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Before the Spring: Invasion of Iraq and Iraq War (2003-2011)

This is the second in a series on A Decade of Conflict Leading up to the Arab Spring.

The United States invasion of Iraq took place between 19 March and 1 May 2003.  It was presented to the American public and the world at large as an action that would rid the world against terrorism, protect against Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, and liberate the people of Iraq. 

The invasion was seen to be successful because it resulted in the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party government in just 21 days and allowed the subsequent occupation of Iraq.  It was the first action in what was to become the Iraq War which officially lasted until 18 December 2011.

The difficulty is that Iraq held no weapons of mass destruction, was not in any way involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America (which was the galvanising force behind American support for the invasion), and left the people of Iraq traumatised and devastated after being subjected to nearly a decade of brutal force.

Army Sgt stands guard near burning oil well in Rumaylah Oil Fields in Southern IraqArmy Sgt stands guard near burning oil well in Rumaylah Oil Fields [Wikicommons]

It is likely that the invasion of Iraq, a sovereign state, by United States forces was illegal and then Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, said as much in 2004.  Far from freeing the Iraqi population, the war resulted in the death of at least 100,000 Iraqi citizens (with some estimates rising to 1 million civilian deaths, see Casualties of the Iraq War).

A heavy bombing campaign lead to the wide scale destruction of infrastructure and services in Iraq, leaving the population without water, electricity, sewerage systems and hospitals.  The bombs dropped on Iraq were laced with depleted uranium resulting in a lasting radioactive contamination that will likely remain for generations.  There has been a sharp increase in childhood leukaemia, cancer and infant mortality in highly bombarded regions in Iraq.

The war in Iraq resulted in a humanitarian crisis of massive proportions that has spilled over into neighbouring countries. 

“UNHCR estimates that more than 4.7 million Iraqis have fled their homes, many in dire need of humanitarian care. Of these, more than 2.7 million Iraqis are displaced internally, while more than 2 million have escaped to neighboring states.” - UNHCR, "Iraq Refugee Emergency"

Malnutrition and disease outbreaks are widespread in a population with a disproportionate amount of widows and orphans.

Finally, much was made of the positive effect that the war would have on the liberation of women in Iraq.  In their book What Kind of Liberation? Women and the Occupation of Iraq, Nadje Al-Ali and Nicola Pratt discuss the challenges facing the women of Iraq.  They have noted an increase in neo-conservatism and the rise of violence against women, oppression and honour killings.  Women and young girls are often forced into prostitution or become victims of sex trafficking and exploitation.  Despite the rise of women-headed households, Iraqi women face great obstacles in becoming employed or gaining an education.

More so than ever before, every step of the Iraq War was subject to media scrutiny with many news outlets employing permanent correspondents and embedded reporters in key Iraqi locations.  While news outlets struggled to remain neutral amid accusations of propaganda and censorship, Al-Jazeera was noted for being one of the few news outlets to portray Iraqi casualties and present to audiences a view of the devastation in Iraq.

As with the Second Intifada, the people in neighbouring Arab countries received these broadcasts and took to the streets in protest against the Iraqi War.  The sentiment was increasingly anti-USA, anti-United Kingdom and anti-Israel with protests in Syria, Tehran, Cairo and later Baghdad and Basra in Iraq itself. 

Once again, in the context of rising distrust and conflict following the 9/11 attacks, increasing reports of discrimination and Islamophobia, and war in both Israel and Iraq, Arab speaking people began to feel solidarity to one another and an identification with the Palestinian and Iraqi causes.

Further reading:

South Africa: Where Life Is Cheap and Death Even More So

One of the top search terms on this blog is “crime in South Africa”, followed by “personal stories of crime in South Africa”.  I don’t know why people are searching those terms, but in my mind there are two main categories of searchers:

1.  Those wanting to visit South Africa and wanting to know if the horror stories are really true.

2.  Those who are still living in South Africa and have begun to wonder if there isn’t something wrong with this picture.

I once belonged to the latter category of people.  I knew many people who were raped, murdered, gang-raped, robbed, burgled, held up at gun point or hijacked.  I was held up at gunpoint in a bank robbery, my home was broken into while I was at home and my dog saved my life, I was attacked in my car. 

