20 years ago, in the Spring of 2003, the Iraq war began with the US-UK bombing and invasion of Iraq. Mass opposition to the war, including up to two million marching in London on 15 February, and further action including school student walk-outs on ‘Day X’, when the invasion began on 20 March, were not enough to stop George Bush and Tony Blair’s ‘War for oil’. The lives of millions of Iraqis were devastated, Tony Blair’s Labour Party permanently damaged, and the authority of US imperialism dealt a major blow. Alistair Tice, Socialist Party (CWI England & Wales) National Committee member, looks at the events and lessons for anti-war campaigners and socialists to learn from the Iraq war.
Prior to him being deposed as president, captured and subsequently executed, Saddam Hussein had previously been backed by US imperialism for its own strategic interests. It supported him in Iraq’s war against Iran (1980-88), hoping for the defeat of the Ayatollah’s regime that came to power after the Iranian revolution in 1979, which overthrew the pro-western Shah.
But Saddam’s invasion of oil-rich neighbour Kuwait in 1990 put him into conflict with US imperialist interests in the Middle East, leading to the first Gulf War. A quick US military victory in 1991 left Saddam in power but contained by United Nations sanctions (which led to the deaths of 500,000 children) and no-fly zones.
It was the 2001 9/11 terrorist attack by al-Qaida on the Twin Towers that gave US capitalism the pretext to extend its influence in the region. After another quick initial victory against the Taliban in Afghanistan (accused of harbouring Osama bin-Laden), Bush turned his sights on oil-rich Iraq, which he’d named as part of the ‘Axis of Evil’ in the ‘War on Terror’ declared after 9/11.
In an attempt to overcome public opposition to war in Iraq, a huge war propaganda campaign was launched on both sides of the Atlantic. The 2003 invasion was justified by Bush and Blair using the lie about Saddam having ‘weapons of mass destruction’, and his alleged harbouring of al-Qaida terrorists. But the weapons were never found, and al-Qaida and its off-shoot Islamic State hardly existed in Iraq prior to the US occupation. Blair’s ‘dodgy’ intelligence dossier even claimed the lie that Iraq could launch weapons of mass destruction against British military forces within 45 minutes. The United Nations was sidelined and, with splits in the NATO military alliance, Bush and Blair formed a ‘coalition of the willing’ to go to war.
A three-week long “shock and awe” bombing campaign led to another quick military victory overthrowing Saddam Hussein, Bush declaring “mission accomplished”! But the ensuing power vacuum, left after the US dismantling of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated state apparatus, led to a lengthy insurgency against the occupying US-UK coalition forces, and sectarian clashes between the majority Shias and previously dominant minority Sunnis. With the occupation bogged down, imperialist forces increasingly resorted to colonial-type rule, such as the sieges and destruction of Fallujah city in 2004 as a form of collective punishment – symbolised by the grotesque images from the Abu Ghraib detention centre of hooded Iraqi prisoners being humiliated and tortured by US troops.
The installation of pro-western and sectarian Shia prime minister Nouri al-Maliki from 2006-2014 fuelled Sunni resentment and intensified the sectarian civil war. After a US troop ‘surge’, occupation forces reached a high point of 170,000 but still could not contain the insurgency and sectarian conflict.
As US and UK troop casualties mounted, opposition to the unwinnable war based on lies and oil grew. US combat troops were officially and ignominiously withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2011, but not before contracts were awarded to international oil companies for some of Iraq’s oilfields.
US military forces returned with air strikes and covert operations in 2014 to prop up the sectarian Maliki government, which was overwhelmed by the advances of Islamic State and other forces. By exploiting Sunni resentment and attracting international jihadists, Islamic State had taken the cities of Mosul and Tikrit, and controlled 40% of Iraq territory.
Islamic State was deemed to have been defeated by 2017, but US troops stayed on. After Donald Trump’s unilateral assassination, on Iraqi soil, of top Iranian general Suleimani and an Iraqi militia leader in January 2020, the Iraqi parliament voted for all foreign troops to leave the country. New US president Joe Biden withdrew all remaining US combat troops by the end of 2021 making, along with Afghanistan, a second humiliating retreat from a disastrous war, but another war with horrific costs for the victims.
At least 200,000 Iraqis were killed during the occupation, with some estimates as high as one million deaths. Two million refugees left the country with a further 4.4 million internally displaced. One study found that 60-70% of children were psychologically disturbed.
It is estimated that the war has cost the US over $2 trillion and rising. Nearly 5,000 coalition forces died, including 179 British soldiers.
Tony Blair, depicted as Bush’s poodle and derided as a war criminal for his complicity in lying Britain into war, was forced to stand down as Prime Minister in 2007, three years before the general election was due. Since his invasion of Iraq, Labour Party membership had halved and Labour lost five million votes compared to 1997. Even the official Chilcott Inquiry which finally reported in 2016 concluded that the war was “unnecessary”, “unsatisfactory” and based on “flawed information”.
