Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

‘A concentration camp above ground, a mass grave beneath’

Iraq remains a four-letter word in British politics that just keeps giving. Owen Jones‘ recent effusive encomium in the Guardian to Jeremy Corbyn and his pledge to apologise for what Jones calls ‘the greatest western foreign policy catastrophe of our time’ also lists crimes and consequences which flowed from the 2003 invasion.

Jones’ list is, ‘Hundreds of thousands dead, many more maimed; millions displaced; the torture cells; the dropping of white phosphorus on Fallujah; the unleashing of grotesque sectarian conflict; the rise of fundamentalist extremists, culminating in the nightmare of Isis.’ It stretches causality to its outer limits, avoids nuance and underplays the autonomous agency of various Iraqi actors.

Jones rightly avoids the anti-war movement’s usual inflation of the death toll. George Galloway normally cites a million dead: propagandist exaggeration. The numbers killed, mainly by terrorist forces, are bad enough. True, many deaths were avoidable if the Pentagon had not hubristically insisted on doing the occupation on the cheap and in such a cackhanded way that it gave ammunition – sometimes literally – to Ba’athist forces which had planned their resistance in advance. And if they had not morally tarnished the operation at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. The litany of mistakes and crimes is well explained in Ali Allawi’s magisterial book on the occupation and Emma Sky’s recent memoirs.

Sky, a British peacenik who came to advise American military leaders in Iraq for nearly a decade, is particularly critical of America’s constant and foolish support to Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maliki despite the growing evidence that he was a sectarian Shia leader who persecuted the Sunnis and led many of them to conclude that they would be safer with Islamic State than Baghdad. She also rounds on Barack Obama for being too anxious to leave and thereby doing too little to help stem sectarian sentiment.

It is often said that there is a strong sense of Iraqiness, but there are at least three definitions: those of the Shia, Sunnis and Kurds, who were forced to live with each other by the British nearly a century ago. Saddam’s regime, based on minority rule largely by Sunnis and his tribe from Tikrit, brutally enforced a particular definition and once he had gone the others sought to redefine it in their own image. If Saddam had survived, he could have increasingly evaded the crumbling sanctions regime and again turned on the Kurds, as Maliki did. Some say that the demise of this established dictator was at least part of the psychological spark for the Arab Spring but what would have been the answer by Saddam to awakening in Iraq if he had survived?

As for the occupation being the incubator of Isis, well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Extremists were present in Iraq and elsewhere before the invasion and were assisted by a variety of factors, including: Maliki’s sectarianism, the failure to intervene to end the war in Syria from 2011, and ignoring Kurdish warnings from late 2013 onwards about the advance of Isis in Mosul. Kurdish leaders in Erbil told me and others about this with increasing urgency from that time. They warned Maliki about the impending takeover of Mosul but he assured them that he could handle it and they should mind their own business, just before his forces fled without a shot being fired.

Jones omits one of Corbyn’s strongest points: his exposure of Saddam’s chemical weapons bombardment of the Kurds in Halabja in 1988, which was the culmination of a genocidal campaign that slaughtered up to 200,000 Kurds. Decades of fascism and external aggression caused maybe two million deaths and Iraqi president Jalal Talabani rightly said, ‘Saddam’s Iraq was a concentration camp above ground, and a mass grave beneath it,’ and of exile for many Kurds and Iraqis. Saddam survived his dramatic defeat in Kuwait in 1991 and brutally repressed rebellious Shia and Kurds, the latter being forced into a biblical exodus to the mountains bordering Iran and Turkey, and who only survived because the west introduced a no-fly zone under which they wrested control of most of their region from Saddam.

If Jones ever visits the Kurdistani city of Slemani he can visit the Red House, a former torture centre and now a museum, where thousands were killed, women were raped in the ‘party room’, their babies and foetuses thrown into the incinerator, and many were drowned in a pit of excrement. Given this, is it any wonder that the Kurds urged the West to invade Iraq, which is widely seen by them as liberation. That this does not figure in much left thinking on Iraq illustrates that much history has been consigned to oblivion. The apology needed from the west should be for abandoning the Kurds to Saddam’s brutality for so long.


Gary Kent is director of Labour Friends of Iraq but writes in a personal capacity. He tweets @GaryKent



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Gary Kent

is director of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq and writes in a personal capacity. He tweets @GaryKent

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