Iraq Three Years after Liberation

Three years after U.S. forces captured Baghdad, Iraqis are suffering from unprecedented violence and misery. Although Saddam Hussein was indeed one of the world’s most brutal tyrants, the no-fly zones and arms embargo in place for more than a dozen years prior to his ouster had severely weakened his capacity to do violence against his own people. Today, the level of violent deaths is not only far higher than during his final years in power, but the sheer randomness of the violence has left millions of Iraqis in a state of perpetual terror. At least 30,000 Iraqi civilians have died, most of them at the hands of U.S. forces but increasingly from terrorist groups and Iraqi government death squads. Thousands more soldiers and police have also been killed. Violent crime, including kidnapping, rape, and armed robbery, is at record levels. There is a proliferation of small arms, and private militias are growing rapidly. A Lebanon-type multifaceted civil war, only on a much wider and deadlier scale, grows more likely with time.

Over 50,000 Iraqis have been imprisoned by U.S. forces since the invasion, but only 1.5% of them have been convicted of any crime. Currently, U.S. forces hold 15,000 to 18,000 Iraqi prisoners, more than were imprisoned under Saddam Hussein. Amnesty International and other human rights groups have cited U.S. forces with widespread violations of international humanitarian law, including torture and other abuses of prisoners.

It is not just the fear of arrest and torture that have worsened since the U.S. conquest of Iraq three years ago. Although the destruction of the civilian infrastructure during the heavy U.S.-led bombing campaign in 1991 combined with the subsequent economic sanctions led to enormous suffering among ordinary Iraqis, the United Nations’ Oil-for-Food program, despite the abuses, did substantially improve the quality of life in the years preceding the U.S. invasion. Now, deaths from malnutrition and preventable diseases, particularly among children, are again on the increase. The supply of drinking water, reliability of electricity, and effectiveness of sewage disposal are all worse than before the invasion.

As much as half of the labor force is unemployed, and the cost of living has skyrocketed. The median income of Iraqis has declined by more than half. The UN’s World Food Program (WFP) reports that the Iraqi people suffer from “significant countrywide shortages of rice, sugar, milk, and infant formula,” and the WFP documents approximately 400,000 Iraqi children suffering from “dangerous deficiencies of protein.” Oil production, the country’s chief source of revenue, is less than half of what it was before the invasion. And despite Bush administration promises to infuse billions of dollars worth of foreign aid to rebuild the country’s civilian infrastructure, only a small fraction of these ventures have been completed, and most projects have been cancelled. Close to one million Iraqis, most of them from the vital, educated middle class, have left the country to avoid the violence and hardship brought on as a result of the U.S. invasion.

Despite all this, a Harris poll at the end of December showed that a majority of Americans believe the Bush administration’s claims that Iraqis are better off now than they were under Saddam Hussein. Most Iraqis polled say just the opposite.

President Bush and his supporters still insist that Iraq is supposed to be a model for democracy that other countries in the region should try to emulate. In reality, the U.S. conquest and occupation of Iraq have, in the eyes of many Muslims worldwide, given democracy a bad name in the same way that the Soviets gave socialism a bad name through their conquest and occupation of Afghanistan. Democracy has become synonymous with war, chaos, domination by a foreign power, and massive human suffering. As a result, anti-American sentiment in Iraq is growing.

Amazingly, supporters of Bush policy cannot quite understand why this is the case. For example, Bush administration adviser Daniel Pipes, a leading proponent of the invasion, expressed his disappointment at “the ingratitude of the Iraqis for the extraordinary favor we gave them” by invading and occupying their country.

The Costs to the United States

One of the major sources of growing anti-American sentiment has been the Pentagon’s counter-insurgency offensives, which have resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. Though small-unit operations have been curtailed, air strikes have been increasing. From the use of heavy weaponry and phosphorous bombs against population centers in Fallujah to massive sweeps rounding up thousands of innocent men, many of which have been subjected to torture at the hands of U.S. forces, the United States is increasingly seen as an occupier, not a liberator. In Iraq’s tribal society, where the ethic of vengeance is still widespread, every civilian casualty at the hands of U.S. soldiers potentially adds to the recruitment pool of the insurgency, whose highly mobile cadres can easily slip away and resume operations in another locale or after American troops move on.

