Many still living with consequences of Iraq invasion ten years ago this week
Overthrow of Saddam Hussein was achieved at a huge price in human life and ideals
Iraqis examine damage inflicted on their house by a car bomb attack in AL-Mashtal district in Baghdad last Tuesday. Car bombs and a suicide blast hit Shi'ite districts of Baghdad and south of Iraq’s capital, killing at least 50 people on the 10th anniversary of the invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein. REUTERS/Mohammed Ameen
On March 19th, 2003, the United States, under President George W Bush, and with the support of Britain and a number of other states, led an invasion of Iraq that resulted in the overthrow of the regime of Saddam Hussein. For the previous 23 years, Saddam had overseen a regime of almost unparalleled brutality in a region that has known more than its fair share of violence.
A number of motivations for the attack were offered. Key among them was to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which, it was asserted, Saddam was developing in contravention of international agreements and resolutions of the United Nations Security Council. This was despite the fact there was little or no evidence at the time of the invasion that these existed any more and a great deal of evidence to suggest they did not.
However, WMD were not the only cause of the invasion. For some in the Bush administration, it was an essential step in the overdue project of a democratic remaking of the region. An Iraq without Saddam might be reconstructed as a democratic beacon in a largely undemocratic region and an example or warning to unfriendly Arab tyrants.
It is easy to forget now that in the first flush of the rapid “success” of the invasion, the suggestion that Syria (or Iran ) was next was often to be heard in the neo-con circles that exerted great influence on the foreign policy of the Bush administration. But, for many, these ostensibly principled motivations are overshadowed by the question of oil.
The Italian political scientist, Giacomo Luciani, has written it is tempting to believe that practically everything in the Middle East is “related, conditioned and justified by oil, which is the widespread, yet simplistic and essentially erroneous conspiracy theory”. However, without a doubt, oil is central to any explanation of the Iraq War. In 2007, Gen John Abizaid, former commander of the United States Central Command, stated: “Of course, it’s all about oil, it’s very much about oil and we can’t deny that.”
Motivations vs impact
Whatever the motivations, the impact of the 2003 invasion has been enormous. Estimates of Iraqi deaths vary considerably. Much depends on how war-related casualties are understood. According to the Iraq Body Count project, there were 111,000-122,000 “documented civilian deaths” between 2003 and this year.
However, a study published in the Lancet journal in 2006, which focused on the number of “excess deaths” caused by war and occupation, offered a total figure of over 650,000 dead. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled the country, the vast majority to live as refugees in neighbouring (and poor) Arab states. Up to 1.5 million more were internally displaced.
The country’s infrastructure, already severely weakened by the impact of an eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s, the 1990-1991 Gulf War and the impact of sanctions, was further devastated. Electricity is scarce while water and sewage problems abound. Youth unemployment is high, and the country is 131ston the UN Human Development Index (out of 186), despite its enormous oil wealth. In 2012, Baghdad was top of Mercer’s list as the worst place to live.
Some of the most severe consequences of the conflict have been felt by Iraqi women. Before 1991 female literacy rates were the highest in the region. There was near-universal primary education for boys and girls, and women occupied prominent positions in public life. Today, women are underrepresented in government and overrepresented among the unemployed, illiterate and poor. High levels of insecurity have pushed women out of public life, while there has been a shocking increase in gender-based violence. According to one UN report, the majority of Iraqi women face domestic violence.
Meanwhile, for the US, which led the invasion and occupation, the costs have also been significant. More than 4,000 US troops died in a conflict which cost over $1 trillion. US prestige in the region, already low, was diminished even further – few now trust American bona fides. It is telling the Arab uprisings have occurred not because of the war in Iraq but, at least in part, because of popular revulsion at authoritarian regimes tied to the US.
Yet today in Iraq the US supports the increasingly authoritarian regime of Nouri al-Maliki, a member of the Shia Dawa party. He, like other prominent Shia politicians, has close ties to Iran – the arch-opponent of US regional policy.
But the costs of the Iraq War run further. In launching the invasion on specious grounds, based on a dubious interpretation of UN resolutions and in the face of widespread popular opposition at home, the leaders of the US, Britain and their allies did untold damage to international law and exposed themselves to charges of double-standards in their adherence to its core principles.
Even greater damage was done through the spurious linkage of the overthrow of Saddam with the “war on terror” and the global battle against radical pan-Islamism and al-Qaeda. In both the US and Britain, centuries-old safeguards for civil liberties were overridden.
The use of the US base in Guantánamo Bay to detain enemy combatants represented an attempt by the Bush administration to avoid legal scrutiny. Subsequent reliance on “extraordinary rendition” – to many no more than state-sanctioned kidnapping of suspects to third countries for interrogation under tainted circumstances – deepened suspicions the rule of law was coming second to narrow conceptions of the national interest of the US. The revelation of torture and abuse of prisoners within Iraq exacerbated these.
It is widely accepted al-Qaeda had no presence in Iraq before 2003. Indeed, the secular authoritarianism of Saddam Hussein was extremely hostile to any expression of Islamic political aspirations. What the occupation of Iraq did achieve was the production of a radical, jihadist enemy that had not existed before.
The regime of Saddam Hussein was a brutal one under which hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, particularly in the Kurdish region, lost their lives. Whether Iraq and Iraqis are better-off since his overthrow is a difficult judgment to make. What is clear is that whatever benefits the occupation of Iraq may have brought have been purchased at a very high price.
Dr Vincent Durac lectures in Middle East politics at University College Dublin and is a visiting lecturer at Bethlehem University . He is co-author of Civil Society and Democratization in the Arab World: the Dynamics of Activism , published by Routledge in 2010