20 years after US invasion, Iraq is far from ‘liberal democracy’

An Iraqi police officer keeps watch as Shiite pilgrims walk towards the shrine of Imam Musa al-Kadhim, in the Kadhimiya district of Baghdad, Iraq, February 15, 2023. Iraqi security forces imposed tight security for the protection of Shiite worshipers who gather at Imam Musa al-Kadhim shrine to mark the anniversary of his death. Imam Musa ibn Ja'far al-Kadhim was the 7th of shiism's 12 principle saints.

Twenty years after the US-led invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein, the oil-rich country remains deeply scarred by the conflict and, while closer to the United States, far from the liberal democracy Washington had envisioned.

President George W. Bush’s war, launched in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, is seared in memory for its “shock and awe” strikes, the toppling of a giant Saddam statue, and the years of bloody sectarian turmoil that followed.

The decision after the March 20, 2003 ground invasion to dismantle Iraq’s state, party and military apparatus deepened the chaos that fueled years of bloodletting, from which the jihadist Islamic State group later emerged.

p style="text-align: justify; text-indent: 0.2in">The US forces, backed mainly by British troops, never found the weapons of mass destruction that had been the justification for the war, and eventually left Iraq, liberated from a dictator but marred by instability and also under the sway of Washington’s arch-enemy Iran.

“The US simply did not understand the nature of Iraqi society, the nature of the regime they were overthrowing,” said Samuel Helfont, assistant professor of strategy at the Naval Postgraduate School in California.

Bush — whose father had gone to war with Iraq in 1990-91 after Saddam’s attack on Kuwait — declared he wanted to impose “liberal democracy”, but that drive petered out even if Saddam was overthrown quickly, Helfont said.

“Building democracy takes time and building a democracy doesn’t create a utopia overnight,” said Hamzeh Haddad, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Instead of discovering nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, the assault by the US-led international coalition opened a Pandora’s box, traumatised Iraqis, and alienated some traditional US allies.

Major violence flared again in Iraq after the deadly February 2006 bombing of a Muslim Shiite shrine in Samarra north of Baghdad, which sparked a civil war that lasted two years.

By the time the US withdrew under Barack Obama in 2011, more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed, says the Iraq Body Count group. The United States claimed nearly 4,500 deaths on their side.

More horrors came to Iraq when the IS group declared its “caliphate” and in 2014 swept across nearly a third of the country — a savage reign that only ended in Iraq in 2017 after a grueling military campaign.

Today some 2,500 US forces are based in Iraq — not as occupiers, but in an advisory, non-combat role in the international coalition against IS, whose remnant cells continue to launch sporadic bombings and other attacks.

The years of violence have deeply altered society in Iraq, long home to a diverse mix of ethnic and religious groups. The minority Yazidis were targeted in what the UN called a genocidal campaign, and much of the once vibrant Christian community has been driven out.

Tensions also simmer between the Baghdad federal government and the autonomous Kurdish authority of northern Iraq, especially over oil exports.

In October 2019, young Iraqis led a nationwide protest movement that vented frustration at inept governance, endemic corruption and interference by Iran, sparking a bloody crackdown that left hundreds dead.

Despite Iraq’s immense oil and gas reserves, about one third of the population of 42 million lives in poverty, while some 35% of young people are unemployed, says the UN.

Politics remain chaotic, and parliament took a year, marred by post-election infighting, before it swore in a new government last October.

Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani has vowed to fight graft in Iraq, which ranks near the bottom of Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index, at 157 out of 180 countries. “Every Iraqi can tell you that corruption began to thrive … in the 1990s” when Iraq was under international sanctions, said Haddad, adding that graft is more in focus now “because Iraq is open to the world”.

Iraq is battered by other challenges, from its devastated infrastructure and daily power outages to water scarcity and the ravages of climate change. And yet, said Haddad, today’s Iraq is a “democratizing state” which needs time to mature because “democracy is messy”.

