Saturday

17th Aug 2019

Iraq and the EU: five years on

It has been five years since the United States began its military operation dubbed 'Iraqi Freedom'. The war resulted in a deep rift in transatlantic relations, caused a split within the European Union and made Iraqis the single largest group seeking refuge in Europe.

On 20 March 2003, thousands of troops from four countries - the US (250,000), the United Kingdom (45,000), Australia (2,000) and Poland (194) - invaded Iraq. The invasion led to a quick defeat of the Iraqi regime, with its leader, Saddam Hussein, being captured in December 2003 and executed in December 2006.

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  • The war in Iraq has cost up to a million lives. (Photo: Jan Oberg)

The US and its allies cited allegations that Saddam Hussein's regime possessed and was actively developing weapons of mass destruction as the reason for the invasion. However, no evidence of weapons of mass destruction have been found in the country's territory.

"Five years into this battle, there is an understandable debate over whether the war was worth fighting ... The answer is clear to me: removing Saddam Hussein from power was the right decision," US president George W. Bush said on Wednesday (19 March).

Some estimates suggest that up to one million Iraqis have been killed since 2003, while the financial burden amounts to some $9 billion for London and $845 billion for Washington. Former head of the IMF Joseph Stiglitz has recently estimated the cost to be as high as $3 trillion.

But Mr Bush referred to the costs of the war as "exaggerated estimates". "No one would argue that this war has not come at a high cost in lives and treasure - but those costs are necessary when we consider the cost of a strategic victory for our enemies in Iraq," he said.

EU split

The issue of military intervention against Saddam Hussein's authoritarian regime became the biggest ever test for the EU's common foreign and security policy, as member states were not able to speak with one voice.

Several countries, led by France and Germany, were opposed to US-led invasion, while others took part.

At the time, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld exacerbated the divisions by saying: "Germany has been a problem and France has been a problem."

"You're thinking of Europe as Germany and France. I don't. I think that's old Europe," Mr Rumsfeld famously said.

Since 2003, a number of EU countries such as Italy, Lithuania, Hungary, Portugal, Spain, Slovakia and the Netherlands have withdrawn their soldiers from the violence-torn country, mainly due to public opinion.

At the same time, troops from Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Romania and the Czech Republic remain deployed in Iraq.

Pressure from Iraqi refugees

According to fresh numbers released by the UN high commissioner for refugees earlier this week (18 March), asylum requests from Iraqis climbed to 38,286 in 2007, a sharp increase from the 19,375 claims in 2006.

A number of non-governmental organisations have therefore blamed the EU for not doing enough over a major refugee crisis, pointing to the fact that the treatment of Iraqis varies significantly from one member state to another.

For example, Sweden's reception facilities have been under huge pressure, as the Scandinavian country is the only one within the 27-nation bloc granting refugee status or other protection to almost all Iraqi asylum seekers. A total of 9,065 Iraqis applied for refugee status there in 2006, compared to 2,330 the previous year.

The EU "cannot continue to ignore one of the world's major displacement crises," says a statement of a group of eight NGOs, including Amnesty International and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles.

In general, it is estimated that six million people inside Iraq need urgent humanitarian assistance as a result of the conflict. Some 2.5 million are internally displaced, while an additional two million are hosted by neighbouring countries such as Syria and Jordan.

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