Talk of ‘invasion’ and ‘occupation’ ignores the effect on a long-suffering minority
When I walked towards the memorial in Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan a fortnight ago to attend the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the genocide, I passed by a seemingly endless stream of images. Men. Women. Children. Entire families. All of them victims of Saddam Hussein’s crime regime. The walls inside the monument are engraved with their names – a bridge between the past and the present.
On March 16, 1988, life was forever changed beyond recognition for the people of Kurdistan. In the early hours of Friday evening, a strange smell filled the air over Halabja. It resembled the scent of fresh apples. What actually rained down was a toxic cocktail of mustard gas and nerve agents.
The perfect weapon. The invisible death.
Before they knew the truth, birds were falling from the sky and bodies started piling up in the streets. Some died in their sleep. Others suffocated at work. Still others were found sitting up as if only lost in thought. Some just dropped dead.
Others painfully choked on their own vomit or suffered severe burning and blistering. Children sought the shelter of their mothers’ arms but there was no escape. Two days of conventional artillery attacks had destroyed all sanctuaries. The thanatophoric gas was everywhere, mercilessly and indiscriminately filling the lungs of the infants, young and old.
5000 Iraqi Kurds died within seconds. Thousands more were disfigured. The overwhelming majority of them were civilians. They had attacked no one. Their only “crime” was to be Kurdish.
Halabja became a ghost town and it was as if the human race had been eradicated.
The attack was part of the wider genocidal Al-Anfal campaign, initiated by the Iraqi Ba’athists, which claimed over 182,000 lives. Out of 4,655 villages roughly 90% were destroyed and between April 1987 and August 1988, 250 towns and villages were exposed to chemical weapons. It was the first time a government used such weapons against its own civilian population.
Saddam Hussein was a modern-day Hitler. When I visited one of his concentration camps, the Red House in Sulaymaniyah, it starkly reminded me of Auschwitz. Women were gang-raped for hours in what the prison guards called “party rooms”; men faced mutilation and death in the most barbaric fashion in the notorious torture chambers; foetuses and babies were burnt in incinerators.
The Kurds have experienced their own Holocaust. The crusade against them was not simply a by-product of the Iraq-Iran war but a deliberate act of genocide – the crime of all crimes – the aim to annihilate an entire people.
25 years later, the people of Kurdistan are struggling with their bloody past. It will always be a scar on the soul of the Kurdish nation and will forever be embedded in their collective identity. But there is reason for hope. Their hearts have not been consumed by darkness. While they are still grieving and hurting, they have little appetite for vengeance. The Kurds have learnt an essential lesson: hatred only leads to more suffering and death.
Such spirit was reflected in the motto of the anniversary celebrations – “From Denial To Recognition. From Destruction To Construction. From Tears To Hope”. Kurdistan is now the most prosperous and democratic part of Iraq. As British-Kurdish Member of Parliament Nadhim Zahawi – a speaker at the genocide conference in Erbil – pointed out, Kurdistan has become one of the safest places for Christians in the Middle East. Business is booming. New houses are being built on every corner. The peace is fragile, life is not perfect, but when you talk to ordinary people you realise just how far the region has come.
Whatever you may think of the controversial war in 2003, for the Kurds it came as liberation rather than an invasion or occupation. The vast majority hold no animosity towards America or Britain. In fact, they are grateful for the roles we played in the removal of Saddam Hussein.
To say that he possessed no WMDs is not a popular thing to say with people still suffering from the consequences of the very same weapons; and the argument, made by some of the opponents of the war, that the Ba’athist regime someone provided stability and contained Iran is perceived as a hideous excuse and apology for genocide and ethnic-cleansing.
Ten years later, the opinion of Iraqis is virtually absent from the debate in the West. If we ever want to gain a balanced and nuanced view of the complexities of the lead-up to the war, it is time to give the victims of Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror the attention they deserve.
Post was published in The Independent.
I talked to Damian Counsell of Ricochet in a wide-ranging conversation about my recent visit to Iraqi Kurdistan to mark the 25th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s genocide against its people; why the survivors viewed Allied action as a liberation; the surprising preference of many Kurds for Turkey over the United States as a future partner, and the meaning of humanitarian intervention 10 years after the Iraq War.
Allow me to make one thing clear in advance: this post is written from the perspective of someone who strongly supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and still maintains the same position. I am not claiming to be entirely unbiased.
That said, I always accepted, then and now, that there were legitimate reasons against the war. As with every complex foreign policy decision, different alternatives were evaluated and genuine pro and contra arguments presented for each possibility. It is a natural, democratic process and one that should be welcomed because, if we take such far-reaching decisions that have a severe impact on our own people and others, we should make sure that all opinions are represented in the process of the debate.
