The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

Living Edition
| Editors: Immanuel Ness, Zak Cope

Iraq, Imperialism, Political Economy, and International Law

  • Ali HammoudiEmail author
Living reference work entry



Iraq has had a unique, extraordinary, and contradictory historical relationship with international law and world order. From its inception as a modern and sovereign state in 1932, it was considered the pride of the new postwar order – a triumph of the “peaceful” workings of the international institution of the Mandate system of the League of Nations. By the first Gulf War in 1991 and later the 2003 invasion, it was labeled a “rogue” and “outlaw” state that needed to be put in its place  by the “civilized” world through the instruments of war, economic sanctions, and unilateral invasion. This chapter will explore this contradictory relationship and its dynamics in history. The manner in which imperialism operated in Iraq could not be understood without a closer look at its relationship with international law and its institutions from 1921 to the 2003 Iraq War, as well as the geopolitics of political economy. My argument is that Iraq’s continuous centrality to core questions of world order, whether during the Mandate period, the first Gulf War, or ultimately the 2003 invasion, were no coincidence but rather illustrates Iraq’s (and the region’s) geopolitical and economic importance to imperialism and the interests of empire.

This chapter will show how certain questions of international law, including claims of “newness” of world order (in particular during the Mandate period, the 1991 Gulf War, and the post-9/11 “War on Terror”), could be understood in relation to the history of imperialism in Iraq. The tracing of how international law and its concepts continued to further imperialism puts emphasis on the continuities rather than discontinuities of the imperialist project in relation to the modern history of Iraq. The shifting patterns of the international legal order and the various interpretations of “world order” during the past century will be explored in the context of Iraqi history. This chapter will show how the case of Iraq reveals the manner in which questions of international law were principally linked to the economic control and exploitation of the natural resources of the region and in turn to the global political economy. Iraq’s geographical location explains its centrality to imperial rivalries during both world wars and the Cold War as it lay at the “crossroads between Europe and the Mediterranean to the west and inner Asia to the east,” as well as being a “connecting route” to the Indian Ocean and bordering countries to the southeast (Penrose and Penrose 1978). It was not only Iraq’s unique geographical location but its geopolitical importance in relation to its rich natural resources that would turn it into a theater for war and ultimately a target of the neoliberal transformation of its economy.

This retelling of Iraqi history will rely on Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL). TWAIL scholarship and methodology has consistently revealed how colonialism and imperialism are in fact constitutive of international law and its discipline (Gathii 2011; Anghie 2004). In other words, international law could only be grasped by studying the historical processes of imperialism that were central to its development and expansion. TWAIL reveals that imperialism and the expansion of capitalism in the Third World were historically juridified through international law and its processes. As Makau Mutua wrote, “[t]he construction and universalization of international law were essential to the imperial expansion that subordinated non-European peoples and societies to European conquest and domination” (Mutua 2000). TWAIL scholars assert that international law was born out of this “colonial encounter” and that in turn European imperial expansion had enduring consequences on modern international law (Okafor 2008).

There are two ways that TWAIL will be used in this chapter. The first is with regard to history and its interpretation. TWAIL scholarship has used a historical method to explore the relevance of the history of imperialism to modern international law and to expose how deeply imbricated international law is with imperialism. This “turn to history” traces certain continuities to help us understand international law today. TWAIL scholars consider the historical method as vital to contextualize certain contemporary legal practices and concepts, tracing their (inter) connections with the past. Anghie, one of the most notable TWAIL scholars, has traced today’s modern international law and the doctrines of Francisco de Vitoria, which were used to justify the Spanish conquest of the indians of the Americas in the sixteenth century (Anghie 2004). By connecting and contextualizing a series of historical events and eras starting with fifteenth-century Scholasticism, the 1884-85 Berlin Conference, the Mandate system of the League of Nations, the Bretton Woods institutions, and all the way to the invasion of Iraq, Anghie emphasizes that what might appear as new in international law and world governance is in fact fairly old. Furthermore, he illustrates how questions of “governance,” “sovereignty,” and “the rule of law” have historically and intrinsically been linked to capitalist pursuits of commerce and trade. This chapter will undertake a similar analysis of Iraqi history by showing how capitalist exploitation of Iraq and control over the region was the driving force of imperial powers, and this in turn would be translated into questions of world order and international law.

The second way in which this chapter will use the TWAIL perspective is by deconstructing the claim of “newness” of world order that was used to justify the necessity of reforming the fundamental norms of international law and its order. Obifor Okafor has revealed how claims of “newness” were in fact a political maneuver used by Great Powers, more recently the United States, to reassert imperialism and justify the ‘war on terror’ and the invasion of Iraq – responses that would otherwise be untenable under international law. A close look at the workings of the imperialism of international law in Iraq reveal how these claims of “newness” were made to mystify reality. In 1932, Iraq’s advancement through the Mandate process into a “civilized” sovereign state, becoming a member of the society of nations, was heralded as a prime example of the coming of a “new” world order whereby the peaceful settlement of the colonial question led to the formation of new states. The reality of course was quite different as Iraq’s sovereignty was a legal fiction. Iraq remained under a disguised form of imperialist control sanctioned by international law. A similar claim of newness occurred in 1991 when after the fall of the Soviet Union, the US decided to wage a war on Iraq to “liberate” Kuwait. This event was claimed to be the assertion of a “New World Order,” where the rule of international law would be imposed by force, while the UN Security Council was to finally become effective in advancing “world peace and security.” The fact was that it merely intersected with the consolidation of US imperial power and interests in the region. By 2003, the US invasion of Iraq under the (illegal) doctrine of “preemptive war” or the so-called Bush doctrine was considered to have ushered yet another shift in (some called it a crisis of) world order, whereby imperialism would redefine itself in relation to international law.

A broad sweep and synthesis of the modern history of Iraq during some of its most crucial periods from the Mandate until the invasion will therefore reveal how these various claims of “newness” of world order by imperial powers were not new after all. Iraq and its people were always victims of colonialism and imperialism, especially through the mechanisms of international law and its institutions, from its establishment as an independent modern and “civilized” state in 1932 up until its classification as a “rogue” state deserving of economic sanctions and finally its complete and utter destruction after the 2003 invasion and occupation with the aim of reintegrating it into the global capitalist economy.

