20 Years since the Invasion of Iraq: The Brutal Legacy of Imperialism

The US-led invasion of Iraq began 20 years ago. Since then, the country has been torn apart by war, sectarianism, and fundamentalism. To end the horror and barbarism of imperialism, we must fight for revolution and overthrow capitalism.

On March 19, 2003, American and British imperialists launched their murderous adventure to “free the Iraqi people.” But 20 years later, the cradle of civilization still burns. It is a graveyard to more than a million people, wrenched apart by western imperialism.

Since their ignominious retreat in 2011, the imperialists have stood aloof from their mess in Iraq. But as the “champions of the free world” today moralize about “wars for peace” and “Ukrainian democracy,” the Iraq war and its legacy exposes them as the most hypocritical, counter-revolutionary force on the planet.

Imperialism and war

With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the USA was left as the world’s sole superpower. The US imperialists believed that since they possessed unmatched economic and military power, they could assert their dominance over any corner of the globe.

With Russia descending into chaos, the US ruling class immediately began to intervene in former Soviet spheres of influence across the world. In most cases this could be done through the “normal” imperialist methods of trade and “diplomacy,” on terms favorable to the US of course.

But for any government that was unwilling to fall into line with Washington’s interests, a formidable military machine laid in wait to help persuade them otherwise. Those who were unwilling to comply, such as Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, were earmarked for intervention.

US Army (USA) Soldiers confer near a defaced mural of Saddam Hussein at the Baghdad Central Detention Facility, formerly the Abu Ghraib Prison, in Baghdad, Iraq (IRQ). (SUBSTANDARD)
For any government that was unwilling to fall into line with Washington’s interests, a formidable military machine laid in wait. / Image: The U.S. National Archives

By 1998, the USA had made “regime change” in Iraq official government policy, with the passing of the Iraq Liberation Act. The fact that Iraq possessed the world’s fifth largest oil reserves was no doubt key to their thinking.

Furthermore, the US imperialists had lost their puppet regime in Iran to revolution in 1979. Fearing the instability of the Saudi monarchy, they were looking for a new proxy to “stabilize the region” in their own interests.

With the coming to power of the Republicans in 2000 under President George W. Bush, the cogs of the American war machine were taken up a gear. All that was needed now was a pretext.

Many in Bush’s cabinet also had a direct interest in Iraq. Bush, like his father, was a former oilman. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was a board member for Chevron. And Vice President Dick Cheney, formerly the CEO of energy company Halliburton, had received a tidy $20 million retirement package from the company, which just so happened to receive the contracts for Iraq’s “reconstruction” after the invasion.

For the British imperialists, the war was a means of clinging on to their fast declining influence on the world stage. With British capitalism in long-term decline, and having lost its former empire, Britain’s role was little more than a dependent butler to American imperialism.

Lies and propaganda

With the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the USA in 2001, the imperialists found the pretext they had been waiting for. They immediately set to invading Afghanistan, and toppled the Taliban regime. By December 2001, they had installed a pro-US puppet regime.

Puffed-up by their seemingly straightforward “victory” in Afghanistan, the imperialists turned their attention to their next target: the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Washington assembled the “coalition of the willing”: a US-led alliance of western imperialists, which Tony Blair in Britain was all too keen to join. They launched a relentless propaganda campaign to justify military intervention.

911 Image Cyril Attias Flickr
With the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the USA in 2001, the imperialists found the pretext they had been waiting for. / Image: Cyril Attias, Flickr

The so-called “war on terror” seemed to them the perfect ruse in order to rally their populations behind a conflict. The fact that Al Qaeda had no operations in Iraq was dismissed as a triviality that was best not talked about.

Initially, they attempted to link Saddam to Al Qaeda and 9/11. But when this was exposed as a lie, Bush and Blair moved to banging the drum about “weapons of mass destruction” and Iraq’s “imminent threat to the free world.”

For good measure, they argued that a quick military operation would be all that would be needed to install a flourishing democracy, bringing peace and stability to the entire region.

Blair was a particularly useful asset in this, cloaking the sordid affair with his infamous “dodgy dossiers,” platitudes about “ethical foreign policy,” and a dose of Christian moralism.

For a time, America and Britain attempted to barter for a resolution from the UN security council, in order to better sell the idea of war at home by giving it the veneer of “legality.” But this was inevitably refused, the imperialists simply plowed ahead with their invasion plans regardless.

Some, including some so-called “lefts,” used this as a basis for opposing the war. But legality would not alter its reactionary imperialist character one bit.

The UN is no better than a thieves guild. Its purpose is not to uphold “world peace” or “international law,” but to negotiate between the interests of competing national groups of capitalists. But their antagonistic interests—the scramble for profits and the division of the world—restrict them to dealing only with secondary questions.

