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THE HEART OF THE MESS
"We will soon launch an imperial war on Iraq with all the 'On to Berlin' bravado with which French poilus and British tommies marched in August 1914. But this invasion will not be the cakewalk neo-conservatives predict."
" ... Pax Americana will reach apogee. But then the tide recedes, for the one endeavour at which Islamic peoples excel is expelling imperial powers by terror and guerrilla war. They drove the Brits out of Palestine and Aden, the French out of the Russians out of Afghanistan, the Americans out of Somalia and Beirut, the Israelis out of Lebanon, ... We have started up the road to and over the next hill we will meet those who went before."
- Pat Buchanan, The American Conservatrice, October 7, 2002
In early May 2003, a flight-suited President Bush flew out to the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in order to have an appropriately military background, complete with "Mission Accomplished" banners, for his announcement of an end to "major combat operations" in Iraq. At that point, the Pentagon's expectation was that by the end of the year no more than thirty thousand U.S. troops would still be deployed in Iraq. Five years later, the number is still more than five times that many.
The resistance to the U.S. occupation really got underway a week before Bush's photo-op, in the dusty city of Fallujah, some fifty kilometres west of Baghdad. About a hundred U.S. troops from the 82nd Airborne Division had been deployed to Fallujah, and had taken up residence in the al-Kaat primary and secondary school, a pale yellow two-storey concrete building. Fallujah was a Sunni city where most people had backed the Ba'ath Party and some had benefited directly from its rule, and the American occupation was never going to be popular there. Rumours began to circulate, probably spread by former Baathist officials, that the Americans were peering into people's homes and ogling Muslim women with their night-vision goggles. Around nine o'clock on the evening of Monday, April 28, a crowd of between one hundred and two hundredyoung men marched to the school to demand that the Americans leave and the school be reopened.
What happened next will always be disputed. The commander of the American force, Lieut.-Colonel Eric Nantz, insists that his soldiers were shot at and that stones were thrown before they opened fire. However, the side of the building facing the street was completely unmarked by bulletholes, and witnesses unanimously said that they had seen no guns in the crowd. At any rate, thirteen young men were killed by the Americans, firing from the upper floor and the roof of the school, and many more were injured; no Americans were hurt. One Arab survivor of the confrontation, a nineteen-year-old student called Hassan who refused to give his last name, told British journalist Phil Reeves of the Independent: "We had one picture of Saddam, only one. There were quite a lot of us - about 200. We were not armed and nothing was thrown. There had been some shooting in the air, but that was a long way off. I don't know why the Americans started shooting. When they began to fire, we just ran." As Reeves was leaving the hospital the following day, he ran into the headmaster of the school, many of whose students had been among the victims, and the man calmly told him that he was willing to die as a "martyr" to take revenge against the Americans.
But it doesn't matter who was really responsible for the killing in Fallujah that night. If it hadn't happened there and then, something like it would have happened somewhere else in Iraq a little later.
"We didn't have enough troops on the ground. We didn't impose our will. And as a result, an insurgency got started and ... it got out of control."
- Colin Powell, former U.S. secretary of state, former chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, April 2006
There has been endless debate in the United States about whether a different approach in the early days after the invasion could have avoided the rise of the insurgency. What if there had been twice as many troops in Iraq from the start? What if proconsul Paul Bremer had not disbanded the Iraqi army and banned all Ba'ath Party members (including tens of thousands of school teachers, hospital doctors, and middle-rank civil servants who had been obliged to join the Party) from government employment? What if there had been an early transfer of power to an elected Iraqi government, as Jay Garner, the retired U.S. general originally chosen to run occupied Iraq, had been planning before he was abruptly replaced by Bremer? What if the occupation forces had managed to fix the electricity and water supply and protect the oil pipelines? But the might-have-beens are probably irrelevant. The U.S. invasion of Iraq was almost bound to produce a resistance movement.
"There were approximately ten demonstrators near a tank [outside an Iraqi military compound eight kilometres from Baghdad airport]. We heard a shot in the distance and we started shooting at them. They all died except for one. We left the bodies there ... . The survivor was hiding behind a column about 150 metres away from us. I pointed at him and waved my weapon to tell him to get away. Half of his foot had been cut off. He went away dragging his foot. We were all laughing and cheering.
"Then an 18-wheeler [truck] came speeding around. We shot at it. One of the guys jumped out. He was on fire. The driver was dead. Then a Toyota Corolla came. We killed the driver, the other guy came out with his hands up. We shot him too.
"A gunny [gunnery sergeant] from Lima Company came running and said to us: 'Hey, you just shot that guy, but he had his hands up.' My unit, my commander and me were relieved of our command for the rest of the day. Not more than five minutes later, Lima Company took up our position and shot a car with one woman and two children. They all died ... . In a month and a half, my platoon and I killed more than thirty civilians ... .
