Washington asks, “Who lost Ramadi?” But Washington never had Ramadi

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | —

The inside-the-Beltway debate set off by the fall of the Iraqi city of Ramadi to Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) on Sunday is, as usual, Dadaistic in its disconnection from reality. Republican talking points blame Barack Obama for withdrawing US troops from Iraq in 2011, as though Daesh suddenly began in 2012. The GOP figures typically don’t mention that it was George W. Bush who set the end of 2011 as the date for a total US withdrawal from Iraq, because that was all he could get from the Iraqi parliament.

But the whole debate about “who lost Ramadi?” assumes facts not in evidence, i.e. that Ramadi has ever been “pacified” or somehow a United States protectorate, sort of like Guam or Puerto Rico.

The United States has been for the Sunni Arabs of Iraq what the Mongols were to Baghdad in 1258, an alien invading force that came in and turned things upside down.

Bush invaded Iraq in spring of 2003.

Here is what I wrote at my blog in August, 2003, based on what I was seeing in the Iraqi press or hearing on shortwave radio in Arabic:

*Huge explosions at the US base at Ramadi west of Baghdad, but no word on casualties as I write. Guerrillas killed one soldier, wounded two others outside the police station at Baquba, northeast of Baghdad.

In November of 2004, Bush launched a massive attack on Falluja, just to Ramadi’s east. It was seen throughout the Sunni regions as a sign that Sunnis were going to be subordinated by the Americans to Shiites and Kurds.

In early 2005, I wondered if the Sunni insurgency could eventually turn into a “Third Baath coup.” By that I meant that the remnants of the Baath Party (socialist, nationalist) allied with Salafi Muslim hardliners were systematically killing members of the new political class being stood up by the Bush administration, and were angling to take back over the country. We now know that former Baath officers set up the so-called “Islamic State” as a means of gaining recruits for their ongoing insurgency, at a time when the Baath Party no longer had any cachet but political Islam seemed a growing trend. The ex-Baath/ Salafi cells of resistance were all along strong in Ramadi.

In summer of 2005 Shiite parliamentarians had the major share in the drafting of the constitution. The US military occupied Ramadi but did not control it. Darren Mortenson reported in 2005:

The Marines say they think there are about 2,000 potential insurgents in Ramadi, led by a hard-core cadre of about 150 full-time fighters from Iraq and other countries who have expertise in weapons, bomb-making and guerrilla tactics. Since they arrived in Ramadi in March, the battalion has lost at least 14 Marines and sailors in combat, mostly roadside bombs that do not give the survivors targets against which to fight back. “I don’t think the Battle of Ramadi can ever be won,” said one company commander, according to the recent article. “I just think the Battle of Ramadi has to be fought every day.”

Some 5000 people in Ramadi came out to demonstrate against the Shiite-Kurdish constitution, which the Sunnis voted down in all their regions. I was interviewed in the run-up to the referendum:

“Juan Cole, an Iraq expert who teaches Middle Eastern history and politics at the University of Michigan, said the U.S. cannot afford a bold military strategy or heavy hand in Ramadi, least of all now with the constitution and two upcoming elections in the balance. . . Cole said Ramadi will be an important place to watch to see if attempts at democracy can survive. “If you cannot get the Arabs of Ramadi to buy into it, you lose Anbar. And if Anbar province is lost to the government, then it means Iraq will be partitioned,” he said, offering little hope that a breakup could be avoided. “If there could be a breakthrough in Ramadi, then maybe there could be a breakthrough in other Sunni cities elsewhere. But I’m not going to hold my breath,” he said. “I think the whole thing is going south.”

People routinely used to call me unduly pessimistic back in the early days of the American occupation of Iraq, as if that whole thing was ever going to work out.

Al-Anbar Province solidly defeated the American-imposed draft constitution in mid-October, 2005. If you have three Sunni-Arab provinces that reject the national constitution, then you don’t have a country, you have a civil war waiting to happen.