Today, all of these pretexts have been exposed as lies.

As Iraq demonstrates, the imperialists don’t wage war for “freedom” or “democracy” but to defend the domination of their national monopolies, and their endless hunger for profit. This necessitates the conquest of sources of raw materials, markets, and spheres of influence.

“Mission accomplished!”

The invasion began on March 19, 2003 with a “shock and awe” campaign by the imperialists. This decimated Saddam’s forces in a matter of weeks. By April 9, Baghdad fell; and by April 30, the invasion phase of the war was considered complete.

Bush and troops Image The U.S. National Archives
On May 1, George Bush declared “mission accomplished” from atop an aircraft carrier. Combat operations in Iraq were supposedly at an end. / Image: The U.S. National Archives

The next day, May 1, George Bush declared “mission accomplished” from atop an aircraft carrier. Combat operations in Iraq were supposedly at an end.

The US military quickly assembled the “Coalition Provisional Authority” (CPA), a colonial administration resting on the occupation forces. This gave American imperialism a free hand to open the country up to investment, including privatization of its vast oil reserves.

The CPA, employing the age-old policy of divide and rule, then proceeded to foist upon Iraq a hastily assembled “democracy,” based upon stirred up ethnic and sectarian divisions.

The iron heel of American imperialism quickly proceeded to obliterate the already crippled Iraqi state machine. They liquidated what remained of the former Iraqi army by decree, and banned anyone with former membership of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party from holding a government job. Over 100,000 were made unemployed overnight.

Barbarism and civil war

Such an arrogant smash-and-grab operation was bound to have consequences.

The artificial American puppet state was totally isolated from the population, and opposed by an armed insurgency.

At the same time, with Saddam’s former state destroyed (and its 100,000 soldiers unemployed and angered), an enormous power vacuum opened up which resulted in the country disintegrating into competing armed militias.

As in Vietnam, America was not confronted with a standing army that it could smash. Instead it faced small-scale surprise attacks, after which the perpetrators could melt into a broadly sympathetic population.

Like a machine-gunner fighting a swarm of wasps, the “allied” response—including indiscriminate bombing, torture, and white phosphorus—created massive civilian casualties, further devastating Iraq and fertilizing the soil for reaction.

As a result, the US would be mired in guerrilla warfare for the next eight years.

To hold power, the coalition balanced between religious and national divides. But inevitably this exacerbated tensions, which exploded into sectarian civil war in 2006.

At the same time, by removing Saddam’s army from power, the entire regional balance of power was shattered. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries began funding Sunni Islamic fundamentalist groups in Iraq, as a counterweight to the growing influence of Iran.

After America’s retreat in 2011, Iraq was left a battleground of reactionary Islamists and intriguing regional powers.

Ironically, Al Qaeda had no foothold in Iraq before the war. But it easily germinated amidst the ruins, evolving into the monstrous caliphate of ISIL.

The chickens were again coming home to roost for the USA. Al Qaeda had developed from the Mujahideen, which was funded and trained by US imperialism to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Now history was repeating itself.

To clean up its own mess, the US-led coalition re-intervened between 2014 and 2020. Although ISIL’s territory was eventually broken up, the contagion had by this time spread into neighboring Syria.

The aftermath

History has drawn the balance sheet on the Iraq war.

In total, it is estimated to have cost the US at least $1.9 trillion dollars, and the lives of 4,614 soldiers.

In return, Iraq was left with over one million dead, 9.2 million displaced, a 25% poverty rate, 14% unemployment, and most of its infrastructure destroyed.

Presiding over the rubble is a puppet in the service of America and Iran, two of the most counterrevolutionary regimes on the planet.

The imperialists have made a bloody mess and called it “democracy.” It is therefore no surprise that there is even some nostalgia for the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, who killed a relatively smaller 250,000 in his 25-year rule.

By attempting to demonstratively crush an insubordinate power, America and Britain in Iraq—as in Afghanistan—jumped into a bear trap with both feet. Far from implanting a healthy regime, they opened up a Pandora’s Box of barbarism, and trapped themselves in an unwinnable war.

Such a costly and protracted blunder, carried out with brazenly predatory aims, had far reaching political consequences.

By the time of the Syrian civil war, western imperialism was unable to intervene as before, facing immense war fatigue on the home front. Public support for the Iraq war collapsed, as the lies were revealed, and the bodies piled up. It spelled the beginning of the end of Bush and New Labour, who both only clung to power for lack of an alternative.

In Ukraine, Britain is playing the role of a madly yapping chihuahua, largely ignored by Washington and the other major powers. / Image: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, Flickr

Most importantly, it exposed the real limits of America’s hegemony. Though still an unmatched colossus on the world stage, it is overstretched and unable to impose its will everywhere at the same time.