"[Iraqis] would see us debase their dead all the time. We would be messing around with charred bodies, kicking them out of the vehicles and sticking cigarette in their mouths. I also saw vehicles drive over them. It was our job to look into the pockets of dead Iraqis to gather intelligence. However, time and time again I saw Marines steal gold chains, watches and wallets full of money."
- Staff Sergeant (Ret'd) Jimmy Massey, USMC, about the actions of the 7th Marines in early April 2003. Quoted by Natashia Saulnier in "The Marine's Tale," The Independent, May 5, 2004
Any combat operation amidst a civilian population causes innocent casualties, and the U.S. military style, which is heavy on firepower and obsessed with "force protection" (shoot first and ask questions later), was bound to cause more civilian casualties than most. The fact that American troops were told that Iraqis were turning vehicles into suicide bombs (although there is only one documented case of that happening during the entire invasion) and dressing soldiers up as civilians made them doubly trigger-happy. They were young, they were frightened,and in most cases it was their first time in a really foreign country. They were bound to frighten and humiliate Iraqis, frequently out of sheer ignorance, and sometimes out of fear and hatred. On occasion, they were likely to panic and shoot indiscriminately - and it remains true that ordinary U.S. soldiers can shoot any Iraqi by whom they feel threatened without fear of the consequences. (Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Iraqi farmers have been killed because they answered a knock on the door at night with a weapon in their hands in case of robbers, and were immediately shot by U.S. troops as suspected resistance fighters.) Iraqi culture is shaped by deeply held notions of honour and revenge, and individual Iraqis were bound to retaliate by attacking U.S. occupation troops. These factors alone would probably have produced a serious Iraqi resistance movement in time, but there was more.
First, there was the deep hostility to the United States felt by many people in every Arab country as a result of thirty-five years of reflex American support for Israel, and the additional hostility that accrued to the U.S. government in countries where it was seen as a supporter of the local dictator. Although nobody in Washington seems to have realized it, many Iraqis who hated Saddam Hussein, especially among the Shia majority, also saw him as an American puppet. He had co-operated with the CIA in exterminating the senior ranks of the Iraqi Communist Party (then largely Shia in membership) in the 1960s. Then, in 1980, he had attacked Shia Iran with U.S. support.
At the beginning of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran, all he had from Washington (so far as we know) was America's prayers that he could destroy the Islamic revolution in Iran. But by 1983, when Iraq was clearly losing the war, President Ronald Reagan sent a special envoy, Donald Rumsfeld, toBaghdad to offer Saddam U.S. support in getting weapons, both conventional and unconventional. During the so-called "tanker war" in 1984 - 87, American warships protected oil-tanker convoys from Arab states from Iranian attacks, while Iraqi planes were left free to attack tankers sailing from Iranian ports. One Iraqi aircraft even struck a U.S. warship by mistake in 1986, killing thirty-seven American sailors, but as a de facto ally Baghdad was forgiven for its error. In 1988, an American warship accidentally shot down an Iranian airliner, killing 290 civilians, under the mistaken impression that it was an Iranian combat aircraft (it was in Iranian territorial waters at the time), but the American captain was forgiven, too.
Thanks to all the American help to Baghdad, the Iraq - Iran war ended in a draw in 1988, but Saddam Hussein abruptly terminated his de facto alliance with the United States, probably inadvertently, when he invaded Kuwait in August 1990. He should have known better, but there is evidence to suggest that he actually believed he had Washington's tacit assent to this invasion, and was taken aback when the United States reacted as it was bound to do. In the first Gulf War in 1991, the United States and a broad coalition of Western and Arab countries, operating under a UN mandate, liberated Kuwait and destroyed much of Saddam's army, but they did not overthrow him: the first President Bush, in office since 1989, obeyed his UN mandate and stopped short of driving north to Baghdad. What he did do, unfortunately, was urge the Shias of southern Iraq to rise in revolt at the end of the war - and then stand by while tens of thousands of them were massacred by Saddam's troops. So what many Iraqi Shias thought as they watched the 2003 war unfold was that America was sweeping its puppet aside at last and taking over Iraq directly. They were glad to see the end ofSaddam, but they didn't like or trust the replacement one bit.
The Sunni Arabs were an even trickier proposition, because the overthrow of the Ba'ath Party, their instrument of political domination, effectively meant the end of the centuries-long rule of the Sunni minority in Iraq. They were very unhappy about that, and they would be even more so when they discovered that they actually accounted for only about 20 per cent of Iraq's population (a fact not realized by most Sunnis in a country where statistics about the sectarian division were never published or openly discussed). To make matters immeasurably worse, in May 2003, the first head of the American-run Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), retired American diplomat L. Paul Bremer III, disbanded the entire Iraqi army and police force and banned all senior Ba'ath Party members - and anybody in the top three management layers of government ministries, government-run corporations, universities, and hospitals who was a Party member at all - from future government employment. Bremer paid no heed to arguments that, until his arrival, conversations had been underway with Iraqi generals for the reconstitution of the army, purged of its Saddam loyalists, and that in all the former ruling parties of post-Communist states in the early 1990s the majority of the "senior" members had been innocent professionals who had been compelled to join in order to do their jobs.
