The Iraq “Victory”

by Milan Rai, Alex Doherty

Hailed as an "extraordinary achievement" by Barack Obama, author and activist Milan Rai considers the costs and consequences of the Iraq invasion.

First published: 11 January, 2012 | Category: International, Terror/War

Milan Rai is a co-editor at Peace News, and is involved in the anti-war group Justice Not Vengeance. He is also the author of Chomsky’s Politics and 7/7: The London Bombings, Islam and the Iraq War among other works. He spoke to NLP's Alex Doherty on the US withdrawal from Iraq. 

In his December speech on the occasion of the withdrawal of the remaining US combat troops from Iraq Barack Obama stated that "Iraq's not a perfect place. It has many challenges ahead. But we're leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self reliant Iraq with a representative government that was elected by its people. We're building a new partnership between our nations and we are ending a war not with a final battle but with a final march toward home. This is an extraordinary achievement,"

What is your response to these claims?

Barack Obama identifies four key characteristics by which to judge the impact of the US-led invasion of 2003 and the subsequent occupation. 

The first two parameters are curious choices, as there is no doubt that Iraq before the invasion was both 'sovereign' and 'stable' (however undesirable that form of stability might have been). There is, in fact, general recognition that Iraq now is less sovereign and less stable than it was before 19 March 2003. 

Sovereignty has been weakened by the enormous political, military and economic interference of Western governments during the occupation, and by the further weakening of Iraq's position in relation to its neighbours. 

Stability has been weakened by the undoing of the tight controls imposed by the Saddam Hussein regime, leading to a considerable  breakdown in social order, among other things. Having walked the streets of Baghdad at 2am, in complete security, during visits before 2003, I'm keenly aware of the dramatic loss of personal security that Iraqis have suffered. The International Committee of the Red Cross reported in August 2009 that around 500 people (mostly civilians) were still being killed every month, and 2,000 wounded every month in mass explosions and indiscriminate attacks. Fallen off the Agenda? More and Better Aid Needed for Iraq Recovery, a report on Iraq published in July 2010 by the major NGOs working in Iraq, listed ‘insecurity’ first among the major challenges facing Iraqis today. There has been a rash of sectarian attacks recently. 44 Shia pilgrims were killed near Nasiriyah and 23 people died in four bomb attacks in two Shia neighbourhoods in Baghdad, all in one day of bombing on 5 January 2012. This follows the 22 December 2011 attacks in Shia areas of Baghdad that killed 72 people. These are merely the most ferocious of the recent attacks (one suicide bomber killed seven people on 26 December, at the Ministry of the Interior in Baghdad).

Turning to 'self-reliance', Iraq before 2003 was not economically self-reliant. This was mainly as a result of the $232bn of economic damage inflicted on the country in the 1991 Gulf War (Arab Monetary Fund estimate), and the economic strangulation of Iraq by sanctions from 1990 to 2003. The increased economic self-reliance of the country since 2003 has stemmed not from the US-led invasion and occupation, but from the lifting of the embargo imposed largely by the US and Britain, which has led to the partial reinflation of the Iraqi economy.

Obama's final parameter of progress is perhaps the most audacious one. He notes that Iraq now enjoys a 'government that was elected by its people'. True, but the US President fails to point out that this advance in democracy was achieved in the face of unremitting opposition - by the US Government. 

When we go back to the pre-invasion period, it is striking that no US or British war leaders promised that Iraq would enjoy a democratically-elected government after the war.

The talk in Washington was of finding a new authoritarian leader. ‘At the CIA, State Department and among the uniformed military, specialists are trying to find the proverbial Man on a White Horse, a respected officer who can ride in, take control and unite Iraq’s fractious tribes and religious groups’, Newsweek reported on 25 March 2002.  Among many similar leaks on both sides of the Atlantic, The Times reported on 12 February 2003:  ‘America is hoping that its massive show of force will prompt a “palace revolt”.’ The war was initiated by an ultimatum from US President George Bush on 17 March 2003 . Bush did not call for free elections in Iraq; he said merely: ‘Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours.’ The first act of the war was a missile strike on a house believed to contain the dictator, on the understanding that if he was killed, the war would be unnecessary (though US-led troops would still need to move in to verify WMD disarmament).

It was plainly clear in the run-up to the war that the US and UK were seeking not ‘regime change’, but merely ‘leadership change’ in Iraq. The regime, the military-political-intelligence-bureaucratic-judicial system created by Saddam Hussein was to remain, but a handful of figures at the top of the structure were to be replaced. This was epitomised by a question from the British Prime Minister at a briefing in November 2002. Meeting Britain’s top academic Iraqi experts, the first thing Tony Blair said was: ‘What do we do after the coup?’ The Sunday Times (11 January 2004) reported: ‘They were dumbfounded.’

