Dr. Azmi Bishara, General Director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, gave the opening remarks at the Center's conference commemorating the first ten years since the invasion. Bishara began by describing the Anglo-American invasion as a "pivotal incident which changed the course of history" in the region. According to Bishara, the invasion and occupation of Iraq left an indelible mark on the Arabs' understanding of global politics. He further stressed that the invasion did more than any other event to push back the advancement of democracy in the Arab Levant, by creating hysterical fear of change amongst the population. Examining the chaos and sectarian conflicts brought in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, the populations of the Arab Levant felt that there was nothing to be gained from democracy. The invasion also bred, amongst those populations, a revulsion and disgust towards the elites who were aligned with the colonizers, said Bishara, further hindering social change.
Bishara also made a distinction between the tasks which lay before Arab intellectuals, and those which European and American intellectuals faced. While American and European intellectuals, he said, may have opted to concern themselves with a media and political discourse which promoted lies to mislead public opinion in the run-up to the war, Arab scholars were faced with a different set of questions. "How can we honestly demand that those accused of crimes carried out in ... Iraq," asked Bishara, "be brought to justice while the very same criminals are received with open arms in other Arab countries?" Setting a tone followed by later speakers at the conference, Bishara devoted a large part of his address to the impunity which individual politicians enjoyed, specifically Tony Blair. Focusing on the former British Prime Minister, the ACRPS Director pointed out that it was "doubly ironic ... that Blair, whom enlightened sections of the British body politic want to bring to trial, was the Quartet's peace envoy and has been appointed a consultant to several Arab governments including the previous regime in Libya." Mentioning how Arab governments, in complete contrast to their populations, had stood shamelessly on the side of the invasion, Bishara's address was a call to arms to the Arab revolutions. The real lesson which the experience of the invasion and occupation of Iraq could teach the revolutionaries, said Bishara, isthe importance of a democracy founded on the twin concepts of citizenship and national sovereignty. Arab intellectuals, he said, were duty-bound to face these questions.
According to the ACRPS Director, it was the Arab cultural identity shared by the majority of the Iraqi population which would provide a bulwark in defense of democracy for Iraq, as well as linking it to the wider Arab environment. The challenge which Bishara suggested faced Arab societies, was balancing the need for social integration through a common cultural identity against the cultural specificity and national rights of the minorities. Another important point which, as Bishara pointed out was especially pressing given the sectarian pluralism of the Arab Levant, was not to confuse the pluralism of identity groups with the pluralism of liberal, representative democracies. The risk was that Arab nation-states would rid themselves of the cloak of an Arab national identity, and replace it with sectarianism as the bond tying citizens to the state. "The Iraqi experience has taught all of us very much in this respect and the hope is that Syria might learn from Iraq's experience."
Bishara closed this speech by bridging the various themes which he touched on. "To combat the consequences of the US invasion of Iraq is to acknowledge the existence of our shared citizenship on which national loyalty, and a rejection of sectarian loyalty to foreign powers, is based. It also means the acknowledgment of the majority's Arab identity which binds the entire country to the surrounding environment. It further implies a refusal of the sectarian system whilst never losing sight of the religious and confessional pluralism in Arab societies."
The first session following Azmi Bishara's opening remarks was dedicated to a group of international experts who recounted their own personal recollections and experiences surrounding the invasion of Iraq. The speakers during this session came from Denmark, Germany, the UK and Iraq itself, and what they all had in common was deep, personal knowledge of the events surrounding the invasion.
One of the speakers during the first session was Naji Sabri Al Hadeethy, Foreign Minister of Iraq from 2001 to 2003, and former Permanent Representative of his country to the IAEA. Presenting a paper titled "What did Iraq do to avoid the risk of war?" Al Hadeethy spoke of the spurious justifications given for the occupation of Iraq.
According to Al Hadeethy, the intention to invade and occupy Iraq dates back more than 20 years, to the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War at the very least. Building on his own experience of diplomacy in the run up to the war, Al Hadeethy described how the US and the UK manipulated international organizations for their own ends. This began with a no-fly zone which was imposed on Iraq after 1991 in the North and South of the country.
Al Hadeethy described the "espionage" which the international inspection teams sent to Iraq were guilty of. While Iraq had tried to foil American designs, said the former Foreign Minister, the biased role played by international agencies meant that Iraq had to stop cooperating with the IAEA in 1998. Even as Iraq was trying to reintroduce international inspectors, the US was working in 2002 to pass a UN Security Council Resolution which would legitimize an attack on Iraq. The Anglo-American invasion followed the refusal of France, Russia and China-the other three permanent members of the Security Council-to go along with these plans.
