20 years on from war on Iraq, let’s again find our spirit of resistance – Matt Willgress


“Blair and Bush lied – and hundreds of thousands died.”

Matt Willgress

By Matt Willgress

It is twenty years since Bush and Blair’s illegal, murderous war on Iraq began.

In the run-up to the war, Nelson Mandela summed up the situation perfectly saying “Why is the US behaving so arrogantly? [because] all that Bush wants is Iraqi oil.” He added of Tony Blair that “he is the foreign minister of the United States. He is no longer prime minister of Britain.”

The human catastrophe of that war – justified by false claims of weapons of mass destruction – must never be forgotten, as much as those who seek to rehabilitate the ideas of a more ‘humanitarian’ imperialism today would like to do so.

Blair and Bush lied – and hundreds of thousands died.

An academic study in 2013 showed how half a million people died in Iraq as a result of war-related causes between the US-led invasion in 2003 and mid-2011. This toll included not only violent deaths from the invasion, occupation and subsequent insurgency, but avoidable fatalities linked to infrastructure collapse caused by the war and occupation as systems such as health provision, water and sanitation, energy, transportation, communication were ruined.

A further academic report from the US in 2014 outlined that whilst “in the early 1980s, Iraq was a middle-income and rapidly developing country with a well-developed health system…. A few decades later – after wars, sanctions and a violent sectarian upsurge – child and maternal health indicators have deteriorated, its poverty headcount index is at 22.9% and diseases such as cholera have remerged.”

Additionally, according to UK Government figures, 179 British service personnel and at least three UK Government civilian staff died.

What followed the bloody invasion and ‘regime change’ in 2003 was not the new dawn of human rights and democracy as had been promised by the US and UK, but a bloody and colonial occupation, involving the theft of Iraq’s vast oil wealth and resources.

Additionally, massive amounts were spent private military contractors, which were highly wasteful and corrupt. As a Guardian report noted in 2021, “The Inspectors Generals for Afghanistan and Iraq, the Wartime Contracting Commission, and the Pentagon’s own inspector general all documented waste, profiteering, corruption and ‘ghost spending’ (money spent on activities that turned out not to exist at all).”

As would also be the case with the later war on Libya (see my piece on the tenth anniversary of that war here), the right to national self-determination goes straight out of the window whenever it conflicts with the seemingly inalienable ‘right’ of multinationals to make obscene profits.

It is also worth remembering that whilst nearly every current Labour political figure – and indeed many from beyond Labour’s ranks – now claim to have been against the war on Iraq, the anti-war movement at that time was also subject to intense demonisation from sections of the Labour front bench, the wider political establishment and much of the media.

Last month saw the twentieth anniversary of the massive February 2003 march against the war – the largest protest in British history. At it, the playwright Harold Pinter called it right when he levelled the charge that “The planned attack on Iraq is a pre-meditated attack of mass murder.”

That day is clear in my memory today like it was yesterday. At the London School of Economics where I was at university we had well over 1000 people assemble for the march and a Stop the War society that brought together different trends of the left, climate justice activists and many others, of which I was lucky enough to be the Secretary from 2003-2005.

The Left clearly led the movement, and was essential to its success, but a united front was constructed that stretched not only across the Left, but also throughout the labour movement, different communities and well beyond.

The line-up of speakers at the protest was broad and impressive, including prominent Labour MP Mo Mowlam, who was widely revered at the time due to her role in the Good Friday Agreement.

Amongst the international speakers at the demonstration, the Rev. Jesse Jackson urged Tony Blair to “listen to the voices of the British people.” We all know they didn’t listen to the protestors – as another speaker Bianca Jagger said of Blair at the demonstration he was always more intent on “listening to President Bush rather than the voices of the British people”. But it is certainly not the case that the anti-war movement made no difference, or that the fact the war was not stopped means we should not seek to build such movements again in the future.

Reflecting 10 years later for the Huffington Post, a number of key figures reflected on what they felt were the lasting impact of the war and the building of mass opposition to it.

Salma Yaqoob, who led the Birmingham contingent to the demo and became widely known as an inspiring anti-war activist wrote that she still felt “…a huge sense of pride, my conscience is clear about doing as much as I could have done.”

In observing the international relevance of the protest – which was one of many across the world – she added that “the reality is that millions of peoples’ lives were devastated in Iraq. I got messages from people in Iraq saying, thank you so much. They didn’t feel as isolated. On a human level, that made an impact. It went some way towards showing the difference between the government and the people’s will.”

One of the best things to come out of the anti-war movement at that time was the clear and unambiguous stance of the overwhelming majority of the Left against the Islamophobia that the imperialists were whipping-up to justify war. This was highlighted by Salma, saying that “I think the anti-war movement has been the best antidote to extremism, not the war on terror.”

