For months before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq the American, British and Australian governments were hard at work manipulating intelligence to create several illusions. Saddam Hussein was falsely portrayed as one of the architects of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in September 2001; he was said to have developed an arsenal of poison gas and chemical weapons to use against neighbouring countries and for terrorists to use elsewhere; and it was claimed he had resumed his programme to develop nuclear weapons.
The Coalition of the Willing, cobbled together by American threat and blandishment, was itself portrayed in Washington as 46 indignant countries united in their desire to rid the world of one of its most dangerous dictators. In truth, only three — Australia, the UK and Poland — contributed troops to the American invasion. A few soldiers from other countries were used in support roles after the invasion was complete.
But the most tragic delusion created by President Bush and his neoconservative colleagues was that the invasion would liberate Iraq. As the residents of Paris did in 1944, Iraqis would dance in the streets to welcome American coalition troops, and Shia, Sunni, Kurds and Christians would embrace democracy and free enterprise. Washington had a list of six other Middle Eastern countries where more people would throw off their chains. Or so we were told.
The reality was shockingly different. Coalition action in the ten years since the invasion resulted in between 600,000 and 1.2 million deaths of Iraqis, according to reliable estimates. Torture of prisoners was common. In the same period, two million Iraqis fled Iraq, some attempting to reach Australia by boat. Nearly two million remain displaced people in their own country. The destruction of Iraq’s electricity, water and sewerage systems has degraded public health, and produced outbreaks of cholera. Schooling has been interrupted, and traumatised children have become malnourished and directionless scroungers on Iraqi streets, with dire prospects for their future as adults.
Having destroyed the Ba’athist government and demobilised Iraqi military and police forces, Paul Bremer and his provisional government, unburdened by knowledge or forethought, opened the way for unbridled sectarian violence — Shia against Sunni, Muslim against Kurd, everyone against minorities such as Mandeans, Assyrians, Jews and Christians. Since May 2006 Nouri al-Maliki’s fragile coalition government has brought no end to sectarian violence.
In December 2003 John Howard declared the Australian people had ‘moved on’ from the Iraq war. A decade later, when Australians appealed for an Iraq war inquiry, like those held in other countries, the Gillard government too appeared to have moved on. Neither the Prime Minister nor Stephen Smith, the Defence Minister, believed lessons could be learnt from Iraq. ‘We’ve now got other issues,’ declared Gillard. The Australian media caravan also moved on, to report new disasters. On 15 April 2013, the Boston Marathon bombing in which three died and 264 were injured received blanket coverage. But almost no attention was given to a bombing in Baghdad the same day which killed 55 and injured 300. The continuing devastation and worsening carnage in Iraq could be happening on the moon for all the attention paid here to its human consequences.
Australia must be one of the most inquired-into countries in the world. If 40 Australians died and more were injured as a result of government policy, as happened in Afghanistan, people would demand a royal commission. In government, Rudd and Gillard set up dozens of inquiries. Abbott has begun to do the same, with an inquiry into four deaths of tradesmen installing pink batts as well as a royal commission into union corruption. Why are the consequences of a war any different? Why, having invested so much in Iraq, do our leaders take no responsibility and our media pay so little attention? Why have Australian lawyers, like the eminent group who protested against the invasion in February 2003, not pressed for investigations of Australians for war crimes, aggression, crimes against humanity, and corruption? Why has no one even been charged for what they did in Iraq?
The answers are obvious to all who recall Yes, Prime Minister. They involve both governments and the governed. Governments don’t set up inquiries whose outcome they cannot predict. Governments treat their erring predecessors with the leniency they hope to receive in their turn. Governments deceive the parliament and the people, and don’t take kindly to getting caught. Governments want unfettered power to go to war, taking no responsibility for the result. In the case of Iraq, Australia not only invaded the country illegally and on the basis of false claims, but sent the SAS in surreptitiously a day ahead of the American ultimatum’s expiry.
As for the governed, we have only ourselves to blame for our habit of consequential irresponsibility. We developed it in many wars, first fighting for British interests, then for American ones, and only once under direct threat of invasion. Lulled into dependency on the ANZUS alliance, few of us notice that not one of our war efforts with the US since 1945 has achieved a decisive victory. Prime Minister Abbott admitted as much about Afghanistan when the troops returned in December 2013. If Australians want to break the succession of expeditionary, pre-emptive and counter-productive wars, we should demand the truth about why we invaded Iraq, insist that the war powers held by the prime minister are changed, and require those who initiate wars to be answerable for their actions. Unless we do, Australia cannot move on from Iraq.
Australia supported the use by Americans of cluster bombs against Iraqi civilians in 2003, for which those responsible could be accused of war crimes. So could the Australian general, seconded to the US forces, who planned and executed the second attack on Fallujah in 2004, in which white phosphorus was used. For knowing this and failing to prevent it, the Chief of the Defence Force at the time, General Peter Cosgrove, could even be implicated.
Richard and Alison Broinowski, former Australian diplomats, are members of the Coalition for an Iraq War Inquiry.