Tuesday, 3 September 2013
The spectre of Iraq
When commentators claimed after last week’s parliamentary vote that Iraq had played a key role in motivating MPs to vote against military intervention, it was an important public acknowledgment of the ongoing disaster wrought by US-UK foreign policy. Gone was the New Labour narrative that Iraq today is better off than under Saddam Hussein. Although it rarely makes the front pages, the sheer volume of bad news from this country will not have escaped many MPs.
Take the Wikileaks and related whistle-blowing stories that dominated the summer headlines. Iraq was at the centre of the most damaging revelations. Hundreds of incidents of abuse and torture of prisoners by Iraqi security services, up to and including rape and murder, were documented. US forces are alleged to have colluded in these activities, as well as themselves continuing to abuse prisoners long after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in 2004. US forces operating helicopter gunships were also accused of killing 14 unarmed civilians in a series of previously unreported incidents.
British troops were also deeply implicated. The Guardian reported that 90 complaints involving 128 Iraqi civilians were being investigated in the aftermath of the Wikileaks revelations. Earlier this year lawyer Phil Shiner took 180 different statements – with another 871 to follow – before a judicial review hearing at the high court in London in a claim seeking to demonstrate that Britain broke international laws of war by pursuing a policy of systematic torture.
The long-term social consequences of invasion also constitute a lasting deterrent to intervention elsewhere. One in two households in Baghdad alone have lost a family member. A million have died. A further million have been left disabled. One in six Iraqis is an orphan. An estimated sixteen percent of the Iraqi population has been uprooted. There are an estimated 450,000 Iraq refugees in Jordan alone.
Drinking water remains unsafe. Basic foods and necessities are beyond the reach of ordinary Iraqis, thanks to soaring inflation unleashed by the occupation's free market ideology. Unemployment is regularly estimated at over fifty percent. Seventy percent of doctors are estimated to have fled the country. Homelessness is widespread. Water shortages are destroying agriculture, power shortages crippling industry. Permanent damage has been inflicted on the country’s historic cultural heritage. Besides the looting and deliberate destruction of historic sites by the US military, tens of thousands of historic artifacts are now in US hands.
Some of the long-term effects of the occupation are most felt in the city of Falluja.
US forces flattened three-quarters of the city in their 2004 bombardment, with up to 6,000 people killed. The US admits that it used white phosphorous as a battlefield weapon in its assault on Fallujah. Repeated studies now show a dramatic spike in birth defects in the city of Falluja. One suspected cause of the birth defects is depleted uranium shells, fired in 2004 by US forces in the city, which contain ionising radiation. A recent survey in the city showed a four-fold increase in all cancers and a twelve-fold increase in childhood cancer in under-14 year olds. The UK also used depleted uranium weapons during the invasion. It will cost about $30m to clean DU from around 300 sites in Iraq. Meanwhile, similar post-war health problems are being documented in other Iraqi cities.
Politically, Iraq is also becoming increasingly authoritarian. There has been a surge in the use of the death penalty. Brutality and torture are rife in its jails. Rape of women in prison is widespread. Additionally, new laws have been passed to crack down on the independent media. According to the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, the first two years following the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq were the worst since the fall of the former regime in terms of violations of press freedoms.
The position of trade unions has also deteriorated significantly in Iraq. There are reports too of police crackdowns on gay people. The Education Ministry has banned theatre and music classes. Many girls still dare not go to school or college because of violence and kidnappings. Women’s equal rights in law have been replaced with statutes giving tribal leaders the power to regulate family affairs according to their traditions - a huge step back.
At the heart of the problem is the sectarianisation of the state. When elections were first held, occupation forces organised them on the basis of Shia and Sunni slates. Thenceforth, religious affiliation could be a deciding factor in whether you worked or had state protection, and thus became a significant source of friction. But, conveniently, it did allow the occupiers to reinvent their role as that of arbitrator between warring religious factions.
After the 2010 elections, it took several months and several visits from the US Vice President and State Department officials to cobble together a government. When a government finally did emerge, one politician claimed that Cabinet seats had been bought at a secret meeting in the house of an Iraqi businessman. “Buying” a ministry is nothing new in Iraq. The ritual of power-sharing is all about sharing the spoils of power among political parties and transforming state institutions into fiefdoms of competing groups.
The Electricity ministry best illustrates the complete corruption of the Iraqi state. The money the government has poured into the electricity sector would have bought every Iraqi family a modern furnished flat in a western country, the Oil and Energy Commission of the Iraqi parliament said in July. The commission estimated that the hard cash spent on the electricity sector “equals ten times the annual budget of Bahrain.”
But this corruption was inherited from the US reconstruction programme. A recent report to US Congress said private defence contractors, which had some 170,000 employees on the ground, reaped some $140 billion in profits in Iraq. Halliburton alone, whose former CEO was Dick Cheney, made $39.5 billion on Iraq. Some of these profits came from flagrant overcharging, such as the contractor that billed the US government $900 for a switch that was valued at $7.05, a 12,000 percent mark-up. In 2012 Transparency International ranked Iraq 169th out of 175 countries for corruption. More than three quarters believed it had got worse in the last three years.
The division of ministries among competing elites, with different sectarian affiliations, was probably the cause of this year’s Abu Ghraib prison breakout of 850 prisoners. That’s the accusation of the Ministry of Justice against the Interior Ministry, whom it accuses of collusion in the incident. Others accuse the security forces of allowing sectarian militias to set up checkpoints and carry out attacks on civilians. Here too the role of US occupiers can be traced - a recent documentary highlighted the role of US Special Forces operatives in training sectarian militias to commit acts or torture that helped fuel the narrative of a civil war.
Dominating all this is the sheer level of violence in Iraq. Government figures show 989 people were killed in July, making it the deadliest month in five years. The origins are complex, given the role of US special forces and the Iraqi state itself, the attribution of a lot of the violence to Al Qaeda and a renewed Sunni insurgency reacting against a Shia sectarian bias evident in many state institutions that denies Sunnis work and rights.
The crisis in Syria exacerbates these problems. Some commentators point to the role of Assad in fuelling violence within Iraq for geopolitical reasons. Others argue that the activities of a Sunni-led armed opposition in Syria strengthen Sunni insurgents in Iraq. Faced with mounting violence, Iraq’s government is now turning back to the US for lethal aid.
Reuters reported recently: “The United States and Iraq agreed to boost cooperation to keep Iran from flying weapons over Iraq to Syria, and to curb the radicalization of young Iraqis and other spillover effects from the Syrian conflict.” The irony is that the US invasion of Iraq and the occupation-organised elections actually strengthened Iranian influence in the region. So Iraq also stands for many policymakers as a testament to US incompetence.
Anti-war activists can take some credit for keeping these issues alive. It wasn’t just the sense of betrayal, having been lied to by Tony Blair ten years ago over WMD, that motivated some Labour MPs to rule out military action against Syria. It was also the pickets of their surgeries, the anger of their constituents and other ongoing efforts of peace activists that made MPs uncomfortable about voting for intervention this time on the basis of flimsy intelligence, incoherent military strategy and no search for a diplomatic solution.