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On the 15th anniversary of “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” CODEPINK’s Medea Benjamin and scholar Sabah Alnasseri discuss the war that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and more than 4,500 American troops–and that changed Iraq and the Middle East forever

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. The invasion of Iraq led by the U.S. and British forces began on March 19, 2003 with these words by President Bush and former prime minister of the UK, Tony Blair.

GEORGE W. BUSH: My fellow citizens at this hour American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.

TONY BLAIR: It concludes that Iraq has chemical and biological weapons that Saddam has continued to produce them, that he has existing and active military plans for the use of chemical or biological weapons which could be activated within 45 minutes including against his own Shia population.

SHARMINI PERIES: Leading up to the war in Iraq, we heard an echo chamber of rationalizations for the upcoming attack. Here is Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

DONALD RUMSFELD: The United States knows that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. Any country on the face of the earth with an active intelligence program knows that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction.

COLIN POWELL: One of the most worrisome things that emerges from the thick intelligence file we have on Iraq’s biological weapons is the existence of mobile production facilities used to make biological agents.

SHARMINI PERIES: It was a war that completely destroyed Iraq and changed the dynamics of the Middle East forever. During the initial invasion which lasted about six weeks three 380,000 coalition troops were dispatched 192 were from the US and 45,000 were British soldiers, and 70,000 were Kurdish Peshmerga troops.

The Iraqi Republic’s guard were approximately the same number but did not have the firepower of the US military forces. During those initial six weeks, nearly 200 coalition troops were killed and somewhere between 30 and 45,000 Iraqi troops were killed, and over 7,000 Iraqi civilians were killed. President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney demanded swift action and justified it by saying it was to seize Iraq’s unconventional weapons or weapons of mass destruction.

GEORGE W. BUSH: The choice is his. And if he does not disarm, the United States of America will lead a coalition and disarm him in the name of peace.

DONALD RUMSFELD: There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us.

SHARMINI PERIES: Well, it was not swift US troops stayed in Iraq and continued the war for eight more years until 2011. Coalition casualties including the Iraqi security forces under US command and contractors from private companies reached over 25,000 dead with nearly 120,000 injured. Iraqi combatants suffered losses of about 37,000 civilians, however, paid the heaviest price with estimates ranging from 151,000 dead to over 600,000.

On to discuss the devastation caused by the US, and UK and its coalition, I’m joined by two guests who have followed what happened in Iraq on a daily basis since the initial attacks. I’m joined by Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink. Thanks for joining us Medea

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Thanks for having me.

SHARMINI PERIES: And we are joined by Sabah Alnasseri, professor at the department of political science at York University in Toronto. Thanks for joining us today Sabah.
SABAH ALNASSERI: Good to be with you, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Medea, let’s go back 15 years when President Bush announced that US is going to war in Iraq. What were your thoughts and what did you do?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: I had just returned from Iraq with a group of Code Pink women and we had gone there to see what women in Iraq were thinking. And we came back with the sense of urgency to try to stop the war because they were so afraid of what a war would mean to their families.

Many of them obviously did not like Saddam Hussein but certainly didn’t want to be “liberated” by the US government through bombs. And so, as soon as we come back from Iraq in February we were organizing of just feverishly, and we thought that somehow as good American citizens if we did our job and mobilized lots of people that we would be able to change our government’s policies. We did our job as citizens, we did mobilize tremendous mobilizations like the largest one, global mobilization in history on February 15, 2003, but unfortunately it was not enough to stop George Bush. And on that fateful day of March 19, 2003 when he announced the US was going to invade, I remember just running out to the White House as we had been on a four-month vigil saying no to the war and being met by people who had come all over from Washington D.C. hugging each other, crying and feeling like a disaster was in the making.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Medea, describe February 15th and what we saw around the globe that didn’t matter to Bush and Cheney, and his administration.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: It was a remarkable time when millions of people came out on the streets all over the world in one loud beautiful voice saying, “The world says no to war.” I went down in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest anti-war mobilization. It sent a message to governments around the world that the global community did not support this. Unfortunately, George Bush called us a focus group, although, the next day the New York Times came out and said that we were the second superpower global world opinion. And indeed if you look not at public opinion in the United States which was very divided, but public opinion globally was very united saying this would be a disaster, and the US and its allies had no right invading Iraq.

