The destruction of Iraq 1990-2016

The destruction of Iraq 1990-2016

The key aim of the Iraq inquiry is to examine the lessons of the Iraq war. 

This paper briefly summarises Iraq’s journey from being one of the most advanced states in the Middle East to a country that only exists on paper, fragmented and crushed by the cumulative impact of a brutal regime, three wars, a harsh sanctions regime, failing and corrupt post-war governance and extremist Islamist insurgencies. 

The run up to the 2003 war

To do this effectively there must be a clear understanding of how Iraq came to be so devastated and the impact on Iraqi civilians. Their suffering neither began nor ended in 2003. The crisis in Iraq started years if not decades before. The failure of the international community to address this was part of the reason why war occurred in 2003 and a major factor in why the occupation of Iraq was so challenging.  When coalition forces entered Iraq they were tasked with running a country whose infrastructure lay in ruins and whose society was broken.


History is vital when considering Iraq.  Before the 2003 war Iraq had suffered hugely

1)      The Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988).   250,000 Iraqis died.

2)      The Anfal campaigns – Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurds  destroying around 2,000 villages.

3)      The 1991 war to liberate Kuwait, or the First Gulf War,  included bombing of targets in Iraq for 38 days.  Much of the infrastructure was destroyed including power plants, oil refineries, sewage works and transport networks.

4)      Saddam Hussein crushes uprising against him in 1991 - 30-60,000 killed.

5)      Attacks on marsh Arabs. (Saddam Hussein drained and decimated the marshes).

6)      UN Sanctions lasted from 1990-2003.

Pre 1991

A UN report (October 1991) described Iraq in early-mid 1980s as a state that was rapidly approaching the standards of developed countries.  Iraq had oil, water and an educated society.  It had the most advanced health system in the Middle East and high rates of literacy, around 75%. 

The 1991 war started the journey of destruction wreaked on the country with massive damage to civilian infrastructure which largely could not be repaired due to the punitive sanctions regime.

UN Sanctions

The failure of the sanctions to bring about change in regime behaviour was one of the background causes of the war.

The sanctions regime was imposed on Iraq by UN Security Council Resolution 661 on 2 August 1990, following the invasion of Kuwait.  It was the most punitive regime ever imposed on a nation state, preventing all exports from Iraq, all sales of military equipment and the transfer of funds.  There were exemptions for the supply of certain foodstuffs and medicines.   The sanctions were particularly devastating because oil provided for 90% of Iraq’s export earnings.  

In September 1995, the World Food Programme stated:

“There are actually more than 4 million people, a fifth of Iraq's population at severe nutritional risk.  That number included 2.4 million children, about 600,000 pregnant/nursing women and destitute women, heads of households as well as hundreds of thousands of elderly without anyone to help them...70 per cent of the population has little or no access to food...Nearly everyone seems to be emaciated.  We are at the point of no return in Iraq...The social fabric of the nation is disintegrating.  People have exhausted their ability to cope.”

The sanctions regime was amended through what became known as the Oil for Food programme agreed to in May 1996.   This was meant to be a temporary measure to provide for Iraq’s humanitarian needs but crucially not its developmental needs.  Revenues raised in the south and centre of Iraq (the three northern provinces were not controlled by the regime, so the programme there was run by the UN) through the sale of oil could be allocated to food, medicines and humanitarian supplies.  

The Oil for Food Programme handed the regime a huge tool to control the Iraqi population.  Iraqis were dependent on rations, which the regime delivered. Those who opposed the regime risked losing their only access to food rations.

Initially the sanctions did have an impact on the regime’s behavior but did not get the regime to leave Kuwait.   The regime adapted to sanctions, used smuggling networks and a war economy to enrich itself whilst Iraqi people suffered.

Aid became a substitute for a country’s economy. Naturally this failed.

