What we Did to Iraq

Sunni radicals hit Baghdad Tuesday morning on the anniversary of the beginning of the US war on Iraq, killing over 50 people in attacks on soft targets (shopkeepers, pedestrians) in Shiite areas of the capital. They were signaling their continued die-hard opposition to the new Iraq, which is dominated by Shiite political parties, in which Sunnis have been deeply disadvantaged. In recent months, massive crowds in Falluja, Ramadi, Mosul and other largely Sunni cities have staged an Iraqi spring protest, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom they accuse of neglecting their interests and continuing to make large numbers of arbitrary arrests of their sons.

Arwa Damon reports on the aftermath in Iraq:

The US public was always carefully protected by its media from full knowledge of what the US government did to Iraq. The networks had a rule, of never showing blood. They almost never showed wounded Iraqis with bloody bandages. Of course, they never showed dismemberment (bodies blown up, unlike in Hollywood movies, don’t just pile up whole). Since Arabic satellite t.v. showed such images every day, the Arab world and the US saw two different wars on their screens. US media almost never interviewed Iraqi politicians (magazine shows like 60 Minutes very occasionally took up that task). Frequently, Pentagon talking points were swallowed whole. Propaganda about ‘al-Qaeda’ and Zarqawi being responsible for “80%” of the violence was used to hide from Americans that there were both Sunni and Shiite resistance movements against American occupation, and that they were Iraqis and widespread.

Many excellent reporters risked their lives to get compelling stories from American-occupied Iraq, but often appear to have faced resistance from editors back in the US. It was to the point that when I wrote one of my all-time most read pieces, “If America were like Iraq, what would it be like?” readers told me that it came as a revelation because it gave them a sense of proportion.

The US created a power vacuum and exercised a pro-Shiite favoritism in Iraq that fostered a Sunni-Shiite civil war. At its height in 2006-2007, as many as 3,000 Iraqis were being killed a month by militias. Many showed signs of acid or drilling or electrical torture. The Baghdad police had to establish a corpse patrol in the morning to collect the cadavers. How many Iraqis died as a result of the US invasion and occupation will never be known with any precision, but I think 200,000 would be the lower minimum. Since three to four times as many people are typically wounded as killed in conflict situations, that would suggest that as many as one million Iraqis were killed or wounded, some 4% of the population.

The US rounded up some 25,000 Iraqis at the height of the conflict, and their Shiite Iraqi government allies held another 25,000. The vast majority were Sunni Arabs. This 50,000 were in a vast gulag at any one time, but tens of thousands circulated through this system. Many were arbitrarily arrested, for simply being young men in the general vicinity of a bombing or other guerrilla activity. Very large numbers were tortured. US troops sometimes committed excesses. One national guard unit was known for laying down suppressive fire whenever a bomb went off in their vicinity. This tactic ensured that they killed Iraqi pedestrians after a market bombing. US troops sometimes shot drivers who did not know English and could not understand commands to slow down at checkpoints. How widespread actual atrocities were is always difficult to gauge in the fog of war. There were atrocities committed by US troops.

At the height of the conflict probably some 2.5 million Iraqis were displaced from their homes, fleeing elsewhere in the country. I’d now revise down the estimates of those displaced abroad, but likely there were at least half a million of them, and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees estimated them as more like 1.5 million. Many of these 3-4 milliion people, some 1/6 of the population, are still displaced and permanently lost their property, suffering a decline into poverty. Proportionally, it would be like 50 million Americans being forced out of their homes to take refuge in tents and slums elsewhere in the country or in Mexico or Canada.

The US destroyed the Iraqi state. It dissolved the army. It is not true as Bush apologists say, that the army was anyway gone. If they had offered soldiers money to show up at their barracks and report to their sergeants, they would have, for the most part. It still is unclear who exactly got rid of the Iraqi army and why. Jay Garner, the first proposed US viceroy in Iraq, suggested that the Bush administration was afraid that a Baathist army devoted to socialism and a strong state would get in the way of their plans for an Eastern European style “shock therapy” in the country. (One of the many motivations for the invasion of Iraq was to further destroy the socialist model for global south economies). Of course, some elite units were heavily Sunni Arab, but they could have been integrated. Instead, they were fired and sent home (it was even threatened that they would not even get pensions). Some of them joined the guerrilla resistance.

