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The A-Z of the Iraq War

From Blairites to dodgy dossiers, an anatomy of the ill-fated invasion that brought down Saddam Hussein.

By New Statesman

A is for Abu Ghraib 

In 2004 a series of grainy photographs were leaked and shocked the world. They showed US soldiers smiling at the camera as they abused detainees in Abu Ghraib, a prison near Baghdad. The images became iconic in their depiction of the war’s moral ­bankruptcy. Prisoners were photographed piled on top of each other naked, wearing hoods covering their faces, and wired for electric shock. ­Detainees alleged rape and other forms of torture, too.

The US president, George W Bush, said the “abhorrent” abuse was not representative of “the ­America that I know”. ­Human rights groups, however, claimed that such abuses were ­evident in other overseas US detention centres.

[See also: George Bush’s Iraq War gaffe is unintentionally revealing]

B is for “Blairite”

What was the Blairite? At the very least, we know the Blairite was a winner: two landslides in three election wins. To achieve that, Blairites were pragmatic and radical. They manipulated the media and made unpopular choices. They cared about Britain and served the US. Tony Blair boasted that he was ­beyond ideology, only interested in “what works”. But if the one test is “what works” then likely nothing will work at all – take the Iraq invasion, when the Blairite legacy was irrevocably tainted.

Blairites: they tried to please everyone, and ended up pleasing no one.

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[See also: The road to war in Iraq]

C is for Comical Ali

A master of the brazen lie, Iraq’s minister of information Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf’s transfixingly Panglossian press conferences earned him a cult online following and the nickname Comical Ali.

Dressed in military uniform with a black beret, the former Iraqi diplomat briefed the world’s media about the inevitable, humiliating defeat of the “superpower of villains”, even as US tanks closed in on the capital.

“The infidels are committing suicide by the hundreds on the gates of Baghdad,” he told reporters from the roof of the Palestine Hotel in April 2003, while behind him Iraqi troops could be seen running for cover: “Baghdad is safe.”

D is for Dodgy dossier

In its satisfying collision of English slang and French diplospeak, the phrase “dodgy dossier” is central to British Iraq War lore. Yet it’s often used to describe two separate documents, which both served as – and ultimately undermined – justification for the invasion.

The September dossier, “Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction”, presented to MPs by Tony Blair in 2002, misleadingly implied that Iraq was known to have weapons of mass destruction, and British troops could be hit within 45 minutes. The 2003 February dossier, a Downing Street briefing note for the press choreographed by Blair’s spin doctor Alastair Campbell, plagiarised unattributed sources and exaggerated Iraq’s threat.

[See also: Tony Blair damned over Iraq war in Chilcot report]

E is for Embedded journalists

The concept of “embedding” – in which a reporter lives, travels and works alongside the military in a conflict zone – was spawned during the Iraq invasion. The US Department of Defense, seeing an opportunity to help shape how the war was covered, seized on the idea; much of the mainstream media was eager to gain access to the front line while still being protected.

Yet this protection was largely only ­afforded to the Western press. Iraqi reporters, camera operators and fixers made up the ­majority of journalists killed in the conflict.

F is for Fallujah

The central Iraqi city became a stronghold of the insurgency following the 2003 invasion – and the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the war. After Iraqi militants in Fallujah killed four private American military contractors in March 2004, US troops launched an assault the following month.

The US withdrew in May, leaving the city in the hands of the newly formed Fallujah Brigade, led by an Iraqi former army general, Jasim Mohammed Saleh Habib. Yet, US soldiers were back in November, in coalition with UK and Iraqi forces, for the Second Battle of Fallujah. The fighting would last for six weeks. Ten years later, Fallujah was the first city to fall to Islamic State.

[See also: A debate on the Iraq war reveals Tony Blair’s most loyal friends – and enemies]

G is for Green Zone

A ten-square-kilometre area in central Baghdad, the Green Zone was the seat of power in Iraq, home to various government buildings and Saddam Hussein’s Republican Palace. After the invasion, it became a fortified base for the transitional government, the Coalition Provisional Authority, and a relatively safe space for the Western military, contractor and press presence in the city.