Sanctions may well represent a low-cost alternative to war in financial terms, they are all too often as damaging – in humanitarian and developmental terms – as armed conflict.” (International Development Committee Report. February 2000)

The impact of sanctions was devastating shattering the health and education sectors amongst others. UNICEF estimated that there would have been half a million fewer deaths of children under five in Iraq as a whole from 1991 to 1998 had the sanctions not been in place.  In the centre and south, 83% of school buildings needed rehabilitation.

Many Iraqis left the country during the sanctions period, a serious brain drain that continues to this day.

At the time of the 2003 war, many Iraqis held the US, the UK and other allies as being partially responsible for their suffering.

The 2003 Iraq war

Essentially Iraq went almost overnight from a heavily government-controlled state to anarchy with no state. This was particularly the case after Paul Bremer, the Presidential Envoy to Iraq, decided to disband the Iraqi army and carry out a process of de-ba’athification.  At a stroke, tens of thousands of vital civil servants were made jobless. Iraqi soldiers were also out of a job even though most were conscripts and had little or no support for the former Iraqi leader. Many of these ex-soldiers joined the insurgency against the occupation. Organised crime was also on the rise.

One commentator has referred to this as “staticide in Iraq”. With the state effectively dismantled, Iraqis turned to their own tribal and sectarian identities for security and support.  Sectarian divisions deteriorated,  especially after the bombings at the Al Askari mosque in Samarra on 22 February 2006. 

Iranian influence surged in Iraq making it undisputedly the most influential foreign power in Iraq. Many see Iran as the biggest winner in the Iraqi crisis given that its historical regional rival had been crushed.

Number of Fatalities

The number of fatalities in Iraq has always been contested.

The Lancet did two studies on fatalities.  The first one estimated that 98,000 Iraqis had died by 29 October 2004. The second survey indicated that by October 2006 it had risen to 654,965 deaths.

Iraq body count estimates the number of civilian fatalities from 2003-2016 to be between 160,307 – 179,195 with a total number of violent deaths at 251,000.

Infamously the then US Secretary of State for Defence, Donald Rumsfeld stated that “we don't do body counts on other people.” This exemplified a callous disregard for Iraqi life that fed into the widely accepted narrative amongst Iraqis that the US and UK were in Iraq for their own interests not Iraq ones.


The failure to protect key Iraqi property including the Iraq museum in Baghdad lost a large amount of goodwill from Iraqis towards foreign forces.  Overall some 15,000 priceless items were stolen from the museum.  However, looting continued across Iraq including of artifacts with little effort to stop it.  Donald Rumsfeld merely commented that “stuff happens.”

ISIS has continued this trend destroying cultural heritage sites and artefacts of huge archaeological importance in Iraq. ISIS has bulldozed the ancient remains of the 2,000-year-old city of Hatra in northern Iraq. This follows the destruction of the ancient Assyrian archaeological site of Nimrud by ISIS. Some of the works there survived for more than 1,500 years, and it is one of the world’s most important historical sites. The cultural cleansing has been condemned as a ‘war crime’ by Irina Bokova. The head of the UN's cultural agency added “the destruction of Hatra marks a turning point in the appalling strategy of cultural cleansing under way in Iraq”.

Prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib

The prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib only demonstrated in the eyes of most Iraqis the contempt in which US forces held them. Eventually the Fay-Jones inquiry discovered 44 instances of abuse.  The horrific images of torture and abuse undermined coalition efforts in Iraq as admitted by Britain’s former special representative to Iraq, Sir David Richmond to the Iraq inquiry.

Refugee crisis as a result of the war

By April 2007, over 4 million Iraqis were displaced around the world, including 1.9 million displaced inside Iraq. Over 2 million Iraqi refugees were in neighbouring countries in the Middle East (including 1.2 million in Syria and 750,000 in Jordan). Inside Iraq, the number of those internally displaced rose by 50% in 2006. Conflict and increased sectarian violence since the bombing in Samarra in February 2006 created new IDPs. Whilst over 300,000 Iraqis (mainly from Iran) returned to Iraq during the two years following the war in an act of renewed optimism, thousands more were fleeing the country.

