It was 15 years ago today when the US invaded Iraq on the false pretense that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. The attack came despite worldwide protest and a lack of authorization from the United Nations Security Council. At around 5:30 a.m. in Baghdad on March 20, 2003, air raid sirens were heard as the US invasion began. The fighting has yet to end, and the death toll may never be known. Conservative estimates put the Iraqi civilian death toll at 200,000. But some counts range as high as 2 million. In 2006, the British medical journal Lancet estimated 600,000 Iraqis died in just the first 40 months of the war. The US has also lost about 4,500 soldiers in Iraq. Just last week, seven US servicemembers died in a helicopter crash in western Iraq near the Syrian border. The war in Iraq has also destabilized much of the Middle East. Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others have directly blamed the US invasion of Iraq for the rise of ISIS. We speak to the Iraqi-French sociologist Zahra Ali, who teaches at Rutgers University; Matt Howard, co-director of About Face: Veterans Against the War, the organization formerly known as Iraq Veterans Against the War; and Sami Rasouli, founder and director of the Muslim Peacemaker Teams in Iraq.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: It was 15 years ago today when the US invaded Iraq on the false pretext that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. The attack came despite worldwide protest and the lack of authorization from the United Nations Security Council.
At around 5:30 a.m. in Baghdad on March 20th, 2003, air raid sirens were heard as the US invasion began. Within the hour, President George W. Bush gave a nationally televised speech from the Oval Office announcing the war had begun.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.
AMY GOODMAN: Six weeks later, on May 1st, 2003, President Bush landed on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego and declared the end of major combat.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: My fellow Americans, major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the fighting has yet to end, and the death toll may never be known. Conservative estimates put the Iraqi civilian death toll at 200,000. But some counts range as high as 2 million. In 2006, the British medical journal Lancet estimated 600,000 Iraqis died in just the first 40 months of the war. The US has also lost about 4,500 soldiers in Iraq and some more than 22,000 wounded. Just last week, seven US servicemembers died in a helicopter crash in western Iraq near the Syrian border. The war in Iraq has also destabilized much of the Middle East. Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others have directly blamed the US invasion of Iraq for the rise of ISIS.
AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the 15th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, we’re joined by three guests. Zahra Ali is a French-Iraqi sociology professor here in the United States at Rutgers University. Her forthcoming book is titled Women and Gender in Iraq: Between Nation-Building and Fragmentation. Ali grew up in France. Her parents were Iraqi political exiles.
Matt Howard is co-director of About Face: Veterans Against the War, the organization formerly known as Iraq Veterans Against the War. He served in Iraq once in 2004, again in 2005.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Professor Ali, let’s begin with you. Fifteen years ago today, the US invaded Iraq. Talk about what happened then and the repercussions today.
ZAHRA ALI: I mean, first of all, I would like to say, you know, that as a daughter of an Iraqi political exile family, who grew up in France, I refuse — I was 16 years old at the time of the war, and I refuse this false dilemma: Either you oppose the regime, either you oppose the war. You know, I opposed the regime, and we had to flee Iraq because of the authoritarian regime, and also I got involved in the antiwar movement in France.
And also, we have to name the war. We have to name it as, you know, a criminal war. And we have to define it as, you know, the very operation of the destruction of Iraq as a functioning state and society.
And this operation has started before 2003, has started in ’91. I mean, if we talk about US interferences in the region, and in Iraq, in particular, we can go back to the ’60s. But at least for this specific operation, we have to talk about ’91, the US-led coalition bombing, a criminal bombing, devastating bombings, of Iraq, that were described as, you know, surgical strikes, but that targeted water and electricity supplies, bridges, schools, hospitals, and left the country in a humanitarian crisis. And then, after this terrible situation, the imposition of the UN sanctions, you know, that were terrible for the Iraqi population and that were very much initiated and pushed by the US administration of the time.
So, a country that needed to be reconstructed was plunged into a deep humanitarian crisis that destroyed its middle class, weakened, to an extreme level, its state institutions and infrastructure. So, we had, before the sanction, a free and strong education system, a good healthcare system — so, a functioning state. And then, so this is the situation, you know, that characterized Iraq in 2003, when the invasion happened. So, the Iraqi society had already been brutalized by decades of wars and by the normalization of political violence, of course, you know, the repression of all the different uprising of the population in the north and in the south, and social, economic and humanitarian crisis.
