“We come to Iraq with respect for its people, their great civilization and their different faiths. We have no ambitions for Iraq other than to remove the danger and restore the people’s control over the country.” With these words exactly 20 years ago on March 20, 2003. George W. Bush Jr. announced the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. An illegitimate and fabricated war that would unleash a wave of violence around the world, claiming the lives of over 600,000 people.
Allegedly, its name was originally Operation Iraqi Liberty, but it was hastily changed after it turned out to be shortened to OIL – “oil”. No coincidence.
The Arabian Nights
The time is 02:00 past midnight. About 30 people are waiting for visas at the Baghdad airport. Some have been here for nearly two hours. Others hang on the benches for barely 30 minutes before they let us through. There is no apparent reason for the difference. There is no apparent reason for much of what is happening in Iraq. If I had to describe the country in one word, I would use two: polite chaos. The air is heavy with cigarette smoke. Waiters extinguish their cigarettes in the limestone walls and let the fumes clatter to the marble floor like nicotine cartridges. Tar-black stains from a thousand sleepless nights yawn like bullet holes.
I stand cross-armed by the entrance to the prayer hall. An elderly gentleman asks me if he can come to pray. I let him. Then two others speak to me, but now I have to explain that I am not a local. “You look like an Iraqi, you’re so handsome,” one of the men laughs. He has a thick black moustache. At least ¼ of the men here, especially the military, wear a “Saddam moustache,” as I’ve taken to calling it. “It’s not Saddam’s, it’s Iraqi,” the second man corrects me.
Two of the many men with Iraqi moustaches standing against the backdrop of the Tigris River in Baghdad.
It’s my turn at the counter. My passport is as good as new, with only one stamp from Ukraine in June 2022, where a war of comparable insanity and criminality is currently being fought. The evening is pleasantly cool. The tea is sweet as syrup. Thanks to it I get +40 hours without sleep on the streets of Baghdad. Babylon, Kirkuk, Mosul, Tikrit, Karbala, Fallujah, etc. followed.
Texts in the coming days will be devoted to life, culture, religion, economics, politics and terrorism in today’s Iraq and the fatal aftermath of March 20, 2003. Namely, the plunge of the country into bloody chaos, which led to the rise of international “Islamic” terrorism, DAESH, refugee and migrant waves to Europe and the destruction of statehood in several countries in the region.
It would take several books to explain the history of the country over the last half century. We will try in a few paragraphs. The reign of Saddam Hussein and his socialist Baath Party is divided into two periods: before and after the First Gulf War of 1990, when a coalition led by Washington defeated Iraqi troops after their recent invasion of Kuwait.
An invasion that (to put it bluntly) was necessitated by the completely fruitless 8-year war between Tehran and Baghdad (1980-1988). The main reason was Saddam’s worry that Iran’s so-called Islamic Revolution of 1979 would spill over into his predominantly Shia-populated territory. Although officially secular, power is in the hands of the Sunni minority, specifically the dictator’s tribe. Unofficially, it is believed that Iraq would not have dared to attack its neighbour if it had not received the promise of support from the West and the USSR and their allies, who at the time were looking for options to once again change the regime in Tehran, which declared America and Israel as enemy number one.
Such assistance eventually materialized in huge financial, material, and intelligence support, mostly from the US, France, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the USSR, China, and the UAE. Iran is supported mostly by North Korea, Libya, Syria and China. Several countries such as Bulgaria, Spain, Portugal and Turkey help both countries at the same time. Yet the war ended with over 500,000 casualties and a return to the status quo of 1980.
The Arab Champion
In the 1980s, Iraq is one of the most developed economies in the Arab world (despite the war). While oil is the backbone of the local economy, the country boasts a relatively strong and diversified economy of some 200 state-owned companies that produce sulphur, minerals, cement, iron, steel, textiles, food, household goods, electrical equipment, pharmaceuticals and more.
The education system is one of the best in the region, and the female workforce reaches over 23% (compared to about 10% nowadays). All this changed, however, with the war in 1990. Looking for a quick victory to lift his spirits and secure his credits, Saddam decided to attack his small but oil-rich neighbour. This does not sit well with Washington, which is worried about losing balance in the region and endangering its most important Arab partner, Saudi Arabia.
In six weeks of bombing, the Coalition has destroyed more infrastructure than eight years of war with Iran. Water supplies, electricity grids, factories, storage facilities and more have been destroyed.
US Humvees in Baghdad. Similar heavily armed vehicles can be seen by the thousands in the capital and across the country.
But the sanctions are even more devastating. And the number of countries ever placed under heavier sanctions is still counted on the fingers of one hand. Within months, Iraq falls to the bottom of all sorts of rankings.
An imaginary war
Against this backdrop, in 2003 The US invaded Iraq on the pretext that it had aided the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers carried out by al-Qaeda on 11 September 2001. An organisation that had been set up and funded by the CIA and the Pakistani secret services to fight the Russians in Afghanistan. And its leader, Osama bin Laden – a Saudi millionaire trained in America – has been made a hero by the Western media.