The area also became a symbol of the country’s inequality, a bubble in which the ruling powers and Western visitors could feel protected, as it was – up until 2018 – cut off from the majority of the Iraqi public.

H is for Harrowdown Hill

On 18 July 2003 the body of the weapons expert David Kelly was found on Harrowdown Hill in Oxfordshire. Two days before his death, Kelly was grilled by MPs, having been outed as the anonymous source for an explosive story by the BBC’s Andrew Gilligan alleging the government had “sexed-up” an intelligence dossier on Iraq’s military capabilities to justify the invasion.

The Hutton Inquiry, tasked by Tony Blair with investigating Kelly’s death, concluded in January 2004 that this proud, private man had killed himself; strongly criticised the BBC’s reporting; and cleared the government of wrongdoing. Another big question – where were Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, then? – remained unanswered.

[See also: Tony Blair is to blame for giving humanitarian intervention a bad name]

I is for Islamic State   

In a Mosul mosque in 2014, the extremist cleric Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the founding of a caliphate. In the following years Islamic State (IS), the Sunni extremist group he led, sowed fear with widely publicised brutality, sectarian violence and savvy use of social media. But IS was no newcomer; its roots were in the chaotic aftermath of the 2003 invasion. Founded in 2004, Islamic State grew out of an ideological split withinal-Qaeda in Iraq.

At its height, IS territory spanned ­northern Iraq and eastern Syria, with branches in at least eight countries, and attacks worldwide inspired by its jihadi ideology. In 2014, a US-led coalition began strikes against IS. By 2017 the group had lost 95 per cent of its territory. Baghdadi was killed in a US raid in 2019 — but IS is still active in the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia.

Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

J is for Jordan

The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square, Baghdad on 9 April 2003 is perhaps the defining image of the initial invasion. Yet there were many in Iraq and beyond who were unhappy to see the downfall of Saddam. In neighbouring Jordan especially, the former dictator is widely still viewed as a martyr and a hero. His image adorns posters and bumper stickers around the country; one town even encouraged residents to name their sons after him. Though Jordan remains a US ally, the loyalty to Saddam reflects the man’s complicated legacy in the region. 

[See also: Jack Straw: the Iraq War split the West and aided Putin]

K is for Kurdistan

Iraq’s restive Kurdish minority were victim to chemical attacks and mass executions during Saddam Hussein’s genocidal 1988 Anfal campaign, and they welcomed the US invasion as a genuine liberation. The 2005 Iraqi constitution recognised Kurdistan, in the country’s north, as an autonomous region but Kurdish hopes of independence remain distant. Kurdish Peshmerga fighters played a decisive role in the battle against IS. When an independence referendum was held in Kurdistan in 2017, in the wake of IS’s defeat, an overwhelming majority voted in favour of secession, but the Iraqi central government aggressively reasserted its authority.

L is for Looting

It’s astonishingly easy to buy bits of ancient Mesopotamia online. Stone animals and clay cylinders; female idols and lion-shaped amulets – auction sites host these objects all the time. Iraq is the cradle of civilisation, home to Babylon, Nineveh and Ur, but it was stripped to the bone after 2003’s invasion, as jobless men began digging up these sites, or descended en masse to raid Baghdad’s Iraq Museum in April 2003. Jacques Chirac called this moment “a crime against humanity”. Donald Rumsfeld just shrugged. “Freedom is untidy,” he suggested that month, “stuff happens”.

M is for “Mission accomplished” 

In a speech that came to encapsulate Western hubris, on 1 May 2003 George W Bush waggled a thumbs-up to troops gathered on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln – standing at a lectern with a star-spangled banner behind him boasting: “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED”. Six weeks after the US began invading Iraq, the US presidentdeclared that “in the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed” because Saddam Hussein had been toppled, and “major combat operations in Iraq have ended”. American troops fought in Iraq for another eight years.