And I want to say that, you know, the US invasion exacerbated the situation, this crisis, to its extreme, first of all, in destroying what was left of the state, its institutions and services that provide basic human needs to the society, that makes a functioning society — so, access to running water, electricity, a welfare state. And it was done through what was called the de-Baathification campaign, so that disbanded the army and part of the administrative basis of the regime.
And also, something that is very important and that we have to, you know, remind ourselves, to understand what is going on today — you know, the rise of ISIS, etc. — is that the US administration created a political system based on what I call in my research ethno-sectarian quota. In other words, this is to say that the US administration has institutionalized racism in Iraq. So it has created a political regime that relies on communal-based identity. So, in Iraq, in 2003 — since 2003, you are not just a political leader defined by your belief, your political beliefs, or as — I don’t know — a communist, a nationalist, an Islamist. You are an Arab political leader, a Kurdish political leader, a Sunni, a Shia or Christian political leader. And this really is at the core of what, you know, provoked the social, ethnic and sectarian fragmentation and the sectarian war in the country.
As well, we have to say that the US administration brought to power a political elite that, you know, had mainly lived in exile since — for example, for some of them, since the ’80s, so very much disconnected with the realities on the ground. And even for those political exiles who had some legitimacy, some political legitimacy, inside the country, I mean, they have less legitimacy, because they have proved to be extremely sectarian, extremely conservative and extremely corrupted, as well. So —
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, if we can, I’d like to bring in Sami Rasouli, who is the founder and director of the Muslim Peacemaker Teams in Iraq. He lives in the Iraqi city of Najaf. And he moved back to Iraq in 2004, after living abroad for nearly 30 years. He left Iraq in the late 1970s and eventually moved to the United States and settled down in Minneapolis.
Welcome back to Democracy Now! Could you talk about your thoughts now, 15 years after President Bush declared “mission accomplished,” what the situation in Iraq is today?
SAMI RASOULI: Thank you for having me on your [inaudible] show. Juan, greetings from Iraq. And again, 15 years — 15 years, and the immeasurable tragedy continues to unfold, while disasters and adversity keeps trapping us under things, asking whether we have learned anything from that tragedy.
Well, George Bush was one of the worst presidents, but yet, today, some people think what we have currently is really bad, and George Bush, in comparison, better.
So, Iraq entered in a tunnel in 2003 with no light at the end, from the invasion to occupation to sectarianism, then terrorism, ISIS, and we should not forget about Iranian expansion in Iraq. While just recently some partial solution the Kurds and Arabs reached, otherwise we’ve gone in another tunnel of conflict between the north and the south.
We do know Iraq is right now going in a decrease of education level, healthcare quality. Security, the worst in the world, Iraq is considered, because borders are widely open. The Iraqi Army is not yet capable to keep Iraq safe. There are many military bases, have been built by the US And it’s still building, increasing, from, I believe, last year seven, now we have about 12.
So, unfortunately, Iraqi people are paying heavily a price. But we’re not going to continue to cry about what’s going on. Our Muslim Peacemaker Teams been working since 2005 now in a form of outreach and advocacy for peace and promoting the principles of peacebuilding throughout the country between all factions, regardless whether they are Kurds, Arabs, Sunni, Shia, Muslims or Christians.
Right now, we are hosting two Americans — from New Jersey, Mr. Mettler [phon.], and from Wisconsin, Miss Strobel [phon.] — who are helping in a project that MPT, Muslim Peacemaker Teams, started last October, by inviting Americans to meet Iraqis. And the project is called English for Reconciliation. I started this school, as I said, about six months ago, trying to bring from so-called infidels from the West to meet so-called terrorists in the east of Iraq mainly, according to the American mainstream media, to meet around a roundtable, break bread together, seeing the eyes. And they found out nothing of that nonsense is true. They are nothing but brother and sister, meeting, belonging to the same human race, and striking agreement by establishing lasting friendship that’s based on respect, mutual understanding and trust, because —
AMY GOODMAN: Sami, we’re having a little under — we are having a little trouble understanding you, but I want to thank you for being with us, from Najaf, Iraq. Sami Rasouli was an institution in Minneapolis, had Sinbad’s restaurant, was on the cover of Minneapolis magazine, but left everything to return to his country at the height of the war, to be with his countrymen and women and family. Sami Rasouli, founder of Muslim Peacemaker Teams in Iraq, speaking to us on this 15th anniversary of the US invasion. When we come back, we’ll continue with our guests, Zahra Ali, who is a sociologist, a professor at Rutgers, and Matt Howard of About Face: Veterans Against the War, served in Iraq in 2004 and ’05. Stay with us.