Iraqi “Independence” Through the Mandate System of the Interwar Order

The first significant event in the history of modern Iraq in relation to world order was the establishment of a sovereign state of Iraq in 1932 through the protracted process of the Mandate system of the emerging postwar international order following the Treaty of Versailles, the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, and the formation of the League of Nations. The Mandates system was consequently established after the end of World War I with the intention of creating a lasting peace in the former territories of the German colonies in Africa, Asia and the Pacific Ocean, including the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. This system was based on Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations and provided for a “sacred trust of civilization” to promote the well-being of the natives of these colonies, which were said to have been “inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world” (Pederson 2015 Mazower (2009)). The idea of this “civilizational” process of the Mandate system reflected the idealism of the League in attempting to organize a peaceful order and to prevent war. The mandatory power was meant to govern and advise the administration of the mandated territory until its people were able to stand on their own. It was also meant to protect the native populations from pillage, exploitation, and annexation that would have been acceptable in the former Westphalian order. Iraq was designated as an “A” Mandate, as opposed to a “B” or “C” Mandate of Africa and the Asian Pacific. The “A” Mandates were recognized as being developed and “semi-civilized” enough to gain “provisional” independence sooner than the other designations, following tutelage by the mandatory power, which had a supposedly limited role of giving administrative and technical advice.

Britain, which had already occupied Iraq during the war, was chosen as Iraq’s mandatory power at the San Remo Conference in April 1920. The native population of Iraq however was so vehemently opposed to any form of control, “mandatory,” or otherwise, that a popular revolution broke in 1920. It was only after this revolution was ruthlessly crushed that Britain accepted the idea of a national self-government as being necessary to the fulfillment of its mandatory obligations. The Hejazi, Emir Faisal was eventually handpicked and installed by the British government to be the future King of Iraq at the 1921 Cairo Conference. The mandatory relationship was expressed in the form of the first Anglo-Iraq Treaty signed in 1922. This treaty incorporated the provisions of the Mandate, although it expressed Britain’s mandatory relationship vis-à-vis the League, but not vis-à-vis Iraq (Quincy 1930). The instrument of the treaty was used to distance Iraq from any reference to the much-hated Mandate, while it maintained an institutional structure that gave the British significant control over the Iraqi state. The Treaty required that the Iraqi government appoint British advisors to shadow every ministerial post, creating a parallel advisory system, which ensured British influence over the Iraqi state and its institutions. Furthermore, the 1925 Constitution or Organic Law guaranteed that the provisions of the Treaty would be upheld as it allowed wide executive powers to the king and cabinet. It limited the state’s constitutional structures and gave the king the power to veto legislation and override parliament. The 1922 Anglo-Iraq Treaty, which was an instrument of international law, therefore gave the British wide room to influence and control the Iraqi state (Sluglett 2007).

On September 1929, the British government agreed to support Iraq’s entry to the League of Nations and in turn its formal independence by 1932 (Pederson 2015). A new treaty was ratified in 1930. The 1930 Anglo-Iraq Treaty maintained a “close” alliance between the two states. The provisions of the Treaty limited Iraq’s sovereignty, especially with regard to Britain’s right to move troops on Iraqi soil, as well as the employment of British advisors. The economic dimensions of the Treaty were couched in military terms, while the administration of the strategic sites of the Port of Basra and the Iraq Railways were left under British semi-autonomous control. In Geneva, the Permanent Mandates Commission (PMC), the main body of the League responsible for supervising the Mandates, determining whether Iraq had reached the “degree of maturity” acceptable for independence, began its deliberations. The British High Commissioner, Henry Dobbs, submitted a report to the PMC, which concluded that Iraq had “all the working machinery of a civilized government” and could “stand alone” administratively, even if it cannot do so militarily or economically, and that was sufficient (Pederson 2015). The British government claimed that it had appropriately fulfilled its obligations as a mandatory power.

Although the PMC were skeptical throughout its deliberations, it unanimously agreed to admit Iraq into the Society of N ations after requiring a declaration confirming Britain’s continuing “moral responsibility” to the implications of Iraq’s independence. In October 1932, Iraq became the first mandated state to gain formal independence through the processes of the Mandate system. The reasoning that the members of the PMC, who as lawyers and jurists were well aware that they were making international law, reveals an attempt to construct a unique doctrine of sovereignty that ensured the geopolitical and economic dominance of Iraq and the region as a whole, especially when it came to access to oil (Hammoudi 2016).

Hence, although Iraq not only appeared independent, but also was independent under international law, in reality it remained (economically, militarily, politically, and geopolitically) under imperial British dominance and control. Iraq’s sovereignty was swiftly given by the Great Powers through the League of Nations with the main purpose of ensuring Western access to oil through a legal mechanism that was enshrined under international law and in line with the principles of the world order of the time (Hammoudi 2016). In fact, Iraq’s sovereignty was meant to be a model for the entire Middle East, a region with a unique geopolitical significance for imperialism, especially given the importance of its oil deposits for the capitalist world economy.

The 1930 Anglo-Iraq Treaty and its corresponding doctrine of (limited) sovereignty in international law had severe consequences on the people of Iraq, especially the working class and the poor peasants. The curtailment of Iraq’s sovereignty and Britain’s ability to influence and intervene in nearly all the affairs of the Iraqi state allowed a small clique of Sherifian ex-Ottoman officers, to run the government, maintaining their political power and in turn British imperial interests. The Treaty (along with the oil concessionary agreements) was the legal mechanism(s) by which oil was to be extracted and transported westward across the desert to the shores of the Mediterranean, while Iraqi labor was superintended to ensure the smooth operations of the infrastructure of economic dominance.

The most advanced sectors of the working class were concentrated in the colossal industrial enterprises and privately owned and administered enclaves of the oil fields in Kirkuk and the semi-autonomous Port of Basra and railway system. Despite the fact that these wage earners were in better conditions than their counterparts elsewhere (not to mention the serf-like conditions of the peasants), they embodied the contradictions of the capitalist system in the colonies, living under wretched conditions, low wages, and racism (Batatu 2004; Hammoudi 2016).

The oil workers, for instance, lived in miserable conditions within company camps that were segregated from the larger gated villas where British staff resided. This colonial-type segregation was even more evident in the 12 mini-company towns that were built across the desert in parallel to the (Kirkuk-Haifa-Tripoli) oil pipelines (Mitchell 2011; Bet-Shlimon 2019). The wage gap between Iraqi laborers and British staff was enormous. Moreover, Iraqi workers were frequently discharged without notice and had no protections despite the 1936 Labor Law, a basic law that was passed but never applied by the government or the company. Such a system of extreme class exploitation was a direct result of the legal arrangements described above. Similar semi-colonial legal structures governed the railway system and the Port of Basra, both managed by semi-autonomous administrations headed by British administrators and experts. The Treaty ensured that these strategic sites would remain under British control after Iraq’s formal independence. Like their counterparts in the oil fields, the railway and port workers received inadequately low wages, while they lived in wretched conditions, some in tiny mud huts in the outskirts of the cities. The processes of the international institution of the Mandate and the Anglo-Iraq Treaty would therefore continue to affect common Iraqis in their everyday lives even after so-called independence.

