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Opinion: Inside Saddam Hussein’s ‘chamber of horrors,’ I reflect on 20 years since the Iraq War

Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of “The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.


Sulaymaniyah, Iraq
CNN
 — 

Two decades ago, on March 19, 2003, then-President George W. Bush ordered the US invasion of Iraq. A week later, near Najaf, a city in southern Iraq, then-US Major General David Petraeus turned to the American journalist Rick Atkinson and asked him a simple question: “Tell me how this ends.” That remains an excellent question.

The Amna Suraka Museum, which was once a prison and torture site used by dictator Saddam Hussein’s intelligence agents in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, is a good place to try to contemplate the legacy of the US invasion and, perhaps, an ancillary question: Was it all worth it?

When I visited the former prison earlier this week, I found it located in a pleasant residential neighborhood in Sulaymaniyah, in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. The location of the prison in the middle of the city was not an accident: Saddam wanted the local population to know what awaited anyone who opposed him, or those who might even be thinking about opposing his regime.

The museum is a chamber of horrors showcasing the cells where prisoners were tortured by electrical shocks and had the soles of their feet beaten so they couldn’t walk. Juveniles were brought to the detention center and their ages were changed to be more than 18 so they could be “legally” executed, according to a museum official I spoke to.

The prison cells are each quite small, with almost no light. During Saddam’s era, they were packed with prisoners who shared overflowing toilets.

In the museum, there is a long corridor – known as the “Hall of Mirrors” – consisting of fragments of glass that represent each of the 182,000 people Saddam’s men killed during his 1988 “Anfal” campaign (which is the estimated total number of deaths made by Kurdish officials). Small twinkling lights on the ceiling represent the 4,500 villages in the region that Saddam’s forces also destroyed.

One of the 20th century’s worst tyrants

Three and half decades ago this week, on March 16, 1988, Saddam conducted one of the most notorious crimes of his murderous dictatorship, killing thousands of Kurds using poison gas and nerve agents.

There is little question Saddam was one of the worst tyrants of the 20th century. He killed as many as 290,000 of his own people, according to Human Rights Watch. He also launched wars against two of his neighbors – Iran during the 1980s and Kuwait in 1990. Conservative estimates suggest that at least half a million people were killed during these wars.

So, when Saddam was toppled by the Americans two decades ago, at least some Iraqis were happy. And Iraq today has made some strides to a more accountable political system compared to its neighbors in the Middle East. Iraq has held several elections since the US invasion in 2003 that were followed by peaceful transfers of power.

And yet, after Saddam was toppled by the US, the incompetent American occupation of Iraq contributed to a civil war that tore the country apart, killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. More than 4,500 US soldiers also died. The war also gave al Qaeda a new lease of life. The group known as al Qaeda in Iraq later morphed into ISIS, which seized vast amounts of Iraqi territory in 2014 and instituted a reign of terror.

Uncomfortable similarities with Russia’s invasion today

The Iraq War also set a precedent for unprovoked wars that we see playing out in Ukraine today, which the Russians are already using to good effect. At a conference in India earlier this month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called out what he termed a US “double standard” saying: “[You] believe that the United States has the right to declare a threat to its national interest, any place on earth, like they did… in Iraq?”

This message may not resonate much in the West, but it does in the Global South where the US-Iraq War and the Russian war in Ukraine are seen by many as wars of choice rather than of necessity.

Of course, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s’ conduct of the war in Ukraine is orders of magnitude more brutal than the American war in Iraq. Also, Putin’s forces are attacking a democratic state, while, in Iraq, Bush ordered an invasion that toppled a dictatorship.

That said, it’s worth underlining some of the wars’ similarities: Both wars were started because of false claims – the US war in Iraq was launched on the basis that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and links to al Qaeda. The US media mostly parroted those claims. As a result, months before the US invaded Iraq, most Americans believed that Saddam was involved in the 9/11 attacks even though there was no evidence for this.

Putin justifies his war in Ukraine by claiming that it isn’t a “real” country and should be subsumed into Russia. Meanwhile, Russian media asserts that its soldiers are fighting “neo-Nazis” in Ukraine. Despite these false claims, most Russians support the war, according to independent polls.

Also, neither the Iraq War nor the war in Ukraine have had much in the way of international support. Unlike the case of the US-led war in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, which had a mandate from the UN Security Council, neither the US invasion of Iraq, nor the Russian invasion of Ukraine had UN Security Council backing.

Where next for Iraq?

In the museum dedicated to Saddam’s crimes against his own people, you feel the weight of his brutality. The US getting rid of Saddam was for many Iraqis something to be celebrated, but what followed, from the civil war to the rise and fall of ISIS, has inflicted additional great suffering on the Iraqi people.

To those who say: “Was it all worth it, toppling Saddam given what we know about how the last two decades played out?”, that may be missing the point today. Iraq has a new government and sits on the third largest oil reserves in the world. It should be one of the richest countries in the Middle East, but instead the cancer of endemic corruption has eaten away at government intuitions and international companies are often hesitant to invest in Iraq.

If the Iraqi political class can find a way to create institutions that are not wormed with corruption, Iraq has a chance of moving forward.

The 2,500 US troops that remain in Iraq today provide not just help to the Iraqi military, but also make a political statement that the United States plans to stay engaged in Iraq for the foreseeable future – rather than abandoning the country as it did in Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, when all remaining US troops were pulled out.

And we saw how well that turned out.

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