From the fall of Baghdad to the occupation

The Iraqi state created by Great Britain shortly after the disappearance of the Ottoman Empire was a state led by Sunnis (twenty percent of the population), reigning over Shias (sixty percent) and Kurds (twenty percent). At first it was made up of two vilayets (provinces): that of Bassora (Shia) and that of Baghdad (mostly Sunni), to which was attached the oil vilayet of Mosul, populated in its majority by Kurds (and Turkmens). Given the correlation of forces, this latter vilayet, claimed between 1923 and 1925 by the Turkish Republic led by Mustafa Kemal, had been allotted by the League of Nations to Great Britain.
Iraq had always been governed by Sunnis. In 1991, after the Iraqi defeat consecutive to the annexation of Kuwait, George H. Bush (Senior) had taken care to leave Saddam Hussein in power, who though weakened, was hostile to Iran.

During the year 2002, Iran strengthened its positions among Iraqi Shias and trained Shia militia in preparation for the regime change announced by the United States. The US forces’ victory came easily, given that Saddam Hussein had no aviation. The bombings lasted a few weeks, and then a quick armored-tank breakthrough completed a war started because of the supposed existence of weapons of mass destruction. There were none. No more than any contacts with al-Qaeda.

According to Donald Rumsfeld three months after the fall of Baghdad, thirty-five thousand men would be left in the country, which would carry on with growth thanks to its oil.

Fatal mistakes

As soon as Baghdad fell, US authorities made one mistake after another due to their political and cultural unpreparedness.

While Donald Rumsfeld limited protection to the Ministry of Oil, Baghdad was the theater of degradation and plundering. This came partly from the ordinary prisoners that Saddam Hussein had released, intentionally, during the conflict. No curfew was issued. Urban insecurity was constant for several weeks and damages were enormous.

On the advice of Ahmed Chalabi, a Shia who had gained the trust of the Washington Neocons, the Iraqi army and the police force—that is, more than five hundred thousand men—were sent home. The head of the British MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, spoke up against this measure. Paul Wolfowitz, probably advised by Ahmed Chalabi, maintained his call, as many of the officers of the Iraqi army were Sunnis (the following year, US authorities suspected Ahmed Chalabi of working for Iran).

From May 2003 to June 2004, Paul Bremer was appointed Director of the Coalition Provisional Authority. The fact that this position was simply invented indicated that a period of occupation had just been decided, since no government had been formed, not even for a limited period. The Kurds and the Shias, however, had their leaders.

In addition, after the army had been fired, so to speak, Paul Bremer made it known that no member of the Ba’ath party (six hundred thousand members), whatever his rank, would be allowed to belong to the country’s future administration. With senior officials numbering no more than a few tens of thousands, this amounted to marginalizing the Sunnis. A capital fault.

Never had even a previously Communist state rejected outright all the members of the party. Becoming a party member, at the lower echelons, was a job guarantee. This measure, by excluding the Sunnis from the political chess-board to the benefit of the Shias—which the Sunnis regarded as heretics—and the Kurds—who were not Arabs and whom they had fought since the birth of Iraq—was intolerable to the Sunnis, who saw themselves as the legitimate leaders of the country since the Ottoman period, during that of the British mandate, then of the royalty, and finally under all the following republican regimes.

The fast emergence of the insurrection

At the beginning of the summer of 2003, the insurrection was in full swing. In August, the representative of the United Nations Secretary-General was killed in Baghdad in an attack, soon followed by others. Usually, organizing resistance requires time, weapons, money, and support. Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney thought in 2003 that these were isolated attacks with no further consequences. It was in fact all the opposite, as the apparatus of the toppled regime’s intelligence services went underground, intact, with the support of elements from Saddam Hussein’s Special Republican Guard and some Fedayeen. It would not be long before this core would be joined by a notable part of the Sunnis, now convinced of their political marginalization. They had weapons, money, know-how, and soon, outside support.

The US Army, remarkably effective in its traditional formation (“Mission accomplished,” declared G.W. Bush), was not suited for counterinsurgency. The crushed adversary had not admitted its defeat and applied a strategy of the weak against the strong, based on time, harassment, and sabotage. Outside assistance and sanctuary were discreetly provided by Syria.