It was not surprising then that the Iraqi working class would begin to organize themselves under the guidance of anti-imperial groups such as the illegal Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) and trade unions to fight for better conditions, simultaneously waging an overall struggle against the imperialism embedded in the international legal structures of the Treaty. Beginning with the railway workers, concentrated in the Schalchiyyah workshops in Baghdad, who organized the first major postwar labor strike in 1945, demanded higher wages and the right to form their own unions. Similarly, the port workers drafted a petition, specifically calling for the consistent application of the labor law to all grades of port workers, especially the most vulnerable cargo workers who were governed by a piecemeal system of employment (Batatu 2004). The port workers organized their first experiment in strike action in May 1947, which was swiftly suppressed by police. The oil workers’ union waged some of the most militant strike actions against the Iraq Petroluem Company (IPC). Most famously, during the Gawurbaghi strike of 1946, when municipal police coordinated with the British Embassy and the IPC to violently repress the strike, leading to the death of at least 18 workers (Bet-Shlimon 2019). Although all these strikes were violently suppressed, these experiences were formative for the Iraqi labor movement and would be of utmost value for the wider nationalist and anti-imperialist struggle that erupted in 1948.

The Wathba of 1948: The Spark of Revolutionary Anti-colonial Struggle in Iraq

After Iraq gained its independence in 1932, the state was still quite unstable as various military factions struggled to gain power from those who were seen as too compliant with British imperial interests. In 1936, a military coup led by General Baqr al-Sidqi led to the formation of a short-lived government alliance with the progressive social democrats. In April 1941 another coup led by the Arab nationalist Rashid al-Gaylani overthrew the pro-British monarchy until it was reinstalled by a second British invasion and occupation a month later.

The Iraqi people persisted in their struggle against the 1930 Anglo-Iraq Treaty, the juridical manifestation of imperialism in their country. The Wathba uprising of 1948, which was described by Hanna Batatu as the “the most formidable mass insurrection in the history of the monarchy,” was the moment when the people’s anti-colonial and anti-imperial struggle against the social and legal order sparked the processes that would lead up to the 1958 July Revolution, which would overthrow the British sponsored monarchy a decade later (Batatu 2004). Led  by an alliance of workers and students, massive demonstrations were sparked on the streets of Baghdad by news of the signing of the Portsmouth Treaty, which was meant to revise the 1930 Anglo-Iraq Treaty to make it more consistent with the UN Charter. However, the reality was that this Treaty maintained the British connection under a new guise, as it gave British “experts” a say in Iraq’s military planning and maintained British military bases on Iraqi soil. The Portsmouth Treaty turned out to be a mere extension of the 1930 Treaty with “new-fashioned terminology,” which reestablished the continuation of British intervention in Iraqi affairs under the new liberal international legal order (Batatu 2004).

The Wathba was one of the largest mass demonstrations in the history of the Iraqi monarchy. It was a culmination of all the previous struggles by the workers and students that seemed to be confined to the workplaces and universities. The anger spilled onto the streets. The well-organized movement, which was led and guided by a couple of people’s steering committees compromised a heterogeneous group of Iraqis and united the working class, the underclasses and the middle class (whether communists, social democrats, or Arab nationalists). Iraqis from all walks of life – students, lawyers, workers, and squatters – marched together to oppose imperialism and its preservation by the ruling class. The movement called for the annulment of the new Treaty and the resignation of the cabinet. The massive Wathba strikes and demonstrations spread with fire-like intensity to other parts of the country. Fearing all-out revolution, the regent decided to renounce the Treaty in a public statement. This splintered the movement as right-wing nationalists were satisfied, while the left saw it as a mere tactic, calling for more than the mere cancellation of the new treaty but the end of imperialism in the country and the cancellation of the still operative 1930 Anglo-Iraq Treaty. Moreover, workers and the poor called for economic justice and “bread” considered as essential for any “political freedoms” (Haj 1997). By January 27, police were directed to shoot into a crowd of protestors on the Maʾmun Bridge, killing at least 300 unarmed Iraqis. This bloody event would eventually lead to the resignation of the government. Although the cancellation of the Portsmouth Treaty was achieved, the “caretaker” government eventually imposed martial law, while suppressive police tactics were used in other parts of the country to break labor strikes and suppress all forms of dissent, which continued for several months thereafter.

The Wathba had a significant impact on the decolonization of international law (Hammoudi 2016). It struck a thunderous chord against imperialism in the region and the Third World more broadly. It showed how the common people of Iraq struggled for a vision of a new social and legal order in their country that was based on an equitable and just international legal order. As they waged their struggles on the streets and in their workplaces, they were attempting to affirm their human dignity as reflected in the emergent principles of the UN Charter. They rejected the continuation of the imperialism that was imposed upon them through the Mandate system and called for a truly independent Iraq that would be a part of a Third World that was free of colonial subordination and imperial influence. In other words, with their very actions, they sought a free Iraq that would break away from the web of imperialism and its manifestation in yet another juridical guise.

The Wathba awoke a spirit of determination of anti-colonial struggle that persevered throughout the coming turbulent decade until the monarchy was overthrown by the 1958 July Revolution, sparked by the actions of the Free Officers under the leadership of Brigadier ʿAbdul Karīm Qāsim (Romero 2011). The Wathba inspired the grassroots organized protest actions to come, opening the way for the Revolution. During the riots of the 1952 Intifada, there were calls for the “renewal” of the revolutionary Wathba, while the 1956 Uprising of Najaf and Hayy was launched in response to the British-French-Israeli attack on Egypt following Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal (Batatu 2004; Bashkin 2009). Labor strikes intensified throughout this period, most notably with the massive dockworkers strike of Basra in 1953, which completely shut down the entire port city. The government continuously imposed martial law to  crush these upheavals. In the end, it was because any demands for social reform from the people were consistently and violently suppressed by the regime that the Free Officers decided to take things into their own hands by planning a military coup that would initiate the revolutionary process of the liberation of Iraq and its people from the British imperial yoke.

