The Iraq War Was One of History’s Greatest Atrocities
The US invasion of Iraq was a crime, a calculated act of aggression that left immense destruction in its wake with almost no redeeming benefits to anyone — including its villainous architects.
- Interview by
- Seth Ackerman
For all its destructive magnitude and historical significance, the US invasion of Iraq has prompted remarkably little commemoration in advance of its twentieth anniversary. It’s as if the world just wants to forget an episode whose senselessness makes it difficult to extract any meaning at all.
But for anyone who does want to understand the war and its consequences, there are few more knowledgable guides than Glen Rangwala, associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Trinity College, Cambridge.
A specialist in Arab politics and international relations, Rangwala was a founder of the Campaign Against Sanctions in Iraq in the 1990s and gained perhaps his greatest notoriety during the run-up to the war, when he exposed what became known as the “dodgy dossier” — Tony Blair’s publicly released compendium of alleged evidence concerning Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, which was supposed to justify an invasion — as a largely plagiarized fraud.
In 2006, he published, with Eric Herring, Iraq in Fragments, a scholarly study of the disintegration of Iraqi society under the yoke of US occupation.
Rangwala spoke with Jacobin’s Seth Ackerman about the causes of the war, the logic of the postwar occupation, and the legacies it has left behind in Iraq, the Middle East, and the wider world. It is a disconsoling story with few silver linings.
Give us a picture of Iraq on the eve of the 2003 invasion, after twelve years of United Nations sanctions.
Over the course of the 1990s, Iraq moves from being a relatively highly educated, highly literate, politically engaged, and economically fast-developing society, with generally quite good infrastructure, to being one of the most notable instances of de-development: public infrastructure falling to pieces, all trade essentially being curtailed or being converted into illicit trade (smuggling) or UN humanitarian programs (the Oil-for-Food Program).
It was a situation in which people had no realistic economic opportunities for advancement other than emigration. So the extent to which Iraqis from across all parts of society left the country if they could, is significant for understanding Iraq over that period.
The government retained a fairly high level of control — coercively — over most of the country and over large parts of Iraqi society, apart from the Kurdish region in the North. But there was a degree of desperation for many Iraqis over the course of the 1990s. This was beginning to turn a corner a bit by the end of the decade, though — so by 2001, 2002, more money is coming into the country, largely through the new oil deals that Iraq had made with Syria.
In a sense, the appearance of opportunity was back in Iraq, but it was still far less cohesive as a society, far less hopeful, and far less structured in how people went about their social and economic lives. Their educational opportunities were still quite limited, even though the country was, at least on the face of it, wealthier than it had been. And it’s reflected in the stories that Iraqis have of that period, which was one of desperation, a period in which the country went backward. Their children, their siblings, their relatives, left the country to seek a better life abroad.
Of course, from the point of view of the the key players on the UN Security Council who were most responsible for maintaining the sanctions, officially their intention was to force compliance with UN resolutions, chiefly disarmament, though they didn’t make much effort to disguise the fact that they also — at least the United States and Britain — hoped that the desperation you’re talking about could somehow result in a change of regime.
The way the sanctions debate was set up in the West, there was a kind of shadow question: If the Iraqis were free to speak their minds would they say that the regime is to blame for (allegedly) refusing to do what was needed to lift the sanctions, or was the West to blame for imposing sanctions? Or would they even say, we’re grateful for the sanctions for weakening the regime?
Yes of course. I mean, Iraqis blamed everybody for having no concern about their humanitarian welfare, either their government or the international community. There’s a sense of abandonment that I think was the general experience of most Iraqis through the country through that period, where nobody was really that concerned about whether they lived or died. So there is no gratitude to the Americans for invading. There is no gratitude for the US and UK for maintaining sanctions.
In 2003, they enter Iraq as powers that, from an Iraqi perspective, have a proven track record of having no concern for their well-being. These are the countries that put them through that process of material deprivation, of limited opportunities, of air strikes. (Of course the British and American governments maintained a policy of air strikes in the northern and southern no-fly zones, as they were called, so Iraqi casualties were a regular part of how they understood the effects of those policies.)
So right from the start, to most Iraqis there is a sense that these are hostile powers — which they nevertheless have the opportunity to align with if they want to. But most Iraqis, of course, don’t want to align with hostile powers, even for the most cynical of reasons. And so the key issue that comes in right away — and I was there immediately after the invasion in 2003, in Baghdad and in parts of Western Iraq — was the sense of Iraq being a divided country.
