I remember when the first Gulf War happened in 1991. Though only young I recall the 5 months from the invasion of Kuwait. The conflict was being talked up, and became inevitable. At the time I didn’t realise Saddan Hussein had been supported and armed by the US up till 1990 during the Iraq/Iran war (I was 8 at the time). It wasn’t till some years later that I understood what had happened to the Kurds after the 1991 conflict, or the crippling sanctions that hurt ordinary people while the regime thrived.
In November 2000 I was studying for my economics exam (which I passed), but became distracted by the US Presidential election. This was the night Al Gore won the most votes but Bush Junior won the electoral college. A later recount in Florida and legal action failed to overturn this result despite later evidence that indeed Al Gore had won the state of Florida and that he, not Bush should have been in the White House.
A Bush presidency made the prospect of an invasion of Iraq inevitable. At least that was the general consensus. The 2001 September 11 attacks had nothing to do with Iraq, yet were used as an excuse. As was highly questionable intelligence which in 2016 was found to be flawed information.
In 2003 I was the Campaigns Officer on the Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association (VUWSA). In the weeks leading up to university started there were a number of protests in Wellington and throughout the world. I recall one protest on Saturday 15 February 2003. We called a midday rally and had organised a small march against the any attack on Iraq. We expected maybe a couple of hundred people to show up. When over 5000 people arrived at the small park we were meeting at we suddenly faced some logistical issues. I recall vetern activist Jim Delahunty turning to me and saying “this is a good problem to have.”
At the first Initial General Meeting of the Students’ Association in 2003 we put the Iraq War on the agenda. It had been some years since students had really taken a position on an international issue like this, so we weren’t sure how it would go. The meeting was one of the best attended General meetings in years, and the venue at max capacity. From memory only 2-3 people voted against the anti war motion.
Peace Action Wellington became the coalition group in Wellington Organising against the war. We held regular protest marches, rallies, occupations and other events throughout 2003.
Notable events during the year were the ANZAC Day protests where I and a number others laid an anti-imperialist wreath, an act which caused no small amount of controversy. Another was when the US Ambassador came to speak on campus, and student activists shut down the event so he was unable to speak. I and other activists then were filmed by local and international TV crews burning US flags (8 years later when I finally travelled to the US I was concerned I may not be let in, I was).
As a socialist activist and friend of mine Dougal McNeill said of the protests later: “mass movements shoot up like a rocket, and fall like a stick.” Out of the anti war movements in Wellington, and internationally a layer of activists were politicised and went on to do other things. But the movement itself, or at least the mass protests didn’t last that long. Though opposition to the Iraq invasion continues to be very widespread.
This is not to say that the 2003 protests against the Iraq Invasion achieved nothing. Bush and Blair were probably never going to change their minds about the invasion. But the strong public opposition helped create the space where the New Zealand (Labour) Government broke with its traditional US, UK and Australian allies and didn’t send combat troops. Internationally the Iraq war did impact on domestic politics, and continues to today. In the US, Obama’s 2008 election pledge to pull troops out of Iraq almost certainly helped get him elected. 8 years later Trump claimed the Iraq invasion was one of the worse decisions ever made, despite him personally supporting it in 2003. In the UK, Blair’s legacy never recovered. Today even Labour MP’s sympathetic to the Blair project like Chuka Umunna say the invasion of Iraq was wrong.
The Iraq invasion removed Saddam Hussein, but life for people in Iraq did not improve. The rise of Isis, horrific terror attacks on civilians, extreme poverty and political and economic instability have continued Iraq’s suffering for the last 15 years. Further, this invasion contributed to the wider instability in the Middle East and growing hostility towards the West. The invasion of Iraq was wrong, and has caused long term harm. Bush and Blair’s legacy will forever be tarnished by this act, and deservedly so.
I am proud that I was part of the global opposition to this invasion, and would do so again.