On the 13th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, what wars are still being fought and who or what are the casualties? The following editorial is an expanded version of a talk delivered to Royal Holloway University, London, on Feb. 26, 2016, during a panel discussion on Iraq and ISIS.
Iraq: wars and casualties, 13 years on
by Lily Hamourtziadou
19 Mar 2016
Silent enim leges inter arma, wrote Cicero, Roman philosopher, politician, lawyer and political theorist: in times of arms, the laws fall silent. Men and women, soldiers and civilians, must do what they can to save themselves and others, during war; what happens in war lies beyond moral judgement, beyond the law, according to some. Political realists argue that war is outside the sphere of morality, that the relations between self-seeking political entities are necessarily a-moral. Yet men and women, historians, philosophers and politicians have talked and written about war in terms of right and wrong. Wars are called ‘just’, ‘unjust’, ‘aggressive’ or ‘defensive’; there are ‘wars of independence’, ‘freedom wars’, ‘civil wars’, ‘world wars’, ‘humanitarian wars’, ‘wars of resistance’ and others, each with its own justification or condemnation explicit or implicit in its name or description. What receives less in-depth discussion are the casualties of war. Human casualties, war's first, principal and defining outcome; and also other casualties, including the conditions that make life good, safe, worth living.
Since March 2003 a number of wars have been fought in Iraq: aggressive, humanitarian, pre-emptive, civil; they have taken the form of air raids, shootings, executions, mortar attacks, IED explosions and car bombs; they have been fought by several parties, some Iraqi, others non-Iraqi, some occupying, others state-controlled, some insurgent, while others terrorist. There are perhaps as many as 40 different groups, but the major groups of armed insurgency are, Ba'athists, Iraqi nationalists, Sunni Islamists, Salafi/Wahhabi “jihadists” , Shi'a militias, foreign Islamist volunteers. In addition, there are US-led coalition forces and Iraqi government forces.
There have been hard wars, fought with bombs, mortar shells, guns and knives. Recent incidents include the suicide bombing in Hilla, on March 6, 2016, when 60 civilians were killed; the execution of 10 children by ISIS members in Fallujah, on January 23, 2016; the killing of 29 civilians by air strikes over Mosul on September 29, 2015. The daily war, the daily violence that started in March 2003 continues to this day. Death by bomb, death by sword, death by rock, death by torture…
Though featured ever less frequently in western media (while daily reported by Arabic sources, like Al-Mada, Al-Maalomah, NINA, Al-Sumaria and Al-Masalah), hard wars are still fought every day on Iraqi soil. Although less prominently reported, they are still evident, for they are material and can be seen and photographed: the burnt-out car that concealed the bomb, the blackened building where the explosion happened, the blood staining the pavement, the wreckage of the market stall where the IED was planted, the bullet holes and shrapnel through concrete, through metal and through flesh.
But there are other, non-material wars being fought. Those are wars of words, wars of ideas, discourse wars. Wars that speak of enemies, of threats, of hegemony and of counter-hegemony, of freedom and of enslavement. Less obvious and not as photographable. Every hard, material war has its ideational counterpart, but discourse wars can take place without any shots being fired, or bombs dropped. The effects of such wars are felt much longer, even for generations after the gunfire has ceased.