SHARMINI PERIES: Sabah, now in that statement on the 19th of March President Bush said that when he was speaking to the nation he said that US forces were already under way. So, that was the 20th in Iraq. What were your thoughts when you heard those bombs falling on innocent children in Baghdad, your home country?

SABAH ALNASSERI: Let me go back to Blair’s statements on Iraq before the invasion, when he was saying that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, and he used it that gives the Shiite population. This sectarian discourse remind me of Bush senior 1991, when he called upon the Shiite population to rise up against Saddam Hussein, again using a sectarian discourse. This is very remarkable because it is a strategy that is used by the US ever since the invasion happened in March 2003 to divide the country along sectarian lines and create a conflict among the coexistent community in Iraq. It was not collateral. It was not by coincidence, it was by designed.

And these are the things we are afraid of. Before the war started, before the invasion of Iraq looking at the document statement be made by Bush, and Blair, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Richard Perle and… but also the Iraqi exile opposition, unfortunately, propagated this discourse, and supported by the US and the UK to invade Iraq and to come to power. We were afraid because we knew it’s not about the disarming Iraq, it’s not about the so-called democracy or human rights. It’s not about the liberation of Iraqi women. It is about occupation, genocidal practices, and mass incarceration and torture, and the introduction of all the politics of war, what I call War of Terror. And this is exactly how it started with the “Shock and Awe,” which is nothing but a war of terror and corruption. These two columns of the years of occupation of Iraq, terror and corruption are up until today, determine the politics, the economy and the institution of governance in Iraq.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Sabah, what were your thoughts as the bombs were falling on Iraq?

SABAH ALNASSERI: Well, of course, I mean, we organized a huge, a massive rallies that was at that time, in Frankfurt in Germany, I used to live in Germany. And I went on the street the day, or the night, actually, the bombs fall on Baghdad… and other cities in Iraq, and were marching in the streets of Frankfurt with them, huge, maybe the biggest anti-war rallies, and maybe in the history of Germany. And sometimes, while we were rallying, and I couldn’t catch up with my comrades and friends because sometimes I have to sit down and breathe, because I couldn’t breathe for a while, sensing that bomb would fall on all these poor people who hate Saddam Hussein, who never elected Saddam Hussein, who was imposed on them also by the US, supported by the US. And now, they have to pay the price for something, for the mistake of the US and Iraq.

And so, sensing that, you know, these bombs will bomb Iraq back into the middle of the Middle Ages, and probably massacre thousands, like 100,000 people, and displace maybe millions. This is an unimaginable scenario. Sometimes, as I said, I have to sit down and take my breath, and then continue running because at times I really couldn’t breathe.

SHARMINI PERIES: The Costs of War project by the Washington Institute for International Studies at Brown University estimates that the war in Iraq cost the US over two trillion dollars. When the costs of recovery of veterans are counted in. So, now, the other economists we know, Stiglitz, for example, says that the cost were more like six trillion dollars. Just last month, Kuwait hosted a conference about the reconstruction of Iraq, which still did not recover from any economic impact this war was supposed to produce. So, give us a sense of how much it did this war set back the Iraqi economy, and what were the real reasons for going to war in Iraq in the first place that wasn’t said in those clips that we saw earlier today?

SABAH ALNASSERI: Right. A few months before the invasion of Iraq, when I was in Germany I was following the conflict between the US in Iraq since 1991. And in a long essay, I have termed the “Never Ending Story of the US, Iraq and the War.” And I was arguing that the project of the…supported by Zionists like Netanyahu is not so much about weapons of mass destruction. They knew exactly that Iraq didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, otherwise, they wouldn’t invade and make war against Iraq, if Iraq have these weapons. And it’s not about, less about oil, although oil plays, of course, a role but it’s less about oil.

