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Iraq invasion 20 years on, war crimes against civilians left unanswered

By Jan Yumul in Hong Kong | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2023-03-19 19:08

A US soldier walks past Iraqi detainees standing behind a wired fence, at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, Iraq May 17, 2004. [Photo/Agencies]

Findings show that civilians account for the bulk of war casualties globally - especially when compared to the prosecutions that should hold their perpetrators accountable – and observers say more should be done to strengthen protection mechanisms for civilians in conflicts.

In May last year, Ramesh Rajasingham, director of coordination of the office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs, noted conflict continued to cause widespread civilian death notably in densely populated areas, where civilians accounted for 90 percent of the casualties when explosive weapons were used.

In the case of Iraq, which is marking 20 years since the US-led invasion of the country, Amjed Rasheed, a senior researcher at Open Think Tank, an organization promoting peace and social change in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, told China Daily the problem is that there are no official statistics on the number of Iraqis killed since the invasion.

"The (United Nations) Security Council, the only international legal body that can prevent civilian casualties, is politicized and aimed at achieving a balance of power among its members," said Rasheed, who is also a Hillary Clinton Fellow at Queen's University Belfast in Northern Ireland.

He also said the invasion of Iraqis and the conflict in Ukraine show that innocent people caught up in the midst of global conflict must be carefully protected.

The Iraq Body Count, a web platform that maintains the world's largest public database of violent civilian deaths since the 2003 US invasion until Feb 28, 2017, estimates in its records that documented civilian deaths from violence could range from 186,736 to 210,090.

While the "Costs of War" project, which was founded more than a decade ago at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and was co-directed by two Brown University scholars, estimates that there have been 275,000 and 306,000 Iraqi civilians killed by direct violence since the US invasion.

It also estimates that the US troops who have died fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had passed 7,000 while it was 8,000 contractors at the end of 2019. Coalition partners have also died in large numbers: approximately 177,000 uniformed Afghans, Pakistanis, Iraqis, and Syrian allies have died as of November 2019.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, a non-profit legal advocacy organization based in New York, has renewed, in a statement released on March 15, its call for reparations for victims of the United States' "unlawful act of aggression in its cruel, senseless and baseless war-for-profit".

"Justice also entails accountability for the perpetrators of these horrific crimes, including those responsible for the torture at Abu Ghraib and other detention centers in Iraq, as well as those tortured and detained in the larger 'war on terror'," the statement read.

It said since 2004, they have filed three separate lawsuits against US-based military contractors on behalf of Iraqis tortured in the infamous Abu Gharib prison. In one of the cases, it said three Iraqis have entered the 15th year of their effort to seek damages from a company whose employees participated in numerous illegal and depraved acts, from abuse involving dogs, to sexual assault, to beatings that broke bones and injured genitals.

In another case, they sued a private contractor for killing and injuring Iraqi civilians and obtaining a settlement on behalf of some victims of the Nisour Square massacre.

"Legal efforts against high-level political and military leaders, beginning with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, for the invasion itself and the many crimes committed in the 'war on terror' pose a different set of challenges, as demonstrated by our efforts to hold high-level Bush-administration officials accountable at the International Criminal Court for crimes in or arising out of the war in Afghanistan or under universal jurisdiction," the statement said.

There have been cases where the US and its allies' troops were being investigated for possible war crimes, but complex factors have made it hard for cases to prosper.

For example, the International Criminal Court dropped, in December 2020, a preliminary probe into alleged war crimes by British troops in Iraq, even though it was found to have reasonable basis to believe they committed atrocities.

However, it was also found that the British authorities were investigating the crimes themselves. The ICC only intervenes when the state is unable to.

The administration of former US president Donald Trump in 2020 imposed sanctions on then ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, over investigation into alleged war crimes by the US in Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories. This was later revoked by US President Joe Biden in 2021.

Global Policy Forum, an independent policy watchdog that monitors the work of the UN and scrutinizes global policymaking, noted that the US-led occupation forces have committed numerous atrocities in Iraq since the invasion of 2003 and that "Haditha, Hamandiya, Sadr City, Samarra and Ishaqi have become synonymous with murder, rape and the multiple killings of civilians."

While some cases, it acknowledged, "have been brought before military hearings, the Pentagon has covered up most of these cases and exonerated the soldiers involved."

Further, it said rather than pursuing high officials and senior officers, military prosecutors have pursued only a few low-ranking soldiers.

Under the doctrine of "command responsibility", applied by the US in the post-World War II war crimes trials, it added, high officials and senior officers "must assume responsibility for grave violations of international law" and that a "truly independent investigation should investigate the killings and cover-ups, to end this climate of impunity."

Elie Al Hindy, professor of International Relations at Notre Dame University in Lebanon, said the issue in Iraq was the inability of the international community to fulfil this duty because of conflicting political interests.

"Twenty years after the US Invasion of Iraq we must ask ourselves about the status of international governance and the ability of the international community to intervene and function as a regulator of international law and establisher as international standards," said Al Hindy.


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