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“It Was a Crime”: 15 Years After U.S. Invasion, Iraqis Still Face Trauma, Destruction & Violence

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It was 15 years ago today when the U.S. invaded Iraq on the false pretense that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. The attack came despite worldwide protest and a lack of authorization from the United Nations Security Council. At around 5:30 a.m. in Baghdad on March 20, 2003, air raid sirens were heard as the U.S. invasion began. The fighting has yet to end, and the death toll may never be known. Conservative estimates put the Iraqi civilian death toll at 200,000. But some counts range as high as 2 million. In 2006, the British medical journal Lancet estimated 600,000 Iraqis died in just the first 40 months of the war. The U.S. has also lost about 4,500 soldiers in Iraq. Just last week, seven U.S. servicemembers died in a helicopter crash in western Iraq near the Syrian border. The war in Iraq has also destabilized much of the Middle East. Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others have directly blamed the U.S. invasion of Iraq for the rise of ISIS. We speak to the Iraqi-French sociologist Zahra Ali, who teaches at Rutgers University; Matt Howard, co-director of About Face: Veterans Against the War, the organization formerly known as Iraq Veterans Against the War; and Sami Rasouli, founder and director of the Muslim Peacemaker Teams in Iraq.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: It was 15 years ago today when the U.S. invaded Iraq on the false pretext that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. The attack came despite worldwide protest and the lack of authorization from the United Nations Security Council.

At around 5:30 a.m. in Baghdad on March 20th, 2003, air raid sirens were heard as the U.S. invasion began. Within the hour, President George W. Bush gave a nationally televised speech from the Oval Office announcing the war had begun.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.

AMY GOODMAN: Six weeks later, on May 1st, 2003, President Bush landed on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego and declared the end of major combat.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: My fellow Americans, major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the fighting has yet to end, and the death toll may never be known. Conservative estimates put the Iraqi civilian death toll at 200,000. But some counts range as high as 2 million. In 2006, the British medical journal Lancet estimated 600,000 Iraqis died in just the first 40 months of the war. The U.S. has also lost about 4,500 soldiers in Iraq and some more than 22,000 wounded. Just last week, seven U.S. servicemembers died in a helicopter crash in western Iraq near the Syrian border. The war in Iraq has also destabilized much of the Middle East. Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others have directly blamed the U.S. invasion of Iraq for the rise of ISIS.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the 15th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, we’re joined by three guests. Zahra Ali is a French-Iraqi sociology professor here in the United States at Rutgers University. Her forthcoming book is titled Women and Gender in Iraq: Between Nation-Building and Fragmentation. Ali grew up in France. Her parents were Iraqi political exiles.

Matt Howard is co-director of About Face: Veterans Against the War, the organization formerly known as Iraq Veterans Against the War. He served in Iraq once in 2004, again in 2005.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Professor Ali, let’s begin with you. Fifteen years ago today, the U.S. invaded Iraq. Talk about what happened then and the repercussions today.

ZAHRA ALI: I mean, first of all, I would like to say, you know, that as a daughter of an Iraqi political exile family, who grew up in France, I refuse—I was 16 years old at the time of the war, and I refuse this false dilemma: Either you oppose the regime, either you oppose the war. You know, I opposed the regime, and we had to flee Iraq because of the authoritarian regime, and also I got involved in the antiwar movement in France.

And also, we have to name the war. We have to name it as, you know, a criminal war. And we have to define it as, you know, the very operation of the destruction of Iraq as a functioning state and society.

And this operation has started before 2003, has started in ’91. I mean, if we talk about U.S. interferences in the region, and in Iraq, in particular, we can go back to the ’60s. But at least for this specific operation, we have to talk about ’91, the U.S.-led coalition bombing, a criminal bombing, devastating bombings, of Iraq, that were described as, you know, surgical strikes, but that targeted water and electricity supplies, bridges, schools, hospitals, and left the country in a humanitarian crisis. And then, after this terrible situation, the imposition of the U.N. sanctions, you know, that were terrible for the Iraqi population and that were very much initiated and pushed by the U.S. administration of the time.

So, a country that needed to be reconstructed was plunged into a deep humanitarian crisis that destroyed its middle class, weakened, to an extreme level, its state institutions and infrastructure. So, we had, before the sanction, a free and strong education system, a good healthcare system—so, a functioning state. And then, so this is the situation, you know, that characterized Iraq in 2003, when the invasion happened. So, the Iraqi society had already been brutalized by decades of wars and by the normalization of political violence, of course, you know, the repression of all the different uprising of the population in the north and in the south, and social, economic and humanitarian crisis.

