Shock and Awe: Life in Iraq Twenty Years after the US-led Invasion

This year marks a significant milestone in the American-led “Global War on Terror,” especially in relation to Iraq. It has been 20 years since former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the nation that Saddam Hussein had “an active program to acquire and develop nuclear weapons” and that “the Iraqi people are well on their way to freedom.” Twenty years since former Vice President Dick Cheney told NBC News that, “My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” Twenty long years since former Secretary of State Colin Powell made his infamous speech at the United Nations telling the world of the purportedly rock-solid intelligence the United States had gathered indicating that Iraq was amassing weapons of mass destruction. Former President George W. Bush announced the beginning of the US military operation in Iraq 20 years ago this year, and also declared its supposed end, when he proudly announced, as he stood on the USS Abraham Lincoln in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner, “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”

In retrospect, we recognize that many of these statements and sentiments are at best incorrect, and, less charitably, are outright lies that dragged the United States and its allies into a protracted war and occupation. The first bombing of Baghdad, a city of 5 million, in March 2003, was meant to “decapitate” Iraqi leadership by killing its then President Saddam Hussein. Not only was the strike unsuccessful, but it was found to be based on incorrect intelligence. Aerial bombardment of the bustling city began the next day, as did attacks in other cities throughout Iraq, including Basra and Mosul. The city of Baghdad fell just a few weeks later, devolving into massive chaos, looting, and despair as it became abundantly clear that the coalition forces had no long-term plan for the country and that there were no weapons of mass destruction to be found. Yet Rumsfeld again justified the obvious decimation and waved away assertions that the occupying American forces should have done more to protect the city and its civilian population, saying, “Stuff happens! And it’s untidy. And freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes. And commit crimes and do bad things. They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things and that’s what’s gonna happen here.”

Most significant, however, was the toll on the Iraqi people, who did not have anything to do with the underlying premise of the entire Global War on Terror, and who had already suffered at the hands of global powers for years under a crippling sanctions regime. The United States’ “shock and awe” campaign in the first wave of the invasion resulted in the seizure or destruction of bridges and other critical infrastructure. Many Iraqis fled the country, and the first to leave were those who could afford to do so, including engineers, lawyers, academics, and an estimated half of the nation’s doctors. Today, an estimated 1.1 million Iraqis remain displaced.

The invasion of Iraq is widely recognized as a costly, destructive, humiliating, and ultimately fruitless enterprise.

The invasion of Iraq is widely recognized as a costly, destructive, humiliating, and ultimately fruitless enterprise. In 2002, after months of hawkish speeches by politicians and pundits, based largely on misinformation and bluster, a full 73 percent of Americans supported military action in Iraq. By 2019, 62 percent of American adults, including a majority of Iraq War veterans, felt that it had not been worth fighting after all. Indeed, the effects of the war on the West’s role in the world, on perceptions of the trustworthiness of US intelligence, and on American veterans, have been widely discussed. In terms of the American presence in Iraq, at the peak of the war circa 2007, about 170,000 US servicemembers were stationed throughout the country. Today, the number is closer to 2,500, part of a purported show of support for the region and the continuance of America’s regional aims, like countering Iranian influence. What is too often missed, however, is the toll the war took on Iraq and its people.

Iraq Today

Much of the support in the West for invading Iraq and deposing—and ultimately executing—Saddam Hussein came from the supposed goal of, as President Bush put it, “freeing” the Iraqi people from a violent and authoritarian regime. The former president even argued that, “The future of peace and the hopes of the Iraqi people now depend on our fighting forces in the Middle East.” Tellingly, the entire campaign was named “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Twenty years later, the Iraq War is nearly synonymous with American folly and hubris, resulting in the devastation of hundreds of thousands of lives. An estimated 200,000 Iraqis were killed in direct violence, and tens or hundreds of thousands more were killed through indirect violence (such as lack of access to health care, food, sanitation, and water). The instability precipitated by the invasion of the country led to even more human rights abuses, many perpetuated by the so-called Islamic State (IS) between 2014 and 2017.

After so many decades of sanctions, war, and occupation, Iraq today can be considered fragile yet relatively stable, residing in a “post-conflict” state, notwithstanding localized outbreaks of violence. Despite the official end of the war, as well as the end of the threat posed by IS, the country is still facing significant political and economic challenges. Iraq remains highly dependent on oil revenues, and oil exports made up 95 percent of state revenue in 2020. Much as has happened in other heavily resource-dependent economies, this has resulted in an oversized public sector that offers minimal opportunities for graduates and relies heavily on corruption and nepotism. The country remains one of the most corrupt in the world, ranking 157th out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Twenty years later, the Iraq War is nearly synonymous with American folly and hubris.

Sectarian fragmentation persists, with the country’s many ethnic and religious minorities unable to fully participate in the country’s political discourse and policymaking. Some of the efforts that are positioned to increase representation, such as legislative quotas, are seen as highly problematic, especially by activists who feel that they result in tokenism and a lack of action on other vital issues, like justice and the restoration of the country.