It was clear before the war that the US and UK were seeking a coup, not a regime change. Once they took possession of Iraq, they demonstrated their intentions. The first government imposed on Iraq was a US governorship. The policy of the Coalition Provisional Authority was officially ‘de-Ba’athification’ (removal of members of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party from public life) but in reality the CPA restored many of the Saddam-era authorities. In the ministries, the top officials were removed, and their deputies were promoted, leading to widespread protests. For example, hundreds of lab-coated doctors protested in the streets of Baghdad in early May 2003 after the CPA appointed as Health Minister Dr Ali Shenan al-Janabi, formerly the third-ranking official in Saddam’s Health Ministry. On 21 September 2003, six months after the famous CPA head Paul Bremer’s De-Ba’athification Order, the Sunday Times reported that: ‘American forces have launched a covert campaign to recruit former officers of the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s infamous secret police, who were responsible for the death and torture of tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis.’ Mark Franchetti’s article included an interview with Colonel Mohammed Abdullah, a ten-year Mukhabarat veteran, who was recruited in May, the same month as Paul Bremer officially de-Ba’athified Iraq. A Western official commented in the Washington Post on 24 August 2003: ‘There is an obvious evolution in American thinking. First the police are reconstituted, then the army. It is logical that intelligence officials from the regime would also be recruited.’

For the first few years of occupation, Iraqi governments were simply selected by the US. The ‘interim prime minister’ they chose was Iyad Allawi, one of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party enforcers and Mukhabarat operators in the 1960s and early 1970s, and later a CIA asset. Allawi, who was a possible Man on a White Horse candidate in 2003, continues to play a major part in Iraqi politics, with US support, despite being accused of executing six suspected insurgents at a Baghdad police station in 2004 (see the Sunday Morning Herald, 17 July 2004), and his known record of no-warning anti-civilian bombings inside Iraq during the period 1994-1996 through the opposition group he led, the Iraqi National Accord.

Returning to the evolution of ‘representative government’ in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, the US also arrogated to itself the right to choose which Iraqis should make up the constituent assembly that drew up the post-Saddam constitution. This was contested by, among others, the supreme Shia Muslim cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who called for a general election to directly elect the members of the constituent assembly.

When the occupiers were finally forced to concede 'elections' in November 2003, they devised a complex system of indirect elections where US-vetted groups of local figures chose delegates to a provisional legislative assembly, which would then elect from its own members a provisional Iraqi government. Anton La Guardia, Diplomatic Correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, noted: ‘The “caucus” process to select the provisional legislature will be far from democratic.’ (26 November 2003)

It was a massive nonviolent campaign of protest, led by the supreme Shia religious authority, that forced the occupiers to concede direct national elections. In January 2004, 100,000 Shias demonstrated in Baghdad and 30,000 rallied in Basra, Iraq’s second city. They shouted: ‘Yes, yes to elections; No, no to occupation.’ Elections finally came on 30 January 2005 (for the constituent assembly) and then on 15 December 2005 (for the first elected parliament). The limits of this ‘representative government’ had been set, however, by a Transitional Administrative Law, imposed by the US in March 2004, which the US demanded could not be revoked by the new elected government, by the appointment (effectively by the US) of a host of key officials in June 2004 with five-year terms (these included the national security adviser and national intelligence chief), and by many other binding commitments (including the IMF debt relief plan signed by US-appointed ‘interim prime minister’ Iyad Allawi in November 2004).

Truly 'representative government' in Iraq was seen US policymakers as a threat not a goal. This was the case in 1991 as well as in 2003, as I documented in War Plan Iraq (Verso, 2002) andRegime Unchanged (Pluto, 2003). The US has sought throughout to replace an undesirable leadership, while retaining as much as possible of the ‘stable’ authoritarian regime as possible. It is the resistance of ordinary Iraqis that has forced the US (and UK) to accept the degree of democracy that we see today in the country.

For Barack Obama now to trumpet democracy in Iraq as a justification for the war is, as I observed earlier, a truly audacious move.

In many ways, Iraq has defeated the United States. One might take the failure of the US to force the Iraqi government to pass a highly damaging Oil Law (a major erosion of sovereignty) as emblematic of the limits of US power in Iraq. 

These are facts that cannot be admitted in polite discussion in respectable circles.

It was notable that while Obama described US losses in the Iraq war he did not make any reference to Iraqi casualties - what does this tell us about US political culture?

During the Indochina wars in the 1960s, the 'body count' of the enemy dead was publicly announced as a triumphant indicator of progress. Civilian deaths (in their millions) passed unnoticed. Largely as the result of the massive protests over Vietnam, US culture has changed and the Pentagon no longer boasts about how many people it has killed. 

