Iraq is back in the news again, partly due to the airing of a five-part BBC documentary. Once Upon a Time in Iraq has been widely praised for giving a platform to a range of participants in the events following the 2003 US-led invasion, creating a nuanced understanding of these developments.
It is refreshing to have authentic Iraqi voices given a hearing, in a context where the dominant narratives about Iraq are produced in the west. One reviewer, Nazli Tarzi, underlined their importance: “What the documentary recognises and taps into is a brimming desire within many Iraqis; the need to unburden themselves in absence of safe avenues where their stories can be shared and told even 17 years after Saddam Hussein was toppled. In a traumatised nation like Iraq, unending tragedies and rising poverty have busied civilians, focused not on the need to be heard, but the need to survive within such a bleak environment.”
But she went on to make a telling criticism: “Negative Iraqi sentiments towards successive post-2003 governments and their failings are glaringly absent. Frustrations against the corrupt ruling elite that culminated in Iraq’s October uprising last year, where Iraqis irrespective of sect rallied in the streets demanding wholesale change of the political order, are equally ignored.”
This is an important observation. The final part of the BBC documentary, dealing with the legacy of the invasion and Occupation of Iraq, focuses almost entirely on the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). But it says little about the conditions in which this organisation was able to develop, either in terms of how the Occupation deliberately fostered increased religious sectarianism, or of the criminal barbarism that it imposed on the Iraqi people. Nor does Once Upon a Time in Iraq look at the political institutions that the Occupation bequeathed, which are today the focus of massive protests across the social spectrum.
For the last 15 years or so, I have edited a fortnightly e-newsletter for an organisation, Iraq Occupation Focus, which was active in the immediate aftermath of the US-led invasion, highlighting its impact. It continued to be so for several years, at a time when Iraq was slipping from the attention of many peace activists. Today, some might even question the existence of an Occupation, in any meaningful sense. Yet, troops from several western countries remain in Iraq. More significantly, it remains the case that most political events in the country, even today, are shaped by the original invasion and Occupation of Iraq to a very significant degree. The aim of this essay is to explore some of these links.
What happened in Iraq needs contextualising. This means questioning the supposed uniqueness of what has happened in Iraq over recent decades – not just since the 2003 invasion, but before that, the thirteen years of debilitating sanctions, responsible for the death of half a million Iraqi children, and then the twice-weekly bombing raids by Britain and the US from 1998 onwards.
Far from being unique, it is possible to see a pattern in how western powers treat resource-rich countries with considerably less defence capability. Perhaps what was really specific to Iraq was that it became a laboratory for a uniquely American-led violence of many dimensions. One aspect of that was the continuity of personnel with earlier abuse elsewhere. George W. Bush’s Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for example, first held office under Nixon and was involved in organising the coup d’état in Chile against the democratically elected Allende Government. Others like US Ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte had previously been active in Central America, allegedly helping to facilitate terrorist atrocities against the elected government of Nicaragua in the Reagan era.
This pattern of activity was US-led, but it was not exclusively American. Other countries, including Britain, contributed to the war effort and committed atrocities in Iraq on a significant scale. What follows is not a history, or even an alternative history, of the Occupation of Iraq. It is an attempt to highlight some of the more significant events, how they impacted on Iraqis and shaped the chaos and conflict that still characterises Iraq today.
There has been a great deal of discussion about the rationale for the war on Iraq. The Blair government’s claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction played a central role in persuading the UK Parliament to support the invasion. Alleged links between Saddam Hussein’s regime and Al Qaeda and the need to combat terror played a more prominent role in justifying the war to the US public. The Iraqi regime’s persistent violation of human rights and the prospect of bringing democracy to the region helped win over support from those usually more cautious about military intervention. President Bush claimed divine inspiration was a factor. To investigate the most prominent justifications for the west’s intervention means little more than unpicking its propaganda ahead of the 2003 invasion.
The ‘real reasons’ have also been much debated. In this framework, Iraq’s oil occupies a very prominent place: leading US figures openly admitted as much. Ten years after the Occupation began, a CNN report pointed out that before 2003, “Iraq’s domestic oil industry was fully nationalized and closed to Western oil companies. A decade of war later, it is largely privatized and utterly dominated by foreign firms.” The report failed to mention that the law to enshrine this was prepared in secret behind the backs of Iraqi parliamentarians, was opposed by the oil workers union, but was forced through following US threats to withhold financial support from the country its military had so recently trashed.
Linked to this is the less-discussed rationale that the war was precipitated by Saddam Hussein’s plan to redenominate its trade in oil from US dollars to euros, which if adopted more widely in the trading of oil, would have had a profoundly negative impact on the US economy.
If Iraq’s oil offered rich pickings to US economic interests, the same could be said of much of the rest of the economy. More than forty government-owned enterprises were earmarked for privatisation within months of the invasion and there were lucrative profits to be made from reconstructing Iraq’s infrastructure in a bidding process that was restricted to US firms. On top of this, Iraq’s vast international debt was used by international creditors as a lever to control its economic policies in a further affront to Iraq’s sovereignty.
Military and geopolitical factors were also relevant. By the turn of the century, there was a clear recognition in neoconservative circles that the US could now operate with far fewer constraints than it faced in the Cold War era. The transformation of the global situation obviated the need for containment, deterrence or even respect for state sovereignty. From this followed a new emphasis on ‘pre-emptive attack’ against ‘perceived threats’ from ‘rogue states’. In other words, the US was now able to act freely, pursuing active military supremacy over any other country – it already had its troops in 140 of them. ‘Regime change’ in Iraq was seen in these circles as an opportunity to impose the power realities of the New World Order on a host of countries not yet willing to subordinate themselves to the requirements of the US.