Across the world, and most significantly in Ukraine, it faces emboldened regional powers, able to balance between the multiple poles of the new, crisis-ridden world order.

Though America has been pushed back, it has not drawn any of the lessons. Today, in pursuit of its short-term aim of weakening Russian imperialism, it is sowing the seeds for barbarism and reaction. For example, by arming and training fascist paramilitaries in Ukraine, sooner or later this will come back to haunt them, as with the Mujahideen.

For Britain, the affair was but one in a string of humiliations, beginning with the Suez crisis, reflecting its long decline from global empire to insignificance.

Iraq was British imperialism’s last serious intervention. In Ukraine, it is playing the role of a madly yapping chihuahua, largely ignored by Washington and the other major powers.

The British military itself has since deteriorated, and, with depleted ranks and obsolete equipment, has been termed a “hollow force” in “a dire state.” According to a US general, it is “no longer able to defend the UK and its allies.”

Mass movements

The working class did not sit idly by as all this was going on. The build up to war provoked one of the biggest mobilizations of all time, with 55 million people taking to the streets globally.

The broad sweep of this movement, however, was also a source of weakness. In Britain, the Stop the War Coalition bound together trade unionists and socialists with liberals and religious groups, all under an empty slogan intended not to scare any of them away: “peace.”

But there can be no peace on the basis of capitalism. Unless a mass movement of the working class disarms the ruling class, which has a material interest in these intermittent slaughters, then the imperialists will simply close their windows, shut out the noise from demonstrations, and continue with their plunder.

Years later saw the outbreak of the “Arab Spring” in 2011. This gave a glimpse of the potential for the masses of the Middle East to take power into their own hands.

London anti war demo Image William M. Connolley Wikimedia Commons
The build up to war provoked one of the biggest mobilizations of all time, with 55 million people taking to the streets globally. / Image: William M. Connolley, Wikimedia Commons

This was a revolutionary movement which, cutting through sectarian divisions, swept through the Arab world like wildfire, toppling a number of dictators, and even spilling into Iraq.

But without a revolutionary party putting forward a clear socialist program, these uprisings were ultimately derailed.

Similar movements will inevitably emerge in the years ahead, however, on a higher level, as the crisis of capitalism deepens.

Socialist revolution

The Iraq war will go down in history as a brutal lesson on the hypocrisy and cynicism of imperialism.

While the imperialists shout about “defending democracy,” and respecting “national sovereignty,” in reality they are only concerned with naked self interest, without scruple as to the means.

“Regime change” is not the task of American or British troops, but of the working masses and the poor. For workers in the West—our main enemy is at home!

Only by taking power out of the hands of the parasites responsible for this horrific crusade can genuine and lasting peace be achieved.

Rather than creating a hell on earth, as imperialism has across the planet, the socialist revolution will open the way for a paradise in this world, by expropriating the vast resources squandered under capitalism and harnessing them in the interests of humanity.

Only on this basis can the deep divisions and wounds in Iraq be healed, and the monstrous legacy of imperialism be buried once and for all.

Timeline

  • 1991–1992: US launches First Gulf War against Iraq
  • October 31, 1998: USA passes Iraq Liberation Act, making regime change official policy
  • December 16–19, 1998: USA and Britain bomb Iraq, but put full war on hold
  • January 20, 2001: George Bush Jr comes to power, ramps up preparations for war
  • September 11, 2001: Saudi terrorists attack targets in the USA. Bush declares “War on Terror”
  • October 7, 2001: USA and Britain invade Afghanistan, Taliban removed within two months
  • January 2002: Bush declares Iraq part of an “Axis of Evil”
  • February 15, 2003: Anti-war protests held in 600 cities across the world, including a record 1.5–2 million in London
  • March 19, 2003: The US-led coalition begin the invasion of Iraq
  • April 10, 2003: Baghdad falls to the Americans
  • May 1, 2003: President Bush declares “mission accomplished”
  • May 23, 2003: Coalition Provisional Authority dissolves the Iraqi Army and Ba’athist state
  • March 31, 2004: First battle of Fallujah begins following ambush of US contractors. Insurgency enters new phase
  • April 18, 2004: Images released of US atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison
  • October 17, 2004: Foundation of Al Qaeda in Iraq
  • March 31, 2005: Iraqi Intelligence Commission concludes US pre-war “intelligence” on WMDs was false
  • February 22, 2006: Bombing of al-Askari Mosque sparks sectarian civil war
  • January 10, 2007: President Bush announces “troop surge” of additional 20,000 troops
  • May 28, 2009: Last of British troops leave Iraq
  • December 15, 2011: Final US troops withdrawn from Iraq
  • June 2014: ISIL takes over Mosul and Tikrit. Civil war between the government and ISIS. USA re-intervenes
  • December 2017: Iraqi government declares victory over ISIL

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