So far as it can be discerned these were Bremer's own decisions, not imposed on him by the White House, and they had catastrophic effects. With a couple of decrees he effectively gutted the Iraqi state apparatus and abolished the only other national institutions, the army and police, that at least in theory rose above mere sectarian, ethnic, and local concerns. He also abruptly threw half a million people, most of them withweapons training, serious organizational abilities, or both, onto the street in the most humiliating way. The Sunni insurgency began at once, led initially by ex-army officers and Ba'ath officials and publicly justified by incidents like the killings at Fallujah. These "dead-enders," as they were explained away in Washington, were soon joined in the insurgency by homegrown Islamist extremists who had previously been terrorized into submission by Saddam's regime, and by some foreign Islamists, mostly from Saudi Arabia, who made themselves useful by offering to carry out suicide attacks. By the autumn of 2004, only a year and a half after the invasion, the U.S. authorities were recording between two thousand and three thousand insurgent attacks per month. The shocking pictures taken by the American torturers at Abu Ghraib had a big impact elsewhere in the Muslim world, but in Iraq they caused no particular upsurge in the violence: most people had already chosen their side.
Perhaps most damning of all, there was the astounding inability of the U.S. occupation forces to fix the infrastructures that had been broken in Iraq during the invasion and the subsequent orgy of looting, and the other things that had been broken long before that, so that Iraqis would at least experience some material improvement in their lives. Five months after the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, Saddam Hussein had managed to restore the supply of electricity in Iraq to the pre-war level despite the devastation and crushing sanctions; fifty months after the invasion of March 2003, the United States had failed to do as well: in late 2006, Baghdad was receiving an average of less than six hours' electricity a day. By any material measure, Iraqis today are worse off than they were under Saddam.
"Iraq was awash in cash - in dollar bills. Piles and piles of money. We played football with some of the bricks of $100 bills before delivery. It was a wild-west crazy atmosphere, the likes of which none of us had ever experienced."
- Frank Willis, former senior official, Coalition Provisional Authority
"American law was suspended, Iraqi law was suspended, and Iraq basically became a free fraud zone. In a free fire zone you can shoot at anybody you want. In a free fraud zone you can steal anything you like. And that was what they did."
- Alan Grayson, Florida-based attorney prosecuting CPA corruption, both men quoted in Dispatches; Iraq's Missing Billions, a Guardian Films production broadcast on Britain's Channel Four on March 20, 2006
The first year was vital if popular satisfaction at the changes brought to Iraq by the invaders was to outweigh the many factors that were driving Iraqis towards resistance to the occupation, but in terms of reconstruction the first year was almost completely wasted. It wasn't for lack of money. Under Security Council Resolution 1483, passed on May 22, 2003, the United Nations, which had been enforcing sanctions against Iran, transferred some $23 billion of Iraqi money derived from frozen Iraqi bank accounts, seized Iraqi assets, and Iraqi oil sales into a Development Fund for Iraq and put it at the disposition of the American-run Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. Shortly afterwards, the U.S. Congress voted a further $18.4 billion for the redevelopment of Iraq. That amounted to about $1,600 for every Iraqi man, woman, and child, which shouldhave been enough to make a pretty big difference in the standard of everything from electricity supply to medical services in a low-wage economy like Iraq's. It made no difference at all.
In the first fourteen months, down to the "hand-over of sovereignty" and the end of the CPA ("children playing adults," as the U.S. military contemptuously called the young and inexperienced American staff, most of them chosen by patronage) in June 2004, only $300 million of the U.S. government's money was actually disbursed, but all of the Iraqi money was spent - although "spent" is perhaps the wrong word, as it implies an exchange of money for goods or services. Some $12 billion of the Iraqi money was flown from New York to Baghdad in cash - 363 tonnes of one-hundred-dollar bills - and handed out to Iraqi contractors (kickbacks galore), to American contractors with good connections in the Bush administration on inflated cost-plus contracts, and to "government ministries" in Baghdad that barely existed except on paper.
Some $800 million was handed over to U.S. military commanders for discretionary spending without being counted or even weighed. Another $1.4 billion was flown from Baghdad to the Kurdish regional government in Irbil, and has not been seen since. And the $8.8 billion that passed through the new government ministries in Baghdad during the reign of the CPA has never been accounted for, and there is little prospect of finding out where it went. The Defence Ministry's $1.3-billion procurement budget for 2005 vanished completely, together with the defence minister and the procurement chief: "It is possibly one of the biggest thefts in history," said Ali Allawi, finance minister at the time. The CPA itself kept one fund of nearly $600 million in cash for which there is simply no paperwork, and in the final month before it left Iraq, it managedto get rid of the last $5 billion of Iraq's money, most of it in contracts let without tender to American corporations with contacts in the White House. Auditors were not appointed until April 2004, and were not allowed to see the CPA's accounts, such as they were, until it had disbanded and gone home. It is likely that more money was stolen in the first year of the occupation of Iraq than Mobutu Sese Seko managed to steal in thirty-two years of looting the Congo.
