Destruction in IraqPhoto by Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash

Photo by Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash

This is Part Two of four installments examining American human rights violations in the Middle East, and the steps the U.S. is taking to prevent further harm. Read parts one, three, and four.


After the United States invaded Afghanistan and managed to topple the Taliban controlled government quickly, the U.S. turned its attention to Iraq, another country governed by a tyrant. But this time, support for an invasion was lower and continued to plummet as it became clear that former U.S. President George W. Bush and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair lied about Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

The U.S. continued to neglect the rules of war as it sought to create a model Middle East in its own image. Just as with the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein was not a model leader of his country. He was a dictator who persecuted the Kurdish people and ran a regime that perpetrated torture, kidnapping, and innumerable killings.

The official U.S. position was that it was invading Iraq “to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger.” Mr. Bush’s unsupported invasion of Iraq could not accomplish the first task, as it was based on a lie, and it failed to complete the other two.

Taking from the Afghanistan playbook, the United States continued its legacy of blatantly violating human rights on its fruitless campaign for Middle Eastern nation-building.

Invasion of Iraq

Photo by Rob on Unsplash

The United States government was involved in Iraqi politics long before the 9/11 terror attacks. It supported Iraq, which was already led by Saddam Hussein, as it fought Iran in the Iran-Iraq War. The U.S. was aware that Mr. Hussein was chemically bombing the new Islamic Republic of Iran, and it supported him. Despite Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons crossing what should have been a “red line,” if inhumane weapons benefited the United States, they were apparently acceptable.

The American attitude toward Saddam Hussein shifted after he invaded and annexed Kuwait, sparking the First Gulf War. The U.S. led a coalition that pushed Mr. Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait, but decided against pushing into Baghdad and toppling the Hussein regime. According to then U.S. Secretary of Defense and future vice president for Mr. Bush, Dick Cheney, advancing on Saddam Hussein was not worth the Americans lives it could cost. He would change his tune a little over a decade later during the Iraq War.

The day after the 9/11 attacks, Mr. Bush was already gauging the support of Mr. Blair for military action in the Middle East. They decided they wanted to garner North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or United Nations (UN) support for a military incursion in Iraq, and they proved to be willing to go to illegal lengths to coerce member states to approve an invasion.

Then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called the invasion of Iraq illegal, but that did not stop the U.S.-led invasion. Starting with airstrikes on March 19, 2003, coalition forces invaded Iraq. Just three weeks later, on April 9, Baghdad fell and Saddam Hussein fled.

Mr. Hussein was captured in his hometown of Tikrit on December 13, 2003, tried between late 2005 and late 2006, and executed by hanging for gasing hundreds of Shi’as during the 1982 Dujail massacre.

But the path to executing a murderous despot was not a clean one for the United States. Both Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and George W. Bush’s America consistently committed war crimes (with the U.S. continuing to do so while fighting ISIS) in order to control Iraq, but justice for these crimes has not been evenly distributed.

War Crimes – Part One

Mr. Bush promised “that coalition forces will make every effort to spare innocent civilians from harm.” Right from the start, he failed to deliver. In 2003 alone, between an estimated 5,494 and 6,677 Iraqi civilians were killed. And just as in Afghanistan, these thousands of deaths cannot all be classified as collateral damage.

The most recognizable American war crime in Iraq was the operation of the Abu Ghraib prison, in which prisoners were tortured and killed by American soldiers. Only the soldiers who directly interrogated the prisoners were charged with crimes in military courts, and though more senior officials could be implicated, including then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, there are few international options available that could be used to prosecute such war crimes.

Another example of American war crimes without significant punishment is the Haditha massacre, in which 24 unarmed Iraqis were killed by U.S. Marines, with blame initially being placed elsewhere. Eight Marines were later charged; six had their cases dropped, one was found not guilty, and a final was convicted of a single count of negligent dereliction of duty. 24 murders, and one single perpetrator whose maximum penalty was the forfeiture of two-thirds pay per month for three months and confinement for three months. Even when the U.S. starts criminal proceedings, it appears that in the Middle East, American war criminals can do no wrong.

In other instances, war criminals do face trial and receive sentences that match the severity of the crimes. But top U.S. officials find ways to subvert the justice system to perpetuate the American myth that only enemies commit war crimes. In the Nisour Square massacre, 17 Iraqis were killed by American contractors in Baghdad, including several 9- and 11-year-old boys. Of those deaths, 14 were determined to be the result of the unjustified use of deadly force. Of the six contractors that were the initial target of prosecution, one accepted a deal to testify against the other five, and one of those five had his charges dropped. Three of the remaining four were sentenced to 30 years in prison, and the other was sentenced to life. Then former U.S. President Donald J. Trump pardoned them.

There has been a pattern of denial of culpability for war crimes in the upper echelons of the American government. The government offers the low-hanging fruit to take the fall for a pattern of human rights abuses, or snatches away those hints of justice after putting up a façade of caring about the Iraqi people. And the U.S. would repeat these crimes when it returned to Iraq to fight the rise of the Islamic State.

