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The shadow of the Iraq war lingers on

The United States invaded Iraq 20 years ago. The rationale for the war was a lie, and the consequences remain to this day.

The killing continues, two decades on. In February alone, at least 52 civilians died in Iraq in shootings, bombings, or other attacks. The violence is an echo of the war in Iraq, which the United States launched in the overnight hours of March 19-20, 2003.

Iraq could do little against a "shock and awe" campaign carried out by a US-led "coalition of the willing" that included the United Kingdom, Australia, and Poland.

Within three weeks, Saddam Hussein and his brutal dictatorship were gone. Three weeks thereafter, on May 1, a triumphant President George W. Bush announced "mission accomplished" from the deck of the aircraft carrier, USS Abraham Lincoln.

From the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, George W. Bush declared fighting over in Iraq, calling it 'one victory in a war on terror' [Image: Stephen Jaffe/AFP/Getty Images]

To that point, the US and its allies had dropped 29,166 bombs and rockets, according to the Pentagon. Large parts of Iraq's infrastructure lay in ruins. More than 7,000 civilians were killed, according to Iraq Body Count, a British NGO.

It was the end of major combat operations, but the beginning of a long and deadly slog. In all, at least 200,000 people — and perhaps as many as one million, depending on the estimate — have died. In 2006, the Lancet, a medical journal, came to a number of 650,000 "additional deaths."

US troops left in 2011, only to come back to help fight the so-called Islamic State, a brutal Islamist group that sprung up in the ruins of Hussein's Baathist regime. According to the German Defense Ministry, 120 Bundeswehr soldiers are stationed in Iraq today.

Winning the war, losing the peace

The military adventurism was "one of the last sorts of hubristic expressions of Western belief that they could reshape a country and a regional order to suit their preferences," Dan Smith, the director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), told DW.

Iraq's leader Saddam Hussein was captured in 2003 [Image: AP]

Turning Iraq into a Western-style democracy proved harder than American policymakers initially suggested. Iraq's social patchwork of ethnic and religious complexities overwhelmed an underprepared occupation administration. A car bombing of the United Nations complex in Baghdad on August 19, 2003, which killed 22 people, marked the starting point of a relentless and deadly insurgency.

"If the mission was to free Iraq from terror, reconstruct the country and enhance security on all levels, it was an absolute failure," Javier Solana, a former NATO Secretary General, wrote in a commentary for the platform, Project Syndicate, in 2018.

Violation of international law

The war in Iraq was a "use of force contrary to international law and a violation of the UN Charter," Kai Ambos, a legal expert at the Georg-August-University in the central German city of Göttingen, told DW. "The invasion of Iraq was not based on a UN resolution. That leaves only the possibility of self-defense for use of force."

There was no case for self-defense, Ambos added. Then-Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, shared this view calling the war in Iraq illegal under international law.

Germany refused to participate in the war. However, Germany supported their offensive by granting overflight rights, the protection of US military bases on German soil, and by providing intelligence and financial contributions. Thereby, Berlin was, in Ambos' view, "aiding and abetting an act contrary to international law.

At the time of the invasion, Jürgen Habermas, a leading German philosopher, wrote in the national daily FAZ, that one consequence of the US decision to violate international law by going ahead with the war was giving "superpowers a disastrous example" to follow.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer (l) and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder opposed the war on Iraq [Image: Campbell/dpa/picture alliance]

Torture and war crimes

America's global reputation went further downhill with the revelation of war crimes and torture. By early 2004, the world knew the name Abu Ghraib: an infamous prison under Saddam Hussein that changed little when US troops took over. Photos emerged showing them torturing inmates there.

There were also incidents of violence against civilians. US Marines shot and killed 24 unarmed people in 2005 in Haditha, a city in west-central Iraq. In Baghdad in 2007, employees of the private, US security contractor, Blackwater, opened fire on a crowd, killing 17 people. Wikileaks released a video of a US attack helicopter firing on civilians, killing 12 people that included a Reuters journalist.

The US's reputation took a heavy blow when it emerged that American guards had abused detainees in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison [Image: AP/picture alliance]

Bogus war rationale

The two reasons the US put forward to justify the war were lies. No weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were found after the invasion, and Iraq did not play a role in the 9/11 attacks, nor did Saddam Hussein have a connection to Osama bin Laden or his al Qaeda terror group. The intelligence used to make these claims were either false or exaggerated.

"It was a case where they had made the decision that they wanted to do it and then tried to come up with reasons," Stephen Walt, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School explained. "It is not that the intelligence is informing the decision. They were manipulating it or sculpting it to justify what they had already decided to do."

The high point of this public influence campaign came on February 5, 2003, when then US Secretary of State Colin Powell went to the United Nations to present "evidence" of Iraq's WMD programs, including efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.

After leaving the Bush administration, Powell went on to be one of the few US officials to regret his role in taking the country to war, calling that UN address a "blot" on his record.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell presented alleged 'evidence' at the UN [Image: AFPI/dpa/picture alliance]

Iraq long a US target

Regime change in Iraq was a long-time US policy, going back at least to the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998. The Bush administration was already thinking about dealing with the Hussein regime when it came into office months before the 9/11 attacks.

"Saddam represented defiance of the United States, simply by surviving after the Persian Gulf War. The United States had hoped he would be overthrown, but he remained in place," Stephen Wertheim, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told DW.

"He was an obstacle to the exercise of American hegemony in the Middle East," he added.

The 9/11 attacks were the opportunity to give the Bush administration "wide discretion to channel public anger and shape the response," Wertheim said.

That era coincided with the peak of America's post-Cold War power, which Harvard's Walt views as at odds with the "rules-based world order" that the US otherwise champions.

"It is a set of rules that we had an enormous role in writing, and of course which we feel free to violate whenever it's inconvenient for us to follow them," he said.

That inconsistency is, for the German legal expert, Ambos, a reason that — two decades later — many countries, such as Brazil, South Africa, and India, are keeping their distance from the US call to support Ukraine against Russia's unprovoked invasion, and participate in sanctions.

"The 'Global South' is well aware of this apparent double standard," he said. "And that is coming home to roost now."

This article was originally written in German.


(c) 2023, DW


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