Linked to this was an awareness, after 9/11, that even US allies in the region needed to be subjected to greater pressure. Saudi Arabia, for example, was both a major economic power as well as the breeding ground for an anti-American fundamentalism, but could not have been decisively challenged as long as Saddam was still in power in Iraq.
General Jay Garner, who was put in charge of reconstruction in Iraq after 2003, spelled this out soon after the invasion. “One of the most important things we can do right now is start getting basing rights with [the Iraqi authorities],” he said. “Look back on the Philippines around the turn of the 20th century: they were a coaling station for the navy, and that allowed us to keep a great presence in the Pacific. That’s what Iraq is for the next few decades: our coaling station that gives us great presence in the Middle East.”
Many of these factors may help to explain the rationale for the US-led invasion. But ultimately, a fixation with this approach is limiting, in that it accepts the western narrative framework. After all, if the purported reasons for invading Iraq turned out not to be valid, then doesn’t that make the war a ‘mistake’? No. An incident of ‘friendly fire’ might be a mistake. But global policies of this importance can never be categorised as mistakes.
Linked to this is the notion that the invasion was justified, but avoidable mistakes were made and it is these that set the country’s trajectory for the following 17 years. Tony Blair and many others responsible for the entire policy would later subscribe to this position. The Chilcot Report, seven years in the research and writing, can also be read in this way: it was a mistake to join the invasion before peaceful options had been exhausted; the decision to invade was made in “far from satisfactory” circumstances; the intelligence was flawed; the military were ill-equipped; the government had no post-invasion strategy; it did not try hard enough to keep a record of civilian casualties. All ‘mistakes’?
It’s an approach that also features heavily in the BBC’s Once Upon a Time in Iraq, the idea that what really turned Iraq into a catastrophe was not the invasion itself, but the ‘mistakes’ that accompanied it. Supposedly, these included the invaders’ failure to prevent the looting of public assets, from antiquities to medical equipment; the decisions by Iraq’s Administrator Paul Bremer firstly to ban Baathists from any senior role in the reconstruction of Iraq and secondly to dissolve the Iraqi military, throwing 400,000 soldiers out of work, arguably strengthening the incipient resistance; later, the killings of civilians and torture of captives, and many other ‘mistakes’.
But this is the essence of a war, invasion and Occupation. It was never going to be any different. Ultimately, the US-led coalition did what it had the capability to do. The millions around the world who protested against this war understood that this was a criminal violation. They did not protest because the war might be difficult and errors might occur. It was decidedly not a matter of rectifying a mistake.
III Military impact of the first stages
The daily brutality of the Occupation’s first months was staggering. Allied forces declined to keep statistics of Iraqi civilian deaths, but one detailed survey carried out by Iraqi academics estimated that more than 37,000 Iraqi civilians were killed between March 2003 and October 2003. These numbers increased sharply with the widespread deployment of US air strikes over civilian areas.
Six years on, the Occupation had been a catastrophe of immense proportions for the Iraqi people. A million people had died and one in two households in Baghdad alone had lost a family member. A million had been left disabled. There were half a million orphans and five million refugees.
Anthony Arnove reported in 2007: “Basic foods and necessities… are now increasingly beyond the reach of ordinary Iraqis, thanks to soaring inflation unleashed by the occupation’s destruction of the already shaky Iraqi economy, cuts to state subsidies encouraged by the International Monetary Fund and the Coalition Provisional Authority, and the disruption of the oil industry… Unemployment is regularly estimated at somewhere between 50-70%. One measure of the impact of all this has been a significant rise in child malnutrition.”
To that could be added: widespread corruption and embezzlement, water shortages destroying agriculture, power shortages crippling industry, permanent damage to the country’s historic cultural heritage and a disastrous human rights situation in a climate of impunity.
Even at this stage, the dominant western narrative was that the US-led coalition made mistakes, through the deployment of inexperienced personnel and a lack of forward planning. Naomi Klein, in her book The Shock Doctrine, offered a different analysis, that the disorientation of the public was central to policy success. Just as individuals can be ‘softened up’ by techniques in detention that make them more amenable to interrogation, so this process can be replicated for entire peoples.
The US tactic of military bombardment both minimised American casualties and inflicted a vast amount of damage. The subsequent looting and burning was symbolic of what happened next: a programme of mass privatisation, free trade and flat taxes. To ensure these policies took hold, local elections were overturned in favour of Occupation-appointed puppets. Opponents of these ‘freedoms’ were repressed as Saddamists or Al-Qaeda. Over 60,000 were jailed by US forces in the first three and a half years of Occupation; many were tortured.
The emergence of a programme of humiliation and torture at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004, including the rape of women and children, was not unprecedented in US policy. It had its antecedents in earlier US-led conflicts, such as Vietnam. As elsewhere, what was revealing about the process was the motivation. Systematic abuse was deployed not primarily to elicit information from enemy suspects, but to break human spirits and to instil a sense of worthlessness, in order to create a more effective network of informants. More than anything else, these measures undermined the pretence that the US enjoyed popular support in Iraq.
The scale of these activities is also worth underlining. They were not a few individual acts of sadism. Notices were displayed throughout this notorious prison detailing interrogation techniques that routinely violated the Geneva Convention. Evidence to the subsequent Congressional inquiry confirmed a systematic and institutionalised policy of degradation.
Abu Ghraib may not have been unique. Last year, new evidence emerged that the US and British military ran at least two secret prisons in Iraq during the months following the 2003 invasion, which concealed prisoners from Red Cross inspectors. The year-long investigation by the BBC’s Panorama and the Sunday Times claimed to have uncovered evidence of murder by an SAS soldier, as well as deaths in custody, beatings, torture and sexual abuse of detainees by British troops.
