The Bloody U.S. Legacy in Iraq

Jeremy Scahill tracks the destructive history of U.S. imperialism in Iraq.

A Blackwater helicopter flies low near the Iranian embassy in central Baghdad, Iraq on July 5, 2005. Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept; Photo: Getty Images

This week marked the 20th anniversary of the launch of the war in Iraq. But the U.S. government’s involvement in the country tracks back decades prior. Jeremy Scahill retraces the U.S. government’s long history of meddling, destabilizing, and bombing Iraq — and how major players have faced no accountability for their crimes.


Jeremy Scahill: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from The Intercept. And this is a special bonus episode of Intercepted: Legacy of Blood, the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Jim Miklaszewski: There are reports that there is no evidence of a direct link between Baghdad and some of these terrorist organizations.

Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld: There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns — that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

JS: This week marks the 20th anniversary of the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, and it’s important that we examine what happened, how it happened: the lies, the crimes, the mass killings, the destruction — all of it. And George W. Bush, and Dick Cheney, and the neocons all should hold a special place in the hall of shame for mass killers for what they did to Iraq.

But they did it with the support of many in Congress, including some of the most prominent and elite Democrats, including the current President of the United States.

But I also believe that we need to understand how we got to where we are today in Iraq because this is a classic case study in U.S. imperial crimes.

And that means stepping back and examining a much broader history. It’s a 60-year history that is filled with constant interventions and bombings and sanctions and covert CIA activity and regime change. And in this history, a history you never hear discussed on cable news, the main victims are, as they’ve always been, ordinary Iraqis.

Newscaster: The latest Middle East crisis, perhaps the most menacing of all, has flared up in Iraq, a country that produces over 30 million tons of oil a year. In this picture, King Faisal is at Kirkuk with his uncle, Crown Prince ‘Abd al-Ilah.

JS: July 14, 1958: Baghdad, Iraq. Army Brigadier General Abd al-Karim Qasim leads a military revolt against the British-backed Iraqi monarchy.

Newscaster: Without warning, revolution has swept away the young King Faisal of Iraq and his uncle Crown Prince ‘Abd al-Ilah. Iraq becomes number one danger spot. Veteran premier Nuri al-Said is deposed. He has fled, and the Republic rebels have offered 10,000 pounds for his arrest. The tide of Arab nationalism is again in flight.

JS: Facing almost no resistance, the Iraqi rebels seize key military and government installations in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country and they declare an end to the era of the Hashemite royals who ruled Iraq backed by the iron fist of Western colonial powers.

Abd al-Karim Qasim: Our revolution is a real reaction against tyranny and corruption. We want to use our wealth to raise the standard of living of the people.

JS: Abd al-Karim Qasim declares Iraq a republic, and he consolidates power through a revolutionary council. Qasim and his allies created a structure for the Iraqi presidency where power will be shared by representatives of the three largest groups in Iraq: the Shia, the Sunni, and the Kurds. Qasim becomes prime minister and the new government begins to implement sweeping economic and political reforms.

This new government seized nearly all of the land in Iraq that was controlled by the British-owned Iraq Petroleum Company and redistributed that land to Iraqi farmers. And Qasim pulled out of the U.S.- and British-run Baghdad Pact, which was aimed at keeping the Soviets away from Middle Eastern oil.

Newscaster: At Lancaster House in London, representatives of five nations meet to discuss a crisis. Mr. Macmillan, who presided, opened the meeting with a tribute to King Faisal.

British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan: We meet today under the shadow of the recent, tragic events in Iraq.

JS: While the British and Americans began plotting to isolate and possibly remove Qasim, the new revolutionary government in Baghdad gained rapid, widespread support in the country. Laws on women’s rights were passed and amnesty was granted to Kurds who had engaged in uprisings in Iraq in the 1940s. Qasim also ended a ban on the Iraqi Communist Party. He pulled Iraq out of the security and military partnerships with the United States and other Western countries, and he normalized relations with the Soviet Union.

Qasim openly backed Palestinian liberation causes and the Algerian resistance against the French. He also stated clearly that oil-rich Kuwait was part of Iraq and that its independence was a project of Western oil corporations. Qasim nationalized many of Britain’s oil fields and formed a new Iraqi national oil company.

Newscaster: The story in the capital city of Baghdad is the scene of the latest bloody coup d’état, a demonstration of violent, 20th-century Arab tensions, set against a way of life that has changed little since the Dark Ages.

