It’s been 20 years since the US invaded Iraq. The memories still bring ‘overwhelming pain’

Two decades after the United States launched its invasion of Iraq, Mohsin* said the memories still bring him “overwhelming pain”.
“What happened in 2003, I don’t want happening anywhere in the world – not just Iraq, anywhere,” he said.

To this day, Mohsin, 46, who fled Iraq and found refuge in Australia, said he still doesn’t understand what happened to his country.

But he doesn’t place blame solely on Iraq’s former president, Saddam Hussein, despite him being an “extremely harsh ruler”.
“Who’s to blame? Just Saddam? No, the US is also to blame. It wasn’t just Saddam who we should blame – the US treated us the same way,” he said.

Mohsin fled his home country 18 years ago as the war raged, feeling he had no choice but to leave because life was not getting better despite US forces ousting Mr Hussein.

A man standing and speaking while pointing his finger.

Iraq’s former president Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003, and executed three years later after being convicted of crimes against humanity by the Iraqi Special Tribunal. Source: AAP, AP / Darko Bandic

“[The US] said they were going to come and fix the country, but it turns out, no. Rebel groups and the US military were killing people, they were shooting people. Anybody who approached them risked being killed,” he said.

Sunday 19 March 2023 marks 20 years since US president , which spiralled into a war that lasted until 2011.
A United States soldier standing outside while another is in an armoured vehicle. A burning oil well is in the background.

US marines near a burning oil well at the al-Ratka oilfield in southern Iraq in March 2003. Iraqi troops set fire to the oilfield as they fled from coalition forces advancing on Baghdad. Source: Getty, AFP / Odd Andersen

Mohsin believed life would return to normal after a couple of months, but that was not the case.

“By 2005, it was destroyed. Sectarianism conflict broke out… there was nothing left for us there. How was I going to benefit from this country? This is the point where I knew I had to leave,” he said.
The next year, Mohsin and his family escaped to Malaysia before travelling to Indonesia.
They came to Australia by boat in 2010 after he was granted a , but it was a tragic journey.
On the way to Christmas Island disaster struck, and 91 of the 131 people on board drowned, including his three young children.

“I try to forget the experience that I had … If Iraq improved by a million times today, it would still not be good enough and I will never return there. All I can think about is the experience that I had. And I don’t want to remember it,” he said.

What sparked the invasion?

The US-led war came against the backdrop of heightened terrorism fears, according to Benjamin Isakhan, a professor of international politics at Deakin University.
Eighteen months earlier the US had been rocked by the .

“The real fear in the US at that time was that a state like Iraq might have weapons of mass destruction and that it might be harbouring terrorists,” Professor Isakhan said.

A crowd of people on the streets. Some are carrying a coffin.

Mourners carry the body of Iraqi Shamil Nafe, 30, along the streets of Baghdad’s Adhamiya area during his funeral procession, in December, 2003. He was killed by the US forces when a demonstration supporting captured former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein took place and ended with clashes with troops. Source: AAP, AP / Muhammed Muheisen

Prior to announcing the invasion, Mr Bush claimed that US intelligence had found that Iraq had “some of the most lethal weapons ever devised”, and that it “harboured terrorists, including operatives of al-Qaeda” — who had coordinated the September 11 attacks.

When the official call had been made, Australia’s then-prime minister and committed troops to join the fight. He said it was in Australia’s national interest to “deprive Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction”.
But in the early months of the war, it emerged that the intelligence suggesting Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was not as solid as had been claimed.

David Kay, then-head of the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group (ISG), said in October 2003 that no weapons of this type had been discovered.

A year later, the ISG delivered a report to the US Congress following a 15-month search involving 1,200 of its inspectors who had searched sites across Iraq. No weapons of mass destruction had been found, and the ISG concluded that Mr Hussein destroyed the last of them a decade earlier.
It said Mr Hussein had ambitions to restart chemical and nuclear programs once sanctions were lifted. But because there were no recent signs of discussion or interest in establishing a new biological warfare (BW) program, Iraq would “have faced great difficult in re-establishing an effective BW agent production capability”.

Claims Mr Hussein had formal links with al-Qaeda, which were used as justification for the invasion, were also being questioned. In 2006, a declassified US Senate report revealed there was no evidence of this.

‘Who could feel happy about a foreign flag being flown in their homeland?’

Basim Alansari was already an Iraqi refugee as he watched his country crumble on live television at his student accommodation in a regional NSW university.
Mr Alansari was only nine years old when he escaped the 1990 Gulf War — sparked by Iraq’s invasion of neighbouring Kuwait — with his family, and finally came to Australia by boat when he was 17.
He felt giddy with excitement after watching US troops drape an American flag over a statue of Mr Hussein.
“I remember calling my dad and I go Saddam is gone!,” he said.

