The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which completed two decades on March 20, represents the starkest example of the grave consequences of unilateral military intervention in another country. The invasion and the chaos unleashed in its aftermath not only caused large-scale death (over one million Iraqis by some estimates) and destruction, but also led to the creation of a highly unpopular ruling establishment.
It is now widely believed that control over the country’s natural oil and gas reserves was the real objective behind the US’ unilateral move in Iraq. However, the US administration of George Bush, under which the invasion took place, made every effort to portray it as a necessary step for global security and the promotion of democracy.
The results were disastrous for Iraqis. A war of resistance was followed by sectarian conflicts, which ultimately culminated in the rise of Islamic State or ISIS. The invasion of Iraq resulted in a never-ending series of violent events that are still continuing today. Amidst this prolonged chaos, the day-to-day problems of around 40 million Iraqis—poverty, unemployment, health, and others such concerns—have not been addressed.
Real objectives of the war
The US-led invasion was based on a completely baseless claim of Iraq posing a threat to global security with its stocks of hidden “weapons of mass destruction.” This assertion was made on the basis of the military and economic might of the US and its hegemonic control over the means of propaganda.
Despite the United Nations not agreeing with the US push for a military intervention, it decided to act unilaterally, coercing its Western allies to join the war that was deemed necessary for promoting their notions of “democracy” and dealing with the growing menace of “global terrorism.”
In actual terms, the war was meant to establish US hegemony over resources, namely Iraqi oil. The claims of ensuring global security were busted when US forces could not find any hidden weapons of mass destruction, even after completely occupying the country.
Revelations about Abu Ghraib and later exposés by WikiLeaks showed the real face of the mission to ‘restore democracy and human rights’ in Iraq. Wikileaks exposed the use of torture as a means to extract information in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, the extrajudicial killings of innocent civilians, and the billions of dollars in windfall gains made by the US military-industrial complex from the war.
In the initial years of its occupation, while devising a new system of governance in Iraq, the US supported, generally against the popular will, leaders considered to be sympathetic to its interests in the country and in the region. This gave birth to a political elite without any popular roots, and intensified sectarian divisions and conflicts within the country. In an ironic and unintended consequence, the US bungling led to the emergence of Iran as a key player in Iraqi politics.
At the same time, the continued violence provided a perfect opportunity for the US and its allies to reinforce their military presence in Iraq, after withdrawing them for a brief period.
Implications for common Iraqis
Apart from the fact that the US-led invasion in 2003 and the spiral of wars and violent conflict that ensued caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and displaced over nine million people, it also caused larger, long-term structural problems affecting the entire population.
Iraq is a rich country in terms of natural resources and was one of the largest producers and exporters of oil before sanctions crippled its economy in 1991-92. Even after two decades of the invasion and the lifting of those crippling sanctions, as per the official data, millions of Iraqis—almost a quarter of the population—today live below the poverty line. This rate is rising despite a growth in national income in recent times. Unemployment, particularly among educated youth, is one of the major concerns.
The so-called democracy visualized in the 2005 constitution created under the occupation has not taken root. The US attempts to plant and nurture rootless politicians who had lived in exile for generations and were ready to serve its interest without question, such as Nouri al-Maliki, who remained prime minister for almost a decade and still enjoys power, is considered as one of the primary reasons for this fiasco. Maliki is widely considered to be one of the leaders who pushed a sectarian agenda while in power.
In the popular perception, corrupt and inefficient leadership thrives in Iraq primarily due to the Muhasasa system introduced under the occupation forces as a tool for sectarian representation and power sharing. For Iraqis, half of whom were born after the war, the sectarian quota provides the basis for clientelism and nepotism.
The Tishreen movement of 2019-21 represents this generational shift in Iraqi society, with an almost complete rejection of the existing political elite, considered puppets of the US and other international and regional players. The people’s apathy towards the current political system was also witnessed in their refusal to participate in the last national elections held in October 2021.