Just after the referendum, in late October, Sabrina Tavernise wrote for the NYT:

“Still, more than two years after the American invasion, this city of 400,000 people is just barely within American control. The deputy governor of Anbar was shot to death on Tuesday; the day before, the governor’s car was fired on. There is no police force. A Baghdad cellphone company has refused to put up towers here. American bases are regularly pelted with rockets and mortar shells, and when troops here get out of their vehicles to patrol, they are almost always running. “You can’t just walk down the street for a period of time and not expect to get shot at,” said Maj. Bradford W. Tippett, the operations officer for the Third Battalion.”

Nor did the US do anything for the people of Ramadi. Their state-owned factories and enterprises were driven into bankruptcy by Paul Bremer’s neoliberal policies. Likely half of the men were thrown out of their jobs. At the end of the long American occupation, 23% of Iraqis, some 7 million out of 30 million, were living below the poverty line. All the killing had left behind large numbers of widows, and 4.5 million children and youth who had lost a parent. Many are now resentful young men old enough to hold a kalashnikov.

A poll taken of Iraqis by the British military in late October of 2005 showed:

• Forty-five per cent of Iraqis believe attacks against British and American troops are justified – rising to 65 per cent in the British-controlled Maysan province;
• 82 per cent are “strongly opposed” to the presence of coalition troops;
• less than one per cent of the population believes coalition forces are responsible for any improvement in security;
• 67 per cent of Iraqis feel less secure because of the occupation;
• 43 per cent of Iraqis believe conditions for peace and stability have worsened;
• 72 per cent do not have confidence in the multi-national forces.

If 82 percent of Iraqis in general didn’t want US forces in their country late in 2005, probably 100% of the people of Ramadi did not. And no one in Iraq thought that the US military had brought improved security with it.

Through 2006, Iraq fell into Sunni-Shiite civil war. On a random day in that year, I reported “Al-Zaman says that fighting continues between the US military and guerrillas in Ramadi, with 12 dead and 12 wounded on Tuesday.”

After the US military once again conquered Ramadi, an LA Times reporter visited it in 2007:

“No one underestimates the scope of the task, which is evident to anyone who drives through the city. Ramadi resembles a small-scale version of Berlin in 1945. Whole city blocks have been reduced to rubble by airstrikes, improvised explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades and other munitions. The government center has been leveled, and heavy armored vehicles that rumbled through the streets have ruptured water mains in scores of places.”

During WW II, the US and Britain fire-bombed German and Japanese cities. That Ramadi looked like Berlin after the war is an indictment for an occupying power, not a compliment.

So it completely escapes me why John McCain, Lindsey Graham, John Boehner or Tom Cotton (who helped personally with the berlinization of Iraq) think that if only US troops had remained in country after 2011, the people of Ramadi would have been delirious with joy and avoided throwing in with radical anti-imperialist forces.

No one in Washington “lost Ramadi.” Washington never had Ramadi.


Related video:

CNN: ” GOP slams Obama’s strategy after ISIS victory in Ramadi”

26 Responses

  1. The disconnection between the psychologies and philosophies of the political elites, on one hand, and between 97% of the populations they supposedly represent on the other side, has long been a favorite theme in my writing.

    My latest article at my place is a long dive into this same topic again. Teaser quote: “Yet whether they inhabit either the decidedly-more-democratic nations, or the determinedly-more-dictatorial nations, ordinary citizens everywhere find it very difficult to believe that their day-to-day thoughts and actions will have any effect on their political structures. In all nations, political elites tend to have significantly different psychological experiences than average citizens …”

  2. Thanks for this informed reminder of reality . . . so needed by those of us who watch network news and read typical U.S. newspapers.

  3. A riveting article. But what about the surge – did that turn things around in Ramadi and Anbar Province until it was discontinued?

    • .
      I am the original author of the “Model Communities” Approach, from whence the “Surge / Anbar Awakening” was bastardized.

      I submitted a proposal to the Occupation Authority in May 2004 to stabilize a dozen or so cities, including ar-Ramadi,
      by supporting the indigenous authentic local leaders of communities to govern their cities and villages with the cooperation of the occupying force,
      but not under the bootheels of it.
      The key concept was the independent authority of these leaders to make the day-to-day decisions of local governance.
      GEN George Casey took a corrupted version my Approach to Amman in November 2005 and asked a council of former Sunni leaders of the country and of al-Anbar,
      and asked if they would agree to ruling Sunni territories with a US Army Commissar at their elbow to approve or disapprove every single decision. They declined the offer.
      The “Anbar Awakening” was P4 cramming that same unworkable plan down the throats of the leaders who stayed in-country. Famously, one tribal leader embraced the Approach, and the Resistance movement (probably an early version of ISIS) killed him.
      This abortion coincided with the ethnic cleansing of Sunni portions of Baghdad, which – after the initial bloodbath – resulted in fewer Iraqi civilian and US military deaths overall.
      Statistically, the “Surge” wasn’t even a factor.

