Opinion: In Saddam Hussein’s ‘room of horrors’ I reflect on 20 years since the Iraq War

Editor’s note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, vice president of New America, and professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author ofThe Price of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World“. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinions on CNN.

Sulaymaniyah, Iraq

Two decades 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: simple question: “Tell me how it ends.” This remains an excellent question.

The Amn Surak Museum, which was once a prison and torture site used by dictator Saddam Hussein’s intelligence agents in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, is a good place to try and review the legacy of the American invasion, and perhaps the secondary question: Was it all worth it?

When I visited the former prison earlier this week, I found it to be located in a pleasant residential area in Sulaymaniyah, a Kurdish region in northern Iraq. Location of the prison in the city center it wasn’t an accident: Saddam wanted the local population to know what awaits anyone who opposes him, or those who might even consider opposing his regime.

The museum is a horror room showcasing cells in which prisoners were tortured with electric shocks and beaten on the feet so that they could not walk. According to a museum employee I spoke to, the juveniles were taken to a detention center and their age was changed to over 18 so they could be “legitimately” executed.

The prison cells are rather small, with almost no light. During the Saddam era, they were packed with prisoners who shared overcrowded toilets.

The museum has a long corridor known as “mirror hall” – made up of shards of glass representing each of the 182,000 people killed by Saddam’s men in 1988”anfalcampaign (this is the estimated total number of deaths caused by Kurdish officials). The small twinkling lights on the ceiling symbolize 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 famous crimes of his bloody dictatorship, killing thousands of Kurds. with poisonous gas and nerve agents.

There is no doubt that Saddam was one of the worst tyrants of the 20th century. He killed according to Human Rights Watch, up to 290,000 of his fellow tribesmen. He also launched wars against two of his neighbors – Iran in the 1980s and Kuwait in the 1990s. estimates suggest that at least half a million people died during these wars.

So, when the Americans toppled Saddam two decades ago, at least some Iraqis were happy. And today, Iraq has made some headway in building a more accountable political system than its neighbors in the Middle East. Iraq started held several elections after the US invasion in 2003, this was followed by a peaceful transfer of power.

And yet, after the US toppled Saddam, the incompetent US occupation of Iraq fueled a civil war that tore the country apart. killing hundreds of thousands Iraqis. Over 4500 US soldiers also died. The war also gave al-Qaeda new life. The group known as al-Qaeda in Iraq later became ISIS, which in 2014 took over vast areas of Iraq and established a reign of terror.

The war in Iraq also set a precedent for the unprovoked wars we see today in Ukraine, which the Russians are already using successfully. At a conference in India earlier this month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called what he called the US “double standards”. speaking:”[You] believe that the United States has the right to declare a threat to its national interests anywhere on earth, as they did … in Iraq?

This message may not find much response 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, the behavior of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the war in Ukraine is orders of magnitude more brutal than the American war in Iraq. In addition, Putin’s forces are attacking a democratic state, and in Iraq, Bush ordered an invasion that toppled the dictatorship.

However, it is worth emphasizing some of the similarities between these wars: both wars were started because of false claims – the US war in Iraq was started on the basis that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and links to al-Qaeda. US media basically a parrot these claims. As a result, in the months before the US invasion of Iraq, most Americans believed that Saddam was involved in the September 11 attacks, although there was no evidence of this.

Putin justifies his war in Ukraine by arguing that it is not a “real” country and that it should be incorporated into Russia. Meanwhile, Russian media claim that its soldiers are fightingneo-nazis“in Ukraine. Despite these false claims, most Russians support the waraccording to independent surveys.

In addition, neither the war in Iraq nor the war in Ukraine enjoyed significant international support. Unlike the US-led war in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks, which mandate on the part of the UN Security Council, neither the US invasion of Iraq nor Russia’s invasion of Ukraine received the support of the UN Security Council.

In a museum dedicated to Saddam’s crimes against his own people, one can feel the weight of his brutality. The US getting rid of Saddam was cause for celebration for many Iraqis, but what followed, from the civil war to the rise and fall of ISIS, brought further great suffering to the Iraqi people.

Those who say, “Was Saddam’s ouster worth it, given what we know about how the last two decades played out?” may be missing the point today. Iraq has a new government and sits in it third largest oil reserves in the world. It should be one of the richest countries in the Middle East, but instead, cancer widespread corruption has corroded the government’s intuition, and international companies are often hesitant to invest in Iraq.

If the Iraqi political class can find a way to create corruption-free institutions, Iraq will have a chance to move forward.

2,500 US troops who remain in Iraq today are not only providing assistance to the Iraqi military, but are also making a political statement that the United States plans to stay in Iraq for the foreseeable future, and not leave the country, as it did in Afghanistan in the summer of 2021. when all remaining US troops were withdrawn.

And we saw how well it turned out.