Things improved slightly after that, because now it was American taxpayers' money being spent and Congress does insist on a certain level of accountability. But by the latter half of 2004, the insurgency was well underway in Iraq, and security was adding 25 per cent cost to almost every project undertaken in the country. Money also began to be diverted from the reconstruction fund to fight the insurgency, to build prisons, to prepare and conduct Saddam's expensive show trial, and to pay for two elections, a referendum, and four changes of government.
At least $2.5 billion originally meant for repairing infrastructure and schools was ultimately spent instead on building up Iraqi security forces, much of which would have been absorbed by the notorious "ghost battalions" whose commanders pocketed the pay of purely fictitious soldiers. Huge contracts continued to be let without tender to American companies to perform services that could have been provided far more cheaply by Iraqi contractors - and in early 2006 the Bush administration made it clear that when the $18.4 billion allocated by Congress for reconstruction ran out in June 2007, no further U.S. funds would be made available. In the end, probably less than $10 billion of the more than $40 billion that was made available for reconstruction immediately after the invasionwas actually spent on reconstruction, and most of that was spent after the insurgents had begun to sabotage the infrastructure that the occupiers were trying to rebuild.
"I just presumed that what I considered to be the most competent national security team since Truman was indeed going to be competent. They turned out to be among the most incompetent teams in the postwar era. Not only did each of them, individually, have enormous flaws, but together they were deadly, dysfunctional."
- Kenneth Adelman, former special assistant to Donald Rumsfeld during his first term as secretary of defence (1975 - 77), in Vanity, Fair, January 2007
Kenneth Adelman, former head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency under President Reagan, was a founding member of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a neo-conservative group in Washington that had urged the invasion of Iraq, and it was he who had promised that it would be a "cakewalk." It might therefore be thought somewhat ungracious of him to blame the ensuing disaster on the people who actually carried the invasion out - but then, the alternative would be to accept that he himself bore a large share of the blame for promoting the idea in the first place. Besides, even if the Iraq adventure were doomed to fail, Adelman was quite right about the quality of the leadership provided by the Bush administration. The occupation of Iraq was the most spectacularly incompetent and corrupt operation carried out by the government of any developed country in many decades, and it turned the high probability of a major insurgency in Iraq after the invasion into the certainty of countrywide violence, despair, and anarchy.
In early 2006, three years after the invasion, Iraq's national electricity grid was still only producing four thousand megawatts, 10 per cent below pre-war levels. Only a third of the population had access to clean water, most sewage was still going into the rivers untreated, and oil production was barely 2 million barrels a day, down from around 3 million barrels on the eve of the invasion. Unemployment in Iraq was variously estimated at between 40 and 70 per cent, and no construction cranes have been seen in Baghdad since the invasion with the exception of those strengthening the fortifications around "Coalition" bases and the Green Zone, the precinct in central Baghdad where the U.S. and British embassies and many U.S. military headquarters are now located. And as early as 2005, the sectarian killings were overtaking the deaths in the anti-American insurgency.
The principal instigator of the sectarian war was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born Islamist whose provocatively named "Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia" organization had been responsible for most of the truly horrendous terrorist attacks against innocent gatherings of Shia civilians during the preceding two years. He probably never had more than a few hundred followers - the Iraq Study Group chaired by former U.S. secretary of state James Baker and former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Lee Hamilton estimated at the end of 2006 that there were only thirteen hundred foreign fighters of all descriptions in Iraq - but Zarqawi's single-minded ruthlessness made him effective far beyond his numbers. As a Sunni extremist, he viewed Shias as heretics unworthy of the name of Muslim, and preventing Iraq from falling under Shia control was even more important to him than defeating the Americans (who would leave sooner or later in any case).
A stable, legitimate Iraqi government that was permanently dominated by a democratically elected Shia majority was the very last thing Zarqawi wanted to see, and so the Shias had to be lured into a civil war in order to destroy that possibility, however remote it might be. As late as 2004 there were still instances of co-operation between the mainstream Sunni resistance and Moqtada al-Sadr's (Shia) Mahdi Army, with the Sunnis supporting al-Sadr's uprising against the U.S. forces in Najaf that summer. The following autumn, some members of the Mahdi Army joined the defenders of Fallujah when that entirely Sunni city, having attacked American soldiers or mercenaries once too often, was effectively destroyed in a seven-week U.S. military operation, but that was the last instance of open Shia - Sunni military co-operation against the occupation forces: the steady stream of suicide-bomb atrocities against Shia civilians finally put an end to it. By mid-2005, Interior Ministry troops drawn from the (Shia) Badr Brigades were carrying out reprisal killings of Sunnis in very large numbers.