There were other war crimes. Particularly noteworthy is the bombardment of Fallujah in early 2004. US forces had placed the city under siege and subjected its residents to continuous bombardment in revenge for the killing of four US paramilitary personnel.
Glen Rangwala, the Cambridge academic who helped expose the ‘dodgy dossier’, Tony Blair’s false prospectus for going to war in Iraq, wrote in Labour Left Briefing: “The massacre in Falluja was on a scale greater than any known act of barbarity by Saddam Hussein’s regime in its final twelve years. “
Activist Jo Wilding travelled into the city during the siege with a medical team. US soldiers shot at her marked ambulance. She reported that they had already bombed the main hospital, destroyed numerous houses, and were shooting at unarmed civilians on sight.
It is estimated that between 4,000 and 6,000 mostly civilians were killed in Fallujah. In addition, 36,000 of the city’s 50,000 homes were destroyed, along with 60 schools and 65 mosques and shrines. Up to 200,000 residents were forced to flee, although many had no means to do so.
Like the rest of the conflict, what happened in Fallujah was not a mistake. It was policy. It was also deliberate policy, only admitted months later, that the US used white phosphorous bombs in its assault on Fallujah. The incendiary has an effect similar to napalm, burning its victims to the bone. US journalist Dahr Jamail also confirmed the dropping of incendiary bombs, which caused large fires. “When anyone touched those fires,” he wrote, “their body burned for hours.”
He also quotes eye witness reports, some from accredited journalists caught up in the conflict, of US soldiers entering houses and shooting people for not obeying orders in English, a language that local people did not understand. There were also reports of US soldiers shooting civilians who were waving white flags while they tried to escape the city, in some cases by attempting to swim the Euphrates, women and children included. Other witnesses saw American tanks rolling over the bodies of the wounded lying in the streets.
In 2010, a Guardian report, entitled “Research links rise in Falluja birth defects and cancers to US assault” stated: “A study examining the causes of a dramatic spike in birth defects in the Iraqi city of Falluja has for the first time concluded that genetic damage could have been caused by weaponry used in US assaults that took place six years ago.”
One suspected cause of the birth defects is depleted uranium shells, which contain ionising radiation. Another survey in the city showed a four-fold increase in all cancers and a twelve-fold increase in childhood cancer in under-14 year olds.
The UK also used depleted uranium weapons during the invasion. “UK forces used about 1.9 metric tons of depleted uranium ammunition in the Iraq war in 2003,” the government admitted a decade later.
In 2005, a similar bombardment was meted out against the city of Al-Qaim. Reports spoke of US warplanes destroying houses and killing and injuring dozens of people, forcing 40% of the city’s population to flee. In November 2005, Haditha was also bombed for 18 days, its hospital occupied and its doctors beaten. A US soldier who admitted leading a massacre of 24 civilians in the city was sentenced to three months in jail over six years later.
In 2010 leaked documents were published on the Wikileaks website. Hundreds of incidents of abuse and torture of prisoners by Iraqi security services, up to and including rape and murder, were documented. US forces were alleged to have colluded in these activities, as well as themselves continuing to abuse prisoners long after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in 2004. US forces operating helicopter gunships were also accused of killing 14 unarmed civilians in a series of previously unreported incidents.
British forces are also implicated. The British government currently admits that it has received so many complaints from Iraqis who were unlawfully detained and allegedly mistreated by its troops that the Ministry of Defence is unable to say how many millions of pounds have been paid to settle the claims. To minimise the after-effects of the future behaviour of the UK military, the government is now introducing the Overseas Operation Bill into Parliament. The measure aims introduce a partial amnesty for UK service personnel who commit serious crimes – including murder and torture – while serving outside the country. Critics say it will effectively sanction war crimes by UK troops.
When people reflect on the trauma of Iraq, they should consider the content of the political slogan “No justice, no peace”. War and destruction leave a profound impression on a society. But the scarring is compounded by the culture of impunity. Not for Iraq a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, nor any other mechanism that can bring some glimmer of understanding to these seemingly senseless crimes.
IV Political legacy
The western intervention in Iraq left the country torn apart in other ways. Religious sectarianism, largely absent before the occupation, became increasingly significant after 2003. In their 2005 book Iraq in Fragments, Eric Herring and Glen Rangwala explain how the central state was divided up between parties based on ethnic and religious lines, which used their privileged position to sell public sector jobs to their supporters. Although a 2004 poll found that fewer than 5% of Iraqis thought their religious affiliation should be the most important factor when choosing a party to vote for, against their wishes the state was reconstructed on sectarian lines, with electoral lists organised on a Sunni and Shia basis. Victory meant jobs, favours and kickbacks for the groups in question, institutionalising religious sectarianism into the state structure. This is similar to the consociational political system in Lebanon, recently denounced for its corruption in mass protests following an explosion in the port of Beirut that killed at least 200 people and flattened much of the city.
In his book, The Struggle for Iraq’s Future, Zaid Al-Ali , a lawyer specialising in comparative constitutional law, argued that the post-occupation constitution was drafted deliberately to create a cleavage between large segments of the population, rather than bring people together. It is certainly true that the removal by the US-led coalition of experienced technocrats, plus the incompetence and corruption of state officials and a lack of accountability at all levels contributed to the problems in Iraq. But it was above all the institutionalisation of sectarianism through the Iraqi state structure from the 2005 elections onwards that determined the country’s trajectory to this day.
One recent analysis explained: “It’s a system that survives by emphasising sectarian or ethnic fidelities over national identity and forcing the construction of complicated allegiances in administrations…. It also leads political parties to conduct themselves, and to run campaigns, in a polarizing way, one that necessarily excludes voters who are not part of their ethnic or religious group.”
