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    Demonstrators at the rally in London, 15 February 2003, as worldwide protests brought tens of thousands into the streets to show their opposition to a possible US-led war against Iraq.

    The Iraq War 15 Years On: No Body Count, No Accountability, No End in Sight

    © AFP 2018 / Martyn Hayhow
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    A full fifteen years on from the US/UK invasion of Iraq, one could be forgiven for thinking the conflict never happened. No government minister of the day has faced any repercussions for their role in the war, no official body count has ever been determined, and no one is quite sure whether the intervention was legal or not.

    March 20 2018 marks the 15th anniversary of the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the US-led invasion of Iraq. Despite the UK playing a leading and pivotal role in the conflict, with around 45,000 troops (roughly 19 percent of the invasion force) remaining in the country until 2009, the mainstream British media has been largest silent about the momentous commemoration.

    The anniversary is unlikely to go unremarked upon in Iraq itself — although the friends and families of those slain in the 15 years since the initial invasion are unlikely to be celebrating.

    Who's Counting

    Calculating the true number of deaths produced by the Iraq War is an inexact science — General Tommy Franks, who led the invasion, told reporters in 2003 the US military "don't do body counts." Given official refusal to keep an ongoing tally, the task has fallen to medical professionals with experience of conducting comprehensive mortality studies in major warzones.

    Alex Matheson, left, a member of the Desert Rats with his Challenger II tank man an operational post in Basra, southern Iraq, Friday April 4, 2003
    © AP Photo / Tony Nicoletti/Pool
    Alex Matheson, left, a member of the Desert Rats with his Challenger II tank man an operational post in Basra, southern Iraq, Friday April 4, 2003
    The first professional estimate was published in medical journal The Lancet in 2006 — it estimated about 600,000 Iraqis were killed in the first 40 months of war and occupation in Iraq, along with 54,000 non-violent but still war-related deaths.

    US and UK officials publicly condemned the report, criticising its methodology and suggesting its calculations were wildly exaggerated. However, behind closed doors the UK government acknowledged the report was "likely to be right". A 2015 Physicians for Social Responsibility report — Casualty Figures After 10 Years of the ‘War on Terror — also found The Lancet paper more reliable than other mortality studies conducted in Iraq.

    A US soldier looks through a pair of binoculars as a fire in the Rumeila oil field burns in the background in southern of Iraq, Sunday, March 30, 2003.
    © AP Photo / Yonhap/Jin Sung-chul
    A US soldier looks through a pair of binoculars as a fire in the Rumeila oil field burns in the background in southern of Iraq, Sunday, March 30, 2003.
    Just Foreign Policy's "Iraqi Death Estimator" updated the study's estimate, multiplying passively reported deaths compiled by NGO Iraq Body Count by the same ratio documented in 2006. This project was discontinued in September 2011 — then, its estimate of Iraqi deaths stood at 1.45 million.

    Complicating the picture are arguments over whether casualties produced by the US-led coalition in their battle against Daesh since 2014 should be included in the total — and the fact such killings continue to the present day. The campaign has seen 105,000 bombs and missiles dropped on Iraq in under four years.

    Several cities held or once held by the group have been reduced to rubble, and Iraqi-Kurdish intelligence has estimated at least 40,000 civilians died in the assault on Mosul alone. In recent months, an attempt to clean up the rubble in the ancient city found 3,353 more bodies, of whom only 20 percent were identified as ISIS fighters — the rest were civilians.

    This is an image obtained by The Associated Press which shows a detainee bent over with his hands on the bars of a prison cell watched by a soldier in late 2003 at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, Iraq
    © AP Photo /
    This is an image obtained by The Associated Press which shows a detainee bent over with his hands on the bars of a prison cell watched by a soldier in late 2003 at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, Iraq
    Still, whatever the numerical reality, Iraq Body Count's summary of the war's impact on Iraqi civilians is stark.

    "An entire generation of Iraqi children has known little other than life in a country riven by violence, fear, hopelessness, internal displacement and poverty, [and] is growing up deprived of basic security or well grounded hope, a generation of the orphaned and dispossessed. Let us in the West have the courage to face this truth and accept the role we played in it, so that we may at last make meaningful efforts to help solve rather than compound these problems," the NGO wrote.

    Moreover, the organization bemoaned how Western publics had seemingly become "ever more inured and desensitized to Iraqi suffering."