The two elections of January and December 2005, trumpeted in the Western media as triumphs of a nascent Iraqi democracy, had the practical effect of separating and alienating the various Iraqi communities even further. It is not clear whether the American authorities understood the implication of having everybody in the country vote for national "lists" of the competing parties, most of them defined by their ethnic or sectarian character, rather than choosing between different individual candidates in electoral districts as voters do in the United States, but the effect was to exclude all local needs and issues from the ballot. Instead, people ended up voting for the party that represented their ethnic or religious group, as that was in practice the only distinctionamong them, so all politics in Iraq became communal politics.
What is happening in Iraq is not a war between two communities of fanatics. Iraq has been one of the most secular countries in the Muslim world for a long time, and large numbers of those killed for being "Sunni" or "Shia" had not seen the inside of a mosque for years. Thousands of ordinary Iraqi citizens who wore their religion lightly or not at all have been stopped at a roadblock, pulled out of their cars, tortured and murdered just for having a "Shia" or "Sunni" name on their ID cards or a licence plate from the wrong province on their cars. It's a war about the numbers, the power and the will of rival communities that have been defined by their ancestral religious affiliations, not about what particular individuals believe today. It's a bit like the apocryphal story that did the rounds during the worst days of the sectarian war in Northern Ireland, where a motorist is stopped at a roadblock by armed, masked men who demand to know whether he is Catholic or Protestant. The wrong answer could get him killed, and he doesn't even know which side these gunmen are on, but the motorist thinks he has a perfect answer: "I'm a Jew." But it's not as easy as that. One of the gunmen snarls: "Are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?"
The new police force on which the U.S. occupation authorities had placed such high hopes was a sectarian force from the start. After the bombing of the Askariya Mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest Shia shrines, on February 22, 2006, they and various Shia militia forces in Baghdad attacked at least two dozen Sunni mosques in the city with machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades. From this point on, the ethnic cleansing of mixed neighbourhoods in the capital gained an unstoppable momentum.
"They say the killings and kidnappings are being carried out by men in police uniforms and with police vehicles, but everybody in Baghdad knows the killers and kidnappers are real policemen."
- Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari, summer 2006. Quoted by Patrick Cockburn, The Independent, November 28, 2006
The man who had the biggest role in pushing Shia and Sunni Arabs into the endless tit-for-tat war of sectarian kidnaps, murders, and ethnic cleansing, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed in a U.S. air strike on June 7, 2006, but his legacy survives in the form of a mountain of mutilated corpses. By mid-2006, a hundred bodies a day were being found in Baghdad alone, and Manfred Nowak, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, reported that the bodies in the Baghdad morgue "often bear signs of severe torture including acid-induced injuries and burns caused by chemical substances, missing skin, broken bones (back, hands and legs), missing eyes, missing teeth, and wounds caused by power drills and nails." Those who were not killed by these tortures were finished off by a bullet to the head.
Even today, supporters of the invasion in the United States still warn that withdrawing U.S. troops would unleash civil war in Iraq, but that war actually began in 2006, and the clearest evidence for it is the scale of the refugee problem. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated in February 2007 that fifty thousand Iraqis a month were abandoning their homes, in order not to join the three thousand dead bodies that are found in sewers or on garbage heaps each month. That probably exceeds the monthly death toll in the early stages of either the English or the American civil wars, and it already matches the scale of killing at the peak of the war in Bosnia in theearly 1990s. As in Bosnia, too, every major group, Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs, and Kurds, sees itself as a victim, and all dealings among them are poisoned by "the politics of the last atrocity" (as they used to call it in Northern Ireland).
In most of Baghdad the ethnic cleansing has been so thorough that militants in adjacent Sunni and Shia neighbourhoods now freely fire mortar rounds at each other, safe in the knowledge that they run little risk of hurting someone from their own group. At the beginning of 2007, the UNHCR estimated, there were about 1.8 million internal Iraqi refugees and another 2 million who had sought safety abroad, mostly in Syria or Jordan. ("Those with money go to Jordan. The poor go to Syria," observed John Pace, UN human rights chief in Iraq until early 2006.) The exiles include more than half the country's doctors and at least half of the smaller minority groups - Christians, Jews, Yazidi, Mandaeans, Palestinians, and Turkomans - who once accounted for a tenth of Iraq's population. It is likely that half of the educated and skilled middle class, which was the country's most valuable resource, has already left. If this does not count as a civil war, it will do until something worse comes along.
