Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, vice president at New America, and practice professor at Arizona State University. He is the author of “The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. See more opinion on CNN.
Twenty years ago, on March 19, 2003, then-President George W. Bush ordered the US invasion of Iraq. A week later, near Najaf, a city in southern Iraq, then-US Major General David Petraeus turned to American journalist Rick Atkinson and asked him a simple question: “Tell me how this turns out. ” That remains an excellent question.
Once a prison and torture place used by dictator Saddam Hussein’s intelligence agents in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, the Amna Suraka Museum is a good place to reflect on the legacy of the US invasion and, perhaps, an additional question: was it all worth it?
When I visited the former prison earlier this week, I found it in a pleasant residential area in Sulaymaniyah, in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. The prison’s location in the middle of the city was no coincidence: Saddam wanted the local population to know what awaited anyone who opposed him, or would even consider opposing his regime.
The museum is a horror chamber with the cells where prisoners were tortured by electric shocks and the soles of their feet were beaten so that they could not walk. Juveniles were taken to the detention center and their age changed to over 18 so they could be “legally” executed, according to a museum official I spoke to.
The prison cells are each quite small, with almost no light. In Saddam’s time, they were full of prisoners sharing overcrowded toilets.
Inside the museum, there is a long corridor – known as the “Hall of Mirrors” – made up of shards of glass representing each of the 182,000 people killed by Saddam’s men during his 1988 “Anfal” campaign (which is the estimated total number of dead made). by Kurdish officials). Small twinkling lights from the ceiling represent the 4,500 villages in the region that were also destroyed by Saddam’s forces.
Three and a half decades ago this week, on March 16, 1988, Saddam committed one of the most notorious crimes of his murderous dictatorship, killing thousands of Kurds using poison gas and nerve gas.
There is little doubt that Saddam was one of the worst tyrants of the 20th century. According to Human Rights Watch, he killed as many as 290,000 of his own people. He also launched wars against two of his neighbors – Iran in the 1980s and Kuwait in 1990. Conservative estimates suggest that at least half a million people died during these wars.
So when Saddam was overthrown by the Americans two decades ago, at least some Iraqis were happy. And Iraq today has made some progress toward a more accountable political system compared to its Middle Eastern neighbors. Iraq has held several elections since the US invasion in 2003, followed by peaceful transfers of power.
And yet, after Saddam was overthrown by the US, the incompetent US occupation of Iraq contributed to a civil war that tore the country apart and killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. More than 4,500 American soldiers were also killed. The war also gave Al Qaeda a second life. The group known as Al Qaeda in Iraq later turned into ISIS, which seized large swaths of Iraqi territory in 2014 and established a reign of terror.
The war in Iraq also set a precedent for unprovoked wars that we see playing out in Ukraine today and that the Russians are already using to good effect. At a conference in India earlier this month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called out what he called an American “double standard” by saying: “[You] believe the United States has the right to declare a threat to its national interest anywhere in the world, as they did… in Iraq?
This message may not resonate much in the West, but it does in the Global South, where the US-Iraq war and the Russian war in Ukraine are seen by many as wars of choice rather than necessity.
Of course, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s conduct in the war in Ukraine is an order of magnitude more brutal than the US war in Iraq. Also, Putin’s forces are attacking a democratic state, while Bush ordered an invasion of Iraq that toppled a dictatorship.
That said, it’s worth underlining some similarities between the wars: Both wars started because of false claims – the US war in Iraq was launched on the basis that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and had ties to Al Qaeda. The American media has largely parroted those claims. As a result, months before the US invaded Iraq, most Americans believed that Saddam was involved in the 9/11 attacks, even though there was no evidence to support this.
Putin justifies his war in Ukraine by claiming that it is not a “real” country and should be placed with Russia. Meanwhile, Russian media claim that his soldiers are fighting “neo-Nazis” in Ukraine. Despite these false claims, most Russians support the war, according to independent polls.
Also, neither the war in Iraq nor the war in Ukraine has had much international support. Unlike the US-led war in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, which was mandated by the UN Security Council, neither the US invasion of Iraq nor the Russian invasion of Ukraine had the support of the UN Security Council. .
In the museum dedicated to Saddam’s crimes against his own people, you feel the weight of his brutality. The U.S. removal of Saddam was something to celebrate for many Iraqis, but what followed, from the civil war to the rise and fall of ISIS, has brought further suffering to the Iraqi people.
To those who say, “Was it all worth toppling Saddam, given what we know about how the past two decades played out?”, that may be missing the point today. Iraq has a new government and sits on the third largest oil reserves in the world. It should be one of the richest countries in the Middle East, but instead the cancer of endemic corruption has eaten away at government intuition and international companies are often hesitant to invest in Iraq.
If the Iraqi political class can find a way to create institutions that are not steeped in corruption, Iraq has a chance to move forward.
The 2,500 US troops remaining in Iraq today not only provide aid to the Iraqi military, but also make a political statement that the United States intends to remain involved in Iraq for the foreseeable future – rather than as in Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, when all remaining US troops were withdrawn.
And we saw how well that worked out.