A major unintended consequence of the US invasion has been a huge rise in the influence its arch foe Iran now wields in Iraq. Iran and Iraq fought a protracted war in the 1980s, but the neighbours also have close cultural and religious ties as majority Shiite countries.

Iraq became a key economic lifeline for the Islamic republic as it was hit by sanctions over its contested nuclear program, while Iran provides Iraq with gas and electricity as well as consumer goods.

Politically, Iraq’s Shiite parties, freed from the yoke of Sunni dictator Saddam, have become “the most powerful players”, says Hamdi Malik, associate fellow at the Washington Institute. Iran-backed groups have managed to maintain a certain “cohesion” despite infighting after the last elections, he said, adding that “Iran is playing a crucial role” in making sure the cohesion lasts. By contrast, Iraq’s minority “Kurds and Sunnis are not strong players, mainly because they suffer from serious internal schisms”, said Malik.

Pro-Iran parties dominate Iraq’s parliament, and more than 150,000 fighters of the former Iran-backed Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary forces have been integrated into the state military.

Baghdad must now manage relations with both Washington and Tehran, says a Western diplomat in Iraq speaking on condition of anonymity. “It is trying to strike a balance in its relations with Iran, its Sunni neighbours and the West,” the diplomat said. “It’s a very delicate exercise.”

  – EURACTIV.com with Agence France-Presse, March 9, 2023PeaceMeal, Spring 2023

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Most American veterans say the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were ‘not worth fighting’

The U.S. governments so-called “war on terror” is nearly two decades old, and strong majorities of U.S. veterans and the general public do not approve of its biggest efforts — the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a new poll from Pew Research Center.

The survey found 64% of veterans said the Iraq War wasn’t worth fighting, along with 58% who said the same about Afghanistan. Likewise, 62% of U.S. adults said Iraq wasn’t worth it, along with 59% who expressed the same view on Afghanistan. Most veterans (52%) and U.S. adults (58%) also said the U.S. military campaign in Syria has not been worth it.

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Almost 19 years later, the U.S. military is still present in the country and American service members are still dying there. Indeed, although the U.S. declared an end to combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014, the fight there is ongoing. It has claimed the lives of more than 2,400 American soldiers.

Roughly 14,000 U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan as the Trump administration pushes for peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. It’s estimated the Taliban now controls or contests roughly 61% of the country’s districts, and themore radical Islamic State group — also known as ISIS — has gained a strong foothold in the country.

But Afghanistan remains a country consumed by conflict and violence, which helps explain why it was recently ranked the least peaceful country in the world — replacing Syria — in the 2019 Global Peace Index report.

In recent weeks, the U.S. has flexed its military muscles at Iran in a standoff that has sparked fears of a new conflict in the Middle East. The Trump administration sent a number of military assets to the region, including an aircraft carrier strike group and more troops, in response to the tensions.

After Iran shot down a U.S. Navy drone last month, allegedly over their territory, President Trump nearly responded with a military strike. That situation has only become more contentious in the days since.

A Reuters/Ipsos public opinion poll released in May found about half of U.S. adults believe the U.S. will be at war with Iran “within the next few years.”

The U.S. “war on terror” overall has cost nearly $6 trillion and killed roughly half a million people, and there’s no end in sight.

– edited from Business Insider, July 11, 2019
PeaceMeal, July/August 2019

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Civilians emerge from Mosul’s rubble starving, injured and traumatized

A woman ran through an alley in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq, with two babies clutched to her chest and two small children following closely behind, grabbing for her skirt. The family was among hundreds of civilians emerging from the rubble of the besieged neighborhood on July 3 as Iraqi Special Forces went door-to-door clearing homes. The evacuations were part of a final bid to wrest the last pockets of the city still controlled by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, from the hands of extremists.

Many who remained in the militant-controlled areas of the city were injured and malnourished. Some had been hiding in basements for weeks as the fierce fighting between the Iraqi military and Islamic State forces raged around them. Civilians have long been caught between Islamic State snipers, who targeted those trying to leave, and heavy bombardment from Iraqi and coalition forces.