There remains a third internal war to be fought in Iraq, a Kurdish - Arab war that will erupt if the city of Kirkuk, its surrounding oil fields, and some other disputed territories in northern Iraq are not handed over to the autonomous government of Kurdistan after a referendum that is promised in the new constitution. However, that war may well be avoided, at least for a time, by a political deal between Kurdish and Shia Arab leaders, since the Kurds see some advantages in their current status. The Kurds are effectively independent, with their own Pesh Merga army thinly disguised as Iraqi armytroops, yet they still enjoy great influence in Baghdad. They are also relatively safe from attack by their Turkish or Iranian neighbours, which are both determined to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdish state, so long as they avoid a formal break with Iraq. But even if they manage to avoid this war - and also avoid a renewal of the chronic hostility between the two major Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which last flared into open war in the 1990s - the two wars that are already raging down south are enough to spell the end of the Iraqi state that was cobbled together in 1918 - 22 from the three former Ottoman vilayets (provinces) of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra.
"The state is now moving inexorably under the control of the Shia Islamists, albeit with a supporting role for the Kurds. The boundaries of Shia-controlled Baghdad are moving ever westwards so that the capital itself may fall entirely under the sway of the Shia militias.
"The only thing stopping that is the deployment of American troops to block the entry of the Shia militias in force into these mixed or Sunni neighbourhoods. The geographic space outside Baghdad in which the insurgency can flourish will persist but the country will be inevitably divided. Under such circumstances, the power of the Shias' demographic advantage can only be counter-balanced by the Sunni Arabs' recourse to support from the neighbouring Arab states. It is inconceivable that such an outcome can possibly lead to a stable Iraqi state unless one side or another vanquishes its opponent or if the country is divided into separate states."
- Ali Allawi, Iraqi defence minister, trade minister, and finance minister, 2003 - 6, now senior adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, The Independent, January 5, 2007
"Ameriya, Jihad, Ghazaliyah, all these areas [of Sunni-controlled Baghdad] are becoming part of the new Islamic state of Iraq, each with an emir in charge. Each group is in charge of a specific street. We have defence lines, trenches and booby traps. When the Americans arrive we let them through, but if they show up with Iraqi troops, then it's a fight."
- Sunni insurgent commander Abu Aisha (a pseudonym), speaking to Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, The Guardian, January 13, 2007
The core political dilemma facing the U.S. occupation authorities in Iraq, from pro-consul Paul Bremer to former U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, has been that they don't trust the Shias, but the Sunnis don't trust them. They wanted to create an Iraqi government that commanded popular support but gratefully acquiesced in America's desire for permanent military bases in the country ("enduring" bases, as they tactfully called them). That could only be a Shia-dominated government, since Shias account for about 60 per cent of the Iraqi population - but Washington didn't trust the major Shia parties in Iraq, because they were too close to Shia Iran. Indeed, most of their leaders had spent long years in exile in Iran during Saddam's rule. (This problem was one of the major considerations that had deterred George H.W. Bush's administration from marching on Baghdad in 1991.)
To the extent that the current Bush administration did any post-war planning, however, it presumed that after the "liberation" of Iraq in 2003 it would be able to construct a governing coalition in which Shia influence was heavily diluted by the presence of its Kurdish allies (the Kurds are the only group in Iraq that unequivocally supports the American presence) and of post-Baathist Sunni politicians who were willing to workwith the United States. It also assumed that it had a lot of time to work on this project: ("We're going to be on the ground in Iraq, as soldiers and citizens, for years," said Bremer in March 2004. "We're going to be running a colony almost.") But it was wrong on both counts.
"The liberating force must act quickly because every army of liberation has a half-life after which it turns into an army of occupation," said General David Petraeus, one of the U.S. Army's leading counter-insurgency experts, but it was even worse than that. There was no time at all to act, because the Sunnis were instantly hostile to the American presence, while the Shias were determined from the start to parlay the weight of their numbers into irreversible domination of whatever new political system emerged in Iraq, and there really wasn't much Washington could do to satisfy either group.
What the Sunnis wanted back was the dominant position in Iraq that the American invasion had taken away from them, and there was no way the United States could deliver on that demand. All the Shias wanted was due democratic recognition of their newly acquired dominant role in Iraq, but Washington was extremely reluctant to deliver on that demand, either. It believed that the major Shia parties, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which controls the powerful Badr Brigade, and al-Dawa (The Call), were both too close to Iran. (Indeed, the core units of the Badr militia had been trained by Iranians while they were in exile there.) And the third element in the Shia equation was a wild card called Moqtada al-Sadr, a radical young cleric (early thirties) who was strongly opposed to the American presence in Iraq. Al-Sadr, the surviving son of a revered ayatollah who had been murdered by Saddam, was very much the voice of the Shiapoor, with his stronghold in the vast slum in northeastern Baghdad named after his martyred father, Sadr City - and his militia, the Mahdi Army, was the biggest in the country.
