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Human Rights Watch investigator Peter Bouckaert in Iraq, 2003.

© 2006 Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch investigator Peter Bouckaert in Iraq, 2003.


A Postmortem of the Iraq War


Friday, November 18, 2011

War waged without a clear mandate from the United Nations Security Council would constitute a flagrant violation of the prohibition of the use of force. We note with deep dismay that a small number of states are poised to launch an outright illegal invasion of Iraq, which amounts to a war of aggression.~International Commission of Jurists, 2002

Today, I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year. After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over.~President Barack Obama, October 21, 2011

President Obama announced on October 21 that the U.S. would be withdrawing all but a handful of troops from Iraq at the end of the year. Despite taking credit in his brief speech for a new war strategy in Iraq following his election, Obama also reminded us that President Bush set the troop withdrawal deadline back in 2008. So the withdrawal deadline was not new, nor was it a surprise.

Obama put a positive spin on the war itself and its end. It would be hard for a sitting president, as Commander in Chief, to criticize the war itself as unjust and not worth the loss in life and treasure, particularly considering the harm our actions have wrought in Iraq. Candidate Obama did say as much, however, in 2007: “I am proud of the fact that way back in 2002, I said that this war was a mistake.”

Tam Hunt
Click to enlarge photo

Tam Hunt

It is incumbent upon us to reflect deeply on this massive stain on U.S. history as our active military involvement in Iraq draws to a close. We must learn from our mistakes and vow “never again” will we wage a war of choice and in the process cause untold damage to other nations and to ourselves.

Though direct military U.S. involvement in this illegal war is now coming to an end, it is certain that the U.S. will maintain a strong diplomatic and economic presence in Iraq for years and decades to come. The Baghdad embassy is the biggest U.S. embassy in the world and by some accounts will include many thousands of troops, assigned to protect the embassy. The end of U.S. military action in Iraq is to be celebrated, but it is highly unlikely that the U.S. will truly give up its ability to project force in Iraq.

Obama, despite his celebrating the end of active military involvement in Iraq, actually tried very hard to maintain an active U.S. troop presence in Iraq past the deadline at the end of this year (imposed by the 2008 agreement between Bush and Iraq’s leaders). The U.S. insisted, as it does with literally all “status of forces agreements” in every country around the world where the U.S. has troops stationed, that U.S. troops must enjoy full legal immunity for any actions taken in Iraq.

The Iraqis refused this condition, so U.S. troops will not stay past the deadline. These basic facts were widely reported in the U.S. media. What has not been widely reported is why the Iraqis resisted U.S. demands on this issue. We forget all too quickly the damage our presence has done in Iraq in the last nine years.

The Iraqis have been angered, to say the least, by a number of U.S. atrocities committed during our time in Iraq, including Abu Ghraib, Fallujah and many others. One particular incident, the Ishaqi massacre of a number of women and children (all under age five), has gained special notoriety this year in Iraq, even though it occurred in 2006. This is due to the Wikileaks cables on Iraq that have been steadily released in Iraq and many other countries. This incident was not widely reported in Iraqi or U.S. media, despite efforts by the United Nations and Iraqis themselves to induce the U.S. to own up to what happened.

The McClatchy news report on this incident begins: “A U.S. diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks provides evidence that U.S. troops executed at least 10 Iraqi civilians, including a woman in her 70s and a 5-month-old infant, then called in an air strike to destroy the evidence, during a controversial 2006 incident in the central Iraqi town of Ishaqi.”

A report from the Iraqi Joint Coordination Center in Tikrit, a regional security center set up with help from the United States military, stated: “The American forces gathered the family members in one room and executed 11 persons, including five children, four women and two men. Then they bombed the house, burned three vehicles and killed their animals.”

According to a UN report to the U.S. at the time of the incident, which has now been revealed by Wikileaks, U.S. forces approached a farmer’s home in Ishaqi, a small town not too far from Baghdad, after receiving a tip that an Al Qaeda member, a relative of the home’s owner, was visiting. U.S. troops were fired upon as they approached and after undergoing a 25-minute gunfight, the UN report states: “troops entered the house, handcuffed all residents and executed all of them. After the initial MNF intervention, a U.S. air raid ensued that destroyed the house.”

