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This Day in 2003: Imperialist “Shock and Awe” Devastates Iraq

The United States began its war on Iraq in 2003 with a massive bombing assault on Baghdad. The entire war was based on a series of lies aimed at masking the real objective: a regime change that would spark a remaking of the Middle East to serve U.S. imperialist interests in the region.

Scott Cooper

March 19, 2021
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On March 19, 2003 the U.S. began a massive airstrike on the city of Baghdad, bombing government buildings and marking the beginning of a brutal war to open new opportunities for U.S. imperialism.

Eighteen years ago today, people in the United States witnessed television coverage of U.S. military forces bombing Baghdad in what leaders of the U.S. armed forces had promised would be a “shock and awe” attack. It was the beginning of a brutal war to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, subjugate the Iraqi people, and execute one part of a wider strategy to “remake” the Middle East.

And like so many of the murderous deeds of U.S. imperialism, it was all predicated on a lie.

The television images we saw had a surreal quality. Many commentators said the bombing looked like a Fourth of July fireworks display or a video game — characterizations that helped fuel a rather blasé reaction among many in this country to events half a world away. But for the civilians in whose neighborhoods the United States was raining down fire and terror, it was anything but a holiday.

The attack did not come out of the blue. In October 1998, Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed into law the Iraq Liberation Act, which stated, “It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.” Then, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks some 18 months earlier, the Bush administration began to beat the war drums against the Hussein regime — despite that Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with the events of that day. 

The fact that the Bush administration included Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz is part and parcel of how the U.S. invasion unfolded. They had been among those who signed the founding statement of principles for a new neoconservative think tank called the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), established in Washington in 1998. Its leaders famously began to advocate “regime change” in Iraq in a series of public statements, op-eds in major newspapers, and speeches. They helped push the Iraq Liberation Act. And then, shortly after 9/11, PNAC sent a letter to Bush calling for “a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power.” Thus began the series of public lies that justified an invasion aimed at beginning a process of remaking regimes throughout the Middle East, the better to serve U.S. imperialism.

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Post-9/11 Lies 

The lies began with Hussein’s ties to the terrorist group al-Qaeda, which was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. In fact, there was little or no connection. Cheney claimed Iraq was the “geographic base” for the attacks, when in fact it had originated in Afghanistan. There were claims that the Iraqis had been training al-Qaeda fighters for years, also not true. The lies included cooked intelligence that the Iraqi regime possessed a huge stash of biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) at the ready to use against the West, and that they were hiding them on mobile launch sites continually moving around the country to avoid detection.

In October 2002, the U.S. Senate passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution. Just days before, U.S. intelligence agencies briefed about 75 senators in a closed session and claimed that Iraq had the means to deliver its WMDs via aerial drones from ships off the U.S. Atlantic Coast, thus threatening cities on the eastern seaboard.

On February 5, 2003, Colin Powell — Bush’s secretary of state — made a presentation at the United Nations seeking to forge a coalition to invade Iraq. He dramatically held up a model vial of anthrax during his remarks, and said,

We know that Saddam Hussein is determined to keep his weapons of mass destruction; he’s determined to make more. Given Saddam Hussein’s history of aggression … given what we know of his terrorist associations and given his determination to exact revenge on those who oppose him, should we take the risk that he will not someday use these weapons at a time and the place and in the manner of his choosing at a time when the world is in a much weaker position to respond? The United States will not and cannot run that risk to the American people. Leaving Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or years is not an option, not in a post-September 11 world.

President Bush himself told a joint session of Congress that the Saddam Hussein government had sought to purchase yellowcake uranium from Niger, which can be used to make nuclear weapons. U.S. intelligence documents were submitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency to back up this claim; outside experts deemed them to be forgeries.

Despite that every bit of this “evidence” has subsequently been proven false, the fix was in. U.S. imperialism was bound and determined to use the cover of the 9/11 attacks to overturn the Saddam Hussein regime and install a U.S. client government in Iraq, as part of a wider plan to extend its direct control over other oil-rich nations of the region.

