The day the world tried to stop the invasion of Iraq

February 15 2003: Lessons from the day the world tried to stop the invasion of Iraq
7 min read

Farrah Koutteineh

15 February, 2023
Two decades ago today, the people of the world said no to the Iraq invasion. But not even the largest protest in history could stop imperialist powers. We must reflect on this failure and how to build collective power, writes Farrah Koutteineh.
Demonstrators attend the largest organised protest in history against the invasion of Iraq on February 15, 2003 in London, England. [Getty]

I was 16 years old, sitting in an A-level politics class in a college in the middle of London when suddenly my teacher asked the class, “Why did we go to war with Iraq?”

A wording of her question instantaneously filled me with fury, to which I abruptly answered, “It isn’t a war, it’s an invasion, the UK and the US invaded Iraq for its oil, to build military bases, and to prop up a puppet dictator that they could control”.

Even at 16, too young to even vote, the sinister intentions behind why the UK and US embarked upon this invasion of Iraq in 2003 were clear to me, as they were to the over 1.5 million British protesters that took to the streets of London to protest.

On February 15th 2003, exactly 20 years ago, nearly two million protestors mobilised across the UK to try and prevent Tony Blair’s government from invading Iraq. From trade unions to anti-war groups, religious communities of all faiths, students, hundreds of coaches filled with protestors driving down from cities like Glasgow and Manchester to march on Westminster.

It is estimated that on February 15th over 36 million people across the globe mobilised and protested against the invasion of Iraq in over 600 cities. From London, to Tokyo, to Havana, to Moscow, to Nairobi, to Antarctica, the world was united in the biggest ever co-ordinated demonstration in the history of humanity.

This protest will always be remembered in history, not only for how many people participated, but also for how powerful institutions deployed every strategy possible to defy public will like never before: governments, the press, secret services, and arms and oil companies were all colluding to invade Iraq, against the will of over 36 million people.

The US and UK governments deployed everything within their power in pursuit of their vested interests in oil and arms profiteering, and furthering their own imperialism in the Middle East.

Since 2001, the US & UK governments have spent over $8 trillion on invading Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s $8 trillion worth of taxpayers money, much of which ended up in the bank accounts of congressmen, political representatives and MP’s who hold shares in, were CEO’s of, or had second jobs in arms companies such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon or oil companies that raked in billions from the invasions such as BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron and Halliburton Oil.


The blatant corruption of officials fanning the flames of war was as clear then as it is now. Dick Cheney, vice President to George W Bush, was in fact CEO of Halliburton Oil, an oil company which is now known to have personally profited well over $39.5 billion from the invasion of Iraq.

It was no coincidence that Big Oil including BP, Shell, Exxon, and Chevron spent more money on Bush and Cheney’s electoral campaign to get into office than they had ever spent on any previous election.

In one of the most outrageous acts of perjury whilst in political office, just before the invasion began in 2003, Tony Blair brazenly misled Parliament by presenting what is known today as his ‘dodgy dossier’, claiming that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that could be detonated within 45 minutes - all baseless claims cherry picked from a single university thesis, which Blair claimed to be ‘intelligence gathering’.

Whilst Blair was manipulating Parliamentary power, he was also closely working with MI5 and the CIA, ordering agents to ‘dig up dirt’ on UN Security Council voting members, in order to blackmail them into voting in favour of invading Iraq at the controversial UN vote in 2002. Katherine Gun, an MI5 whistleblower came forward with this information in 2003 and was subsequently arrested and faced trial under the ‘Official Secrets Act’.

Tony Blair reportedly had countless secret meetings and private calls (that were kept hidden from Downing Street switchboards) with Rupert Murdoch, the owner of several British and global press and TV networks, where the pair conspired to bang the drums of war and to sway public opinion via newspapers and TV screens.

After the February 15th protest, these efforts ramped up. The BBC even banned its own news presenters from not just reporting on, but even personally attending the protest, aligning itself and its entire staff in favour of the invasion.

20 years later and not a single person has faced justice over the illegal invasion of Iraq, the murder of over a million innocent Iraqis, over 2.5 million Iraqi children made orphans, over 4 million Iraqis internally displaced, forcing 3 million Iraqi refugees into exile, and the millions more dealing with the trauma of decades of brutal occupation, which included torture camps like Abu Ghraib.

Today Iraq has been left in ruins, political instability is constantly fuelling sectarian violence, and the US’s prolific use of chemical weaponry such as depleted Uranium has left Iraqi cities like Fallujah with higher levels of radiation than Hiroshima, causing cancer and life threatening birth defects.

And of course after the complete plunder of its national oil reserves, the population plummeted into poverty, with over 11 million Iraqis living under the poverty line, in a country which was once the economic and cultural epicentre of the region for centuries.

Two decades on, we need to reflect on why the biggest protest in the history of humanity did not succeed. We need to ask ourselves if the modern nature of ‘one off’ and ‘day out’ protests needs to change. Despite a huge turnout on a single occasion, perhaps it is consistency - mobilising repeatedly, undertaking strikes and other courses of action - that could’ve worked, and could work in the future.

We need to ask ourselves why is it that war criminals like Tony Blair have been granted knighthoods, have net worths of over £45 million, are working as ‘Middle East peace envoys’ after murdering a million people in the Middle East, whilst journalists like Julian Assange, who exposed war crimes committed during the invasion of Iraq, are sitting in a prison cell facing 170 years of incarceration.

We need to begin to analyse and challenge the power structures that ignore and conspire against the political will of over 36 million people, and get away with it.

20 years after Blair proclaimed he would bring ‘democracy’ to Iraq, could it be that the country that truly needs democracy the most is the UK? How democratic is it when unelected oil and arms companies have more of a say over government policies then the electorate?

How democratic can a country be when the press is entirely privately owned by multi-millionaires who conspire with the government to invade other countries? How democratic can a country be that allows war criminals to walk free but imprisons journalists that report the truth?

And how democratic can a country be when it pushes authoritarian and draconian legislation that prohibits our fundamental right to protest and our right to strike, further silencing us? 

Farrah Koutteineh is head of Public & Legal Relations at the London-based Palestinian Return Centre, and is also the founder of KEY48 - a voluntary collective calling for the immediate right of return of over 7.2 million Palestinian refugees. Koutteineh is also a political activist focusing on intersectional activism including, the Decolonise Palestine movement, indigenous peoples rights, anti-establishment movement, women’s rights and climate justice.

Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @key48return

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.