With lies, torture and crimes in Iraq, the USA have damaged themselves to this day

20 years ago, the US began its invasion of Iraq. Based on alleged weapons of mass destruction that never existed. The breach of international law continues to this day – in the region and the world.

No end to the deadly violence, not even after 20 years: in February alone, at least 52 civilians were shot dead in Iraq, blown to pieces, and killed in attacks. Today’s violence echoes the attack that began on the night of March 19-20, 2003, when US ships fired 40 rockets at Baghdad’s government district.

Militarily, Iraq had nothing to oppose the large-scale invasion of the “coalition of the willing” from the USA, Great Britain, Australia and Poland. The brutal dictator Saddam Hussein was overthrown after three weeks. And six weeks after the start of the war, on May 1, 2003, a triumphant President George W. Bush announced the end of major combat operations in front of a martial backdrop on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln.

By then, the US-led coalition had dropped almost 29,200 bombs and fired missiles, according to US military statistics. Much of the country’s infrastructure lay in ruins. And according to the respected British non-governmental organization Iraq Body Count, more than 7,000 civilians had lost their lives.

A number that should still increase enormously. The total death toll from the Iraq war is between 200,000 and one million people, depending on estimates; the respected medical journal “Lancet” already came up with a number of over 650,000 “additional deaths” in 2006.

The Iraq war was far from over then; US soldiers were not supposed to withdraw until 2011. Provisionally. You should come back to support Iraq in the fight against the terrorist militia IS. German soldiers are still stationed in Iraq today: currently 120, the Ministry of Defense confirmed to DW.

Won the war, lost the peace

The construction of a new, democratic Iraq according to Western ideas proved to be much more difficult than the political class in the USA had imagined in their glossed-over strategy papers: there was simply no prosperous, Western-style, democratic island in the Middle East. Without adequate planning, the US-led occupation was overwhelmed by the country’s complex ethnic and religious fault lines.

On August 19, 2003, a car bomb killed 22 people in front of the UN headquarters in Baghdad – the bloody beginning of an insurgency movement and years of civil war. As a result, Dan Smith, director of the Stockholm peace research institute SIPRI, in a DW interview therefore considers the US invasion to be the “presumptuous expression of the Western belief that they can reshape a country and a regional order according to their wishes”.

Javier Solana, after all, former NATO Secretary General and EU foreign policy chief, drew the bitter balance: “If the mission was to rid Iraq of terror, rebuild the country and increase security at all levels, it was an absolute failure.”

breach of international law

Above all, however, the attack on Iraq was a “use of force in violation of international law, in violation of UN statutes,” as Göttingen criminal and international law expert Kai Ambos explained to DW. “The invasion of Iraq had no basis in a UN Security Council resolution. In addition, there is only the possibility of justifying the use of force in self-defence, via Article 51 of the UN statute. Which was obviously not the case in this case.” Which is why UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described the Iraq war as violating international law.

Germany had refused to take part in the war. But by providing bases and overflight rights for the invading troops, according to Ambos, Berlin “assisted in an act that violated international law.”

Shortly after the beginning of the war, Jürgen Habermas, certainly one of the most important German intellectuals, summed up one of the consequences of the breach of international law in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: “Let’s not kid ourselves: America’s normative authority lies in ruins.” The philosopher warned almost lucidly that the USA would “set a devastating example for future superpowers” with its illegal actions.

torture and war crimes

America’s reputation has been further tarnished by cases of war crimes and torture. In the spring of 2004, for example, the name Abu Ghraib went around the world: a prison of horror even under Saddam Hussein. Now photos showed how US soldiers tortured here.

Again and again there were massacres of the civilian population. As in Hadhita, where US Marines shot dead 24 unarmed civilians in 2005. Or like in 2007 on busy Nisur Square in Baghdad, where employees of the private Blackwater mercenary group fired indiscriminately into a crowd with assault rifles and machine guns, killing 17 people. Or as in the “Collateral Murder” video published by Wikileaks: Two helicopter gunships shoot at unarmed civilians with 30mm cannons. At least 12 people die, including two Reuters journalists; two children are seriously injured.

Reason for war collapses

The US had given two reasons for its regime change operation: the alleged threat posed by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s alleged links to al-Qaeda. None of that was true. No weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq after the invasion. And the evidence that the Iraqi dictator was linked to the assassins of September 11, which was obtained under torture, also proved to be false.

The false intelligence information had a reason, Harvard political scientist Stephen Walt explained in a DW interview: “They had already made the decision and were only looking for reasons. It wasn’t that the decisions were based on information: they manipulated the information to justify what they had already decided.”

The culmination of the campaign to convince a war-skeptical public was a carefully staged speech by then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell on February 5, 2003 at the United Nations in New York. Powell presented a great deal of supposed “evidence” that the tyrant in Baghdad already possessed biological weapons of mass destruction and was working flat out on atomic bombs. Two years later, Powell called the speech an “eyesore” and distanced himself. “I’m the one who presented false information to the world on behalf of the United States, and that will always be part of my life,” said the ex-Secretary of State self-critically.

In sight for a long time

There had long been calls in the US for regime change in Iraq. In 1998, this call became official policy under the Clinton administration with the Iraq Liberation Act. And even before al-Qaeda terrorists brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York on November 9th, 2001, hawks in George W. Bush’s young government were pushing for the fall of Saddam Hussein.

US historian and foreign policy expert Stephen Wertheim explained it to DW as follows: “Saddam posed a challenge to the United States – simply by surviving after the 1991 Gulf War. The United States had hoped he would be overthrown, but he stayed in office. And he was an obstacle to the exercise of American hegemony in the Middle East.” The war on terror declared after 9/11 opened up the opportunity for the plans to be implemented. Because, as Wertheim notes, “the President had ample leeway to channel public anger and shape the response.”

A decade after the end of the Soviet Union, the United States felt at the pinnacle of its power. At this unipolar moment, the US administration did not want to be restricted by the rules of the UN Charter. Political scientist Stephen Walt describes this attitude as follows: “Americans like to talk about the rules-based order and how important it is. But it’s rules we’re willing to break when it’s uncomfortable for us to follow them closely.”

Today, criminal and international law expert Kai Ambos suspects, it is this attitude that keeps so many countries from Brazil to South Africa to India at bay when it comes to condemning the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine or the implementation of sanctions against Moscow . “This obvious double standard is being noticed in the Global South,” says the international law expert from Göttingen. “And that’s falling on our feet now.”

Author: Matthias von Hein

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