Life is cheap in South Africa and death is even more so.  I finally comprehended just how extreme the situation is there following a dinner party two years ago.  We were 7 women having dinner in a flat in London.  I was pressed to talk about the crime in South Africa and as always, I hesitated.  Talking about it leaves me feeling raw and vulnerable and it always, without fail, ushers in nightmares, panic attacks and generalised anxiety in the weeks following it.

But on that evening, I felt safe amongst 6 other women and I talked.  At one point, one of the women left the table and soon after made her excuses and left.  It turns out that my story filled her with such terror that she felt quite traumatised.  In her world, she didn’t know anyone who had died from unnatural causes, no victims of violent crime, barely any victims of crime at all.  Sure, she reads the newspapers, listens to the news.  But her inner circle had never been touched by violence, crime and inhumanity and that is entirely possible in countries other than South Africa. 

All of this has been in the forefront of my mind for the past ten days.  I want to talk about it and raise awareness because I believe that every South African, regardless of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or class has the right to safety, security and dignity.  Four opinion pieces caught my attention over the past 10 days.

Take your Women’s Day and shove it” [Helen Moffett, 8 August 2012, Books Live]

Helen discussed the parades and money spent on Women’s Day celebrations in South Africa and the laughing stock they had become in the face of a situation where women are raped, murdered, beaten and violated each and every day in South Africa.

Helen was a little bit angry and in light of the situation, I have to ask why we aren’t all more than a little bit angry:

Our rape stats are a global disgrace (Goddess, how many times do I have to FUCKING say this, the WORST in the world for a country not at war – the scale is unimaginable, the suffering ditto), black lesbians have “carve me up and smash my brains in” signs stamped on their backs, rural women and children live in relentless, grinding misery and poverty HUGELY exacerbated by patriarchal strictures, which are of course absolutely sacred (and the fact that the Traditional Courts Bill, which would render these women even more helpless and wretched, is actually allowed to pollute national airtime is a bloody disgrace)

[Read more about South Africa’s Women’s Day]

Women don't deserve a day” [David Moseley, 14 August 2012, News 24]

Last weekend, violent protests erupted in Lonmin mine and David Moseley remarked that: “There is always something terrible happening in South Africa”.

He referenced Helen’s post and then went on to talk about his greatest fear, that someone he knows and loves will be raped.  It is a valid concern in South Africa where “women are getting raped (almost every 17 seconds in South Africa)” and “a survey … conducted amongst 1 500 Soweto school children … discovered that a quarter of all boys said that "jackrolling" (their lingo for gang rape) was "fun"”.

He closes by saying that:

Women don't deserve a day at all.

They deserve every day, every week, every month, every year. They deserve our undying attention. They deserve a country where they can live without fear.

They deserve life.

It can be really frustrating speaking to South Africans sometimes as their need to defend their country and all of its faults battles with their need to talk about the horrors that they face.  Ultimately it seems that they fail to grasp one small point.  Each South African has a fundamental human right to live safe from physical, bodily, emotional or psychological harm.  Especially where it is being dished out to them in such an aggressive, continuous and gratuitous manner.  While the government wraps itself up in corruption, nepotism, cronyism and negligence, the citizens of South Africa are dying.

Where is the Outrage?” [Camilla Bath, 16 August 2012, Eye Witness New]

On Thursday morning, Camilla Bath EWN Deputy Editor in Johannesburg asked the following question:

Have we become so insensitive in Gauteng, in South Africa, that we all but disregard the unspeakable violence that’s unfolding on our own doorstep? Are we too callous to care, too inundated with tragedy and violence on a daily basis to truly take stock of what’s happening around us? Have our ideas of what qualifies as shocking been warped to such an extent that we no longer see people being burnt and hacked to death as utterly unacceptable and appalling?

Her words are especially chilling and especially relevant in light of the tragic events that took place at Lonmin mine just hours later.  Bath spoke of the disturbing violence taking place at the mine and the murders of miners, police officers and security guards and yet she wondered why this was not even reaching South Africa’s newspapers.  The sad fact is that South Africans are so jaded, so used to violence and crime that I found more reporting on the violence in Lonmin on international news sites than on South African sites.

