The West’s Decades Long Destruction of Iraq

Louis Allday (@louis_allday) 12/08/2016

Iraq has been under virtually continuous attack by the West for a period spanning almost three decades. After the First Gulf War in 1990 – in which an estimated 100,000-200,000 Iraqis were killed[i] – until the invasion of 2003, the country was subjected to a brutal program of sanctions enforced by the UN’s Security Council. These economic and trade sanctions, imposed primarily at the instigation of the US and the UK, were so destructive that more than one of the UN officials appointed to administer them resigned in protest. In 1998, Denis Halliday, then the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq and the man responsible for overseeing the sanctions, resigned from his post in disgust stating that he could no longer be complicit in the crimes of the “sustained genocidal sanctions” that were being imposed on the “innocent of Iraq”.[ii]

In 1995, three years before Halliday’s resignation, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that the sanctions had already caused the death of over 550,000 Iraqi children through severe malnourishment, lack of access to medication and a general decline in the country’s healthcare facilities.[iii] Subsequently, Madeline Albright, then US Ambassador to the UN, was asked the following on US television: “We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. …is the price worth it?” Albright’s response, which can be watched here, is chilling. Rather than dispute the figure or attempt to deflect the question, Albright replied bluntly “we think the price is worth it”. When he resigned, Halliday wrote that the sanctions were “destroying an entire society” and were “a deliberate policy that has effectively killed well over a million individuals”.[iv] Halliday’s replacement, Hans von Sponeck, also resigned from his post, remarking that the sanctions had created a “true human tragedy”.[v] In addition to the hundreds and thousands of deaths, Iraqi society was decimated; within two years of the sanctions being enforced, unemployment had risen to over 50 percent (Iraq previously had full employment), while inflation skyrocketed and personal income reached the lowest in the world.[vi]

According to the UN Security Council, the aim of the sanctions program was the eradication of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, but in reality it was used to block the importation of all manner of vital goods into Iraq, including medical supplies such as diphtheria and yellow fever vaccines for children. An Iraqi doctor commented “it is like torture. We see children die from the kind of cancers from which, given the right treatment, there is a good recovery rate”.[vii] Journalist Patrick Cockburn witnessed a child dying in a hospital in Baghdad simply due to a lack of oxygen bottles.[viii] Scott Ritter, a former Senior UN Weapons Inspector in Iraq, has stated that by 1998, Iraq’s chemical weapons infrastructure “had been completely dismantled or destroyed by UNSCOM (the UN inspections body) or by Iraq in compliance with our mandate”, its biological weapons programme was “gone, all the major facilities eliminated” and its nuclear weapons programme was “completely eliminated”. Ritter summed up by saying “If I had to quantify Iraq’s threat, I would say [it is] zero.”[ix]

In 2000, John Pilger, one of the few journalists who reported on the impact of the sanctions in detail, travelled to Iraq with Halliday in order to see the devastation for himself. While there, Pilger spoke with Anupama Rao Singh, then UNICEF’s Senior Representative in Iraq. Singh’s description of what she had witnessed during her time in the country gives an idea of the sheer scale of the destruction that was caused by the sanctions:

“The change in 10 years is unparalleled, in my experience. In 1989, the literacy rate was 95%; and 93% of the population had free access to modern health facilities. Parents were fined for failing to send their children to school. The phenomenon of street children or children begging was unheard of. Iraq had reached a stage where the basic indicators we use to measure the overall well-being of human beings, including children, were some of the best in the world. Now it is among the bottom 20%. In 10 years, child mortality has gone from one of the lowest in the world, to the highest”[x]

It is clear that Halliday’s description of the sanctions as “genocidal” is the appropriate terminology.

In addition to the sanctions, throughout this period Iraq was also subjected to almost daily bombing raids in what became the longest Anglo-American bombing campaign since the Second World War. Ostensibly, these raids were carried out to enforce the no-fly-zones in the north and south of the country which had been put in place following the end of the First Gulf War. Yet large numbers of Iraqi civilians were killed in the strikes. In 2000, Pilger pointed to a UN Security Sector report that stated in one five-month period of air attacks, 41 per cent of victims killed had been “civilians in civilian targets: villages, fishing jetties, farmland and vast, treeless valleys where sheep graze”.