JS: The United States and Britain wanted Qasim gone, and the CIA, under John F. Kennedy, began working with Iraqi factions that the U.S. believed could help overthrow Qasim — namely the Ba’ath Party, and one of its most vicious henchmen, a man who had actually tried to assassinate Qasim in 1959. His name? Saddam Hussein.

That assassination attempt failed. But a few years later, on February 9, 1963, Abd al-Karim Qasim was overthrown and he was executed after a bizarre show trial on Iraqi radio.

Newscaster: In the storied city of Baghdad, capital of Iraq, has been the scene once more of bloody revolt, that has ceded a new government. For five years, General Abd al-Karim Qasim, right, ruled the country by armed might, after he seized power by assassinating King Faisal and the prime minister. Now, like many before him, he has fallen as he rose: Violently. A pro-communist, Qasim died before a firing squad in the wreckage of the Defense Ministry building.

JS: As Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath Party consolidated power, they massacred thousands of people, including a substantial number of communists.

Newscaster: Army and militiamen carry on the search for communist infiltrators, over 100,000 of whom entered Baghdad during Qasim’s regime. When they are found, the communists from other countries are deported. Native reds, known for crimes perpetrated on behalf of Qasim, are sent before firing squads, as the Arabs show they are more concerned about the dangers of communism that is realized by some Western leaders.

JS: The interior minister of the new regime would later say that the Ba’ath Party came to power on a CIA train. Yes, a decade after overthrowing the democratically elected leader, Mossadegh, in Iran, the CIA played a similar role in toppling the Iraqi government, which like Mossadegh was unfriendly to colonial Western oil corporations.

The CIA provided lists of people for Saddam and his men to exterminate. Those lists were compiled at CIA stations across the Middle East. Suspected communists, leftists or supporters of Qasim, were tortured and summarily executed.

Newscaster: The streets of ancient Baghdad become the scene of a short but decisive revolution that topples the pro-communist government of Premier Abd al-Karim Qasim, shown here on the right. A six-man military junta seizes power on a holy day, and within hours, the premier, who reportedly had executed 10,000 people, is himself shot.

JS: The U.S. and other Western powers characterize the overthrow of Qasim as a victory against Soviet incursions into the Middle East, and Washington responded enthusiastically to Qasim’s downfall. The characterization that it was a massive blow to the Soviet Union became the dominant narrative, and the United States started to resume military aid to the new Ba’athist regime.

[“Ba’ath Party Anthem” plays.]

By the time Saddam Hussein officially took over as the president of Iraq in 1979, the country was considered by the U.S. to be one of its most strategically important regimes in the Middle East, particularly after the U.S. backed-shah was overthrown in neighboring Iran.

Newscaster: Khomeini, almost unknown outside of Iran just a few months ago, returned a hero: The man who, from long distance, had led the revolution to topple the shah. Inside the airport terminal, Khomeini was greeted by scores of Muslim religious leaders and political allies. He called on Iranian Prime Minister Bakhtiar to resign and said all foreigners should leave the country.

In an obvious reference to the United States, he said, “Foreign advisers have ruined our culture and have taken our oil.”

JS: When the Islamic Revolution in Iran happened in 1979, the Iran-Iraq War soon followed, and would kill hundreds of thousands of people — some estimates say as many as a million dead. The United States supported both sides in that war, but no doubt wanted Iraq to win.

Saddam was known as a brutal mass murderer, but that was preferable to Washington over an Islamist government. U.S. war planners gave Saddam Hussein targets to bomb throughout Iran, they poured weapons into the effort and the Reagan administration removed Iraq from the list of state sponsors of terrorism so that the weapons could flow unimpeded.

President Ronald Reagan: Well, the Ayatollah is in a war, and if he’s going to go on with provocative acts against us or anyone else, then he’s running a great risk because we’re going to respond.

JS: After Reagan removed Iraq from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, the U.S. began increasing its military aid to Iraq, including selling Iraq attack helicopters — helicopters that were used in the most famous incident of the Iran-Iraq War involving chemical weapons, and that was when Saddam Hussein ordered the gassing of Kurds in Halabja.

Donald Rumsfeld, who was a private citizen at the time, was tapped by the Reagan administration as a special envoy and he traveled to Iraq in 1983 to deliver a gift to Saddam Hussein from Ronald Reagan. It was a pair of golden cowboy spurs.

Jamie McIntyre: Tell me what was going on during this, this period?

Donald Rumsfeld: Where did you get his video, from the Iraqi television — ?

JM: This is from Iraqi television.

DR: When did they give it to you? Recently, or back then?

JM: No, we dug this out of the CNN library.

DR: I see. Isn’t that interesting. There I am.