The Kurdish areas

The three Kurdish dominated provinces in the north formed the Kurdish regional government, a federal area of Iraq.  Although formally part of Iraq, effectively these areas are ruled by the KRG in Erbil.  

Tensions with the central government in Baghdad and the KRG are acute.  Much of this is about the division of oil revenues.  However there are also major issues regarding territory with the Kurds laying claim to Kirkuk. 

It is hard to see a future solution to Iraq without maintaining full autonomy for the Kurds perhaps even independence.

Al Qaida in Iraq leading to ISIS

Much was made before the war of the charge that Saddam Hussein was allowing Al Qaida to operate inside Iraq.  This was never proven. 

However, the failure of the war and occupation to deliver for the Iraqi people and the feeling amongst Iraqi Sunni Arabs that they had largely been excluded from the post-war political settlement made Iraq a fertile breeding ground for extremism. 

Al Qaida in Iraq, led by Abu Musa’ab Al Zarqaw,i became the most brutal of all Al Qaida’s franchises, carrying out numerous sectarian massacres.  Even Osama Bin Laden tried to get him to be less violent.   The peak of the Al Qaida attacks was between 2006-07.

It was out of Al Qaida in Iraq and the remnants of the Baath party leadership that ISIS was formed.  Contrary to some commentators, the so-called Islamic State had its roots very much in Iraq not Syria.  Tony Blair falsely claimed that "ISIS actually came to prominence from a base in Syria and not in Iraq.”  

The impact of Al Qaida operations and subsequently those of ISIS on the lives of Iraqis is incalculable.

Sectarianism in Iraq today

Sectarianism is a huge issue in Iraq today.  Iraqi Shia militias are feared by Iraqi Arab Sunnis and accused of numerous crimes in Sunni areas.  Similarly groups like ISIS have stirred up sectarian sentiment. The early years of the occupation did not help as the US encouraged political appointments on the basis of ethnicity and sect and not ability.

The last thirteen years have exacerbated existing sectarian issues in Iraq.  The failure to address this has rendered Iraq almost impossible to govern as a single unitary state.

Iraq’s minorities

The situation for minorities in Iraq has declined rapidly, and is yet another example of the destruction of Iraq’s social fabric. A report, No Way Home: Iraq’s minorities on the verge of disappearance, states that “many thousands of persons belonging to Iraq’s ethnic and religious minorities have been murdered, maimed or abducted, including unknown numbers of women and girls forced into marriage or sexual enslavement”.  Iraq’s Christian population is thought to have numbered as much as 1.4 million before 2003. By early 2014 it is believed to have dwindled to 350,000, and since ISIS advances it is now reported to be lower than 250,000.

The report states:

Minorities are increasingly losing their sense of belonging in Iraq. Potential legislative changes to the Nationality Law point to a national campaign to dilute minority identity among future generations. Minority communities believe that, as a result, there is no guarantee of a future for them in the country: ‘I speak for Christians, Yezidis and Kaka’is when I say Iraq does not want us.’”

Current situation in Iraq

Internal displacement of Iraqis

As ofJuly 2016, nearly 3.4 million Iraqis are internally displaced inside the country according to figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM). In April 2014, 443,124 people were internally displaced inside Iraq.

According to figures from June 2016, the governorates which host the largest IDP populations are Anbar, Baghdad and Dahuk – combined this is a total of 1,523,136 individuals, making up 46% of Iraq’s total IDP population. 77% of the IDP population, totalling 2,561,952, have fled from two governorates – Anbar (which includes Fallujah) and Ninewa (which includes Iraq’s second largest city Mosul and Sinjar).

As of 22 June 2016, the highest percentage of the identified IDP population was displaced between April 2015 and February 2016 (23% or 778,704 individuals). The second largest percentage of IDPs was displaced during the month of August 2014 (23% or 761,940 individuals), when hostilities mainly affected the Sinjar region in the governorate of Ninewa.