ISIS in Iraq

ISOF APC on the street of Mosul | By Mstyslav Chernov – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The Islamic State fought against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, but obviously failed to prevent it. It rose to power in Iraq and Syria starting with the Anbar offensive that led ISIS to control at least 70 percent of this largest governorate of Iraq. Soon after Anbar, Mosul also fell to ISIS, emphasizing the disintegration of a functional democracy in Iraq implemented by the U.S. after it withdrew in 2011.

ISIS seeks to create a Sunni Islamic caliphate and purge the world of what it views as incorrect interpretations of Islam and all other religions. Its violent nature is seen in the Sinjar massacre, perpetrated as ISIS was quickly ascending in Iraq and Syria as it sought to eliminate all Shi’a Islam influence in its territory.

At its peak in early 2015, ISIS held territory in which eight million Iraqis and Syrians lived. Over the next four years, Iraqi and Syrian resistance forces, supported by foreign powers, beat back ISIS to its final stronghold in Baghuz, Syria, where it was defeated and relegated to being an insurgency force.

ISIS-controlled territory in 2015 shown in gray | By Tan Khaerr – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

ISIS is a brutal regime that violates human rights guided by a violent misinterpretation of Islam, and it committed mass violence and genocide against minorities and non-Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Syria. Even after it lost control of its territory, it still posed and poses a threat to the global community. Efforts to keep ISIS at bay are primarily militaristic in nature, exemplified by the U.S. raid that resulted in the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019.

But in its efforts to eliminate a regime that violated human rights and committed atrocious war crimes, the U.S. neglected to protect non-combatants and continued harming the Iraqi people just as it had when it first invaded in 2003.

War Crimes – Part Two

The U.S., when it acknowledges that it has harmed civilians, severely underestimates the pain it has caused because of its negligence. In 2017, the U.S.-led coalition said it had killed at least 801 civilians by accident while fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria since 2014. In reality, at least 5,961 civilians were killed between that period, according to civilian harm monitoring group Airwars.

The human toll of the U.S.-led coalition’s war against ISIS is best understood when examining specific incidences of harm committed against innocent civilians. Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul is the location of two of the most prominent examples of U.S. war crimes, with the capital of Baghdad being the location of the war crimes exposed in Collateral Murder by WikiLeaks.

A U.S.-led airstrike on the al-Aghawat al-Jadidah neighborhood of western Mosul on March 17, 2017, killed 278 civilians. This was the deadliest coalition airstrike on civilians since the original invasion of Iraq, but investigations have failed to identify those responsible for the deaths of these innocent people. The United States vaguely mentioned that a coalition airstrike struck the neighborhood, but it could not identify the member that conducted it; Iraqi forces blamed ISIS, despite having its own artillery strike the neighborhood as well.

With such a high death count, there should have been a swift, forceful investigation into who exactly is to blame for 278 murders. But the U.S. once again only threw out a number and said someone was to blame, without making a serious effort to get to the bottom of the airstrike.

The United States has also used white phosphorus in Iraq and Syria, and while this chemical is not banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention, it has the potential to spark almost unfightable fires and harm civilians. White phosphorus can also be used for a smoke screen, the purpose for which the United States claims it is using it. But its potential to be used as an incendiary weapon should draw intense scrutiny to the decisions to use it. If the U.S. decides to use it as a weapon, or fails to take the necessary precautions to ensure its safe use, it has no legitimate claim of an innocuous mistake, and should be held accountable.

In Baghdad in 2010, the U.S. military did commit crimes against innocent people, crimes that were only exposed after a whistleblower leaked video from an Apache helicopter showing the murders of between 12 and 18 people, including two Reuters journalists. The video reveals U.S. soldiers mocking the innocent Iraqi citizens who they shot down, and enjoyed striking a van that came to assist a wounded man who survived the initial assault. And in the chaos, two children were wounded. The U.S. at first claimed that it had followed its “Rules of Engagement,” and even after WikiLeaks released the video, the U.S. declined to reopen an investigation into the obvious crimes committed in the skies of Baghdad.

In fighting ISIS, the United States murdered civilians with almost total impunity, and without punishment for the war criminals involved in the deaths of innocent Iraqis, American history will be stained by the actions of bloodthirsty individuals with access to deadly weapons.

Failed regime change

President Bush claimed that the U.S. had “no ambition in Iraq except to remove a threat and restore control of that country to its own people.” Starting with faulty intelligence, the U.S. inserted itself into a country with which it had no legitimate business. It killed innocent people during the initial invasion, and it killed innocent people during the fight against ISIS, which came to control significant swaths of Iraq because of the turmoil unearthed by the United States.

With the current political instability of Iraq and massive protests rocking Baghdad, the United States traded a murderous dictator for rampant internal strife. The U.S. likes to pride itself on its ability to foster democracy in countries with tumultuous paths. But Iraq shows that no matter how involved the U.S. says it is in Iraqi politics, it cannot force dramatic change on a country and expect immediate peace.

War crimes followed the U.S. from Afghanistan to Iraq, and strife followed Iraq from Saddam Hussein to ISIS to today. The War on Terror terrorized civilians in the Middle East, and after it ended, the U.S. brought its traits to a new front: Syria.

By Vincent M

Vincent M writes about global political developments and is based in the U.S. He focuses on the enduring impact of history and analyzes the complexities of the modern political landscape.

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