20 Years Since the Illegal Invasion of Iraq, Why Are Bush, Cheney and Blair Still Free Men?


A collage of George W. Bush, Tony Blair and the invasion of Iraq, created for Salon in 2015.

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20 years ago today, a US-led coalition illegally invaded Iraq, without approval from the UN Security Council, and on the basis of patently false claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction with which it could launch an attack on the West.

Those of us who are old enough to have lived through this dreadful time, and to have recognised the extent to which were lied to, have never forgiven — and never will — those who led us into this illegal war of choice.

For the neocons in the administration of George W. Bush — primarily, the vice-president Dick Cheney and the defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld — Iraq was unfinished business, after the first Iraq War in 1991, and, from 1998 onwards, Iraq was, explicitly, a target for regime change via the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) think-tank, founded in 1997, whose members also included other prominent figures in the administration of George W. Bush, including Paul Wolfowitz (Rumsfeld’s deputy), Richard Perle (an adviser to the Pentagon as the Chair of the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee) and John Bolton (another security adviser who was also the Ambassador to the UN from 2005-06).

The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 finally gave the PNAC neocons the opportunity to press for regime change in Iraq, as part of the “war on terror” that the Bush administration declared in the wake of the attacks. British officials who were present in the Pentagon at the time of the attacks noted with shock how the immediate response from some US officials was to suggest the immediate invasion of Iraq, although it subsequently took some time for excuses to be fabricated.

These involved false claims that Saddam Hussein had a mobile biological weapons program (invented by an Iraqi source known as ‘Curveball’), and — to tie into the “war on terror” — that representatives of Al-Qaeda had met with Saddam Hussein in an effort to secure chemical and biological weapons.This was a lie that was made by Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who ran an independent training camp in Afghanistan, and who made the false claim after he was seized Afghanistan in December 2001, and was sent to Egypt to be tortured.

Back in April 2009, I wrote extensively about this episode, and Dick Cheney’s treasonous role in using it to justify the illegal invasion of Iraq, in an article entitled, Even in Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low, following it up, after al-Libi, who had been sent back to Libya after years in CIA “black sites,” died in a Libyan prison just weeks later, in an article entitled, Dick Cheney And The Death Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi.

The UK also played a major role in justifying the false prospectus for the invasion of Iraq, in a murky story that involved what was described as a “sexed-up dossier” regarding intelligence about Iraq’s alleged WMDs, the mysterious death of weapons expert Dr. David Kelly, and an unprecedented attack on the BBC by Tony Blair and his press secretary Alastair Campbell.

Although the push to war met with unprecedented global protests — with tens of millions of people protesting around the world on February 15, 2003, including at least one and a half million people in London, which was by far the largest protest I have ever taken part in — we were all swatted aside like inconvenient flies by our leaders. This was an outcome that filled some protestors with a profound malaise about the effectiveness of protest, but it also served to remind others that, when millions are united against injustice, the only sensible outcome of a huge protest movement ought to be to refuse to go home, and to try and precipitate a velvet revolution.

The war itself was, as anyone with any sense knew in advance, a disaster. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died in what Brown University’s ‘Costs of War’ project calls “direct war related violence caused by the US, its allies, the Iraqi military and police, and opposition forces from the time of the invasion through October 2019”, and nine million others have also been displaced.

Opinions differ as to how stable Iraq currently is, but what is in no doubt is how destabilizing the invasion and occupation (and US brutality) were in terms of unleashing sectarian violence — initially, through the notional head of the insurgency, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and later through Daesh (also known as ISIS, or Islamic State), led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who proceeded to terrorize not only Iraq but also much of the Middle East (especially Syria) and to inspire terrorist attacks in the West.

Ironically, ISIS had first come together in Camp Bucca, one of the US’s many prisons in Iraq, although generally less well-known than its more brutal counterpart, Abu Ghraib, from within whose walls photos of prisoners being subjected to torture and abuse (on the orders of Geoffrey Miller, a former military commander at Guantánamo who was sent to “Gitmo-ize” Abu Ghraib in 2003) shocked the world when they were released in April 2004.