The US also destroyed the public sector, dissolving state-owned companies and creating massive unemployment, especially in Sunni provinces such as al-Anbar, which naturally emerged as among the most violent centers of resistance.

Most damaging of all, the US backed the ‘debaathification’ program championed by Shiite politicians like Ahmad Chalabi, which actually involved firing some 100,000 Sunnis from government jobs (even, often, fairly low-level ones) and then giving those jobs to members of the Shiite parties that were coming to power. As late as 2010, the debaathification commission was trying to interfere in the parliamentary elections. This massive piece of social engineering did more than anything to fan the still-burning flames of sectarianism, since it awarded material benefits on the basis of ethnic and sectarian identity. You can’t do much about your ethnic and sectarian identity. If you were punished for belonging to a party, you could change parties. But the Sunnis in particular weren’t allowed to escape their former political history (many Shiites who had been Baath Party members escaped punishment). If you’re punished for being who you are, and it is signaled that that will go on forever, then you might be tempted to turn to violence.

The vaunted ‘sons of Iraq’ or ‘awakening councils’ program that the US adopted from late 2006 involved organizing what were essentially pro-American Sunni militias to fight radical Sunnis. The Shiite government did not want these some 100,000 armed Sunnis left behind as a problem. It declined to give most of them employment as the Americans withdrew. It actually prosecuted some of them for their former guerrilla activities (before they switched teams and joined the awakening councils). Not only were they often left unemployed, but they no longer had the command of military force to protect themselves from reprisals by the radicals.

The political system the US imposed on Iraq is a one-chamber parliamentary system. It has been demonstrated by political scientists in societies with a structural minority, this system virtually guarantees frustration and violence (Sunni Arabs are probably like 18% of the population, Shiites 60%, with the rest Kurds, Turkmen and a dwindling number of Christians). Assuming Shiites can get their act together (not a foregone conclusion), they can always dominate the government. The prime minister in Iraq faces few de facto checks on power, assuming he or she can avoid a vote of no confidence. PM Nouri al-Maliki stands accused by his rivals of making the military and security forces his personal fiefdom and using them for his own purposes.

Iraq’s broken political system has what is more or less a permanent hung parliament, since the Sunnis, Kurds and two major Shiite factions can never for very long unite behind a particular prime minister. There is no relief from this political gridlock on the horizon.

The US actually stole billions from Iraqi petroleum receipts, which is illegal in international law, using it to badly administer the country and possibly just embezzling large amounts of it. More billions of US taxpayer funds also went missing. Most reconstruction efforts were poorly suited to the local conditions and most of that effort and money were wasted. Iraq needs 14 gigawatts of electricity generation but has only 9 gigs (the government keeps promising that new plants will open this year). Much of the country lacks potable water and people are forced to drink sewage. Half of the country’s physicians were forced abroad in the last decade, and many Iraqis still have to seek medical care outside the country.

The war was illegal in international law. Since the US had no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq, likely there would have been an Iraqi spring in 2011 and the regime would have been prevented, as in Libya, by US air power from putting it down with military force. The regime would have been gone, but by the Iraqi people acting unitedly, instead of by a foreign imposition that championed one ethnic group over others. The outcome would surely have been more stable. The worst thing was, the whole nightmare was unnecessary.

Posted in Iraq,Iraq War | 29 Responses | Print |

29 Responses

    • It’s not ignorance. It’s following the desires of a powerful but obscure constituency who only care about profits and nothing about people’s lives. The Military industrial Complex.

    • It ain’t ignorance — it’s just another manifestation of the banality of evil. Wrapped in an increasingly tattered flag that used to actually stand for something other than being a “battle standard” like the Napoleonic “Eagles:” “The day after the coronation, Napoleon had an eagle placed at the top of the shaft of every flag in the Napoleonic army.” link to napoleon.org, and on our official side, link to tioh.hqda.pentagon.mil And driven by the flux of forces and interests that have killed any vestiges of the wisdom of folks like “Beware entangling alliances” Washington and “Beware the MIC” Eisenhower and of course my personal favorite for telling it like it really is, Smedley “War is nothing but a racket” Butler. It’s the ability of a very few to sucker the many into paying, in so many ways, for what the many ought to perceive as Idiot Games from which they can derive NOTHING of value, most certainly not that siren-song wetdream called “victory!”