In June, the United Nations warned that thousands of civilians in Mosul were being used as human shields by the militants as their grip on the city loosened. Supplies dwindled as the Iraqi mission to retake the city escalated, and the risk from airstrikes and Islamic State snipers made it impossible for some to flee.

“People don’t have access to water or food supplies,” Bruno Geddo, head of the United Nations refugee agency in Iraq, said in an interview. The food remaining in the city was seized by Islamic State militants, according to recent escapees. “People have told us they were eating grass, so things are really desperate.” Others were injured and had to be carried down city streets.

Mr. Geddo said Mosul’s displaced residents were often “totally emotionally and physically exhausted” by the time they made it to nearby humanitarian camps, whether by escape or military evacuation. “Whenever we receive people from there, they look aghast,” Mr. Geddo said, “like someone who has gone through an experience like hell.”

For residents of the city, their plight had just begun, Mr. Geddo said. Fierce and prolonged fighting left portions of the city uninhabitable, meaning a swift return to some neighborhoods will be impossible. And even after the Islamic State’s defeat, the Iraqi forces face the arduous task of clearing the city of improvised explosive devices and booby traps left behind by ISIS.

Drone footage of the Old City neighborhood showed a city in ruins. Thick smoke filled the air from several fires burning on the ground, and buildings teetered on broken walls. Much of the damage has been done by airstrikes, but Islamic State fighters have also destroyed landmarks as they were pushed out of the city.

More than 900,000 people have been displaced by the fighting for Mosul, according to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. And aid groups in the region lack the resources to deal with the those who suffered the most severe deprivation and violence under the Islamic State, Mr. Geddo said.

“Its like coming back from the afterworld, and so we are doing everything we can. But to be honest, I don’t think we have the tools with his level of trauma,” Mr. Geddo said.

– edited from The New York Times, July 3, 2017
PeaceMeal, July/August 2017

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U.K. Chilcot report on Iraq war offers damning critique

On July 28, 2002, roughly eight months before the American-led invasion of Iraq, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain sent President George W. Bush a personal note that alarmed some of Mr. Blair’s top national security aides and was greeted with relief in Washington. “I will be with you, whatever,” Mr. Blair wrote, in what appeared to be a blanket promise of British support if the United States went to war to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Getting rid of Mr. Hussein was “the right thing to do,” Mr. Blair wrote.

Fourteen years later, Mr. Blair’s pledge was revealed publicly as part of a 12-volume, 6,275-page report of a seven-year official investigation into how and why Britain went to war in Iraq.

The main conclusions in the report, by an independent Iraq Inquiry Committee chaired by Privy Counselor Sir John Chilcot, were familiar: that Britain, like the United States, used flawed intelligence to justify the invasion; that Iraq posed no immediate national security threat; that the allies acted militarily before all diplomatic options had been exhausted; and that there was a lack of planning for what would happen once Hussein was removed.

The report also amounted to a moment of searing public accountability for Mr. Blair, whose legacy has been defined in Britain almost entirely, and almost entirely negatively, for his decision to invade Iraq alongside the United States. Now rejected by his own Labor Party, his place in British history is defined by those crucial days in 2002 and 2003.

The current leader of the Labor Party, Jeremy Corbyn, apologized for the party’s having led Britain into the war, and the governing Conservatives were happy to let the Labor Party eat itself up over Blair and Iraq. Corbyn, an anti-war activist, told MPs: “Frankly it was an act of military aggression on a false pretext — [which] has long been regarded as illegal.”

The report’s 2.6-million words reveal that, in a phone call to President Bush two days after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, Blair said, “It would be excellent to get rid of Saddam.” He added “there needed to be a clever strategy for doing this... An extremely clever plan would be required.”

The prime minister did want stronger evidence of the need for military action and a more solid plan for occupying Iraq and reconstituting a government there. His July 28, 2002, note to Bush warned broadly of the risks of “unintended consequences’’ from an invasion and presciently forecast that other European nations would be reluctant to back the war.