Antiwar Protests

All the telegraphing of a planned attack allowed an antiwar movement to spring up even before a shot was fired. Protests began in 2002, and then there were coordinated demonstrations in between 600 and 800 cities and towns in 60 countries around the world on February 15, 2003. All told, these protests drew 10 million people. In the United States, more than 100,000 people rallied in New York City alone. Small towns including Gainesville, Georgia, Macomb, Illinois, and Juneau, Alaska saw crowds gather. Researchers later called it “the largest protest event in human history.” An estimated 3 million people came out to protest in Rome, and the next year’s edition of the Guinness Book of World Records listed it as the largest antiwar rally in history. Madrid saw a million-and-a-half people in its streets.

On March 20, the day after the invasion began, thousands of protests were again held around the world. They had been organized to begin when the inevitable bombing started, an estimated 350,000 to 500,000 people came out on that day. In Chicago, New York City, and elsewhere, demonstrators blocked traffic in an effort to shut the cities down. Protests in San Francisco had been in the planning for weeks, and some 5,000 people came out to blockade the financial district. There were 2,200 arrests.

High school and university students throughout Germany held spontaneous marches; upwards of 150,000 or more marched in Berlin. Munich students marched to the U.S. consulate demanding the U.S. flag be lowered to honor the Iraqi civilians who had been killed in the bombing.

A Murderous Assault and Occupation

The war that began on March 19, 2003, devastated Iraq. The first bombings were “decapitation strikes” aimed at removing the command and control of the Iraqi military. The previous day, ground forces had already begun a brutal march to Baghdad, which was seized on April 5. Victory was declared on April 14.

Bombing the military, though, had tremendous consequences for Iraqi civilians. The Oxford Research Group, through its Iraq Body Count dossier, estimated that U.S. forces killed 6,616 civilians just in the “invasion phase” of the Iraq war, including the initial bombing of Baghdad. Close to 25,000 civilians were killed in the first two years, a large percentage of whom were children. Post-invasion civilian killings were nearly twice as high in the second year as the first year of the post-war occupation.

Direct deaths from the fighting are only part of the story of U.S. imperialism’s murderous spree in Iraq. A highly regarded Iraq Family Health Survey conducted in 2006 and 2007, combined with academic research by the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, established a huge number of “excess deaths” directly linked to the occupation, violence it provoked, deprivation caused by U.S. management of the country, and so on. The numbers exceed 600,000.

Less than a week after the bombing began, Guardian correspondent Brian Whitaker wrote a reflection on the war the United States had begun.

Though this attack was meant to terrify the Baghdad regime into submission, nobody in Washington seems to have anticipated its effect on the rest of the world. To some in the Arab and Muslim countries, Shock and Awe is terrorism by another name; to others, a crime that compares unfavourably with September 11.

The idea that the U.S. imperialists did not anticipate that the terror they were unleashing would have the desired effect — sending a message to regimes that dared to challenge its authority in the world — is, of course, completely out of step with history. Killing civilians has always been part and parcel of the bloody reign of terror U.S. imperialism has unleashed across the world, especially in the post-World War I period — that is, for more than a century.

U.S. imperialism has been busy in the Middle East for just about as long. The oil reserves of the region have been of special interest during that entire period, literally helping fuel the United States becoming the world’s manufacturing powerhouse during the 1900s. The United States backed the creation of Israel and has since funded the existence of its war-criminal regime as a Western policeman to keep the Arab nations in check and the Arab masses focused on the Zionist interloper rather than their own oppressive regimes. It has all been in the interest of profit, the underlying motivation for the capitalist system of exploitation that imperialism serves. It is why the fight we wage against U.S. imperialism here in the “belly of the beast” is so crucial for the very survival of the people of Iraq and indeed the entire Middle East and world.

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Scott Cooper

Scott is a writer, editor, and longtime socialist activist who lives in the Boston area.

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