      It ain’t ignorance at the top — it’s imperial arrogance and post-national corporate interests ruling. The latter evidenced by looking to that old adage, “Follow the money.” And that hippie snarkism, “War is good business! Invest YOUR son! (and now, of course, with a politically correct nod to Equal Opportunity To Be Killed By the Stupidity of Others, your daughter too!)”

      • if not ignorance .. then intentional?

        i used ignorance as a way of describing lack of understanding of cause and effect.

        intentional is worse, that is approaching evil, and a tough thing to admit about one’s country. usa is evil. ok, i can buy that.

        • But that fearless leader in gwb just had to use that label “evil of axis”. Can we assume he knew all about it?

  1. It’s one hour and forty four minutes long drama on PBS called Page Eight. Great acting by well known stars and a spellbinding script about torture and Israel’s involvement in taking the life of a peace activist, Rachel Corrie style. Someone you never see on TV. Written by David Hare, whom I have so much admiration for.

    link to pbs.org

  2. Great piece above but I have one question/quibble…

    It is my understanding from political science literature that Presidential systems are more prone to authoritarianism than single-chamber parliaments. What are some other examples of single-chamber parliaments having constant civil-war violence? Off the top of my head, Canada and Great Britain have their share of issues, with large structural minorities and single chamber parliaments, but constant civil war is not a constant there.

    What type of democratic system would have been preferable to what was installed in Iraq?

    Germany and Japan have more parlimentary style systems than Iraq and Afghanistant. I think these examples are used by those against Presidential democratic systems…

    • You might ask george himself about the preferable system. As i am sure he only had one thing in mind, that he would be King George. His Saud family would be next door to give him cover.

    • Frank:

      Canada’s system is bicameral with an appointed upper chamber. Canada is a confederation of provinces; seats in the upper chamber are allocated by province, not by population, giving certain provinces outsize representation. The primary structural minority is located in a single province, Quebec. The division of powers in Canada place a tremendous amount of power in the hands of the provinces, and so Quebec has been able to make itself exceeding French-friendly, limited only by capital flight to other provinces. The issue of Quebec separatism has been eroded by immigration such that allophones now outnumber unilingual francophones. The recent resurgence of the the provincial Parti Quebecois is a reaction to the incumbents and their shielding of wide-spread corruption – we’ll clean things up and in a couple of elections the PQ will be back to opposition or perhaps even minority status. See also the loss of official party status of the Block Quebecois in the last federal election.

      From my understanding, Sunni and Shia do not constitute linguistically and geographically separate populations, so it isn’t clear to me that the Canadian system would help them; however, the Canadian system could help very much with relations between the Kurdish regions and the rest of the country.

      • Thanks Kurt for the education on the political institutional structure of Canada. I agree that giving the provinces a lot of power (more than states in the US) than the Federal government is key; it is my understanding that the upper chamber of Canada is relatively weak vis a vis the lower chamber of parliament.

        Good point to how immigration changed Quebec big-time.

        I think Joe Biden proposed a confederation system for Iraq a number of years ago, similar I recall to Canada in giving the provinces and regions of the country more power…

      • You forget to add, to start with, that Canada has two official languages, and the Canadian government operates in both. In the north of Canada, six official languages are recognized.

        Canada is the most decentralized of federal states, and pushing the power lower down has proven beneficial to the federation as a whole. Democracy is maintained in Canada by the provinces being able to create the context for federal priorities.

        While officially with two houses, in truth the system has worked primarily and overwhelmingly as a one house system. One of the reasons that works is because it is multi-party, allowing more than two official parties to speak to the public.

        Pro-Republican conservatives (including the current government) have tried to remake the Prime Minister’s Office into a Presidential Office, and to “resurrect” the Senate into an American variant – the intent being to concentrate power in the executive while allowing conservative forces to block popular outbursts of democracy in the “lower” house.

        Autocrats like the US system, which is deeply conservative.