And I want to say that, you know, the U.S. invasion exacerbated the situation, this crisis, to its extreme, first of all, in destroying what was left of the state, its institutions and services that provide basic human needs to the society, that makes a functioning society—so, access to running water, electricity, a welfare state. And it was done through what was called the de-Baathification campaign, so that disbanded the army and part of the administrative basis of the regime.

And also, something that is very important and that we have to, you know, remind ourselves, to understand what is going on today—you know, the rise of ISIS, etc.—is that the U.S. administration created a political system based on what I call in my research ethno-sectarian quota. In other words, this is to say that the U.S. administration has institutionalized racism in Iraq. So it has created a political regime that relies on communal-based identity. So, in Iraq, in 2003—since 2003, you are not just a political leader defined by your belief, your political beliefs, or as—I don’t know—a communist, a nationalist, an Islamist. You are an Arab political leader, a Kurdish political leader, a Sunni, a Shia or Christian political leader. And this really is at the core of what, you know, provoked the social, ethnic and sectarian fragmentation and the sectarian war in the country.

As well, we have to say that the U.S. administration brought to power a political elite that, you know, had mainly lived in exile since—for example, for some of them, since the ’80s, so very much disconnected with the realities on the ground. And even for those political exiles who had some legitimacy, some political legitimacy, inside the country, I mean, they have less legitimacy, because they have proved to be extremely sectarian, extremely conservative and extremely corrupted, as well. So—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, if we can, I’d like to bring in Sami Rasouli, who is the founder and director of the Muslim Peacemaker Teams in Iraq. He lives in the Iraqi city of Najaf. And he moved back to Iraq in 2004, after living abroad for nearly 30 years. He left Iraq in the late 1970s and eventually moved to the United States and settled down in Minneapolis.

Welcome back to Democracy Now! Could you talk about your thoughts now, 15 years after President Bush declared “mission accomplished,” what the situation in Iraq is today?

SAMI RASOULI: Thank you for having me on your [inaudible] show. Juan, greetings from Iraq. And again, 15 years—15 years, and the immeasurable tragedy continues to unfold, while disasters and adversity keeps trapping us under things, asking whether we have learned anything from that tragedy.

Well, George Bush was one of the worst presidents, but yet, today, some people think what we have currently is really bad, and George Bush, in comparison, better.

So, Iraq entered in a tunnel in 2003 with no light at the end, from the invasion to occupation to sectarianism, then terrorism, ISIS, and we should not forget about Iranian expansion in Iraq. While just recently some partial solution the Kurds and Arabs reached, otherwise we’ve gone in another tunnel of conflict between the north and the south.

We do know Iraq is right now going in a decrease of education level, healthcare quality. Security, the worst in the world, Iraq is considered, because borders are widely open. The Iraqi Army is not yet capable to keep Iraq safe. There are many military bases, have been built by the U.S. And it’s still building, increasing, from, I believe, last year seven, now we have about 12.

So, unfortunately, Iraqi people are paying heavily a price. But we’re not going to continue to cry about what’s going on. Our Muslim Peacemaker Teams been working since 2005 now in a form of outreach and advocacy for peace and promoting the principles of peacebuilding throughout the country between all factions, regardless whether they are Kurds, Arabs, Sunni, Shia, Muslims or Christians.

Right now, we are hosting two Americans—from New Jersey, Mr. Mettler [phon.], and from Wisconsin, Miss Strobel [phon.]—who are helping in a project that MPT, Muslim Peacemaker Teams, started last October, by inviting Americans to meet Iraqis. And the project is called English for Reconciliation. I started this school, as I said, about six months ago, trying to bring from so-called infidels from the West to meet so-called terrorists in the east of Iraq mainly, according to the American mainstream media, to meet around a roundtable, break bread together, seeing the eyes. And they found out nothing of that nonsense is true. They are nothing but brother and sister, meeting, belonging to the same human race, and striking agreement by establishing lasting friendship that’s based on respect, mutual understanding and trust, because—

AMY GOODMAN: Sami, we’re having a little under—we are having a little trouble understanding you, but I want to thank you for being with us, from Najaf, Iraq. Sami Rasouli was an institution in Minneapolis, had Sinbad’s restaurant, was on the cover of Minneapolis magazine, but left everything to return to his country at the height of the war, to be with his countrymen and women and family. Sami Rasouli, founder of Muslim Peacemaker Teams in Iraq, speaking to us on this 15th anniversary of the U.S. invasion. When we come back, we’ll continue with our guests, Zahra Ali, who is a sociologist, a professor at Rutgers, and Matt Howard of About Face: Veterans Against the War, served in Iraq in 2004 and ’05. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Is It for Freedom?” by Sara Thomsen. In that piece, you hear Medea Benjamin of CodePink interrupting Congress, protesting the war. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we continue our look at the 15th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. We’re joined here in New York by two guests.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Zahra Ali is a sociology professor at Rutgers University. Her forthcoming book is titled Women and Gender in Iraq: Between Nation-Building and Fragmentation. She grew up in France. Her parents were Iraqi political exiles.

