Jenga Diplomacy: A 20-year Retrospective of the Invasion of Iraq

One of the most significant consequences of the war was the rise of extremist groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and later, the Islamic State (IS).

7 mins read
Cannibals in uniforms, liberating Iraq or eliminating personal liberty [ Photo: Special Arrangement]

by Jude

As the sun rose over the barren Iraqi desert twenty years ago on the 20th of March, the winds of change were sweeping across the sands, bringing with them the echoes of a war that would shake the world to its core. The deafening clash of metal and flesh rang out across the land, a symphony of destruction that heralded the arrival of a new era. A US-led multinational coalition of top-notch military entered Iraq to supposedly save the people from the ‘authoritarian’ Saddam Hussein under the codename Operation Iraqi Freedom – a classic twist of irony in hindsight for a conflict that would claim over a million lives and breed one of the largest terror organisations on the planet.

The invasion involved over 160,000 troops mainly from the United States, United Kingdom and Australia and was carried out with a combination of ground troops, tanks, and aircraft. The US and its allies deployed a vast array of weapons and equipment, including M1 Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, and Apache attack helicopters. They also utilised air power, with F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, B-2 stealth bombers, and AC-130 gunships providing close air support to ground troops.Over the course of the invasion, the coalition forces encountered significant resistance from Iraqi troops and paramilitary groups loyal to Saddam Hussein. There were several key battles, including the Battle of Nasiriyah and the Battle of Baghdad, which saw heavy fighting and casualties on both sides.

Being one of the most controversial and consequential military operations in modern history, the invasion of Iraq was intended to remove Saddam Hussein’s regime from power and eliminate Iraq’s alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). The decision to invade was based on flawed intelligence and a misguided belief that military force was the only way to neutralise the perceived threat posed by the Iraqi regime.

The primary justification for the invasion was the alleged presence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq. The Bush administration and other Western governments argued that Saddam Hussein’s regime posed a grave threat to regional and global security, and that the only way to neutralise this threat was through military action. However, the subsequent discovery that Iraq did not possess WMDs raised serious questions about the legitimacy of the war and the motives behind it.

Another argument put forward by the Bush administration was that the Invasion of Iraq was detrimental in order to fight terrorism under America’s War on Terror. Carried out by al-Qaeda, the 9/11 attacks had led to a heightened sense of fear and vulnerability in the United States and other Western countries. The Bush administration falsely argued that Iraq was a supporter of terrorism, and that removing Saddam Hussein from power would help to combat the global threat of terrorism.However, there was no evidence to suggest that Saddam Hussein had any direct links to al-Qaeda or was involved in the planning or execution of the 9/11 attacks. In fact, the majority of the 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia – a key US ally in the region. Indeed, Osama Bin Laden too was a Saudi national, while the mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, is a Pakistani national. The decision to invade Iraq seems to have been motivated by ulterior geopolitical objectives rather than on sound intelligence or a realistic assessment of the threat.

The animosity that has transpired over the years between the US government and Saddam’s Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party is one of the underlying factors behind the invasion of Iraq. The fundamentals of the Ba’ath Party were those of anti-Western sentiment, that were rooted in a desire for Arab unity and national liberation, as well as espoused anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist beliefs that were at odds with US foreign policy objectives.

The invasion of Iraq had mixed effects on American allies in the region. While some American allies, particularly those in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), welcomed the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime and saw it as an opportunity to promote stability and security in the region, the war and subsequent instability in Iraq fuelled sectarian tensions and led to the rise of extremist groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which posed a threat to regional security and stability.

As the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in downtown Baghdad, the people of Iraq had ambivalent reactions to the invasion. While some Iraqis did initially greet the invading force with optimism and hope for a better future, this sentiment quickly turned to resentment and hostility as the war dragged on and the situation deteriorated. While there were certainly Iraqis who welcomed the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime, many others opposed the invasion and the subsequent occupation, seeing it as a violation of their sovereignty and an unjustified act of aggression.Moreover, the perception that the invading force was an occupying power, rather than a saviour, was reinforced by a series of controversial policies and actions, including the dissolution of the Iraqi army, the appointment of an interim government dominated by pro-American figures, and the use of harsh interrogation techniques and other human rights abuses by US troops – the limelight having being shone on the Abu-Ghraib prison torture incidents.

The initial phase of the war, which involved a Blitzkrieg-like invasion by US-led forces, was successful in toppling the Saddam regime and routing the Iraqi military. However, the subsequent occupation of the country was beset by a host of problems and challenges, including a widespread insurgency, sectarian violence, and growing opposition to the presence of foreign troops.