  3. I agree with the article except, perhaps, “there would have been an Iraqi spring in 2011” as the Arab spring sprung largely from the Bradley Manning cable leaks. This does not justify the war at all but perhaps would give rise to the argument from some that whatever evils came from the Iraq war it made democracy possible – even though in its nascent form it may be lacking, it has the potential to grow and improve.

    Then, perhaps an Arab spring may still have happened even with Saddam present. Even so, would it have avoided sectarian violence?

    • Good points, Martin. I guess the suggestion of the Arab Spring having an impact serves more as an abstract example that self-determination is the key principle. The journey is at least as important as the destination. Nations – people – have a right to self-determination. It is not a luxury, but a necessity. I suspect even insurgency is a national duty, should your own country come to be invaded. This highlights part of the problem with aggressive wars – you trash the foundations of your own culture. We demand self determination for ourselves, but routinely deny it to others. The only way you can maintain the logic of right and defensible action is by setting a double standard as a method of self-denial, and to embrace the kind of paternalism and racism that treats other nations as children who are incapable of legitimately determining their own fate. Even a utopian end would never justify the means.

      It seems difficult to escape the image of a criminal psychiatrist in Montreal developing the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used today by purposefully destroying the minds of mentally ill people, reducing them to an infantilised, blank slate, because he had a mad theory that he could reconstruct them again – better, stronger and healthier. Even if he had been able to help them once he had destroyed them, the ends do not justify the means. It is undoubtedly better to live with depression than it is to be tortured back into infancy in the name of health – or indeed knowledge – never mind empire. (Ref: Ewen Cameron, Allen Memorial Hospital. keywords: depatterning, psychic driving)

  4. “The US public was always carefully protected by its media from full knowledge of what the US government did…” The only problem with the preceding sentence is the single verb tense. It should be “was” and “is”.

  5. Why no reference to the strengthened position of Iran in the article?


  6. A filthy, despicable, illegal war;

    This was the world’s strongest country, attacking one of the world’s weakest countries, a county which according to America’s own leaders, had been disarmed, and was not a threat to anyone.

    Thanks to Bush and Blair, and their assistants, Iraq is now effectively destroyed, a chaotic, violent dangerous place. The people will live in misery for many years now.

    Until the perpetrators are charged and tried, expect more of the same.

  7. As an American citizen living outside the US at the time of 9/11 and the following decade +, I was/am amazed how contentedly ‘in the dark’ so many in the US were/are. Virtually everyone I knew/know in the Middle East and Europe believe the war was about Oil. A few think it was about Israel. People in the US tell me: “we have moved on.” [I have not polled folks in the US, but I think most still think Iraq war was fought about weapons of mass destruction and Sadam helping Osama with 9/11 attacks].
    Many thoughtful British and European people I knew in 2004-06 read the blog: Baghdad Burning. No one I know in the US read it.
    I was staggered in 2005/06 when briefly in the US and watching CSPAN late one night, I noted 2 callers in to program on how to get the vote out in Iraq (I think to ratify the constitution or elect officials??). First one caller suggested that if security is poor, then why not use postal ballots??? She must have thought that people could go to their post box safely??? She did not know that there was no house to house mail delivery??? Second caller wondered why they could not vote ‘on-line’ — seemed to be unaware that there were frequent, routine and huge electricity outages over much of Iraq most of the time!!! And not too many folks had working computers at home and access to internet!!! How could these callers NOT
    have known??? Perhaps the media kept them in the dark, but I think they were ok with being kept ignorant.
    I also recall in about 2002, how outraged some US expatriates became at me (the messenger), when I mentioned how an Afghan friend described people she knew in the US: “They are kept in a very low state of awareness,” she had observed to me.

  8. Here in Iraq are live in real democracy and these explosions are the cost of democracy. We even never dreamed to see provŲ‡ncail election during Saddam regime , while now there is election wedding. furthermore , private sector is getting better day after day and investments are coming to Iraq. despite I’m almost forty years old and without job but i feel better because I see the bright future

    • The Israelis don’t seem to have been too terribly keen on that war. The head of Shin Bet was warning that it was a bad idea.

      The boon that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein represented for Iran was utterly predictable.

  9. “…….a dwindling number of Christians.”

