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Decade later, Russian experts debate Iraq War
March 20, 2013, 10:19 pm

Pictures such as these of torture in Abu Ghraib prison leave a taint on US legacy in Iraq, expert says [Getty Images]

Pictures such as this of torture in Abu Ghraib prison leave a taint on US legacy in Iraq, expert says [Getty Images]

On March 19, 2003, then US President George W Bush delivered a televised address explaining that he had ordered American armed forces, along with the UK and the Coalition of the Willing, to attack and occupy Iraq.

The attack was not sanctioned by the UN and legal experts in the 10 years since would come to rule the military action ‘illegal’.

Nevertheless, and despite the protestations of several countries, including Russia, China, France, India, Germany and Canada, US forces dropped over 29,000 bombs and missiles on Iraq up to April 9, 2003, when Baghdad fell.

In the 10 years since, Iraqis say their country has been destroyed, vital infrastructure left in disrepair and their society torn apart. The US invasion and occupation spawned a sectarian conflict which left tens of thousands dead and fuelled the largest refugee crisis in the region. Some 2.5 million Iraqis left the country with another 2 million internally displaced.

As missiles rained down on Iraqi cities, Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned the US invasion as a “great political error.” Ten years later, the US has spent in excess of $3 trillion on the Iraq War, lost nearly 4,500 soldiers and 32,000 injured. A recent report shows that private contractors hired by US security firms lost more than 3,000 soldiers and tens of thousands injured. The Iraqi death toll ranges from conservative figures of 170,000 to 1.4 million.

Was the Russian position, then, to oppose the war, justified?

Dual policy

Alexander Shumilin, the director of the Centre for the Greater Middle East Conflicts at the Institute for US and Canada Studies (ISKRAN), says Moscow in fact conducted a balanced policy, trying not to oppose Washington, Paris or Berlin, or even Baghdad’s Saddam Hussein.

“Moscow tended towards the line of mediation between Washington and Baghdad. It was conducting a dual policy: officially it condemned the invasion in Iraq, but it also co-operated with Washington on a number of important issues, trying to preserve its contacts in Iraq,” Shumilin told The BRICS Post.

He says that Washington was more irked by German and French opposition, than Russia’s.

Shumilin’s dual policy explanation was perhaps best exemplified by a speech then President Vladimir Putin gave on December 19, 2003.

“The use of force abroad, according to existing international laws, can only be sanctioned by the United Nations. This is the international law. Everything that is done without the UN Security Council’s sanction cannot be recognised as fair or justified,” said Putin.

“I am being as restrained as I can be when I choose these words,” Putin added.

The AFP at the time quoted Putin as describing the United States as a partner but also stressing firmly that the Iraqi campaign should not be lumped in with the broader international war on terrorism – as Washington is doing.

“We do not want the United States to lose their war on terrorism. We are US partners in the fight against terrorism,” Putin said.

“But as for Iraq, this is a separate matter. There were no international terrorists under Hussein. This is a separate problem,” said Putin.

Focusing on Iraqi suffering

Dmitry Ryurikov, a senior researcher at the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Studies, however, says that Russia and other countries opposed to the war could and should have been much firmer in trying to prevent it.

“But after 9/11, G W Bush and the company were riding high; they would have ignored the other nations anyway,” he says.

Ryurikov, who also holds the diplomatic rank of Ambassador Extraodinary and Plenipotentiary for 30 years of service in the Russian foreign ministry, says the focus now should be on the suffering of the Iraqi people.

“Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost, infrastructures destroyed, moral traumas still loom over Iraq – many thousands of people went through institutions like Abu Ghraib [prison],” Ryurikov says.

A poll in the US earlier this week showed that 58 per cent of Americans now believe the war wasn’t worth it.

More than 53 per cent in a YouGov poll in the UK said going to war against Iraq was the wrong decision while some 50 per cent believed that former prime minister Tony Blair knowingly misled the country to justify the war.

A joint study from King’s College London (KCL) and Ipsos Mori revealed that 40 per cent of people in the UK believed the Iraq War made the world a dangerous place.

Shumilin, however, believes that Saddam Hussein remaining in power would have doomed the region and affected the global situation.

Regional threat?

“Saddam was threatening to repeat the invasion of Kuwait, and to punish other Arab monarchies in the Gulf, not to talk about Israel. Saddam’s strategic line was clear – to raise the “Arab street” against its “corrupt rulers” everywhere, to support radical groups around the entire region. The answer is obvious – without Saddam the region and the entire world became much safer,” Shumilin says.

Since Saddam’s execution in 2005, there has been a war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, a war between Israel and Hamas, a collapse of the Middle East Peace Process, and increased tension between Iran and Israel over Tehran’s alleged nuclear programme.

Sudan was split in two in 2010; shortly thereafter, popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya ousted (or killed) the former leaders and replaced them with Islamist rule.

A bloody civil war in Syria is now entering its third year, as armed rebels backed by some Arab and European countries, seek to overthrow the rule of Baathist President Bashar Al Assad.

Al-Qaeda affiliated groups which killed thousands in Iraq crossed the border into Syria, raising the specter that Syria’s civil war could further destabilize a politically fragile Iraq.

“Russia’s position in the Syrian conflict is much firmer than in the Iraqi or Libyan ones, and respect for the state sovereignty are the key words,” says Ryurikov.

Russia and other BRICS members have consistently called for a political solution to the crisis in Syria, saying that arming of rebel groups only exacerbates the violence and bloodletting. Russia, China, India and South Africa have recently hosted members of Assad’s government as well as senior cadres of the armed opposition in a bid to initiate dialogue.

But Ryurikov is concerned about the rhetoric against Iran, with some Western analysts warning that Tehran could have a nuclear weapon within a few years.

“The case of Iran resembles the Iraqi story more – like in Iraq, the weapons of mass destruction provide a pretext for warmongering against Iran. I’m sure that the ‘Iranian nuclear weapons problem’ is as fictional as the ‘Iraqi chemicals’, but it is still in the international agenda,” Ryurikov says.

“It must not be allowed to be used the way the ‘chemical weapons’ issue was used in 2003.”

By Daria Chernyshova for The BRICS POST