North Africa, West Asia: Feature

The deadly legacy of 20 years of US 'War on Terror' in Iraq

The occupation of Iraq drained the country’s resources and left a legacy of economic crisis, energy shortages, increased sectarianism and violence

Lily Hamourtziadou Bülent Gökay
10 September 2021, 12.01am
The mass killings of Iraqis commenced on 19 March 2003, with the ‘shock and awe’ bombing of Baghdad
Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

Twenty years ago, the 9/11 attacks unleashed the so-called ‘War on Terror’”, which began with the US invasion of Afghanistan that same year. It was followed by the invasion of Iraq two years later in what was dubbed ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ – and its impact is still being felt across the country today.

In the intervening years, the narrative of the ‘War on Terror’ has become one of justifications, explanations, accusations and an absence of accountability that left a destroyed and plundered state and a people that is still fighting for their rights. Its legacy is in the names and faces of the innocent, of the helpless and the poor, the millions of refugees, the bodies picked up from the streets of Iraqi cities, buried in mass graves, unidentified and unclaimed.

Since the invasion, Iraq Body Count has recorded between 185,000 and 209,000 civilian deaths as a result of violence. The number grows to 288,000 when combatants are included.

The coalition alone has killed over 24,000 Iraqi civilians, and that number grows to 33,000 when we include those killed by Iraqi state forces.

During the 2003-2017 period, Iraq Body Count recorded the killings of over 7,000 Iraqi children, among them 932 are attributed to the Islamic State, while twice as many were killed by the US-UK coalition. Estimates suggest that over 7,400 Iraqi children have been killed up to 2021, with over 1,000 deaths attributed to the Islamic State, and twice as many killed by the US-UK coalition.

The mass killings of Iraqis commenced on 19 March 2003, with the ‘shock and awe’ bombing of Baghdad. Millions sat transfixed before their TV screens, watching as bombs and missiles exploded. The reports came with the warning that they contained flashing images. True enough, the sky over Baghdad flashed orange and golden, the sounds of war filling our ears. The narrative of terror that began that day was to last for years: terror from the sky, terror on the ground, terror from the foreign soldier, terror from one’s neighbour.

Baghdad ablaze on the first night of the Shock and Awe coalition bombing
Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

The victims were people from all walks of life: shepherds, fishermen, construction workers, street cleaners, doctors, clerics, journalists, politicians, policemen, housewives… killed as they walked, slept, drove, or changed a tyre.

Images of the last 20 years include wooden coffins, bodies in white shrouds, the names and faces of those killed – some smiling in old photographs – and many blown-out cars. There are also stories of heroes, like 18-year-old vendor Ahmed Draiwel, who picked up a bomb and ran with it, away from the busy market, in Sadr City in March of 2007. He was the only one who died when it exploded.

Thousands of civilians have been killed each year, since the night of the flashing images. At its peak, the terror claimed 29,027 in 2006; at its calmest, 902 in 2020. but 18 years on, the deaths continue.


In July 2021, as summer temperatures reached scorching levels, hundreds of Iraqis poured into the streets to protest widespread power outages in Baghdad and the country’s southern provinces. In Basra demonstrators blocked highways and burned tyres.

There have been regular waves of anti-government protests since 2015. Between September and December 2019 the country witnessed the largest and bloodiest protests since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. This year, the main grievance is chronic electricity cuts.

Iraqis have been frustrated by the lack of clean water and electricity, widespread poverty, high levels of unemployment, government corruption, and dismal prospects for the largely young population.

The common explanation of the protests in Western media is “poor government service delivery ” and “rampant corruption”. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, joined them in explaining the “total collapse of the electricity supply” as the result of “enormous state corruption in Iraq, with billions in oil money disappearing to private pockets”. This is also the official line presented by US government agencies, which criticise the corruption, incompetence, and mismanagement at the Iraqi Ministry of Electricity, as well as blaming “wasteful consumption by some Iraqis who treat electricity as an entitlement to be received at a very low fee or at no cost at all”.

A costly invasion

But putting the blame solely on the failure of the Iraqi authorities and people to improve life and employment conditions in the country ignores the fact that the 2003 invasion, followed by the military occupation lasting until 2011, drained the country’s resources. The occupation allowed Western multinationals to exploit Iraqi resources with almost no control from the government.

