The scene of attack on US army Humvees in the al-Waziriyah quarter of Baghdad, April 2004. Photograph: Moises Saman/Magnum Photos, April 2004. Photograph: Moises Saman/Magnum Photos
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The hawks were wrong: Mehdi Hasan on why Iraq is worse off now

Saddam is gone – but at what cost?

You are invited to read this free preview of the latest issue of the New Statesman, out on 14 February. To purchase the full magazine - with our Iraq cover package including this piece by Mehdi Hasan alongside articles by John Lloyd, Caroline Hawley, Adnan Hussein and Ian Taylor, as well as our signature mix of opinion, longreads and arts coverage - please visit our subscription page.

On Saturday 15 February 2003, more than a million of us – students, toddlers, Christians, Muslims, nuns, Telegraph readers – gathered in Hyde Park for the biggest public demonstration in British history. “Not in my name,” we chanted, as a series of speakers – from Charles Kennedy to Jesse Jackson – lined up to denounce the impending invasion of Iraq.

In Glasgow, a sombre yet defiant prime minister delivered a speech to Labour Party activists. Responding to the march in London, Tony Blair declaimed: “The moral case against war has a moral answer: it is the moral case for removing Saddam.” He continued, “It is not the reason we act. That must be according to the United Nations mandate on weapons of mass destruction. But it is the reason, frankly, why if we do have to act, we should do so with a clear conscience.”

Whether or not Blair’s conscience remains “clear” is, as he once pointed out, between him and God. But a decade on from the debate about dodgy dossiers, WMDs, 45-minute warnings and various clauses and subclauses of UN Resolution 1441, those of us who marched against the war stand vindicated. We were right; the hawks were wrong.

It isn’t the size of our demonstration that those of us against the war should be proud of, it is our judgement. Our arguments and predictions turned out to be correct and those of our belligerent opponents were discredited. Remember the rhetoric? There was “no doubt” that the invaders would “find the clearest possible evidence of Saddam’s weap­ons of mass destruction” (Blair) as well as evidence of how Iraq had “provided training in these weapons [of mass destruction] to al-Qaeda” (Colin Powell); the foreign troops would be “greeted as liberators” (Dick Cheney); “the establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East” would be “a watershed event in the global democratic revolution” (George W Bush).

It was a farrago of lies and half-truths, of delusion and doublethink. Aside from the viewers of Fox News, most people are now aware that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, no ties between secular Saddam and Islamist Osama. The fall of the Ba’athist dictatorship failed to usher in a democratic or human-rights revolution. Every argument advanced by the hawks proved to be utterly false.

The Iraq war was a strategic disaster – or, as the Tory minister Kenneth Clarke put it in a recent BBC radio discussion, “the most disas­trous foreign policy decision of my lifetime . . . worse than Suez”. The invasion and occupation of the country undermined the moral standing of the western powers; empowered Iran and its proxies; heightened the threat from al-Qaeda at home and abroad; and sent a clear signal to “rogue” regimes that the best (the only?) means of deterring a pre-emptive, US-led attack was to acquire weapons of mass destruction (see Korea, North).

There may have been a strong moral case for toppling the tyrant and liberating the Iraqi people – but there was a much stronger moral case against doing so. Brutal and vicious as Saddam’s reign had been, a “humanitarian intervention” could not just be justified in March 2003, given the complete absence of an ongoing or imminent mass slaughter of Iraqis. Some of us warned that the cost of action, in blood and treasure, would far outweigh the cost of inaction.

And so it came to pass. The greatest weapon of mass destruction turned out to be the invasion itself. Over the past ten years, Iraqis have witnessed the physical, social and economic destruction of their country – the aerial demolition of schools, homes and hospitals; the siege of cities such as Fallujah; US-led massacres at Haditha, Mahmudiyah and Balad; the biggest refugee crisis in the Middle East since the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948.

Between 2003 and 2006, according to a peer-reviewed study in the Lancet medical journal, 601,000 more people died in Iraq as a result of violence – that is, bombed, burned, stabbed, shot and tortured to death – than would have died had the invasion not happened. Proportionately, that is the equivalent of 1.2 million Britons, or six million Americans, being killed over the same period. In a typically defensive (and deceptive) passage in his memoirs, Blair described the Lancet report as “extensively challenged” and said its figures were “charged with being inaccurate and misleading”. Sir Roy Anderson, the then chief scientific adviser to the Ministry of Defence, told ministers in an internal memo that its methods were “close to ‘best practice’” and the study design was “robust”.

