By Jonathon Shafi
On this day 15 years ago the invasion of Iraq began. The weeks and months leading up had been dominated by worldwide protest. The evidence meant to motivate the population for war was held in disdain. People saw other, far more pressing motives. The slogan “no blood for oil” was central to the demonstrations, as a mass movement exposed something rotten about the way the global system works.
Tony Blair and George Bush reckoned on a short war, such was their overwhelming military superiority. “Operation Iraqi Freedom” began. It was to plunge the region into chaos, and impact domestic politics for years to come.
“Shock and awe” was the term coined as the bombs fell over Baghdad. This deadly fireworks display was not merely meant to pound Baghdad into submission. It was designed to send a message to the region and the world. It was the harbinger of the “new American century” as outlined by the neo-conservatives.
Yet, it turned into a quagmire in Iraq and at home. It would fill a deep well of resentment and hastened the decline of trust in British political institutions. It would undermine the cadre of politicians and leaders who had once represented the national political consensus – a consensus that would come to an end in the years ahead.
But first and foremost, the war was devastating to Iraq. It remains a scar on the moral pretentions of the anglo-american axis. Much of what actually happened has been sanitised in the West. Whatever you think you know – it is far worse.
The number of civilians dead as a result of the war ranges from The Lancet Medical Journal's650,000 figure up to a million. By 16 February 2007, António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for refugees said that the external refugee number fleeing the war reached 2 million and that within Iraq there are an estimated 1.7 million internally displaced people. It is now thought to be as much as double that number.
It is well known that the oil wells were secured and privatised. But the privatisation of Iraq doesn’t stop at oil and Haliburton. Even the seeds of Iraqi farmers were privatised and sold off to international agri-business, disrupting a centuries-old farming method.
I mention this to show the war and occupation left no Iraqi untouched. Civil society included. By April 2004 the Iraqi Association of University Teachers reported that 250 academics had been killed. By the end of 2006, according to The Independent, over 470 academics had been killed.
The Guardian reported that about 500 academics were killed just from the Universities of Baghdad and Basra alone. Little care and attention was paid to preserving the vital infrastructure of Iraq society – instead, the focus was one of domination and divide and rule.
This was revealed to the world when it became clear the extent to which torture was being committed in US run jails. The inhabitants of these jails would very often be taken from their homes, without reason or recourse.
The true extent of the torture is classified. “Copper Green” was one of several names for a US black ops program, formed with the direct approval of the then Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld whose philosophy was "Grab whom you must. Do what you want." This was the precursor to the systematic torture of Iraqis.
The law was abandoned from day one. Illegal munitions where used over civilian population centres. Infamously White Phosperous was used over Fallujah. Such was the scale of the destruction in the city that research has shown the dramatic increases in infant mortality, cancer and leukaemia exceed those reported by survivors of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
The war strategy put sectarian factions in charge of the country. This combined with the breakdown of society and widespread destruction paved the way to the rise of Isis. The scale of this disaster is incalculable and long-term.
The war sent shockwaves into the political system. It overlapped with the 2008 financial crash. Large sections of the population already deeply cynical of the political system after the war would go on to see the bailout of the banks, and then a package of brutal austerity measures that would decimate public services, and ruin living standards.
The failure of Iraq, followed by the injustice of austerity, came together in a general crisis for the legitimacy of politicians and elites. Today this crisis is only growing in momentum.
The EU referendum offered an opportunity to strike a blow against the political establishment. The arguments were led by the radical right – but they fed upon the idea that Britain had to be made “great again” after a decade and a half of powerful forces ignoring the will of the people.
The leading players in the European project from a UK perspective have been intellectually decapitated by the Iraq war. Tony Blair, Alasdair Campbell, Peter Mandelson – all of them are discredited in large part because of it.
Similarly, resentment against New Labour deeply felt in Scotland propelled the independence movement in 2014. At public meetings up and down the country, New Labour was lambasted – and every single time the critique would begin with the Iraq betrayal. An independent Scotland, argued Alex Salmond, would adopt a wholly different foreign policy, and scrap Trident into the bargain.
And of course, the Labour party itself has undergone its own revolution. Jeremy Corbyn, rooted in the anti-war movement, has marginalised Tony Blair and his cohorts in the party rank and file. The hundreds of thousands of new members understand that Iraq is a gaping wound in the party that can only be healed if it is overwhelmingly and publicly repudiated.
While Tony Blair was in the war room with Bush, Corbyn was on the streets and addressing the anti-war demonstrations. Now he leads the Labour party.
Today you will hear from some quarters that after a decade and a half it is time to move on. This is an impossibility because it continues to shape the political terrain in profound ways. And how can we simply “move on” knowing that the crimes that have been visited on the Iraqi people have not been accounted for by their perpetrators?
Those who are desperate for us to drop the question of Iraq reveal their own awareness of its continuing impact on politics. History is judging them in real time. And that is because our memories are not as short as they hope.
New Foreign Policy
New Foreign Policy will develop a fresh, radical and uncompromising position that will shape the debate in Scotland. More than that, it will impact policy makers, and seek to influence foreign policy at a UK level.
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15 years on from the invasion of Iraq, we can see the consequences. The time has long since past for a new foreign policy.
Jonathon Shafi is the Convener of New Foreign Policy