That the war has led to a growth of anti-American extremism throughout the Arab and Islamic world is no longer seriously questioned, as reports by U.S. intelligence agencies and the State Department have confirmed. Resentment also seethes from the disruption of Iraq’s economy, primarily through policies that have resulted in record unemployment, leaving nearly half the population without jobs. This economic devastation is a result not only of the commercial chaos stemming from the invasion but also of Washington’s decisions to eliminate tens of thousands of Iraqi government jobs, privatize public enterprises, give preference to foreign nationals for reconstruction efforts, and open Iraq to foreign multinationals against which local enterprises cannot compete.

The Iraq War has already cost the United States $500 billion, which is more in current dollars than the entire Vietnam War. Ongoing costs are close to $10 billion per month. With the vast majority of this money going to support the war, little is left to nurture civil society institutions, to train legislators, or to help build democracy. Despite this, there is still a clear bipartisan consensus to keep robbing the treasury to support President Bush’s desperate effort to control that oil-rich country. Not a single senator voted against the president’s most recent request to keep funding the war, and there were only 71 negative votes in the 435-member House of Representatives. Democrats, like Republicans, appear determined to force American taxpayers to keep paying for the death and destruction being wrought upon Iraq.

The Nature of the Iraqi Government

In recent months, Washington has begun to realize that several ruling officials retrieved from exile by U.S. forces—including Iraq’s prime minister—are incompetent religious fanatics closely allied with hard-line Iranian clerics. The Iraqi government is isolated within the U.S.-fortified Green Zone in Baghdad and is so weak and divided that it can barely be considered functional. Corruption is rampant.

Three years after the invasion, the Pentagon acknowledges that Iraqi forces are still “largely dependent” on American combat troops for logistics, supplies, and support. Indeed, not a single Iraqi unit is yet capable of fully independent operations.

Washington’s goal may be reasonable, but U.S. pressure on Iraqi leaders to form a more inclusive government and to replace Ibrahim al-Jaafari has created enormous resentment and is widely viewed as arrogant neocolonial interference. Furthermore, there is little to suggest that any of Jaafari’s likely replacements would be any better.

Human rights abuses are increasing, as hundreds of civilians, mostly Sunni Arab males, are killed every month by government death squads. Murders from these death squads rival even the violence perpetrated by terrorist insurgents, who have primarily targeted Shiite Arab civilians. Last month, Amnesty International reported that “not only has the Iraqi government failed to provide minimal protection for its citizens, it has pursued a policy of rounding up and torturing innocent men and women. Its failure to punish those who have committed torture has added to the breakdown of the rule of law.”

In the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, the ruling U.S.-backed coalition of two nationalist parties with sizable armed militias is not much better. Corruption is widespread, and opposition activists are routinely beaten, tortured, and killed. Kurdish-born Austrian lawyer and professor Kamal Sayid Qadir has reported that “Kurdish parties transformed Iraqi Kurdistan into a fortress for oppression, theft of public funds, and serious abuses of human rights like murder, torture, amputation of ears and noses, and rape.” These “privileges and gains achieved since 1991 by the Kurdish parties were impossible without direct American backing and support,” he added. For his efforts to alert the international community about abuses by the U.S.-backed Kurdish government, he was sentence to a year and a half in prison.

Given the dismal post-Saddam record of human rights abuses, it is questionable whether Americans should be dying to prop up either the central government in Baghdad or the Kurdish government in the North. Continued U.S. training and funding of Iraqi police and military forces will likely encourage even more anti-Americanism both in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats seem bothered by the death squads and torture. For example, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has further sullied her previous reputation as a defender of human rights by supporting billions of dollars in additional funding for Iraqi and U.S. forces, enabling them to continue engaging in human rights abuses.

Growing Questions at Home

Large segments of the American public still embrace many of the justifications for the invasion of Iraq that have long since been proven false. For example, according to a Harris Poll at the end of December 2005, 41% of adult Americans believe that Saddam Hussein had “strong links to Al-Qaida;” 22% believe that Saddam Hussein “helped plan and support the hijackers who attacked the United States on September 11;” 26% believe that Iraq “had weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded;” and 24% believe that “several of the hijackers who attacked the United States on September 11 were Iraqis.” Furthermore, a plurality of Americans still accept the contention that despite a dozen years of debilitating sanctions, a barely functional military, and the complete absence of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) or offensive delivery systems, “Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, was a serious threat to the United States.”

