15 Years After U.S. Invasion, Iraqis Still Face Trauma, Destruction & Violence

It was 15 years ago today when the U.S. invaded Iraq on the false pretense that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. The attack came despite worldwide protest and a lack of authorization from the United Nations Security Council. At around 5:30 a.m. in Baghdad on March 20, 2003, air raid sirens were heard as the U.S. invasion began. The fighting has yet to end, and the death toll may never be known. Conservative estimates put the Iraqi civilian death toll at 200,000. But some counts range as high as 2 million. In 2006, the British medical journal Lancet estimated 600,000 Iraqis died in just the first 40 months of the war. The U.S. has also lost about 4,500 soldiers in Iraq. Just last week, seven U.S. servicemembers died in a helicopter crash in western Iraq near the Syrian border. The war in Iraq has also destabilized much of the Middle East. Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others have directly blamed the U.S. invasion of Iraq for the rise of ISIS.

Zahra Ali talking:

first of all, I would like to say, you know, that as a daughter of an Iraqi political exile family, who grew up in France, I refuse—I was 16 years old at the time of the war, and I refuse this false dilemma: Either you oppose the regime, either you oppose the war. You know, I opposed the regime, and we had to flee Iraq because of the authoritarian regime, and also I got involved in the antiwar movement in France.

And also, we have to name the war. We have to name it as, you know, a criminal war. And we have to define it as, you know, the very operation of the destruction of Iraq as a functioning state and society.

And this operation has started before 2003, has started in ’91. I mean, if we talk about U.S. interferences in the region, and in Iraq, in particular, we can go back to the ’60s. But at least for this specific operation, we have to talk about ’91, the U.S.-led coalition bombing, a criminal bombing, devastating bombings, of Iraq, that were described as, you know, surgical strikes, but that targeted water and electricity supplies, bridges, schools, hospitals, and left the country in a humanitarian crisis. And then, after this terrible situation, the imposition of the U.N. sanctions, you know, that were terrible for the Iraqi population and that were very much initiated and pushed by the U.S. administration of the time.

So, a country that needed to be reconstructed was plunged into a deep humanitarian crisis that destroyed its middle class, weakened, to an extreme level, its state institutions and infrastructure. So, we had, before the sanction, a free and strong education system, a good healthcare system—so, a functioning state. And then, so this is the situation, you know, that characterized Iraq in 2003, when the invasion happened. So, the Iraqi society had already been brutalized by decades of wars and by the normalization of political violence, of course, you know, the repression of all the different uprising of the population in the north and in the south, and social, economic and humanitarian crisis.

And I want to say that, you know, the U.S. invasion exacerbated the situation, this crisis, to its extreme, first of all, in destroying what was left of the state, its institutions and services that provide basic human needs to the society, that makes a functioning society—so, access to running water, electricity, a welfare state. And it was done through what was called the de-Baathification campaign, so that disbanded the army and part of the administrative basis of the regime.

And also, something that is very important and that we have to, you know, remind ourselves, to understand what is going on today—you know, the rise of ISIS, etc.—is that the U.S. administration created a political system based on what I call in my research ethno-sectarian quota. In other words, this is to say that the U.S. administration has institutionalized racism in Iraq. So it has created a political regime that relies on communal-based identity. So, in Iraq, in 2003—since 2003, you are not just a political leader defined by your belief, your political beliefs, or as—I don’t know—a communist, a nationalist, an Islamist. You are an Arab political leader, a Kurdish political leader, a Sunni, a Shia or Christian political leader. And this really is at the core of what, you know, provoked the social, ethnic and sectarian fragmentation and the sectarian war in the country.

As well, we have to say that the U.S. administration brought to power a political elite that, you know, had mainly lived in exile since—for example, for some of them, since the ’80s, so very much disconnected with the realities on the ground. And even for those political exiles who had some legitimacy, some political legitimacy, inside the country, I mean, they have less legitimacy, because they have proved to be extremely sectarian, extremely conservative and extremely corrupted, as well.

Sami Rasouli talking:

15 years, and the immeasurable tragedy continues to unfold, while disasters and adversity keeps trapping us under things, asking whether we have learned anything from that tragedy.

Well, George Bush was one of the worst presidents, but yet, today, some people think what we have currently is really bad, and George Bush, in comparison, better.

So, Iraq entered in a tunnel in 2003 with no light at the end, from the invasion to occupation to sectarianism, then terrorism, ISIS, and we should not forget about Iranian expansion in Iraq. While just recently some partial solution the Kurds and Arabs reached, otherwise we’ve gone in another tunnel of conflict between the north and the south.

We do know Iraq is right now going in a decrease of education level, healthcare quality. Security, the worst in the world, Iraq is considered, because borders are widely open. The Iraqi Army is not yet capable to keep Iraq safe. There are many military bases, have been built by the U.S. And it’s still building, increasing, from, I believe, last year seven, now we have about 12.

So, unfortunately, Iraqi people are paying heavily a price. But we’re not going to continue to cry about what’s going on. Our Muslim Peacemaker Teams been working since 2005 now in a form of outreach and advocacy for peace and promoting the principles of peacebuilding throughout the country between all factions, regardless whether they are Kurds, Arabs, Sunni, Shia, Muslims or Christians.