The July Revolution of 1958 and Iraq’s Break from the Orbit of Imperialism

The July Revolution of 1958 should be analyzed not only in the context of the Wathba and the Intifada of November 1952 but other significant events in the region, such as the Palestinian Nakba, the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, as well as the signing of the Baghdad Pact in February 1955. The Baghdad Pact was considered by the Iraqi public as yet another attempt to reimpose imperialism in Iraq and the region after the demise of the Portsmouth Treaty in 1948 (Romero 2011). The Free Officers, who were clearly influenced by Nasser’s revolutionary clandestine methods, organized a military coup in anticipation of a people’s revolution, with aim of shattering the ancien régime of the pro-British Hashemite monarchy and its oppressive social order. Proclamation No 1 read out on Baghdad Radio announced the establishment of a people’s republic, promised the participation of the Iraqi people in shaping their future, and ended Iraq’s close alliance with the West by declaring a neutralist foreign policy in line with the principles of the 1955 Bandung Conference. The Proclamation was clear that its revolutionary claims were in line with the principles of international law of the time and the UN Charter, as well as the non-alignment of the Third World that were asserted in Bandung:

…[W]e have undertaken to liberate the beloved homeland from the corrupt crew that imperialism installed…Rest assured that we will continue to work on your behalf. Power shall be entrusted to a government emanating from you and inspired by you. This can only be realized by the creation of a people’s republic, which will uphold complete Iraqi unity, tie itself in bonds of fraternity with the Arab and Moslem states, act in keeping with the principles of the United Nations and the resolutions of the Bandung Conference…Accordingly, the (new) national government shall henceforth be called the Republic of Iraq… (Quoted in Batatu 2004).

The Revolution uprooted the legal structures that maintained the old social order starting with the elimination of the 1930 Anglo-Iraq Treaty and with it the imperialism of its international legal structures, which was maintained for nearly three decades after the emergence of a novel liberal international order with the signing of the UN Charter in 1945. Decolonization was just beginning to sweep the Third World, and in Iraq the anti-colonial struggles finally materialized with the initial actions of the revolutionary officers. Within 2 weeks, a Provisional Constitution was drafted that frustrated the constitutional structures of the 1925 Organic Law, which constricted the people’s popular sovereignty. Furthermore, a new Agrarian Reform Law was passed, which finally ended the “semifeudal” system, a remnant of British imperial policy, bringing the tribes and rural areas into the purview of state law (Marr 1985).

Iraq’s emergence as a republic ruled by a nationalist military regime ensured that it would be a contested zone of rivalry during the Cold War, especially between Arab nationalists and communists. A coup led by Baʿathists trained by the CIA brought down the revolutionary Qasim regime in 1963, before it too was overthrown 8 months later by another military coup led by Nasserites (Mathews 2011). The US returned the Baʿath to power in a coup in 1968, opening up the path for Saddam Hussein’s ascent to power, which would materialize in 1979 with the purging of his rivals. Iraq under Saddam would become a totalitarian regime for over two decades, ruling over the party apparatus, the military, and Iraqi society with an iron fist. A year after gaining power, Saddam plunged Iraq into military adventurism going to war with Iran (1980–1988) following the fall of the Shah, with the support of the US, which supplied both sides with weapons.

The First Gulf War (1991): The Punishment of a “Rogue State” During the New World Order

Following a devastating and pointless 8-year war with Iran, Iraq’s economy was in tatters. Kuwait exceeded its OPEC quota, further depressing Iraqi oil prices and in turn it’s economy. In addition, Kuwait was allegedly drilling into Iraqi territory at the border and extracting oil from the Rumailah oil field. After receiving a seemingly indifferent response in relation to Iraq’s oil dispute with Kuwait from the US ambassador (widely regarded as a “green light”), Saddam Hussein, a longtime ally of the US (considered Kuwait’s actions as tantamount to military aggression), ultimately decided to invade Kuwait in August 1990. To his surprise, his resort to invasion, annexation, and occupation would ignite “one of the most significant international crises of the post-1945 epoch” (Halliday 1994).

The US swiftly began to assemble a coalition of states to counter Iraq’s action with the initial aim of recovering the sovereignty of a UN member state. President George H.W. Bush not only turned to international law and its mechanisms but also evoked the concept of a “New World Order” to justify a US-led war against Iraq. After all, the UN Security Council was now free from the bipolar constraints of the Cold War and able to operate collectively against aggression for the maintenance of peace – the very basis of the system of collective security and self-defense embedded in  Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

President Bush immediately deployed a US military force to Saudi Arabia. The US administration began employing pressure on member states to pass a series of UN resolutions, the first of which was Resolution 660, which condemned the invasion and demanded immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi troops. Economic sanctions and a trade embargo were swiftly imposed through Resolution 661, completely isolating Iraq from the outside world. Member states were called upon to prevent the transfer of any funds to Iraq or Kuwait for trading purposes, the supply of all goods, with the exception of “foodstuffs intended for humanitarian purposes.” Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait was declared null and void under international law (S.C. Res 664, UN SCOR, 45th Sess. 2937th mtg., UN Doc. S/Res/664).

In November 1990, President Bush approached the Security Council for a resolution sanctioning military force against Iraq. The Council adopted Resolution 678, which did not expressly mention military force, but authorized “Member States… to use all necessary means to uphold and implement resolution 660… and to restore international peace and security in that region.” On January 16, 1991, President Bush, blocking all diplomatic efforts, launched military action against Iraq, resting the legality of his action on Resolution 678 (Quigley 1992). Despite the fact that this war was presented with a cloak of legality, it was in fact illegal for various reasons, but especially the fact that Resolution 678 was constructed in such an ambiguous way that it was described by one observer as “a masterpiece of obfuscation” (Springborg 1994). It was worded in a way to invoke the authority of Article 51 (“the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense”) and Article 42 (that limits the right of self-defense “until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security,” which in this case was already taken through economic sanctions) of the UN Charter without any explicit reference to them (Springborg 1994). In other words, the resolution’s appropriation of the phrase to “restore international peace and security in the area” from Article 42 was merely meant to convey a vener of legality to the blatantly unlawful use of force.

The effects of the war that began in January 1991 were devastating to a scale never seen before in the history of warfare at the time (Simons 1996). American missiles and aircraft were the main source of mass destruction – around 88,500 tons of bombs were dropped, including napalm, cluster bombs, and “daisy cutter” bombs in contravention of the laws of war. The fact that these bombs were dropped in heavily populated urban areas meant that colossal civilian death was virtually certain. Coalition air sorties, which covered over most of Iraq, for nearly a month before the ground offensive began, bombed at will, while “carpet” bombing by B-52 deliveries had nuclear-like destructive effects on towns and villages. A UN report later described the effects of the bombing as “near apocalyptic” and argued that it reduced life in Iraq to a “pre-industrial age” (Excerpts from UN Report on Need for Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq). US military planners completely destroyed Iraq’s civilian infrastructure, following a deliberate policy, which in the words of Secretary of State James Baker was intended to turn Iraq into a “backward and weak state” (Simons 1996). Sewage and water treatment facilities, electrical generators, hospitals, and clinics were all targeted and destroyed. As Iraqi soldiers were complying with UN demands by withdrawing from Kuwait, US aircraft mercilessly attacked those fleeing at the Jahra-Basra road with cluster bombs and uranium creating a bloody wreckage of metal, corpses, and limbs. This incident was to become one of the most horrific massacres of the war. The US war on Iraq was therefore a clear and calculated attempt to destroy the very social fabric of Iraqi society and its economy.

