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Russia-Ukraine War: 20 years since the Iraq War, the steady crisis of civilisation

Rebuilding Ukraine could cost more than $1 trillion, an epic human tragedy. The world has likely forgotten that other catastrophe which began on March 19, exactly two decades ago.

March 19, 2023 / 08:18 PM IST
A file footage from the Iraq War in the city of Basra on April 3, 2003. (Photo: Giles Penfound/Wikimedia Commons)

A file footage from the Iraq War in the city of Basra on April 3, 2003. (Photo: Giles Penfound/Wikimedia Commons)

It has now been more than a year since Russian forces invaded Ukraine, and there seems to be no end in sight for the war, which has possibly led to the deaths of several hundred thousand soldiers and civilian. Critical infrastructure in large parts of Ukraine has been crippled. According to the World Bank, the country’s gross domestic product shrank by 35 per cent in 2022, and in October, projected that the population share with income below the national poverty line would rise to almost 60 per cent by the end of last year. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has estimated that rebuilding Ukraine could cost more than $1 trillion.

Whatever the justifications for the war and whichever way it ends, this is a terrible human tragedy on an epic scale.

So, it may be useful to remember another such catastrophe that began exactly 20 years ago and which the world seems to have forgotten. On March 19, 2003, US President George W Bush launched Operation Iraqi Freedom. It began with massive air strikes described as “shock and awe”. The next day, ground forces led by United States and Britain moved in. On April 9, Baghdad fell to the coalition troops, and on May 1, President Bush declared the “end of major combat operations” in his “mission accomplished” speech aboard the American aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.

This was an incredibly premature announcement. Since then, Iraq has been savaged by civil war, terrorist attacks that have killed many thousands of civilians and innocents, constant political instability, widespread corruption, sectarian tensions and an extremist insurgency that at one point had seized a third of the country.

All this because Bush and his team believed — or, at least, claimed publicly to believe — that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had developed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and was sponsoring the Al-Qaeda, which had carried out the 9/11 attacks on American soil on 2001. Both these allegations have since been found to be false. An United Nations team had spent months inspecting Iraqi facilities and had found absolutely no evidence of the existence of WMDs. In fact, based on this report, traditional US allies like France, Germany and Canada strongly opposed the invasion of Iraq. But Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair were hell-bent on war.

Bush never presented any hard proof that the Hussein regime had any links with Al-Qaeda or the 9/11 attacks, but kept insinuating that there were strong connections, to generate public support for what he had already decided to do.

The initial battles were won swiftly by the coalition forces, but the war of attrition had only just begun. The occupation of Iraq was chaotic from Day 1. The US summarily disbanded the Iraqi military, suddenly leaving thousands of trained men to face an uncertain future, and possibly destitution. Meanwhile, coalition forces failed to take charge of the arms and weapons depots of the Iraqi forces. They were looted. According to an Associated Press report, as much as 250,000 tonnes of explosives were still unaccounted for by October 2004. Much of it would have surely gone to the insurgents, the deadliest of them being the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), whose ranks were swollen by former Iraqi soldiers.

As it has done many times across the world, the US then attempted to impose its version of a liberal democracy on Iraq. It has repeatedly failed in these projects, from Africa to Afghanistan, and it failed here, too. The usual manner in which the US goes about to achieve these ambitions is to unearth an US-based expatriate or two from the country that is the regime change target, send them back to their homeland as political leaders and throw in a few billions of dollars.

Most of the time, this has been a recipe for disaster. The expat, who may fled his homeland decades ago, may no longer be in touch with the grassroot realities and is almost inevitably viewed by his countrymen as a Washington yes-man. The dollars immediately lead to extreme corruption, with officials of the newly installed administration and private contractors — both American and local — forming unholy alliances at the cost of the common people. Closer home, we have seen that happen with terrible costs in Afghanistan.

Also, in a truly ill-advised move, the US barred the long-ruling Ba’ath Party, which had been led by Saddam Hussein, from taking part in elections, thus creating a political vacuum. It also led to widespread sectorial violence between the Shias and the Sunnis. The first post-war election was won by an electoral coalition cobbled together by the Americans out of mostly Shia groups, whose militia proceeded immediately to act against the Sunnis. Thousands of Sunnis were turned into refugees in their own land. The Ba’ath Party, originally dominated by Shias but which, over the decades, had become Sunni majority, had essentially been a somewhat secular force that rated its “Arab identity” above divisions within Islam.

The US compounded the problem by arresting dissident Iraqis, former Ba’athists and Islamist jehadis and putting them all together in prison camps. Though their ideologies may not have been fully aligned in the past, they made common cause now against the West. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who would go on to lead the ISIS, joined Al-Qaeda when in prison. Other fronts like the Al-Nasra, an Islamist fundamentalist militia that would ignite the civil war in Syria, were also possibly formed in these American prison camps.

Released by the Americans from jail, men like these got to work, leading to both full-fledged civil war in Iraq and Syria and a multitude of random terrorist bombings. The ISIS has committed unspeakable atrocities on thousands of innocents, from driving women and even children to sex slavery and mass murder. Yes, it is now a shadow of its former self, and al-Baghdadi himself died by suicide during a US raid on his hideout in 2019. But it is a matter of debate how much of the terrorist organisation’s decline was due to US action and how much due to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decisive military action against the ISIS in Syria between 2015 and 2017.

At one point, the ISIS controlled large parts of Iraq, though they seem to have been driven out now from most of it.

Tellingly, in an October 2015 CNN interview, Blair apologised for his “mistakes” over the Iraq war and admitted that there were “elements of truth” to the theory that the invasion helped promote the rise of the IS.

The US ambition of creation of a “liberal international order”, wrote John J Mersheimer in 2019, perhaps, the greatest living American expert on international relations, “was flawed from the start and thus destined to fail. The spread of liberal democracy around the globe — essential for building that order — faced strong resistance because of nationalism, which emphasises self-determination... Furthermore, in the process of helping wreck Iraq and Syria, the Bush and Obama administrations played a crucial role in creating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which the United States went to war against in 2014.”

Saddam Hussein may have well been a vile autocrat, but one doubts if the lives of Iraqis have improved much in the last 20 years.

Sandipan Deb is an independent writer. Views are personal.