Iraq: A Small War Guaranteed to Damage a Superpower
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
At 3 am on January 11, 2007 a fleet of American helicopters made a sudden swoop on the long-established Iranian liaison office in the city of Arbil in northern Iraq. Their mission was to capture two senior Iranian security officials, Mohammed Jafari, the deputy head of the Iranian National Security Council, and General Minojahar Frouzanda, the head of intelligence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. What made the American raid so extraordinary is that both men were in Iraq at the official invitation of the Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who held talks with them at his lakeside headquarters at Dokan in eastern Kurdistan. The Iranians had then asked to see Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, in the Kurdish capital Arbil. There was nothing covert about the meeting which was featured on Kurdish television.
In the event the U.S. attack failed. It was only able to net five junior Iranian officials at the liaison office that had existed in Arbil for years, issuing travel documents, and which was being upgraded to a consular office by the Iraqi Foreign Ministry in Baghdad. The Kurdish leaders were understandably furious asking why, without a word to them, their close allies, the Americans, had tried to abduct two important foreign officials who were in Iraq at the request of the Iraqi president. Kurdish troops had almost opened fire on the American troops. At the very least, the raid showed a contempt for Iraqi sovereignty which the U.S. was supposedly defending. It was three months before officials in Washington admitted that they had tried and failed to capture Jafari and General Frouzanda. The U.S. State Department and Iraqi government argued for the release of the five officials as relative minnows, but Vice-President Cheney's office insisted fiercely that they should be held.
If Iran had undertaken a similar venture by, for example, trying to kidnap the deputy head of the CIA when he was on an official visit to Pakistan or Afghanistan, then Washington might have considered the attempt a reason for going to war. In the event, the US assault on Arbil attracted bemused attention inside and outside Iraq for only a few days before it was buried by news of the torrent of violence in the rest of Iraq. The U.S. understandably did not reveal the seniority of its real targets -- or that they had escaped.
The Arbil raid is significant because it was the first visible sign of a string of highly significant American policy decisions announced by President George W. Bush in an address to the nation broadcast in the U.S. a few hours earlier on January 10. There have been so many spurious turning points in the war -- such as the capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the handover of sovereignty to an Iraqi government in 2004, or the elections of 2005 -- that truly critical moments are obscured or underrated.
The true importance of Bush's words took time to sink in. In the months prior to his speech, the U.S. seemed to be feeling its way towards an end to the war. The Republicans had lost control of both houses of Congress in the November 2006 elections, an unexpectedly heavy defeat blamed on the Iraq war. Soon afterwards, the bipartisan Iraqi Study Group of senior Republicans and Democrats, led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, spelled out the extent of American failure thus far, arguing for a reduced U.S. military commitment and suggesting negotiations with Iran and Syria.
President Bush did the exact opposite of what the Baker-Hamilton report had proposed. He identified Iran and Syria as America's prime enemies in Iraq, stating: "These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq." Instead of reducing the American commitment, Bush pledged to send 20,000 extra troops to Iraq to try to secure Baghdad. In other words, the U.S. was going to respond to its lack of success in the conflict by escalating both the war in Iraq and America's confrontation with Iran in the Middle East as a whole. The invasion of 2003 had destabilized the whole region; now Bush was about to deepen that instability.
The raid on Arbil showed that the new policies were not just rhetoric. Iraqis were quicker than the rest of the world to pick up on what was happening. "People are saying that Bush's speech means that the occupation is going to go on a long time," the Iraqi political scientist Ghassan Attiyah told me soon after the President had stopped speaking. Although the new U.S. security plan for Baghdad, which began on February 14th, was sold as a temporary "surge" in troop numbers, it was evident that the reinforcements were there to stay.
In April, the Pentagon announced that it was increasing Army tours in Iraq from 12 to 15 months. Without anybody paying much attention, American officials stopped talking about training Iraqi army troops as a main priority. This was an important shift in emphasis. Training and equipping Iraqi troops to replace American soldiers -- so they could be withdrawn from Iraq -- had been the cornerstone of U.S. military planning since 2005. Now, the policy was being quietly downgraded, though not abandoned altogether.
Could the new strategy succeed? It seemed very unlikely. The U.S. had failed to pacify Iraq between 2003 and 2007. Now, with much of the American public openly disillusioned with the war, Bush was to try for victory once again. Common sense suggested that he needed to reduce the number of America's enemies inside and outside Iraq, but his new strategy was only going to increase them.
The U.S. Army was to go on fighting the five-million-strong Sunni community, as it had been doing since the capture of Baghdad. The Sunni demand for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal was not being met. At the same time, the U.S. was going to deal more aggressively with the 17 million Shias in Iraq. It would contest the control over much of Baghdad and southern Iraq of the Mehdi Army, the powerful militia led by the nationalist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is regarded with cult-like devotion by many Shia Iraqis. Not content with this, Washington was also more openly going to confront Iran, the most powerful of Iraq's neighbors.
