It has been 20 years since the US invaded Iraq. Memories still bring ‘insurmountable pain’

Two decades after the United States launched its invasion of Iraq, Mohsin* said the memories still hurt him “insurmountable pain.”
“What happened in 2003, I don’t want it to happen anywhere in the world – not just in Iraq, anywhere,” he said.

To this day, Mohsin, 46, who fled Iraq and took refuge in Australia, says he still doesn’t understand what happened to his country.

But he does not place the blame solely on former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, despite the fact that he was an “extremely harsh ruler.”
“Who is to blame? Only Saddam? No, the US is also to blame. We should not only blame Saddam – the US did the same to us,” he said.

Mohsin fled his country 18 years ago as the war raged, feeling he had no choice but to leave because life was not getting any better despite US troops toppling Hussein.

A man stands and speaks, pointing his finger.

Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003 and executed three years after he was found guilty of crimes against humanity by the Iraqi Special Tribunal. Source: AAP, AP / Darko Bandic

“[The US] they said that they were going to come and fix the country, but it turns out, no. Rebel groups and the US military were killing people, shooting at people. Anyone who approached them risked being killed,” he said.

Sunday, March 19, 2023 marks the 20th anniversary of the US presidency. which escalated into a war that lasted until 2011.
A United States soldier stands outside while another is in an armored personnel carrier.  In the background is a burning oil well.

US Marines near a burning oil well in the Al-Ratka field in southern Iraq in March 2003. Iraqi troops set fire to the field as they fled from coalition forces advancing on Baghdad. Source: Getty, AFP / Odd Andersen

Mohsin believed that in a couple of months life would return to normal, but this was not the case.

“By 2005, it was destroyed. An inter-confessional conflict broke out … there was nothing left for us there. What benefit was I going to get from this country? This is the moment when I realized that I had to leave,” he said.
The following year, Mohsin and his family fled to Malaysia before heading to Indonesia.
They arrived in Australia by boat in 2010 after being provided but it was a tragic journey.
On the way to Christmas Island, disaster struck and 91 of the 131 people on board drowned, including his three young children.

“I’m trying to forget the experience I had… If Iraq were a million times better today, it still wouldn’t be good enough, and I’ll never go back there. All I can think about is the experience I had. And I don’t want to talk about it,” he said.

What triggered the invasion?

According to Benjamin Isahan, a professor of international politics at Deakin University, the US-led war began amid heightened concerns about terrorism.
Eighteen months earlier, the United States was shaken .

“The real fear in the US at the time was that a state like Iraq could have weapons of mass destruction and that it could harbor terrorists,” Professor Isahan said.

Crowd of people on the streets.  Some carry the coffin.

Mourners carry the body of 30-year-old Iraqi Shamil Nafe through the streets of Baghdad’s Adhamia district during his funeral procession in December 2003. He was killed by US troops during a demonstration in support of captured former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, which ended in clashes with troops. Source: AAP, AP / Muhammad Muheisen

Before announcing the invasion, Bush said that US intelligence had determined that Iraq had “one of the deadliest weapons ever created” and that it “had harbored terrorists, including al-Qaeda operatives, who coordinated the September 11 attacks. .

When the official bell rang, the then Prime Minister of Australia and sent troops to join the battle. He said it was in Australia’s national interest to “deprive Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction.”
But in the early months of the war, it turned out that the intelligence suggesting that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was not as reliable as claimed.

In October 2003, David Kay, then head of the CIA’s Iraq Study Group, stated that no weapons of this type had been found.

A year later, the ISG submitted to the US Congress a report on a 15-month search involving 1,200 of its inspectors who searched sites across Iraq. No weapons of mass destruction were found, and the ISG concluded that Mr. Hussein had destroyed the last of them a decade earlier.
It stated that Hussein had ambitions to resume chemical and nuclear programs after sanctions were lifted. But since there has been no recent sign of discussion or interest in establishing a new biological weapons (BW) program, Iraq “would face great difficulty in restoring an effective BW agent production capability.”

Mr. Hussein’s claims of formal ties to al-Qaeda, which were used to justify the invasion, have also been questioned. In 2006, a declassified US Senate report showed that there was no evidence for this.

“Who can rejoice in having a foreign flag flying in their homeland?”