But by the time the invasion was launched, most of Blair’s warnings and conditions had been swept aside, the report concluded. Committee chairman Chilcot said upon release of the report that Blair had been advised by his diplomats and ministers of “the inadequacy of U.S. plans” and their concern “about the inability to exert significant influence on U.S. planning.” Blair chose to override their objections.

The inquiry’s verdict on the planning and conduct of British military involvement in Iraq was withering, rejecting Blair’s contention that the difficulties encountered after the invasion could not have been foreseen. “We do not agree that hindsight is required,” Mr. Chilcot said. “The risks of internal strife in Iraq, active Iranian pursuit of its interests, regional instability, and Al Qaeda activity in Iraq were each explicitly identified before the invasion.”

Blair’s concern before the invasion of Iraq, the report makes clear, was less about the need to overthrow Saddam Hussein than about how to justify doing so. The report says: “At no stage was the hypothesis that Iraq might not have chemical, biological or nuclear weapons or programs identified and examined” by Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee.

Blair was warned explicitly by the JIC in early 2003 that an Iraq war would “heighten” the threat from Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists. That has come true to a devastating extent. The invasion of Iraq opened Pandora’s box, out of which flew sectarian violence and terrorism. Iraqis — Sunni and Shia — fought the U.S.-led coalition and slaughtered one another. Suicide bombings and death squads spread terror throughout the land.

The JIC’s verdict before war broke out said: “Al Qaeda and associated groups will continue to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to Western interests, and that threat will be heightened by military action against Iraq. The broader threat from Islamist terrorists will also increase in the event of war, reflecting intensified anti-U.S./anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world, including among Muslim communities in the West.”

Before the U.S.-led invasion, there was no al Qaeda in Iraq. The murderous Islamic State is an offshoot that has redefined terrorism to the point that even al Qaeda has condemned it for being too extreme.

The results of the war have haunted Iraq, the United States and Britain ever since: more than 200 British dead, at least 4,500 American dead, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead, most of them civilians, as sectarian warfare, terrorist groups and actors like Iran have filled the vacuum left by toppling Saddam Hussein.

The entity Bush and Blair helped create, today’s Iraq, is one of the most corrupt countries on earth. It floats on a sea of oil, but little of that wealth trickles down to the ordinary people. Water and electricity cuts are commonplace, even in the capital..

Most recently, almost 300 Iraqi civilians died in the smoldering ruins left by a car bomb in Baghdad as they celebrated the final days of the holy month of Ramadan. The distraught people searched for loved ones blown to pieces or burned beyond recognition.

The instigators no longer have to deal with the quagmire they helped create. But the unlucky people of Iraq must live — and die — with what Bush and Blair have wrought.

– edited from The New York Times, Mirror (U.K.) and CNN
PeaceMeal, July/August

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Iraqi city of Ramadi, once home to 500,000, lies in ruins

RAMADI, Iraq — Ramadi, once home to about 500,000 people, now largely lies in ruins. A U.N. report released January 16 used satellite imagery to assess the devastation, concluding that more than 3,000 buildings had been damaged and nearly 1,500 destroyed in the city 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad. All told, more than 60 percent of Anbar’s provincial capital has been destroyed by constant air bombardment and the scorched-earth practices of Islamic State fighters in retreat, according to local estimates.

So complete was the destruction of Ramadi that a local reporter who had visited the city many times hardly recognized it. He swerved to avoid the aftermath of months of fighting: rubble, overturned cars and piles of twisted metal. Airstrikes and homemade bombs laid by the ISIS had shredded the poured-concrete walls and ceilings of the houses and shops along the road.

Officials are already scrambling to raise money to rebuild, even as operations continue to retake neighborhoods in the north and east. Their concern is that the devastation could breed future conflicts, recreating the conditions that allowed the Islamic State group to first gain a foothold in the province in late 2013.

While the U.S.-led coalition acknowledges the importance of reconstruction efforts, the actual money pledged to help rebuild is just a fraction of the amount spent on the military effort against ISIS. U.S. and Iraqi officials estimate the price tag for rebuilding to be in the hundreds of millions. The Iraqi government, in the midst of an economic downturn triggered in part by the falling price of oil, has shifted almost all costs of rebuilding to the provinces, ruling that reconstruction must come from existing budget allocations. That means provincial governors will depend almost entirely on international aid.