JM: So, so what was going on here? What were you thinking at the time?

DR: Well, Iraq was in a battle, a war with Iran and the United States had just had 241 Marines killed, and president Reagan asked me to take a leave of absence from my company —

JS: In that meeting, Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein discussed solidifying U.S.-Iraqi relations, and it was during this period when the U.S. was at its most cozy with Saddam Hussein that the Iraqi dictator was at his most brutal. He was a mass murderer, but he was Washington’s mass murderer.

It was only when Saddam Hussein decided to invade oil-rich Kuwait, a country that many Iraqis characterized as an oil field with a flag, that the U.S. posture changed.

Suddenly, overnight, Saddam was being compared to Hitler, and George H.W. Bush launched a massive air attack on Iraq in 1991.

President George H.W. Bush: Just two hours ago, allied air forces began an attack on military targets in Iraq, in Kuwait. These attacks continue as I speak. Ground forces are not engaged. This conflict started August 2, when the dictator of Iraq invaded a small and helpless neighbor: Kuwait, a member of the Arab League and a member of the United Nations, was crushed. Its people brutalized.

JS: Despite Bush’s claim that the U.S. led attack was aimed at the Iraqi military and Saddam Hussein, the Gulf War saw the United States bomb Iraq back centuries. Its civilian infrastructure was obliterated; its water treatment and sewage facilities destroyed. The U.S. also heavily used depleted uranium munitions that would later cause a skyrocket in cancer and birth defects.

But George H.W. Bush decided to keep Saddam Hussein in power. Why? Because he was considered preferable to an Islamic government, particularly one that would have aligned itself with Iran. And so, Saddam remained.

GHWB: As commander-in-chief, I can report to you, our armed forces fought with honor and valor. And as president, I can report to the nation, aggression is defeated. The war is over. [Cheers and applause.]

JS: Under Bill Clinton, the U.S. imposed the most sweeping economic sanctions in modern history. It was tantamount to economic warfare. Not on Saddam or his government or his henchmen, but on the Iraqi people.

When the United Nations estimated that upwards of half a million Iraqis were killed as a result of the sanctions, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright defended it on “60 Minutes.”

Lesley Stahl: We have heard that a half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, and, you know, is the price worth it?

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think the price is worth it.

JS: In addition to the sanctions that Madeline Albright was defending, Clinton initiated the longest sustained U.S. bombing campaign since Vietnam, at some points bombing Iraq an average of once every three days throughout the 1990s.

President William “Bill” Jefferson Clinton: My fellow Americans, this evening I want to speak with you about an attack by the government of Iraq against the United States and the actions we have just taken to respond. This past April, the Kuwaiti government uncovered what they suspected was a car bombing plot to assassinate former president George Bush while he was visiting Kuwait City. The Kuwaiti authorities arrested 16 suspects, including two Iraqi nationals.

JS: In response to an alleged plot to kill former President George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton ordered an airstrike in Baghdad that killed several Iraqi civilians, including the famed painter Layla Al-Attar.

Kris Kristofferson: (singing “The Circle”): Who killed this woman, this artist, this mother? Who broke the candle and snuffed out her light?

JS: I can say from having spent extensive time in Iraq in the 1990s, that its hospitals were like death rows for infants. There were no medical supplies. Birth defects that weren’t found in modern medical journals were appearing. Syringes were being reused and hospital floors were being cleaned with gasoline.

A once secular society with advanced schools and modern positions on women’s rights, relative to its neighbors, Iraq started to become much more religious. Saddam Hussein himself also began projecting himself as the defender of the Islamic world.

In 1998, Bill Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act which was authored by the neoconservatives of the Project For A New American Century.

That legislation made regime change the law of the land.

Bill Clinton: The hard fact is that so long as Saddam remains in power he threatens the well being of his people, the peace of this region, the security of the world. The best way to end that threat, once and for all, is with a new Iraqi government.

JS: When Bill Clinton codified regime change as the official policy of the United States, it was widely supported in Congress. Even Bernie Sanders—who opposed the 1991 Gulf War—voted in favor of the bill, though Sanders did oppose Clinton’s 1998 four day bombing campaign known as Desert Fox.

Sen. Bernie Sanders: Mr. Speaker, Saddam Hussein is a brutal dictator who should be overthrown, and his ability to make weapons of destruction must be eliminated, I have serious doubts however, whether the action we are taking today will take us one step forward in that direction, and I fear that innocent civilians, that women and children, in that country will be killed.