Notwithstanding these misconceptions, criticism of the Bush administration has been growing, forcing the president to finally acknowledge the widespread citizen opposition to the Iraq War. Bush says that he is willing to “listen to honest criticism” and that he has heard those who disagree with his policies, but he continues to dismiss such critics as “defeatists” who advocate policies that threaten the “security of our people” and who would “give up on this fight for freedom.”

Though acknowledging that restoring order to Iraq has been “more difficult than we expected” and that “reconstruction efforts and the training of Iraqi security forces started more slowly than we hoped,” President Bush has blamed these failures solely on the insurgency, which he describes as “Saddam loyalists and foreign terrorists.” In reality, the majority of the insurgency consists not of supporters of the former Iraqi dictator nor of foreign terrorists but of Iraq nationalists and Islamists resentful of an invasion and occupation by what they see as a Western imperialist power intent on controlling their country’s rich natural resources.

Having provoked this resentment, the Bush administration now uses the insurgency to justify the continued U.S. military occupation of Iraq. Though the original rationale for the Iraq War was Saddam’s alleged WMD program, by redefining the U.S. incursion as a war on terrorism, Washington rationalizes an indefinite U.S. military presence and condones the ongoing American dominance of Iraq’s economy.

Combating terrorism cannot be done by a single nation, no matter how strong a military it maintains. For a counterterrorism strategy to be effective, a multilateral approach is essential, but the Bush administration continues to reject this reality and insists on acting alone. Moreover, combating terrorism must employ a variety of tactics, not just military action. But once again, President Bush has failed to examine the root causes behind the violence.

In the face of growing criticism over its Iraq policies, the current administration has acknowledged mistakes such as inaccurate prewar claims of Saddam’s military capability and inadequate policies to address post-invasion stabilization. However, these statements appear calculated to defend the ongoing U.S.-led war rather than to admit fault. Though Bush’s acceptance of ultimate responsibility for the failures of U.S. policy is a positive step, no one has yet been held accountable for these errors.

For example, the president says he was “responsible for the decision to go into Iraq.” Yet he defends that decision, even though the invasion was a clear violation of the United Nations Charter and was based upon false claims that Iraq—already disarmed of offensive military capabilities by the United Nations—constituted a threat to U.S. national security.

Regarding his prewar contention that Iraq still had chemical and biological weapons, an active nuclear program, and offensive weapons delivery capabilities, President Bush admits inaccuracy but attributes it to mistakes in intelligence gathering. He excuses his misjudgment by arguing that members of Congress and the intelligence branches of allied governments reviewed the same information and came to similar conclusions.

In reality, prior to the U.S. invasion, foreign governments noted that Iraq had failed to properly account for all proscribed weapons programs, and some countries suspected that Saddam had residual weapons or components banned under UN Security Council mandates, but most nations were dubious of U.S. and British claims that Iraq still constituted a military threat. Similarly, most members of Congress simply believed the intelligence presented to them by the administration rather than studies in scholarly journals and United Nations reports. It now appears that errors did not come from problems within the CIA but that administration officials deliberately manipulated intelligence data in order to frighten Congress and the American people into supporting an invasion.

Acknowledging obvious problems is a positive step for a president often considered arrogant and unaware of the havoc resulting from his decision to invade and occupy Iraq. However, until there is a serious re-evaluation of administration policies, there is little hope that such acknowledgements will improve America’s standing in the world or ease the suffering of the Iraqi people. What neither the administration nor Congress has acknowledged is that the invasion of Iraq would have been wrong even if Saddam Hussein still had WMDs and even if the post-invasion situation had been handled more responsibly.