    "[This is] in part thanks to the creeping ‘normality' of the relentless daily death toll. ‘Everyday' violence makes poor news copy, especially when it's happening far away and to no one we know. We in the West have a responsibility to become more fully aware of the experienced realities of a nation and a people whose fates we have so significantly altered. After 15 years of never-ending bloodshed, is it not now finally time for our governments to join and support the efforts of Iraqi civil society and NGOs to accurately and comprehensively document the full extent of the harms suffered by the people of Iraq?" Iraq Body Count concluded.

    Legal Arguments

    Ever since March 20 2003, the legality of the war has been hotly debated. While attempts to prosecute officials responsible for planning and executing the war have been unsuccessful, there is significant consensus that the war constituted a "crime of aggression".

    A demonstrator wearing a mask to impersonate Tony Blair holds throws fake money during a protest before the release of the John Chilcot report into the Iraq war, at the Queen Elizabeth II center in London, Britain July 6, 2016.
    © REUTERS / Peter Nicholls
    A demonstrator wearing a mask to impersonate Tony Blair holds throws fake money during a protest before the release of the John Chilcot report into the Iraq war, at the Queen Elizabeth II center in London, Britain July 6, 2016.
    The list of public figures supporting this view is large and seemingly ever-growing, and includes then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former US Attorney-General Ramsey Clark, former chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix, former Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister 2010 — 2015 Nick Clegg. John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister at the time of the invasion, also supports this view.

    Sir Michael Wood, senior legal adviser at the Foreign Office in 2003, advised the government intervention without UN approval was "contrary to international law". His deputy, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, resigned in protest on the eve of the invasion. She subsequently told the Iraq Inquiry, a public investigation of the war conducted 2009 — 2011 that finally published its findings in July 2016, all Foreign Office lawyers "dealing with the matter were entirely of one view".

    Iraq Inquiry chairman Sir John Chilcot speaks as he comments on the findings of his report, inside the QEII Centre in London on July 6, 2016.
    © AFP 2018 / Jeff J Mitchell
    Iraq Inquiry chairman Sir John Chilcot speaks as he comments on the findings of his report, inside the QEII Centre in London on July 6, 2016.
    While the Inquiry's resultant report did not deem the invasion illegal, it did note Prime Minister Tony Blair asked Parliament to "endorse a decision to invade and occupy a sovereign nation, without the support of a United Nations Security Council resolution explicitly authorising the use of force" — the lack of such a resolution would make the invasion illegal under international law, as Wood noted.

    Limited Liability

    Despite this, at the official level in Britain, one could be forgiven for thinking the conflict never happened. No government minister of the day has faced any repercussions for their role in the war.

    Only one — Leader of the House Robin Cook — resigned in immediate protest of the war, and all others backed it. Clare Short, International Development Secretary — who called Blair "reckless" in the lead up to the war — resigned in May. Since then, she has become chair of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.  

    Despite his subsequent repudiation of the war's legality, John Prescott remained Deputy Prime Minister until Blair's resignation in 2007, whereupon he joined the House of Lords. There, as Baron Prescott, he sits by other cabinet contemporaries who also backed the war, including David Blunkett, Paul Boateng, Alastair Darling, Tessa Jowell and John Reid.

    Many ministers were also subsequently promoted — Margaret Beckett became Foreign Secretary, Darling Chancellor, Reid Defense Secretary and Straw Justice Secretary.

    Tony Blair resigned as Prime Minister in 2007, going on to become Official Special Envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East until 2015. Chancellor Gordon Brown became UN Special Envoy on Global Education.

    It's not merely ministers who saw their fortunes rise in the wake of the invasion. Matthew Rycroft, Blair's private secretary, who drafted the infamous "Downing Street memo", went on to serve as UK ambassador to the UN, and in 2018 was promoted to Permanent Secretary at the Department for International Development.

    ​Sir John Sawers, former head of MI6 UK special representative in Iraq following the invasion, joined BP as a non-executive director in May 2015.

    Related:

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    Tags:
    culpability, war casualties, war of aggression, civilian casualties, casualties, war crimes, Iraq War, Lancet, Daesh, Robin Cook, Gordon Brown, Saddam Hussein, Tony Blair, Iraq, United States, United Kingdom
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