In fact, the current sad state of Iraq’s economy and institutions is the direct result of historical and geographical factors that include the devastating impact of imperialism and exploitation that continue to this day.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq, led by the George W Bush administration, destroyed all existing political and economic institutions, aiming to turn Iraq into a “neoliberal utopia”. When Saddam Hussein’s regime was defeated and replaced by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), headed by Paul Bremer, a series of extensive neoliberal measures were quickly introduced.

Within a month, 200 Iraqi state-owned companies were privatised, and corporate tax was reduced from 45% to 15%. Foreign firms were also allowed to retain 100% of their Iraqi assets. Furthermore, Iraq’s oil revenues, the main source for state expenses, were put into the US-dominated Development Fund for Iraq (DFI). This was held in an account at the Federal Reserve in New York and used for restructuring expenditure.

According to US government-sponsored audit reports to the US Congress in January 2005, from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), there was poor government oversight and subcontracting procedures which allowed questionable costs to go undetected. The CPA provided less than adequate controls for approximately $8.8bn of the Development Fund for Iraq, and did not establish or implement sufficient managerial, financial, and contractual controls to ensure that funds were used in a transparent manner.

Consequently, there was no assurance that the funds were used for the purposes of meeting the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people, the economic reconstruction and repair of Iraq’s infrastructure, or any other purposes benefiting the people of Iraq.

Plundering a state

When the 2003 war started, the economy of Iraq was already in shambles, with the country having gone through the eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s, the first Gulf War of 1990-91, and the UN-imposed financial and trade embargo since 1990.

In the first year of the occupation, more than 70 American companies and individuals, (including Halliburton, Bechtel and Bearing Point) won reconstruction contracts, largely paid for from Iraqi funds. During the same period, Iraqi firms received just 2% of the value of contracts paid for from Iraqi funds.

Research from 2013 by the Financial Times showed that the top ten contractors secured business worth at least $72bn between them. Professor David Whyte of Liverpool University describes the economic performance of the Coalition Provisional Authority as “one of the most audacious and spectacular crimes of theft in modern history”.

"The suspension of the normal rule of law by the occupying powers,” Whyte wrote,

encouraged Coalition Provisional Authority tolerance of, and participation in, the theft of public funds in Iraq. State-corporate criminality in the case of occupied Iraq must therefore be understood as part of a wider strategy of political and economic domination.

When the war in Iraq officially ended in 2011, with President Barack Obama declaring the withdrawal of the troops, a deeply traumatised country was left behind, with a totally bankrupt economy.

Economists say Iraq's poverty rate may have shot up from 20% in 2018 to 30% or more last year, meaning 12 million Iraqis currently live below the poverty line. In 2019, the estimated youth unemployment rate in Iraq was 25%, in a country where almost 60% of the population is under 25.

12 million Iraqis currently live below the poverty line
ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

The draconian measures undertaken after the 2003 invasion left behind a seriously weakened Iraq in every sense. A large amount of Iraq’s money was paid to US contractors to implement local projects, many of them never finished, drowned in a sea of bureaucracy, corruption and open theft. No one knew how many such contractors were hired and how much they were paid for their tasks, many of which remained unfinished. In 2009, there were about 13,000 contractors employed by US agencies according to Societies Without Borders.

There are, of course, many immediate local reasons for this failure, from increasing security concerns to the violent civil war in next door Syria, to longstanding divisions of the country along ethnic and religious lines. However, the desperate state of the economy, lack of opportunities for the local people, and sharply increased corruption as a result of contracting systems put in place by the US, have seriously contributed to the miserable state of affairs.

At times these different factors converge, and at times they pull against one another, but the state of the economy has remained as the most significant context and the obstacle for any Iraqi government to deal with the serious problems faced by the country.

Fuel wars

Despite vast energy reserves, Iraq relies heavily on Iranian gas to feed its power grid. It imports roughly 1.5 billion standard cubic feet of Iranian gas per day via pipelines in the south and east and uses Iranian natural gas to supply 40% of its electricity needs, according to official estimates. Iraq practically relies on Iranian gas for nearly half of its energy, gas that is now subject to US sanctions.

Despite the end of official occupation in 2011, Washington maintains a strong influence and can exert pressure over affairs in Iraq. And Iraq is increasingly becoming a theatre for the conflict between the United States and Iran, with deadly air raids on pro-Iranian militias the latest demonstration of this.