We’re also joined by Matt Howard, a co-director of About Face: Veterans Against the War, the organization formerly known as Iraq Veterans Against the War. He served in Iraq once in 2004, then again in 2005.

I’d like to begin with Matt. Talk about your first deployment, your sense at the time of what the Iraq War was about, and your own evolution in terms of your understanding of the war.

MATT HOWARD: Certainly. Yeah, so, when I was—well, first off, I watched the invasion from Okinawa, Japan, where I was stationed at the time, and had a real kind of gnawing sense of dread that we were making a decision we could never step back from. A year later, I was stationed in Iraq outside of Fallujah in support of helicopters that were doing casualty evacuation.

And I think an experience that really crystallized for me where I really went down a path of challenging everything that had been told to me was when we were guarding Iraqi men who were laborers that were coming onto our forward operating base, who basically spelled out everything Zahra said, that their lives had measurably—the quality of life had taken a dramatic hit, and that everything that we were being told, in terms of our, you know, hearts and minds and how we were going to make this place better, was as far from the truth as could possibly be.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you end up going to Iraq? Where did you grow up?

MATT HOWARD: I grew up in Portland, Oregon. So, I joined the Marine Corps when I was 17, so before I finished high school. And that was before September 11th. And I deployed—or I went to boot camp about a month after September 11th.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, you know, one of the—the casualty numbers for Iraq, given the length of the war, don’t appear, on the American side, to have been that great: 4,500 soldiers. But when you think of the 22,000, more than 22,000, who were injured, as well, many of those soldiers injured would have, in previous wars, died but not for the miracle of science and medicine.

MATT HOWARD: Certainly.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But many have survived with lifelong injuries, of amputated limbs and traumatic shock and brain damage. Can you talk about the impact on the soldiers for this constant warfare, because, obviously, they never were able to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people?

MATT HOWARD: Yeah. I mean, I think that there’s something that we talk about that’s a hallmark of this war, which is both the way that deployments occur many times for some folks, sometimes as many as 10 times, and also the kind of invisible wounds of the war, as you were mentioning, whether that’s post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury or military sexual trauma, that are often not tallied in the kind of figures that we have for these things. And just want to make it clear that if that goes to—if that goes for the military, that very definitely goes for the Iraqi civilians that are continuing to, you know, deal with the after-effects of this war.

I think that, you know, one thing that we’ve noticed is just that people are also coming home to an underfunded VA and a VA that’s under attack now by the Trump administration, that there is a real mission to privatize it. So, all of this kind of rhetoric of taking care of our troops is—it very quickly diminishes, depending on people’s political priorities.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you make your about-face, Matt?

MATT HOWARD: Good question. I mean, it could have been in a few different places. I think that—I joined About Face when it was IVAW, in 2008, so about a year after I came home. And it was actually an antiwar protest. There was the Winter soldier hearings. And a friend of mine that I—

AMY GOODMAN: The Winter Soldier hearings outside of Maryland.

MATT HOWARD: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: If you could explain what they were?

MATT HOWARD: Yes, of course. So, the Winter Soldier hearings were a moment when our community got together to really testify to the costs of war, both in Afghanistan and Iraq, and to alert the American people what was being done in their name.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Ali, I’d like to ask you, in the terms of the costs of war, last week we had a segment on the Vietnam War where we talked about the long-lasting damage in Vietnam from Agent Orange, from the birth defects that occurred as a result of the Agent Orange, the herbicide spraying in Vietnam. What about this whole issue of depleted uranium and the impact on the environment—

ZAHRA ALI: Yeah. Thank you for asking that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —of Iraq, and the use of the weapons of the U.S. troops in Iraq, that the civilian population is still dealing with?

ZAHRA ALI: Yeah, yeah. Thank you so much for asking that. And thank you, as well. Yes, I mean, you mentioned Fallujah, and it’s, I mean, now known that depleted uranium was used in Fallujah. And, you know, it was a criminal war. It was a dirty war, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: And white phosphorus.