Bath concluded by stating that, “This type of brutality is never deserving of anything other than outrage and disgust. Why the violence really started and who is really behind it are, for now, irrelevant. Right now, it simply needs to be stopped”. 

It was stopped, in the most violent, traumatic manner.  By the end of the day, 34 miners had been shot dead by police in what the police vehemently deny constitutes a massacre.

Dear black person” [Ferial Haffajee, 16 August 2012, News 24]

It seems strange to close this piece on crime with mention of an opinion piece on politics, poverty and racism.  But it is very important and absolutely relevant in the South African context.

South Africa has one of the highest GINI coefficients worldwide which means that the gap between richest and poorest is wider than any other country, including Brazil.  The government is absolutely corrupt and citizens suffer without electricity, water, education, healthcare and housing.  There was some progress in the 1990s towards housing, jobs, education and healthcare but in the second decade of the 21st century we see a country torn apart by poverty, corruption, inequality and racism. 

It is clear that South Africa is a country on the brink and in the midst of all of this chaos, police opened fire on striking miners, killing 34 human beings.  I’d like to say that it feels like a return to the Apartheid era but back then we lived in a police state under a permanent State of Emergency.  I’m not going to even try predict the effect of adding state-sanctioned extreme violence to the mix of lawlessness and chaos but I can guess that it can’t be good.  How much more has to go wrong in South Africa before a true leader steps in and cleans up both on the streets and in the government?

Before the Spring: The Second Intifada (2000 – 2005)

This is the first in a series on A Decade of Conflict Leading up to the Arab Spring.

Also known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada

The Second Intifada was a period of unrest and conflict between Israeli armed forces and Palestinian citizens.  It took place in the occupied Palestinian territories in Israel, starting on 28 September 2000 and lasting until 2004/2005.  It began in the context of the failure of the Oslo Accords, an attempt for peace negotiated between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Violence and protests erupted when Ariel Sharon, then an Israeli opposition party leader, entered the Temple Mount / Al-Haram Al-Sharif area (a disputed area which has significant religious importance to both Jews and Muslims) and stated that "the Temple Mount is in our hands and will remain in our hands. It is the holiest site in Judaism and it is the right of every Jew to visit the Temple Mount".  This was seen as extreme provocation and the grounds for years of conflict and unrest.

The-Second-Intifada Palestinian protestors during the Second Intifada [Gallo/Getty]

Depending on which source you consult, the Israelis and the Palestinians are painted as the primary aggressors, with both sides using questionable tactics. For example, the overview section on Wikipedia notes the Palestinians’ use of suicide bombings, rocket and mortar attacks, lynchings, kidnappings shootings, stabbings, stonings and assassinations.  The Israelis are simply painted as imposing checkpoints and curfews (see: “Second Intifada: Overview”). 

Both sides refer to events such as the Muhammad al-Durrah murder (caught on camera by a French cameraman), the Ramallah lynching, the murder of Israeli teenager Ofir Rahum, and the battle of Jenin to further support their position.

Perhaps the figures speak for themselves?  In the Introduction section of the same article, Wikipedia cites B’Tselem statistics of a final death count of up to 5,500 Palestinians, 1,100 Israelis and 64 foreigners.

In the first few days of the clashes in September 2000, Israelis responded to stone throwing, riots and demonstrations with both live fire and rubber bullets and the death toll rose from 7 Palestinians in the first day to 47 after five days.  Amos Malka, then head of Israeli military intelligence, is famous for stating that 1,300,000 bullets were fired by Israeli soldiers in that first month alone.

“By the end of the year, at least 275 Palestinians had been killed and thousands had been wounded, along with 19 members of the Israeli security forces and five Israeli civilians, according to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.

Palestinian stone-throwers were met with Israeli snipers; gunmen, with helicopter gunships and tanks. What began as a popular protest movement quickly began to look like a war…

… Demonstrations were being met with overwhelming force by Israel and it made popular protest impossible.” - Al-Jazeera, "Remembering the Second Intifada"

After a year, Palestinians took to suicide bombings and sniper attacks.  The attacks were said to have a significant psychological effect on both Israeli military and civilians.  By the end of 2004, there had been 135 attacks and more than 500 casualties but nowhere near how many Palestinians were being killed by Israeli armed aggression.