The UN report notes that “at least 10 persons, namely Mr. Faiz Hratt Khalaf, (aged 28), his wife Sumay’ya Abdul Razzaq Khuther (aged 24), their three children Hawra’a (aged 5) Aisha (aged 3) and Husam (5 months old), Faiz’s mother Ms. Turkiya Majeed Ali (aged 74), Faiz’s sister (name unknown), Faiz’s nieces Asma’a Yousif Ma’arouf (aged 5 years old), and Usama Yousif Ma’arouf (aged 3 years), and a visiting relative Ms. Iqtisad Hameed Mehdi (aged 23) were killed during the raid.”

To sum up, reports from Iraqi and UN personnel strongly support the chain of events reported initially by neighbors of the unfortunate family and the claims made by Iraqi police at the time.

The U.S. conducted an investigation of the incident in 2006 after initially calling it “highly unlikely to be true.” The investigation cleared U.S. troops of any wrongdoing, though the U.S. spokesman, Major General William Caldwell, acknowledged that up to nine “collateral deaths” may have resulted. Of course, the report was not released to the public.

So we have eye witnesses and Iraqi police supporting the massacre narrative and a U.S. investigation supporting the narrative that everything was done as required, but with perhaps up to nine “collateral deaths.”

Hopefully, the new attention to this case brought about by the Wikileaks cable will lead the U.S. to conduct further investigations. When the morgue report shows that all occupants of the home were handcuffed and died of bullet shots to the head, it makes it very difficult to believe the U.S. version of events.

Here’s the U.S. diplomatic cable reporting the UN findings to Washington.

McClatchy photo of children killed by U.S. troops in the Ishaqi incident (2006).

This massacre has been widely publicized in Iraq in 2011 and is a major reason why Iraq refused to grant U.S. forces immunity for troops after 2011. In short, the large majority of Iraqis don’t trust or want U.S. forces in Iraq any longer. Incident after incident cannot be ignored. Here’s a short list of other major incidents:

Remember Haditha? In this even worse massacre in 2005, U.S. forces killed 24 civilians in a rampage after alleging that an IED went off near a U.S. convoy (though no evidence was produced of the IED and Representative Murtha, generally a pro-troop Congressman, stated after learning of the investigation that there was no IED). The U.S. investigated this incident and found that there had been obvious wrongdoing. The report stated that the evidence “supports accusations that U.S. Marines deliberately shot civilians, including unarmed men, women and children.”

Despite the U.S. report confirming killing of innocent civilians, none of the troops has been convicted of wrongdoing, mostly due to deals for immunity and cooperation in prosecution of the squad leader, Sergeant Frank Wuterich. Wuterich has succeeded in delaying his trial and his trial date has still not been set.

Remember the Mahmudiyah rape, killing and burning of a 14-year-old girl and the killing of her entire family by five U.S. troops in 2006? This hideous episode was premeditated by a group of U.S. troops and conducted in off-duty hours. Two of the five soldiers have been convicted of these crimes and the three others pled guilty.

And of course we remember Abu Ghraib and the Fallujah massacre, in which a major Iraqi city was demolished by U.S. forces in 2004.

War is hell. What follows from this true statement should not be, as is all too often claimed, “so get used to it.” Rather, what follows should be quite different: “War is hell so do not enter into wars unless absolutely necessary for national security.”

By any reasonable measure the U.S. misadventure in Iraq was a war of choice, not necessity.

What about the bigger picture, beyond the unfortunate incidents perpetrated in Iraq by a few bad apples? Unfortunately, when we look at the big picture, it’s even worse. A number of reports have looked at civilian casualties in Iraq. One of the more controversial reports was published in the British peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet in 2006. It found that there had been about 650,000 “excess deaths” in Iraq since the U.S. invasion. This means that the research team did their best to calculate the death rate in the years preceding the invasion, and the death rate in the three years after the invasion (based on numerous interviews in every province of Iraq), using standard epidemiological standards, and then compared the death rates.