There was no combination of these forces that could possibly yield a democratically elected coalition government that wanted the United States to stay in Iraq, even assuming that it included the pro-American Kurds, so the U.S. dilemma was essentially insoluble from the start. Retired general Jay Garner was fired at the very beginning of the occupation for calling for early elections, and his replacement, Paul Bremer, adopted the short-term strategy of delaying elections indefinitely and relying on an appointed Iraqi government to put a local face on the occupation. Most of the people appointed were former exiles and all were pro-American, but by the time Bremer handed over "sovereignty" to that puppet government in June 2004, he had already been forced to abandon that strategy. In a confrontation with the senior Shia cleric in Iraq, the Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in February and March 2004, Bremer had been forced to agree to genuine elections in 2005 in order to dissuade Sistani from calling a Shia general strike. After centuries at the bottom of the heap, the Shias were absolutely determined to assume the dominant role in the politics of a democratic Iraq that their numbers entitled them to. They were willing to do it legally through the ballot box, but they were not willing to wait.
The two elections and the constitutional referendum of 2005 did give Iraq the legal structure of a constitutional, parliamentary democracy - and a National Assembly whose members have been elected to govern the country until 2009. It is even possible that this structure will survive the departure of the Americans, and that whatever kind of Iraq emerges inthe aftermath will continue to be governed by more or less democratic means. But most Sunni Arabs boycotted the elections and consequently are not properly represented in the National Assembly and the government, thus deepening their alienation from the emerging new order in Iraq, and the mutual hostility of the various ethnic and sectarian factions that are present makes it difficult to create a government that works. It took 67 days of negotiations to form a government after the January 2005 elections, and 127 days after those of December 2005.
"The ministries are beyond repair. Officials where corrupt under Saddam Hussein but frightened to death of being executed. Not any more."
- Zuhair Hamadi, chief of staff to the cabinet in the government of Iyad Allawi, 2004 - 5. Quoted by Patrick Cockburn, The Independent, October 14, 2005
In practice, each group that is included in the government is granted one or more ministries that it then runs as a private fiefdom and cash machine. Ministers cannot be replaced, no matter how corrupt or incompetent, without reopening the lengthy, Byzantine negotiating process that created the government in the first place. In the case of the Interior Ministry, which was run by a minister from the SCIRI party until well into 2006, the party's militia, the Badr Brigade, simply moved inside the ministry and re-emerged as a dominant presence in the police force. (The Interior Ministry has been run by a less partisan figure, at American insistence, since the installation of Nouri al-Maliki's government in April 2006, but the Badr Brigade still has a stranglehold on the middle and senior ranks of the Interior Ministry police.) The complete collapse ofsecurity in Baghdad has also made the top level of government very remote from the country it allegedly rules, with most ministers taking shelter in the Green Zone. Some visit their ministries frequently, others less often or (rumour has it) not at all, instead having papers brought to the Green Zone for signature. It would be a most unsatisfactory system, with no coordination of government policy and no cabinet responsibility, even if it were not subject to constant manipulation by the occupying power.
U.S. policy in dealing with the cumbersome and deeply flawed but undeniably Iraqi beast it has created has had three general priorities. One is to push continually for greater participation by Sunni Arabs, even if holding another election to increase their formal representation before 2009 is out of the question. The anti-occupation insurgency backed by that group was until recently the greatest challenge faced by the U.S. authorities, and they have searched diligently (if unsuccessfully) for ways to reconcile them to the new order. They also want them to be more present in politics, to dilute the Shia domination of the whole process.
The second priority has been to keep Iranian influence at a minimum, which has required frequent interventions in the negotiations among the Shia parties in order to ensure that the "wrong" candidates are not selected for senior government posts. One of the main reasons for the lengthy delay in choosing a prime minister after the election of December 2005, for example, was the fact that the United States believed that Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the first choice of the Shia parties, was too close to Iran and to Moqtada al-Sadr, a particular bête noire of Washington's because he keeps demanding that the United States leave Iraq. In the end, the Shias gave in and chose Nourial-Maliki, a leader of the Dawa party, for the prime ministership instead.
The third American priority has been to ensure that there is no public demand for a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops. This paralyzes the government's attempts to seek reconciliation with the Sunni Arabs and to deal with the problem of the sectarian militias, since a prerequisite is just such a timetable. Not long after he became prime minister in April 2006, Nouri al-Maliki came up with a twenty-eight-point national reconciliation proposal modelled on the post-apartheid program in South Africa: militants would be pardoned, those in jail would be freed, arms would be handed in, and everybody would have a fresh start. All the major groups expressed interest, but it was vetoed by the United States because the deal necessarily and inevitably included the promise of a timetable for American withdrawal from Iraq. The proposal might well have fallen at the next hurdle anyway, for Iraq was pretty far gone by 2006, but it might also have been the last chance for a settlement that keeps everybody in the same country.