The manner in which the US administration operated the levers of international law and its mechanisms to justify its military action on Iraq has been argued to be the development of a form of “hegemonic international law,” whereby the hegemon not only appropriates and navigates the existing international legal mechanisms but, in breaching certain aspects of it, is confident that it was simultaneously creating new rules for its own advantage (Alvarez 2003). Prominent international lawyers, such as Richard Falk and John Quigley, have detailed how and why the US were in violation of the UN Charter despite their uses of international mechanisms. Quigley argued that the high level of force took US action outside the parameters of the Resolution 678 standard of “necessary” means (Quigley 1992). This was not to mention the fact that the resolution itself violated the UN Charter, which clearly stipulates that military force must be a measure of last resort. “The presence of aggression does not always enable the Council to use military force to oppose it,” wrote Quigley, “[t]o the contrary, the Council may use military force only if other [less drastic] means will not succeed” (Quigley 1992). Similarly, Falk emphasized that once the shift was made from sanctions to war, “the UN’s role was fundamentally flawed from the view point of international law… [as] [t]he Security Council violated its own constitutional framework to the extent that it allowed the coalition to operate independently…” without any oversight and without exhausting all nonmilitary options (Falk 1994). In this way, the UN was not only manipulated by the US administration to justify its waging of unrestricted warfare against Iraq, but it was also entirely complicit in the war, especially in the brutal sanctions regime established thereafter.

The reference to the coming of a “New World Order” dedicated to “peace, security and the rule of law” in countering the aggression of a “new Hitler” was certainly meant as a powerful rhetorical device. President Bush ceaselessly insisted that this crisis was “between Iraq and the entire world” (NYT, August 23, 1990) and framed Iraq’s actions solely in terms of being a threat to world order, arguing that the US was merely stepping in to reestablish the rule of law and order in the region. The underlying contextual reality, however, was that Saddam Hussein was not just any aggressor and Kuwait was not just any state. It should not be forgotten that Hussein was not only considered an important US ally in the region, but also that the US administration provided him with stockpiles of weapons during the Iraq-Iran war. At this conjuncture, economic interests and important concerns of geopolitics within the context of the maintenance of US imperial power in the region were at stake. Simply put, the US could not allow a Third World leader, who controlled such vast energy resources, to dictate the price of oil. This certainly explains its overwhelming use of force to get its point across.

The first Gulf War was therefore not a “test” case for the principle of collective security and the mechanisms of the UN as often treated, but rather it was the manifestation of an overdue US policy pronounced by President Carter in 1980, which at the time was a warning to Soviet expansion. “The Carter Doctrine” considered any attempt by an outside force to control the Persian Gulf region as an “assault on the vital interests of the United States of America,” and that such an assault would be repelled “by any means necessary, including military force” (da Vinha 2017). President Bush fashioned a corollary from this doctrine emphasizing that Persian Gulf oil was untouchable. As Daniel Yergin, an American strategist and oil expert, wrote, “No single nation had dominated the Persian Gulf region since oil was discovered there; were one to do so, the global balance of power would be changed” (Yergin 1991). Oil therefore was (and remains) a major determining factor of US foreign policy in the region.

The International Regime of Economic Sanctions and Its Violent Effects

Economic sanctions, which were initially put into place as a non-violent means of putting pressure on Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, remained in place, to ensure compliance with Resolution 667 – a resolution that was drafted in Washington and London and set the terms and conditions of Iraq’s surrender. According to one UN diplomat, Resolution 667 contained “precedent-setting” provisions that were “highly intrusive” and impinged on Iraqi sovereignty “by design” (Malone 2006). The resolution affirmed all previous resolutions and established the most comprehensive international regime of economic sanctions in UN history. The terms and requirements for lifting the sanctions included UN demarcation of the Iraq-Kuwait border; the unconditional destruction of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction under international supervision, including all chemical and biological weapons; Iraq’s acceptance of liability for damages arising from its invasion of Kuwait with a fund to be created to meet claims from Iraqi oil revenues; and a UN Compensation Commission to administer it based in Geneva. In addition, a UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) was created to oversee the destruction of Iraq’s biological and chemical weapons.

Resolution 687 effectively criminalized the Iraqi regime as a part of a “punitive peace” that was very similar to what was done to Germany with the Treaty of Versailles (Simpson 2004). It stigmatized Iraq as a “rogue state” under international law. As Gerry Simpson has shown, international law and the structures of world order have historically functioned in this manner – treating some states as “sovereign equals,” while others are singled out as “rogue states” with the aim of maintaining the geopolitical interests of the Great Powers (Simpson 2004).

The economic sanctions imposed on Iraq, which would go on for the next 12 years until the 2003 invasion, were the cruelest in the history of international governance and international law (Gordon 2010). It reduced a population whose general standard of living was that of the most developed and industrialized countries of the Middle East into one of the most impoverished – a society notable for its scientists, engineers, and doctors would become dominated with Mafioso-type criminals, thieves, beggars, and corrupt profiteers (Gordon 2010). It was impossible for Iraq to restore any of its destroyed vital infrastructure – electricity, telecommunications, transport, sewage treatment, and water – and meet its urgent humanitarian needs, as long as these extremely restrictive sanctions were in place. The sanctions eliminated Iraq’s ability to sell its oil on the international market, which was catastrophic for a country that was dependent on oil sales for its gross domestic product. Moreover, Iraq’s high dependence on imports (nearly 70% on food) meant that the effects of sanctions were immediate and cataclysmic for ordinary Iraqis (AlNasrawi 2001).

Sanctions would directly lead to a dramatic increase in child mortality, malnutrition, and waterborne diseases. Numerous studies and UN reports strongly suggest that at least 500,000 children under the age of 5 died directly as a result of the sanctions (Gordon 2010). When asked about this shocking level of child mortality, US Ambassador to the UN, Madeline Albright, famously said, “We think the price is worth it” (CBS news, 60 Minutes, May 12, 1996). The US administration was in fact unwilling to consider the lifting of sanctions as long as Saddam Hussein remained in power. Robert Gates, the head of the CIA at the time, made it clear that only when there is a new government could any easing of sanctions be considered. Iraqi compliance with any UN resolutions was consequently of no relevance (Simons 1996).

