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How the US and UK tried to justify the invasion of Iraq

On March 20, 2003, the United States led a coalition that launched a full-fledged invasion of Iraq, closely supported by the United Kingdom

Its arguments for invading the nation in the Middle East were based on three basic principles: that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction; that it developed more to the potential benefit of “terrorist” groups; and that creating a “friendly and democratic” Iraq would set an example for the region.

An Iraqi man watches his mother on a bus being loaded for Syria at a bus station in Baghdad on March 9, 2003. Buses at this station increased their trips to Syria from 4 to 20 a day, with people on the fled the threat of a US-led invasion and others headed for the Shia shrine of Sayeda Zeinab in the Syrian capital (David Guttenfelder/AP Photo)

Twenty years after the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom, however, whether the invasion of Iraq was the product of deliberate deception of US, British and other voters, illicit intelligence or strategic analysis is still a matter of debate.

What seems inescapable is that the war in Iraq has cast a long shadow over US foreign policy, with repercussions to this day.

Weapons of Mass Destruction

“Let me start by saying that we were almost all wrong, and I certainly include myself in this,” David Kay, head of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), told the U.S. Senate on January 29, 2004.

His team — a fact-finding mission mounted by the multinational force to find and disable Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction — was ultimately unable to find any substantial evidence that Hussein had an active weapons development program.

The Bush administration had presented that as a certainty before the invasion.

Protest war Iraq
Anti-war protesters flock to Hyde Park during the demonstration against the war in Iraq on February 15, 2003 (Toby Melville/Reuters)

In a speech in Cincinnati, Ohio, on October 7, 2002, the US President stated that Iraq “possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is looking for nuclear weapons.”

He then concluded that Hussein should be stopped. “The Iraqi dictator should not be allowed to threaten America and the world with terrible toxins and diseases and gases and nuclear weapons,” Bush said.

Then British Prime Minister Tony Blair had said the same thing on September 24, 2002, when he presented a British intelligence dossier confirming that Hussein could activate chemical and biological weapons “within 45 minutes, including against his own Shia population”.

When the ISG presented its findings, one of the main arguments of the war crumbled. “We have evidence that they certainly could have produced small quantities of weapons of mass destruction, but we have not found evidence of the stockpiles,” Kay said in his testimony.

According to Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East North Africa program at Chatham House, the decision to invade Iraq was a “massive violation of international law” and the Bush administration’s real goal was a broader transformational effect in the region.

“We know the intelligence was fabricated and (Hussein) didn’t have the weapons,” Vakil told Al Jazeera.

Egyptian anti-war protesters carry a sign reading ‘Stop Killing’, referring to the US-led war on Iraq during an anti-American protest outside Al Azhar Mosque on March 28, 2003 in Cairo – more than 10,000 protesters marched peacefully against the US-led war on Iraq (Mike Nelson/EPA Photo)

“They believed that by overthrowing Saddam Hussein and supposedly bringing democracy to Iraq, there would be a domino effect,” Vakil said.

Some observers have pointed out that while the ISG has found no active WMD program, it has gathered evidence that Hussein intended to resume the program once international sanctions against Iraq were lifted.

According to Melvyn Leffler, author of the book Confronting Saddam Hussein, uncertainty was a determining factor in the months leading up to the invasion.

“There was an overwhelming sense of threat,” Leffler told Al Jazeera. “In the days and weeks after 9/11, the intelligence community developed what they called a ‘threat matrix’, a daily list of all incoming threats. This list of threats was presented to the president every day.”

Hussein himself had led many to believe that the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction program was active. In an interview with US interrogators who compiled the country’s weapons of mass destruction report in 2004, he admitted to being deliberately ambiguous about whether the country was still retaining biological agents in an effort to deter its old enemy, Iran. to startle.

Years prior to the invasion, Hussein opposed inspections by the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, established in 1999 with the mandate to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction.

A man in the foreground watches as a giant statue falls in the center of Baghdad
A US Marine watches a statue of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein fall over in 2003 (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)


While Bush campaigned for the presidency promising a “humble” foreign policy, the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, dragged the US into a decades-long global anti-terrorism military campaign it dubbed the “War on Terror.” .

In his State of the Union address on January 29, 2002, Bush stated in no uncertain terms that the US would fight “terrorist groups” or any country believed to train, equip or support “terrorism”.

“States like these and their terrorist allies form an axis of evil, aiming to threaten peace in the world,” he said.

The speech went on to identify Iraq as a pillar in the so-called “axis of evil”.

“Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility to America and support terror,” the US president said.

“This is a regime that agreed to international inspections and then kicked the inspectors out. This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilized world.”

A year later, on January 30, 2003, Vice President Dick Cheney linked the Hussein administration to the group believed to be behind 9/11, stating that Iraq “helps and protects terrorists, including members of al-Qaeda” .

Hussein was known to support several groups deemed “terrorist” by some states, including the Iranian dissident group Mujahedin-e-Khalq, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and several Palestinian splinter groups. never found.

According to Leffler, Bush never believed in a direct link between Hussein and al-Qaeda.

However, he believed that the sanctions regime against Iraq was crumbling, that containment was failing, and that once sanctions were lifted, Hussein would resume his weapons of mass destruction program and “blackmail the United States in the future.”

‘Export democracy’

In a speech on October 14, 2002, Bush said the US was “a friend of the people of Iraq.”

“Our demands are directed only against the regime that enslaves them and threatens us… Iraq’s long captivity will end and an era of new hope will begin.”

A few months later, he added that “a new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region” and “mark a new phase for peace in the Middle East.”

In the end, the attempt to make Iraq a “stronghold for democracy” largely failed, with little evidence of a strengthening of democracy in the wider region.

“Since the Iraq War, there has been a continued threat not only from al-Qaeda, but also the rise of ISIS (ISIL) and the growth of the Iranian state as a regional power, which has profoundly destabilized the region.” Vakil, of Chatham House, said.

The far-reaching US decision to ban the ruling Baath party and disband the Iraqi military were early mistakes by the Bush administration, the analyst said.

In 2005, under US occupation and with strong input from US-supplied experts, Iraq hastily drafted a new constitution, establishing a parliamentary system.

Although not in the constitution, requiring the president to be a Kurd, the speaker a Sunni and the prime minister a Shia became common practice.

According to Marina Ottaway, Middle East fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, the US invasion has “created a system that relies on divergent sectarian interests” that is “too mired in the politics of factional balancing to address policies that undermine the improve the lives of Iraqis”. ”.

“The Iraqi constitution was essentially an American product. It was never a negotiated agreement between Iraqis, which is what a successful constitution is,” the analyst added.

“The United States has made a huge mistake in trying to impose its own solution on the country.”