Donald Rumsfeld, despite pressing requests from his generals, refused to increase the number of his troops. Apart from Great Britain, the other countries offered only a few hundred men’s worth of reinforcement. Washington had to call on private companies, which turned out to be as much a problem as a solution.1 Some of them filled police jobs, others military jobs.

In 2003, the Shia leader Muqtadā al-Sadr played troublemaker and his damaging power never ceased to grow over the four following years, to the satisfaction of Iran, the presence of which had been strong within each Shia faction since before the conflict had broken out.
More than anything else, the major weakness of the occupying forces was intelligence gathering. Practically none of the US political or military leaders spoke Arabic (contrary to the British, who were occupying Basra).

An occupant hated by all

Over the entire summer, in particular, of 2003, US forces were unable to restore electricity properly, and there was not enough gas for vehicles, much to the Iraqis’ surprise as they discovered the negligence of US power. For six weeks, there was neither radio nor television broadcasting in Arabic. The US troops were soon perceived as occupants (except by the Kurds).

In Fallujah, the tense situation blew up in 2004 after serious incidents with the private firm Blackwater Security Consulting’s security agents. A Sunni insurrection was backed by the Shia Muqtada al-Sadr, probably encouraged by Iran. The United States responded with aerial bombardments, which raised protests, including from the UN representative; even the Foreign Office criticized these methods!

A survey conducted by the US authorities indicated that eighty percent of Iraqis considered the US-led coalition an occupying force. The interest of the survey was less to learn what was already known—the twenty percent of Kurds said they were satisfied with US presence—than the much more astonishing fact that the Shias, under Iran’s influence, had reached the same conclusion as the Sunnis even though their status had basically improved!
Al-Qaeda, which was non-existent in Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s rule, made a dramatic entrance with attacks organized by the Palestinian from Jordan, Abu Musab al-Zarkawi (“Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers”), with the official approval of Ayman al-Zawahiri from Pakistan. The tension between Shias and Sunnis, revived by the US intervention, would be taken to incandescence by al-Zarkawi’s excesses, criticized by al-Qaeda central leadership. But the damage was done. The break was sharper than ever.

It was in 2004, that is, one year after the US intervention, that the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke out. Photographs came out, inconveniently revealing how prisoners were being treated. All of them show sexual humiliation and are singularly shocking, particularly for Middle-Eastern societies for which male modesty is paramount. In Abu Ghraib, a cultural taboo was breached (a female soldier holding a naked prisoner on a leash like a dog, on all fours). The psychological war, already jeopardized by the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo, was lost with these photos. What kind of democracy was the United States exporting with this sort of behavior? No one in command would be punished, and the Red Cross made it known that for months it had protested, in vain, by discreetly denouncing these methods.

Paul Bremer, after having accumulated a series of irrevocable mistakes due to cultural incompetence, left the country in mid-2004, when US intelligence services were estimating the number of insurgents at twenty thousand, with foreign combatants being only a minority. In November, G.W. Bush was easily re-elected in a climate of apparent insecurity, so much had fear been instrumentalized. The alert level in the United States during his two mandates will have oscillated between serious and very serious.

From the civil war to US departure

Equipped with institutions—a provisional Constitution, a National Assembly, a President—the Iraqi people voted and the poll indicated that the votes were denominational in the case of the Shias, ethnic in that of the Kurds, while the Sunnis did not vote. How would a prime minister be chosen? The attacks redoubled in violence. Al-Qaeda struck the Shia mosque of Samarra (at the beginning of 2006) to get the greatest number of casualties. In Baghdad, the civil war bordered on denominational cleansing, with the Sunni west and the Shia east, each on its side, liquidating the mixed districts of Baghdad, which had become uncontrollable.
Abu Musab al-Zarkawi was killed (2006) and, thanks to General David Petraeus the following year, Sunni tribes in Anbar, paid, armed, and organized by the United States, took down part of the Islamists. From then on, US forces patrolled Baghdad and separated the denominational communities spatially. But that year (2007), Nouri al-Maliki came to power in Iraq and endeavored to appropriate it not only by systematically marginalizing the Sunnis, but also by moving out all Shias who might turn out to be rivals. Nothing was settled: not the sharing out of the oil, nor the fate of Kirkuk, nor the possible place of the Sunnis. When in 2011 the US forces were preparing to leave, the attacks, which had never ceased, were intensified.