I was arguing that the strategy of the new homes in the Middle East is to control the region through unstable… by creating more conflicts and war in the region. This is the only way they can control the region and destabilize Europe, Russia and China. That’s the, I think, the geopolitics of it. And if we look at the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, not only domestically, domestically, as I said, the US institutionalized terror and corruption, systemic corruption. Iraq today, is one of the most corrupt countries on the face of this of this earth, and the scope of violence and corruption, it exceeds by far all the previous regime and the modern classical history of Iraq. So, this is institutionalized by the US. It is by design, and as you mentioned, reconstruction conference in Kuwait from February 14th to the 16th, actually the Iraqi needed something around 100 billion dollars to reconstruct the cities after the war against Daesh or ISIS. But the countries and the corporations. and…et cetera, involved in the conference, they pledged only 30 billion dollars to Iraq, but most of that means 94 percent of this money was in form of loan, sovereign and non-sovereign loans or investment or export credit.

That means all these countries that were trying to support their own cooperation to access to the Iraqi economy, especially oil and gas, and so on, and secure contracts. But really they are not helping Iraq because Iraq has according, to the IMF, this year, something around a $137-billion debt. So, all these new debts for the reconstruction will put the Iraqi economy into massive problems. And the poor people, the working-class people in Iraq will pay the price, because of the corruption, because of the plundering of the of the wealth of the country by the government, by the governing parties, by their militias and allies within the institutions and outside the institutions, and the transfer of all this wealth outside of Iraq, will starve the population of Iraq for decades to come. That’s domestically, but regionally, look at what the war and the invasion Iraq did. It destabilized the whole region, it shifted the balance of power to the advantage of Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, and so on. It institutionalized sectarianism which we can see up until today, informal proxy wars in Iraq, and Syria, and Yemen, et cetera, et cetera. It introduces a new type of politics in Iraq which is the militias. This is a new form of political organization in Iraq and in the region. We didn’t have militias. It was introduced by the US, trained and armed by the US, and these militias control biggest chunk of Iraq, or Syria, or Yemen, Libya, et cetera. It introduces an enormous in-race that almost half of the US export of weapons is to the region and special…

And now, it created a new crisis with the Gulf crisis between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. And again, it increases the arms sales and weapons in the region, which means it creates a new conflict, a new war, a new escalation in the region. All these are the consequences of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

SHARMINI PERIES: Speaking of consequences, Medea, on May 1, 2003 President Bush stood on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier under the big sign, “Mission Accomplished,” and gave a victory speech. So, let’s review the reasons for which Bush listed for going to war in Iraq in the first place. First, he said it was to disarm Iraq to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger. I think it’s safe to say that none of these goals have been achieved, nor weapons of mass destruction were found. And the people of Iraq are certainly not free, and former members of the Ba’ath Party have joined organizations like ISIS, and it’s hard to claim that the invasion of Iraq defended the world from great danger. And if you take all of this into consideration and what Sabah just said, what were the costs of going to war in Iraq for Iraqis, for Americans, for the world over, really?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: One of the most depressing things I have seen on this 15th anniversary as a new Pew study looking at American attitudes towards this war and a massive percentage, 43 percent, which I consider massive, said that it was the right decision. It should be one percent, perhaps, the most ignorant people thinking it’s the right decision, as the blamed Iraq is a total disaster to this day. And we have not even talked about the number of deaths.

I just wrote a piece trying to estimate how many Iraqis have been killed because Tommy Franks, the general, said early on in the invasion, “We don’t do body counts,” but, you know, what if the result after the Holocaust in Germany was the world saying, “Well, we don’t do body counts.” No, we should do body counts. And the US has tried during the entire time since the invasion until today to refuse to talk about the number of Iraqis killed, whether it was by the US, or as an outcome from the US invasion. And so, we looked at the Lancet report that had been done back in 2006 that said 600,000 Iraqis had been killed.