He was met with heavy weeping by his father, who had narrowly escaped death row under Mr Hussein’s rule.

Basim Alansari.jpeg

Basim Alansari. Source: Supplied

When Basim thought his dad’s unusual crying was due to happiness, he said his dad screamed at him.

“Who could see a foreign flag being flown in their own homeland, and feel happy in such a moment?” Mr Alansari recalls his dad saying.
Mr Hussein went into hiding after US troops seized the capital, Baghdad, less than a month into the invasion. He was captured in December 2003, and executed three years later after being convicted of crimes against humanity by the Iraqi Special Tribunal.
After his overthrow, which ended a brutal 24-year rule, more violence followed.

Al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, who was killed by US forces in 2006, started waging bloody attacks designed to turn majority Shi’ite Muslims against minority Sunnis in a civil war. It eventually transpired and engulfed Iraq from 2006 to 2008.

A photo of two teenage men and a young boy.

Basim Alansari (centre) and his two brothers in Iraq before they travelled to Australia. Source: Supplied

Huge protests in Australia and around the world

As it became increasingly apparent that the US would invade Iraq, millions of people took to the streets calling for a peaceful solution.

Between six and 10 million people demonstrated across the world on 15 and 16 February, 2003, according to a BBC report at the time. Some have labelled it the largest single coordinated protest in history, with the Guinness World Records recognising Italy as having the biggest anti-war turnout at three million people.

Mohammad Awad was among the hundreds of thousands of people who rallied across Australia that weekend.
Mr Awad remembers heading out with his family to stores in Bankstown, western Sydney, where they bought markers, paint, and glitter to design posters.

He recalled his parents explaining that they were going to the demonstration because what was happening was “unfair”.

Man smiles in a black thawb near  the water.

Mohammad Awad attended the anti-war rally in Sydney as a young boy. Source: Supplied / Mohammad Awad

“It was our first education on imperialism and everything going on in the Middle East; why American intervention never works, all that sort of stuff,” Mr Awad, now 23, said.

I remember [chanting], ‘John Howard is a coward’.

“I had never been to a protest before, I had never seen such a big demonstration of people before.”

Demonstrators marching down a street. Some are holding placards that read "NO WAR".

Protesters in Sydney called for no war in Iraq on 16 February, 2003. Source: AAP, AP / Dan Peled

Many prominent Australians were also vocal in their opposition to the war, with the late Heath Ledger joining fellow actors Joel Edgerton, Naomi Watts, and thousands of others at a rally in Melbourne after the invasion was announced.

And in January of that year, Toni Collette and Judy Davis were among anti-war activists who attempted to present Mr Howard with an application for US citizenship because he had aligned Australia with Washington’s hardline stance against Iraq.

“He’s blindly following Bush, like a sheep, into a pit and who knows what the repercussions may be,″ Collette said at the time.

A man with his arm on another's shoulders standing in a large crowd.

Heath Ledger (right) and Joel Edgerton at a protest in front of Victorian State Library in Melbourne on 20 March, 2003, following the announcement of the Iraq invasion. Source: AAP / Julian Smith

The war’s toll

In 2008, Mr Bush agreed to withdraw US troops from Iraq, a process that was completed under President Barack Obama in 2011 — the same year Britain’s remaining forces left.
Australia ended its operations in 2009.
The number of civilians that died during the war is difficult to ascertain. In 2009, three years before the war ended, 110,600 Iraqis had been killed.
George W Bush carrying a platter with a roast turkey and fixings as soldiers watch on.

In 2008, Mr Bush agreed to withdraw US troops from Iraq, a process that was completed under President Barack Obama in 2011. Source: AAP, AP / Anja Niedringhaus

When announcing the invasion, Mr Bush said the US would help “build new Iraq that is prosperous and free”.

Professor Isakhan said that promise had not yet been fulfilled, and given Australia was a participant, the government should do more to ensure it is.

He said “simple things” like providing exchange and scholarship programs for Iraqi students would go some way in helping achieve this.

Professor Isakhan believes the West has learned “a lot of hard lessons” in the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
“You can’t go into these very complex and conflict-ridden societies and fix them in five years and turn them into robust democracies in 10 or 20 years,” he said.
“There is no simple fix, and I think that’s really a big problem for foreign policy at the moment… because staying away is a problem, and going in is a problem.”

*Name has been changed.