Iraq: Ten years since ‘shock and awe’

Imperialism’s harvest of death and destruction

By Niall Mulholland,

“To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace”, Gaius Cornelius Tacitus (ca 56-117 ca), Roman historian

Ten years ago, under the banner, ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’, the US-led ‘coalition of the willing’ attacked Iraq. Despite huge public opposition, including tens of millions-strong global anti-war demonstrations on 15-16 February 2003, the “shock and awe” bombing campaign began on 20 March, followed by a land invasion a few hours later.

The enormous military force descended on a people who had suffered 35 years of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, the 1991 Gulf War and 13 years of cruel United Nations (UN) sanctions, which destroyed the Iraqi economy, reduced millions to poverty and cost between half a million to one million Iraqi lives.

WMD fiction

The 2003 war was ‘justified’ by a torrent of propaganda and lies emanating from Washington and Downing Street, which was repeated by a compliant, right-wing media.

President Bush accused the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, of attempting to enrich uranium to develop “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD). US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, told the UN on 6 February 2003 that Iraq was acquiring biological weapons capability. Tony Blair, the Labour prime minister, claimed that Iraqi WMD could be ready for use “within 45 minutes”. Saddam was also accused of aiding al-Qa’ida.

These were all lies. Soon after the invasion no evidence of Saddam’s WMD could be found by the occupying forces or links between the former Saddam regime and ‘terrorism’. In fact, it was the occupation that caused such resentment that it brought al-Qa’ida’s sectarian terror to Iraq.

Yet on the eve of the war’s tenth anniversary, the former prime minister told the BBC: “So when you say ‘do you think of the loss of life since 2003?’ of course I do. You would have to be inhumane not to, but think of what would have happened if he had been left there.”

Blair’s trite comments do not even begin to address the enormous human cost of the war. From 2003 to 2011, 150,000 to 400,000 Iraqis are believed to have died violently, according to several studies. The respected medical journal, The Lancet, estimated a much higher figure of over 600,000 people dying violently between 2003 and 2006, alone. Added to this are countless thousands of Iraqis still missing and thousands of US, British and other coalition military personnel deaths and serious injuries.

The harvest of death in Iraq left two million widows as primary family breadwinners and 4.5 million orphans (600,000 of who live in the streets). The war created four million refugees. One million fled to Syria. A further 1.3 million are internally displaced persons in Iraq. Only one in eight of these have returned home since 2008.

The Bush/Blair Iraq adventure also came at considerable economic cost to the US economy. According to Joseph Stiglitz, the former World Bank chief economist, it took $3 trillion from the US economy. While the funds are always there to fight foreign wars on behalf of big business profits and interests, American and British workers find their living standards falling dramatically.
Blair’s justifications continue

Interviews with Blair fail to put to him the real reasons for the invasion. Instead the war of imperialist aggression is dressed up as ‘humanitarian interventionism’ and attempts by Blair and Bush to export Western-style liberal democracy to the Middle East.

The ruling classes internationally were divided over Iraq. World and regional powers were fearful of the consequence of invasion and the USA gaining at their expense. The Bush neo-cons, however, pushed for war.

American and British imperialism, which previously backed Saddam, did not go to war to stop oppression or to introduce democratic rights and improve living standards.

For decades, Saddam’s sadistic regime murdered and terrorised Iraqis while enjoying Western backing. After the overthrow of another Western favoured regional despot, the Shah of Iran, Saddam was encouraged by the West to invade its neighbour. Millions perished or suffered terrible injuries in the resulting eight-year war.

Saddam fell foul of Western imperialism‘s interests when he invaded neighbouring Kuwait in 1991. The potential for Saddam to control vital oil supplies terrified western powers and they quickly assembled a massive military force.

The first Gulf War saw a US-led coalition quickly retake the oil-rich statelet but stop short at Iraqi borders. Little concern was shown for the opposition to Saddam in 1991 when the Western military force stood back as an uprising by Shi’ites and Kurds was brutally put down by the dictator.

Cynically exploiting the heinous ‘9/11’ al-Qa’ida terror attacks, the White House and Downing Street eagerly seized the opportunity to directly intervene militarily to overthrow Saddam and to impose a pro-Western, pliant regime.

