It was embarrassingly dubbed “Operation Iraqi Freedom” by the invading US military forces, but for millions of Iraqis around the world, it was anything but.
Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the start of what then United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan more aptly described as a “illegal” war in Iraq by the US and its allies.
What we learned from the war is the abhorrent hypocrisy of conflict etiquette when viewed through a Western lens. This war, as an Iraqi, has plagued my thoughts daily since March 2003. It has left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead, with millions displaced and their lives ruined.
The images of the Baghdad night sky lit by flames, as bombs were dropped indiscriminately more frequently than clockwork on the City of Peace, are forever etched in our memories. For weeks, nights turned to day as Iraqis prayed to make it to the morning alive.
The years that followed could not be forgotten either. From an oppressive occupation to sectarian rule, the Iraq war has continued to ruin the lives of millions. My own family is now scattered across the globe, from Canada to Australia, as a result of the brutal invasion.
Unfortunately, in the last 20 years, we have not seen any accountability for the plethora of lies and false arguments by the administration of former US President George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair that led to an era-defining conflict.
By contrast, it took just a few weeks for current US President Joe Biden to denounce his Russian counterpart as a “war criminal” after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Of course, Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine is brutal and illegal. But what about Biden’s own warmongering? Let me remind you: Biden defended a war in Iraq years even before Bush took office.
A few days after the US military action in Iraq, more than 15,000 Iraqis lost their lives in violent conflict as a result of Washington’s “shock and awe” tactic to overwhelm the country with its military might. To put this in context, and while one innocent life lost is too many, the total death toll in Ukraine from non-combatants since the war began a year ago, an estimated 8,000 civilians.
However, while Russia has been sanctioned by several Western nations and their allies, and the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Putin, we did not see any of this with the US, UK, Bush and Blair.
There is little difference even between the language used by Bush and Putin before their respective wars. Before the invasion of Iraq, Bush used terms like “freedom”, “release” and “war on terror”. Putin also claimed that he was liberating Ukraine and stop “terrorism” in the region.
Such are the parallels that, in a moment of strange irony, Bush—while trying to denounce Putin’s invasion last year— accidentally scolded his own actions, criticizing in a speech “one man’s decision to launch a totally unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq.”
The reality is that both leaders used false narratives to build public support for the wars that have redefined their respective regions. Like Bush’s claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Putin suggested that Ukraine has ambitions to use chemical weapons.
Yet it was Bush who used incendiary weapons in Iraq in the form of white phosphorous in Fallujah, and to this day children suffer birth defects from the chemical’s long-lasting effects. Far from facing responsibility, however, Bush has been allowed to redefine his own narrative of himself as an immigrant-loving artist.
If you are not serving your retirement days at your Texas ranch, you can be found dancing with ellen degeneres on prime time television. Former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, both architects of the Iraq war, have died without facing justice. Bush must be held accountable before it is too late.
Conveniently, Bush withdrew the US from the International Criminal Court the year before the invasion of Iraq, making it nearly impossible to hold US military leaders or officials to account for alleged war crimes. When the ICC’s top prosecutor wanted to investigate alleged war crimes committed by US soldiers in Afghanistan in 2020, Washington imposed sanctions on her, just as Putin’s Russia opened a case against the current ICC prosecutor.
In this context, the US accusations of war crimes against Putin seem hypocritical. At least 800,000 Iraqis died as a result of Bush’s alleged divinely inspired invasion of Iraq.
Those who dared to oppose the eight years of US occupation of Iraq were labeled as insurgents. Many were tortured and sexually abused by US troops at the now notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
Similar resistance movements in Ukraine, however, are branded as heroic for standing up to the Russian occupation. Ukrainians have been celebrated for making homemade Molotov cocktails as defense weapons, but when similar acts of resistance occurred in Iraq or Palestine, the “terrorist” label was used. This racist double standard has been evident throughout the last year.
Moving acts of global solidarity with Ukraine — from Premier League soccer matches flying Ukrainian flags to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s speech at this year’s Golden Globes — were never on full display for the victims of the brutal war. from Iraq.
If the absence of support and empathy weren’t bad enough, the war in Ukraine unsheathed a contempt for the lives of people in the Global South suffering from deadly conflicts often hatched in Western capitals. “This is not a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict for decades,” said Charlie D’Agata, a senior correspondent for CBS News, reporting from Kiev, Ukraine. It’s a relatively civilized, relatively European city, I have to choose those words carefully too, where you wouldn’t expect that or expect that to happen.”
The reason that Iraq has witnessed decades of war is directly related to Bush’s 2003 decision to invade a country that had already been devastated by years of brutal sanctions. The death of innocent Iraqis matters as much as the death of innocent Ukrainians. Just as the Ukrainians deserve life and solidarity, so do the Iraqis.
Just as we should want Putin to be tried for his crimes, we should demand that Bush be charged for his. We cannot wait another 20 years.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.