And this report done by very professional people, and a very professional journal was pilloried by the US government to say that it was totally exaggerated. And yet, again, the US would not give its own figures. So, we updated that using the same methodology. One would say that there were about 2.4million Iraqis who have been killed as a result of this invasion. Now, I challenge the US government if they say that is a wild exaggeration. Well, give us your own account of what has been the death toll since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And that’s not even talking about all of the wounded the 4 million who have been displaced, the economic losses for the Iraqi people. We tend to talk about what it has cost us here at home. And indeed there have been thousands of US lives lost in Iraq and trillions of US dollars that really put the emphasis on what the poor Iraqi people have suffered since that invasion.

The shamefulness that there are still 43 percent of Americans who say it was worth it, and the shame that nobody has been held accountable for invading Iraq on the basis of lies, and absolutely destroying that country, and unleashing as Sabah said, the sectarian division, not only throughout Iraq but through the entire region.

SHARMINI PERIES: Medea, one very unique feature that’s prominent in the war in Iraq is the heavy use of private military and security companies, or PMCSs, I believe is what they’re called. And Blackwater, and Erik Prince became famous in that way, in which we fought wars. And they weren’t the only company that was used by the US. Now, in terms of contractors, at some point, they actually outnumber the US troops. So, give us a sense of how this scenario of using contractors played out in this war, and of course, what it meant for the civilians on the ground in Iraq?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, let’s remember that Halliburton got enormous contracts for the Iraq war even before it started. They knew that this was going to happen and they had put in their bids. And ever since then, whether it is the weapons manufacturers, the security forces or the Pentagon contractors like Halliburton, they certainly made a killing out of killing. And they’ve not been held accountable if they were security forces like Blackwater that in that massacred innocent Iraqis like in Nisour Square or just the fact that all of these countries were profiting from an illegal war with contracts that were cost plus, which meant they could not lose. And oftentimes such shoddy work that then they were fined by the US government, but being fined for shoddy work did not mean they wouldn’t get a new contract.

In fact, they kept getting new contracts. So, while the US taxpayer lost what turns out to be trillions of dollars in a war that was not supposed to cost us a cent because it was going to be so quick and so cheap, and the Iraqis were going to pay for it with their oil money, really cost us a massive amount of money, but made a lot of money for the private contractors.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Sabah, let me actually give you an opportunity to assess the situation in Iraq now. You know, the war is considered past tense, but the soldiers in the US, from the US remain, some of them in Iraq. You know, we’re hearing still bombs are falling on Iraq. What’s the situation and what is the political conditions that the US has left behind that Iraqis are struggling with now?

SABAH ALNASSERI: There are three issues I would say now, two months before the election in Iraq. The first one is, after the Iraqi army, and it’s largely the popular mobilization units, defeated ISIS or Daesh and Mosul and Tikrit, Fallujah, etc., and kicked out Daesh from Iraq, all of a sudden we hear attacks from Daesh again, and especially on the western border of Iraq between Iraq and Syria. But the question is, where did they come? Who supplied them with weapons? And why all of a sudden after they were defeated, they can wage attack again? There’s a big question mark, and if we look at who controls the other side of the border in Syria and Iraq, you will see it’s the allies of the United States.

So, this is the first thing that creates a lot of concerns in Iraq because people fear again, some suicide bombing in the cities and so on, especially before the election. The second issue is, of course, the question of corruption. We have massive Ba’athist movements in Iraq since years, young people, unemployed, mostly working-class people, all classes in Iraq from all sects, and religions, and ethnicities. And they went on the street demanding better services, and especially to end corruption, and break those who plundered the wealth of Iraq to justice. And the minister, President… he promised people that he will go ahead with these corruption files. He will bring these people to court, and they will be prosecuted, et cetera. Nothing happened. This created a lot of frustration, and a lot of potential for conflict, and violence within the next few months. The third question is the issue of ISIS. There’s a big debate in Iraq around 2014 when al-Maliki was the minister, or president, who is now the vice president, and he is again, want to be re-elected as the minister or president. He was in charge of Iraq, at that time, as the minister or president as a commander in chief. And the Iraq withdrawal from the cities and enabled Daesh to occupy the cities. So, there’s a big debate, how much al-Maliki and the in charge, generals and those under his commands, and some militias, Kurdish militia, the Peshmerga is actually part of this scenario.

