The Iraq war: The root of Europe’s refugee crisis

Al Jazeera correspondent Imran Khan looks at the conflicts that led to millions fleeing their homes in the Middle East.

Tens of thousands fleeing the war in Syria have crossed into Europe in recent months [Reuters]

It’s not that she is angry or even frustrated. She is just tired.

It’s the kind of tired neither a holiday nor a rest will cure. It’s the kind of tired that comes with living in temporary accommodations for years. The kind of tired that comes with constantly battling heat and dust and looking after her children. The kind of tired that comes after you have been forced to flee for your life and carry your belongings in your hand to a strange place.

I meet Umm Lai in a displacement camp in Baghdad. Her story isn’t unusual.

Across Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey people have crossed borders and travelled many kilometres within their own country to find respite from war.

Thousands have crossed continents and have ended up in Europe seeking that same respite. By and large it’s taken Europe by surprise. Opinions vary on how to deal with the crisis. Some say Europe and the US should step up. Others say the rich Gulf states should use their enormous wealth to help.

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What no one talks about is the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

March 2003 was the pivotal point. Based on controversial evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the war drums beat loudly.

The WMD claim was eventually publicly discredited by the CIA’s own Iraq survey group report . That report proved whispers and intelligence community doubts from the time that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. 

But it wasn’t just those who questioned the evidence. Mass opposition from the British and American public concluded in marches in various Western capitals opposing the war.

Those voices went ignored and in March 2003, the then US president and the British prime minister met in the Azores, Portugal, with the Spanish prime minister, and set into motion events that now include the dead body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi that washed up on a Turkish beach.

What the Iraq war did was allow space for anger at the unjustified actions of the Western coalition to be moulded into a hardline movement of fighters who would join al-Qaeda In Iraq and other groups.

Before the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, radical and violent movements were tiny in number. Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were the only real threat.

Arab governments realised that and exiled the group until it found sanctuary in Afghanistan, the very place that bin Laden, funded by Saudi Arabia and the US, learned to fight against the Soviets and hone his violent philosophy.

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After the September 11 attacks, the extremists got the fight they were looking for when the US invaded Afghanistan.

Al-Qaeda was defeated, and its host, the Taliban movement, was ousted from power. The group has since waged an armed resistance against the US-backed successive governments.

The US then invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003.

Suddenly the radical groups had found a new cause and a new fight.

They learned new tactics. They became hardened fighters. They dreamed of a caliphate that would spread across the Arab and Muslim world.

Angry that the US had invaded another Muslim country, money and weapons were donated in huge number from Muslim countries by individuals who might never have thought about donating to a cause that was violent in nature.

Once irrelevant, al-Qaeda became a threat again, and for the first time the group found a foothold in Iraq.

The philosophy of armed rebellion and fighting for God spread. Pakistan, another Muslim nation, found itself fighting an armed rebellion, as did many other countries.

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The ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011 raised hopes of democratisation in the Middle East, but many of the gains of the revolutionary movements have since been reversed.

Mohamed Morsi, who became Egypt’s first democratically elected president, was toppled by the military in 2013. Initially it was not religious or even violent in nature.

It was popular anger at dictators propped up by the West coupled with frustration at the lack of economic development.

Down the dictators fell, and with them, decades of religious suppression. That religious fervour found expression in anger at the US’ role in Iraq.

Suddenly religious groups were able to speak freely, and freely they did, mainly about the US and its role in the region.

Then when the protests reached Syria, President Bashar al-Assad knew he didn’t want to suffer the same fate as his Arab counterparts.

The West quickly abandoned him and said no negotiations while he was in power. Left with little choice he moved on those that opposed him in a violent and bloody manner.


Al-Qaeda in Iraq became ISIL and took huge parts of Syria and Iraq. Other groups sprang up that used religion to recruit.

Syria unravelled and that’s why you have millions of refugees.

The Iraq war was the war too far – the one that has changed the Middle East.

It was the war that solidified and unified disparate young men from different countries into following the path of violent jihad.

Had the Iraq war not happened, then Saddam Hussein would have been contained as he was.

This dictator was a threat to freedom and to his own people, but was no longer a threat to his neighbours.

The leaders of ISIL and other radical groups would have found death in Afghanistan or prison elsewhere. However, hindsight and “what if” are the words of those that have the luxury of not living in a tent.

The Iraq war did happen.

The refugee crisis is happening.

Now the only questions the world perhaps should be asking is how we can bring about a political solution to the war in Syria and how we bring all sides to the table.

What the refugee crisis has done is force the Western European public to think. Whether they can force their governments to act and bring about a solution is another question.

The architects of the Iraq war still say their actions had nothing to do with the current crisis.

In 2014, Tony Blair wrote an essay on his website and said: “The civil war in Syria with its attendant disintegration is having its predictable and malign effect. Iraq is now in mortal danger. The whole of the Middle East is under threat.”

He argued and continues to argue that the invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with the rise of groups like ISIL and wars in both Iraq and Syria.

I wonder how refugees across Europe feel about those words.

Source: Al Jazeera