The sanctions regime involved a very complex bureaucratic and institutional framework of international governance made up of various UN bodies tasked with its administration – the most important of which was the “Iraq Sanctions Committee” (Von Sponeck 2006). This committee initially tasked with reviewing the Secretary-General’s reports and, to compile information regarding the implementation of Resolution 661, began to take broader responsibilities, especially with regard to the determination of which goods were allowed into the country as humanitarian exemptions.

The US administration, however, had enormous influence over every aspect of the application and administration of the sanctions as it unilaterally interfered with the committee’s tasks, ensuring that the majority of requests – of even the most basic humanitarian goods – were denied, usually on the basis of potential military use or “dual use.” Chlorine, necessary for sanitization in hospitals, for instance, was consistently prevented from being imported on the basis that it could be used to manufacture chemical weapons (Abdullah 2006). Although an “Oil-for-Food program” was finally adopted by the Security Council and accepted by the Iraqi government in 1996, it did little to significantly alleviate the impact of the sanctions especially on the most vulnerable sectors of society.

The sanctions led to such a high level of death and suffering that it was argued to be a policy aimed at the destruction of the Iraqi people – a form of “genocide” perpetrated by the UN Security Council (Halliday 2000). Veteran UN officials, most famously, the coordinator of humanitarian relief to Iraq, Denis J. Haliday, and later his successor Hans von Sponeck, would ultimately submit their resignations in protest of what they considered a deeply immoral policy (Von Sponeck 2006). It was no wonder that the UN was held with deep resentment by the people of Iraq.

The international regime of sanctions that was imposed on Iraq is a perfect example of how violence is inherent within the existing international legal order itself. It also reveals the pliancy of international law and institutions to imperialist interests. The assertion of a “new” world order where waging war and starving an entire population was presented as the imposition of “the rule of law” over aggression was more than just a necessary façade, but as Falk emphasizes was the same civilizational discourse that characterized “the settler conquests of indigenous peoples in the ‘age of discovery’ and of colonial warfare ever since” (Falk 1991). The war and the imposition of a medieval policy of sanctions on a defenseless population were not any different from the actions of imperialism throughout history. What has become more sophisticated is the legal reasoning and mechanisms used to justify these brutal policies. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 would be a continuation of the imperialism of US foreign policy and international law.

The 2003 Invasion and Occupation of Iraq: The (Re)integration of an “Outlaw State” into the “Civilized World”

A decade of sanctions made it clear that US policy of “regime change” through containment was a failure, and as international outcry over the sanctions grew, the US could not allow for a post-sanctions Iraq to emerge with an unhindered regime after all that happened. A group of “neoconservative” ideologues in Washington, associated with the think tank called a “Project for the New American Century” (PNAC), and which included Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, were of the view of the necessity of waging a war on Iraq. In September 2000, the PNAC published a white paper that made the argument for a significant shift in American foreign policy, including a militaristic expansion of US power by taking advantage of the “unipolar moment,” with the aim of preserving its geopolitical supremacy and precluding the emergence of a Great Power rival. The report advocated for the waging of strategic “theater wars” around the world, emphasizing the importance of controlling Middle Eastern oil as a matter of US national security (PNAC 2000). What was needed however was a spark – “some catastrophic and catalyzing event…a new Pearl Harbor” (PNAC 2000). This event came in September 11, 2001, when al-Qaida attacked New York and Washington.

The newly elected administration of George W. Bush’s US National Security Strategy followed a similar logic to the PNAC report. It articulated the doctrine of “preemptive war,” which was used to justify the invasion of Iraq. Bush claimed that the US was in an endless “global war” against terrorism and their supporters, which included Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. On September 12, 2002, Bush declared to the UN General Assembly that Iraq was one of the “outlaw … regimes that accept no law of morality and have no limit to their violent ambitions” (Wall Street Journal, September 12, 2002). Although no credible link was ever found between al-Qaida and the Iraqi regime, the Bush administration fabricated a dubious connection, making its case at the UN that Iraq still possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) even after the International Atomic Energy Agency and subsequently the newly formed UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) had confirmed through its inspectors that there was no evidence of any nuclear programs in Iraq.

As it would became clear during the war that WMDs were nowhere to be found, the Bush administration shifted its justification for war to the notion that the Iraqi people were being liberated from a dictatorial regime, evoking the cause of democracy and human rights. Bush declared in his speech to the UN General Assembly that, “liberty for the Iraqi people is a great moral cause, and a great strategic goal…Free societies do not intimidate through cruelty and conquest, and open societies do not threaten the world with mass murder” (President’s address to the UN in New York, 38 Weekly Comp. Press. Doc 1529, 1530–1532, Sep. 12, 2002). Regime change was after all the official US policy ever since the passing of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 in Congress, which avowed the ultimate goal of removing Saddam Hussein’s regime to establish a “democratic” government in Iraq. In this way, the very nature of Iraq’s regime was presented as being a threat to world security and peace, guaranteeing that Iraqi compliance with UN resolutions would not be enough to halt US war plans. Iraq had become the focal point for the “war on terrorism.”

The Legal Justifications for the Invasion, the Myth of Newness, and the Doctrine of Preemption in International Law

The US administration endeavored to construct a legal argument to justify its plans to wage a war on Iraq. It deployed the notion of self-defense as a preventive measure, insisting that it did not need UN authorization to go to war to protect the “civilized” world from the potential threat of terrorists. The entire basis of the UN system was premised on the notion of collective self-defense through the workings of its mechanisms and only authorized the use of force in the very narrow circumstances of an “imminent” threat. These established principles of world order emerged out of the Nuremberg trials, where aggression was affirmed to be the “supreme international crime.” The Charter itself explicitly favors resolving disputes using peaceful means and through multilateralism. This was a system therefore that was instituted for the very purpose of preventing war. The Charter’s preamble clearly emphasizes the need to “save succeeding generation from the scourge of war.” It was consequently more of a stretch to justify the notion of unilateral use of force on the basis of preemption in international law as “legal vigilantism” is not permitted by the Charter (Simpson 2005). It was no wonder that the majority (at least 80%) of international lawyers around the world considered US actions as a dangerous legal precedent – an amendment to the principles of the international legal order. For them, the Iraq War was clearly illegal (Paulus 2004).

The US’s endeavors to transform the structures of world order in its favor by invading Iraq would have wide-ranging detrimental effects on what was accepted under international law – instituting what one legal scholar referred to as a “Texan international law…that emphasizes the threat from outlaws, the need for self-help, the unreliability of institutions and the frontier spirit” (Simpson 2005). Furthermore, the Bush administration’s reasoning that the existing institutional structures of world order needed to be altered to correspond to a “change of circumstances” of post-9/11 was merely the deployment of what Okafor has called, a “technology of imperialism” where a “myth of newness” is propagated to justify its imperial actions (Okafor 2005).

