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Just over fifteen years ago, somewhere between 10-15 million people took to the streets, united in their opposition to the Iraq War. Fifteen years ago, yesterday, displaying a total indifference to the protestors, and to popular democracy, the UK and US governments invaded Iraq.

In this blog, Tanzil Chowdhury remembers the ‘litany of lies, fictions and half-truths’, the crimes, and the legacies of the war in Iraq.

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Yesterday marked the 15th anniversary of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. Between 10-15 million people, in 300 different cities, reclaimed the streets of financial and political sites of power. In Rome, it was estimated that 3 million marched to oppose the nascent war, around 5% of the population. Even in Antarctica, a group of scientists at the US McMurdo base organised a rally against the impending military intervention. If there was ever anything resembling an example of universal consensus, a transcendent mandate, this was it.

The lead up to the Iraq War was besieged with a litany of lies, fictions, half-truths, and misnomers. The 2002 September Dossier, claiming Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction that were ready to be deployed in 45 minutes, was based on a Joint Intelligence Committee report that was later found out to have been ‘sexed up’. The author of the claim, Dr David Kelly, an employee of the Ministry of Defence was later found dead in the woods, with authorities claiming he had taken his own life, though many considered the Hutton Inquiry into his death a whitewash that cloaked a greater conspiracy. The United Nations attempted to kerb US and UK hawkishness but were eventually undone. Despite reservations on Iraqi compliance from the UN weapons inspectors (UNMOVIC) and its chair, Hans Blix, he would tell the UN on Valentines day 2003 that no WMDs had been found. Mohamed Elbaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency also found no evidence of ongoing prohibited nuclear-related activities in Iraq although a number of issues would remain under investigation. On 1st March, Iraq made concessions by destroying its Al-Samoud missiles. 4 days later at the UN, Germany, Russia and France, refused to draft a UN Security Council Resolution that would have authorised the use of force against Iraq. The then UK Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, informed Tony Blair that the ‘safest legal course would be to secure the adoption of a further resolution to authorise the use of force… We would need to be able to demonstrate hard evidence of [Iraqi] non-compliance and non-cooperation.’ However, 10 days later in a nauseating U-turn, the Attorney General in a meeting with top ministers, changed his legal advice saying that war would be legal without a new UNSC resolution. On the 18th March, the House of Commons voted to engage military action in a non-binding resolution and on the 19th March, 21.00 GMT, the western and southern borders of Iraq were bombed. Within hours, nearly 70 sites had been destroyed. The Lancet calculated that between 2003-2006, around 600,000 Iraqis had been killed, equivalent to 2.5% of the population, though many had estimated the total to be much higher.

iraq war 15 years on tanzil

'Bliar' visiting UK troops in Iraq.

The legal reasoning was less legal in the strict sense- based upon compliance with legal sources- and more a legitimating tool– a combination of legal, political and moral considerations which didn’t necessarily align, but were contingent on what the government was trying to do and who it was trying to persuade. Leading establishment lawyers advanced spurious arguments that attempted to enable the military intervention in Iraq such as the implied authorization or revival theory. This sought to engage old UNSC resolutions that had been passed decades earlier (in relation to 1st Iraq War in 1991 and the 1998 bombing campaign in Iraq no less), often in spite of explicit statements of limitation by the sitting UN Secretary General that the resolutions were directed to that specific conflict. Notably, in the drafting of UNSC Resolution 1441 in 2002, language was dropped from an earlier attempt, which suggested force could be used if Iraq materially breached its disarmament obligations under the resolution. Other legitimating discourses sought to engage the legal rule from the Corfu Channel Casethat self-defence under Article 51 UN Charter, could be used against a state that knowingly allowed its territory to be used by a terrorist organisations- and connect Al-Qaeda and the September 11th attacks to Iraq despite the secular Baathist regime’s violent hostility toward the group. Indeed, George Bush stated on CBS news in 2006 that ‘one of the hardest parts of my job is to connect Iraq to the war on terror.’  The Chilcot Inquiry definitively recognised that there was no connection.

When the major combat operations- the jus ad bellum– had finished on the 1st May 2003, the Shock Doctrine-style “reconstruction” of Iraq began. The US and UK established the Coalition Provisional Authority which was entrusted with temporary powers until the creation of a US-supported, democratically elected government was established. This transitional authority was headed by Paul Bremer who commenced a 3-stage process of plunder.  Firstly, ‘De-Baathfication’ removed remnants of the previous regime, including disbanding the Iraqi army and all previous public-sector workers who were affiliated with the Baath party. These 80,000-100,00 people were not only removed but barred from future employment in the public sector, many whom had associated with the party through convenience, familial inheritance or coercion. This fostered huge resentment against the CPA, many of the disgruntled ex-members of the Baath party going on to form Daesh or the so-called Islamic state. Secondly, legalized looting was sanctioned through wholesale mass privatisation of previously nationalised industries- perhaps the greatest legacy of Iraq’s plunder by western companies. Thirdly, the passing of CPA Order 17 provided Private Military Contractors with absolute immunity from accusations of murder and rape, all the while profiteering from the plunder of the former intellectual capital of the world. Of course, a strict separation from major combat operations and the reconstruction hides the most perennial legacy of the invasion of Iraq which were the conflicts that would become a normalized part of day-to-day life across the region. To use a term popularised by the World Bank, the “externalities” of the Iraq war, which don’t require detailed rehearsing here, were there for all to see in both the merciless zealots that roam the Levante and the pugnacious military arrogance of foreign military power- lazy to learn the lessons of yesterday .

Though Tony Blair has now accepted that it was the war which had a role in  producing the state of nature we see in Iraq and Syria, his articulations have been measured. This was a war that was committed to in a love memo between two war lords long before the lies upon which it was predicated were foisted upon Parliament and the public. The shock and awe invasion of the Republic of Iraq has resulted in regional destabilisation, insurgency, sectarianism, radicalisation (according to former the former MI-5 director), the plunder of its natural resources, the impunity of its architects and private military contractors, blowback, the curtailment of civil liberties, torture, a perpetual State of Exception, the stain of ‘legal black holes’, as well as a general antipathy toward ‘the West’. And though the horrors of ISIS illustrate the impact of our neo-colonial endeavours, ‘perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Iraq war many turn out to be not the rise of ISIS but the growth of what may eventually replace it’. 

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Tanzil Chowdhury is a research associate at Birmingham Law School after completing his doctorate in law at the University of Manchester. His research lies in Post-Colonial Legal Theory, Constitutionalism and the UK’s War Powers on which he has published. He has a forthcoming book exploring an innovative account of legal judgment through temporality. He also co-founded the Northern Police Monitoring Project (@npolicemonitor). @tchowdhury88.