The phrase 'body count' is now used by critics of the war such as Iraq Body Count, whose meticulous accounting of reported violent civilian deaths has become an accepted part of the mainstream debate on the war.

Unfortunately, a few years ago, there was a great deal of friction between supporters of Iraq Body Count (IBC) and supporters of the survey-based estimate of Iraqi deaths that was published in the world's leading medical journal, The Lancet. As I observed in 2005, the two estimates measured different categories of deaths over different time periods. The IBC records war-related deaths of civilians (almost all the result of violence) that have been reported by two reputable English-language sources. The Lancet study estimated violent and ‘not-violent’ deaths directly and indirectly caused by the war, of insurgents and soldiers as well as civilians. Indirect causes included increases in accidents, crime and disease as a result of the war and occupation.

When these differences were taken into account, there was no contradiction between the two sets of estimates. Iraq Body Count provides a valuable absolute minimum figure for deaths caused by the invasion and occupation. The Lancet estimates provide a robust indicator of the scale of all deaths caused by the invasion and occupation. (The word ‘robust’ was used by the Ministry of Defence’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Roy Anderson, in a memo on 13 October 2006. Anderson also described the Lancet study’s methodology as ‘close to “best practice” in this area’.)

Coming back to the question of US political culture, it is unsurprising that a US President is reluctant to acknowledge that the US has deliberately triggered large-scale deaths among Iraqi civilians through war and occupation. It would be even more surprising if he was to acknowledge that deliberate US policy led to deaths on a similar scale through comprehensive economic sanctions (1990 to 2003). 

While combat troops have been withdrawn US advisors remain as does the worlds largest embassy in Baghdad - has Iraq really thrown off US control or will the US be able to maintain control of Iraq through less direct means?

I’m sure the US intends to retain a significant degree of control of Iraq – through its spies, through its clients (like Allawi), through its economic weapons (the IMF, aid and so on), and through its nearby threatening presence. The US military presence in Kuwait has been boosted by over 3,500 and the Pentagon is looking to expand military ties with the other Gulf states. The US also has the 3,200-strong USS Bataan Amphibious Ready Group off Somalia, and plenty of naval forces in the Gulf ‘supporting’ the campaign in Afghanistan, but ready to intervene in Iraq if ordered to do so.

A key issue for the future of Iraq is the relationship between the Shia-dominated government and the Sunni militias recruited by the US. (Shia Muslims, brutally oppressed under Saddam Hussein, make up over 60% of the population, and therefore any Iraqi government is going to be ‘Shia-dominated’.) The insurgency in Iraq that the US fought was largely a Sunni guerrilla movement, triggered by US atrocities in the early months of the occupation. The US de-escalated the conflict in 2006 when it recruited many guerrillas, known as the ‘Sunni Awakening’, in an anti-al-Qa’eda alliance. The New York Times reported on 13 December 2011:

‘Some Awakening members are former insurgents and members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party who fought in a nationalist wing of the Sunni uprising early in the war, a matter of grave concern to the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. Without the buffer provided by the Americans, relations between the Awakening and the central government, always touchy, are growing increasingly strained, and the government now wants the Awakening to disband by Dec. 31, the deadline for the exit of the US military.’

This seems unlikely.

The US had handed responsibility for the Awakening councils to the Iraqi government, which has been reluctant to continue paying them, and which has over the past couple of years arrested a number of Awakening militants for crimes they committed during the insurgency.

The Shia-Sunni divide has reached the cabinet. On 19 December 2011, the government of (Shia) Nouri al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant for (Sunni) Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi, on charges of terrorism. Hashimi fled to the Kurdish north of the country, which is semi-autonomous. At the beginning of January 2012, Maliki revealed that he had suspended all eight ministers from the Sunni Muslim-backed al-Iraqiya alliance. Al-Iraqiya is headed by none other than Iyad Allawi. Allawi is a Shia Muslim, but his political groupings have always been Sunni-dominated. The Iraqiya bloc is, as I write, boycotting the Iraqi parliament, and considering pulling out of the ruling coalition.

The Awakening Councils considered joining Allawi’s grouping for the January 2010 parliamentary elections, but negotiations broke down.

The US is now attempting to influence events by brokering relations between the various political forces, all of whom will be worse off if the current frictions descend into civil war. Whether this will be successful, no one can tell.

Much of the current media debate regarding Iran's supposed nuclear ambitions is eerily reminiscent of the build up to the Iraq invasion. Do you believe an attack of some sort on Iran is a possibility? If so what do you believe the consequences of such an attack would be?

The main purpose of recent Israeli warmongering and US sabre-rattling, as on numerous previous occasions, has been two-fold. Firstly, the heightening of war fears is a form of arm-twisting to help secure the cooperation of other economic blocs in tightening sanctions on Iran. Secondly, the threats themselves are aimed at provoking Tehran into retaliatory rhetoric or actions. On both counts, the war scare has been successful. 

