The Current

How the invasion of Iraq still haunts the country 20 years later

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was done on the promise of freedom, but the country is still mired in political violence and corruption two decades later.

‘One of the casualties of this war has been democracy itself, or the concept of democracy’: Iraqi journalist

A U.S. marine tank sets up position in front of a painting of Saddam Hussein in Nasiriyah, Iraq.
A tank from the United States Marine Task Force Tarawa sets up position in front of a painting of Saddam Hussein in Nasiriyah, Iraq, on March 24, 2003. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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When a U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003, it was under the promise of liberating Iraqis from the regime of Saddam Hussein and setting them on course for democracy.

But soon after their invasion, it became clear to Iraqis like journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad that those promises weren't going to come true. 

"The promises were made false — were clearly false within probably a month, two months from the invasion," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

The invasion involved the combined forces of the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Poland. Their goal, along with toppling Hussein's dictatorship, was to destroy Iraq's alleged supply of weapons of mass destruction.

But those weapons didn't exist, and while Hussein was eventually toppled, it came at a significant expense of Iraqi lives. According to Iraq Body Count, a public database of violent civilian deaths since the 2003 invasion, roughly 200,000 civilians have died from violence since the invasion began. 

Abdul-Ahad, author of the new book A Stranger in Your Own City, remembers what it was like being in Iraq when the coalition first invaded the country. In the book, he writes about a man who imagined what the neighbourhood would look like if the U.S. fixed their problems. 

"He says, 'The Americans.... They have these huge machines and they will turn everything so beautiful,'" said Abdul-Ahad.

"But then you see the Americans standing there, allowing the looting to happen, allowing the infrastructure to be destroyed."

WATCH | What Iraqi women lost during the 2003 U.S. invasion:

Now, 20 years later, Iraqis like Abdul-Ahad say their country is still picking up the pieces from the war and they see the current political system as corrupt — while the invasion appears, in hindsight, more shocking as time goes on.

"Words like parliament and democracy are so soiled by this corruption that when you talk to the young Iraqis … parliament means corruption, means parliamentarian with convoys of cars, means contract sanction," he said.

"That is a big problem. So one of the casualties of this war has been democracy itself, or the concept of democracy."

'A Faustian deal'

Throughout his life in Iraq, Abdul-Ahad saw war and sanctions, often involving the U.S. and other Western countries. He was five years old when the U.S. backed Iraq in their war against Iran, and 15 when the U.S. spearheaded a bombing campaign of his country.

He told Galloway that Iraq was a broken country at the time of the invasion, and many Iraqis — including those in Hussein's army — just wanted to get rid of Hussein, even if it meant working with the Americans.

"I think only a fool would have imagined at that time — and probably I was a fool too — that an American occupation would lead to something better," he said. 

"But it was a Faustian deal, because a lot of Iraqis, even Saddam's old generals, were ready to get rid of him. Because he was a dictator, he was leading the country from one war to another."

In this April 9, 2003 file photo, Iraqi civilians and U.S. soldiers pull down a statue of Saddam Hussein in downtown Baghdad, Iraq, April 9, 2003.
In this April 9, 2003, file photo, Iraqi civilians and U.S. soldiers pull down a statue of Saddam Hussein in downtown Baghdad, Iraq, (Jerome Delay/The Associated Press)

Hussein's government and military collapsed during the invasion of Iraq, and on April 9, 2003, American-led forces captured Baghdad and toppled his statue. A month later, then U.S. president George W. Bush declared the end of major combat operations.

The Coalition Provisional Authority was established shortly after as the first of several successive transitional governments, leading up to the first Iraqi parliamentary election in January 2005.

But according to Abdul-Ahad, this political system had its own issues, due to being based on sectarian, ethnic divisions between Iraq's Shia, Sunni and Kurdish populations.

"We call it muhasasa in Arabic, which means each sect's political party would take a share from the state, as if they were spoils," he said. "This party takes this ministry, the other party takes that department, and they siphon public money and they used it to build their own patronage network."

Louisa Loveluck, the Washington Post's Baghdad bureau chief, says the system backed by the U.S.-led coalition is a contributor to the current state of Iraq.

"The U.S.-led coalition, it backed a political system which institutionalized the sorts of problems which have led to the majority of Iraqis today being disenfranchised," she told Galloway. "They cannot provide clean water. They cannot even provide clean air."

"While there may not be open violence, there really is very little sense of hope for people that things are going to get better."

Iraq's next generation

Two decades after the invasion, Loveluck spoke to a generation of children that grew up without Hussein in power but still had to grapple with the war's legacy.

"They've grown up not really having a say in anything," she said. "And now in 2023, they basically have to reckon with the fact that for them to be Iraqi at this stage, it is … not to have a say in their future in the grandest sense."

Abdul-Ahad said he sees hope in the next generation of Iraqis.

"If you ask me what's positive in Iraq, 20 years later, I would tell you this new generation," he said, adding that they're pushing back against sectarianism and militias.

"But, of course, what remains missing is accountability — accountability to the people who led the war, who executed the war and the Iraqi military commanders who killed other Iraqis."

Produced by Samira Mohyeddin and Samantha Lui. 

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