Basim Alansari was already an Iraqi refugee when he watched his country crumble live from his student residence at NSW Regional University.
Mr Alansari was just nine years old when he and his family escaped the 1990 Gulf War triggered by Iraq’s invasion of neighboring Kuwait and finally arrived in Australia by boat when he was 17 years old.
He was dizzy with excitement after American troops threw the American flag over the statue of Mr. Hussein.
“I remember calling my father and saying that Saddam was gone!”

His father, who narrowly escaped death under Mr. Hussein, greeted him with bitter tears.

Basim Alansari.jpeg

Basim Alansari. Source: Supplied

When Basim thought that his father’s unusual crying was due to happiness, he said that his father yelled at him.

“Who could see a foreign flag flying over his homeland and feel happy at such a moment?” Mr. Alansari recalls the words of his father.
Mr. Hussein went into hiding after US troops captured the capital city of Baghdad less than a month after the invasion began. He was captured in December 2003 and executed three years after he was found guilty of crimes against humanity by the Iraqi Special Tribunal.
After his overthrow, which ended a brutal 24-year rule, more violence followed.

The leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by US forces in 2006, has launched bloody attacks aimed at turning the Shia Muslim majority against the Sunni minority in a civil war. This eventually happened and spanned Iraq from 2006 to 2008.

There are two teenagers and a boy in the photo.

Basim Alansari (center) and his two brothers in Iraq before traveling to Australia. Source: Supplied

Mass protests in Australia and around the world

As it became increasingly clear that the US would invade Iraq, millions took to the streets calling for a peaceful solution.

According to a BBC report at the time, between 15 and 16 February 2003 demonstrated between six and ten million people around the world. Some have called it the largest single coordinated demonstration in history, and Guinness World Records recognized Italy as the country with the largest anti-war turnout, at three million people.

Mohammad Awad was among the hundreds of thousands of people who rallied across Australia that weekend.
Mr. Awad remembers going shopping with his family in Bankstown, western Sydney, where they bought markers, paint and glitter for posters.

He recalled how his parents explained that they were going to the demonstration because what was happening was “unfair.”

A man smiles in black dew near the water.

Mohammad Awad took part in an anti-war rally in Sydney as a child. Source: Supplied / Mohammad Awad

“It was our first exposure to imperialism and everything that’s going on in the Middle East, why American intervention never works and stuff like that,” said Awad, now 23.

I remember [chanting]”John Howard is a coward.”

“I’ve never been to a protest before, I’ve never seen such a big demonstration of people before.”

Demonstrators march down the street.  Some hold up posters that say "THERE WAS NO WAR".

Protesters in Sydney call for an end to the war in Iraq on February 16, 2003 Source: AAP, AP / Dan Peled

Many prominent Australians also openly opposed the war: the late Heath Ledger joined fellow actors Joel Edgerton, Naomi Watts and thousands of others at a rally in Melbourne after the invasion was announced.

And in January of that year, Toni Collette and Judy Davis were among the anti-war activists who tried to get Mr. Howard to apply for US citizenship because he supported Washington’s hard line on Iraq in Australia.

“He blindly follows Bush like a sheep into a hole, and who knows what the consequences could be,” Collette said at the time.

A man with a hand on someone else's shoulder stands in a large crowd.

Heath Ledger (right) and Joel Edgerton at a protest in front of the Victorian State Library in Melbourne on 20 March 2003 following the announcement of the invasion of Iraq. Source: AARP / Julian Smith

Pay for the war

In 2008, Mr. Bush agreed to withdraw American troops from Iraq, a process completed under President Barack Obama in 2011, the same year that the remaining British forces left.
Australia ceased operations in 2009.
The number of civilians who died during the war is difficult to ascertain. In 2009, three years before the end of the war, 110,600 Iraqis were killed.
George W. Bush carries a platter of roast turkey and garnish as soldiers watch.

In 2008, Mr. Bush agreed to withdraw US troops from Iraq, a process completed under President Barack Obama in 2011. Source: AAP, AP / Anja Niedringhaus

In announcing the invasion, Bush said the US would help “build a new, prosperous and free Iraq.”

Professor Isahan said the promise has yet to be fulfilled and given that Australia is a member, the government needs to do more to ensure that.

He said that “simple things” such as providing exchange programs and scholarships for Iraqi students can help achieve this goal.

Professor Isahan believes that the West learned “many hard lessons” after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“You can’t look into these very complex and conflict-ridden societies and fix them in five years and turn them into solid democracies in 10 or 20 years,” he said.
“There is no easy solution and I think that’s a really big issue for foreign policy at the moment… because staying out is a problem and getting in is a problem.”

*Name changed.