The Climate of Occupation in Iraq
From the Series: Ecologies of War
Climate is a good way to think about the violence of war and occupation in Iraq. The horizon of the Iraq war stretched far beyond its official six-week duration. During “reconstruction,” the United States and UN Security Council as a matter of official policy refused to acknowledge that the “postconflict” environment represented intense warfare and a grave threat to Iraqi civilians. During this time, war took on an atmospheric, totalizing quality (Sharpe 2016; Simmons 2017). US and allied occupying forces and a rising Iraqi insurgency battled in the midst of UN-directed statecraft that prioritized the “integration” of Iraq within global finance, invited multinationals to bid on redevelopment of Iraq’s natural resources, and placed the state’s greatest asset—its oil—in international trust, the combined effects of which amplified the power of private industry over an increasingly embattled and hamstrung Iraqi state.
War can be understood as a climatological event in the sense that it operates on multiple spatial and temporal scales at once, acting on diverse and even disparate ecologies. War in general is a series of ruptures and a slow unfolding, both death in the present and death of the future (Nixon 2011). But in Iraq, the climate of occupation represented more than the enduring violence of toxic pollution by the US military; rather, it referred to the extractive capacities of manifold wartime agents including environmentalists to control territory through human-directed violence that was identified not as militaristic but as forms of care (see Buch 2018; Münster et al. 2021).
When the US government invested in a project, headed by an Iraqi in exile, to restore the country’s historic southern marshes, they used the initiative to pivot from countering nuclear threat to waging preemptive humanitarian war to win not just hearts and minds but environments, too. In the face of reconstruction’s many failures, mainstream media, environmentalists, and the US government have heralded Iraq’s marshlands revitalization as an unimpeachable success that brought the “Garden of Eden” to life. Zaid Kubra, the name I give to the Iraqi exile and head of the project, used his participation in the US State Department’s Future of Iraq Project to sway the US government and foreign country donors to reflood and conserve the marshes. He persuaded them that the wetlands were the lungs of the country and restoring them would breathe life into Iraq by rectifying the crimes of Saddam Hussein, who had drained the marshes in retaliation for a 1991 uprising that began in the marshes, which nearly deposed him.
Kubra’s mission fit the global biosecurity trend of reflooding marshes, especially coastal lagoons, as bulwarks against rising floodwaters in an era of climate change. It also provided the basis for a legal infrastructure of the Iraqi state in ways that made the US war appear necessary and just. In fact, the US State Department released their feasibility study of marshlands restoration that declared revitalization was warranted during the same week that the US invaded Iraq. And, when an Iraqi judge arraigned Saddam Hussein in 2004, he charged him with seven crimes, among them the combined charge of massacring marshes residents and draining the marshes, making Hussein the first world leader to be deposed in part on the basis of environmental harm. Iraq’s new constitution, heavily advised by the US government, cited the marshes in its preamble.
Iraq’s marshes, al-ahwar, are located at the delta of the Tigris River and the Euphrates River, just north of the Persian Gulf. The wetlands hold one-third of the country’s oil wealth in their subsoil, which contains three of the top five oil fields in the world. For Kubra, restoring the marshes was also about embracing Big Oil. He designed Green Iraq, his NGO advocating Iraq’s wetlands conservation, to expand its capacity under the guise of building Iraq’s green future. When donors like the Italian government invested in the marshes conservation project, they did so to build the good will and connections necessary to win lucrative hydraulic contracts. In 2014 they won the bid from the Ministry of Water Resources to develop Iraq’s national water plan, while the Italian oil multinational company, Eni, won the rights to develop Zubair, a “giant” oil field just south of Hammar marsh.
Today, UNEP considers Iraq to be the fifth most vulnerable country in the world to decreased water, food insecurity, and rising temperatures—the hallmarks of climate change. Recent reports indicate high levels of industrial pollution are choking Iraq’s marshes, and plumes of toxic oil flares at Nahran Omar near Basra have tripled cancer rates. Kubra’s industry-friendly policies in the marshes have not prevented such ruination and may perhaps have advanced it.
Such multinational profiteering by Iraq’s marshlands project is a more apparent mode of extraction. Less recognized are extractive modalities that expanded the UN reconstruction project by capitalizing on the labors of more than 4,000 Iraqi “facilitators,” civilians the UN hired to be the “eyes and ears” of its ground operations after it withdrew from Iraq in August 2003. International NGOs engaged in building civil society followed suit. During this time, UN agencies and international NGOs carried out thousands of trainings of Iraqi personnel and Iraqi state ministry representatives on everything from the creation of national parks, to Excel and PowerPoint technique, to the principles of transparent governance. Collaboration made Iraqi civilians targets of militia opposed to the occupation. I knew Iraqi ministry representatives and Green Iraq employees who had been kidnapped, whose family members were killed in reprisal, and who risked death daily to carry out their work. Thousands of Iraqi facilitators died or fled into exile when the US refused to offer political asylum after military withdrawal in 2011, abandoned by the United States and the UN much like Afghans today.
Iraqis already live the toxicity of the Anthropocene as a direct result of US and UN wartime policies that granted multinationals permission to ruin wholesale ecologies and human bodies in tandem. In 2019, Iraqi revolutionaries took to the streets to demand a truly green, sustainable future under the hashtag #WeWantaCountry, calling for a viable state free from foreign corruption and its contamination. That future remains uncertain, but its potential rests on the ability to recognize the violence entailed in caring for the planet.
Buch, Elana. 2018. Inequalities of Aging: Paradoxes of Independence in American Home Care. New York: NYU Press.
Münster, Ursula, Thom van Dooren, Sara Asu Schroer, and Hugo Reinert. 2021. “Multispecies Care in the Sixth Extinction.” Theorizing the Contemporary, Fieldsights, January 26, 2021.
Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Sharpe, Christina. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Simmons, Kristen. 2017. “Settler Atmospherics.” Member Voices, Fieldsights, November 20, 2017.