March 20 marks a major anniversary. You’d be forgiven for not knowing it. Fifteen years after we invaded Iraq, few in the US are addressing our legacy there. But it’s worth recalling we shattered that country.
We made it a terrorist hotspot, as expected. US and British intelligence, in the months preceding the invasion, expected Bush’s planned assault would invigorate Al-Qaeda. The group “would see an opportunity to accelerate its operational tempo and increase terrorist attacks,” particularly “in the US and UK,” assessments warned. Due course for the War on Terror.
Follow-up reports confirmed these predictions. “The Iraq conflict has become the ‘cause celebre’ for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement,” Washington analysts explained in 2006.
Fawaz Gerges lists two groups this milieu produced: Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), “a creature of the 2003 US-led invasion,” and ISIS, “an extension of AQI.”
There were good reasons for anyone– not just jihadists– to resent US involvement. Consider sectarianism. “The most serious sectarian and ethnic tensions in Iraq’s modern history followed the 2003 US-led occupation,” Sami Ramadani affirmed. Nabil Al-Tikriti concurs, citing US policies that “led to a progressive, incessant increase in sectarian tensions.” The Shia death squads “organized by U.S. operatives” were one such decision.
The extent to which these squads succeeded is, in part, what scholars debate when they tally the war deaths. Low estimates, like Iraq Body Count’s, put civilians killed at just over 200,000. One research team determined some “half million deaths in Iraq could be attributable to the war.” Physicians for Social Responsibility concluded “that the war has, directly or indirectly, killed around 1 million people in Iraq,” plus 300,000 more in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Iraqis surviving the inferno confronted a range of nightmares. The UN “reported that over 4.4 million Iraqis were internally displaced, and an additional 264,100 were refugees abroad,” for example. US forces dealt with Iraqi prisoners– 70-90% of whom were “arrested by mistake”– by “arranging naked detainees in a pile and then jumping on them;” “breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees;” and “forcing groups of male detainees to masturbate themselves,” to list some of the ways we imparted, with the approval of top Bush administration officials, democratic principles.
Then there are the generations of future Iraqis in bomb-battered cities: Fallujah, Basra. In the former, “the reported increases in cancer and infant mortality…are alarmingly high”– perhaps “worse than Hiroshima”– while “birth defects…reached in 2010 unprecedented numbers.” In the same vein, “a pattern of increase in congenital birth defects” plagues Basra, and “many suspect that pollution created by the bombardment of Iraqi cities has caused the current birth defect crisis in that country.”
This bombardment began decades before 2003, it’s crucial to clarify. We can recall UN Under-Secretary-General Martti Ahtisaari’s mission to Baghdad after Operation Desert Storm. He and his team were familiar with the literature on the bombings, he wrote in March 1991, “fully conversant with media reports regarding the situation in Iraq,” but realized upon arrival “that nothing that we had seen or read had quite prepared us for the particular form of devastation”– “near-apocalyptic”– “which has now befallen the country,” condemning it “to a pre-industrial age” for the foreseeable future. This was the scale of ruin when the UN Security Council imposed sanctions. The measures were “at every turn shaped by the United States,” whose “consistent policy” was “to inflict the most extreme economic damage possible on Iraq.”
The policy was, in this respect, a ripping success. The UN estimated in 1995 that the sanctions had murdered over a half-million children– “worth it,” Madeleine Albright said– one factor prompting two successive UN Humanitarian Coordinators in Iraq to resign. Denis Halliday thought the sanctions “criminally flawed and genocidal;” Hans von Sponeck agreed, citing evidence of “conscious violation of human rights and humanitarian law on the part of governments represented in the Security Council, first and foremost those of the United States and the United Kingdom.”
Eliminating hundreds of thousands of starving children was just the prequel to the occupation– “the biggest cultural disaster since the descendants of Genghis Khan destroyed Baghdad in 1258,” in one writer’s judgment. But try to find more than a handful of commentators reflecting on any of these issues on this dark anniversary. Instead, silence shows the deep US capacity for forgetting.