It is important to remember that all of this destruction and death occurred before the invasion of 2003, an invasion that was based on the falsehood that Iraq still possessed weapons of mass destruction and the repeated – and wholly false – insinuations that its government was somehow linked to the 9/11 attacks. After the invasion, during which tens of thousands of Iraqi combatants and civilians were killed, the US military began its occupation of the country. During this occupation, a fresh wave of atrocities was committed against the people of Iraq. In the now infamous Abu Ghraib prison, US soldiers committed unspeakable outrages against Iraqi detainees including widespread sexual abuse, torture with dogs and the rape of young male detainees.[xi] Other detainees were force-fed pork and alcohol.[xii] Many of these nightmarish scenes were documented in photographic and video evidence.[xiii]

The massacre of Iraqi civilians at the hands of US soldiers was also a frequent occurrence. In one of the most infamous, the Haditha killings, a group of US Marines killed 24 unarmed civilians in a rampage that went on for hours; one of the victims was a 76-year-old amputee in a wheelchair who was holding a copy of the Qur’an.[xiv] The story of the Haditha killings was not unique; just a few days after it had become public, US forces rounded up, handcuffed and shot to death eleven civilians in a house in Ishaqi near Balad, a town 50 miles north of Baghdad. This group of victims included many women and children, ranging from a 75-year-old woman to a six-month-old child. A report by the US military cleared the perpetrators of any wrongdoing.[xv]

A dossier of US Army documents released by WikiLeaks contains details of hundreds of incidents in which Iraqi civilians were killed by US troops.[xvi] The dossier, that covers the period January 2004 until December 2009 (so does not include the initial onslaught of the invasion in 2003), revealed that an additional 15,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed in incidents not previously reported by the US. Those killed included civilians murdered at checkpoints, on Iraq’s roads and during US Army raids in to their homes.

In 2004, the US military carried out two massive sieges of the city of Fallujah in which it used enormous quantities of depleted uranium ammunition, as well as white phosphorous shells. Aside from the immediate destructive impact on the city and the thousands of Iraqis killed in the US military’s operations, the use of this radioactive ammunition has left a terrible legacy. Fallujah now suffers from extremely high rates of cancer and birth defects, higher even than those experienced by the population of Hiroshima.[xvii] One of the authors of a medical study entitled ‘Cancer, Infant Mortality and Birth Sex-Ratio in Fallujah, Iraq 2005–2009’[xviii] has stated that Fallujah now has “the highest rate of genetic damage in any population ever studied”.[xix]

According to a report in the medical journal, The Lancet, by 2006, over 650,000 Iraqis had been killed since the invasion of March 2003.[xx] Despite this enormous death toll and the manifold horrors to which Iraq has been subjected, of which the above are merely examples, a deeply ingrained and powerful belief that “we” ultimately remain the “good guys” endures amongst the Western public at large. Even when it is criticised, the 2003 invasion is often referred to as a ‘mistake’ or a ‘miscalculation’ rather than the savage war crime that it so transparently was. As observed by Harold Pinter in his 2005 Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

The invasion of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law. The invasion was an arbitrary military action inspired by a series of lies upon lies and gross manipulation of the media and therefore of the public; an act intended to consolidate American military and economic control of the Middle East masquerading – as a last resort – all other justifications having failed to justify themselves – as liberation. A formidable assertion of military force responsible for the death and mutilation of thousands and thousands of innocent people. We have brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, innumerable acts of random murder, misery, degradation and death to the Iraqi people and call it ‘bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East’.

As alluded to by Pinter in the passage above, it is important to remember that the war on Iraq can only be considered a failure if one misunderstands the nature of US imperialism. The invasion caused the destruction of a state that was regionally influential and had maintained a largely state-owned economy. Following the invasion, Iraq’s military was disbanded, its economy privatised, the currency of its oil payments switched back from the Euro to the Dollar (Iraq had switched to the Euro in 2000 much to the chagrin of the US)[xxi], its labour laws re-written and numerous highly lucrative oil and reconstruction contracts awarded to Western firms. Post-invasion, Iraq is now a weak, fragmented state that is too bogged down in its own internal divisions to project power regionally or to resist the wholesale privatisation of its economy to the benefit of global capitalist interests. The invasion also had the added benefit of justifying a hugely increased US military budget as well as serving as a spectacular demonstration of US power as a warning to other states. Critics that speak of “insufficient planning” disguise the fact that the invasion was not an ill-conceived but largely benevolent mission intended to install democracy, but rather the intentional obliteration of an enemy state. A similar fate has more recently befallen Libya, which since the NATO intervention of 2011, has been transformed from the most developed country in Africa by virtually every measure of the UN Human Development Index into a nightmarish failed state with no central government.

The genocide that was inflicted upon Iraq before 2003 is now largely ignored or forgotten altogether by the media and in the consciousness of much of the Western public. Despite the overwhelming evidence that the West has committed war crimes enormous in scale, there remains an inherent reluctance or inability to view violence that is committed by forces that we identify as “our own” as being comparable to that of ISIS and other terrorist groups (the West’s direct culpability in the rise of these groups, a continuation of its attack on the Iraqi state, is a topic for another article). Sadly, as long as we have a media that is completely subservient to power and merely regurgitates the establishment’s talking points uncritically; it is likely that this ingrained illusion of Western benevolence, or at best, alleged incompetence, will remain firmly in place.

























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