Twenty years ago, the Iraq war began

It is the anniversary of “a lie and a breach of international law”, as the Polish edition of Deutsche Welle briefly and aptly sums up. Refugees from the unstabilized Middle East, including a high number of Iraqis, keep coming to Belarussian-Polish border like a remorse – neverending and cathegorically ignored.

In 2023, no one has the right to be under any illusions about the outcome of the US intervention in Iraq: between 200,000 and even one million dead, the destruction of the structures of the Iraqi state, the destabilisation of the Middle East. Under the banner of spreading democracy, destruction was spread. Under the slogans of counter-terrorism, fuel was provided to the extremists – many studies have already been written about how former military and Ba’ath party functionaries fed into the ranks of the Islamic State. Images from Abu Ghraib and other US prisons have ignited resentment towards the West that cannot be easily extinguished. And while, at first, many Iraqis rejoiced at the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and went to democratic elections with satisfaction, they rightly felt cheated when chaos and lawlessness followed instead of the promised prosperity.

Public opinion around the world was also deceived, having been deliberately misled on the Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Today we now know how many lies have been told and printed on this issue. We also know that the main liars and the main architects of the war have not been held accountable and we can be almost certain that they will not be.

When Polish soldiers set off for Iraq, the Polish media were enthusiastic as never before:

here are “our boys” going to learn modern warfare, they will do something good for the world, and also the Polish state will get its piece of the pie in the distribution of contracts and investments in a better, post-war Iraq. Unfortunately, the most serious “investment” related to Poland turned out to be a secret CIA prison for alleged terrorists, located in the north of the country. What happened there will remain a shame for Polish democracy. As Amnesty International concluded:

‘We have allowed people who have not yet been proven guilty to be tortured in a cruel manner on Polish territory, violating the Constitution and all standards in the process, becoming the anti-hero of an international scandal, in order to sing at the end: “Poles, nothing happened!”.

When the Islamic State conquered large portions of Iraq, we no longer cared about the country. When the refugees from the Middle East rushed to Europe, Polish right-wing politicians made public opinion scared of ‘terrorists coming’, conveniently omitting our own contribution into the growth of anti-Western extremism.

A Polish soldiers in Iraq.

At one point in 2022, refugees with Iraqi passports were the majority among those trying to cross the Belarusian-Polish border.

Some sold everything they had in the country to try to get to Europe. They were pushed back to Belarus. The few who have managed to apply for international protection in Poland often wait several months in detention centres for any decision on their case. Some would have been deported long ago if it were not for the attitude of the Iraqi authorities, who refuse to accept their citizens.

There are Iraqis, Syrians and also Afghans, victims of another ‘war for democracy’, trying to get to Europe. The first instinct of the Polish authorities – but not only the Polish – is to close the border, to throw them over the wall, to hunt them in the border forests and look with absolute coldness how they die of hypothermia or exhaustion. If by some miracle a migrant from Iraq manages to apply for international protection, it is not enough for him to describe how life is impossible in a country devoid of basic infrastructure, torn apart by internal conflicts. Lack of drinking water, lack of work and the fact that every day you could, even accidentally, lose your life are not yet grounds for providing shelter.

The war in Iraq was supposed to give Poland military experience, increased trust from American allies and contracts for our companies. There was no question of taking any responsibility for its victims. In this Polish politicians are consistent. They do not take responsibility. The best we can hear from them is that we need to fight ‘illegal migration’ – while a migration expert explained to Cross-Border Talks why no person fleeing from the Middle East can actually hope for what they understand as ‘a legal arrival’ in Europe. The worst is that ‘Arabs transmit diseases’.

Just as we do not know exactly how many Iraqi lives the war has claimed, we also do not know how many migrants from the region we have so bravely ‘democratised’ have died on the Polish-Belarusian border.

On the 20th anniversary of the war, I look to the Polish media for statements from the people who once decided the Polish involvement. Former Prime Minister Leszek Miller and President Aleksander Kwaśniewski are still public figures.

Kwaśniewski in particular enjoys a certain esteem. A few days ago, Polish social democrats, moreover, proudly recalled that it was during his presidency that Poland joined NATO and thus, they argued, guaranteed its security against the resurgence of imperial Russia.

I find no new reflections by the two Polish architects of the war. Instead, I immediately come across their archival statements – from when the war was still going on, as well as from a few years ago, when its balance sheet was already rather clear.

‘Approaching the end of the conflict in Iraq means that it was the coalition that was right and not those who stayed behind, Kwaśniewski said in April 2003.

‘I am sure that Poland, in sending troops to Iraq in 2003, made the right decision,’ reiterated Leszek Miller in 2016. In the year when the horrific long-term results of the lawless war were already known, he also did not hesitate to put the Iraqi intervention in a business perspective:

Polish participation in the Iraqi mission cost just over 800 million zloty. Our companies managed to sell $410 million worth of services and goods to that country. So the balance is positive, but we were hoping for much more. Polish companies and entrepreneurs, however, were not particularly flocking to take concrete action. They were afraid of the risk and the unstable situation, business does not like this kind of market.

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