There were a few people who were with the Americans, who were operating with the Americans in the Green Zone. There were parts of the population that were affiliated to political parties that had signed up to the “transition,” as it was called at that time. But there were many Iraqis who saw them as traitors, who saw them as having sold out their country, and who often resorted, especially over the course of 2003, to violent struggle, to oust the Americans from Iraq, thinking that was the only way in which the Americans would ever leave from the country.
And of course, they were branded by those parts of the population as terrorists. And so what you have, all the way through from the invasion onward, is the creation of a very divided population, a sense of division within the country that will take generations to overcome, where different parts of the population blame each other for the long war that followed in which tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed by their fellow Iraqis. So it is that lasting division which becomes, I think, the most obvious, most destructive legacy.
In the Western discourse, this is always filtered through the idea of ethnic or religious divisions, with the implication that these are ancient and permanent.
There are, and there always have been, lots of different identities that Iraqis have inhabited at one moment or other. They affiliate with their towns, their cities, and often they affiliate with their neighborhoods. They affiliate with their ethnicity, their language, their cultural traditions, their religious identity. They affiliate with their class: sometimes those have been significant markers of political orientation, to talk about oneself as upper-class or middle-class or working-class. These are all divisions that exist in any modern society.
There are multiple identities at work and most Iraqis, throughout most of the twentieth century, have inhabited those multiple identities, in which religion has not been a particularly prevalent one. Sunni and Shi’a were categories that largely disappeared from Iraqi public discourse over the course of the middle part of the twentieth century. There are ways in which in the 1990s, the Iraqi government started using that language back against its own population. And there are ways within which political activists who sought to oust the Iraqi government also started using those terms.
So they’re not unknown to Iraqis in 2003. It’s not that people don’t know what the difference between a Sunni and a Shi’a is, but they’re not particularly politicized at that point. There’s no real political implication that comes from identifying oneself as Sunni or Shi’a. But what the US does is engage in a process of trying to build alliances around those divisions. So, Shi’a will identify with us, they will support us, we will fund them, we will support their political parties. We will arm their militia, which is what they did, because they are the groups, it was thought, who will support us in the long term, will carry the majority of the population with us.
And of course, that fails in lots of different ways. But what I think has been the most destructive form of failure is in creating that long-term sense of division within the country along those sectarian lines, in which those who supported the Americans, who joined the militias that fought with the Americans, are seen by a significant proportion of Iraqis today as having sold out their country to the invader.
Organizationally, what were the units that were affiliated with the Americans?
The US created a number of different brigades essentially made up of Shi’a militia members who came from what was then called the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, which recognized within five or six years that it had lost a lot of its support by having such an overt policy of aligning with the US and having its militia essentially funded through the Americans. They set up a number of different brigades, with names like the Wolf Brigade, which were basically American top-down organized institutions that worked essentially as agents of ethnic cleansing within parts of Iraq.
So they would target Sunni Muslims whom they suspected of being allied with the Americans, often driving families, groups, whole populations out of areas of Baghdad. And so over the course of that period, from 2003 to 2006, you get what is a very multiethnic, multicultural city becoming essentially cantons, with different people from one religious group or one ethnic group, solely resident in one area of the city, rather than it being a mixed population as it was before.
And it remains like that.
It does. Iraq remains a country in which those divisions are significant in people’s minds, in people’s forms of life, in ways that haven’t really been repaired over the past twenty years.
The movement led by Muqtada al-Sadr was supposed to represent a challenge to those alignments.
So the one militia that remained was the so-called Sadr movement, which never aligned with the Americans. The movement was based essentially around the large eastern slum of Baghdad, which was largely Shi’a Muslim, with significant numbers of Kurdish and other ethnic minorities there as well. But they acted as a mobilizer. They were the movement that spoke up for the disenfranchised of Iraq. This is a population that has been served well by no government since the 1950s. Largely manual laborers and other low-paid occupations, with long periods of unemployment for many members of that community. And they were mobilized most actively within a militia and a political organization that has never substantially aligned itself with the US occupation, and which retains a significant role in Iraqi politics today.
So there are ways in which those affiliations that developed over the course of that early period after the invasion have continued to be significant, but without building any sense of a cohesive national community. Parties speak on behalf of a particular population and often claim that other parts of the country, other communities within the country, somehow act as their oppressors or have what’s rightfully theirs. So there’s that discourse of internal opposition within the country, which comes out in the inability of Iraqi parties to work together, and which remains significant today. You don’t get cohesive political factions formed across the country. What you get is highly localized groups who fight against each other still.