In a Guardian article about ISIS’s origins in 2014, Martin Chulov explained the significance of the prisons, stating, “The revelation of abuses at Abu Ghraib had a radicalising effect on many Iraqis, who saw the purported civility of American occupation as little improvement on the tyranny of Saddam. While Bucca had few abuse complaints prior to its closure in 2009, it was seen by Iraqis as a potent symbol of an unjust policy, which swept up husbands, fathers, and sons — some of them non-combatants — in regular neighbourhood raids, and sent them away to prison for months or years.”

As Chulov also noted, “At the time, the US military countered that its detention operations were valid, and that similar practices had been deployed by other forces against insurgencies — such as the British in Northern Ireland, the Israelis in Gaza and the West Bank, and the Syrian and Egyptian regimes”, without any apparent recognition of how all of the above represent some of the most flagrant human rights abuses in recent history.

Today, as we reflect on the start of the illegal invasion and occupation or Iraq, I can’t help but note that, just three days ago, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin (and Maria Lvova-Belova, the Commissioner for Children’s Rights in the Office of the President of the Russian Federation) “for the war crime of unlawful deportation of population (children) and that of unlawful transfer of population (children) from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation”, and yet, to date, none of those responsible for the mass murder of civilians in Iraq, from 2003 onwards, have been led accountable for their actions.

As George Monbiot explained in an article for the Guardian today, ‘How many of those calling for Putin’s arrest were complicit in the illegal invasion of Iraq?’, the hypocrisy is startling. “[W]ho gets prosecuted”, as Monbiot explained, “is a matter of victors’ justice.” Until this latest charge was announced, the only other cases brought before the ICC — 31 in total — have involved African leaders.

As Monbiot stated, “Is this because Africa is the only continent where crimes against humanity had occurred? No. It’s because Africans accused of such crimes do not enjoy the political protections afforded to the western leaders who perpetrate even greater atrocities.”

Putin (and Maria Lvova-Belova) have now been added to this list, but until George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Tony Blair and others are held to account, the abiding lie will remain that, in the West, our leaders are somehow above reproach; that when they are accused of war crimes (and incontrovertible evidence exists to establish that this is indeed the case), the only civilized response is to pretend that it is actually acceptable, when examining the behaviour of our own leaders, to regard calls for their prosecution as nothing more than a difference of opinion that, while allowed, shouldn’t really be taken seriously.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.50).

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the struggle for housing justice — and against environmental destruction — continues.

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30 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    On the 20th anniversary of the illegal invasion of Iraq, I look at the crimes committed by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Tony Blair and others (including fabricating evidence to justify the invasion, which partly involved the torture of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi), and the many failures of the occupation (including the colossal civilian death toll, the brutality of Abu Ghraib, and creating the conditions for the rise of ISIS), and contrast their ongoing freedom and lack of accountability with the decision by the International Criminal Court, just three days ago, to issue an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Pauline Frederica Kiernan wrote:

    Thank you Andy. I hope you’ve seen my posts on this today – several! Pxxx

  3. Andy Worthington says...

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Kevin Hester wrote:

    For the record the darling of the left in Aotearoa New Zealand Jacinda Ardern worked in the office of Tony Blair in London and then returned to NZ to be shoe-horned into the PM’s role at the age of 37.
    Not once in her political career has she denounced the murders of Tony Blair!
    Fascism has sadly prevailed as we face irreversible climate change and chaos.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    I wasn’t aware that Jacinda Ardern had worked in Tony Blair’s office, Kevin. What a disgrace. No one with a shred of decency should have had anything to do with him after the Iraq invasion.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    While there plainly is a case to be made about the illegalities of the Iraq invasion that should arguably have been put to the test through the courts – on the other hand Putin nevertheless is a murdering gangster and absolutely deserving of the warrant issued.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Whatever Putin’s crimes, David, it’s absolutely unforgivable that our leaders are not only excluded from accountability, but also that some of them even end up writing books and being feted on the TV chat show circuit. I still remember my disappointment when Rumsfeld appeared on ‘The Daily Show’ with Jon Stewart.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Kevin Hester wrote:

    Ray McGovern has chimed in as only he can having come from the belly of the beast!

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for that, Kevin. I used to see Ray on my US visits, but our paths haven’t crossed for many years. I’m glad to see that he’s still relentlessly exposing the US government’s crimes.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Kevin Booker wrote:

    Andy, as David has rightly indicated, the question of the legality, or otherwise, of actions taken by governments is a matter for the legal system. However much individual members of the public may disagree with such actions, it is not for them to determine whether or not those actions are legal. Extra-judicial determination of guilt or innocence is never acceptable. That way lies populist rule by lynch mob, which is far closer to the fascism referred to by Kevin Hester than anything done by the Blair government.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    What absolute rubbish, Kevin. The invasion of Iraq was illegal. It had no UN backing. Read George Monbiot’s account yesterday for the full details: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/mar/20/putin-arrest-illegal-invasion-iraq-gordon-brown-condoleezza-rice-alastair-campbell-russia

    “No one can credibly deny that the invasion of Iraq met the Nuremberg definition [that ‘complicity’ in a war of aggression ‘is a crime under international law’]. The Chilcot inquiry, whose terms were set by [Gordon] Brown when he was prime minister, was forbidden to pronounce on the legality of the war. But it concluded that ‘the UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort.’ In other words, it failed to meet the UN charter’s criteria for legal warfare. The former law lord, Lord Steyn, came to the same conclusion: ‘In the absence of a second UN resolution authorising invasion, it was illegal’. The former lord chief justice, Lord Bingham, called the Iraq war ‘a serious violation of international law’. A Dutch inquiry, led by a former supreme court judge, found that the invasion had ‘no sound mandate in international law’.”

    And yet you argue that, unless a court gets to deal with a case and make an official ruling, no one is allowed to assess the rights or wrongs of politicians’ actions, based on expert assessments, because “That way lies populist rule by lynch mob.”

    That’s absolutely ridiculous.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Andy, I understand your anger but that doesn’t get Putin a free pass

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m not arguing for Putin to get a free pass, David. I’m not defending him at all. I’m just pointing out the hypocrisy of Western leaders being allowed to get away with war crimes with impunity. As George Monbiot pointed out yesterday, “For the hard of understanding, stating that the invasion of Iraq meets the definition of a crime of aggression does not subtract from the fact that Russia’s of Ukraine ALSO meets the definition. The point is that *all* aggressors should be prosecuted for the same crime.” https://twitter.com/GeorgeMonbiot/status/1637753108720676867

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Andy, who exactly decides when a warrant is issued and when one isn’t?

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    In the case of the US, never, David, because the US government has refused to recognise the legitimacy of the ICC. It’s rather like the situation with Guantanamo, where the only bodies that can hold them to account are the US courts, which have failed to do so.

    I know that doesn’t answer your question about how the ICC makes its decisions, but it does explain how the US has, outrageously, precluded itself from even being assessed for a warrant.

    The ICC’s website is worth a visit: https://www.icc-cpi.int/about/how-the-court-works

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Andy, while I personally feel in a balance of probability the invasion of Iraq was illegal and also incidentally a vile disgrace, I’m not sure that would translate as easily in a court room. I also have to take my hat off to the facts. It appears to me to still be quite a controversial matter. If it weren’t I am assuming warrants would have been issued

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    I don’t see much in that article to suggest that the invasion was legal, David, and I very much doubt that, under any circumstances, a warrant would be issued for the arrest of a US president. I may be wrong, but I think the US has quite aggressively, and successfully, positioned itself as being beyond the reach of the court.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Kevin Booker wrote, in response to 11, above:

    What garbage. Whatever opinions people may have, or express, about the legality of anything, they have no legal force. Determination of guilt or innocence of any crime is, as I said, a matter for the judicial system. If that determination has not been made by the courts, those whose actions are in question cannot be said to have committed a crime. Indeed, to assert that they have could be considered libellous, or slanderous (depending upon whether the assertion was written or spoken). As for your penultimate sentence, nowhere did I say that “no-one is allowed to assess the rights or wrongs of politicians’ actions”. My point was much narrower, relating to accusation of criminality (a matter for legal determination), not to personal opinions about the rights and wrongs of those actions, which are matters for individual judgement.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    OK, if that’s how you want to see it, Kevin, although I will continue to take my assurances from experts in international law about when illegal actions have been undertaken, given that those responsible have proven so adept at evading accountability.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Gail Helt wrote:

    Andy, you are correct. Under international law, the only legal war is a war in which you are not the aggressor. Preemptive war, which is what the Iraq war was, doesn’t fall into that category.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Gail!

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Wajid Hussain wrote:

    Brown people’s lives don’t matter. UK and USA have killed millions in Iraq illegally occupied a country done worse than what Putin has done but I don’t see them getting charged.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Exactly, Wajid. Hypocrisy and double standards. If Putin is charged, Bush, Cheney and Blair should be charged too.

  24. Andy Worthington says...

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    I hadn’t realised, Wajid, but the ICC undertook a preliminary investigation into British war crimes in Iraq, but decided not to proceed with a full investigation, despite acknowledging that British forces were involved in Wilful killing, Torture, Inhuman / cruel treatment, Outrages upon personal dignity and Rape and/or other forms of sexual violence.

    The ICC report is here: https://www.icc-cpi.int/sites/default/files/itemsDocuments/201209-otp-final-report-iraq-uk-eng.pdf

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    Wajid Hussain wrote:

    I know mate

  27. Andy Worthington says...

    I had missed that investigation, Wajid. Probably it wasn’t very well reported. I do recall, however, the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, which attracted some attention through its outrageous efforts to prevent UK soldiers from being held accountable for war crimes.

    When it was passed in 2021, REDRESS noted that “The final law was significantly different to the Bill as originally proposed, particularly with regard to the offence of torture, and other international crimes, although the law as passed still makes it more difficult for civilians to sue the Ministry of Defence compared with members of the armed forces.”

    As REDRESS added, “The Bill originally proposed that where five years had elapsed, there would be a presumption against the prosecution of UK service personnel where they were alleged to have committed international crimes, including torture, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, Crimes against Humanity, and even Genocide. The UK government had suggested that the purpose of the Bill was to limit vexatious claims against UK armed forces personnel, but REDRESS and other human rights groups had argued that it breached international legal standards that had become part of British law. The Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court indicated that were the law to pass, it would make the prosecution of British soldiers at the ICC more likely, given that the UK was unwilling to prosecute them.”

  28. Andy Worthington says...

    Ed Calipel wrote:

    Western hypocrisy. Shameful and shameless.

  29. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, in the West we politely discuss war crimes as differences of opinion, Ed. Back in 2010, I spent a week in Berkeley calling for John Yoo, the author of the torture memos, which sought to redefine torture so it could ‘legally’ be used by the CIA, to be sacked as a law professor and held accountable for his actions. Yoo kept his job, of course, but I always wondered how his fellow academics could stomach putting up with having him as a colleague.

  30. Ralph Nader, Dahr Jamail and Matthew Hoh: Iraq War—Twenty Years Later + Peace in Ukraine – Say NO to Endless U.S. Wars – Dandelion Salad says...

    […] 20 Years Since the Illegal Invasion of Iraq, Why Are Bush, Cheney and Blair Still Free Men? by Andy … […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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