“Observers have warned that, as its self-proclaimed caliphate shrinks towards extinction, IS will likely revert to its old guerrilla tactics and ramp up suicide car bomb attacks on civilian targets,” warned Agence France Presse on March 6, 2016, after the Hilla suicide bombing. In the same article, “The Rafidha (a derogatory term for Shiites) must understand that the battle has just begun and that the worst is yet to come,” IS said as it claimed Sunday's bombing. 1
The British PM, David Cameron, declared the Islamic State “a threat to the UK's security”, in his effort to justify further air strikes, this time in Syria. “So it's in the national interests, it's the right thing to do. We'll be acting with our allies, we'll be careful and responsible as we do so. But in my view it's right to do this to help keep our country safe.” He said it was right to go after “the terrorists who threaten people in our country just as they attacked and killed those people on the streets of Paris, on the streets of Ankara, on the streets of Beirut, and indeed British people on the beaches of Tunisia.” 2
1 Syria air strikes vote on Wednesday, says David Cameron BBC, Dec 1, 2015'
2 IS suicide truck bomb kills 47 south of Baghdad. AFP, 6 Mar 2016
3Barack Obama warns leaders of Islamic State in speech: 'You are next'. The Guardian, Dec 14 2015
4 Paris attack: Isis warns 'This is just the beginning' after killing at least 127 people in French capital. The Independent, Nov 14 2015
As for the American President, he “sought to reassert himself as commander-in-chief on Monday, standing with military top brass at the Pentagon and warning leaders of Islamic State: You are next. The blunt tone, with its echoes of President George W Bush’s reference to Wanted, dead or alive posters in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks, appeared intent on defying critics who accuse the president of lacking aggression against jihadists in Iraq and Syria. Flanked by Vice-President Joe Biden, the defence secretary, Ash Carter, and three military generals, Obama condemned Isis leaders as thugs, thieves and killers.” He stated,
“As we squeeze its heart, we’ll make it harder for Isil to pump its terror and propaganda to the rest of the world.” 3
The Islamic State sought to justify the Paris attacks by claiming that the “blessed battle” was an act of revenge for France’s involvement in the US-led coalition bombing its militants in Iraq and Syria: “A group of believers from the soldiers of the Caliphate set out targeting the capital of prostitution and vice, the lead carrier of the cross in Europe, Paris. They divorced worldly life and advanced towards their enemy hoping to killed for Allah’s sake…and his allies.” 4
In the year since the last anniversary of the invasion, old wars have continued to rage, while new wars have been declared and justified. Wars of arms and wars of words. Old enemies remain, as new enemies are created.
The casualties of war are first and foremost measured in the loss of human life. Since March 20, 2015, nearly 16,000 civilians have lost their lives in Iraq. According to Iraq Body Count, that brings the total civilian death toll to more than 174,000, with the total violent deaths including combatants up to 242,000. The dead are civilians, soldiers, insurgents, terrorists; they are Iraqi, American, British, Italian, Sunni, Shia, Yazidi, Kurdish; killed while fighting, shopping, walking, sleeping…
It is impossible to name them all, as there are at least a dozen incidents a day where civilians lose their lives, but victims in the past year include Hasan Ali Hasan, Hilar Berar and Khalid Jabar Ali, Iraqi Army Officers, executed in Badush prison by ISIS members on September 23, 2015.
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They also include Mohannad Rezzo, Najeeb Mohannad Rezzo, Tuka Bassim Rezzo and Miyada, family members, killed in an airstrike on September 23, 2015.
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Another casualty, 3-year-old Fatima Samir, dead after a chemical attack in Taza on March 11, 2016 (Iraqi Child Killed in Taza during ISIS Chemical Attack), one of thousands killed in the Iraq Wars.
As the wars continue, more casualties become apparent. One of them is the Iraqi state, a failed state unable to control its territory and incapable of maintaining security. A state so internally divided and externally penetrated that any sovereignty it struggled to possess after 2003 now seems a daydream delusion. It is a state characterised by sectarian conflict, economic debilitation and violence, a state reliant on external intervention and support.
Moderation has been another casualty in this struggle for power. The wars have resulted in increased Muslim hostility, jihadism and radicalisation. Hard-liners have prevailed, while moderates are marginalised and silenced. The prevalent narratives are now the hegemonic and the counter-hegemonic.
As the wars reach their 13th year and a generation is coming of age, childhood is another casualty. Millions of children have grown up in daily violence, bombings and shootings, lack of education, poverty and fear, witnessing violent death as part of a ‘normal’ life. Some have even been recruited as child soldiers, featured in propaganda videos as they carry out executions. What adults are those children growing up to be? How will the trauma of war affect their lives?
A tragic casualty seems to be hope. The most frequently asked question on Iraq, for years, has been ‘How can the war end?’ So many are looking for the answer, the solution, the path to peace. Yet now, more than ever, no answer can be given. The continuing struggle for hegemony, the battle of interests and the battle of rival identities are once again raging, as hope is slowly dying, along with thousands of innocents.
As we reach another sad anniversary, the question now becomes ‘How many more people, dreams and ideals will be sacrificed at the altar of this power struggle?’ Whether moral, immoral or amoral, these wars have resulted in an endless cycle of violence, recriminations, enmity, suffering and death. The hard and discourse wars have mutually reinforced each other, co-constituting a political reality we all have to live in, preventing, rather than facilitating the search for solutions.
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