“Israel's campaign to suppress the uprising took a heavy toll on ordinary Palestinians.

After four years, at least 2,859 Palestinians had been killed and tens of thousands injured. Israel destroyed more than 3,700 Palestinian homes and placed more than 7,300 Palestinians in Israeli prisons according to B'Tselem.

Significantly, the Palestinian leadership was also decimated by a concerted campaign of assassination.” - Al-Jazeera, "Remembering the Second Intifada"

Indeed, there were 273 assassinations of Palestinian leaders by Israeli undercover units, the most notorious being the July 2002 bombing of a compound that killed Salah Shehade, commander of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades along with 15 other people including Shehade’s wife and his nine children. 

The bombing was thought to be so barbaric that it inspired the “Pilot’s Letter”, a signed declaration by several Israeli air force pilots that they would not conduct bombing campaigns over Palestinian occupied territory.  However noble, the letter was roundly damned by the Israeli military with several pilots being fired in both military and civilian sectors and more being forced to retract their signature.

The Second Intifada was a long and protracted period of conflict in which the primary casualties were civilians.  Israeli forces were indiscriminate in their reprisals against suspected terrorists while Palestinian attacks specifically targeted civilian populations. 

It is important to understand how these events were viewed by people in the Middle East and the role these sentiments played in the Arab Spring.

Intense media coverage by Al-Jazeera inspired Arabs and lead to solidarity protests across the Arab world. The protestors identified with and supported the Palestinian cause and they were disappointed in their own leaders for not using their influence with the USA to assist against perceived Israeli brutality. Protests, attacks and flag burning occurred in Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.

Further reading:

A Decade of Conflict Leading Up to the Arab Spring

Syrian rebellionSyrian anti-regime protesters gather in al-Assy square  [HO / Shaam News Network]

When analysing the events that led up to the Arab Spring, commentators are keen to point out that the uprisings did not occur in a vacuum but were the culmination of a series of events over the past decade, if not longer.  In the book The Battle for the Arab Spring: Revolution, Counter-Revolution and the Making of a New Era authors Lin Noueihed and Alex Warren state that, “Far from being a sudden awakening, the Arab Spring capped a decade of protest, political action and media criticism that had laid the ground for more open political systems”.

One significant factor influencing the sentiment of Arabs during the Arab Spring was that this had been a decade of war in the Middle East.  It was also a decade of increasing access to news, information and diverse opinions corresponding with the launch of the Al-Jazeera news network in 1996, followed by 24 hour broadcasting in 1999.  While Al-Jazeera aimed to provide objective and balanced reporting, a sense of "Arabness" began to prevail as audiences across the Arab countries  were exposed to world events and could see the conflict and change in the region.

With this exposure came solidarity and a perceived divide between the Arab world and their supporters, and the United States, Israel, United Kingdom and their supporters. 

There is a great deal to say about the role of media in the Arab Spring but that will not be the focus of this series.  Over the next couple of weeks I will focus on the decade of conflict that led up to and influenced sentiments in the Arab Spring.  This four-part series will focus on the following four conflicts:

The Suppressed History of Dutch Atrocities in Indonesia

The piece below is written by Paul Doolan and was published today in the Australian e-journal On Line Opinion as “In the Netherlands, a suppressed history makes the headlines”.  In this article, Doolan discusses the fascinating history of oppression and atrocities in post-war Indonesia during their fight for independence and how this history was all but erased from the Dutch public conscience in for over 60 years. The article is shared under the Creative Commons license with due credit given to both Paul Doolan and On Line Opinion.


The problem with the past sometimes, is that it isn't past at all, as the Dutch have been forced to face up to recently. For the Dutch, the history of the mid- 20thcentury was quite simple until very recently: a freedom loving people (the Dutch) were attacked by an aggressive neighbor (Germany) and suffered for five years until, with the help of some friends, they were liberated. Conveniently forgotten was that, following this episode, the Dutch state mobilized the largest army in its history and fought a war against the Indonesian independence movement. The Dutch lost the conflict, and in December 1949 their former colony, the Dutch East Indies, gained independence. During the following decades this tropical misadventure formed an almost blank page in the nation's history. But that, it seems, is changing. Events during the past year have forced the Dutch nation to reconsider the myth that for over a half century has formed their collective memory. Especially in the past couple of months, history has become front page news.