Sectarian tensions were significantly heightened in Iraq by the blowing up of the al-Askari shrine in Samarra on February 22nd 2006. Blowing up the 1200-year old shrine required a level of technical expertise beyond most Iraqi paramilitary groups, which suggests the occupying forces may have been complicit. The predictable rise in inter-communal hostility coincided with US military personnel feeding a pliant western media with the line that Al Qaeda was no longer seen as the main threat to peace and security in Iraq: the greater danger, according to the new narrative, was sectarian strife. Thus keeping the peace became a new justification for an increasingly discredited Occupation.
As sectarian violence rose, attacks on US personnel initially fell. To supposedly keep the peace, widespread ‘religious cleansing’ took place across Iraq in 2006, much of it consciously promoted by the US military. In a piece entitled “Divide and rule – America’s plan for Baghdad”, Robert Fisk wrote in the Independent: “US forces in Baghdad are planning a massive and highly controversial counter-insurgency operation that will seal off vast areas of the city, enclosing whole neighbourhoods with barricades and allowing only Iraqis with newly issued ID cards to enter. The campaign of ‘gated communities’ – whose genesis was in the Vietnam War – will involve up to 30 of the city’s 89 official districts and will be the most ambitious counter-insurgency programme yet mounted by the US in Iraq.”
None of these measures had a lasting impact on reducing the resistance to the Occupation of Iraq. By September 2006, US forces were being attacked by insurgents every fifteen minutes on average. The ‘surge’ in US troops initiated as a consequence by the Bush Administration in 2007 saw a million refugees flee the country in that year alone. In a two week period, over 500 people were killed – 25% of them women and children.
The number of US soldiers killed in Iraq in 2007 was greater than in any year since the Occupation started, although the media coverage had largely disappeared. As for Iraqis, in the first six months of 2007, they suffered a fivefold increase in the number of bombs dropped on their country, compared to the same period a year earlier.
V Imported corruption
Just as the occupation institutionalised sectarianism, it also enshrined wholesale corruption. Transparency International consistently ranks Iraq one of the most corrupt countries in the world. But the template for the financial plundering of Iraq was made not by Iraqis, but by the US-led occupation itself.
Halliburton alone, whose former CEO, Dick Cheney, was Vice President from 2001 to 2009, made $39.5 billion on Iraq contracts. Some of the profits made by business came from flagrant overcharging, such as the contractor which billed the US government $900 for a switch that was valued at $7.05, a 12,000% mark-up.
There were rich pickings for British business too – companies like De La Rue which got the $120 million contract to print Iraq’s new currency, paid for by Iraqis themselves, although they had no control over the process. It was printed in Basingstoke and flown in on 27 specially chartered flights. Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the UK’s Special Representative for Iraq in the first year of the Occupation, was on the board of this company. A blatant example of fraud was the Ministry of Interior’s $40 million contract with a British businessman to import ‘bomb detectors’ that turned out to be dressed-up divining rods.
Private military security was and remains a key source of profit. From the outset, much of the security work in Iraq was outsourced to private companies. Britain’s Ministry of Defence spent £165m on hiring private security companies in Iraq in the first four years of the occupation. A 2013 report to US Congress said private defence contractors, which had some 170,000 employees on the ground, reaped $140 billion in profits in Iraq. Even today, British forces use private contractors to launch and recover its Reaper drones, used in operations against ISIL.
Private military contractors are completely outside Iraqi jurisdiction. In 2007, the private security company Blackwater opened fire on Iraqi civilians, killing 17 and injuring 20 in what became known as the Nisour Square massacre. Later, other atrocities came to light. According to the Times, a US court “also received sworn statements from former Blackwater employees alleging that Erik Prince, the company’s founder, ‘views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe’.” The company was also alleged to have used child prostitutes at its compound in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone again with Erik Prince’s full knowledge.
Despite assurances that Blackwater’s role in Iraq would be phased out, the US State Department had, in President Obama’s first eight months, contracted for more than $174 million in ‘security services’ in Iraq and Afghanistan with the company, and tens of millions more in ‘aviation services’.
Private military contractors were an essential element in the supposed ‘withdrawal’ from Iraq. In his last year in office, Bush signed the State of Forces Agreement which paved the way for the withdrawal of US combat troops. But as Sami Ramdani explained in the Guardian, “the more important pact, the strategic framework agreement (SFA), was slipped through almost unnoticed. A copy of it was not available even to the US congress… The SFA is an open-ended pact, which ties Iraq to the US militarily, economically, culturally and diplomatically.”
Foreign Policy in Focus underlined this discrepancy between appearance and reality: “The United States is looking to withdraw from Iraq in name only, as it appears that up to 50,000 military personnel will remain after the deadline… The larger loophole in the agreement is the treatment of military contractors. There has been little mention of the 132,610 military contractors in Iraq.”
Indeed, when a new bout of parliamentary elections were held in 2010, there were still over 100,000 US troops in the country, not including private contractors. Despite promising to withdraw all troops by August of that year, the Obama Administration did a U-turn, yielding to pressure from the military. Combat units were renamed advisory units, while continuing the same frontline duties.
For most Iraqis, these elections, like earlier and subsequent ones held under Occupation, were meaningless, an exercise in which voters were encouraged to retrospectively justify western intervention to an international audience, but changing little on the ground. And the politicians elected in such charades? “It is worth considering what type of person would accept to collaborate with the occupation forces in Iraq,” mused Zaid al-Ali, a British Iraqi lawyer who worked with the UN and interacted with most of the leading politicians in Iraq. “If Iraq has become the most corrupt country in the Middle East, it is because the senior government officials are actually amongst the most corrupt people in the country. If violence is increasing, it is because the government is involved in promoting it. If Iraq is rife with sectarianism, it is because it was the only system on offer by a political class that depends on sectarianism to be relevant. If the reconciliation process is failing, it is because senior politicians prefer to eliminate their opponents than to compromise. If public services are continuing to deteriorate, it is because senior officials are not affected in any way, and so they don’t care.”
