20 years after the Iraq invasion: The wounds are scarred, but they dominate everyday life

20 years after the Iraq invasion: The wounds are scarred, but they dominate everyday life

“Iraqi Freedom” was intended to bring about the military operation that began under US command. An “alliance of the willing” invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003 via Kuwait. Including Great Britain and Ukraine. Germany and France were not convinced and did not participate.

The weapons of mass destruction that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein allegedly possessed and that US President George W. Bush cited as the reason for his intervention have not been found to this day.

The operation turned into a disaster: resistance against the occupiers, civil war between the different ethnic groups and religions, terror by Al Qaeda and later the terrorist militia Islamic State (IS). It is only today, 20 years later, that the land between the Euphrates and Tigris is slowly beginning to recover. But there are still countless hurdles that impede development.

drought and disease

“At least they’ve cleared up the garbage now,” remarks Mohamed Falih Abu Utaf. He is standing on a side canal of the Shatt al-Arab in the middle of the southern metropolis of Basra and proudly points to the plantings that his “For a green Basra” initiative has prompted.

There were once trees in Basra, now there is only desert.

400 new trees along the canal, 16 different tree species. Once upon a time there were palm forests around Basra, says the agricultural engineer. Now there is only desert. And this keeps expanding. Iraq is one of the five countries most affected by climate change in the world, and the Basra region is particularly affected.

Not only are the swamps drying up, but the wars have also taken their toll. The consequences of the uranium weapons used by the Americans, especially in southern Iraq, can still be seen today in the children’s wards of the hospitals, where malformed babies are still being born.

Cancer rates continue to rise and are partly directly linked to armor-piercing uranium munitions, according to doctors in Basra and Nasseriya. But the worst polluter is the oil industry, Abu Utaf notes emphatically. “What gets into the ground and the atmosphere during oil production will continue to burden us for decades to come.”

Poverty despite the oil boom

Iraq’s largest oil reserves are in Basra province, and almost 90 percent of the budget comes from oil sales. And yet Basra has remained poor. Only now, after the mass protests in 2018, when the four million inhabitants demanded an improvement in their living conditions, is something happening.


percent of the Basra Province household comes from oil sales.

Roads are being repaired, bridges and houses are being built, electricity and water supplies are being improved. Five-star hotels are springing up, along with chic restaurants, cafés and shopping malls. After 20 years, FIFA approved an international football tournament in Basra in January 2023. Since then dreams have been flying high.

When current US President Joe Biden was chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2006, terror was raging in Iraq. Iraqi insurgents dovetailed with Al Qaeda, and there were daily attacks on US troops and anyone who worked with them.

A civil war broke out between Sunnis and Shiites. The Americans were looking for solutions to prevent Iraq from sliding into total chaos. Apart from the meticulously planned military action, there was no plan for the political future.

What gets into the ground and the atmosphere during oil production will burden us for decades.

Mohamed Falih Abu Utafagricultural engineer.

Biden proposed dividing the country into three parts: in the Kurdish north, one region for the Sunnis, one for the Shiites. That didn’t happen, but the tripartite division is still in effect today, and US Administrator Paul Bremer’s division of power along ethnic and religious lines had devastating consequences.

When neighbors become enemies

“Under Saddam we were all Iraqis, under the Americans we became Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds,” says Mohammed Shirwani in Baghdad. “Neighbors became enemies.” Mohammed is 59 years old, electrical engineer, Kurd, born in Leipzig and grew up in Baghdad.

Unlike in southern Iraq, where Shiites live in the majority, Baghdad is a multi-ethnic state in all its diversity. In addition to Shiite and Sunni Arabs and Kurds, Turkmen, Christians, Yazidis, Mandaeans and Kaka’i live here. What makes Iraq so unique suddenly became its undoing.

Under Saddam we were all Iraqis, under the Americans we became Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

Mohammed Shirwani in Baghdad

A great wave of relocations swept over Baghdad. Sunnis left their homes for fear of being killed by their Shia neighbors. Likewise vice versa. The opposite. Mixed families broke up or fled to northern Iraq, to ​​Kurdistan. This segregation is slowly disappearing again, but has largely endured to this day.

The ethnic-religious proportional representation for political offices introduced by the Americans only faltered briefly when the wave of protests swept from Basra to Baghdad in 2019. While protesters’ demands in the south were more electricity and jobs, in Baghdad they turned political. It was also about pushing back Iranian influence.

Tahrir Square became the village of renewal – for two years in 2019 and 2020. But then came the setback. Over 600 demonstrators were murdered, and many others were kidnapped and threatened. The protests fell silent.

The crises are getting worse

Iran is partly responsible for the brutal suppression of the protests in Iraq, it is said everywhere from Basra to Baghdad. The Iraqi militias linked to the neighboring country have well-trained snipers, they are supposed to help ensure that Iran’s influence remains secure. We succeeded: without Iran, nothing works in Iraq.

The development into modernity in the Kurdish areas went too fast.

Nihad Qojaformer mayor of the city of Erbil

Tehran sits at the cabinet table in Baghdad, the government decides. No president takes office, no prime minister is sworn in, without Iran’s consent. While the neighboring country’s influence was vanishingly small under Saddam Hussein, it is now immense. Especially after the withdrawal of US troops in 2011, Iran filled the resulting vacuum at all levels with lightning speed.

Boom in Kurdish areas

Erbil, the Kurdish metropolis in northern Iraq, is unrecognizable. There was a construction boom here for ten years. New districts grew out of the ground, high-rise buildings were built. While terror raged in the rest of the country, the Kurdish autonomous areas became a safe haven. International organizations settled here, business people from Baghdad and Basra opened offices.

The Kurds recorded the highest direct investments in the region. “The development into modernity happened too quickly,” says Nihad Qoja, who was mayor of the city of Erbil at the time and had lived in Bonn for over 20 years. People’s heads couldn’t have taken the leap. Then, in 2013, the real estate bubble burst and the construction cranes came to a standstill.

Thousands of Iraqi refugees were fleeing IS in 2014.
Thousands of Iraqi refugees were fleeing IS in 2014.
© REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

A year later, IS was raging in Iraq. Although the four Kurdish provinces were spared the brutal jihadists, thousands of refugees flocked to them and sought refuge.

An enormous burden for the region, which is in transition. After IS was driven out and the refugee camps were gradually dissolved, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani believed that it was time to declare a Kurdish state of its own. Without consulting the neighboring countries, he had a referendum held in 2017 in which his six million Kurds could vote for or against an independent state.

Over 90 percent voted in favour. But Barzani reckoned without Iran, Turkey, Syria and the central government in Baghdad, which vehemently opposed it. The Americans, staunch allies of the Kurds, also considered Barzani’s move unrealistic and dangerous at the time.

Masoud Barzani has since resigned, the economic crisis has worsened and a violent dispute with Baghdad is blocking any further development. The former lighthouse of Iraq is about to lose its light.

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