ZAHRA ALI: Yeah. And the effect for the Iraqi population, in Fallujah and elsewhere, is actually—you know, it goes even through generations, you know, when you think of the use of all the chemicals, etc. And we are still—I mean, perhaps, you know, U.S. soldiers can go back to their country, but we are still in the middle of the war. We live, you know, the war. And I don’t know any Iraqi household, including my household, that hasn’t been directly affected by a form of violence, you know, that hasn’t witnessed a car explosion, that hasn’t lost a member of their family. I mean, it’s the current reality.

And now, when you think about the invasion of ISIS and the very militarization of the society and the militarization of the public spaces—so, for example, if you take Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, I mean, we have to have this image in mind when we talk about it, is the capital is divided, fragmented by checkpoints and concrete walls, you know, that divide the neighborhoods according to sectarian, religious, ethnic belongings. So, even—and I talk about it when I talk about women and human rights, in general, in my research in Iraq. When you want to circulate in Baghdad, you have to, every kilometer, you know, pass through an armed male soldier, you know, a checkpoint. So, even the population of Baghdad, 65 percent of the population of Baghdad itself, you know, has been displaced, either in Baghdad or in Iraq or outside Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Ali, you write in your Washington Post piece about a proposed constitutional amendment, which would have a massive effect on women.

ZAHRA ALI: Yeah. So, it’s not a constitutional amendment, because, actually, the Article 41 is in the Constitution. So, what happened is that, since 2003, I mean, there have been several attempts made by sectarian, conservative, Islamist parties, that came to power with the U.S. Army, to question, along sectarian line, the very basis of women’s legal rights, expressed and enacted in what is called the personal status code, so the family law, you know, that gathers all laws and legislations related to marriage, divorce, inheritance, custody—so, most of women’s legal rights. And so, the very—so, this personal status code was adopted at the end of the ’50s, in 1959, in Iraq.

And it’s very important to recall that it’s really the produce of the political culture of the time, that was dominated by the anti-imperialist left. The Iraqi personal status code, at the time, was one of the most progressive personal status codes in the region, right? And it was structured by two things: the participation of women’s rights activists in its drafting—somebody like Naziha al-Dulaimi, the first Iraqi and Arab women’s minister, you know, participated to its drafting. And the second dimension, that is very important to understand what is going on now, is that it gathered—it still gathers a Sunni and Shia, like, Muslim jurisprudence, so it has a unifying dimension. And this is, I think, the political legacy that is being questioned since 2003.

So, we had it with the Decree 137. Then, now we have it in the Article 41. But thanks to feminists, you know, women’s rights, civil society mobilization, the Article 41 is still not implemented. But still, under the name of this article, we had so many, you know, low proposition made by conservative, sectarian, Islamist parties that are in power since 2003—the Ja’fari law, for example, in 2014. And just a few months ago—

AMY GOODMAN: And the Ja’fari law is?

ZAHRA ALI: The Ja’fari law is a proposition, so that would, so, allow the existence of a family law base on the Ja’fari madhhab, so school of law. And among the things that are problematic and that represent, you know, a regressive thing for women’s rights is that it allows very informal forms of unions, in which women do not have legal protections. It can, if ever implemented, allow—like lower the age of marriage as early as 9 years old for girls. So, this is the kind of things. You know, this is the kind of questioning of women’s legal rights that is made.

But I also want to make a point here, is that we tend to approach women’s rights in a very, I think, simplistic manner, as if it was a very abstract thing, just as democracy. It’s a value, whatever. No, it is very concrete stuff, when we talk about democracy or the right to vote. And if you think of the right to vote, that is, of course, essential for women and all citizens, you also have to have the structural context that allow people to go to the voting site without being scared of being shot or kidnapped, right? And you have, for women, to have, you know, a functioning state institution, child care, healthcare, education, access to the job market. And as well, you know, when we talk about the post-2003 situation, all the militarization had already started under the regime with the different wars in the ’80s, but now we have really rich and extreme. So militarization really defines, you know, gender norms and relations towards masculinist ways of defining malehood, and that idea that women need protection and men are the protector of women. And these are very important dimensions to keep in mind.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to turn to Matt, to ask you about the—many people, as we’ve mentioned, have blamed, especially in the latter period of this U.S. intervention in Iraq, the rise of ISIS as a direct result of the U.S. invasion, and especially of the attempt of the initial administrators of Iraq, the coalition, in terms of rooting out all of the Baathist leaders throughout the entire governmental structure and moving them from civil service, dismantling the military, and basically destroying the existing institutions of Iraq.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’m wondering what—your thoughts about that?

MATT HOWARD: Yeah. I mean, I think that—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what you saw directly?