As with so many U.S. policies under Bush, the new strategy made sense in terms of American domestic politics, but in Iraq seemed a recipe for disaster. Iran was easy to demonize in the U.S., just as Saddam Hussein had been blamed four years earlier for everything wrong in Iraq and the Middle East. The New York Times, which had once uncritically repeated White House claims that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction, now ran articles on its front page saying that Iran was exporting sophisticated roadside bombs to Iraq that were killing American soldiers. There was no reference to the embarrassing discoveries of workshops making just such bombs in Baghdad and Basra. Above all, the Bush administration was determined to put off the day -- at least until after the Presidential election in 2008 -- when it had to admit that the U.S. had failed in Iraq.
A Security Plan Lacking Security
I was in Baghdad soon after Bush had spoken. I had never known it to be so bad. My driver had to take a serpentine route from the airport, driving along the main highway, then suddenly doing a U-turn to dart down an alleyway. He was trying to avoid checkpoints that might be manned by Police Commandos in their mottled uniforms who often acted as Shia death squads. The journey to the al-Hamra Hotel in Jadriyah, a district built in a loop of the Tigris river, took three times as long as normal. In the following days, I could see Mehdi Army checkpoints, civilians with guns and a car slewed across the road, operating almost within sight of the heavily guarded July 14 Bridge that leads to the Green Zone.
The extent of the military failure over the previous three-and-a-half years was extraordinary. The foreign media never quite made clear how little territory the U.S. and the Iraqi army fully controlled -- even in the heart of Baghdad. It was astonishing, in early 2007, to look out from the north-facing windows in the Hamra and see columns of black smoke billowing up from Haifa Street on the other side of the Tigris river. This is a two mile long militant Sunni corridor less than a mile from the northern end of the Green Zone. Since the early days of the fighting, the U.S. Army, supported by Iraqi army troops, had been unsuccessfully trying to drive out the insurgents who ruled it.
Sometimes, U.S. commanders persuaded themselves (and embedded journalists) that they were making progress. On this occasion, I looked up and read a long, optimistic article about Haifa Street in an American paper, claiming there were signs that "the tide was turning on Iraq's street of fear." It was no longer an arrow pointing at the heart of the Green Zone; rebel leaders had been arrested or killed; large weapons caches had been discovered; insurgent attacks were less intense and less frequent; Iraqi troops were at last being effectively deployed. Having finished reading the piece, I was reflecting on whether or not the U.S. military and its local allies were at last achieving something on Haifa Street when I glanced at the piece and realized, with a groan, that it was dated March 2005, almost two years earlier.
American commanders often genuinely believed that they were in command of towns and cities which Iraqis, including the local police, told me were dominated by Sunni insurgents or Shia militia. On one occasion in early 2007, senior U.S. and Iraqi officers were giving a video press conference from Diyala, a much fought over province northeast of Baghdad, confidently claiming that they were winning the fight against the Sunni rebels. Even as they were speaking an insurgent squad attacked and captured the mayor's office in Baquba, the capital of Diyala. It only withdrew after blowing up the building and kidnapping the mayor. The government announced that it was dismissing 1,500 policemen in Diyala because of their repeated failure to resist the insurgents. When I checked with a police commander a few months later he said threw up his hands in disgust and said that not a single policeman had been fired.
The addition, promised by Bush, of five extra brigades to the U.S. forces in Baghdad made, at least at first, some difference to security in the capital. The number of bodies of people tortured, shot in the head, and dumped in the street, went down from the horrific levels of late 2006. These death-squad killings were mostly of Sunni and were the work of the Mehdi Army or of army and police units collaborating with them.
A few days before the security plan began, Muqtada al-Sadr stood down his militiamen, telling them to dump their arms and move out of Baghdad. He was intent on avoiding direct military confrontation with the U.S. reinforcements. But while the Shia were killing fewer Sunni, the Sunni insurgents were still slaughtering Shia civilians with massive suicide bombs, often vehicle-borne, targeting crowded market places. These did not stop and improved security measures made little difference. On February 3, a truck delivering vegetables blew up in the Shia-Kurdish Sadriya quarter in central Baghdad killing 135 people and wounding 305. Ten weeks later, long after the Security Plan had been launched, another vehicle bomb blew up in the same market, killing 127 people and wounding 148. Not surprisingly, local people jeered and threw stones at American and Iraqi soldiers who turned up after the explosion. The main failing of the security plan for ordinary Iraqis, many of whom had initially welcomed it, was simply that it did not deliver security for them or their families.
Who rules Iraq?