The other pretext is the presence of chemical weapons of mass destruction. Information that the CIA conveniently receives from its Israeli Mossad counterparts. A lie that has been proven since the end of the war to be completely fabricated. Not a trace of chemical weapons have been found in Iraq.
However, the country has been taken over and the US – which ‘has no ambitions’ – suddenly has. On 16 May 2003, the US interim government imposed lustration on some 100 000 people, effectively decapitating the state apparatus. But it also plunges their large families, which number hundreds of thousands, into poverty.
On 23 May 2003, the second great mistake of the Americans followed: they sacked the entire staff of the country’s power structures. Namely: 385 000 army, 285 000 police and 50 000 presidential guard. Also with families relying on them to support themselves.
A policeman in Baghdad.
In a matter of days, several million Iraqis find themselves trapped in the abyss of poverty and without prospects for development. Of whom over 700,000 are trained, armed and angry men. The vacuum is being filled not by the Americans who have no desire to do so. Nor by the new government of hand-picked Shiite American protégés who are in a hurry to concession the oil reserves.
Local Sunni and Shiite organizations (sponsored by Iran and the Gulf kingdoms, as well as local clerics) are suddenly growing to unprecedented sizes and numbers – hundreds of groups with millions of members. And the reasons are not religious, but purely economic and defensive.
To top it off, all of the 200 state-owned companies already mentioned were hastily sold off to private individuals who looted and bankrupted. Familiar, isn’t it? But that’s not all: what follows is a shake-up of the banking system to make it more labile to foreign influence, 100% takeovers of domestic companies by foreign investors, opening of borders, lowering corporate taxes from 40 to 15%, signing 40-year concessions with foreign companies and banks, and cutting unions.
The icing on the cake
But there is a second icing on the cake. On May 1, 2003, the $21 billion bailout plan to get the Iraqi economy back on its feet went into effect. For reasons that are not clear, however, this amount never reaches local companies and people. Instead, the fat contracts for manufacturing, construction and services go to American and other foreign companies. Local production is destroyed and the country is flooded with imported goods. Another slap in the face for the millions of unemployed and increasingly angry Iraqis.
The third icing on this fruitcake is the absolute exclusion of Sunnis from the country’s politics. The dominant minority under Saddam has been completely replaced by Shia and Kurdish quotas loyal to Washington. Together they wrote a new constitution so outrageous that most of the Sunni delegates simply refused to sign it. It effectively puts religious and ethnic differences at the heart of the new republic, making them into a 3-year time bomb.
The statue of Saddam Hussein once stood in Firdosi Square. Now there is a poster of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
Meanwhile, 67% of Iraqis are still unemployed. The state at all levels is controlled by people with no management experience or capacity. Security forces are made up almost entirely of private militias – some 50,000 have been recruited in just a few months. Entire militias are fully incorporated into the state, like the Shiite “Badr Brigades.”
A series of electoral frauds, bloody purges, administrative and political repression by the newly appointed Shia politicians and militias against the Sunni population began. A vendetta against 30% of the then population. especially in Baghdad. Entire neighborhoods with Sunnis were displaced from the capital.
The situation is getting out of hand and in 2007. Washington declares that the conflict has reached the levels of “genocidal war”. The solution is simple: add more fuel to the fire. The US deploys 30 000 troops in Baghdad. The effect, however, is the opposite: the Shiite militias and army (which at one point become synonymous) start arresting between 50 and 60 percent more “insurgents”, 85 percent of whom turn out to be Sunnis.
To fight back, instead of diversifying the Iraqi forces and administration, America recruits 90,000 Sunni militia fighters and tribal members. 43,000 of whom it deploys in 17 Baghdad neighborhoods. The monthly salary is $360 per person, not counting weapons.
To top off the fruitcake of dynamite marshmallows, the U.S. administration surrounds all Sunni neighborhoods in the capital with concrete walls (as well as the Shiite “City of Sadr,” which we will discuss in future pieces). This formalizes the absolute sectarian split, embitterment and arming to the teeth of Iraqi society.
A 1993 clipping of the British newspaper, the Independent, headlined “Anti-Soviet warrior leads his army down the road to peace”. It is about Osama bin Laden
Logically, a few months after that, tensions erupted into what can only be described as a civil war – albeit one focused primarily on the capital.
A war that very quickly became the scene of a mini global conflict between several dozen countries that would last until 9 December 2017 – the final victory over ISIS
Against this backdrop, albeit with a broad brush stroke, I stepped under the night shade of Baghdad palm trees in one of the most chaotic countries on the planet. A country that, after nearly 40 years of constant war and devastating sanctions, should not exist at all. A cradle of European civilisation that manages to do so in defiance of everything and everyone.
Irritating, dirty, smiling and wonderful.
Read parts two and three of the text here:
See also the interview with Muntader al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at George W. Bush:
This article was originally published in Bulgarian at the site KlinKlin and is part of a series of articles by Kaloyan Konstantinov. All photos were taken by the author.