JS: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld came into power with a mission to overthrow Saddam Hussein. 9/11 was not even hours old when Rumsfeld started pushing to invade and attack Iraq, a nation that had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11.

Donald Rumsfeld: We know they have weapons of mass destruction, we know they have active programs. There isn’t any debate about it. So the idea that if you had an appropriate inspection regime, that they come back and say “you were wrong,” is so far beyond anyone’s imagination, it’s not even something I think about.

JS: This push to war was aided by powerful media organizations that breathlessly reported on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Prominent Democrats and Republicans pushed this myth.

Senator Hillary Clinton: In the four years since the inspectors left, intelligence reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapon stock, his missile delivery capability, and his nuclear program. He has also given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including Al Qaeda members. It is clear, however, that if left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare, and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons.

JS: Then-F.B.I. director Robert Mueller also pushed those lies in front of Congress. President Joe Biden, who at the time was the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, refused to call a single antiwar witness to the hearings that he conducted on the eve of the invasion of Iraq.

Senator Joseph R. Biden: We cannot be complacent about those who espouse hatred for us. We must confront clear dangers with a new sense of urgency and resolve. Saddam Hussein’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, in my view, is one of those clear dangers. Even if the right response to his pursuit is not so crystal clear.  One thing is clear: these weapons must be dislodged from Saddam Hussein or Saddam Hussein must be dislodged from power.

JS: Neoconservative officials like Paul Wolfowitz promised America that the occupation would pay for itself and go swimmingly.

Paul Wolfowitz: These are Arabs, 23 million of the most educated people in the Arab world, who are going to welcome us as liberators. And when that message gets out to the whole Arab world it is going to be a powerful counter to Osama bin Laden. The notion that we’re going to earn more enemies by going in and getting rid of what every Arab knows is one of the worst tyrants, and they have many governing them, is just nonsense.

JS: This was an elite bipartisan beating of the war drum that culminated with Secretary of State Colin Powell’s infamous speech at the United Nations Security Council.

Secretary of State Colin Powell: We have firsthand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails. The trucks and train cars are easily moved and are designed to evade detection by inspectors. In a matter of months, they can produce a quantity of biological poison equal to the entire amount that Iraq claimed to have produced in the years prior to the Gulf War.

JS: None of that, of course, was true. In a last ditch effort to avoid war, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein gave an interview to 60 Minutes and denied that his country possessed any weapons of mass destruction.

Saddam Hussein: And I believe the mobilization that’s been done was, in fact, done partly to cover the huge lie that was being waged against Iraq about chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. That is why, when you talk about such missiles, these missiles have been destroyed. There are no missiles that are contrary to the prescription of the United Nations in Iraq. They are no longer there.

JS: But it wasn’t just Saddam. Countless experts on Iraq, including former senior UN officials with long history in the country pleaded with the White House to back off its drive to war based on lies.

Wolf Blitzer, CNN: Scott Ritter, a former United Nations Weapons Inspector, today, addressed the Iraqi National Assembly and basically made the point that there are no problems as far as Iraq is concerned. Listen specifically to what he said:

Scott Ritter: The rhetoric of fear that is disseminated by my government and others has not, to date, been backed up by hard facts that substantiate any allegations that Iraq is, today, in possession of weapons of mass destruction or has links to terror groups responsible for attacking the United States.

JS: But it was not to be. And 20 years ago this week, the U.S. began its invasion and occupation of Iraq with massive air strikes across the country in an operation called Shock and Awe.

[Bombs falling on Baghdad.]

JS: Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed throughout the course of the U.S. occupation; millions were forced to flee their homes and the country. The U.S.-backed death squads and paramilitary militias conducted massacres in cities like Fallujah and encouraged sectarian battles. Mercenaries, including those from Blackwater, poured into the country: war profiteers. And Iraq became a massive killing field.

But the image of Saddam’s statue being pulled down in Firdos Square helped the myth that victory was as simple as the neocons promised.

And just months into the occupation, George W. Bush declared victory.

President George W. Bush: Thank you very much. Admiral Kelly, Captain Card, officers and sailors of the USS Abraham Lincoln, my fellow Americans. Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed. [Cheers and shouts.]

JS: Despite this idiotic and sick display by George W. Bush, where he dressed up as a military pilot and stood in front of that “Mission Accomplished” banner on the warship, the war in Iraq was just starting. The viceroy that was sent to Iraq to run the Green Zone and the occupation, L. Paul Bremmer, he was a neocon who profited off of risk insurance and he made a series of disastrous and stupid decisions. His de-Ba’athification edict resulted in 250,000 Iraqi soldiers losing their jobs. It wasn’t long before they joined the resistance. And by the end of 2004, here were both Shiite and Sunni uprisings against the United States.