      • Thanks for giving us your experiences in the Occupation. I don’t think many of its administrators will ever be willing to talk so frankly.

  4. thank you prof cole for this history you have written up here. if the nytimes and others were on the up and up, this piece would be on the front page. it is clear to any sober person that isis is a locally backed entity and not a group of international terrorists. the citizens of sunni iraq did not want us in 2003, they don’t want us now. they are willing to take on the most technologically advanced military on the planet. they have fought that military to a standstill and have suffered incredible hardship so as to defend their homeland from an invasion that george w. bushes brother has this past week admitted was a mistake. so why are we are we still bombing these people and destroying their cities still at this very moment? exactly who are the terrorists here? what a colossal waste of our treasury. what a stubborn refusal to accept our failure. what a horror to inflict on a people for no clearly stated reason. this really is vietnam all over again. maybe vietnam needs to be taught more accurately in our schools.maybe we need to fund history education rather than the pentagon. orwellian in 2003. orwellian in 2015. ignorance is truth.

    • Andy, I believe that allowing IS to continue without checkmating it would be an even greater error on the part of all those bystander nations that print reports and photos, then stand by and watch.

      No matter who has been at fault in this region, it is incumbent upon the nations, both neighbors and distant, to stand up for the general principles dictated by humanity itself and stop the barbarism of IS. That savage group/army/ideology is comprised of a majority Sunni persuasion, but so is Ramadi. At this crucial stage, the people of Ramadi and of Iraq in general must face up to the enemy in their midst, viz., the evil excesses of humanity. All persuasions, Sunni, Shiite, Kurds must either coalesce to degrade and destroy or they will become the authors of their own demise, and Iraq will become the beacon of distorted Islam.

      • Robert, I agree with your thoughts and sentiments, but could you please quit pretending that any nation or people is responsible for the disaster Iraq has become other than the nation and people that perpetrated the whole fiasco, which is the United States through its illegal, amoral, deceitful, and unjustified invasion, occupation, and destruction of Iraq?

        And I think that given a vote, the people of Ramadi would rather have Daesh/IS/ISIL in power than the Shiite government in Baghdad, which has discriminated and persecuted Sunnis since its inception under American domination.

      • the only thing that might change is the name. just as it has before. republican guard. baath party. sad dam’s fedayeen. al quaeda in iraq. now it is isis. but is the same thing just with different names. it can’t be killed. it just morphs into something else. that is the point of professor cole’s statement.

        • “… that is the point of professor cole’s statement”

          If that was his point I am sure he’d make it himself and much more succinctly.

  5. As a whole, the Republican candidates want the public to think Obama not only lost Ramadi, he is about to lose most of Iraq to ISIS. Criticizing Obama’s foreign policy will be the key to their strategy for winning the White House in 2016. They are speaking in one voice. Yesterday, Jeb Bush said al-Queda in Iraq was defeated when his brother was president AND there was no ISIS. The Republicans will try and link Hillary to many of the current problems.

    If Obama backs away from defeating ISIS in Ramadi and Iraq it would be the best gift the Republican could possibly imagine in 2016.The American public was easily duped by war propaganda during the buildup to invading Iraq so the Republicans are basing their strategy on recent history.The Republicans really don’t have anything else.

  6. Right on….in virtually all cases the media marches to their own misguided tune

    • Not their own. There’s a composer and an orchestra; lobbying groups, think tanks and other propaganda organizations in Washington that consume vast sums and brainpower to come up with lies that they know will fit the media’s agenda.

  7. It’s amazingly depressing. Right up there, with previously there not being an Al Qaeda connection and Iraq to our war spurring such a relationship – the politically self-fulfilling prophesy.