In the same piece, Andrew Murray of the Stop the War Coalition said that the image that stuck with him from the day a decade later was that “the whole of Piccadilly [was] drowned in people, but [there was] not a single banner among them. They had not come as part of a political group, or a trade union. They were just individuals, some with home-made placards.”

Many of those individuals – whether attending their first protest on the day by themselves, with friends and family or taking part in organising with a local group for the first time – while devastated not to have prevented an unjust and illegal war, were not lost to politics and it became a formative experience. Many became involved with other progressive campaigns afterwards, made clear by how popular the Stop the War Coalition was amongst people who joined or re-joined Labour to support Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 and 2016, and many developed an analysis of both imperialism and the political dishonesty of the ruling-class for the first time that has stayed with them.

Such lessons are not easily unlearned. Importantly, Andrew Murray observed that, “There is disappointment and anger, of course. We were completely ignored… But I think it has made politicians more wary about the future, like an attack on Iran, Syria, at least in part.”

There can be little doubt that war on Iran – and possibly Korea too – was on Bush and Blair’s agenda at one point but did not materialise, and additionally that the memory of how unpopular war on Iraq was later influenced politicians, including then-Labour leader Ed Miliband, who opposed attacking Syria in 2013.

But now with the Tories committing to a nuclear escalation involving the Trident replacement programme and an increase in Britain’s nuclear arsenal which – in the words of CND’s Kate Hudson – “is part of an escalating nuclear threat” globally, we need to again stand up against our Government’s reactionary foreign policy agenda.

It was deeply concerning that when the Government announced £5 billion extra on already high levels of military spending over two years, of which £3 billion is on nuclear, much of the opposition (including from Labour’s front bench) was saying it was ‘not enough.’ This is despite our military spending already being the highest in Europe and one of the highest in the world. We spend over 2% of our total GDP on this area – now committed to rise to 2.5% in the future – whilst the rest of the public sector is subject to never-ending cuts, and investment in tackling the unfolding climate catastrophe is totally inadequate to say the least.

Renewed campaigning on this issue is not only essential but can be popular. As Simon Fletcher has eloquently argued, we must point out that there is always a “magic money tree” for war and nukes, with “The public [being] very capable of seeing through an argument that claims there is no more money for NHS workers or teachers, but that there is money for military expenditure. Economists have often discussed the “guns or butter” tensions faced by economies: the choice between defence spending and the requirements of the wider population. That may be summed up at present as a question of wages, not weapons.”

At that historic demonstration in 2003, Tony Benn – then retired from Parliament but for many of us a key ‘spiritual leader’ of the movement – said we had “formed a new political movement” which was at that point focused on opposing war in Iraq but “must be about other matters as well… It must be about the establishment of a Palestinian state. It must be about democracy in the Middle East – there is no democracy in Saudi Arabia or Iraq – and about some democracy in Britain as well.”

Tony of course gave the rest of his life to building this and many other movements for peace and justice. Jeremy Corbyn – still demonised daily by much of the corporate media over three years on from being Labour’s leader, not least because of his commitment to the causes of peace and justice internationally – was often by his side.

From movements opposing the cuts here such as the People’s Assembly Against Austerity when it was launched, to those supporting the uprisings of the Greek people against neo-liberalism, to solidarity with the growing progressive movements in Latin America, to campaigning for justice for Palestine and many more besides, these causes Tony spoke up for had in common the vision he had outlined on that day of creating a world based on respect for peace, planet and public need rather than corporate greed.

The last period has been a difficult one for the Left, but all around us we can see now campaigns against the ruling-class offensive mushrooming – let’s rediscover the spirit of resistance we had in 2003 and build massive movements for a better world.

  • Labour Outlook Online Forum. Iraq 20 years on – how Bush & Blair’s imperialist war devastated a nation. Wednesday March 29, 6.30pm. 20 years on from the war in Iraq, join Iraqi speaker Sami Ramadani plus US peace campaigner Medea Benjamin, Matt Willgress of Labour Outlook & Shadia Edwards-Dashti of the Stop the War Coalition for an in-depth discussion. Chaired by Rachel Garnham, CLPD & former Labour NEC member. Register here.
  • In-person Stop the War Coalition event. Iraq – 20 Years On: A War That Should Never Have Happened. Monday March 20, 19.00, Friends House, London, NW1 2BJ. Stop the War is marking the anniversary of the war with an evening of remembrance and analysis from Iraqi activists and other leading anti-war figures. Plus a performance of You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know by Jan Woolf w/ Kika Markham and Alan Franks. Tickets here.
  • If you support Labour Outlook’s work amplifying the voices of left movements and struggles in the UK and internationally, please consider becoming a supporter on Patreon.
Featured image: Demonstration against the War in Iraq. Photo credit Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament campaign Magazine February edition.

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