Recently, leading figures in the Democratic Party who had largely supported President Bush’s Iraq policies are finally starting to voice their opposition in response to pressure from their constituents. However, the Democrats have yet to present much of an alternative. Their recently released defense plan entitled “Real Security” fails to renounce Bush’s preventive war doctrine and simply urges Iraqis to assume “primary responsibility for securing and governing their country with the responsible redeployment of U.S. forces.” Democrats and their apologists claim that a more forceful statement for withdrawal would risk their being portrayed as weak, but even their moderate plan was branded “a strategic retreat” by Vice President Dick Cheney. Republican Senator Christopher Bond was more honest. He noted essentially no difference between the Democratic position and that of the administration, observing, “It’s taken them all this time to figure out what we’ve been doing for a long time.”

Dealing with the Insurgency

There are dozens of armed groups in Iraq battling U.S. occupation forces and the U.S.-backed government. This resistance includes supporters of Saddam Hussein, well-armed remnants of his armed forces, other Baathists, independent nationalists, various Shiite wings, tribal-based groupings, and several Sunni Arab offshoots. The al-Qaida-inspired jihadists and the foreign fighters upon whom the Bush administration focuses represent a minority of the insurgency. Opposition is growing and, despite many differences ideologically and tactically, the various factions have demonstrated an increasing ability to coordinate their operations.

Beyond the many similarities between the war in Iraq and the one in Vietnam years ago, one key difference is in the nature of the opposition. Although some anti-Vietnam War activists naively downplayed the autocratic tendencies of the communist-led National Liberation Front (NLF), these rebels and the North Vietnamese government eventually brought relative peace and stability to the country. Despite current repression and misguided economic policies, the South Vietnamese have arguably suffered less in a reunified country under the communists than during the U.S.-led war under the corrupt and brutal Thieu regime in Saigon. Belying dire warnings from Washington prior to the war’s end, the NLF/North Vietnamese victory has not harmed the national security of the United States, and—other than its misadventure in Cambodia to root out the genocidal Khmer Rouge and a brief border war with China—Vietnam has coexisted relatively well with its neighbors and is now a full member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The same cannot be said of the armed opposition to the U.S.-backed government in Baghdad. Unlike in Vietnam, the Iraqi resistance is not unified. As a result, toppling the current leaders will not likely bring peace but rather continued violence and disorder. The insurgents also include some decidedly nasty elements that are genuinely fascistic in orientation. In the power struggle that would follow a hypothetical overthrow of Iraq’s central government, it is quite possible that the new rulers would include militant jihadists, Saddam’s wing of the Ba’ath party, or other elements far worse than those currently in power or likely to be elected next month. There is also a real risk of the instability spilling over into adjacent countries.

There are many scary scenarios that could result from the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. The country could plunge into full-scale civil war, it might split into three parts (accompanied by ethnic cleansing), fundamentalist Islamic rule may emerge, Iranian extremists could exert undue influence, or this war-torn nation could become a training and logistical base for international terrorism. All of these possibilities should be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, these scenarios may even more likely occur if U.S. forces remain than if they withdraw. Bush’s war in Iraq is creating insurgents, including terrorists, faster than the Pentagon can kill them. The U.S. and British military presence is exacerbating ethnic and sectarian divisions, not lessening them. The overwhelming U.S. domination of the Baghdad government is undermining its sovereignty, weakening its standing with the Iraqi people, and compromising its ability to govern.

Many observers, even among those who opposed the U.S. invasion, concede that—although the principle of self-determination must be respected and although Iraqis are more than capable of governing themselves once stability and basic services are restored—current circumstances in Iraq may require active leadership from the outside. The United States, however, simply does not have the credibility to fill that role. There are sound proposals for an international peacekeeping force led by other Arab or Islamic states that should be considered, but these options will not be possible as long as the United States insists on orchestrating military operations.

All but the most extreme jihadists in the opposition would likely be open to a negotiated settlement to the conflict, but only if there was a clear timetable or specific achievable benchmarks for a complete U.S. withdrawal. With the bulk of the insurgents then allied with the Baghdad government, Iraqis could likely deal with the jihadists and other radical elements themselves, since the jihadists’ extreme ideology and terrorist tactics have little popular following in the country.

The Bush administration has thus far refused to discuss withdrawing all U.S. forces from Iraq. The new bases under construction (under no-bid contracts with Vice President Dick Cheney’s firm Halliburton) are elaborate, self-contained towns that appear to be intended for permanence. One being built outside Baghdad is more than 15 square miles. The new U.S. embassy under construction in Iraq is designed to include 21 buildings comprising residences for 1,000 American officials, a school, a warehouse, and its own utilities. As long as such an overbearing, neocolonial lightning-rod presence remains, there will be armed resistance.