Eerste beeld van executies in indie

The Dutch had ruled most of Indonesia for 350 years, but found themselves prisoners of the Japanese from 1942 to 1945. With the defeat of Japan, Indonesian nationalists declared independence. The Dutch tried, with great difficulty, to reassert their control of the archipelago. After over four years of bitter conflict The Netherlands was forced to concede independence to Indonesia in December 1949.

By the end of the war numerous cases of military excesses had come to the attention of the Dutch public. Massacres by Dutch Special Forces on the island of South Celebes (present day Sulawesi) had been the subject of parliamentary debate. A massacre in the village Rawagede had been the subject of debate at the United Nations Security Council in 1948. Such incidents gradually led a minority of the Dutch press to turn against the war. In February 1949 leftist De Groene Amsterdammerpublished a letter from an unidentified officer. He wrote that Dutch officers:

defend with passion and conviction the assertion that, for instance, if you are shot at from a kampong [village] than this kampong should be set on fire from four sides before the inhabitants have the chance to run away. And whoever then tries to escape (…) you shoot with a machine-gun, preferably not bothering with if these include women of children.

The officer then drew a comparison with Putten, a village that had become infamous as being the site of one of the worst Nazi atrocities perpetrated on Dutch soil. The officer wrote of summary executions of prisoners who are "simply shot behind the head and then buried." He described the Indonesians as living under "military terror."

But after the loss of their colony in December 1949 and the return of their soldiers the Dutch authorities quietly and quickly put the lid on this uncomfortable period of contemporary history. For many decades, with only the occasional exception, the possibility that Dutch forces had been guilty of atrocities, or even war crimes, was kept out of public consciousness. But last September history ended up in the court room and a court verdict in The Hague found the Dutch state responsible for carrying out a massacre of over 300 unarmed Indonesians in 1947 in the village of Rawagede, Indonesia, and called on the state to award compensation to the plaintiffs – seven elderly widows of those massacred.

Photos emerge of Dutch war crimes in Indonesia

Recent months have seen an increase in public attention on Dutch military atrocities. Earlier this year a national television channel, NCRV, broadcast a documentary on the Dutch atrocities committed on Sulawesi in 1946-1947, when around 3,000 Indonesians were executed without trial by special Dutch forces. It turns out that an official parliamentary inquiry into these events had taken place in 1954, but the report was kept top secret. The NCRV managed to get hold of a copy and for the first time the Dutch public heard excerpts from the report which would seem to indicate that widespread atrocities had had the support of the military and political leadership, and had then been officially hushed up. A few months after the broadcast a foundation representing the widows of ten victims of the Dutch on Sulawesi began a legal procedure against the Dutch state. The lawyer representing the foundation is Liesbeth Zegveld, who also led the successful case on behalf of the widows of Rawagede. The odds are that the Dutch state will be found responsible for war crimes again.

In early July historians from three research institutes of worldwide reputation issued a public statement, claiming that the Dutch state has never come clean on its colonial past and called for the government to fund a large scale research project that would systematically look at the behavior of the Dutch military in Indonesia during the years 1945-1950 and examine the role of the Dutch political elite in the conflict. The fact that the history of the war of decolonization in Indonesia has become a hot topic can be seen by the fact that this announcement by academic historians was reported on national news, in newspapers and on radio and television. It isn't often that history makes the headlines. Yet more was to follow.

Dutch atrocities in Indonesia

On July 10th the national newspaper, de Volkskrant, published two photos that seem to show three Indonesians standing in a mass grave, being executed by Dutch soldiers. The photos had belonged to a deceased former Dutch soldier and had been rescued from a rubbish dump. Remarkably, these were the first ever photos of Dutch executions ever to be published – 63 years after the end of the war. De Volkskrant ran the report on its front page and within hours it was being reported on the radio and television. I've just returned from a two week visit to the Netherlands and everyone I spoke to had seen the photos. The most common reaction was: "why have we been lied to all these years?" Perhaps we can expect to find an answer some time in the not too distant future.

About the Author


Paul Doolan teaches history at Zürich International School, Switzerland and lectures in Political Systems at the College for International Citizenship in Birmingham, England.

Paul blogs at ThinkShop


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