There was a central lesson of four years of war which Bush and Tony Blair never seemed to take on board, though it was obvious to anybody living in Iraq: the occupation was unpopular and becoming more so by the day. Anti-American guerrillas and militiamen always had enough water to swim in. The only community in Iraq that fully supported the U.S. presence was the Kurds -- and Kurdistan was not occupied.
It is this lack of political support that has so far doomed all U.S. political and military actions in Iraq. It makes the country very different from Afghanistan where foreign troops are far more welcome. Opinion polls consistently show this trend. A comprehensive Iraqi survey has been conducted by ABC News, USAToday, the BBC, and ARD annually over the last three years. Its findings illuminate the most important trends in Iraqi politics. They show that, by March 2007, no less than 78% of Iraqis opposed the presence of U.S. forces, compared to 65% in November 2005 and 51% in February 2004. In the latter year, only 17% of the population thought that violence against U.S. forces was acceptable, while by 2007 the figure had risen to 51%. This pool of people sympathetic to Sunni insurgents and Shia militias was so large as to make it difficult to control and impossible to eliminate them.
Again and again, assassinations and bombs showed that the Iraqi army and police were thoroughly infiltrated by militants from all sides. Nowhere was safe. Some incidents are well known. In April 2007, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the cafÃ© of the Iraqi parliament in its heavily defended building in the Green Zone. The bomber had somehow circumvented seven or eight layers of security. Earlier, on March 23, the deputy prime minister, Salam al-Zubaie, was badly injured by a bomber who got close to him with the connivance of his bodyguards.
There were lesser unknown incidents indicative of the divided loyalties of the security forces. On March 6, militants from the Islamic State of Iraq movement -- of which al Qaida in Iraq is part -- stormed Badoush prison northwest of Mosul. In the biggest jailbreak since 2003, they freed 68 prisoners of whom 57 were foreign. Of the 1,200 guards at the prison, 400-500 were on duty at the time, but did nothing to stop the Islamic militants breaking in or the prisoners breaking out. Some American soldiers see that the problem is not about a few infiltrators. "Any Iraqi officer who hasn't been assassinated or targeted for assassination is giving information or support to the insurgents," one US marine was quoted as saying. "Any Iraqi officer who isn't in bed with the insurgents is already dead."
Some problems facing the U.S. and Britain in Iraq have not changed since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. Getting rid of the Iraqi leader was far easier than finding a successor regime that would not be more dangerous to American interests. It is a dilemma still unresolved more than four years into the occupation.
A prime reason why the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein during his war with Iran in 1980-88 is that it did not want a Shia clerical regime, possibly sympathetic to America's enemies in Tehran, to come to power in Iraq. It was the same motive that stopped President Bush senior pushing on to Baghdad and overthrowing Saddam after defeating the Iraqi army in Kuwait in 1991. After 2003, Washington was in the same quandary: If elections were held, the Shia, comprising 60% of the population that had been long excluded from power, were bound to win.
The nightmare for Washington was to find that it had conquered Iraq only to install black-turbaned clerics in power in Baghdad, as they already were in Tehran. At first, the U.S. tried to postpone elections, claiming that a census had to be held. It was only on the insistence of the Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani that two elections were held in 2005, in which the Shia religious parties triumphed. Washington has never been comfortable with these Shia-Kurdish governments. It demanded that they try to reconcile with the Sunni -- though exactly how Shia and Kurdish leaders are supposed to do this, given that the main Sunni demand is a timetable for an American withdrawal, has never been clear.
For their part, the Shia, have become increasingly suspicious that the U.S. and Britain do not intend to relinquish real control over security to the elected Iraqi government. There were many examples of this. For instance, in the Middle East the most important force underpinning every government is the intelligence service. In theory (as I explain in my book, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq), the Iraqi government should get its information from the Iraqi National Intelligence Service (INIS) that was established in 2004 by the US-run Coalition Provisional Authority. But a peculiarity of the INIS is that its budget is not provided by the Iraqi Finance Ministry but by the CIA.
Over the next three years, they paid $3 billion to fund its activities. During this time it was run by General Mohammed Shahwani, who had been the central figure in a CIA-run coup in 1996 against Saddam Hussein that had failed disastrously. For long periods he was even banned from attending Iraqi cabinet meetings. A former Iraqi cabinet minister, who was a member of the country's National Security Council, complained to me that "we only get information that the CIA wants us to hear." Iraqis did not fail to spot the extent to which the power of their elected government was being trimmed. The poll cited above showed that by Spring 2007 only 34% of Iraqis thought their country was being run by their own government; 59% believed the U.S. was in control. The Iraqi government had been robbed of legitimacy in the eyes of its own people.