The US Invasion, the Destruction of the Iraqi State, the Slaughter of the Iraqi People, and the Cleansing of Its Cultural Heritage

Although the US failed to secure a resolution from the UN Security Council (France, Russia, Germany, and China were all in firm opposition), it decided that it would go ahead with its war plans. Consequently, against the will of the international community and in defiance of the unprecedented anti-war protests of millions of people around the world, the US-led collation, which included Britain, launched its war offensive in an operation, codenamed “Iraqi Freedom” on March 20, 2003. It began with a massive campaign of aerial bombardment in the form of a tactical “Shock and Awe” that aimed on inflicting maximum destruction and overwhelming psychological harm on the people of Iraq. By the time American tanks entered the city, Iraqi soldiers had abandoned their posts, avoiding confrontation and returning to their homes. Saddam Hussein’s regime had collapsed with astounding ease, its leadership having fled into hiding. Although the Iraqi people and army did not rise up to defend this brutal regime, American troops were not welcomed with “flowers and candy” as was propagated by the media and Iraqi exiles. By May 1, all combat operations had come to an end.

US plans to stabilize postwar Iraq were a complete fiasco. What would ensue post-invasion was not merely chaotic but reflects the collapse of the Iraqi state. It would amount to nothing less than the intentional “cultural cleansing” of Iraq and its heritage (Baker et al. 2010). Iraq’s already crumbling infrastructure was entirely demolished, while state institutions were subject to organized looting, pillage, and obliteration. Looters broke into government buildings (including, ministries, hospitals, libraries, and universities). US troops were ordered to safeguard only the oil fields, the Ministry of Oil, and the Ministry of Interior. As they stood by, mobs of looters, some led by criminal gangs and others driven by poverty, grabbed anything and everything they could get their hands on. Ministries, hospitals, libraries, and universities were ransacked.

The epitome of this devastating turn of events would be the tragic looting of Iraq’s National Museum and the burning of the National Library and Archives. Tens of thousands of artifacts, many dating back to antiquity, were looted, while entire archival records and irreplacebale manuscripts were burned to ashes. Although the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) headed by retired Lt. General Jay Garner (who was initially appointed to run postwar Iraq in January 2003) had drawn up a list of the most important cultural sites in the country that needed protection, it was ignored. This was clearly a deliberate move calculated to “cleanse” not only all vestiges of the former Iraqi state but the unique history and cultural heritage of a proud people, so as to follow destruction with the reconstruction of a capitalist neoliberal, free-market order, and the imposition of the most extreme economic “shock therapy” on the region (Klein 2008).

The New World Order of Economic Plunder, the Bremer Orders, and the Transformative Occupation of Iraq

The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was established to replace the ORHA in May 2003, thwarting Garner’s plan to hold national elections in 90 days. The CPA’s mission was “to restore conditions of security and stability, to create conditions in which the Iraqi people can freely determine their own political future… and … [to facilitate]… economic recovery, sustainable reconstruction and development” (Halchin 2006). The CPA would become the official governing body of the occupation, having full executive, legislative, and judicial control over Iraq, until “sovereignty” was officially handed over 14 months later. Bush appointed Paul Bremer III, a longtime foreign service official and at the time a private consultant, to head the CPA. Bremer’s very wide discretionary governing powers – he was able to create laws with the stroke of his pen – earned him the title of “American Viceroy of Occupied Iraq” in the press (Bremer 2006).

The UN Security Council Resolution 1483 passed in May 2003 recognized and formalized the CPA as the occupying power in Iraq. The resolution affirmed the CPA’s responsibility to govern the country under the law of occupation under the principles of international law, which prevent the occupying power from undertaking any significant transformative changes to the structures of the occupied state or its economy. The resolution emphasized, “the right of the Iraqi people to determine their own political future and control of their natural resources”(UNSC Resolution 1483, 22 May 2003, S/RES/1483). The CPA, however, would practice an extremely intrusive form of occupation that was in clear violation of the basic principles of international law as it embarked on far-reaching legal reform to entrench a deep transformation of Iraq’s economy (Rittich 2018). Moreover, as the UN Security Council finally lifted sanctions, it established a Development Fund for Iraq, which would be controlled by the CPA. In other words, the UN not only legitimized the occupation but also granted control of Iraq’s economy and reconstruction (including its oil revenues) to the US and in turn to the representatives of the IMF and the World Bank – “the pillars of neoliberalism and the Washington Consensus” (Doran 2012).

Upon his arrival to Baghdad, Bremer, who lacked expert knowledge of the country and did not speak Arabic, had one primary mission, and that was to radically reorganize Iraq’s economy, promote free-market policies, and privatize state-owned industries, opening up the economy to foreign investment, including Iraq’s oil wealth. In other words, his job was to restructure the plundering of the Iraqi state and its economy. The tearing down of the semi-socialist economic structures of the Baʿathist regime was to be, in Bremer’s own words, “a very wrenching, painful process, as it was in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall” (Chandrasekaran 2009). Although it is true that the US clearly failed to adequately plan for a postwar Iraq, this was not the case with the economy, which was always a priority for US designs.

As the officially recognized occupying authority, the CPA swiftly introduced a wide range of regulatory and legal reforms covering everything from banking, public employment, labor law, public ownership, and foreign investment. As Bremer emphasized this point when he said, “We’re going to create the first real free market economy in the Arab World” (Chandrasekaran 2009). The process to impose this economic model was to be cataclysmic as it subjected Iraq’s closed and state-centered economy to the mercy of global capitalist forces through the passing of 100 executive orders (passed with Bremer’s signature and referred to as “the Bremer Orders”). These orders would lay the foundations for the new neoliberal Iraqi state, permanently altering the social and economic structures of Iraqi society in a profound way. In effect the result was the abolishment of the entirety of any social safety net in place, plunging ordinary Iraqis into unprecedented levels of poverty and unemployment (Rittich 2018).

Order no. I was issued on May 16, 2003, and inaugurated the process with the “De-Baʿathification of Iraqi Society.” It removed all members of the Baʿath party from their positions in state institutions, including ministries, universities, hospitals, and schools. During Saddam’s reign, nearly every public servant, especially those in middle to high-level positions, had no choice but to be a member of the party. Therefore, Order no. I amounted to the sacking of 500,000 Iraqi state administrators and civil servants from their jobs overnight (Juhasz 2006). The order also prevented former members of the party from being employed by the new state, leading to massive unemployment. The key positions were later filled largely by US-sponsored Iraqi exiles. Order no. 2, “Dissolution of Entities” further exacerbated the situation by dissolving the Iraqi armed forces and essentially putting a large number of armed and military-trained Iraqis into unemployment and desperate economic circumstances. The order worsened the security situation and would eventually bring about the rise of sectarian militias during the civil war a few years later.