That means they committed treason vis-à-vis Iraq, and the Iraqi people to secure for al-Maliki to skew the election in 2014, and for the…in Kurdistan to occupy the contested territories between Iraq and Kurdistan using Daesh to enable Peshmerga to get into the cities. So, the big debate about this issue, and none of these people was brought to justice, or held accountable, or prosecuted. So, people are frustrated for the lack of services, continuation of corruption especially, now before the election, the same parties and the same militias, especially the so-called the Shiite militia, the popular, the people mobilization units. Now, they are entering, especially the heads of these units, entering the election with their own parties supported by Iran. That means none of the people involved in corruption or in the fall of 2014 of ISIS will be prosecuted. And now, these party’s militias with the enormous amount of money they plundered from Iraq, they are buying the votes of people two months before the election, bribing poor people who have nothing to eat, give them some money, and promised them some jobs and so on, to secure the votes before even the election campaigning starts. [That is] corruption at a different level, that people had hopes that this coming election would be a turning point in Iraq, that different parties, different representatives of the people will make it to the Parliament, and to the executive and probably, you know, prosecute corrupt ministers and Mr. President, companies, et cetera, and represent the demands of the people in Iraq, despite their different sects, or religion, or ethnicity, and so on. But people are now so…resignated, and frustrated that the same old Synar since 2003,… and institutionalized by the US won’t be produce again, which was a pre-programmed disaster.

SHARMINI PERIES: We talk about the war in Iraq, you know, we talk about it as having changed the dynamics and political relations, and configurations, in the region and the even, but you know, US has not really left Iraq still yet. In fact, I believe just last week, seven US soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash over Iraq. So, what are US troops still doing there? And what do you make of the claim made by a right-wing leader, such as Prime Minister Netanyahu that says that Iraq has, if Iraq has not been conquered, it would be used as a pawn by Iran. How has these involvements by the US changed the dynamics in the region politically?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: In general, what it has done ironically is give Iran more strength. The US is still there because they’re trying to keep Iran from having that much influence inside of Iraq. But let’s face it, because of the US invasion, and taking out Saddam Hussein, and putting in a Shia government, Iran has more influence in Iraq today. So, certainly this is an outcome that Netanyahu did not want to see. And I think the the lesson that should be drawn from the US that invasions are not something that allows the US to implement the kind of government that it wants, seems to be lost on the people in power today. When you’re getting folks like Mike Pompeo to become the Secretary of State. the same Mike Pompeo who was a cheerleader for the war in Iraq. When Trump is listening to the same neocons right now that should, as far as I’m concerned, either be in jail or banned from government, are now the ones who are talking about the US should get out of the nuclear deal with Iran, and have a military option. So, it’s mind boggling to me, Sharmini, that people don’t look at the State of Iraq, and the region today and say the US military should stay as far away as possible, and US should lose its diplomatic powers. But I think that just attests to the power of the military industrial complex and the neocons who were never held to account for the invasion of Iraq.

All right. Medea, thank you so much for joining us on this 15th anniversary of the war in Iraq, commemoration of the war in Iraq, I should say. And Sabah Alnasseri of political science at York University. I thank you so much for joining us and sharing your insights with us today.

SABAH ALNASSERI: Thanks for having me.


SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Medea Benjamin is co-founder of the peace group CODEPINK and the human rights organization Global Exchange. She has been organizing against U.S. military interventions, promoting the rights of Palestinians and calling for no war on Iran. Her latest work includes an effort to stop CIA drone attacks, and she is the author of a new book, "Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection"

Sabah Alnasseri was born in Basra, Iraq, and earned his doctorate at the Johann-Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. He teaches Middle East politics and economy at the Political Science Department at York University in Toronto, Canada. His publications cover various topics in Marxist political economy, Marxist state theory in the tradition of Gramsci, Poulantzas and Althusser, theory of regulation, and Middle East politics and economy.