Iraq – 20 years on. A personal story.

In early 2003 I was in Sierra Leone working on post-war reforms and rebel disarmament. I was running past the run-down Russian UN helicopters on Lumley beach when I received the call. 

It was already known that British Forces had attempted to find a way to appoint the first regional government; in Basra, one of the four UK-controlled Iraqi governorates. By agreement with the US, the UK had been tasked with finding a model. They were looking for someone ‘reckless’ with relevant experience. Folks knew I was against the war, but the final make-or-break question from the official was ‘you’re not a bloomin’ tree hugger are you?’.

Following bio-weapons training, my first interaction was my car being attacked by stone-throwing teenagers after I crossed the border from Kuwait. There was a lot of audible gunfire, and on the main roads there were still uncollected bodies littering the way.

Saddam’s gaudy riverside palace had been looted and all the marble floors were deep in broken glass. There was no power at first. It was 51 degrees, down to 42 by 3am. Water was scarce. Catching a breeze on the roof at nighttimes was noisy, with explosive flashes and gunfire sweeping across the city below.

Visiting the various religious, tribal and political groups was often harrowing. I was asking all significant groups to give me lists of candidates for the interim regional government. I had two themes to get across; a long list showed influence, and that no important group would be excluded. Vitally … appointees would be collectively responsible for governance, not ‘representatives of their group’.  As you have probably already guessed, I ended up appointing those that appeared on more than one list.

There were many unforgettable moments… 

Whilst at the Central Mosque a group of Wahaab clergy arrived by truck from Saudi, carrying large plastic rubbish bags full of $100 ‘bricks’. My Land Rover with ‘top cover’ got shot up in the Shia Flats.  I took water to indigenous (non-Arab) families living in a burnt out building. We spotted a speeding black BMW full of gun-toting Mukhabarat, and set up a raid on their bunker below a luxury villa.  We had a tense stand off with weapons raised, in negotiations with the Fadlallah. I had to hide under my vehicle in a ditch in Nasiriyah. Once, driving back to the Palace in Basra two large demonstrating groups tried to overturn my car at the gate.  One group all had one ear cut off (for refusing to fight in the Iran-Iraq war.) With the help of Ghurkas I returned to the gate with a tank behind me, a translator and a laptop. One bullet buzzed past my left ear, in a show of irony.  

These and many other daily events reinforced my admiration for the quiet no-nonsense relative efficiency of UK forces, although as we know many truly terrible things went on. 

For the first regional government meeting we found a small undamaged building. We borrowed a generator from an old ice cream shop.  

The Council lasted until the elections, with only one assassination, as far as I know.

I made three main overarching conclusions. 

The false pretences of the war meant that there was no clarity in political, military or legacy objectives. You can’t build a solid house on flimsy foundations. 

It also meant that on the US side, many expert people had to be excluded. Some senior folks were on their first trip ever outside the USA. Loyalty trumped competence. The US constitutional and political development teams were ill-equipped and prone to frequent U-turns. They were very permissive of corruption, too.  More importantly, they wrongly believed they had tabula rasa, and showed little interest in the key laws of the country. 

Finally, it gradually became clear that the US-UK response to the Iraq debacle would not be a return to ‘war only as a last resort’, but to a strengthening of narrative control to better ensure support for future wars. 




* Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance.

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  • John McHugo 23rd Mar '23 - 3:33pm

    Very interesting to read this, Paul. And thank you for these very personal reminiscences. I, too, opposed the war – and it was ultimately what led me to the Lib Dems. I am not against humanitarian intervention on principle, although the conditions for it did not apply in Iraq in 2003. I often feel the Syrian people paid the price for our incompetence in Iraq.

    The biggest mistake in Iraq – and it was a criminal one – was failing to fulfil the duties of an occupying power to maintain law and order, something to which you were clearly a witness. That led to many Iraqi deaths and destroyed the country at the same time. It was even worse than disbanding the Iraqi army without pay and leaving the soldiers with nothing to take home but their weapons, or the ill-thought-through de-ba’thication programme.

    There was no need for Iraq to descend into sectarian chaos. American policies and British complicity carry the responsibility for this.

  • There was never anywhere near enough occupying forces in Iraq to maintain law and order in a country the size of France. The American administration was fatally split on post-war policy between Colin Powell in the State department and Rumsfeld and Cheney with the latter prevailing and Tony Blair acquiescing.
    At least the Kurds in the North got the benefits of self-government out of the conflict. The corruption Paul writes of was present before, during and after the conflict and a great many Iraqi politicians remain among the most corrupt in the world today.
    Iraq and Afghanistan have both severely damaged the credibility of Western diplomacy in the global south. The consequences can be seen in the indifference of many countries to the invasion of Ukraine, seeing that conflict as another US proxy war rather than a smaller country defending itself against a much larger military superpower.

  • Very interesting – thankyou Paul. For those interested in learning more it’s worth listening to Alistair Campbell and Rory Stewart in two podcasts discussing the war. Both were involved in different ways. Alistair Campbell is very defensive as one might expect. Rory Stewart is incisively critical and talks about his own interesting experience as part of the British occupation team.

  • Paul Reynolds 24th Mar '23 - 11:43am

    Thank you for comments, John, Joe and John.

    The most important thing about our 2003 Iraq invasion, looking back, is the number of our fellow humans who died unnecessarily. There are different measures; combat deaths, deaths directly from fighting including civilians, deaths from the resultant chaos (lack of medical facilities, crime & feuds, malnutrition, factional fighting, bombings), and the broader population reductions less known cross boder refugees). Up to 2m people died.

    The UK pulled troops out some time ago but US forces are still there, largely with nothing to do, but exist to support influence operations. But what is the benefit to Western interests ? The US and UK had backed Saddam over the Iran-Iraq war, concerned that Iran would win. The main beneficiaries of the ‘Western’ invasion have been Iran, Turkey and increasingly China. It is not only the case that no Western offcials or politicians have been accountable for this terrible crime, no-one has been made accountable for the geo-political failure.

    Even if we accept the revisionist justification (a post-rationslisation) that a ‘rival’ has descended into chaos and thus been ‘taken out of the picture’, that still leaves us with extended Iranian, Turkish, and now Russian and Chinese, influence. The same point applies to Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, and Syria, and weakens our government over the war in the Ukraine.

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