One of the most significant consequences of the war was the rise of extremist groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and later, the Islamic State (IS). These groups were able to exploit the power vacuum created by the US overthrowing of the Saddam regime and the infamous overnight disbanding of the Iraqi military. The invasion of Iraq equipped rising jihadists such as AbūMuṣʻabal-Zarqāwī and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi with pressing touchpoints of anti-Western propaganda to recruit and train a new generation of terrorists.

The Islamic State message appealed to the many Sunni Muslims in Iraq who felt marginalised and discriminated against by the US-backed Shia-led government that emerged after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The Islamic State was able to exploit these grievances and position itself as a defender of Sunni rights and interests across the region. The group portrayed itself as a champion of the oppressed and promised to restore Sunni dominance in Iraq. Having been boosted by the recruits from Iraq, the Islamic State used the internet and social media to disseminate their Salafi Wahhabi ideology and doctrine of al-wala’ wa’l-bara’ (loyalty and disavowal) across the world.

AQI, which emerged in 2004, was able to carry out a series of devastating attacks on civilian and military targets, and played a major role in fomenting sectarian tensions that fuelled the wider conflict. The Islamic State (formerly AQI/ISIS), which emerged from the remnants of AQI in 2013, was able to capitalise on the chaos and instability in Iraq and Syria to seize control of large swaths of territory and establish a self-proclaimed caliphate. The group was responsible for a wave of atrocities, including mass killings, beheadings, and the enslavement of women and children. It also became a major global threat, carrying out attacks across the world with its largest attack outside of Iraq and Syria being the 2019 Easter Sunday Bombings in Sri Lanka that claimed the lives of over 250 churchgoers and tourists on the island.

The rise of AQI and IS was not inevitable, and the invasion of Iraq played a significant role in creating the conditions that allowed these groups to thrive. The decision to disband the Iraqi army and purge the government of Ba’ath Party members created a power vacuum that was quickly filled by militants and extremists. This is of course not to say that the Ba’ath Party was satisfactory by any means as the party has been linked to terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah in the region as well as perceived human rights abuses in Iraq – but rather to comment on the rather naïve perception that the gross violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and execution of its leader is somehow the best method of bringing peace to the region.

The failure of the US-led coalition to provide adequate security and services to the Iraqi population also contributed to the rise of insurgency and sectarian violence.Issues arose including from violent crime and to the access of basic sanitation. Being a powder keg of ethnic division, Iraq quickly descended into civil war on the lines of racialism. The ongoing turmoil and violence in
countries like Syria and Yemen can also be traced back to the invasion of Iraq.

The legacy of the invasion of Iraq remains deeply contested, with many people continuing to question its legitimacy and efficacy. Critics argue that the decision to invade was indeed based on faulty intelligence and hidden geopolitical agendas. They also point to the disastrous consequences of the war, including the loss of thousands of lives, the displacement of millions of people, and the gross destabilisation of the region that continues even after 20 years.

Moreover, the invasion of Iraq also had far-reaching geopolitical consequences. It strained US relations with key allies, such as France and Germany, who were opposed to the war, and emboldened other anti-US hostile powers like Iran, which gained greater influence in the region as a result of the instability in Iraq – especially through the expansion of the Quds Force under Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps under General Qasim Soleimani. Like a game of Jenga, the forcible removal of a key block unbalanced the equilibrium of the whole structure.

Champions of the invasion may argue that it was necessary to remove Saddam Hussein from power – although he was rather perfidiouslybacked by the US during the Iran-Iraq war in the eighties. They may also point to the alleged positive impact that the removal of Saddam’s regime had on the Iraqi people, including the restoration of democracy and the establishment of a more stable and prosperous country. But in hindsight, the restorative utopia of American democracy in the deserts of the Middle East is a classic propaganda mechanism in the larger play of neo-colonialist practices by the Global North. The Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq has had devastating consequences on the global stage so strong that all the perfumes of Arabia will fail to expunge its destruction.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was pivotal in modern history with far-reaching consequences. Based on flawed intelligence and ulterior motives, the lessons of the Iraq War are many and profound. They include the importance of careful and accurate intelligence gathering, the need for a clear and realistic macro-military strategy focusing on post-combat reconciliation and nation-building, and the recognition that military force is only one tool in the larger toolbox of foreign policy. The Iraq War is a painful reminder of the cost of war, the difficulty of nation-building, and the importance of diplomatic and political solutions to global problems.

Despite the destruction and chaos that ensued, the invasion of Iraq also serves as a stark reminder of the importance of peace, harmony, and co-existence. It highlighted the fragility of our global community, and the urgent need for greater understanding and cooperation. Just as a symphony requires each instrument to play in harmony to create beautiful rhythm, so too must we work together to create a world where peace and prosperity are shared by all. Let us learn from the lessons of the past and strive towards a future where the drums of war are silenced, and the melody of peace and harmony prevails.

Jude is a political and security affairs analyst

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