The United States has pledged $15.3 million to stabilization efforts in Iraq, according to figures provided by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. That’s compared with the estimated $280 million that the Department of Defense spends to fight ISIS each month, according to figures released by department and confirmed by coalition officials in Baghdad.

“We will never kill our way out of the Daesh problem,” U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS, told a recent news conference in Baghdad following the Ramadi gains. “We cannot bomb our way to peace here. The key to defeating this enemy and making it stick is the reconciliation and the stabilization process.”

And even a significant increase in reconstruction help won’t necessarily stop the tribal vengeance and vendettas once Ramadi is fully liberated from ISIS hands. Brig. Gen. Muhammad Rasheed Salah of the Anbar provincial police said no amount of money from the government would prevent him from going after the men he suspects are responsible for destroying his home. “No matter what,” he said, “I will have my revenge.”

– edited from an article by Susannah George, The Associated Press, January 17, 2016
PeaceMeal Jan/February 2016

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Iraqi fighters say more U.S. advisors won’t turn the tide

The U.S. decision to send an additional 450 military advisers to western Iraq to support Iraqis fighting the Islamic State group (ISIS) has left those Iraqi fighters, as well as independent analysts, unimpressed. Front-line fighters say the new advisers, while welcome, can’t address an acute lack of coordination among the three main forces opposed to ISIS: the Iraqi security forces, Shiite militias and Sunni tribesmen.

In interviews with International Business Times, Sunni tribesmen in Anbar province involved in a new training program at the Habbaniya base near Ramadi said there are fundamental problems with the fight against the Islamic State group that “no amount of U.S. military advisers” can change.

“In areas that are Sunni, ISIS does very well,” said Andrew Tabler, an ISIS expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “In other, more mixed areas, it has a harder time.” Tabler said if the U.S. and Iraq do not involve Sunnis in the fight against ISIS, it will “not do anything substantial.”

The lack of coordination and communication among Anbar’s anti-ISIS factions was part of the reason ISIS was able to take Ramadi easily, said fighters recently trained by U.S. advisers. Another part of the reason is the absence of another force that brings far more experience, the Shiite militias whose presence helped route ISIS from Tikrit earlier this year. The Shiites have taken a back seat in the fighting in Anbar.

The Iraqi defense ministry is struggling to coordinate the various armed groups in the fight against ISIS, while also trying to stop the cash and flow of weapons from wealthy Sunni tribesmen to the militant group. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of forces trying to help defeat ISIS, the Iraqi military is looking to the U.S. to come up with a new strategy that will involve those fighting with Baghdad’s armed forces — the Shiite volunteer forces funded largely by Iran as well as Sunnis in Anbar. But experts say the U.S. advisers may not be able to fix that kind of a structural problem among the anti-ISIS factions.

Anthony Cordesman, a former adviser to the U.S. Departments of State and Defense during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, says the addition of the 450 U.S. military advisers does not address the overarching problems. “No overall strategy has been announced for improving the Iraqi army or air force,” said Cordesman. “They are not announcing or dealing with any public strategy for pushing the Iraqis towards unity or finding some way of reducing ... problems between Sunni or Shiite or Arabs and Kurds.”

While some defense hawks want to see a large increase in U.S. forces in Iraq, Yinon Weiss, a 10-year veteran of the U.S. Special Forces with expertise in ground intelligence in Iraq, says adding large numbers of troops could actually destabilize the region in the short term and would go against the current White House strategy.

“I don’t believe there is national support right now for an all-in strategy,” said Weiss. “At this point, the most practical option is an attempt at containment. If ISIS can be contained, their access to resources can over time be reduced, and their ability to govern their own territory will be disrupted, thereby weakening them and creating windows of opportunity for their ultimate defeat.”

– edited from International Business Times, June 11, 2015
PeaceMeal, July/August 2015

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