Taking the toll

Instead of the thirty-five thousand residual troops envisaged by Donald Rumsfeld, in 2006 in Iraq there were a hundred fifty thousand US soldiers and a hundred eighty thousand men belonging to private security firms (Blackwater, DynCorp International, Vinnel Corporation, Military Professional Resources Inc., and others). Recruited with agreement from the Pentagon, these firms could be in charge of managing the prisons (this was the case at Abu Ghraib, with Titan Corporation and CACI International, Inc.). For example, Kellogg, Brown & Root alone had fifty-four thousand employees working under contract in Iraq. Blackwater, before its name was changed, was characterized by its brutality. However, no US citizen could be judged by Iraqi (or international) courts, nor were these firms accountable to the US Congress. They will have certainly made up for the army’s numerical deficit, but they seriously hurt the counterinsurgency, which was completely foreign to them. The security firms, very well paid, were a body even more foreign than the US army itself. Considerable sums were spent to train some two hundred fifty thousand Iraqi soldiers, if not more.

The one hundred thousand Sunnis of the Anbar Governorate, organized by General Petraeus (who with Ambassador Ryan Crocker was one of the rare persons to understand the nature of the ongoing conflict), were theoretically to be incorporated into the national army under construction. This was opposed by Nouri al-Maliki. The hostility between Sunnis and Shias would grow much worse during the years when he was head of state. The United States withdrew completely from Iraq on his instigation (he was probably advised in this by Iran). As soon as the US personnel were gone, al-Maliki tried to arrest the two Sunnis who were part of his government, including the vice president, who found refuge in Turkey after going through Iraqi Kurdistan. Nouri al-Maliki held the most important ministries himself. Power was no longer only strictly denominational, it was confiscated by him. But this corrupt government had practically no consistency, as the events of the summer of 2014 would show; Mosul’s collapse, with the Iraqi forces’ frantic flight, was pathetic, recalling the last days of the Vietnamese army in 1975. What matters in an army above all is its willingness to fight—which obviously depends, among others, on the nature of the regime being defended.

On the whole, the achievements of G.W. Bush’s presidency in the Middle East were of the utmost mediocrity. The US President’s rhetoric cultivated the anachronistic “clash of civilizations” topic. And contrary to presidential declarations, the Iraq War neither strengthened the security of the United States nor made the world a safer place. “Spreading democracy” will have been a propaganda slogan. In this respect, it will suffice to recall the deceitful declarations or erroneous assertions in connection with Iraq, such as those issued by Tony Blair, who would acknowledge after twelve years of lying that he “had been mistaken.” Or Vice President Dick Cheney’s, claiming in 2005 that the insurrection was “in the last throes.” Or a few years later, that waterboarding was “not torture.” George Bush Senior’s authorized biography published in 2015 ruthlessly reflects his judgment of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld’s actions as well as of Paul Wolfowitz’s.2 In his view, in all fairness, however, responsibility for decisions ultimately fell on the president, who was none other than his own son. This too is democracy.

Nothing will have been solved in Iraq. The Kurds benefitted from the US intervention, the Shias too, and consequently, Iran. Was this why the war of choice had been waged? The active if not exacerbated hostility between Sunnis and Shias has been the direct result of US intervention.

Thirty years after the political failure of Vietnam, the same initial mistakes were made: no plan or preparation for after military victory, underestimation of the adversary’s resistance capacities, a confounding ignorance of the local culture, unsuitability to the conditions of irregular warfare, inability to recognize the potential of an insurrection, illusions on the ability to win the support of the populations (except in the case of the Kurds). In fact, no serious attention was given to the political goal of the conflict, other than the project of supposedly reshaping the region.

In the end, the offspring of the US intervention in Iraq is called the Islamic State.

  1. Hubac, Olivier (ed.) (2006), Mercenaires et polices privées : la privatisation de la violence armée, Universalis, Paris.
  2. Meacham, Jon (2015), Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, Random House, New York.