We will never know if it was or not, but this is a good point at which to ask the question: Why does the United States government not want to accept a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq? If the Bush administration were really looking for a good excuse to wash its hands of the mess, what could be more welcome than an official request from the elected government of Iraq to send the troops home? It could be presented to the American public as a triumph of democracy, and most of the Iraqis now trying to kill American soldiers would be glad to stop fighting and let them leave in peace, and even with some face saved, so long as it was certainthat they were all really leaving. What would happen afterwards in Iraq is impossible to say, but it might be possible to preserve a democratic system and restore government authority over most of the country even at this late date. If not, the United States would be free to tell itself that it did all it could, but you just cannot teach those Ay-rabs civilized ways. Blaming the victim is always popular.
Instead, the U.S. authorities in Iraq expend a great deal of energy in ensuring that an official request for the withdrawal of foreign troops does not see the light of day. The only logical explanation is that, while the Bush administration would love to bring most of the troops home and ease the political pressure there, it still has not accepted the necessity of bringing them all home. It still imagines, in some incoherent way, that it can manipulate events in Iraq so that the insurgency dies down, the economy stabilizes, and a grateful Iraqi government welcomes the permanent stationing of twenty or thirty thousand American troops on its territory. The fourteen "enduring bases," with which the White House planned to replace the bases in Saudi Arabia that had become a political liability for the Saudi government, are still under construction, and as far as the White House and the Pentagon are concerned the game is still afoot. Chickens do tend to run around for a bit even after their heads are chopped off.
The contempt that both Iraqis and other Arabs feel for the Iraqi government is in large measure a by-product of this American policy, because in order to avoid demands for withdrawal the Iraqi government must be kept weak. Prime Minister al-Maliki has publicly said that he cannot move even a company of soldiers without U.S. permission. It is the CIA that pays the entire budget of the main Iraqi intelligence service, not the Iraqigovernment, so guess who it works for. And although the financial arrangements in Iraq remain as obscure as ever, it is clear that al-Maliki's government, unable to raise anything like the amount of revenue it needs from the devastated Iraqi economy, is on a very short financial leash held by the Americans. Any other Iraqi government operating under the ultimate control of the U.S. occupation forces will suffer a similar lack of credibility, so the long-term shape of post-Saddam Iraq will not even start to become clear until there is a complete American troop withdrawal, or at least a high-speed timetable for a withdrawal with hard dates attached. How might Iraq get from here to there, and what will that final shape be?
"The implosion of domestic support for the war will compel the disengagement of U.S. forces; it is now just a matter of time. Better to withdraw as a coherent and at least somewhat volitional act than to withdraw later in a hectic response to public opposition ... or a series of unexpectedly sharp reverses on the ground ... . If it gets really tough in the next few months, it will throw fuel on the fire in Washington. Congress will be emboldened in direct proportion to the trouble in Iraq."
- Steven Simon, former director for transnational threats on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, in a paper for the Council on Foreign Relations, February 2007
There is no doubt about the implosion of domestic support in the United States for the Iraq war. By mid-2006, despite years of deliberate obfuscation by the administration, a New York Times/CBS News poll revealed that a majority of Americans had finally grasped that the war in Iraq was quite separate from the "war on terror." The Republicans' loss of control in both houses of Congress to the Democrats in the November 2006mid-term elections was widely interpreted as a national vote against the war. By early 2007, when President Bush announced that he was planning to send more than twenty thousand extra U.S. troops to Iraq (a number subsequently increased to almost forty thousand), a Washington Post/ABC poll showed that 61 per cent of Americans opposed the plan while only 36 per cent backed it. Public opinion fluctuates over time on most issues, but it is hard to imagine what events in Iraq could reverse the long-term decline in American support for the war before the 2008 election.
There is a good deal more doubt, however, about the willingness of Congress simply to cut off supplies for the war. Bush will probably be able to go on trying to reverse the verdict on a war that most other people (including most soldiers) believe is already lost right down to the end of his term, for with so little time left before the presidential election in November 2008, the Democrats in Congress will be tempted to leave him twisting in the wind rather than accept the political burden of having "betrayed" American troops on the battlefield. But the speed with which American public opinion is now moving against the war suggests that no presidential candidate of either party who does not promise withdrawal from Iraq will stand much chance of winning the 2008 election, so the likeliest time for the announcement of a comprehensive American troop withdrawal from Iraq is about ten minutes after the inauguration of the 44th U.S. president, whether he or she is Democratic or Republican, in January 2009.
We can see that far ahead with some confidence, but what happens next? Will the heavens fall in the Middle East, and if so, on whose head? Does the U.S. military just retreat toKuwait, Bahrain, and other nearby countries to await events, or will this be the start of an American pullout from the entire region? Where, exactly, does the Middle East fit into U.S. grand strategy, assuming that there is such a thing?
Everybody knows that American strategy in the Middle East is "about oil," but what, exactly, does that mean? Maybe that is the best place to start.
AFTER IRAQ. Copyright © 2007 by Gwynne Dyer. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles of reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N. Y. 10010.