What Did The American Invasion Accomplish? Two Decades After The Invasion, The Iraqi People Are Still Struggling To Pick Up The Pieces.
November 6, 2006, was a quiet morning in Baghdad. Noor Ghazi and her family had packed what they could into the car and jumped on the road as early as possible. It was Ghazi’s 16th birthday, but there was no time to celebrate. They had only one goal in mind: getting to the border with Syria.
Since American troops rolled into Baghdad three years earlier, the Ghazis had lived through the worst of Iraq’s brutal civil war. Noor remembered passing dead bodies lying in the streets during her walk to school. Grief became a regular part of the teenager’s daily life.
Wherever Ghazi went, she paid close attention to her surroundings, knowing that at any moment a car bomb or stray bullet could set off chaos. “My school started getting emptier and emptier,” she told RS. “Every day, one of my friends would come in and say her last goodbyes because she was leaving the country.”
Ghazi’s father had no intentions of following their lead. “My dad used to say that he would be the last person to leave Iraq,” she remembered.
But everything changed when her cousin died. It wasn’t the first time they had lost a family member, but this was different. Extremists had kidnapped him in the middle of the night, murdered him with drills, and left his remains in the street. Ghazi’s father was tasked with identifying the body, meaning he would have to look through photos of all the unnamed corpses held at the local hospital.
After flipping through hundreds of images of maimed and disfigured bodies, he finally found who he was looking for. Noor’s cousin was number 167. It was time to leave Baghdad.
As the Ghazi family passed near Fallujah, they came upon an impromptu checkpoint. Three gunmen jumped out of the car in front of them and demanded to see their IDs — no doubt a way to find out if Noor and her family were Sunni or Shia Muslims. Her mother, who is Shia, managed to hide her ID card, revealing only the ones that showed their bearers to be Sunni.
The gunmen then moved on to the car beside them, which had a family with a small child inside. “It seems like they had the wrong last name,” Ghazi recalled. “After I heard the gunshots, I don’t remember anything.”
It has now been two decades since the United States launched its war on Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Americans have largely moved on, but Iraqis are not so lucky.
The 2003 invasion — and the crushing, American-led sanctions regime that preceded it — set into motion a series of events that have torn at the very fabric of Iraq’s society, leaving at least 185,000 of its citizens dead and displacing 9 million more, according to the Costs of War project at Brown University. Those who survived their country’s darkest moments now live with mental and physical scars that most Americans can scarcely imagine. “Violence destroys our ability to feel human,” said Ghazi, who now teaches Arabic and courses on peace and conflict at several universities in North Carolina.
Indeed, it is difficult to find any measure by which life in Iraq has improved over the last 20 years. Rolling blackouts have made summers unbearable in much of the south, and the government remains far too weak to do much about it. (The daily high rarely drops below 100 degrees fahrenheit in Baghdad’s warmer months.) Once a regional leader in medicine and education, Iraq has now fallen far behind most of its neighbors. A recent poll found that 37 percent of Iraqis want to emigrate, and 81 percent say their country is headed in the wrong direction.
Moral math is notoriously tricky. It may be difficult for some to pin all of Iraq’s ills on the America. But Americans should be under no illusions that the war was a mere policy blunder, as Eamon Kircher-Allen wrote in a recent roundtable for the Century Foundation.
“[W]hile Americans seem to mostly understand the Iraq War did not serve the national interest, it’s much less clear whether they grasp how the war was morally and legally wrong—in other words, that it was a crime.”
After Ameriacn forces defeated Saddam Hussein’s army in the 1991 Gulf War, the UN imposed unprecedented sanctions on Iraq. What followed was nothing short of disastrous.
During the 1980s, Iraq had managed to steadily grow its GDP to more than $60 billion per year despite a brutal (and ill-advised) war with neighboring Iran. When the comprehensive sanctions regime kicked in, Baghdad’s GDP plummeted to less than $1 billion. Oil exports — which had long been the backbone of the country’s economy — dropped to nearly nothing overnight, and even humanitarian organizations struggled to import food and medicine. Many families pulled children out of school in order to make ends meet.
“It became like we changed from a rich country into a poor country,” said Yanar Mohammed, a prominent Iraqi activist who emigrated in the 1990s in order to escape the impact of sanctions.
To borrow a line from Ernest Hemingway, Iraq collapsed gradually, then suddenly. When American troops finally rolled into Baghdad, more than a decade of sanctions had hollowed out the government, leaving little more than destroyed infrastructure and severely weakened institutions in its wake. Now, Washington was on the hook to fix it.