Presumably, denialism is how hawks sleep at night. They dispute the studies that have uncovered the human cost of the war – whether it be the civilian casualties across the country, or the torture and abuse inside Iraq’s prisons (which a UN investigator described in 2006 as “worse than it has been in the times of Saddam Hussein”), or the fivefold increase in birth defects and fourfold increase in cancers in and around Fallujah. Or they try to blame the violence and turmoil in Iraq exclusively on terrorists, “jihadists” and “Islamofascists”. Few would dispute that most of the killings in Iraq have been carried out by the sadistic monsters who fight for al-Qaeda and its affiliates. But to focus only on the crimes of AQI (or “al-Qaeda in Iraq”) represents a gross moral evasion.

First, according to the Lancet survey, 31 per cent of the excess deaths in Iraq can be attributed to coalition forces – about 186,000 people between 2003 and 2006. Second, most studies show that only a minority of Iraqi insurgents were card-carrying members of AQI. The insurgency kicked off in Fallujah on 28 April 2003 as a nationalist campaign, long before the arrival of foreign jihadists but only after US troops opened fire on, and killed, 17 unarmed Iraqi protesters. Third, there were no jihadists operating in Iraq before our Mesopotamian misadventure; Iraq had no history of suicide bombings. Between 2003 and 2008, however, 1,100 suicide bombers blew themselves up inside the country. The war made Iraq, in the approving words of the US general Ricardo Sanchez, “a terrorist mag­net . . . a target of opportunity”.

The Iraq invasion turned out to be the best recruiting sergeant that Muslim extremists could ever have prayed for, radicalising thousands of young men from the Middle East to the Midlands. Listen to the verdict of the former head of MI5, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller: “Whatever the merits of putting an end to Saddam Hussein, the war was also a distraction from the pursuit of al-Qaeda. It increased the terrorist threat . . . [and] spurred some British Muslims to turn to terror.”

Ultimately, say some hawks, such arguments are irrelevant. Didn’t Iraqis welcome the removal of Saddam? Despite the bloodshed, isn’t their nation better off as a result of the war? Not quite. “Let me clear it up for any moron with lingering doubts,” wrote the Iraqi blogger known by the pseudonym Riverbend on her blog Baghdad Burning in February 2007. “It’s worse. It’s over. You lost... You lost every sane, red-blooded Iraqi when the Abu Ghraib pictures came out... You lost when you brought murderers, looters, gangsters and militia heads to power...”

In September 2011, a Zogby poll found that 42 per cent of Iraqis thought they were “worse off” as a result of the Anglo-American invasion of their country, compared to only 30 per cent of Iraqis who said “better off”. An earlier poll, conducted for the BBC in November 2005, found a slim majority of Iraqis (50.3 per cent) saying the Iraq war was “somewhat” or “absolutely” wrong.

Should we be surprised? The post-Saddam government, observes the noted Iraqi novelist and activist Haifa Zangana, is “consumed by sectarian, ethnic division, but above all by corruption”. The Human Rights Watch 2012 report shows how the rights of the Iraqi people are “violated with impunity” by their new rulers. In his book Iraq: from War to a New Authoritarianism, Toby Dodge of the London School of Economics documents how the war has produced an Iraqi system of government not so different from the one it replaced. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Dodge argues, is leading his country towards “an incredibly destructive dictatorship”. The establishment of a liberal democracy on the banks of the Tigris remains a neocon pipe dream.

So, Saddam is gone – but at what cost? Iraq has been destroyed and hundreds of thousands of innocent people have lost their lives, as the direct result of an unnecessary, unprovoked war that, according to the former chief justice Lord Bingham, was a “serious violation of international law”. “It was worse than a crime,” said the French diplomat Talleyrand, responding to the execution of the Duc d’Enghien by Napoleon; “it was a blunder.” Iraq turned Talleyrand’s aphorism on its head – it was worse than a blunder; it was a crime.

Mehdi Hasan is the political director of the Huffington Post UK and a contributing writer for the New Statesman. This piece is also published on huffingtonpost.co.uk

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

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“We can’t do this again”: Labour conference reactions to Jeremy Corbyn’s second victory

Overjoyed members, determined allies and concerned MPs are divided on how to unite.

“I tell you what, I want to know who those 193,229 people are.” This was the reaction of one Labour member a few rows from the front of the stage, following the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory at the Labour party conference. She was referring to support received by his defeated contender, Owen Smith, who won 38.2 per cent of the vote (to Corbyn’s 61.8 per cent).

But it’s this focus on the leader’s critics – so vehement among many (and there are a lot of them) of his fans – that many politicians, of either side, who were watching his victory speech in the conference hall want to put an end to.

“It’s about unity and bringing us all together – I think that’s what has to come out of this,” says shadow cabinet member and MP for Edmonton Kate Osamor. “It shouldn’t be about the figures, and how many votes, and his percentage, because that will just cause more animosity.”

Osamor, who is supportive of Corbyn’s leadership, is not alone in urging her colleagues who resigned from the shadow cabinet to “remember the door is never shut”.

Shadow minister and member of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) Jon Ashworth – not a Corbyn loyalist, but focusing on making the shadow cabinet work together – shares the sentiment.

Standing pensively in front of the now-empty stage, he tells me he backs shadow cabinet elections (though not for every post) – a change to party rules that has not yet been decided by the NEC. “[It] would be a good way of bringing people back,” he says. “I’ve been involved in discussions behind the scenes this week and I hope we can get some resolution on the issue.”

He adds: “Jeremy’s won, he has to recognise a number of people didn’t vote for him, so we’ve got to unite.”

The former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, another MP on the NEC, is sitting in the audience, looking over some documents. She warns that “it’s impossible to tell” whether those who resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet would be willing to return, and is concerned about talent being wasted.

“We have a lot of excellent people in the party; there are new people now in the shadow cabinet who have had a chance to show their mettle but you need experience as well as ability,” she says.

Beckett, who has urged Corbyn to stand down in the past, hopes “everybody’s listening” to his call for unity, but questions how that will be achieved.

“How much bad blood there is among people who were told that there was plotting [against Corbyn], it’s impossible to tell, but obviously that doesn’t make for a very good atmosphere,” she says. “But Jeremy says we’ll wipe the slate clean, so let’s hope everybody will wipe the slate clean.”

It doesn’t look that way yet. Socialist veteran Dennis Skinner is prowling around the party conference space outside the hall, barking with glee about Corbyn’s defeated foes. “He’s trebled the membership,” he cries. “A figure that Blair, Brown and Prescott could only dream about. On average there’s more than a thousand of them [new members] in every constituency. Right-wing members of the parliamentary Labour party need to get on board!”

A call that may go unheeded, with fervent Corbyn allies and critics alike already straying from the unity message. The shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon is reminding the PLP that, “Jeremy’s won by a bigger margin this time”, and telling journalists after the speech that he is “relaxed” about how the shadow cabinet is recruited (not a rallying cry for shadow cabinet elections).

“If Jeremy wants to hold out an olive branch to the PLP, work with MPs more closely, he has to look very seriously at that [shadow cabinet elections]; it’s gone to the NEC but no decision has been made,” says Louise Ellman, the Liverpool MP and transport committee chair who has been critical of Corbyn’s leadership. “That might not be the only way. I think he has to find a way of working with MPs, because we’re all elected by millions of people – the general public – and he seems to dismiss that.”

“If he sees it [his victory] as an endorsement of how he’s been operating up until now, the problems which led to the election being called will remain,” Ellman warns. “If we’re going to be a credible party of government, we’ve got to reach out to the general electorate. He didn’t say anything about that in his speech, but I hope that perhaps now he might feel more confident to be able to change direction.”

Corbyn may have called for cooperation, but his increased mandate (up from his last stonking victory with 59.5 per cent of the vote) is the starkest illustration yet of the gulf between his popularity in Parliament and among members.

The fact that one attempt at a ceasefire in the party’s civil war – by allowing MPs to vote for some shadow cabinet posts – is in contention suggests this gulf is in danger of increasing.

And then where could the party be this time next year? As Osamor warns: “We should not be looking at our differences, because when we do that, we end up thinking it’s a good thing to spend our summer having another contest. And we can’t. We can’t do this again.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.