In 2014, 1.3 million Iraqis were confirmed displaced in three distinct displacement waves1) those displaced from the Anbar conflict starting in early January, 2) the Mosul conflict, which began in early June and 3) the Sinjar crisis in which began on 4 August. 

There are acute humanitarian needs for those who have been displaced, in particular children. Roughly one million Iraqi children under the age of ten who have fled their homes face an acute shortage of safe water. Conflict has greatly exacerbated the lack of safe water. In its recent report, UNICEF writes:

“Parties to the conflict have destroyed and limited water supplies to civilian populations. Armed groups have flooded areas and cut off water supplies to force communities to abandon their homes. However, the greatest threat to the country’s water supply comes as a result of decades of conflict, sanctions and neglect of infrastructure that have undermined Iraq’s water resources management system as a whole.”

About one million Iraqi children of school age have been internally displaced, with up to 70% losing an entire year of schooling. In addition, nearly one in five of Iraq’s schools are out of use because of conflict.

Iraqi refugees

According to UNHCR figures, 12% of the 231,024 people who have arrived in Europe by sea since January 2016 are Iraqi. In 2015, Iraqis counted for 7% of arrivals. IOM figures state that 86,989 Iraqis have arrived in Greece in between January and May 2016(by land and by sea). In 2015, there were 23,935.

Overall humanitarian situation

Currently there are 10 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in Iraq, with the majority being in the Ninewa, Anbar and Baghdad governorates. At the beginning of 2016, it was predicted that at least 11 million Iraqis – perhaps even 12 to 13 million – would require humanitarian assistance by the end of 2016. The UN also estimated that 500,000 people would be displaced over the course of 2016. Overall, 2.4 million people require some sort of food assistance in Iraq. In May 2016, the UN described Iraq’s humanitarian crisisas “one of the world’s worst.”

Humanitarian situation for children

UNICEF’s recent report A Heavy Price for Children on 30 June 2016, said that 3.6 million children in Iraq (1 in 5) are at serious risk of death, injury, sexual violence and recruitment into armed groups. In 18 months, the risk of these violations has increased by 1.3 million. The report finds that 4.7 million Iraqi children (a third of all of Iraq’s children) require some form of humanitarian aid. There is an acute deterioration in the situation for children particularly given military operations in Fallujah and Ramadi.

1,496 children have been abducted over the past two and a half years, averaging at 50 a month. Many will be forced into fighting or will be subjected to sexual abuse. Conflict means that nearly 1 in 5 schools in Iraq are out of use, and 3.5 million children of school age are missing out on an education. Figures for early marriages of girls and children in work are double those in 1990. At present, 975,000 girls in Iraq were married before they were 15. It is also estimated that more than 575,000 children are working.

1 in every 25 Iraqi children dies before reaching the age of 5, with the most common cause of death being acute respiratory infections. Advances that were made to cut infant mortality since 1980 have diminished particularly from 1990 onwards. Waterborne diseases like cholera, typhoid, hepatitis and diarrhoea are some of the other significant threats facing children. Neonatal deaths account for 56% of the deaths before a child reaches 5, and just over half of these children die within 24 hours of childbirth.

Nearly a quarter (23%) of Iraq’s children are stunted. 10% are moderately or severely stunted. This is due to under nutrition, poor maternal health and disease. A low rate of breast feeding in Iraq (19.6%) is a contributing factor.

Casualties for 2016

In June 2016, 662 Iraqis were killed and another 1,457 were injured in acts of terrorism, violence and armed conflict in Iraq, according to the UN. The number of civilians killed was 382. The total number of civilians killed in Iraq until June 2016 is 2,735. In 2015, 7,515 Iraqi civilians were killed.

According to this chart produced by Statista and the Independent, there have been eight major terror attacks in 2016 which have resulted in 549. This includes the deadliest attack. The figures for 2016 exclude the deadly attack on a shopping centre in Karrada, a district of Baghdad in the early hours of 3 July which as of 5 July had left 175 dead. This is believed to be the deadliest attack in Baghdad since 2007.