American officials quickly established a provisional government and set the ambitious goal of transforming Iraq into a stable, flourishing democracy. As the military undertook its futile search for Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, President George W. Bush secured enormous amounts of funding to backstop his nation-building policy and enlisted former diplomat Paul Bremer to carry it out.
Several decisions from the first year of the occupation would prove particularly consequential. The Bush administration disbanded the army and created a policy of “de-Ba’athification” that sought to remove from power all officials who had served under Saddam. Washington also imposed a sectarian political system known as the “muhasasa,” which used quotas to divvy up power and resources between Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds.
Most analysts now agree that these policies fanned the flames of sectarianism, which would soon drive the country’s devastating civil war. But their impact would not end there. “The U.S. occupation of Iraq and the sectarian politics of successive Iraqi governments eventually led to the rise of the Islamic State,” wrote Zainab Saleh, a professor at Haverford College, in a 2020 report for Brown University’s Costs of War Project.
To make matters worse, American forces engaged in a series of human rights violations, including multiple massacres and a program of torture at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. These abuses helped fuel anti-American insurgents and motivated extremists far from the battlefield, including the perpetrator of the 2015 attack at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo.
Women were the “biggest losers” of the post-2003 order, according to Mohammed, who returned after the invasion and founded the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq. What she saw was dramatically different from the country she had left just a decade before. “The women of Iraq lost the improvement of their well-being, their status, their women’s rights gradually, and went back to the status of our grandmothers,” she said.
With the old regime gone, tribal and religious leaders became the key power players in Iraq, leading to a rapid rollback in women’s rights. According to Mohammed, Iraqi women faced a dramatic uptick in human trafficking and honor killings, accompanied by a drop in education and access to healthcare.
Iraq is now the fifth worst country in the world to be a woman, according to the Women Peace and Security Index. While political violence has gone down in recent years, 45 percent of Iraqi women say they have faced domestic abuse — the highest rate of any Middle Eastern country.
Mohammed has fought for years to change this backslide. Under her leadership, the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq created a network of shelters for women fleeing violence and other social ills. To date, she and her colleagues have sheltered 1,300 Iraqi women.
But Mohammed faces an uphill battle. Iraq’s leaders have long opposed her shelter program, forcing her to work in secret. She has been dogged by government lawsuits and accusations of human trafficking — a particularly painful allegation for a dedicated women’s rights activist.
“When our organization stands against [oppression], and we shelter women from that kind of abuse and violence, we are considered the crim[inals] here,” Mohammed said.
In 2018, Ghazi returned to Iraq with a camera in hand. During her 12 years in exile, she had moved to the United States, had a child, and enrolled in a master’s program in peace and conflict studies. Now, she wanted to give back to the country that raised her.
What she saw was harrowing. In just three years in power, the Islamic State’s totalitarian rule had reduced the once vibrant city of Mosul to ruin.
“When I went to Mosul, I [saw] all the destruction. I [saw] how the entire civilization was destroyed under ISIS,” Ghazi recalled. “I lived for 12 years thinking that I would return one day, but it was not there anymore. It did not exist anymore.”
Ghazi criss-crossed the city filming ruins of ancient monuments and conducting interviews with those who lived through ISIS rule. Locals told her how extremists pushed out Mosul’s Christian community, massacred Yazidi residents, and sexually assaulted countless women. At least 800,000 residents fled the city, and many have yet to return.
Even Mosul’s liberation brought tragedy. In its efforts to flush ISIS from the city, America conducted airstrikes that killed hundreds of civilians, as journalist Azmat Khan has painstakingly documented for the New York Times. The deadliest single attack came in March 2017, when a pair of bombs killed two ISIS snipers and more than 100 civilians who had taken shelter in the same building in west Mosul.
After returning to America, Ghazi produced a documentary about her experience entitled “The Mother of Two Springs” — a reference to Mosul’s unusually temperate weather in the fall and spring. The film ends with a daunting set of statistics: 10,000 civilians died during the city’s liberation; 40,000 houses were left destroyed or in need of repairs; more than half of the city’s government buildings were flattened.
Despite Iraq’s tragedy, Ghazi is optimistic about the future. In recent years, protestors across the country have taken to the streets to demand an end to the sectarian “muhasasa” system established during the American occupation. So, Ghazi came back from a January visit to Baghdad “full of hope.” We should all do the same.