In the course of 2006 and 2007, Baghdad disintegrated into a dozen hostile cities at war with each other. There were fewer and fewer mixed Sunni and Shia neighborhoods. Terror engulfed the city like a poisonous cloud. There was a lot to be frightened of: Sunni insurgent groups; the Shia militias, Mehdi Army, and the Badr Organization; police and police commandos; the Iraqi army and the Americans. One day I received an e-mail message from an old friend. He wrote: "Yesterday the cousin of my stepbrother (as you know, my father married twice) was killed by Badr troops three days after he was arrested. His body was found in the trash in al-Shula district. He was one of three other people who were killed after heavy torture. They did nothing, but they are Sunni people among the huge numbers of Shia people in the General Factory for Cotton in al-Khadamiyah where they were working. His family couldn't recognize his face [and only knew it was him] because of the wart on his arm."
Most of my Iraqi friends had fled Iraq for Jordan or Syria or, when they could get a visa, Western Europe. Soon, I could not enter the coffee shop of The Four Seasons, the hotel where I usually stayed in the Jordanian capital of Amman, without seeing several Iraqis I knew sitting at other tables. These were the better-off. The poor often had to chose between staying in jobs where they were at risk, becoming permanently unemployed, or taking flight. I was in contact with a Sunni family called al-Mashadani who lived in the west Baghdad district of Hurriya. It was under attack by Shia militiamen. Khalid, the father, worked as mechanic in the railway station. He was forced to leave his job when the repair yard was taken over by Shia militiamen. He stayed away and asked a Shia fellow worker to pick up his salary. This worked until the Shia militias found out what was happening and threatened to kill any Shia who passed on the salary of a Sunni.
Khalid was forced to leave for Syria where he found work. He left behind his wife, Nadia, and four children, the eldest of whom was eight years old. Living with them in the house was Nadia's sister, Sarah, whose husband had been an ordinary guard at the Oil Ministry building. He was killed by the resistance who considered that his job made him a collaborator with the government. On December 25, 2006, this whole family group was told by the Shia militia to get out of their house immediately without taking any possessions or be killed. They fled into the night and sat beside the road until a charitable minibus driver picked them up. Eventually, they found refuge in a school. Nadia recalled that "we stayed 29 days in a dark and damp room and we couldn't go out of it when the students were studying." Her husband in Syria offered to return, but she told him to stay because the family could not afford for him to lose his job.
Nadia blames the Americans for the sectarian civil war that had engulfed her family. She says: "We were living together, Sunni and Shia, and there was no sign of sectarian differences between us in Iraq until the Americans came and encouraged sectarianism and let in foreign terrorists." Many Iraqis similarly see sectarianism as the work of the Americans. This is not entirely fair. Sectarian differences in Iraq were deeper under Saddam Hussein and his predecessors than many Iraqis now admit. But in one important respect, foreign occupation did encourage and deepen sectarianism. Previously a Sunni might feel differently from a Shia but still feel they were both Iraqis. Iraqi nationalism did exist, though Sunni and Shia defined it differently. But the Sunnis fought the U.S. occupation, unlike the Shia who were prepared to cooperate with it. After 2003, the Sunni saw the Shia who took a job as a policeman as not only a member of a different community, but as a traitor to his country. Sectarian and national antipathies combined to produce a lethal brew.
The war in Iraq that started in 2003 has now lasted longer than the First World War. Militarily, the conflicts could not be more different. The scale of the fighting in Iraq is far below anything seen in 1914-18, but the political significance of the Iraq war has been enormous. America blithely invaded Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein to show its great political and military strength. Instead it demonstrated its weakness. The vastly expensive U.S. war machine failed to defeat a limited number of Sunni Arab guerrillas. International leaders such as Tony Blair who confidently allied themselves to Washington at the start of the war, convinced that they were betting on a winner, are either discredited or out of power.
At times, President Bush seemed intent on finding out how much damage could be done to the U.S. by the conflict in Iraq. He did so by believing a high proportion of his own propaganda about the resistance to the occupation being limited in scale and inspired from outside the country. By 2007, the administration was even claiming that the fervently anti-Iranian Sunni insurgents were being equipped by Iran. It was a repeat performance of U.S, assertions four years earlier that Saddam Hussein was backing al-Qaeda. In this fantasy world, constructed to impress American voters, in which failures were sold as successes, it was impossible to devise sensible policies.
The U.S. occupation has destabilized Iraq and the Middle East. Stability will not return until the occupation has ended. The Iraqi government, penned into the Green Zone, has become tainted in the eyes of Iraqis by reliance on a foreign power. Even when it tries to be independent, it seldom escapes the culture of dependency in which its members live. Much of what has gone wrong has more to do with the U.S. than Iraq. The weaknesses of its government and army have been exposed. Iraq has joined the list of small wars -- as France found in Algeria in the 1950s and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s -- that inflict extraordinary damage on their occupiers.
Patrick Cockburn has reported for decades on the Middle East and is author of, most recently "The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq."