Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2511

Anti-war movement was right on Iraq

This article is over 7 years, 10 months old
Millions of people saw through the lies the West used to wage war on Iraq and joined one of the biggest movements Britain has ever seen. Judith Orr tells the story
Issue 2511
Part of the mass demonstration against the Iraq war in London
Part of the mass demonstration against the Iraq war in London (Pic: Jess Hurd)

The Iraq war was Blair’s fifth military intervention in his first five years of office. But the scale of the mass movement against the war in 2003 means he and his fellow warmongers can never shake off its shadow.

The war will be remembered as an illegal war based on lies and Blair’s determination to act as the US’s lap dog. The world was told that Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, was an evil butcher and a threat to the West.

This was the same Saddam Hussein who had long been a Western ally. The US had poured arms into his regime even as he used chemical weapons against Iraq’s Kurdish minority.

He was only portrayed as a murderous dictator when the US ruling class decided their imperialist project needed an even more pliant regime.

Bush seized on the 9/11 attacks on the US to finish the job of regime change in Iraq. Now the warmongers could go all out to take Hussein down, but in the name of the “war on terror”.

Blair committed to support Bush but they didn’t foresee the wave of rage that would meet their plans.

In the weeks following 9/11 mass meetings in London filled with socialists, trade unionists, pacifists, young and old, and the Stop the War Coalition (StW) was launched.

StW mobilised tens of thousands against the attacks on Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001 and led the opposition to an invasion of Iraq.

Local StW groups sprung up in almost every city, town and village. Every week there were meetings, mass rallies, vigils and demonstrations.

Trade unions, student groups and school students joined the anti-war movement. A minority of Labour MPs stood out against the war drive of their leadership. Artists and celebrities performed to raise funds.

Most significantly, the anti-war movement was strengthened by the involvement of tens of thousands of Muslim activists.

The Labour government had been waging war against Muslim countries and Muslims were being targeted as terror suspects. Islamophobia was rising.

But in the anti-war movement many Muslims found a political home. This unity in the face of imperialist war and racism was what made the anti-war movement such a formidable force.

Britain had never seen a mass movement like it before. People could see through the claims that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Blair came to parliament in September 2002 to declare that they could be used against Britain at 45 minutes warning.

It was a lie. But Blair would do anything to drive through his false case for war. He relished being Bush’s closest ally and assured Bush that Britain would join the US in war whatever their other Western allies decided.

As the threatened invasion became imminent StW called mass protest after mass protest, nationally and locally. These culminated in the historic national demonstration of 15 February 2003.

It was the highpoint of the resistance to the war. Demonstrations took place across the world in more than 800 cities. It’s estimated that up to 30 million people marched.

For days before newspapers in Britain printed guides for the day—transport details, the march’s routes, what food to bring, what to wear. The Mirror newspaper printed placards.

London was gridlocked all day and late into the evening as two million protested. Some simply never made it to Hyde Park, such was the crush. It was the biggest ever demonstration in British history.

Leading anti-war activist Salma Yaqoob wrote later of the day, “This was an extraordinary experience for all of us. If you want to know what solidarity feels like, think back to that day. “If you doubt that ‘another world is possible’, think back to that day.”

Yet all this was not enough to stop the war. On 20 March the US led an invasion of Iraq with its allies, coined the “Coalition of the Willing”.

It ushered in the bloody devastation of war and occupation. No weapons of mass destruction were ever found. This was no surprise to the millions who had protested. They had learned not to trust their leaders’ justifications for imperialist slaughter.

Yet while the movement had not stopped that war, it had a profound impact on the warmongers’ project.

Western rulers held back from planned attacks on other regimes, such as Iran. Also, at every turn the anti-war movement ensured the consequences of the war in Iraq and the wider “war on terror” were kept in the spotlight.

The West was shown to be freely using rendition and torture. Despite his election promises Barack Obama has still not closed the US’s infamous prison camp in Guantanamo Bay. It is still holding prisoners after years of captivity without trial.

The US project to dominate the region through this brutal war failed. Today the US is back bombing Iraq. Once again the ordinary people of Iraq are suffering the heaviest burden of brutality. The war on terror has increased terror and violence across the globe.

When the Tories argued to join the US bombing of Syria in December, for the second time in less than three years, thousands protested.

This time the Tories won the vote, helped by ranks of Labour MPs who backed air strikes. But the latest drive for a war saw a new generation join anti-war veterans on the streets.

The protests were nothing like the 2003 revolt in scale. But they showed that the ruling class cannot escape the deep rooted anti-war sentiment in British society.

This is a legacy of the magnificent opposition to the Iraq war that exposed the true nature of imperialist wars and the politicians who wage them.

‘Shock and awe’ aimed to leave a puppet government

The invasion launched in 2003 was a disaster for people in Iraq and the Middle East. The rise of the brutal and reactionary Isis and the chaos in Iraq today are direct consequences of the war and occupation.

Long before the invasion the West imposed years of barbaric sanctions which stopped even basic medicines getting into the country. Over half a million children died as a result.

The country experienced an epidemic of poverty and shortages, and the destruction of its infrastructure.

The invasion itself was relatively easy for the US and Britain. It began with a “shock and awe” barrage of missiles that destroyed what remained of the country’s infrastructure. The plan was to destroy Hussein’s regime and leave a puppet government in its place. It didn’t work.

Having disbanded the Iraqi army they found there were no forces left to defend a puppet regime.

And the plan of removing all public sector workers affiliated with Hussein’s Baath Party forced out as many 100,000 people—making it difficult to run government and public services.

Within weeks of US president George W Bush declaring victory a wave of protests launched a resistance movement that would eventually force the West out.

In April 2003 US soldiers opened fire on a demonstration in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, killing 13 unarmed people. That summer resistance organisations began to grow and attacks on Western troops rose.

By October 2003 most of Iraq’s towns and cities were under the control of a popular armed resistance. Over the next few years this insurgency would stretch occupation forces to breaking point.

The Iraqi resistance failed to develop into a national movement that crossed sectarian lines. But growing chaos in Iraq led to splits in the US ruling class. Some wanted to negotiate their way out while others wanted another “surge” of troops. British soldiers were ordered out of Iraq in 2009. US soldiers followed in 2011.

The war was trigger for Arab Spring

A wave of rage against war swept across the Middle East at the prospect of an attack on Iraq. On 15 February the biggest demonstrations took place in Iraq’s and Syria’s capital cities—200,000 marched in Damascus.

On the day the West invaded Iraq tens of thousands of anti-war protesters defied the authorities and a security crackdown, taking to the streets across Egypt. Thousands poured into Tahrir Square in central Cairo.

It’s hard to believe today but in 2003 Tahrir Square looked to London for inspiration. Seeing the mass movement on the streets of Britain standing up to imperialist intervention gave activists confidence.

These protests were an important ingredient of the revolution that took place eight years later. One Cairo activist, Mohamed Ahmed, told Socialist Worker in 2003, “Every day people are more angry and bitter about the invasion of Iraq. They have also had a taste of freedom in the streets. “We believe that this movement has only just begun.” He was right.

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