Iraq after the invasion lacked the capacity to cope with the total breakdown of security and it continues to suffer its effects
Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

The US government has continuously insisted that Iraq must quickly achieve “energy independence” and seek “alternative and diversified” energy imports away from Iran. Pushing Iraq towards energy independence is part of a wider US policy of isolating Iran economically, while at the same time taking advantage of Iraq’s expansive energy resources by securing favourable contracts (partly by replacing Iranian imports).

In 2017, President Trump called for Washington to seize Iraqi oil as repayment for money spent waging war in the region. In December 2018, US Energy Secretary Rick Perry urged the Iraqi government to reduce its dependence on Iran and open its energy sector to US investment.

In 2019, Reuters reported that US industrial giant General Electric potentially stands to win a large share of multibillion-dollar contracts to rebuild Iraq’s electricity system. The contracts include equipment to capture natural gas that is currently being burned off. Intense US lobbying was reportedly behind Iraq’s decision to include GE in the megadeal along with Germany’s Siemens AG, which had been well positioned to win the lion’s share of contracts.

Since 2019, mass demonstrations have shocked areas of southern Iraq, as well as parts of Baghdad, after Iran stopped supplying electricity to Iraq because of unpaid bills. Crippled by US economic sanctions, Iran has been pressuring the Iraqi government to settle unpaid energy bills. On top of these, the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced Iraq’s oil revenues and left it with a significantly reduced budget, preventing it from increasing both its domestic natural gas production capacity and its ability for capturing associated gas and using it for power generation.

A deep crisis in the Iraqi energy sector might seem to show that Iraq’s energy problems can only be solved by allowing Western energy giants to run the sector. This is something that the US government and multinational energy companies would be more than happy to see.

No democracy, no freedom

Since the invasion, all ‘democratically elected’ governments in Iraq have been supported by the US-UK coalition.

The new Iraq is vulnerable to internal and external threats, both military and political. Since its first democratic election, the country has shown the weakness and inadequacy of its political actors: their policies, their legitimacy, their planning and control.

The country is characterised by segregation as well as inequalities of wealth and social disorganisation. The growing sectarian identities and insurgencies, among a population increasingly poor, miserable, displaced and dying in horrific daily violence, has become the biggest threat to the security of state and society.

Already poor under Saddam Hussein, Iraq after the invasion lacked the capacity to cope with the total breakdown of security and it continues to suffer its effects.

The new Iraq faces threats to human rights, human dignity and human life. Its lack of development, services and resources, its food scarcity, poverty and unemployment, mean that there is still no ‘freedom from want’. The human rights violations, as well as the daily terrorist attacks, mean there is no ‘freedom from fear’. The lack of good governance, in a state supported and maintained largely by occupying forces, has meant that there is no ‘freedom to live in dignity’.

The result is a country filled with criminals and warlords, run by a corrupt regime, with an alienated and marginalised population

Even as the occupation was officially nearing its end, the damage done to Iraq went beyond the personal safety of its citizens; it extended to the identity and values of its communities, their sense of belonging and of being protected, their sense of living in a ‘homeland’. This damage has proven to be long-lasting.

The result is a country filled with criminals and warlords, run by a corrupt regime, with an alienated and marginalised population, an economy in crisis and, tragically, an annual death toll from armed conflict and terrorist attacks in the hundreds. Since the start of the year, in just eight months, Iraq Body Count has documented 465 civilian deaths, including 37 children.

The rising global demand for energy, combined with fears of dwindling supplies and increased instability in energy-rich regions, ensures that the sources, locations and stability of world energy supplies remain core concerns for security, at national and international levels. But in attempting to ensure the stability of supplies, global powers are increasingly militarising their approach to energy security, as we see in many conflict areas across the Global South and especially in the Middle East.

In energy-rich states, oil wealth is directly linked to regime security but often fails to filter down to the wider population. This also has a profound impact on human security, especially for those living in oil-rich regions in the South, where armed force is used to ‘stabilise’ the energy supply. The paradox is that Iraq, an energy- rich state, suffers from energy insecurity which affects the quality of life and hinders economic recovery.

Narratives presenting the recent protests as evidence that Iraq’s problems are only internal and that the solution must come from the West running its vital sectors, fail to see the crucial role played by Western exploitation and plundering of Iraq’s resources, and the West’s political support of Iraq’s corrupt political elite. This is the legacy of the ‘War on Terror’.

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