I have great respect for many of the people who opposed the invasion right from the start, including family members and close friends, and also for those who, over the cause of the war, shifted their standpoint from a pro-war to a contra-war position like, for instance, Professor Norman Geras.
Yes, I even understand them in a way. There were moments when I myself had severe doubts over some aspects of the invasion, although I can say in all honesty that I never came close to the point where I felt that we got it completely wrong and should have left Iraq alone. I still believe the removal of Saddam was a moral and just cause and that the positive implications outbalance the negative ones.
In particular, I had issues with several of the US-led coalition’s post-war policies, like the disbanding of the Iraqi army and the De-Ba’athification. The greatest mistake, in my view, was the American exit policy. After the surge of 2007 under the leadership of General Petraeus, it was fair to say, for the first time, that we won the peace in Iraq. But when the Obama administration pulled out too quickly and over-hastily, the situation began to deteriorate again and that was the moment we once more lost the peace in Iraq.
This brings me back to my original point about the pro and contra arguments for the invasion. The greatest issue I have with the opposition to the war is that a significant part of the anti-war movement opposed the invasion not for the right but all the wrong reasons.
In fact, very few of those who marched on the streets of London 10 years ago, had previously spoken out against the intolerable cruelties committed by Saddam’s fascist regime against his own people. Unlike, for instance Tony Blair, who already spoke about the brutal and inhumane nature of Saddam’s rule in the 1990s, long before the Bush administration took office.
Too many of those who were protesting against the war were doing it because of their own, petty politics. As Nick Cohen pointed out, the anti-war movement united the worst elements of the Left – an amalgam of Marxist Leninists, George Galloway fanboys, and radical Islamists. Their motives were not so much rooted in the humanitarian tradition and a genuine concern for the Iraqi people, but were rather an expression of their deep-rooted anti-Western and anti-establishment sentiments.
Opposition to the war per se was a legitimate and moral position to hold. The tragedy is that the movement was hijacked by individuals with a highly suspicious agenda, who used it for their own ideological and political crusade against those who they despise.
The wellbeing of the Iraqi people was never really central to their cause.
What saddens me is that 10 years later we are basically still stuck in the same level of ignorance. Three points, in particular, are worth addressing.
First of all, as John Rentoul wrote the other day, the opinion of Iraqis is almost entirely absent from the debate, with the possible exception of the Kurds, whose position is rather well-known, as a result of a long history of suffering under Saddam’s regime. But we still know very little about the thoughts of average Iraqis. My prediction is that we would not find a clear cut set of opinion. Neither would the vast majority say that the war was a success, nor that the war was a total failure. Rather, I predict, we would get a variety of views with some arguing that, on balance, they are better off or, on balance, they are worse off. Furthermore, I would expect the result to be different now than, let’s say, three or four years ago. Ever since the pull-out of the Americans, the situation has deteriorated again and, at the moment, Iraq is also suffering not only from internal Shia-Sunni strife, but spill-over effects from the war in Syria. In recent months, we have seen a sharp increase in terrorist attacks, as Assad’s murderous campaign allowed al-Qaida to slip back into Iraq.
The second point is that the counter-argument is also almost entirely absent from the debate. While it is, of course, rested exclusively on hypotheses, it would be wrong not to take into account the scenario of Iraq still being ruled by Saddam and the implications entailed – a consideration made by Fraser Nelson.
And finally, it is quite tragic that we still cannot have a “moderate” debate about the war in Iraq in which both sides acknowledge that they got some things wrong and some things right. For people like myself that means to admit that, while, on balance, removing Saddam was the right thing to do, we got several things terribly wrong which led to chaos and bloodshed. It is important to learn the right lessons from Iraq, especially if we are going to advocate interventions in the future. At the same time, it is of critical importance not to overlearn the lessons of Iraq. Just because we did not get everything right, does not mean that intervention is always wrong and always causes more harm than good. Several examples, such as Sierra Leone and Kosovo, have proven the opposite. The Iraq war did not discredit the notion of liberal interventionism altogether and it would only be fair of those who opposed the war to acknowledge that we, too, had genuine and legitimate reasons to support the overthrow of a totalitarian, fascist regime.
Only when we start meeting in the middle and realise that Iraq was so much more than a clear cut case, a black and white, right and wrong decision, we can do the debate justice. Apparently, 10 years were not enough, as became clear during the event organised by Huffington Post’s Mehdi Hasan the other week. Maybe, we have to wait another 20 years and leave it to the historians to have an open-minded and intellectually rigorous discussion about the war. In the end, only the Iraqis themselves can determine whether the war was, after all, a success story. And that maybe is also a call too early to make.