    Iraqi Christians (Chaldeans) have comprised in recent years about 3% of the Iraqi population. They have been targeted for various types of violence due to their religious affiliation, which has accelerated the departure of many to the United States and Europe.

    In Metro Detroit, however, there are about 100,000 persons of Iraqi ancestry who reside in that area. Likely about 90% are Chaldean and the rest Islamic. Before the Persian Gulf War almost all persons of Iraqi descent in Metro Detroit were Christian and that war resulted in a number of Iraqi Shi’ite exiles coming to the area some stayed after the fall of Saddam Hussein and some went back to Iraq.

    Metro Detroit’s Chaldean community dates back to the early part of the 20th century with a spike in immigration in the 1960s and 70s but a staedy stream still is coming in from Iraq to this day. These Chaldeans have, for the most part, assimilated into American society and a significant number have been elected or appointed to many governmental offices in the state judiciary and legislature in Michigan – many are also small business owners. This Chaldean community is very unlikely to return to Iraq – unlike the Shi’ites who did return in significant numbers and many of those were active in the Iraqi National Congress that had been backed by the State Departemnt and Central Intelligence Agency as a sort of government-in-exile.

  10. Whatever happened to Riverbend? Her last Baghdad Burning blog entry in 2007 had her in Syria. Poor girl… Can’t catch a peaceful break.

    Does anyone know? Did she ever return to blogging elsewhere or something else? Is she even still alive?

  11. This 10 year anniversary of the evil act of invasion of Iraq fills heart with sadness. This nation used be stand for something.

    Its military might was a force for good but due to a twist of fate (The 2000 election, which was narrowly won by Bush possibly due to Supreme court justices appointed by his father, in spite of losing the popular vote …. Gore would not have invaded Iraq) the halls of power were occupied by those who would end up using it for evil.

    All Americans have the duty to make this right. We can urge our government to facilitate creation of modern infrastructure in Iraq. We can provide our vast technical know how to help with this. Integrate Iraq tightly into international commerce and help with that process. This will bring prosperity to people and the future generations there can live better than any Iraqi generation before them.

    But for the short term we need to help Iraqi government who must be scared of having the Sunni extremism sweeping through Syria to not spill over into Iraq and cause destabilization. If Assad in Syria falls in a disorderly manner, it will surely embolden Sunni extremists to topple Maliki’s Shiite government.
    Finally, our government can seek help of experts such as Prof. Cole (I remember during Iraq war phase a lot of top people had not even heard of Shia and Sunni)

  12. The Iraq debacle must go down as one of the biggest military blunders in human history. The arrogance of it all is astounding! This disgusting, shameful episode in American history is still reverberating worldwide to this day and will be for years to come. Anyone who profited from this will surely be cursed for generations to come.

  13. “Since the US had no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq, likely there would have been an Iraqi spring in 2011 and the regime would have been prevented, as in Libya, by US air power from putting it down with military force. The regime would have been gone, but by the Iraqi people acting unitedly, instead of by a foreign imposition that championed one ethnic group over others. The outcome would surely have been more stable.”

    Naive in the extreme.

    • can you explain why this hypothesis is deemed naive, hester? it seems to me any number of outcomes would have been possible had the neo-cons been kept at bay…

  14. “Naive in the extreme”

    Meet the Press March 16, 2003:

    “Mr. Russert: If your analysis is not correct, and we’re not treated as liberators, but as conquerors, and the Iraqis begin to resist, particularly in Baghdad, do you think the American people are prepared for a long, costly, and bloody battle with significant American casualties?

    Vice President Cheney: Well, I don’t think it’s likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators. I’ve talked with a lot of Iraqis in the last several months myself, had them to the White House. The president and I have met with them, various groups and individuals, people who have devoted their lives from the outside to trying to change things inside Iraq. And like Kanan Makiya who’s a professor at Brandeis, but an Iraqi, he’s written great books about the subject, knows the country intimately, and is a part of the democratic opposition and resistance. The read we get on the people of Iraq is there is no question but what they want to the get rid of Saddam Hussein and they will welcome as liberators the United States when we come to do that. ”

    Now THAT was naive at best and a willing lie at worst.

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