Yet many groups within Iraq have united against the ineffectiveness of the government, which is deemed by many as illegitimate. The past few years have seen escalating protests, low voter turnout, and an overall disillusionment with successive governments ability to tackle the real problems facing the country, including high unemployment, mounting inflation, poor infrastructure, and a lack of social services. Predictably, protests have been met with massive state repression and violence. The protests of late 2019 (known as the Tishreen uprising), which eventually unseated the Adel Abdel-Mahdi government, also saw the murder of more than 600 protesters, the injury of more than 20,000, and the harassment of countless others.

In terms of social indicators, there are multiple worrying signs. Many of Iraq’s internally displaced persons (IDPs) face significant obstacles in obtaining services and returning to their homes, remaining reliant on humanitarian interventions. In February 2023, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs announced a new program to verify IDPs and to grant them access to the country’s social safety net, but whether the program will succeed remains to be seen.

Iraq’s poverty rate remains high, with about 31 percent of Iraqis living in poverty in 2020 (a number that is undoubtedly higher today due to economic upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic), and an estimated 2.4 million requiring acute food and livelihood assistance. Water scarcity is also a significant issue in this increasingly arid country, which is on the frontline of the climate crisis. It is estimated that three out of five children do not have access to safe water services, as the country’s primary sources of water—the Tigris and Euphrates rivers—have progressively dried out due to decreased rainfall, upstream diversion, and poor water infrastructure. The winter of 2022/2023 fortunately saw several rain storms that alleviated the immediate concerns of some farmers, but this is not a sustainable solution for long-term water loss. Some straightforward actions that the government could take, like the diversion of sewage pipelines that currently drain into waterways, are being ignored due to lack of funding.

Three out of five children do not have access to safe water services.

Further, foreign oil companies, attempting to capitalize on rising oil prices in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, use large amounts of what little water is available to pump into the ground to extract oil. Such companies construct dams and pumps to use water for their own purposes, leaving residents behind and devastating the livelihoods of those who work in farming and fishing. It is estimated that one plant used by BP and ExxonMobil consumes a quarter of the daily water available in its operating region. Again, this is an area where government intervention is possible, and many have suggested that Iraq adopt the practices of other nearby oil-producing nations and use water pumped from the sea. Yet discussions on doing so in Iraq have occurred for more than a decade with no action, as the government again claims that it does not have the budget to do so and the oil companies using local water have no desire to pay for such initiatives themselves. The Iraqi government has also shown little interest in diversifying from dependence on oil revenues, despite the relation of fossil fuel consumption to climate change. While these oil and gas companies continue to report record profits, the country that they are exploiting for its natural resources has not kept pace. In terms of development, the World Bank continues to consider Iraq a low income country.

In addition to low levels of economic development, Iraq has seen little progress on important areas of social development as well. Long before the American invasion, women were lacking significant rights in the country, and decades of war have led to high numbers of widowed women and orphaned children, further marginalizing women and girls. Of the 10 percent of Iraqi women who are the heads of their households, about 80 percent are widows. These women face extra barriers finding work, and when working face a greater risk of gender-based violence and harassment. Women whose husbands disappeared during the war have trouble obtaining a death certificate, making it impossible for them to remarry. And women who lived in areas that were at some point claimed by IS face accusations of being sympathizers of its brutal regime, further cutting them off from opportunities.

Today, many women who were fortunate enough to escape the brutality of war itself face the brutality of their own state regime. Iraqi men are still legally permitted to “discipline” their wives and children with actions that would widely be recognized as abuse. At the same time, there are no domestic abuse laws, leaving vulnerable women with few options. The Iraqi penal code mandates that the punishment for killing one’s wife or other female relative is a maximum of three years in prison. Iraqi women are also still subject to strict cultural codes of conduct that limit how they can dress and act. Within the past few years, several women who dared to publicly subvert these expectations were murdered, some in public. Iraq also performs dismally in terms of women in the workforce, ranking near the bottom of the Global Gender Index. Just over 13 percent of adult Iraqi women work, and women spend about a quarter of their time on unpaid caregiving and household labor (compared to 4 percent for men). Women also hold only around 26 percent of the country’s legislative seats, limiting their much-needed representation.

The Future of Iraq

Of Iraq’s more than 40 million residents, about half are too young to remember life under sanctions, the rule of Saddam Hussein, or the initial invasion of their country. Despite the country’s many challenges, many feel that there is a chance for stability and a bright future. Iraq’s youth are leading protests, participating in politics, and challenging the harsh cultural and political norms that limit their growth and potential. For many in the country’s urban centers like Baghdad, life resembles that of the other large centers in the region, with challenges that transcend borders, including corruption, lack of employment, and poor social services, but with a much lower risk of experiencing the violence that continues to plague smaller pockets in the country. Other parts of Iraq that were decimated by war, Fallujah for example, are slowly being rebuilt, in part with millions of dollars in funding from the US government.

Iraq has a long list of priorities to address if it wants to emerge from the violence, instability, and repression that were exacerbated by the American invasion, including tackling corruption, managing sectarian tensions, and improving the station of its most marginalized people, especially women and girls. To meet the challenges of its future—most urgently, the consequences of climate change—urgent reforms are needed at all levels. While the current government does not appear to have the political will to meet the moment, many of the country’s citizens are making it clear that they expect and demand better. And after the social, political, and economic devastation the country has faced for decades, they certainly deserve it.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: US DoD/Edwin Bridges