After the 2010 poll, it took many months and several visits from the US Vice President and State Department officials to cobble together a government. When an administration was finally assembled, one politician claimed that Cabinet seats had been bought at a secret meeting in the house of an Iraqi businessman.
The post of minister of electricity, for example, rotated among five different people from 2006 to 2013, none of whom managed to provide enough power to keep the air conditioning running through Iraq’s notoriously hot summers. “But this did not prevent political parties from competing to obtain this position,” explained one report, because the ministry is so contract-rich. “During a TV interview, Khalaf al-Ileyan, whose party was ‘awarded’ this ministry according to a 2006 power-sharing agreement, said that he was offered a $2 million ‘down payment’ and a monthly $1 million if he accepted a nomination for this position. This confession might be shocking, but in fact it reflects habitual relations within Iraqi elite. ‘Buying’ a ministry is nothing new in Iraq. The ritual of power-sharing has become all about finding ways to distribute the growing oil revenues among political parties and transforming state institutions into fiefdoms of competing groups.”
The scale of the corruption is flabbergasting. In 2013, the Oil and Energy Commission of the Iraqi parliament estimated that the hard cash spent on the electricity sector “equals ten times the annual budget of Bahrain.”
VI The rise and fall of ISIL
Opposition to this unabashed theft of state resources took many forms. In 2014, Anbar province and the city of Fallujah were once more at the centre of events, a decade after it was largely destroyed by the US. The narrative peddled by the Iraqi Government and picked up in the mainstream media was that Al-Qaeda had now taken over the city. In fact, unrest had begun a year earlier, with protestors demanding the freeing of tens of thousands of detainees held without charge by Iraqi security forces. The protestors’ anger was compounded by the widespread use of rape and torture in Iraq’s jails as a means to extract false confessions.
Iraq’s prime minister at this time, Nouri al-Maliki, was a living embodiment of the new politics, a Shia sectarian, who used Shia militias to consolidate his power and persecute Iraq’s Sunni population. Anti-government demonstrations in Fallujah provoked a brutal reaction, with the Iraqi government unleashing a ferocious bombardment against the city. Human Rights Watch accused the regime of “indiscriminate mortar fire in civilian neighbourhoods” and “killing its own citizens unlawfully”. Truth Out reporter Dahr Jamail found that people in Fallujah were accusing the Iraqi government of war crimes, with hundreds of civilians killed by the bombardment, including children. The hospital itself was attacked several times and the government refused to allow medical supplies into the city. Some 400,000 people fled Anbar province in the first three months of 2014.
Another form of opposition to the orchestrated failure of the Iraqi state was the emergence of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in northern Iraq from 2014 onwards. Initially not numerically significant, this force gained ground thanks to the sectarian policies of the Iraqi government. Many Iraqi Sunnis regarded the Iraqi army, working alongside lethal Shia militias, as a hostile, occupying force. So if ISIL was tolerated in some of the areas it controlled, it was often because the alternative appeared worse.
The scale of ISIL’s atrocities was initially under-reported. Today, the Camp Speicher massacre of 2014, in which up to 1,700 unarmed Iraq army cadets were killed in cold blood, is ranked as one of the worst acts of terrorism in history. It is to the credit of Once Upon a Time in Iraq that this event is explored in detail.
ISIL benefited enormously from the sheer volume of war materiel that the western coalition had brought into Iraq. When the Iraqi army fled Mosul without firing a shot, it left behind a massive trove of US-supplied weaponry. This included 2,300 armoured vehicles – a majority of all the armoured vehicles the US had delivered to Iraq – which made the subsequent war against ISIL all the more protracted.
The Iraqi army’s rout in Mosul was also a product of the chronic corruption that characterises Iraq’s public sector. The culture in the military is so corrupt that many soldiers bribe their officers to be as far from the front line as possible. According to local reports, “this means that sometimes when a general sends a battalion to fight, only half the soldiers are there.”
Only one in three soldiers of the 30,000 supposed to be in Mosul were thought to be present when the city fell. Senior officers claimed the salaries and equipment for all of these phantom soldiers, the profits on the sale of which they shared out among themselves. These men were less soldiers and more investors and business operatives: on average a colonel in the Iraqi army would pay $200,000 for the position. The spoils are vast. The US had supplied the Iraqi army with a cool $25 billion worth of training and equipment over the previous decade.
Where did the barbaric cult of ISIL come from? While some commentators might emphasise the Islamist essence of the group, others argue that its religious pretensions are merely convenient props for generating online support. In reality, evidence suggests that it began life in the murderous occupation prisons, such as Abu Ghraib, discussed above, where suspects were tortured, sometimes to death.
Tony Blair himself has admitted that ISIL would not have come into existence had it not been for the war on Iraq. ISIL can be seen a barbaric development in a country that was by now no stranger to barbarism. Their war crimes have been well documented: summary executions, including of children and people on account of their sexuality; the kidnapping of hundreds of women from the Yazidi sect, who were subjected to physical and sexual abuse, slavery and forced marriage; the destruction of thousands of rare manuscripts in Mosul’s library along with priceless antiquities at the museum, the historic wall of Nineveh, the ancient Assyrian site of Nimrud and 2,000 year-old ruins at Hatra.
