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Iraq five years on

By Antony Loewenstein - posted Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Five years after the start of the Iraq war, a clear majority of Iraqis want American troops to leave. The results of the latest ORB/Channel 4 study are disturbing. The human cost of the conflict is starkly revealed: “A quarter of those surveyed said they had lost a family member to murder. In Baghdad, that figure rose to nearly half (45 per cent). Some 81 per cent had suffered power cuts and 43 per cent had experienced drinking water shortages. In the last month, more than a quarter (28 per cent) had been short of food.”

I’ve been writing about the war since 2003 and watched the slow descent of the country into ethnic cleansing and chaos. The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn (arguably the finest Western reporter on the war), writes last week that “five years of occupation have destroyed Iraq as a country.

Baghdad is today a collection of hostile Sunni and Shia ghettoes divided by high concrete walls. Different districts even have different national flags. Sunni areas use the old Iraqi flag with the three stars of the Baath party, and the Shia wave a newer version, adopted by the Shia-Kurdish government. The Kurds have their own flag.” The White House Press Secretary still praises President Bush’s brilliant Iraq strategy.


Iraq is a war that has redefined the ways in which we view armed conflict. The suicide bomber, used in previous battles from Sri Lanka to Lebanon, has become a ferocious force of unimaginable terror. Robert Fisk recently concluded that there has been at least 1,121 Muslim suicide bombers in Iraq since 2003 and these explosions - immobilised predominantly, though not solely, by men - have killed about 16,000 people. “One of George Bush’s more insidious legacies in Iraq”, Fisks laments, “thus remains its most mysterious: the marriage of nationalism and spiritual ferocity, the birth of an unprecedentedly huge army of Muslims inspired by the idea of death”.

Although support for the war in America is at its highest point since 2006 - a slim majority now believe the “US will ultimately succeed in achieving its goals” - this is predominantly due to the corporate media’s slavish praise of the “surge”, an injection of more American troops to “pacify” the country, especially Baghdad. Jonathan Steele, Guardian columnist and author of the book, Defeat: Why They Lost Iraq, acknowledges that casualties have been reduced since the “surge” but recently told Democracy Now! that this was for different reasons to those given by the war hawks and their media courtiers:

It’s actually become harder to kill people. What do I mean by that? It’s just that the mixed neighbourhoods of Baghdad, you know, where Sunni and Shia used to live side-by-side without even worrying or caring or even knowing what sect their neighbour was, they’ve all broken down, because if you’re a minority Shia living in a Sunni area, you’ve now moved out, and vice versa. And so, you’ve got a kind of sectarian relocation that’s gone on. And, of course, that makes it harder if - for these sort of death squads to come in, because they’re now going to areas where people feel much better protected, because they’ve got their own people all around them and they’ve got their local sort of vigilante groups protecting them.

Steele concludes that the war was “lost when they decided to have this open-ended occupation of the country without giving any date for withdrawal”. Even today, none of the major American presidential candidates are advocating full troop withdrawal. Predictably, even so-called “anti-war” Democrats are still refusing to seriously refute Bush’s talking points.

The mainstream media, with some notable exceptions, has remained complicit in these deceptions, refusing to ask the tough questions of politicians and generals. At least the Independent on Sunday’s editorial this week, on the fifth anniversary, rebuked journalists for not “asking much more searching questions about what would happen after the invasion”. The high rate of Iraqi civilian casualties remains largely absent from media coverage. The fact that over one million people have probably been killed since 2003 has been all but erased from the public record.

Returned American soldiers are starting to recount their harrowing tales of collective punishment in the war zone. The aim is to enlighten the world about their actions - while endorsed by the US army, they were a major contributing factor to the raging insurgency. One soldier, Hart Viges, joined the army one day after September 11, 2001, but now says that his mission in Iraq was flawed from the beginning. “We never went on the right raid where we got the right house, much less the right person - not once,” he said. He goes on:


We were driving in Baghdad one day and found a dead body on the side of the road. We pulled over to secure the area and my friends jumped off and started taking pictures with it, smiling. They asked me if I wanted to join them and I said no, but not because it was unethical, but because it wasn’t my kill. Because you shouldn’t take trophies with those you didn’t kill. I wasn’t upset this man was dead, but just that they shouldn’t be taking credit for something they didn’t do. But that’s war.

Other soldiers have recounted war crimes committed on a daily basis in the war zone. Despite evidence that implicates the military in the killing of innocent Iraqi civilians, authorities are notoriously lax in offering compensation.

As a journalist, I regularly ask myself if the mainstream media has learned any lessons since 2003. Sadly, I don’t believe so (and even Britain’s Ministry of Defence is now trying to force teachers to transmit to students a sanitised history of the war). The same journalists who endorsed, encouraged and transmitted false intelligence and hubris would do so again. They are the war enablers, desperate to ingratiate themselves with those in power, grovelling before authority (Here Salon’s Glenn Greenwald explains the real “role of the American press”.)

The Iraq war has primarily been a disaster for the Iraqi people and a success for the defence industry. Until there is a full reckoning of the last five years, we are destined to relive history again with the next “essential” conflict.

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First published in New Matilda on March 20, 2008.

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About the Author

Antony Loewenstein is a freelance journalist, author and blogger. He has written for the Sydney Morning Herald, Haaretz, The Guardian, Washington Post, Znet, Counterpunch and many other publications. He contributed a major chapter in the 2004 best seller, Not Happy, John!. He is author of the best-selling book My Israel Question, released in August 2006 by Melbourne University Publishing and re-published in 2009 in an updated edition. The book was short-listed for the 2007 NSW Premier's Literary Award. His 2008 book is The Blogging Revolution on the internet in repressive regimes. His website is at and he can be contacted at

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