For US imperialism, the two humiliating withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate its declining global influence, especially in the Middle East. These wars reinforced the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ of US public opinion opposing foreign military interventions, a factor Trump played on in “Putting America First” in his 2016 presidential campaign.
Socialists maintain implacable opposition to imperialist wars. But that cannot mean giving support to ‘my enemy’s enemy’, just because they use anti-imperialist demagogy. Support for the rights of oppressed peoples to defend themselves, including by armed resistance, does not mean giving any political support to dictators like Saddam Hussein or Assad in Syria, or to right-wing Islamists like Hamas in Gaza or communal-based Hezbollah in Lebanon. Instead, we stand on the side of the working-class and poor masses, demanding independent class organisations and mass struggle.
As the Socialist issue 292, published on 21 March 2003 the day after US ground troops entered Iraq, said: “The only alternative that will prevent future Saddams and guarantee a decent future for the Iraqi people and workers and poor internationally is to build the forces of socialism in Iraq, in the Middle East and globally. To this end, we must support the building of mass workers’ parties and of links between them, so that workers internationally can aid Iraqi and other workers in their struggles for decent living standards, real democracy and a socialist future.”
Mass opposition and biggest-ever protests
The war build-up provoked a tidal wave of opposition globally, culminating on 15 February with an estimated 30 million people demonstrating against war in over 600 cities, probably the largest protest event in human history. Up to 2 million marched in London. This pressure from below forced 122 Labour MPs into a parliamentary revolt against Blair, and three ministers resigned. But the protest movement, without sufficient organisation and political programme, was not enough to stop the US capitalist class, with its junior partner Britain, going to war to reassert the dominance and prestige of the USA on the world stage, not to mention the oil!
I was one of the organisers on one of the nearly 30 coaches that travelled from Sheffield to London that day. I took my youngest son on his first-ever demonstration; there were so many people that we couldn’t move off from Gower Street for hours. We never even got to Hyde Park because the three-and-a-half-mile march took so long and we had to get our coach back home.
Even the police said that there were 750,000 people there. A contemporary ICM poll recorded that at least one person from 1.25 million households had demonstrated, so there were more likely nearer two million protesting on the day – an exhilarating and inspiring day to be alive, full of hope to stop the war.
But it was not enough. Many had illusions that the United Nations (UN) would prevent the war, an illusion reinforced by the leaders of the Stop the War Coalition (STWC), including the Socialist Workers Party, giving an uncritical platform to the Lib-Dem leader Charles Kennedy and Labour ‘rebel’ Mo Mowlam who only opposed the war without a second UN resolution. But the UN has only ever been an institution representing the world’s ruling classes, dominated by the big imperial powers in the Security Council, which, if they can’t reach agreement, is ignored or by-passed by the US, as in the case of the Iraq invasion as well as countless resolutions condemning the Israeli state over its actions in Palestine.
What was needed from 15 February was building a mass campaign of civil disobedience, including arguing the need for strike action by trade unions as the only means of stopping Britain’s involvement in the war. With Blair committing Britain’s strategic interests to that of US imperialism, he needed to feel that the opposition movement at home threatened his and capitalist rule more than the loss of prestige caused by pulling out of the war.
That had happened before; when the British government sent troops and arms to Russia to try to overthrow the new workers’ government established after the overthrow of the Tsar in 1917, they were stopped by British workers threatening a general strike. The Socialist Party-linked International Socialist Resistance distributed over 50,000 leaflets on 15 February calling for school, college and university student walk-outs on Day X, the day war was to be declared, something that to a large extent took place around the country.
In Sheffield, hundreds walked out of schools, marched and occupied the biggest roundabout in the city. From the Hyde Park platform, the late Bob Crow, then general secretary of the RMT transport workers’ union, called for strike action.
A week later, Socialist Party member Bernard Roome successfully moved a resolution at the Communication Workers Union (CWU) executive committee stating that the CWU would “campaign for all members to take protest action on the day war is officially declared”. While there were some walk-outs, the widespread strike action up to a general strike that was necessary didn’t take place. The STWC and trade union leaders didn’t seriously attempt to build for it.
The other missing factor was a political voice to give expression to the anti-war movement. Those coming from the left of the Labour Party were constrained by membership of Blair’s New Labour. George Galloway, then in Labour, was the most prominent anti-war MP. The Socialist Party had discussed with him prior to 15 February, about him using his authority to launch a new workers’ party. But in the end he spoke about reclaiming Labour.
Eight months later he was expelled but the best opportunity to harness the component parts of the mass anti-war movement – the left Labour MPs, the ‘awkward squad’ of the new trade union leaders at the time, the anti-war youth movement and the different socialist organisations – into a working-class based new party had passed.
The need for a new mass workers’ party still exists today and, after over a decade of austerity and now further attacks on the working class, the issue is more pressing than ever. The ongoing strike wave offers new opportunities to build a political voice for the working class based on the trade unions. Such a new workers’ party would be able to play the lead role in organising mass opposition to Britain’s involvement in future wars, which are inevitable under crisis ridden global capitalism, as the war in Ukraine shows.