There have also been reasonable proposals for the United States to maintain an over-the-horizon military presence or to conduct more modest military operations. Such a plan, however, would require putting trust in the very same people who have proven themselves profoundly ignorant about Iraq and totally inept at managing the postwar situation. Perhaps U.S. forces could provide tactical air support to Iraqi soldiers if Jihadists seize Ramadi and start marching on the Green Zone. But absent such a crisis, the only responsible option is a withdrawal of U.S. forces as soon as possible.

Americans from across the political spectrum have a kind of optimism and “can do” attitude that has served us well on many occasions. There are some situations, however, where a series of tragic mistakes and unfortunate circumstances preclude a positive outcome. Iraq may be just such a case.

The War at Home

This is my third annual article analyzing the U.S. war in Iraq and its impact. Unless the American people more fully mobilize to change U.S. policy, I will have to write these articles for many years to come.

This year’s Democratic primaries and the general election will be key tests of whether the U.S. citizenry will be willing to challenge the bipartisan support for the Iraq War, the doctrine of preventive war, and the exaggerated claims of foreign strategic threats brandished to frighten the populace into supporting war. Scores of U.S. representatives and senators who voted in October 2002 to authorize the invasion of Iraq are up for re-election this year, and most of them still support funding the war. If the majority of these pro-war Republican and Democratic lawmakers are re-elected, it will signal Washington politicians that the growing grassroots opposition to the war will not threaten their political careers. Despite the message it would send, some leaders in the peace movement are insisting that progressives work to re-elect pro-war members of Congress, including those who lied about Iraq still having WMDs, simply because they are Democrats. Such a strategy will virtually guarantee many more years of death and destruction in Iraq, and—as the 2004 presidential election showed us—such Democrats will probably end up losing anyway.

But a determined citizenry is the decisive factor. The anti-Vietnam War movement, the anti-apartheid struggle, the nuclear freeze campaign, and Central America solidarity efforts demonstrated that the particular individuals or party that the American people elect are less important than the choices we give them. As the old adage goes, “If the people lead, the leaders will follow.”

The United States will eventually have to leave Iraq. The question is, how many Americans and Iraqis will have to die in the meantime? For the United States to pull out, Bush and his bipartisan group of supporters would have to recognize that they cannot Americanize Iraq, establish U.S. hegemony in the Persian Gulf region, control Iraq’s vast oil reserves, or intimidate other nations by subduing an intractable insurgency. In short, the leadership of the greatest military superpower the world has ever known would be forced to accept a humiliating retreat.

It may be unrealistic to believe that the Bush administration would simply pull out of Iraq even in the face of growing popular opposition. The Nixon administration was unwilling to simply pull out of Vietnam. However, the anti-war movement forced Washington to negotiate with the South Vietnamese resistance and their North Vietnamese allies, which eventually led to the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Demanding negotiations that include a timetable for a total U.S. withdrawal may be the most realistic strategy that today’s anti-war movement could advocate.

Otherwise, President Bush will likely hold firm and leave the painful decisions to a Democratic successor, who would then take the blame for not “finishing the job.” This is why it is so important for Democrats to stop funding the war and to insist that President Bush negotiate a settlement to withdraw U.S. forces before he leaves office, thereby accepting full responsibility for the consequences.

Another question is, what will the United States learn from all this? Will it be just a tactical, stylistic precept that—in the words of 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry—the war against Iraq was not a mistake but rather that “the way the president went to war is a mistake”? The next time the United States invades and occupies another country, should it be done the “right way” by a Democratic administration?

Will our lesson be merely a strategic realization that, even if Washington had not made what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called “thousands” of errors in Iraq, invading and occupying a large Arab Muslim state with a strong history of nationalism is fraught with disaster?

Or will Americans finally embrace what we thought had been learned at the end of World War II—with the ratification of the United Nations Charter—that invading another country is just plain wrong?

Stephen Zunes is the Middle East editor for Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org). He is a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco and the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2003).