These are a form of genocide, aimed at erasing the collective identity of the Iraqi people. Sadly, it mirrors the policy of US forces, who permitted the looting of treasures in the early days of the occupation. A total of 15,000 invaluable Mesopotamian artefacts disappeared from the national museum and the US used ancient historic archaeological sites as military bases, such as Ur, capital of the 3,000 old Sumerian civilisation, and Babylon where 300,000 square metres of the site were flattened – including 2,600 year old paving stones, by US tanks.
The west’s response to the rise of ISIL was predictably a resumption of aerial bombardment, with equal predictable civilian fatalities. On the ground, with the Iraqi army in no fit state to fight for the reasons mentioned above, Shia militias, many of them linked to Iran, were licensed to do the fighting – and were paid many millions of dollars for doing so.
Through 2014 and 2015, the UN reported “staggering” levels of violence against Iraqi civilians. Much of this was perpetrated by ISIL. The aerial bombardment by the US-led coalition of ISIL-held areas also accounted for hundreds of fatalities, a figure that would soon rise dramatically. In areas liberated from ISIL control, there were also widespread allegations of abuses, often at the hands of Shia-led militias.
In December 2015, Reuters reported: “Two unpublished investigations show that the United States has consistently overlooked killings and torture by Iraqi government-sponsored Shi’ite militias.” The report documented how a Shia militia organisation under the control of the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior ran secret prisons and carried out systematic kidnapping and assassinations. This was covered up by both the US and Iraqi governments. It concluded: “In allowing the Shi’ite militias to run amok against their Sunni foes, Washington has fueled the Shia-Sunni sectarian divide that is tearing Iraq apart.”
Abuses in Sunni majority areas were also perpetrated by Kurdish forces, according to human rights organisations. “Kurdish forces bulldozed, blew up and burned down thousands of homes in Arab villages to avenge perceived support for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group after capturing the areas,” Amnesty International reported. Human Rights Watch also highlighted the targeting of civilians by militias: “Kurdish and Shia Turkmen armed groups have repeatedly harmed and endangered civilians in clashes in Iraq’s Tuz Khurmatu district, in Salah al-Din province, since October 2015. The armed groups have killed, wounded, and abducted civilians and destroyed scores, if not hundreds, of homes and shops.”
Allegations also arose that the US had deliberately targeted civilians in its efforts to liberate Mosul from ISIL control. Mosul, a city of nearly 2 million people, was a key stronghold of ISIL and the battle to retake it was bloody in the extreme, beginning with aerial bombardment from early 2016 on.
The US regularly bombed the city at night, but the attack on the university district in broad daylight, at a time when the campus was most crowded, caused nearly 100 deaths, including women and children. The fact that the bombing was carried out on the 13th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq led some to see it as a symbolic reminder of US firepower.
By early 2017, notwithstanding the atrocities of ISIL, by far the biggest cause of civilian casualties was coalition air strikes, including those by the UK. In one strike alone, over 200 non-combatants were thought to have perished, the natural outcome of a policy that sought to minimise western casualties, while maintaining a renewed lack of concern under President Trump to Iraqi loss of life.
By the time Mosul was finally liberated and ISIL eradicated from Iraqi soil, an estimated 10,000 more Iraqis had died. The UN said that unexploded bombs were likely to litter Mosul for more than a decade and two years after the city’s liberation 300,000 city residents were still living in makeshift homes.
In early 2018 a global donor conference pledged £21 billion to help Iraq rebuild after the war against ISIL. Turkey was one of the biggest donors: it is worth noting that its troops are still on Iraqi soil, which at least one leading Iraqi official has characterised as an “invasion”, and its aeroplanes regularly bomb Kurdish areas, frequently inflicting civilian casualties. The US was not at the conference and did not pledge a cent. This is despite the fact that it has visited unprecedented destruction on Iraq in recent years. Today western troops remain in the country, despite the opposition of Iraq’s Parliament, an opposition which intensified after Israel bombed Iraq last year.
At the time of writing, virtually none of this money pledged at this conference has been disbursed. Much of Mosul remains in ruins and most of the rebuilding that has been done has been the work of international agencies.
With the defeat of ISIL, Iraq appeared to be returning to ‘normal’. The country resumed paying Kuwait compensation for the destruction of Kuwaiti oil fields and facilities during the 1990-91 Gulf War, even though the regime that ordered the incursion has long since been toppled. But for Iraq, itself – no compensation, no reparations.
Then the latest protests started and quickly reached an unprecedented level.
VII Popular protest
The current wave of protests in Iraq began two years ago. Months-long protest in the south in 2018 saw the local government building burned to the ground in Basra. The region produces about 90% of the country’s oil wealth but most residents see none of the benefit.
Haifa Zangana explains: “The protests in the southern cities, described by many as an uprising, have been extremely difficult for the ruling parties and militias to suppress. Basic demands focused on a lack of clean water, after 15 years of corrupt rule, and only gradually extended to political demands. No minister could deny the facts about lack of water, electricity, jobs, health and school services. The south is also remote from central and northern parts of the country, where terrorist activities were used as pretexts to violently suppress similar protests there a few years back. Yet, the government’s initial response was to fire on demonstrators, killing 12 and wounding dozens.”
Protests resumed in Basra in the summer of 2019. Then in Baghdad, graduate demonstrators organised a protest in front of the prime minister’s office, demanding employment. It was met with fierce repression, provoking country-wide anger at the use of such brutal methods against peaceful intellectuals. Protests spread across Iraq’s cities against government corruption and the absence of basic services in a country rich in oil revenues. A particular source of conflict was the power wielded by unaccountable pro-Iranian militias within the state administration: indeed, there is clear evidence that rooftop snipers and assassination squads from such groups were deployed against those demonstrating, to deadly effect.
