Invasion of Iraq: The original sin of the 21st century

15 years on, Iraqi people and the world are still suffering the consequences of the US-led invasion.

Iraq invasion - Reuters
A US soldier kicks a gate during a mission in Baquba, in Diyala province, some 65 km northeast of Baghdad, November 4, 2008 [Goran Tomasevic/Reuters]

Fifteen years ago today, Iraq was cast into the abyss as the US administration under George W Bush launched one of the most destructive invasions in modern history. In his now infamous speech announcing the start of the “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, President Bush told Iraqis that “the day of their liberation is near”. But rather than becoming a bastion for democracy and human rights in the region, Iraq has been decimated as a result of this military intervention, and millions of Iraqis have been subjected to horrors few others on this planet have ever experienced or imagined.

The country has been ravaged by war, and transformed into an almost contiguous conflict zone from north to south, and east to west, as rival militant groups, foreign powers and political parties vie for power at the expense of the Iraqi people. 

Far from affecting only Iraqis – which is terrible enough – the invasion of Iraq has had global repercussions. The abject failure of the US’ attempt to export democracy to Iraq allowed for the importation of extremist ideologies into the country. This can be seen by the plethora of bloodthirsty organisations roaming Iraq today, from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL, also known as ISIS), to the scores of militias loyal to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The effects of the invasion of Iraq led to a regional spill over that has also engulfed Europe with the refugee crisis, and revived far-right and isolationist tendencies in the West.

Opening the Pandora’s box of violence

While there can be no doubt that the Ba’athist regime in Iraq was violent and oppressive, what replaced it proved to be even worse. It was post-invasion Iraq where groups like al-Qaeda and ISIL really flourished. 


Al-Qaeda was perceived to be an existential threat in Ba’athist Iraq and was hunted down, but the group found fertile recruitment ground in the country following the invasion. It used George Bush’s characterisation of the so-called “war on terror” as a “crusade” as a rallying cry, inviting fighters across to world to join their fight. Al-Qaeda was almost non-existent in Iraq prior to 2003, but it became a powerful force following the invasion and increased its global recruitment rate substantially. It was the power vacuum created by the invasion that allowed people like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to become powerful warlords almost overnight. 

Although Zarqawi was killed in 2006, his rabidly anti-Shia ideology clashed with anti-Sunni zealotry of hard line Shia outfits active in Iraq, and created a vortex of violent sectarianism in the country that persists to this day. Of course, all this happened against the backdrop of the US-led occupation, which produced its own extraordinary levels of violence while allowing sectarian violence to prosper.

The Lancet published a study that showed that, up until 2006, approximately 655,000 Iraqis had been killed as a direct result of the invasion. The British defence ministry’s then-chief scientific adviser, Sir Roy Anderson, praised the study as “robust“, lending even further credibility to the findings demonstrating the catastrophic loss of life suffered by Iraqis in the first three years following the invasion.

The death toll is, by now, significantly higher than was recorded in 2006. The violence accelerated and human rights abuses worsened during the sectarian civil war that followed the invasion, setting the foundations for ISIL’s rapid spread accross the country and its conquest of Mosul in 2014.

Meanwhile, thousands of Iraqis were forced to leave their broken country to seek safety and security elsewhere, with some finding refuge in neighbouring Syria, Jordan and Turkey, while others making their way into Europe, settling in towns like Sweden’s Malmo, facing a new myriad of difficulties and abuse.

The invasion’s global domino effect

But the nightmare Iraqi people were subjected to cannot be taken in isolation as the invasion had a wider effect.

Due to the influence Tehran managed to sustain in post-Saddam Iraq, Baghdad has become embroiled in the Syrian conflict. Iraq now serves as Iran’s land bridge to Syria where its proxies are ironically protecting the Ba’athists of Syria and aiding the slaughter of civilians in places like Eastern Ghouta as the world watches on.

The Syrian conflict has caused millions of Syrians to flee their homes to seek refuge in Middle Eastern and European countries. Far-right groups around the world are now capitalising on people’s fears of an influx of refugees and migrants, and fighting elections on xenophobic platforms. They have already seen electoral success in countries like Germany and Italy, while putting up a dogged fight in France and the Netherlands. US President Donald Trump has fought long and hard on what has been dubbed in the media as a “Muslim ban“, demonstrating the isolationist and racist tendencies that have materialised following the global trauma of the Iraq war.

In terms of foreign policy, following the catastrophically unsuccessful attempt to “liberate” Iraq, senior politicians across to world now have an aversion to “interventionism”. Politicians are reluctant to act in the face of human rights abuses, violations of international law and crimes against humanity arguably because they do not want to repeat the mistakes they made during the so-called “liberation” of Iraq. This mentality born of the Iraq debacle has arguably led to a lack of moral leadership on crisis issues like Syria, which has seen millions displaced and hundreds of thousands killed. Today Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers continue to act with impunity as the world watches.

All of these developments have a common ancestor – the Iraq war. The Middle East is more violent and unstable than it has ever been in living memory. Iran and Saudi Arabia are now engaged in a proxy war of grave regional implications that seems to have no end in sight. The United States is in retreat, as Russia and China assert themselves on the global stage and issue open challenges to the world’s former unipolar power. And Europe is struggling with xenophobia born of a refugee crisis that primarily resulted from violence in the Middle East. The entire world has felt the effects of the Iraq war and, after a decade and a half of global chaos and instability, it is hard to characterise the invasion of Iraq as anything but the original sin of the 21st century.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.