    Today it’s being reported Tadmur/Palmyra has fallen to ISIL, and that it means half of Syria is under their control. The question now is – what next — how far is ISIL going to push on — Baghdad is not far from Ramadi, an hour and a half. What is the state of things from the Jordanian and Lebanese perspectives?

  8. So it completely escapes me why John McCain, Lindsey Graham, John Boehner or Tom Cotton (who helped personally with the berlinization of Iraq) think that if only US troops had remained in country after 2011, the people of Ramadi would have been delirious with joy and avoided throwing in with radical anti-imperialist forces.

    Because what they say sustains their beliefs no matter how out of touch with reality they are.

    • Or maybe because there’s a subtext in the GOP messaging that only bigots are meant to hear:

      “If we had stayed the world would have grown to accept it by the time we finally carried out systematic mass extermination… like we would have done in Vietnam if we could.”

      They don’t believe in rehabilitation, they don’t believe in reform, they don’t believe in persuasion, they don’t believe in negotiation, they don’t believe in assimilation. Here or abroad. They believe in punishment, specifically the death penalty. Worse, they believe they have a special right over all other peoples on earth to administer punishment – so that becomes the point of the exercise, even if compromise would more logically achieve some useful gain. Thus, the sort of police behavior they defend in our own cities.

  9. The war hawks smell blood in the water.

    From a Guardian article…Fred Kagan, Victoria Nuland’s brother-in-law, called for 15-20,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. “Anything less than that is simply unserious.”

    Jack Keane said it was time to begin “serious planning” for the reintroduction of U.S. combat brigades in Iraq. Keane said the U.S. needed to get over its “political psychosis on Iraq.”

    The hawks are making their move. The Republicans tried the same thing in 1964, but this time they think their Barry Goldwater strategy will work.

    • And then what will that President do when the Shiite regime we okayed in Baghdad decides to invite in ten divisions of Iranian Revolutionary Guards instead? That’s an option that Diem did not have on the table in 1964.

  10. The drums for war are beating for the purpose of restarting the profiteering bonanza that Bush II created. Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex is now superseded. It is the mercenary-military-support complex where the ridiculous money is.

    They want a war, any war, anywhere.

    The only way to end that is to make a constitutional amendment that prevents our military from subcontracting out any function related to support and logistics for any deployment of troops or warfighting material.

  11. What is now playing out is the reality of the Biden Plan; an ongoing sectarian civil war and genocide.
    Your analysis is just plain flawed. Yes things in Ramadi were bad, but you conveniently left out the period after the Anbar Awakening in 2006, well before the Surge, when the Sunni population by and large rejected Al Qaeda with US help (unlike the similar Sunni only attempt in 2005). By fall 2007, peace had broken out and things stayed that way until the US pull out in 2011 due to the Obama administration not being capable of negotiating a SOFA agreement with the Iraqis.
    The government of PM Malaki accused its senior Sunni official, Vice President Tariq al Hashem of murder, forcing him to flee Iraq before being tried in absentia and sentenced to death. Malaki purged the Iraqi army and government ministries of competent leaders and inserted political cronies and Shia extremists. In 2013, Malaki had the term limits in the Iraq constitution declared unconstitutional and attempted to set himself up as emperor for life, and embarked on a systematic persecution of the Sunni population, all while falling further under the influence of the Iranians.
    Which leads us to the rebirth of al Qaeda in Iraq, which the administration conveniently calls ISIS, and were we are today, having US troops (without a SOFA agreement) in Iraq trying to train a flawed Iraqi army that will never be capable of defeating Al Qaeda even with the assistance of the Shia death squads and the Iranian Quds force.
    We had established stability and told the locals that we would be there for them, and then we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by fulfilling a campaign promise and pulling out. The loss to US credibility is even more devastating than the 1,300 dead and 10X that were wounded securing the city.

    • Not Fox News but first hand experience in Ramadi, suggest you get your facts straight

  12. Exactly wrong.

    Bush signed the SOFA in late 2008. All US troops were to be out of the cities 6/30/09 and from the country on 12/31/11.

    Obama tried to re-open negotiations on the SOFA and the Iraqis politely told him to go Cheney himself.

    Puppet governments just aren’t what they used to be.

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