What a tragedy that we couldn't stop the war in Iraq despite marching in our thousands

Forget the expenses scandal: it was Iraq that exploded what trust millions had in our political establishment. But the real anguish lies elsewhere.

Share

Almost exactly a decade ago, on a bitingly cold February day, we marched in our hundreds of thousands to stop a catastrophe. The historic demonstration against the Iraq war was more of a shuffle than a march: the streets were too crammed to walk very fast. The coach to London was packed full of car workers. Lollipop ladies, firefighters, supermarket shelf stackers, lecturers, shopkeepers marched: there was a euphoria that people power brings. When we left for our pick-up points, placards scattering the street, chants still echoing in the evening air, we thought we had won. How could the greatest mass of demonstrators to have ever swarmed through Britain’s streets be tossed aside?

It is a memory now punctured with bitterness. Yes, we helped trigger one of the greatest parliamentary rebellions in history as 139 Labour MPs defied the Whip, but the largely united Tories came to Tony Blair’s rescue. When I visit schools, students who were six, seven or eight years old when we marched ask how they can change anything if up to two million demonstrators couldn’t. And forget the expenses scandal: it was Iraq that exploded what trust millions had in our political establishment. But the real anguish lies elsewhere. The consequences of the Iraq obscenity were far worse than those of us who yelled “Not In Our Name” imagined. Years of blood and chaos followed. There can be no sense of triumphalism or vindication.

We were right about the false pretext: the non-existent weapons of mass destruction. It wasn’t a based on a hunch. We listened to Scott Ritter, the Republican-supporting former UN chief weapons’ inspector, who declared months before the first bombs fell that “since 1998 Iraq has been fundamentally disarmed”. We understood that the former foreign secretary Robin Cook knew what he was talking about when – in his historic resignation speech – he declared that “Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term”.

We refused to accept all the desperate contortions used to wrap the invasion in pseudo-legalese. It was illegal,” said the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in the aftermath; it was “contrary to international law”, Sir Michael Wood, former chief legal adviser to the Foreign Office, told the Chilcot inquiry.

Neither did we believe it was motivated by humanitarian considerations, not least given the West’s appalling record of supporting brutal dictatorships. It is a scandal which continues today, from Saudi Arabia to Kazakhstan – whose dictator is currently employing Tony Blair to the tune of $13m a year. The CIA originally helped the Baathists into power: they even supplied lists of Communists who were promptly slaughtered. The West armed and supported Saddam in his war with Iran, and when anti-war Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn stood up in Parliament in 1988 to denounce Britain’s support for the Baathist tyranny after the gassing of the Kurds, he was a lone voice. Nearly all of those who used the suffering of the Kurdish people 15 years later to justify the invasion said nothing.

At a talk when I was at university, one of Britain’s most senior military figures predicted that 99 per cent of Iraqis would greet the occupiers with flowers; the other one per cent would initially hold back out of fear of Baathist reprisals. Hubris does not even cover it. A Sunni uprising began almost immediately; rebellions among the majority Shia population would follow. Iraq became a playground for al-Qa’ida-inspired fanatics who previously had nothing to do with the country. More than 12,000 civilians were murdered in more than a thousand suicide bombings in the first seven years alone. A grotesque sectarian bloodbath ensued: decapitations, car bombs, mass graves, bloated bodies floating in rivers.

Debating how high a pile of bodies reaches is a grubby business, and statistics have a habit of stripping humanity out of an argument. But the human cost matters. The occupiers refused to count the dead, leaving it to wildly differing estimates. The Iraq Body Count’s conservative figures are at least 172,906 violent deaths; the Iraqi government and the World Health Organisation estimated up to 223,000 killed in the first three years; one study even estimated over a million had died. When much of the city of Fallujah was razed and hundreds killed by US forces – who used white phosphorous, which strips the skins from people’s bodies – the cruise missile liberals fell largely silent.

All this blood, and for what? In 2005, Ayad Allawi – a former CIA agent originally installed as Iraqi Prime Minister – argued that “people are doing the same as [in] Saddam’s time and worse”. Human Rights Watch warns that “the Iraq people today have a government that is slipping further into authoritarianism”, listing “draconian measures against opposition politicians, detainees, demonstrators, and journalists, effectively squeezing the space for independent civil society and political freedoms in Iraq”. Iraq is now 150th out of 179 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, worse than Russia or Zimbabwe; and the US government-funded Freedom House rates Iraq 6 for civil liberties and 6 for political rights, with 7 being the worst. No wonder Tony Dodge, an Iraq expert at the LSE, warns that “Maliki is heading towards an incredibly destructive dictatorship”.

Easy for me to berate, you might think: I didn’t live through the horror of Saddam. Listen to the Iraqi people, then. A detailed poll by Zogby at the end of 2011 revealed that just 30 per cent of Iraqis felt the invasion left them better off; 23 per cent felt things were just the same, and 42 per cent said they were worse. Among the Shia, 70 per cent felt things were worse or just as bad as under Saddam; it was 79 per cent among Sunnis. Winning hearts and minds indeed.

The hawks were wrong on every count. Wrong about the weapons; wrong about being greeted with flowers; wrong about the human cost; wrong about Iraq becoming a flourishing democracy. But I remember the euphoria I felt on 15 February 2003 with grief. We did not stop an inferno which began a month later, consuming the lives of hundreds of thousands, including 179 British soldiers. Incalculable misery; incalculable horror. It must never happen again.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Front end web developer - URGENT CONTRACT

£250 - £300 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: **URGENT CONTRACT** Our...

Year 3 Teacher

£21000 - £31000 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: KS2 Teachers - Chelm...

ABAP Developer

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ampersand Consulting LLP: SAP ABAP Developer - Rugb...

Head of Finance - Media

£80000 - £90000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: Working for an International Mul...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: Hislop the Younger, by-election polling and all about the olden days

John Rentoul
The bustling Accident & Emergency ward at Milton Keynes Hospital  

The NHS needs the courage to 'adapt and survive'

Nigel Edwards
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?