This is said to be the major factor that has allowed Iran to gain influence in the country.
That’s true, though many Iraqis also have come to realize the extent to which their large neighbors, both Saudi Arabia and Iran, don’t have their interests in their calculations — that they’re doing this for their own reasons. So you do get many Iraqis who reject foreign interference in their country. You get many Iraqis who see political parties that have their origins in alliances with Iran or with Saudi Arabia as being illegitimate.
But still you get governments that come to power in Iraq that have very low levels of real authority over or support from many Iraqis. They have very limited levels of responsiveness to popular need. They have very limited capacities to do anything about Iraq’s problems. So things like the provision of electricity, the provision of schooling, basic government responsibilities, are still at a very low level — worse than Iraq in the 1960s or 1970s. There’s still a significant inability of the government to undertake projects that will benefit Iraqis. And there is a lack of confidence in any organized political group to achieve these objectives.
During the war — say, during the 2004 US presidential election campaign, when the Democrats were trying to formulate something resembling a critique of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy without actually being antiwar, the line they would use was that “Bush took us to war without a plan.” So the critique was about incompetence.
A lot of attention is focused on policy mistakes, commonly on the disbandment, essentially, of the Iraqi civil service — the limitation that those within senior ministries could no longer stay in those roles — essentially sacking large parts of the senior civil service, who were mostly members of the Ba’ath Party. They had to be members if they wanted to retain those roles.
And the army.
And the army, yes. Those are the two main criticisms: the effective sacking of large parts of the civil service and the disbandment of the military forces of the country. And in some sense I think that’s right, that these were significant mistakes. They were significant flaws in the US policy especially in the case of the civil service, which did not pose a challenge to the Americans. It wasn’t going to seek the restoration of the old government. These were largely professional people who had worked all their lives in the institutions and had generally done the best job that they could in very difficult circumstances. And to sack them all of course posed really severe difficulties for the Iraqi state to go back to providing for its population in any meaningful way.
That said, I think to focus on policy errors makes the mistake of not seeing the bigger problem, which was just that the invasion itself was almost inevitably going to turn Iraqis against each other. There was no way that was not going to happen. Setting up a foreign power as, essentially, the authority in the country was not going to bring Iraqis onside.
Iraqis generally understood the invasion for what it was, an attempt by an outside country to dominate them. And inevitably, many Iraqis fought back, creating the long term context of violence that’s been seen in the country since then. So it’s not just that there were policy mistakes, but that the invasion itself had certain more or less inevitable consequences, which were going to lead to long-term violence.
What’s ironic is that in the internal policy debate within the Bush administration, the critique you’re articulating now was actually made by the most extreme elements of the Bush administration. Before the war, and during its earliest stages, they said, if we do a prolonged occupation of the country, we will get entangled in internal Iraqi politics and become the object of resentment. So let’s just invade and then immediately leave, and the result will be good for us somehow.
Yes, and of course, all American governments have a wide coalition with different interests represented in the cabinet at any one point. So the oil barons were represented alongside the highly ideological people who were motivated by a sense that radical Islam was the threat to America and that somehow an invasion would demonstrate American power to the rest of the world. These combined with defense companies that want to build up the US military and show it off to the world as a force of intimidation, coupled with those whose interests were more focused on American security and combating the effects of 9/11 and all of that.
So you had a range of different groups there. And what you got was a shift in policy from one faction, the invade-punish-and-run group, to the prolonged occupation group. And so over the course of 2003, you get those in power who say, we should be here for five, ten, fifteen years in Iraq as the governing authority. And that view finds itself winning out in mid-2003 — but then losing out in late 2003 as the costs of what it would mean to engage in a long-term occupation of the country, to have exclusive political power, became clear. So you get a move back to, not quite the invade-and-run view, but those who say “light touch,” “scale down,” “handover,” “train the Iraqi Army.”
Yes, indirect rule. But obviously, that perspective came a cropper when the idea that you could build an army from scratch that would effectively control a highly disordered country — which is what Iraq became over the course of the first year — fell apart. When challenged, the Iraqi army since 2003 has never been a viable mechanism of national control. And so, none of these policy options — the cut-and-run option, the long-term occupation, the indirect rule method — had a realistic chance of success. Again, it’s not really any individual policy mistake that’s the issue.
In the US, this episode — in fact the whole sequence of interventions going back to 1991, ultimately leading to the invasion — was mainly justified by this idea that Iraq had failed to disarm and therefore it posed aa serious threat.
