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‘On This Day’ 2003: US-Led Invasion and Occupation of Iraq Begins

shock and awe

On March 19, 2003, the United States led a dubious invasion of Iraq, beginning an eight-year occupation that would topple a longtime dictator but bring death and destruction on a staggering scale to a proud and ancient nation.

The invasion was a foregone conclusion long before 9/11. High-ranking members of George W. Bush’s cabinet admitted as much; treasury secretary Paul O’Neil confessed that the decision to oust Iraqi dictator and former US ally Saddam Hussein was made within days of the president’s January 2001 inauguration without any debate. The neoconservative hawks who would come to dominate Bush’s bellicose foreign policy in the post-9/11 era had already drawn up plans for US global domination which included Hussein’s ouster, but it would take, in their own words, a “lucky” catastrophe “[like] Pearl Harbor” to drum up popular support for war. On 9/11, the neocons’ prayers were answered. “The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today,” Bush declared, calling the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people “a great opportunity.” Leading administration figures zeroed in on Iraq, even though there was zero evidence that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with 9/11. That seemed to matter little, for President Bush declared that “God” told him to “end the tyranny in Iraq.”

A few months earlier, Vice President Dick Cheney had convened a task force of major oil companies and corporate executives (including disgraced Enron chairman Kenneth Lay) that pored over maps of Iraqi oil fields and petroleum infrastructure with an eye toward exploiting this vast wealth. Cheney, who made millions helping Saddam Hussein earn a billion dollars by illegally exporting oil in violation of United Nations sanctions, was a staunch advocate of regime change since long before 9/11. Powerful conservative voices called for waging “total war” beyond Iraq, with some even calling for the seizure of Saudi oil fields and the occupation of Mecca. So-called liberals were also shamefully complicit; Congress sidestepped the Constitution and voted to grant Bush sweeping powers to wage war against whoever he chose.

But how to sell such a war to a doubtful world? Bush administration officials ginned up tales of non-existent weapons of mass destruction, knowing quite well that Hussein had given up on WMDs years earlier. Despite UN nuclear inspectors finding no firm evidence of WMDs in Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell dutifully yet doubtfully addressed the UN, making the case for war by citing “the gravity of the threat that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction pose to the world.” Powell, by the way, later said he was “devastated” by the “painful” experience of delivering that dubious address.

A compliant—some say complicit—corporate mainstream media parroted administration talking points and outright lies, stoking war fever among a public still seething from the horrors of 9/11. It mattered very little that Saddam Hussein and Iraq had nothing whatsoever to do with the attacks on New York and Washington.

Once the mighty American juggernaut had geared up for war, there was no turning back. The overwhelming majority of humanity was against the imminent war; millions took to the streets in massive anti-war protests on every continent. In San Francisco, at least 200,000 people (out of a population of 800,000) virtually shut down the city’s core in a massive peace demonstration. But none of this mattered. The date for the invasion—which was initially called Operation Iraqi Liberation (O.I.L.)—was set for March 19. Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was among those who believed Iraqis would welcome invaders as liberators, predicted a quick and easy war, with US troops home within a few months. First Lady Barbara Bush dismissed concerns about Iraqi civilian casualties as “not relevant” or worthy of wasting her “beautiful mind” worrying about. Top Bush economic policy adviser Lawrence Lindsey predicted that the war would cost $200 billion annually; Rumsfeld called his estimate “baloney” and Lindsey was soon fired. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard professor Linda Bilmes forecast that the war would cost more than $2 trillion. They were right.

Operation Iraqi Liberation—renamed Operation Iraqi Freedom—began in the dark of night. One of the first actions of the war involved a Navy SEAL raid on two offshore oil platforms. The New York Times hailed this “victory in the battle for Iraq’s vast oil empire.” Shortly thereafter, coalition forces moved to capture oil fields and offshore oil platforms in southern Iraq. When US troops arrived in Baghdad, the first site they secured was the Oil Ministry headquarters. Meanwhile, the Iraqi National Museum, which housed priceless artifacts spanning Mesopotamia’s 5,000 year history, was pillaged as US troops stood by and did nothing. “Stuff happens,” shrugged Rumsfeld.

As Baghdad fell and the invasion became an occupation, more stuff happened. Thousands of Iraqis were imprisoned. US commanders, as well as international human rights organizations, agreed that the vast majority—up to 90 percent—of Iraqi prisoners were innocent. But innocent or not, they were often subjected to horrific human rights abuses. Children were wrongfully imprisoned. Women were jailed and held as bargaining chips in attempts to coerce wanted male relatives to surrender to coalition forces. Some of these women were raped. Men, and sometimes boys, were also raped. Many prisoners died while in American custody, with US medical staff officially listing dozens of their deaths as ‘homicides.’ Some detainees were tortured to death. This mistreatment went far beyond Abu Ghraib, and US-backed Iraqi authorities committed so many abuses that the UN declared torture was worse in ‘liberated’ Iraq than it was during Saddam Hussein’s rule.