MATT HOWARD: Sure. I mean, I was there in 2004 and 2005. And, obviously, the rise and emergence of ISIS is significantly further down the line. But I think that it’s pretty clear that all blame that can be laid to is that the U.S. government and U.S. militaries really can be laid into its lap around the emergence of ISIS. And, you know, part of that is just that—for the pure, simple fact that the leadership met each other in coalition prison-run facilities. They were—had essentially cut their teeth during the occupation of Iraq, were fighting U.S. forces, occupiers there, and that—you know, and were politicized and found themselves, obviously, in positions in Syria and other places. I think that, if anything, it points to the U.S.'s role in destabilizing the region, in the after-effects that we're seeing right now in throughout—you know, throughout the Middle East and Central Asia.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Tony Blair—right?—October 2015, the former British prime minister, speaking to Fareed Zakaria on CNN, saying there were, quote, “elements of truth” to the claim that removing Saddam Hussein played a part in the creation of ISIS.

TONY BLAIR: You can’t say that those of us who removed Saddam in 2003 bear no responsibility for the situation in 2015. But it’s important also to realize, one, that the Arab Spring, which began in 2011, would also have had its impact on Iraq today, and, two, ISIS actually came to prominence from a base in Syria and not in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: And to the other world leader responsible for the U.S. invasion. That was former President George W. Bush. In 2010, in his first major interview since leaving the presidency, Bush spoke to NBC’s Matt Lauer, before he was fired, about the Iraq War.

MATT LAUER: So, by the time you gave the order to start military operations in Iraq, did you personally have any doubt, any shred of doubt, about that intelligence?

GEORGE W. BUSH: No, I didn’t. I really didn’t.

MATT LAUER: Not everybody thought you should go to war, though. There were dissenters.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Of course there were.

MATT LAUER: You know, there were—did you filter them out?

GEORGE W. BUSH: I was a dissent—I was a dissenting voice. I didn’t want to use force.

MATT LAUER: Your words: “No one was more sickened or angry than I was when we didn’t find weapons of mass destruction.” You still have a sickening feeling—


MATT LAUER: —when you think about it.


MATT LAUER: Was there ever any consideration of apologizing to the American people?

GEORGE W. BUSH: I mean, apologizing would basically say the decision was a wrong decision, and I don’t believe it was a wrong decision.

MATT LAUER: If you knew then—


MATT LAUER: —what you know now—

GEORGE W. BUSH: That’s right.

MATT LAUER: —you would still go to war in Iraq?

GEORGE W. BUSH: I, first of all, didn’t have that luxury. You just don’t have the luxury when you’re president. I will say, definitely, the world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power, as are 25 million people who now have a chance to live in freedom.

AMY GOODMAN: “As are 25 million people who now have a chance to live in freedom.” That’s former President George Bush speaking in 2010. Zahra Ali, you return home to Iraq a couple times a year. Your parents, political dissenters. Interesting that George Bush described himself as a dissenter. Your response, both to Bush and to Blair?

ZAHRA ALI: Well, I mean, again, you know, this terminology, all this use of this vocabulary, in the U.K., in the U.S., you know, “It was a mistake,” whatever. It was a crime. Come on. It’s a criminal war, and these people, you know, have to be judged for their crimes, right?

But also, you know, I want to say something about this narrative about democracy, etc., is that the post-2003 Iraqi regime has proven to be very anti-democratic. And when we think of the context of the invasion of ISIS and, you know, what happened around it, we have also to talk about the fact that in Iraq, despite the very terrible situation, we do have very strong social movements. We do have, you know, citizens—more recently, you know, since 2015, we have like very strong grassroots, popular movements that, you know, question the very legitimacy of the post-2003 regime, women’s rights activists, you know, involved in that movement. But the situation is that, in a way that is kind of comparable to here, is that this “war on terror” narrative is really used to justify any kind of repression, any kind of silencing, silencing of, you know, radical political activism in the country, right?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both for being with us, Matt Howard of About Face: Veterans Against the War, and also Zahra Ali, who is a sociology professor at Rutgers, a French-Iraqi woman who is writing a book right now on Iraqi women.

ZAHRA ALI: And feminist activists.

AMY GOODMAN: Her forthcoming book—and feminist activists—Women and Gender in Iraq: Between Nation-Building and Fragmentation. Zahra Ali grew up in France, her parents Iraqi political exiles.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, what has happened to the undocumented workers who are rebuilding Houston? Undocumented and unpaid. Our own Democracy Now!’s Renée Feltz will bring us a report. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Yellow Ribbon,” by Emily Yates, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. She says she wrote the song after speaking with fellow veterans about the yellow ribbon magnets people put on their cars. Yates was deployed twice to Iraq, where she served in the 3rd Infantry Division as an Army public affairs specialist from 2002 to 2008.

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