It was an issue that was easy to explain to populations around the world, to argue that Iraq should be an issue of concern. The idea that it was developing chemical, biological, nuclear weapons was a way to present Iraq as having the potential to challenge regional and global security. To some extent, of course, that rhetoric could draw upon Iraq’s attempts over the course of the previous decade to experiment with each of these three different forms of weaponry. There was an attempt in Iraq to develop chemical and biological weapons — the first much more so than the second. There was the use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War. And there was the beginnings of the nuclear program in the 1980s.
None of these programs continued after 1991. We know now for sure that these programs were all terminated by 1991. But the fact that the US and UK could show that Iraq could not prove that — could not prove a negative — gave it a consistent linchpin to say there is still a danger from Iraq. There was still a reason why we should sanction Iraq, why we should blockade Iraq, why we should prevent Iraq’s reintegration into the international community, ultimately leading to the invasion, of course. So this remained an issue for concerted global attention over the course of the whole twelve-year period between the Gulf War and the 2003 invasion.
So the threat of Iraq was consistently exaggerated. It was consistently portrayed as something that had to be challenged by outside actors. And to go from that to saying the only way to deal with this threat is to invade was, at least rhetorically, not that much of a leap. The problem of course was that there were no weapons. And it was obvious this story could not end well because all the intelligence estimates were quite clear that, while there was a possibility that Iraq retained weapons, realistically there was no chance for them to use any of these weapons if they existed. And even if they did try and use them, it would be on a very small scale and it wouldn’t be a threat to global and regional security.
Presumably those in the Bush administration and elsewhere who made these accusations must have hoped that they could just show off some vestige of a splinter of an ongoing weapons program and that that would be accepted as vindicating them.
Yeah, I think that’s the best they could have hoped for. I think generally there was a sense that the story would just move on, and of course it didn’t move on. So much attention had been placed on those weapons claims. They were made in such a high-profile way, and when leaders from the US and UK were challenged on their Iraq policy before the invasion, they reiterated those claims in an ever more exaggerated way.
With those claims, they trapped themselves in forms of justification that they had not anticipated. Just tracing out the ways in which those claims became more and more exaggerated in the lead-up to the war — that was also part of their way of dealing with a skeptical public. I mean, there was no concerted support for the invasion across Europe. In the US it was thin. And so the attempt to get around that was by making these seemingly highly technical claims about the threats of particular weapons types. And those who didn’t have the time or knowledge to critically explore those claims had to take those claims on the basis of trust.
Twenty years later, what consequences, if any, have there been for the United States’ standing as a great power?
There were very few countries that stayed out of the invasion that later assisted with the occupation. There was that process whereby those countries that had supported the US at the start — some of them left, like the Spanish government, which took its troops out of Iraq. But there were very few governments that had not initially endorsed the invasion, which later came to participate in supporting the American occupation of Iraq after 2003. It did show the limited willingness of many countries to support military action of a sort that they could not win their populations over to. And it also showed the limited extent to which the US could be trusted in international politics as an actor that worked on behalf of common goals on the international stage.
You see this in the European context where there is still a very high level of skepticism that didn’t exist before 2003 about US military policy around the world. There remains a high level of skepticism of claims that are made by the United States about its objectives, which are increasingly seen as self-interested rather than serving shared goals.
And yet the drive among Europeans to have any kind of an autonomous foreign and defense policy seems much less today than it did twenty years ago.
Perhaps the bigger issue is that Iraq was a significant moment for populations in finding a level of mistrust in the claims made by political leaders — especially those that concern matters of international peace and security. There remains a very high level of mistrust in claims made by British and American governments about things they claim are essential for security, which I think comes out of the Iraq episode and persist today.
There’s that famous story about the Cuban Missile Crisis, when [John F.] Kennedy offered to show [Charles] de Gaulle the satellite imagery evidence of the Soviet missiles and [Charles] de Gaulle saying essentially, I don’t need to see it, if the American president says it, then I accept that. It seems like nowadays any world leader — even if they were personally inclined to take that attitude — would be mercilessly ridiculed at home for such naivety in dealing with the US.
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen evidence presented by one government or other described as “the new dodgy dossier.”
This heightened suspicion you mention, about US’s commitment to work for “common goals” — that strikes me as significant because that is the basis on which a hegemonic power is opposed to maintain its authority.
Yes, that’s the point exactly. There is no confidence that the US is willing to pursue goals beyond just the narrowly self-interested. That is a legacy of Iraq that has persisted since 2003.