Right now, we are hosting two Americans—from New Jersey, Mr. Mettler [phon.], and from Wisconsin, Miss Strobel [phon.]—who are helping in a project that MPT, Muslim Peacemaker Teams, started last October, by inviting Americans to meet Iraqis. And the project is called English for Reconciliation. I started this school, as I said, about six months ago, trying to bring from so-called infidels from the West to meet so-called terrorists in the east of Iraq mainly, according to the American mainstream media, to meet around a roundtable, break bread together, seeing the eyes. And they found out nothing of that nonsense is true. They are nothing but brother and sister, meeting, belonging to the same human race, and striking agreement by establishing lasting friendship that’s based on respect, mutual understanding and trust,

Zahra Ali talking:

depleted uranium was used in Fallujah. And, you know, it was a criminal war. It was a dirty war, as well.

And the effect for the Iraqi population, in Fallujah and elsewhere, is actually—you know, it goes even through generations, you know, when you think of the use of all the chemicals, etc. And we are still—I mean, perhaps, you know, U.S. soldiers can go back to their country, but we are still in the middle of the war. We live, you know, the war. And I don’t know any Iraqi household, including my household, that hasn’t been directly affected by a form of violence, you know, that hasn’t witnessed a car explosion, that hasn’t lost a member of their family. I mean, it’s the current reality.

And now, when you think about the invasion of ISIS and the very militarization of the society and the militarization of the public spaces—so, for example, if you take Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, I mean, we have to have this image in mind when we talk about it, is the capital is divided, fragmented by checkpoints and concrete walls, you know, that divide the neighborhoods according to sectarian, religious, ethnic belongings. So, even—and I talk about it when I talk about women and human rights, in general, in my research in Iraq. When you want to circulate in Baghdad, you have to, every kilometer, you know, pass through an armed male soldier, you know, a checkpoint. So, even the population of Baghdad, 65 percent of the population of Baghdad itself, you know, has been displaced, either in Baghdad or in Iraq or outside Iraq.

the Article 41 is in the Constitution. So, what happened is that, since 2003, I mean, there have been several attempts made by sectarian, conservative, Islamist parties, that came to power with the U.S. Army, to question, along sectarian line, the very basis of women’s legal rights, expressed and enacted in what is called the personal status code, so the family law, you know, that gathers all laws and legislations related to marriage, divorce, inheritance, custody—so, most of women’s legal rights. And so, the very—so, this personal status code was adopted at the end of the ’50s, in 1959, in Iraq.

And it’s very important to recall that it’s really the produce of the political culture of the time, that was dominated by the anti-imperialist left. The Iraqi personal status code, at the time, was one of the most progressive personal status codes in the region, right? And it was structured by two things: the participation of women’s rights activists in its drafting—somebody like Naziha al-Dulaimi, the first Iraqi and Arab women’s minister, you know, participated to its drafting. And the second dimension, that is very important to understand what is going on now, is that it gathered—it still gathers a Sunni and Shia, like, Muslim jurisprudence, so it has a unifying dimension. And this is, I think, the political legacy that is being questioned since 2003.

So, we had it with the Decree 137. Then, now we have it in the Article 41. But thanks to feminists, you know, women’s rights, civil society mobilization, the Article 41 is still not implemented. But still, under the name of this article, we had so many, you know, low proposition made by conservative, sectarian, Islamist parties that are in power since 2003—the Ja’fari law, for example, in 2014.

The Ja’fari law is a proposition, so that would, so, allow the existence of a family law base on the Ja’fari madhhab, so school of law. And among the things that are problematic and that represent, you know, a regressive thing for women’s rights is that it allows very informal forms of unions, in which women do not have legal protections. It can, if ever implemented, allow—like lower the age of marriage as early as 9 years old for girls. So, this is the kind of things. You know, this is the kind of questioning of women’s legal rights that is made.

But I also want to make a point here, is that we tend to approach women’s rights in a very, I think, simplistic manner, as if it was a very abstract thing, just as democracy. It’s a value, whatever. No, it is very concrete stuff, when we talk about democracy or the right to vote. And if you think of the right to vote, that is, of course, essential for women and all citizens, you also have to have the structural context that allow people to go to the voting site without being scared of being shot or kidnapped, right? And you have, for women, to have, you know, a functioning state institution, childcare, healthcare, education, access to the job market. And as well, you know, when we talk about the post-2003 situation, all the militarization had already started under the regime with the different wars in the ’80s, but now we have really rich and extreme. So militarization really defines, you know, gender norms and relations towards masculinist ways of defining malehood, and that idea that women need protection and men are the protector of women. And these are very important dimensions to keep in mind.

this terminology, all this use of this vocabulary, in the U.K., in the U.S., you know, “It was a mistake,” whatever. It was a crime. Come on. It’s a criminal war, and these people, you know, have to be judged for their crimes, right?

But also, you know, I want to say something about this narrative about democracy, etc., is that the post-2003 Iraqi regime has proven to be very anti-democratic. And when we think of the context of the invasion of ISIS and, you know, what happened around it, we have also to talk about the fact that in Iraq, despite the very terrible situation, we do have very strong social movements. We do have, you know, citizens—more recently, you know, since 2015, we have like very strong grassroots, popular movements that, you know, question the very legitimacy of the post-2003 regime, women’s rights activists, you know, involved in that movement. But the situation is that, in a way that is kind of comparable to here, is that this “war on terror” narrative is really used to justify any kind of repression, any kind of silencing, silencing of, you know, radical political activism in the country, right?

Zahra Ali
sociology professor at Rutgers University. Her forthcoming book is titled Women and Gender in Iraq: Between Nation-Building and Fragmentation.
Sami Rasouli
founder and director of the Muslim Peacemaker Teams in Iraq.

— source democracynow.org


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