The report did not distinguish between those killed by U.S. troops or between civilians and armed forces. Rather, it looked only at the excess deaths. These 650,000 excess deaths, in just three years, should of course be attributed to the U.S. invasion because they wouldn’t have happened without our invasion.

Another study, by Opinion Research Business (ORB), a British polling firm, found an even higher number of excess deaths, over 1 million. This report was not peer-reviewed.

Wikileaks documents revealed in 2011 that U.S. military tallied about 100,000 deaths from incidents involving U.S. troops, in total, with about 66,000 of those constituting civilian deaths. One academic who has analyzed the Wikileaks data in detail concluded that this data very likely represents a massive under-reporting of deaths. The reasons should be obvious: How would the U.S. military collect casualty information from air raids, artillery fire, drive-by shootings, etc.?

Even if casualties “only” amount to 100,000, the enormity of this crime should still be obvious.

But isn’t Iraq now on the right track, an example of modern democracy taking root? Doesn’t this justify at least some of the massive damage we’ve done? Time will tell, but the data available thus far are not encouraging. The Economist magazine issues its “Democracy Index” every two years and its 2010 report was not encouraging with respect to Iraq.

The four categories in this report are “full democracy,” “flawed democracy,” “hybrid regime,” and “authoritarian regime.” The 2010 report found that Iraq ranks 111th in the world in terms of democracy and is barely a “hybrid regime,” literally one spot above the “authoritarian regime” category and only ten places above Cuba (at 121). In other words, Iraq is not a democracy at all.

Democracy may improve in Iraq but even if it does I, for one, could not on this basis justify such massive loss of human life, in terms of both our own troops, or the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives lost.

And let’s not forget the price tag of almost $1 trillion already spent on Iraq. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, concluded in a 2008 book that the total cost of the Iraq war to U.S. taxpayers is likely to be well over $3 trillion before our involvement is finally ended.

I hope that the record of our impact on Iraq will eventually be taught to U.S. students in high school and college, to remind us of why we should do our best to avoid war unless absolutely necessary.

The Iraq war is over for us, but the mentality that led us into the Iraq war is most definitely not over. It is only through education and constant vigilance that we can avoid further misadventures that lead to massive killings, displacements of entire populations, and the huge price tag that accompanies war.

On a personal note, this piece was hard to write. I’ve followed the Iraq war very closely, from the first day newspapers contained reports of a possible war in Iraq in 2002 till the present. My personal history on this issue goes back even further, to the first Gulf War, during which time I served in the U.S. Army as an enlisted soldier. I wasn’t sent to the Gulf and didn’t see combat; rather, I was kept on guard detail of U.S. military facilities near my station in southern Germany. But the threat of war was very real to me and not something I looked forward to.

During the second Gulf War, I read about all of these incidents (except Ishaqi) at the time they happened and was disgusted and ashamed. I am still disgusted and ashamed now. Researching and writing about these incidents is trying on one’s psyche and soul.

I constantly ask myself how could Americans be so complacent in the face of massive and ongoing evidence of brutality and human rights violations, war crimes, cover-ups, and financial schemes to defraud taxpayers of billions of dollars (that’s a topic for an essay in itself)?

Most Americans don’t seem to take the time to learn about the impacts of our foreign policy on other people around the world, or on own country. This is due in part also to an all-too-compliant U.S. media that finds it difficult to cover the negative aspects of our policies, whether our president is Republican or Democrat.

My hope is that through better education more Americans will learn about these issues and become engaged. Eventually, we may truly be able to “end the mindset that got us into the Iraq war,” as candidate Obama urged before he got caught up in the apparatus of war itself by becoming president.

Future essays will examine in more detail the effect of the “military-industrial complex” on U.S. foreign policy and our collective psyche, which President Eisenhower warned about as he left office in 1961.

Tam Hunt is a lawyer and a renewable energy consultant who also teaches part-time at UCSB's Bren School of Environmental Science & Management.

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