The ghost that haunts the West: The Iraq War 20 years on

The moment Saddam Hussein's statue in Firdos Square was toppled. Credit: AP

Twenty years ago the United States and her allies - the United Kingdom principal among them - set about teaching Saddam Hussein a lesson that the world would never forget.

Two decades later, the Iraqi debacle is the ghost that still haunts the concept of Western interventionism around the globe.  Iraq remains an expletive, a four-letter cautionary tale.

When US and UK intelligence services predicted that Russia would invade Ukraine, their reliability was in doubt mainly because their ‘certainty’ that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was so catastrophically misplaced.

After 9/11 I spent more time in Baghdad than anywhere else.  At that time the WMD issue wasn’t really a big one in my mind.  

A portrait of Saddam Hussein still hangs on a burning government building in Baghdad as thousands loot in the city Credit: AP

All that mattered was President George W Bush was hell bent on toppling Saddam Hussein and that if WMDs weren’t his justification for an invasion, then he’d come up with something else.  

Foolishly I believed that nothing could be worse than Saddam Hussein’s rule.  The end of his reign of terror seemed like a fair enough prospect.

The outcome of the invasion was never in doubt.  Gulf War Two began on March 20.  Three weeks later, on April 9, myself, cameraman Phil Bye and producer Ian Glover-James ventured out of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad to become the first journalists to meet the US Marines coming into the Iraqi capital.

The scenes were euphoric. Iraqis cheered and waved as a column of Humvee jeeps, lorries and armoured vehicles roared past us. The conquerors had arrived and were receiving the warmest of welcomes.

A few hours later Saddam’s statue in Firdos Square beside the River Tigris would be torn down, providing the historic image of a day that at the time, none of us knew would be the high water mark for US involvement in Iraq.

“You break it, you own it,” was General Colin Powell’s salutary advice to George Bush’s father, when, in 1991, he ordered US forces to liberate Kuwait and force the Iraqi army back onto home turf.

He was warning President George H W Bush not to chase them all the way to Baghdad to oust Saddam Hussein.  Freeing Kuwait was one thing, taking over Iraq quite another.

The same was true in 2003. Toppling a tyrant was one thing, picking up the pieces and running the country quite another.

The Americans were adept at the first part, but tragically hopeless at the rest.  Their efforts proved calamitous and for Iraqis, deadly on a horrendous scale.  The wars that followed the invasion have cost an estimated 400,000 Iraqi lives.  Some liberation.

If the Iraqi people were the big losers then the big winner was Iran. Tehran’s assertiveness in Syria, in the Gulf, in terms of nuclear development, can be traced back to the gift that was Iraq.

Other consequences include abject failure in Afghanistan, the Islamic State, greater Russian influence in the Middle East, a debilitating refugee crisis in Western Europe, the loss of American and British moral authority.

That the American administration would fail so catastrophically post-invasion was not inevitable.  As I mentioned earlier the Iraqis welcomed US troops with open arms. 

But the plan for the day after either didn’t exist, or was woefully wrong. Arrogance, hubris, power and self-righteousness make for a dangerous cocktail.

To justify the invasion they fooled us.

But by believing it would all work out for the best afterwards they also fooled themselves.

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