In Baghdad, protestors took over Tahrir Square in what became known as the October Revolution. Despite the government’s deployment of the military which used live ammunition against them, more people joined the protests. The anger was intense, particularly among young Iraqis who see no future in their country. Many women also took part. Some of the largest demonstrations in Iraq’s history demanded not just a change in the government, but an overhaul of the entire sectarian constitution with which the Bush Administration had saddled country, which has made the militias so powerful.
The New York Times explained in a recent major analysis: “To those who took part in the rallies, groups like Kataib Hezbollah are not just Iranian proxies; they are the newest faces of a kleptocracy that has enriched itself at the expense of Iraq’s youth, who have been left jobless and destitute in ever-increasing numbers. Some militia leaders, meanwhile, have joined the ranks of Iraq’s richest men, becoming famous for buying upscale restaurants, nightclubs and opulent farms on the Tigris.”
And these same figures are embedded in the government itself, right up to Cabinet level. “The Sadrists have the Health Ministry, the Badr Organization has long had the Interior Ministry and the Oil Ministry belongs to Al-Hikma.” The new prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, is powerless to confront the militias, despite one of them – Kataib Hezbollah – being thought to be responsible for killing a key prime ministerial advisor. In any case, many members of his government and other senior officials have dual nationality, despite rules against this. However bad things get in Iraq, they can always avoid the worst and get out quickly.
Many of those who preside over the embezzlement of Iraq are staunch US allies. The New York Times concluded that the “the United States is deeply implicated in all this, and not just because its serial invasions wrecked the country and helped ravage the economy.” Much of Iraq’s oil revenues are channelled back to Iraq from a US-administered account, which gives Washington huge leverage over the Iraqi government and economy. Large quantities of this money are laundered into the hands of militias and fraudsters. One recent analysis estimated that between $125 billion and $150 billion is held by Iraqis overseas, most of it illegitimately acquired.
Between 2006 and 2014, an estimated $500 billion of oil sales receipts and foreign aid disappeared through some of the most massive corruption in history. Iraq, we should remind ourselves, has the world’s fourth-largest reserves of oil, but nearly three-fifths of its 40 million people live on less than $6 a day. Millions of people still lack access to adequate healthcare, schooling, water or power supplies and much of the country’s infrastructure remains in ruins. One third of Iraqis live in poverty and unemployment among young people is over 40%. Today the coronavirus crisis and the fall in oil revenues makes corruption a life and death issue, leaving the government very little room for manoeuvre.
The protests show no sign of abating, despite the repression – over 500 have been killed and some reports estimate 700 – and many thousands wounded. Targeted assassinations of protest organisers by militia groups remain an ever-present danger. Even medics trying to deal with the casualties have been targeted. “After the war against Isis, I didn’t think I’d see battles this intense again,” reported one. “But the streets and squares of Baghdad have turned out worse… Even Isis wouldn’t shoot at medical staff during the worst of the fighting.”
The bravery of the protestors is awe-inspiring. A sixteen year old who sustained a fractured spine, a paralysed leg and a hole in the back told reporters: “This is my sacrifice for Iraq. If I could walk, I would be back in the protests now.” Another said: “We want those in power to be put on trial, and we want to choose from a new pool of people who have nothing to do with the traditional parties that have blood on their hands.”
The overwhelming participation of young people and women in the protests, independent of any political party, signified in the eyes of some commentators an important cultural change in Iraq. The protests have transcended ageism, sexism and regional divides. Workers have struck, as have school students. Millions have taken part. On Tahrir Square, Baghdad, bakers, restaurateurs, doctors and nurses and hairdressers have all offered their services free of charge. In the process, a genuinely popular, secular movement is battling against the corrupt sectarian system of governance that the US occupation has bequeathed to Iraq.
Last December, Iraq’s parliament passed a new electoral law that transitions elections to a first-past-the-post system, which allowed voters to select individuals rather than use party lists, which have become the creatures of ethnic and religious patronage. The then prime minister resigned and the president submitted his resignation, rather than appoint a new premier nominated by an Iranian-backed bloc in Iran’s parliament, who would be unacceptable to the protestors. This policy of apparent concessions is ‘balanced’ by the targeting of activists, via forced disappearances, arbitrary detention and assassination by elements of the security forces.
VIII The current situation
On 29th December 2019, the US launched airstrikes against Kataib Hezbollah’s positions in Iraq and Syria, reportedly killing at least 25 and wounding 55 more. Kataib Hezbollah is one of the Popular Mobilization Units that were recruited to fight ISIL after the Iraqi armed forces collapsed in 2014. It is linked to Iran but is also an integrated part of the Iraqi security services. President Trump’s admission that US troops remain in Iraq partly to “watch over Iran” have strengthened Iraqi fears that their country could be the theatre for a military conflict between the two powers. This has fuelled popular demands for an end to both US and Iranian influence in Iraq. Anger intensified when a further US strike hit a convoy of medics, killing at least six.
Iraq’s parliament voted to expel all US forces from the country, yet two weeks later joint military operations resumed. The Trump Administration had warned that Iraq could lose access to the key US-administered bank account that channels oil revenues back to Iraq’s elite. In the face of this threat, the Iraqi government unsurprisingly complied with US demands. Discussion of troop withdrawal is off the table, over 17 years after the US first walked in. Other western countries have taken the same line.
Despite continued crackdowns, protest continued into 2020. Even as a new government was being formed, Iraq’s judiciary was investigating the alleged sale of ministries. Nor were protestors deterred by the onset of COVID-19, whose impact has itself been exacerbated by years of western sanctions and war – 70% of Iraq’s health infrastructure has been destroyed since 2003. “The real virus is Iraqi politicians,” said Fatima, an 18-year-old protester and medical student from Baghdad.