It was at this point that large numbers of U.S. soldiers began to die. And in D.C., Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld were whistling past the graveyard and minimizing the anti-U.S. uprisings.

Vice President Dick Cheney: The level of activity that we see today from a military standpoint I think will clearly decline. I think they’re in the, in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency.

JS: The highest price for this invasion and occupation was of course paid by ordinary Iraqis. And it didn’t take long after Saddam Hussein was executed before his trials were even complete for Saddam Hussein’s popularity to rise. Many Iraqis hated Saddam, despised him but they hated what the U.S. had done to their country even more and that phenomenon continues to this day.

President Barack Obama: We are in full agreement about how to move forward. So, today, I can report that as promised the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year. After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over.

JS: Barack Obama, who campaigned as an anti-Iraq War candidate, did pull most U.S. troops out of Iraq. But then he quickly changed course and sent thousands back as fighting intensified along the Iraq-Syria border.

What the U.S. started in Iraq ultimately spilled over into Syria, and out of the ashes of a disastrous U.S. policy, ISIS rose. And some of their most sophisticated military operatives and strategists had been Iraqi soldiers fired by Paul Bremmer in 2003 and 2004.

At least one Iraqi general, a famous one, he was on the deck of cards that the U.S. military created for the kill/capture campaign of high-value targets. He had worked with the U.S. during the Iran-Iraq war; he ended up joining ISIS. And when Obama left office, there were more than 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and an expanding U.S. Air War.

President Donald J. Trump: I had numerous conversations with Sean Hannity at Fox and Sean Hannity said, he said, “You were totally against war,” because he was for the war.

Lester Holt: Why is your judgment better?

DJT: And wait, excuse me. And that was before the war started. I was against the war, he said, “You used to have fights with me.” Because Sean was in favor of the war. And I understand that side also — not very much because we should have never been there. But nobody called Sean Hannity.

JS: On the campaign trail, Donald Trump railed against the Iraq war, claimed he was always against it, which of course is not true but he still managed to make some valid points during the campaign, albeit in a very Trump way.

DJT: George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes. But that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East.

John Dickerson: You still think he should be impeached?

DJT: You do whatever you want, you call it whatever you want, I wanna tell you: They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none. And they knew there none. There were no weapons of mass destruction.

JS: Despite all of Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail, he came into office and proceeded to start ratcheting up the bombing in Iraq and Syria. He loosened rules on killing civilians and the death tolls skyrocketed.

While ISIS was largely decimated in Iraq, it came at a tremendous price, overwhelmingly paid by Iraqis. In just the month of March 2017, an estimated 1,000 civilians were killed in the US-led bombing campaign in ISIS-held territory in Iraq and Syria. By the end of that year, an estimated 6,000 had died as a result of coalition strikes.

None of this ever needed to happen. It was the decisions made in Washington D.C.—in the chambers of power in the world’s most powerful nation— that unleashed this chaos and bloodshed. It was U.S. actions that opened the door for the influx of al Qaeda and other militant groups culminating with ISIS’s campaign of terror. To this day, the U.S. continues to play a destabilizing role on top of the legacy of blood that it had already created in Iraq.

From the 1960s and the CIA working with Saddam and the Ba’ath Party, to the weapons, intelligence, and support for Saddam during the Iran-Iraq War, to the Gulf War and the destruction of the civilian infrastructure, to the sanctions and the no-fly zone bombings, to the lies about WMDs and the invasion of Iraq, from the stupidity of the neocons before and during the occupation to the massive refugee crisis caused by the war: U.S. policy has been consistent. For the past 60 years, there has been one central truth about the U.S. role in Iraq. And that is: that it’s been consistently anti-Iraqi people.

Since the 1960s, U.S. policy under Democrats and Republicans has been about the interests of Western capitalism and the flags of American victories have always been planted violently on piles of Iraqi corpses.

[Intercepted Outro Theme]

JS: And that’s it for this episode of Intercepted. You can follow us on Twitter at @intercepted. Intercepted is a production of The Intercept. Jose Olivares is lead producer. Supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Roger Hodge is editor in chief of The Intercept. And Will Stanton mixed our show. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.

If you’d like to support our work, go to — your donation, no matter what the amount, makes a real difference.

If you haven’t already, please subscribe to Intercepted. And definitely do leave us a rating or review — it helps people find us. If you want to give us feedback, email us at Thanks so much.

Join The Conversation