Iraqis gathered in Baghdad's Firdos Square, pulling down Saddam Hussein's statue. And in that moment, a US marine sabotaged Iraqis' joy at Saddam's downfall, and literally rubbed the US flag on the statue's face. While it might have seemed inconsequential, that act remained symbolic of the war itself, and of the years to come.
Since then, Iraqis have endured 18 years of state destabilization due to government corruption, nepotism, and kleptocracy supported and maintained by foreign intervention. It has been 18 years of terrorism by foreign states and non-state actors; the displacement and exodus of over 6 million people; the enforced disappearances of over 1 million; and countless murders.
Foreign intervention - whether soft or hard - has become the norm in Iraq, with a proxy war resulting in actual deaths and displacement. All these are part and parcel of the war's enduring legacy: impunity.
Though neither the UN Security Council nor the international community supported this war, its architects were never held accountable. They cannot be tried in the International Criminal Court as they have not ratified the Rome Statute, nor will they be tried in other courts under Universal Jurisdiction because no one is willing to prosecute them.
In line with its imperialist origins, international law was designed to protect powerful countries and disempower others. Its enforcers effectively contributed to the murder of over half a million Iraqi children under a corrupt oil-for-food programme, and 25 years of crippling and inhumane sanctions. Instead of holding the powerful accountable, the practice of international law enabled injustice.
War criminals - even at the lowest stages of command - have barely been held accountable, if at all. The torture of Iraqis was common in American and British military bases throughout the country. When shocking images from Abu Ghraib prison emerged, the US administration justified torture as an innocuous interrogation technique and courts issued light sentences. And when US troops murdered Iraqis in Haditha, US courts acquitted them.
Then, when Blackwater murdered Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square in 2007, US policies delayed all efforts to hold them accountable. Most recently, a US president used executive power to pardon war criminals.
In sum, American courts and decision makers have shown absolute disregard for Iraqi lives. The only instance of accountability that the US endorsed was Saddam Hussein's trial to validate the war. Instead of pairing the trial with restorative justice practices toward peacebuilding, the American Coalition Provisional Authority imposed a "De-Baathification of Iraqi Society" policy.
While it received widespread support among Iraqis at first, this policy gradually fragmented Iraqi society and inspired retributive armed groups. It erased three decades of Iraqi history from textbooks, denying future generations of the opportunity to engage in empowering and restorative knowledge-, memory-, and peacebuilding.
Most notably, de-Baathification dissolved the Iraqi army, opening Iraq's borders to terrorism and state-intervention that have not ceased since, and therefore justifying US presence to secure the very security vacuum it had created.
The security crisis in Iraq is also the result of the consistent militarisation of Iraqi governance and society through the use of the Counter-Insurgency Doctrine (COID) and a system of governance centred on ethnosectarian quotas and designed to disempower voices by overriding popular vote.
With this, the US intervention inadvertently invited and legitimised Iranian intervention in Iraqi affairs. Iran would do so under the guise of resisting western neo-imperialism and defending Shia interests. This US-supported, corrupt system allowed Iran to funnel funds to both non-state and hybrid militants in Iraq, and turned a blind eye when they tortured Iraqi civilians.
Moreover, knowing that it would further embolden Iran-backed militias in Iraq and legitimise their "resistance", the US assassinated Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes. These elements laid the groundwork for the US to create an "absent state" in the functional sense; one that focuses not on state- and peacebuilding, but instead on expanding political power through various apparatuses that take punitive, securitised, and divisive approaches.
The current system also thrives on sensationalist media coverage that uses the war on Islamic State (IS) to justify human rights violations, denying Iraqis their right to due process, except for corrupt officials on the road to rehabilitation. Furthermore, the judiciary is politicised at its highest levels and intimidated at its lowest into ruling in favour of corrupt politicians and militiamen. The "rule of law" therefore has become a state apparatus of repression and hegemony; not one that provides accountability, closure, and social order.
Consequently, Iraq has no legitimate transitional justice mechanisms that focus on restorative efforts towards peacebuilding. Instead, there is a culture of impunity where both state and non-state militarisation continuously violate civilians with no accountability.
The treatment of the Iraqi protest movement in October 2019, which has gained widespread public support proves the point. With over 700 protestors killed and dozens forcibly disappeared, this protest movement revealed the deep levels of impunity in government and militias invested in ruthlessly crushing it, and reveals the failure of the US-led state-building process.
The US-led invasion of Iraq was waged with impunity, so it should be of no surprise that impunity would be its legacy. When the architects and parties involved in the invasion were not held accountable for war crimes and were allowed to rebuild a state through belligerent intervention, they were not inclined to set up a system rooted in accountability and justice.
This is not to deny Iraqi agency and responsibility in state-and non-state sponsored crimes since 2003, but to examine the roots of the militarised system in place today. Due to this war, Iraqis today are fighting for their sovereignty and self-determination on several fronts: against terrorism, foreign-supported militias, and their own government.
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