on an unimaginable scale. Twenty years later, 7300 days after the first coalition boots touched Iraqi ground, it is hard to argue that Iraq and the world are better places for it.

Whilst you are here!

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If you can, we are currently accepting donations via our GoFundMe page.And if you would like to be involved with The Graduate Press and the 5th anniversary edition you can email us at gisa.thegraduate@graduateinstitute.ch or via Instagram.

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