On the 17th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, casualties of the war need to be assessed, to inform our understanding of the ‘war on terror’, its effects and its usefulness. Since 2003 the conflict has escalated, spilled over, subsided and flared up several times. Research in documented civilian deaths through the work of Iraq Body Count, within the framework of a discussion on security and democracy, can address questions on loss, on threats and on freedom. As another anniversary of the invasion arrives, with the war still ongoing, what has this war achieved and what has been lost?
Khudaer Muhammad Abdullah, 49, and his wife had already lost 2 sons; 19-year-old Muazzaz was kidnapped and killed last year, while 21-year-old Saad was killed by a suicide bomber last month, at the police academy in Kirkuk.
‘On Sunday he lost his last son, and his 4-year-old daughter is now hospitalized with serious wounds. His last son, Muhammad Khudaer Muhammad, 7, was killed when part of a rocket-propelled grenade exploded on a vacant lot where he was playing soccer with three other children, according to police reports. Muhammad was killed instantly in the blast. His friend Ahmed Hamid Jelu, 9, lost both legs and died at a hospital shortly afterward. Two other children — Hassan Dhaya, 7, and Muhammad’s sister, Ahlan Khudaer Muhammad — were seriously wounded (New York Times, 3 November 2008).
That week 109 civilians had lost their lives in Iraq. 10 of them were children.
The biggest and gravest casualty of the ‘war on terror’ has been life. According to Iraq Body Count, in Iraq alone nearly 208,000 civilians have lost their lives so far, of which 7,300 were children.
The breakdown of the past year’s casualty count demonstrates the constancy in civilian deaths:
Since the last anniversary of the invasion more than 2,000 Iraqi civilians have died in airstrikes, explosions, shootings and summary executions.
The bodies of Iraqis feature in reports, now lifeless, as though they had always been inanimate
In this ‘war on terror’, images of Iraq must include the coffins, those cheap-looking boxes with Arabic writing adorning their sides, on the shoulders of men, young and old. They must also include the bodies: bullet-riddled, decomposed, unidentified, dumped or buried in mass graves. The bodies of Iraqis feature in reports, now lifeless, as though they had always been inanimate. “58 bodies were found in a mass grave in Tal Afar,” read the reports, or “2 bodies with signs of torture were found in Mosul,” or “the bodies of 22 children were pulled from the rubble following the military operations launched by the joint forces and militia with the support of the international coalition forces in Mosul”, or “two unidentified bodies were found in Mahaweel”.
There are always bodies, without names, without identities, as if they had never been someone’s sons, daughters, parents. Such loss may leave many of us untouched, for we are far from the violence, strangers to the dead and unaffected by the grief of the living: the screaming mothers outside the morgue, the sobbing child next to a pool of blood, the father carrying his child’s body, shrouded in white and ready for its early grave. But it is a grief they bear, a loss they suffer and an anger that persists.
The clear and biggest losers of this war are the Iraqis. The 2003 invasion and occupation of their country brought them death, terror and insecurity. Alongside the 208,000 Iraqi civilians, 4,547 American soldiers and 179 British soldiers have also lost their lives.
Iraq is the perfect example of physical, political and economic insecurity, displaying a staggering and continuing loss of life, loss of freedom and loss of resources. A weak state, Iraq faces security threats not only from outside, but also internally, with the ruling elites trying to establish effective state rule and provoking protest and insurgency.
Opening the Iraqi economy to foreign investment contributed to a dystopian economy and a failed state
Despite it being declared a democracy, Iraq lacks regime security. The violence of the system has led to social and economic injustice, physical and psychological trauma, insurgency, counter-insurgency, fragmentation and daily criminal violence and insecurity in all sectors: food, health, community, economic, political and personal security. Through the guidance and assistance of the IMF and the World Bank, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region pursued neoliberal economic policies which led to great income inequalities and a concentration of wealth among the small political elite.
Opening the Iraqi economy to foreign investment contributed to a dystopian economy and a failed state, mass poverty and youth unemployment, corrupt Iraqi governments and an increasingly disaffected population.
Anti-government protests have erupted on a regular basis in Iraq since 2015, but the protests of September 2019 – March 2020 are the largest and bloodiest. For seven months, protesters have taken to the streets in towns and cities across the country to demand jobs, basic services and an end to corruption. Hundreds of young people have been killed and thousands of others wounded in clashes with security forces. The killing of civilians by government forces is not new in Iraq; since it became a ‘democracy’ in 2005, the state has killed around 6,000 civilians.
Mapping the conflict and its casualties can change our understanding of this war and any war, from one of liberators, of democratisation and triumph of intervention, to one of hegemony, oppression and the ruthless killing of innocents.
Inevitably, security concerns in the Middle East are directly linked to security concerns in western states, the UK included: the persistent threat of terrorism, the impact of the UK Counter Terrorism Strategy (CONTEST), especially Prevent (which involves the policing and collecting of intelligence on the Muslim population), of the creation of suspect communities and the influx of refugees. The ‘war on terror’ and its impact on the security of Iraq and its citizens allows us to re-assess strategy, foreign policy and our quest to promote democracy to client states. It also raises questions regarding the use of force and liberation through domination.
The casualties of this war are numerous: life, security and liberty –in Iraq, in the Middle East and, to a small extent, in western countries. As to the winners of this war, they are the extremists and anyone who has become richer and more powerful: the global corporations and armaments industry. The financial security complex: the money men.