An interesting counterpart to Al Hadeethy was Hans Von Sponeck, a former UN Humanitarian coordinator for Iraq during the sanctions regime and theOil-For-Food Programme. Unusually for a former UN diplomat, Von Sponeck spoke candidly about his time in Iraq. Like Al Hadeethy, he explicitly referenced the "despicable" role of Richard Butler, widely believed by many observers to have been an asset of Western intelligence agencies while imposing sanctions and coordinating inspection missions during the late 1990s. Regarding humanitarian efforts more broadly, Von Sponeck said frankly, "there was nothing humanitarian about what [we did]". The money being used to provide for the people of Iraq belonged to the country, as Von Sponeck mentioned. The former German diplomat also gave the remarkable figure of US$0.50-the approximate per capita amount spent on Iraqis during the years of the UN's Oil-for-Food Programme.
Before closing, Von Sponeck mentioned the diplomatic efforts to prevent the outbreak of war, which were mediated by former French President Jacques Chirac and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Yet by insisting that the Iraqi central government devolved more power to an increasingly autonomous Kurdish region, the two European statesmen ensured that their efforts did not work. Von Sponeck recounted a discussion with former Iraqi Vice President Tarek Aziz, who said that while all state guests were "welcome", Iraq would not accept being dictated by other sovereign states.
A third speaker during these proceedings was Muayyad Al Windawi, an Iraqi academic who worked as a political consultant to the UN mission to Iraq from 2005 to 2011. Windawi painted a bleak picture for the present and future of Iraq, suggesting that the occupation had destroyed the state's institutions, and that, in his view, "the worst was yet to come". The political process put in place, said Windawy, was committed to the destruction and fragmenting of the country.
Following Winday was Raad Al Hamadany, a former Major-General in the Iraqi Republican Guard. Hamadany mentioned how the aerial strikes against Iraq, which never ceased after the 1990-1991 Gulf War, left the country's military capabilities in ruins, thus making Iraq susceptible to the 2003 invasion. The economic sanctions put in place since 1991 further served to limit the development of Iraqi weapons systems, and Iraqi industry more generally.
Hamadany also explained that the first formal mobilization call from the Iraqi military came on December 18, 2002. Even at that late stage, said the former military commander, the Iraqi leadership was convinced that international opposition would prevent the war from going forward. The speaker continued by stating that in the very worst scenario predicted by the leadership, any war would be a limited war.
Once the war was launched, said Hamadany, the Iraqi army was powerless to stop the advance of the invaders: their only option, he said, was to try to delay the push forward. The former Major-General closed by pointing out how, in dissolving the Iraqi military, Paul Bremmer-who was placed in charge of the Coalition Provisional Authority, effectively Viceroy of Iraq-had violated international norms and laws.
Clare Short, former UK Secretary for International Development, was another high-profile speaker at the session who spoke very candidly about her knowledge of the build up to the Iraq war. Short focused particularly on the impact which the war had on British politics and public opinion. Quoting public opinion polls, Short stated how more than half (53%) of the British public believed the 2003 invasion of Iraq to have been illegal; she further mentioned the remarkable statistic that around one-quarter of the British people believed that former Prime Minister Tony Blair should stand trial for the crime of being complicit in the war. This was, Short pointed out, despite the "progressive" policies which Blair had championed domestically. Remarkably, Short also mentioned that the UK Foreign Office had undertaken to the other UK government ministers that, to maintain stability, the Iraqi government would remain in place following the toppling of Saddam. Short, who left government in protest at the war, also referred to another broken promise: that the reconstruction of Iraq would be swift and would take place through the cooperation of international agencies. None of these came to pass.
One point mentioned by both Short and ACRPS Director Azmi Bishara was Blair's earlier suggestion to George W. Bush, in the wake of the September 11 attacks and the war on Afghanistan, that Libya, and not Iraq, should be attacked next. This fact served to prove that the pretext of weapons of mass destruction used to justify the war on Iraq was a myth.
Short left politics aside and closed her remarks with a discussion of the human toll which the war left behind, and the particular risk presented by the sectarian divides currently rippling through the Levant. The opportunity which the Arab Spring presented meant, said Short, that such threats had to be taken seriously, and the risks avoided. This was a point also picked up by the final speaker of the session, Guardian journalist Jonathan Steele.
Steele spoke of the chaos which reigned in Iraq due to the steps taken by the Anglo-American occupiers, especially the disbanding of the Iraqi military. The lack of a national security system provided Al Qaeda and similar groups with their first opportunity to become active in Iraq. A further sin which Steele spoke of was to allow sectarian militia to become formalized, thus further exacerbating divisions in the country.
One of the few positive developments, said Steele, was the success of the Iraqi resistance in persuading the Americans that they needed to leave the country in 2011. At the same time, however, this would leave Iraq well within Iran's grasp. Steele, again like Bishara, pointed out that the challenge for the future was to ensure that the lessons of Iraq, and especially the need to avoid sectarianism, were learned in Syria.
The event, which is intended to provide a platform for academics and informed analysts from Arab countries and wider afield to share their insights, will continue for the second and final day on Thursday, April 11.