One outlet reported: “Demonstrators in Baghdad have implemented a rotational system to keep protest camps alive amid the coronavirus pandemic and accompanying curfew.” There was no let-up in the state’s repression, however, the same newspaper later reporting: “Anti-government protesters have once again faced a hail of bullets and death as they resumed their activities following the easing of lockdowns and curfews linked to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.”
Demands have been extended to include the prosecution of those accused of the unlawful killings and forced disappearances of hundreds of protestors. There is also mounting opposition to new government’s austerity measures, driven by the economic crisis caused by the fall in oil prices and the COVID pandemic. Nor has the long-awaited appointment of a new prime minister altered the security services’ use of deadly force against demonstrators.
One prominent supporter of the protests is Iraqi journalist Muntadhar Al-Zaidi, who became famous after throwing two shoes at President Bush during a news conference in Baghdad in 2008. “This is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog!” he shouted as he threw the first shoe. “This is from the widows, the orphans, and those who were killed in Iraq,” he yelled with the second.
What was seen as a spontaneous burst of anger at the Bush Administration’s invasion and Occupation of Iraq, had in reality been years in the planning, a fact which undermines the bravery of Al-Zaidi’s act. “I had to prepare everything because I was expecting to be martyred,” he said. “I wrote a will in preparation of this moment.” While he didn’t die, he was arrested, beaten, tortured and left him in enduring pain. “They broke my teeth and my nose at that moment and then they took me away only to beat me with a pipe. Then they broke my leg.” Electric shocks and waterboarding followed.
Al-Zaidi was hailed as a hero on his release, nine months later, amid offers of a new house, a flash car and much more. “I am not a hero,” he responded. “Rather I am an oppressed man who is witness to his people being killed, his country’s invasion and the US soldiers repressing our great people on a daily basis.”
“I do not regret throwing the shoe,” he said. “My regret is that all I did was throw one shoe and not have more legs so I can throw three, or four or five.”
Al-Zaidi was lucky to survive. A day after he was released, a man who threw his slippers at a military convoy in Falluja was shot dead by US troops. “When I saw Americans patrolling the streets of Falluja I lost my temper,” he told reporters before he died. “Troops have withdrawn from cities, so why are they still patrolling here in Falluja?”
Al-Zaidi set up a humanitarian organisation to help victims of the war and in 2018, he ran for Parliament to “get rid of the corrupt, and to expel them from our country,” he explained. Today he is a keen supporter of the anti-government protests.
“It is our ambition and dream that foreign intervention in Iraqi affairs is eliminated,” said Al-Zaidi. “This will be hard, but it is not impossible. We will remain on the streets until we get what we want. Of course, our biggest demand is a free and independent Iraq without foreign intervention, and a fair government that takes care of its people, without massive corruption.”
Over seventeen years after the US-led invasion, Iraq’s sovereignty continues to be routinely violated. Regular air strikes in northern Iraq by Turkish jets, little reported in the west, escalated into “a major joint air and ground operation” this June. Civilian casualties have been significant, with villagers in the firing line fleeing their homes, a refugee camp attacked and farmers saying their orchards have been destroyed.
Iran’s influence still remains deeply entrenched, notwithstanding any efforts Iraq’s new prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, may make to curtail it. The militias that were mobilised to fight the ISIL insurgency following the collapse of the Iraqi army remain a powerful force.
The US regularly violates Iraq’s sovereignty with impunity, as last December’s attack on Kataib Hezbollah underlines, and is unlikely to withdraw its troops in the near future, whatever President Trump may claim, although it may reduce them. The most the Iraqi prime minister can do in these circumstances is to plead with the US and Iran, amid escalating tensions between the two, not to turn his country into a battlefield.
To prevent this, Al-Kadhimi himself ordered a raid on Kataib Hezbollah’s headquarters in June, arresting 14 members. When the militia stormed the heavily fortified government complex in Baghdad known as the Green Zone, the prime minister backed down and released those arrested. Unimpressed, the US decided to test its new Counter rocket, artillery, and mortar system above the Green Zone in July in a further undermining of Iraq’s authority.
When Al-Kadhimi visited Washington this month, noted one commentator, “Trump pressed Kadhimi to expeditiously end Iraq’s dependency on Iranian electricity by replacing it with Saudi sources and signing agreements with five US energy firms – worth $ 8 billion – aiming to turn Iraq’s energy sector into an integral part of US national security, and hence justifying an enduring military presence.” In short, a total surrender to US demands which threatens to increase US- Iran tensions, with Iraq caught in the middle.
Iraq’s sovereignty is squeezed from other directions. Although it is scarcely reported here, the UK has actually increased the number of air strikes in Iraq, with the figures for April to June 2020 being greater than at any time since the battle for Mosul in 2017. And continued US control of Iraq’s oil revenues and the growing economic crisis are likely to drive Iraq into fulfilling the diktats of the IMF and international lenders, leading to further impoverishment and hardship for the Iraqi people. Clearly the preconditions for a restoration of Iraq’s sovereignty are not only the withdrawal of all foreign troops, but also a cancellation of the country’s debt, incurred at a time when outsiders were in charge and awarded bloated contracts to their own kind, as well as compensation for the destruction wrought.
Behind its fractured sovereignty, Iraq, as we noticed at the outset, remains deeply traumatised. The social, cultural and psychological damage done to an entire nation is unlikely to be overcome without a deep-rooted truth and reconciliation process, focusing on physical and psychiatric healing, health and wellbeing, neighbourhood re-generation, schooling, a cultural renaissance and much more.
None of these much needed steps look likely in the near future. “True peace is not merely the absence of conflict: it is the presence of justice,” said Martin Luther King. If a lasting peace is to be achieved, the fight for justice for Iraq must continue.