Horrific atrocities occurred regularly during the course of the war. Men, women, children and the elderly were killed by the thousands. During the battles for Fallujah, US troops indiscriminately shot and killed civilians as well as wounded and unarmed prisoners. Whole families were killed in cold blood. Hideously disfiguring white phosphorous and radioactive depleted uranium munitions were used in densely-populated areas; a massive spike in grotesque birth defects has been blamed on the use of DU rounds. Unexploded cluster bomblets littered the nation, killing and maiming many, especially children, who came across them later.

Too many US troops murderedraped, tortured, looted and humiliated the Iraqis living under their occupation. Yes, the vast majority of American men and women in uniform performed their jobs with professionalism and as much dignity as an occupation allows. But thousands did not, and their crimes overshadowed any good deeds committed by the invaders.

Eventually, US troops captured Saddam Hussein. But by then, Iraq had descended into chaos as the long-dominant Sunni minority’s power was challenged and usurped by Iran-backed Shia strongmen. Brutal Shia militias like the Badr Brigades settled scores with shocking barbarism, with US officials supervising fighters who tortured and murdered with impunity.

By 2006, three years after President Bush declared America’s “mission accomplished” in Iraq, even top administration officials were calling the conflict there a “civil war” as thousands of US troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis perished and the nation was reduced to smoldering ruins. The war caused the worst refugee crisis in the history of the Middle East, with one out of every seven Iraqis fleeing to neighboring countries, where many live in squalid conditions. An estimated 50,000 Iraqi women and girls who fled the horrors of their homeland have turned to prostitution to survive.

Despite being promised freedom and democracy, those who remained in Iraq faced a hellish existence in which survival was the most pressing concern. Religious minorities, which had enjoyed a high level of protection during Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, were particularly devastated, with Christians becoming the target of genocidal violence and Jews, who once thrived in Iraq, reduced to seven or eight individuals in Baghdad. The Iraqi government installed by the United States banned collective bargaining, deployed troops to crush strikers, arrested union leaders and did nothing in the face of escalating murders of trade unionists.

While much of Iraq’s once-excellent infrastructure was reduced to rubble, with ongoing water and power shortages and deplorable sanitation conditions throughout much of the country, US corporations with close ties to the Bush administration landed billions of dollars in no-bid contracts, mostly to reconstruct Iraq’s oil infrastructure to allow for foreign exploitation of the nation’s immense petroleum resources. Some of these companies failed to complete projects for which they were paid enormous sums, others did shoddy work, still others endangered troops with defective equipment or even knowingly poisoned American troops. Some contractors turned to human trafficking to provide cheap labor. At least $8 billion of the $60 billion spent rebuilding Iraq was wasted.

The military-industrial complex literally made a killing from the war. While more than 5,000 coalition troops and well over 100,000 Iraqi civilians lost their lives during the course of the eight-year conflict, corporations made billions in profits. Former Halliburton subsidiary KBR alone raked in $39.5 billion in Iraq-related contracts over the past decade.

Meanwhile, the people of Iraq—and many of the American and coalition troops who liberated them—continue to suffer terribly. Baghdad has become one of the world’s most dangerous cities. Iraqi life expectancy has fallen; infant mortality has skyrocketed. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Unemployment is rampant. So is corruption. Transparency International ranks Iraq as the 169th-most corrupt of 176 surveyed nations.

US veterans of the war also suffer from very high rates of PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and loss of limbs. In addition to the injuries suffered in battle, American troops have also had to deal with involuntary deployment extensions, shortened turnaround times between deployments, and an overstressed VA system that has often been unable to keep up with the flood of troops and veterans in need of care. Sadly, Republican lawmakers have repeatedly voted against veterans’ health, housing and employment efforts despite 10 percent veteran unemployment,  growing Iraq veteran homelessness and rising suicide. Veterans aren’t only harming themselves; incidents of domestic violence and murder have also soared.

These are the costs of a war that didn’t have to happen, an unwise and ill-planned adventure based on imperial hubris, deception and outright lies. The United States and Iraq will be dealing with the costs of this war of choice for a very long time. Time will tell what blowback and other unintended consequences America will suffer as a result of invading and occupying an ancient and proud Muslim nation. One cannot kill tens of thousands of people while laying waste to a nation and expect no retaliation. But while America waits to see what sort of Iraq emerges from the dust and rubble, the violence continues. On this, the 10th anniversary of the start of the war, at least 65 people were killed across the country in a wave of insurgent bomb attacks. Dark new forces are rising in Iraq that one day soon may draw US forces back into battle there. War without end—such is the legacy of America’s attempt to “spread democracy” with bombs, bullets and bombast.

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