Order no. 39, “Foreign Investment,” opened up the Iraqi economy to foreign investment to the detriment of local investors as it prevented preferential treatment of Iraqis. Considering the fact that large parts of Iraq’s economy were publically held, this order had a profoundly transformative effect on the structure of the Iraqi economy. Although natural resources and oil were excluded, the order basically ensured massive privatization of nearly all major state industries by lowering eliminating taxes and eliminating custom duties on foreign companies. Order no. 37, for instance, replaced the progressive tax structure with a flat tax rate for both individuals and corporations. Rather than encourage investments, these reforms increased capital flight and unemployment, as local industries were unable to compete. The “market fundamentalists” of the CPA did not factor in the fact that the already devastated Iraqi economy was in dire need of protections to get off to a good start (Abdullah 2006). Order no. 87 dealt with “Public Contracts” and established open competition in the process of awarding contracts, without protecting local contractors. In other words, it made sure that the contract work in relation to the reconstruction of post-invasion Iraq would be handed to foreign companies (especially US companies like Halliburton, Bechtel, and Fluor) rather than allowing Iraqis to rebuild their own country. Finally, Order no. 100, “Transition of Laws, Regulations, Orders, and Directives Issued by the Coalition Provisional Authority,” ensured that these CPA laws would continue to be in force until they were amended by the transitional government or its successors. However, this was a difficult task for any future government, as any changes to these arrangements might compel a government to provide payment of compensation for lost profits under international foreign investment rules, exposing it to liability under international trade law. Order no. 100, therefore, further entrenched these structural changes, locking future Iraqi governments and constraining its capacity for policy-making.

The Bremer Orders were in clear violation of international law, namely, the 1907 Hague Convention, which precludes an occupying power from transforming a society to its likeness. Nevertheless, the US occupation of Iraq as described above could be considered to have brought about a new form of “transformative” occupation under international law. As legal scholar Andrea Carcano has shown, “the occupation of Iraq stands out because it … [was] ‘transformative’. Not since the aftermath of World War II and the post surrender occupations of Germany and Japan had the world witnessed as occupation undertaken to install a new political and economic regime in lieu of an exiting one on a grand scale” (Carcano 2015). One could go further to argue that through the CPA and its orders, the US administration “legalized” the economic plunder of the Iraqi state (Mattei and Nader 2008).

US plans in relation to Iraq’s oil were more elusive until leaks of secret talks emerged on the drafting of a new hydrocarbon oil law, whereby production sharing agreements (or the like) would be used to allow foreign oil companies complete access to oil, notwithstanding Iraqi legal ownership (Muttitt 2011). This cosmetic arrangement was developed due to the high sensitivity of the question of oil in Iraq and to avoid any mass outcry. The new oil law would have significantly altered the balance of power between the Iraqi government and the foreign oil companies that was altered after the 1961 Law No. 80, which resisted the exploitative terms of the foreign-owned Iraq Petroleum Company and which initiated the nationalization of Iraq’s oil wealth – a process that was completed in 1972, when every Iraqi oil field was nationalized. The US and foreign oil companies were looking to reverse this long process of nationalization. In the end, the plans to fully privatize Iraq’s oil were abandoned due to the exploding of mass resistance of Iraqi civil society and trade unions, especially the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions (Muttitt 2011). Through incessant protests and strikes, Iraqi workers and civil society were able to shift the national conversation, successfully preventing (for the time being) the passing of this colonial oil law, which would have led to the complete foreign control and the privatization of Iraqi oil  under the legitimacy of a democratically elected Iraqi government.


The CPA transferred “sovereignty” to an Iraqi Interim Government led by an American picked, Ayad Allawi, on June 28, 2004. This was followed with the Iraqi Transitional Government in May 2005, and national elections on May 20, 2006, which elected the first Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki. The new ‘democratic’ Iraqi institutions that emerged from the occupation were sectarian by structure and design – something that never existed in the past. With no plans for actual reconciliation, sectarianism would be reflected in every aspect of the emerging political process, whether it was in the elections for the National Assembly or the drafting and adoption of a new constitution at the end of 2005 (Al-Ali 2014).

What emerged after the invasion and occupation of Iraq was an extremely weak state with a political system divided across ethno-sectarian rather than nationalist lines. For these reasons, it was easily swayed by regional powers, not to mention terrorists groups, such as ISIS. Iran, for instance, gained a major foothold through its influence of the Shiaʾa political parties in power. The constitution, which was so hastily drafted and passed by an unelected group of conservative individuals, did not turn into a document for national unity and reconciliation but rather sowed division and distrust among Iraqis, particularly the Sunni community, who felt they were excluded from the constitutional process. Moreover, it ensured that the powers of the federal (as opposed to provincial) government were so limited that Iraq would become one of the weakest states in the world (Al-Ali 2014). The constitution therefore “set in motion a destructive cycle that has wrought havoc since the day it was entered into force” (Al-Ali 2014). This would erupt in a bloody civil war, which would tear apart the country for years to come.

This chapter has reconsidered some of the most important events of the modern history of Iraq, focusing on its relationship to imperialism, international law, and world order. I have shown how in every “world order” since World War I, Iraq had a central place in strategies of imperial powers, and this was principally due to its geopolitical significance, especially its vast oil resources. The “sovereign” Iraq that emerged after the Mandate system was constructed to ensure Great Power access to Iraqi oil, while the first Gulf War and the 2003 invasion were planned to ensure US supremacy over the region, for whoever controls the “global oil spigot” that is the Persian Gulf controls the global economy (Harvey 2003).

International law was an important part of the workings of US imperialist schemes and strategies to wage war, impose sanctions, and invade, occupy, and transform Iraq. There is no doubt therefore that one could not adequately understand Iraq’s past or present without grasping how imperialism, international law, and the global political economy are intimately connected and how they always diverged there. Finally, the notion of a New World Order was evoked on every turn, and this clearly illustrates a truism highlighted by Noam Chomsky: “The New World Order is “new” only in that it adapts traditional policies of domination and exploitation to somewhat changed contingencies; it is much admired by the West because it is recognized to be a device to keep “the countries and people of the world” in their proper place. The bottles may be new; the wine, however, is of ancient vintage” (Chomsky 1994). A close examination of the modern history of Iraq certainly affirms this persistence to be a characteristic of imperialism in the Third World.



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© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.National University of Singapore, Faculty of LawSingaporeSingapore