N is for Neocon

It was the neoconservatives who gave George W Bush reasons stirring enough to garner support to invade Iraq. Bookish intellectuals, they had started out in the Sixties as liberals, but were, in the words of neocon godfather and journalist Irving Kristol, “mugged by reality”. Having drifted into tough-guy Republicanism by the turn of the millennium, 9/11 gave them a chance to reshape the world. But in Iraq, they were mugged by reality all over again.

[See also: Being right about the Iraq war has made the left insufferable]

O is for Oil

Tony Blair called the idea that Iraq was invaded in order that American and British oil companies could exploit its vast reserves of oil a “conspiracy theory”. But Britain had already imposed regime change on Iraq in order to secure its oil, in 1921, and it was a British-French company that began exploiting the Baba Gurgur (“father of flames”) oil field in 1927. Iraq took back its oil production in 1961 but some of the world’s largest and most easily exploited oil reserves would remain too significant to ignore in the energy struggle between the US, Russia, Europe and China.

As Iraq was invaded, American consultants began drawing up new laws to liberalise and privatise the country’s oil industry, while contractors secured its infrastructure: most notably Kellogg Brown & Root – a subsidiary of Halliburton, of which Dick Cheney was formerly CEO – which made $39.5bn in federal contracts from the war. Four years after the invasion, the Republican senator Chuck Hagel remarked: “People say we’re not fighting for oil. Of course we are… We’re not there for figs.”

[See also: George Bush’s Iraq War gaffe is unintentionally revealing]

P is for Paul Bremer

In the unstable months following the invasion, Paul Bremer, the US government official tasked with reconstructing the country, introduced two policies that instead ushered in the complete collapse of Iraqi society. The first banned all members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party from holding any position of authority; the move drove tens of thousands of Iraqis (who weren’t necessarily Hussein loyalists) out of work. The second disbanded the Iraqi army, leaving hundreds of thousands of trained, able-bodied men frustrated and without income. The policies created the perfect conditions for a failed state – and a growing insurgency. 

Q is for al-Qaeda

Aside from weapons of mass destruction, one of the core justifications for the war was the alleged link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. In 2001, following the 9/11 attacks, the US launched Operation Enduring Freedom against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s jihadi terror network in Afghanistan. With the invasion of Iraq two years later, the US sought a greater retaliation. The link between Hussein and al-Qaeda was, it turned out, not significant. But the ensuing instability provided fertile ground for jihadism. Al-Qaeda in Iraq, an al-Qaeda offshoot and the group from which IS originates, emerged. Its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, exploited Iraq’s Shia-Sunni tensions, fuelling sectarian violence and the Iraq Civil War (2006-08). 

R is for Robin Cook

The British people “do not doubt that Saddam is a brutal dictator, but they are not persuaded that he is a clear and present danger to Britain”. With those words, the then leader of the House Robin Cook resigned from Tony Blair’s cabinet on the eve of the Iraq War, citing the lack of multilateral support for the US’s proposed military campaign. The former foreign secretary’s warning was of course not heeded and the invasion went ahead with British support. But Cook’s words galvanised a rebellion by 139 Labour MPs and reflected the mood of the 1.5 million people who had already poured on to the streets of London in protest against the threatened invasion.

[See also: Leader: The Iraq War and its aftermath]

S is for Shoe

As George W Bush prepared to leave office in December 2008, he was confronted with his legacy in Iraq in the form of two shoes, hurled at his head. During a press conference with the Iraqi prime minister in Baghdad, a local journalist removed his own shoes and threw them at the president, shouting: “This is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog.” Bush ducked, avoiding both shoes, and later brushed off the incident. The journalist, Muntadhar al-Zaidi, was imprisoned for nine months. The following year, a statue of a shoe honouring al-Zaidi was erected in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown.

T is for Toothpaste summit

They met at Camp David in February 2001, and though it wasn’t Valentine’s Day, romance – or bromance – perfumed the air. By a log fire, George and Tony bantered about using the same toothpaste. That’s what politics was like then, when history was over, and foreign policy thinkers and Western leaders agreed you could bomb tyrannies into functioning democracies. Before that first summit, British newspapers wondered whether a Republican president would respect a Labour prime minister. As the war played out, Blair was described as Bush’s poodle, manservant and, by Maureen Dowd in the New York Times, as “hovering and wheedling like an abused wife”.