Seizing control of Iraq’s abundant oil reserves, estimated to be 9% of the world total, was a key objective for US imperialism, as well as its vital geo-strategic interests in the Middle East.

Perhaps it was to stop naked imperialist ambitions of these kind becoming public knowledge that led the Cabinet Office to insist the much-delayed Chilcot inquiry report will be published without crucial evidence that would reveal what Blair and Bush discussed in the run-up to the invasion?

Backing dictators

Blair and Bush have not faced trial for their Iraqi war crimes. The International Criminal Court (ICC), like the UN, is dominated by the interests of the powerful nation states. Only former despots and warlords from the Balkans and Africa, who have conflicted with imperialism, have been brought before the ICC at the Hague.

With all other justifications for his war shredded, Blair asks: “If we hadn’t removed Saddam from power just think, for example, what would be happening if these Arab revolutions were continuing now and Saddam, who’s probably 20 times as bad as Assad in Syria, was trying to suppress an uprising in Iraq?”

There is no doubt that Saddam was a brutal tyrant, whose regime murdered many people, including communists and trade unionists. But the former prime minister has no problem with dictators, per se. ‘Tony Blair Associates’ advise the Kazakhstan despot, Nazarbayev, the butcher of striking oil workers. And Blair’s ‘liberated’ Iraq is today run by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who even the right-wing Economist accuses of “dictatorial tendencies”.

The 2003 invasion greatly increased Arabs’ sense of humiliation and injustice at the hands of imperialism. This was an important factor fuelling the 2011 revolutions against Western-backed dictators in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as widespread anger at the lack of democratic rights, mass joblessness and poverty in these societies.

The ‘Arab Spring’ does not at all justify Blair’s neo-colonial adventure but actually validates the position of the Socialist in the run-up to the Iraq war; that removing the tyrant Saddam was the task of the Iraqi working people by a united mass struggle.

The toppling of close Western allies, Ben Ali and Mosni Mubarak, who were supposedly ‘impregnable’ dictators like Saddam, in late 2010 and early 2011, showed this was also a possible course of action for the Iraqi masses.
‘Resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’?

John Prescott, Labour Deputy Prime Minister in 2003, now Lord Prescott, recently admitted to the BBC that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 “cannot be justified”. He said he had backed the invasion because he believed George Bush had a plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Bush and Blair did claim the defeat of Saddam would act as an impetus for a new ‘road map’ for peace in Israel and Palestine. But as the Socialist warned in 2003, the oppression of Palestinians would continue unabated after the Iraq invasion. For its own imperialist geo-strategic interests, the US continues to support Israel, its closest ally in the region, while genuine Palestinian self-determination and statehood is further away than ever.

In an interview with BBC’s Newsnight, Blair agreed that ‘daily life in Iraq today is not what he hoped it would be’ when he opted to invade ten years ago. Blair claimed there have been “significant improvements” but that “it is not nearly what it should be”.

This is an understatement, to say the least! The Socialist resolutely opposed imperialist intervention in 2003, and correctly predicted it would bring oppression and chaos – opening up the gates to sectarian conflagration – and that imperialism would be bogged down in a long conflict.

The occupiers’ policy of ‘de-Ba’athification’ of Saddam’s largely Sunnis-based regime, and the disbandment of the Iraqi army, resulted in sectarian purges of Sunnis. This ignited fierce Sunni-based resistance.

Brutal colonial occupation, including the systematic torture and abuse of civilians in notorious jails like Abu Ghraib, the siege of Fallujah city and the massacre of resistance fighters and many civilians at cities like Haditha and Balad, ensured growing mass opposition to the US-led occupation, which was not just confined to Sunnis. Anti-war sentiment grew in the US, Britain and internationally.

Despite their awesome military machine and war chest, the Coalition was unable to crush the resistance and resorted to divide and rule tactics. They backed Shia against Sunni, causing an orgy of bloodletting.


According to investigations by the Guardian and the BBC’s Arabic language service, in 2004 the Bush administration turned to the “Salvador option” – named after the US’s role in running right-wing death squads in El Salvador in the 1980s. Shia militias were armed and financed by the US. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died and millions were displaced as a result. The Sunnis were the main losers in the sectarian civil war.

A US-imposed ‘constitution’ institutionalised sectarian and ethnic divisions. Elections in 2005 led to Shia-based parties winning a majority in parliament and the prime minister’s office.

A corrupt ruling class, and reactionary, sectarian-based political parties struggle over Iraq’s natural resources while the mass of people live in poverty. Although Iraq has $100 billion (£66 billion) a year in oil revenues little of this trickles down to the people. It is the eighth most corrupt country in the world, according to Transparency International.

The capital, Baghdad, which is home to a fifth of the country’s 33 million population, is still a city at war, divided up by oppressive military checkpoints and barriers, and vulnerable to indiscriminate, sectarian outrages. Baghdad and central Iraq suffer daily bombings, assassinations and kidnappings.

Bush and Blair’s legacy includes a fivefold increase in birth defects and fourfold increase in cancer rates in and around Fullujah, as a consequence of the Coalition forces’ use of radioactive depleted uranium munitions.

Western politicians like to contrast Baghdad to the relative peace in the oil-rich Kurdish region and majority-Shia provinces. But this is illusory.

The Shia in the south are relatively safer because one community dominates overwhelmingly. Unemployment is high, however, and most Shias still live in dreadful poverty.


Tensions between Kurds, Arabs and other minorities simmer in the semi-independent Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Much to the chagrin of the central Baghdad government, the Kurdish regime has made 50 oil and gas deals with foreign companies and exports oil directly to Turkey.

After decades of brutal oppression, many Kurds hope they can move towards real self-determination. But the KRG is surrounded by states that have a long history of oppressing Kurds. The reactionary Kurdish leaders are in ‘alliances’ with the US and Turkey, one of the worst perpetrators of Kurdish oppression.

An indication of the growing conflict over oil and territory between KRG and the central Iraqi regime is seen by clashes between Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Iraqi troops.

The removal of Saddam has not made the world a “safer place”, as Bush/Blair promised. In fact, the world became much more violent and volatile. Saddam did not have “weapons of mass destruction” but after the 2003 invasion “rogue state” regimes, such as North Korea, concluded that only way to stop a US-led attack against them was to acquire them.

Despite imperialism’s setbacks in Iraq, the US and Britain continue to wage conflicts around the world to further their vital interests. Trying to create distance from Blair’s war, Ed Miliband said the Iraq war was a mistake but he continues to support British troops in Afghanistan and does not call for an end to US drone strikes.

The 2003 war and occupation have had long-term consequences for the region. Putting Western forces in Iraq was meant to further isolate and encircle Iran. However, Tehran found it had influence over the Shia-dominated Iraq government and the regional ‘Shia Arc’ was strengthened.

Partly to counter Iran, reactionary Gulf states and Western imperialism are meddling in Syria, exploiting the Sunni-based opposition to Assad. The Syrian conflict is spreading to Lebanon and Iraq, where a ‘Sunni Spring’ has seen mass opposition demonstrations in Sunni areas.

The majority of Iraqis do not want to be dragged back to the horrors of civil war. But to stop more conflicts, to end imperialist interference and to kick out the corrupt, reactionary ruling elites, working people need an alternative.

Iraq had a powerful Left until it was crushed by a CIA-backed coup in the 1960s and, later, by the Saddam regime.

The most important lesson from that tragedy and from the horrors of the last decade is the need for working people to have an independent, class-based party to fight for their interests. Such a party would demand the nationalisation of the oil riches, under democratic public ownership, to benefit the masses.

As the 2011 revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia showed, mass struggles will develop against tyrants, and despite the movements’ limitations, can throw them from power. But to succeed in making fundamental system change, working people need a socialist programme, in each country, regionally and internationally.

Before the first Gulf War and years of sanctions, the literacy rate in Iraq was more than 90%, 92% of Iraqis had safe water and 93% enjoyed free health care.

In 2011 after years of imperialist occupation, 78% adults are literate and 50% of Iraqis lived in slum conditions (17% in 2000).

Over 1 million Iraqis are ‘internally displaced. Nearly half of the capital’s 400,000 ‘internal refugees’ (displaced victims of sectarian terror) live in squalor in squatter settlements.

A quarter of Iraqi families live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank. Less than 40% of adults have jobs. Millions lack electricity, clean water and other essential services.

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