The European Union is set to agree a ban on importing Iranian oil at a meeting in Brussels on 30 January. The EU buys about 500,000 barrels per day (bpd) of Iran’s 2.6 million bpd of exported oil. Japan (which imports 10% of its crude oil from Iran) has announced that it is willing to sharply reduce its imports from the country. Both moves are also responses to US President Barack Obama’s decision, at the end of December, to add a clause to the 2012 Defence Authorisation Bill, which bans any company working in the US from dealing with the Iranian Central Bank. Given the intertwining of the Iranian Central Bank and the Iranian government’s oil and gas industries, this would ‘make it nearly impossible for most refiners to buy crude from Iran, the world’s fourth biggest producer’, Reuters reported on 1 January. Japan is seeking an exemption from these new unilateral US sanctions, and is willing to reduce its trade with Iran in order to gain this waiver. The EU may be seeking something similar. The net effect is going to be serious. An analysis by Javier Blas, Commodities Editor at the Financial Times, on 19 December, concluded that Iran would find it difficult to secure new customers for its oil, and equally difficult to increase its exports to its existing clients. Turkey, South Africa, China and India all have the capacity to increase their purchases from Iran, but all would be wary of increasing their dependence on a single source. Iran is the second largest supplier of oil to India (after Saudi Arabia), but India has been cutting imports because of the impact of US financial sanctions on payments to Indian refiners. China could buy more Iranian oil, but is likely to do so only ‘at a steep discount’ as a way of building up its petroleum strategic reserve.

All of which means that Iran’s already strained economy is about to go through a very difficult period, as oil exports provide over 60% of government revenue. This will increase domestic tensions, probably leading to more government repression, and increase the temptation to strike a pose on the international stage. Iran’s behaviour is likely to become more unpredictable – it is also difficult to predict the impact of these circumstances on the parliamentary elections this year and the presidential elections next year.

Going back to Obama’s new financial sanctions: if all financial institutions and traders that operate in the US were forced to cut all financial transactions with the Iranian Central Bank, the Iranian economy would be paralysed. Obama made clear he would use his new powers flexibly, but the sanctions are virtually an economic act of war against Iran.

The Iranian government has been doing some of its own sabre-rattling recently, in response to all these pressures, which has made it easy for the Western media to portray the country as an irrational and dangerous force. The storming of the British embassy by Iranian protesters in November must have been sanctioned by part of the security forces or government.

Amidst the missile launches and the threats to Gulf shipping, however, there has been, yet again, an attempt by Tehran to re-start negotiations about its nuclear programme. On past history, this initiative will be rejected by Washington and London.

Will there be a US or Israeli strike on Iran in 2012? I would side with the Financial Times, which thinks it is unlikely in 2012, but that 2013 is going to be a more dangerous year. Apart from anything else, it is impossible to see President Obama launching a war during a re-election campaign. 

Having said that, the US and Israel (with US approval) are already conducting war against Iran. The Stuxnet computer virus introduced into Iranian nuclear facilities, the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, the bombings inside Iran, are all clearly part of a focused military programme. The US is also known to be funding separatist and fundamentalist terror groups inside the country. Seymour Hersh exposed US covert operations against Iran in a New Yorker article on 7 July 2008. One group the US is supporting is Jundallah, also known as the Iranian People’s Resistance Movement, which describes itself as a resistance force fighting for the rights of Sunnis in Iran. Jundallah (‘soldiers of God’), classified as a ‘Foreign Terrorist Organization’ by the US State Department, is essentially an al-Qa’eda-type terror group. On top of all of this, of course, the US is also waging economic war on Iran. If it were to seek an oil embargo, that would be a clear act of war against Tehran. By bringing about a partial oil embargo indirectly, through financial sanctions, the US can achieve the same effect without the political and legal consequences.

If there is a US attack on Iran, it doesn’t make sense to just try to take out the nuclear facilities. That would only set back the programme, while leading to massive political, economic and security costs. It also does not make any sense to try to conquer the country, as Iran is too militarily-powerful and politically-coherent to be subdued as Iraq was subdued. A more realistic option, outlined by Noam Chomsky, is to essentially flatten the rest of the country (which contains nothing of value to the great powers) and to seize the western, oil-rich, Arab province, perhaps annexing it to neighbouring Iraq. The viability of this option depends a great deal on the reliability of the Iraqi government, which must be in doubt for the foreseeable future.

It goes without saying that all of these military operations, of course, carry significant costs to the civilian population. Paul Rogers carried out a careful assessment of the impact of a ‘limited’ strike for the Oxford Research Group in 2010.

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