U is for “Unknown unknowns” 

When a reporter pointed out to Donald Rumsfeld that there was no clear evidence linking Iraq with foreign terrorist organisations at a press briefing on 12 February 2002, the US defence secretary’s response came to symbolise the Bush administration’s muddled logic for going to war. There were “known knowns” and “known unknowns”, he said, and then there were “unknown unknowns”, meaning the things “we don’t know we don’t know”. Indeed, the conflict that followed proved just how much the administration didn’t know that it didn’t know. 

[See also: How do you cope after a western invasion? We hear from Iraqis rebuilding their lives]

V is for Veterans

At the outset of Operation Telic, the name given to Britain’s eight years of military intervention in Iraq, 46,000 service personnel were deployed to the country. Thousands more followed them. The Britain they returned to had reached an unusual level of consensus about the war they served in (it was wrong), but was less certain about the veterans of the conflict. Different polls and surveys indicated that British society held incorrect assumptions about veterans. The veterans must be as damaged as the world was by the conflict, the public thought, believing they struggled to find employment, were often homeless, and more likely to have mental health difficulties than the average person. None of this was true. That Britain could see the war clearly, but not those who fought for Britain during it, was a different and more complicated form of tragedy than anybody realised.

W is for Weapons of mass destruction  

During the 1980s the British government was well placed to understand Saddam Hussein’s secret weapons programme because British companies – in some cases aided and encouraged by our government – contributed to arming Iraq. But when it came to assessing the risk of the Hussein regime in the new millennium, the US and UK turned to two cab drivers. One, an informant known as “Curveball” and described as a “congenital liar” by associates, told German intelligence that Iraq was operating mobile biological weapons laboratories in trucks. Another cabbie told British intelligence he’d overheard a conversation two years previously that some kind of weapon could be deployed from Iraq within 45 minutes. The weapons of mass destruction were never found, and in 2011 “Curveball” admitted to having made up his story.

X is for Camp X-Ray

 Men in orange jumpsuits, shackled and blind-folded, kneeling inside a cage. The first photographs of detainees at Camp X-Ray on the Guantanamo Bay naval base in 2002 came to signify the inhumane treatment of prisoners from the US’s war on terror. Originally built in the 1990s, Camp X-Ray was used during the early months of the war in Afghanistan, before it was replaced by a permanent detention facility, Camp Delta. Yet the images and accounts of those detained there remained a stain on the US’s record and a powerful recruiting tool for its enemies abroad, including during the war in Iraq.

Y is for “Yellowcake factory”

Shortly after the invasion, the Al Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center in Baghdad – colloquially known as the “yellowcake factory” – was looted by Iraqi civilians. Barrels that had been used to store milled uranium oxide were sold to local people for food and water storage, further dispersing the site’s radioactive material. This inadvertent contamination was just the start of the conflict’s environmental toll, from the torched oil wells  to the toxic waste dumped from dismantled US bases. Add subsequent years of weak governance and worsening climate change to the mix, and the result is ongoing climate catastrophe.

Z is for Zombie gas

 Long before the 2003 invasion or even 9/11, the UK public was being fed stories about Iraq’s arsenal of deadly weapons. In 1998 the then defence minister George Robertson briefed the press that Iraq had stockpiled large amounts of a deadly nerve agent known as “Agent 15”. The resulting coverage raised the alarm even further; the Independent ran a headline about Iraq’s “zombie gas” weapons. It later emerged that Baghdad had no such arsenal, but of course that wasn’t the headline that stuck in people’s minds.

By India Bourke, Anoosh Chakelian, Will Dunn, Alona Ferber, Megan Gibson, Will Lloyd and Sophie McBain

[See also: Arthur Snell interview: “Many world problems stem from the Iraq invasion”]

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This article appears in the 15 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Iraq Catastrophe