“It’s the occupation, stupid”: what went wrong in Iraq

Ten years on, James Rodgers reflects on the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

 

There could have been no hope of escape. This was the human cost of taking on Saddam Hussein: violent death. Even though months had passed since the building had been burnt out, the scorch marks were still visible. Now, some months after the US-led attack on Iraq, a clearer idea of the numbers who had been killed was starting to emerge.

It was not 2003 or after. It was 1992. The schoolteacher who was showing me the gutted brick and concrete building said it had been the local headquarters for Saddam Hussein’s secret police. Countless opponents of his regime had been tortured there. It had been torched by a vengeful population in the wake of the 1991 war.

Now this part of northern Iraq, with its majority Kurdish population, was no longer under the control of Saddam Hussein’s government. I had been able to enter Iraq without a visa, from Turkey. My guide was a Kurd. During the time I spent with him during that reporting trip, he spoke more than once of Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons at Halabja. Memories of murderous oppression did not fade.

I thought of the teacher again in the autumn of 2002. The United States, under another President Bush, was once again preparing to attack Iraq. By then, I was the BBC’s correspondent in the Gaza Strip. The post offered a rare perspective. I listened to and watched international English language news media in which contributors queued up to express support for the expected invasion. The people among whom I lived – the Palestinians of Gaza – were overwhelmingly against it. 

In Gaza then, Saddam Hussein was hailed by many as a hero, lionised for his implacable enmity towards Israel. His picture, in which he was often shown in traditional Arab dress, appeared on shop fronts and rear windows. A week or so before the invasion began, with a winter wind from the desert making Gaza unusually cold, there was a ceremony in which funds from Iraq were distributed to the families of those – fighters and civilians alike – who had been killed in the conflict with Israel.

I spoke to another teacher during those days: Ahmed Abdullah, who had arrived Gaza in 1948 as an infant refugee. Arguing that democracy would never come to Iraq on the barrel of a gun, Mr Abdullah shared his fellow Gazans’ opposition to the planned invasion.

He shared something with his fellow teacher, too. Like my guide through the shell of the secret police building, Mr Abdullah had a hatred of being trapped, and oppressed.

As the invasion and occupation of Iraq went on, public support for Saddam Hussein in Gaza fell away with the winter wind. Demonstrations petered out; a large tent set up as a focus of opposition to the war was taken down.

Later that year I went to report from Iraq on the aftermath of the invasion. Arriving in Bagdad in early December, I remember being struck by the number of US soldiers wearing sunglasses even in the dull days of midwinter. They may have seen themselves as liberators. They looked like occupiers.

The timing of my trip meant that I was part of the BBC team reporting from Iraq when Saddam Hussein was captured. I was the first BBC reporter to reach the village where the deposed dictator had been hauled from the hole in the ground where he had been hiding.

The glee with which senior officials celebrated created a false sense of victory. As I noted in my recent book, Reporting Conflict, “It was undoubtedly a triumph for the coalition, especially in propaganda terms, but audiences probably inferred that its strategic significance was greater than it really was.”

It was only months later, in the spring of 2004, that the insurgency began – provoked then, perhaps, not only by loyalty to the deposed dictator but also by hatred of the occupation and the chaos which had come with it.  

While the political leaders who launched the invasion remain largely unrepentant, they also remain ignorant: ignorant of what it means to live under occupation; ignorant of how it feels to live with the threat of suicide bombers; ignorant of how angry any population on earth can feel as a result. The approach was the diplomatic equivalent of the dark glasses which rendered the occupying forces faceless. Policy makers were distant, their perspectives obscured.

Iraq Body Count has calculated that more than 100,000 civilian deaths followed the 2003 invasion. Among the dead, there were probably many who once dreamed of an Iraq no longer under Saddam Hussein’s power.

What went wrong? To borrow that Clinton campaign slogan from the 1992 election, “It’s the occupation, stupid.”

 

James Rodgers is the author of Reporting Conflict (Palgrave MacMillan, 2012), and of No Road Home: fighting for Land and Faith in Gaza (forthcoming, Abramis, 2013). He is a former BBC correspondent in Moscow, Brussels, and Gaza. He now lectures in Journalism at City University London. 

A picture of Saddam Hussein is set on fire by US Marines on 7 April, 2003 in Qal'at Sukkar, Iraq. Photograph: Getty Images
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Leader: The divisions within Labour

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change.

Labour is a party torn between its parliamentary and activist wings. Since Jeremy Corbyn, who this week appealed desperately for unity, was re-elected by a landslide last September, Labour has become the first opposition in 35 years to lose a ­by-election to the governing party and has continually trailed the Conservatives by a double-digit margin. Yet polling suggests that, were Mr Corbyn’s leadership challenged again, he would win by a comfortable margin. Meanwhile, many of the party’s most gifted and experienced MPs refuse to serve on the front bench. In 2015 Mr Corbyn made the leadership ballot only with the aid of political opponents such as Margaret Beckett and Frank Field. Of the 36 MPs who nominated him, just 15 went on to vote for him.

Having hugely underestimated the strength of the Labour left once, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) will not do so again. In the contest that will follow Mr Corbyn’s eventual departure, the centrists could lock out potential successors such as the shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey. Under Labour’s current rules, candidates require support from at least 15 per cent of the party’s MPs and MEPs.

This conundrum explains the attempt by Mr Corbyn’s supporters to reduce the threshold to 5 per cent. The “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make the ballot in 2007 and 2010) is being championed by the Bennite Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Jon Lansman of Momentum, who is interviewed by Tanya Gold on page 34. “For 20 years the left was denied a voice,” he tweeted to the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, on 19 March. “We will deny a voice to no one. We face big challenges, and we need our mass membership to win again.”

The passage of the amendment at this year’s Labour conference would aid Mr Lansman’s decades-long quest to bring the party under the full control of activists. MPs have already lost the third of the vote they held under the electoral college system. They face losing what little influence they retain.

No Labour leader has received less support from his MPs than Mr Corbyn. However, the amendment would enable the election of an even more unpopular figure. For this reason, it should be resolutely opposed. One should respect the motivation of the members and activists, yet Labour must remain a party capable of appealing to a majority of people, a party that is capable of winning elections.

Since it was founded, Labour has been an explicitly parliamentary party. As Clause One of its constitution states: “[The party’s] purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.” The absurdity of a leader opposed by as much as 95 per cent of his own MPs is incompatible with this mission. Those who do not enjoy the backing of their parliamentary colleagues will struggle to persuade the voters that they deserve their support.

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change. Rather than formalising this split, the party needs to overcome it – or prepare for one of the greatest defeats in its history.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution