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Iraq War II, Part 14: Thanks, Sucker
To mark the 20th anniversary of the "wholly unjustified and brutal invasion" of Iraq, as George W. Bush himself now characterizes it, we are serializing that chapter from my 2021 book Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism over the next few weeks exclusively here at Substack.
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Once the Shi’ite parties and their militias, which included the Iraqi army, were done winning the civil war in 2008, they told President Bush the U.S. would have to leave. Bush said he would like to have 56 military bases. The Iraqis said no. Bush then tried for 40. The response was the same. As Patrick Cockburn covered for The Independent, over and over through the summer of 2008 the administration tried to figure out a way to stay in Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki simply smiled and delayed. Bush had won the war for the Da’wa Party. They did not need him anymore. Besides, Maliki’s position and those of many in his parliamentary coalition were dependent on the support of Muqtada al Sadr, who was sticking with his demand for full U.S. withdrawal no matter what.
The method the Iraqi government found for forcing American withdrawal was their refusal to sign a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which granted immunity to American forces if they committed war crimes against Iraqi civilians. The Iraqis claimed that they were a sovereign nation and had the right to prosecute U.S. troops in their own courts for such deeds. That was the deal-breaker for the Americans. The administration could never agree to such a stipulation. But the UN resolution legitimizing the occupation was set to expire. Without one or the other document signed, the U.S. military no longer had legal authority to stay.
It was Bush’s last year in office. He was out of time, and so he signed onto the Iraqis’ plan. The U.S. would withdraw the last of its forces by the end of December 2011.
This was the greatest debacle imaginable. The hawks’ dream of global hegemony was blown to bits in that desert. The groups America fought five hard years and spent trillions of dollars to put in power in that country had no further use for the U.S. military at all. And they had no intention of letting the U.S. keep an air base there with which to threaten their primary patrons, Iran. David Wurmser had said that Saddam Hussein’s oppression prevented the Iraqi Shi’ites from rising up to their true height of power, which they would then use to dominate the Iranians and force them into compliance with American wishes. Instead, America installed the parties closest to the government in Tehran to rule in Baghdad.
Over the length of the entire war, the U.S. had constructed a massive imperial “embassy” compound in Saddam Hussein’s former Green Zone palace district in Baghdad, approximately the size of the Vatican in Rome. The Bush administration imagined it would be the headquarters of their permanent American military colony. Its peak of operations was in 2011. As the troops were withdrawn, so was the 16,000-person embassy staff. Run by a skeleton crew, the campus remains only as a monument to American hubris and the occasional target of rocket fire from Shi’ite militias.
In Iraq’s west, the Sunni-based insurgency had been quelled temporarily, but the score in their eyes had not been settled. [See Chapters 10–11.] In 2010, as he abided by the deal Bush had signed, President Obama had a chance to lessen the sectarian divisions in the country, but he squandered it. Ayad Allawi was a former Ba’athist, former CIA asset and former U.S.-appointed prime minister of the country after viceroy Paul Bremer left in 2004. Amazingly, his party had won the plurality of votes in the parliamentary elections in the spring of 2010. Under the constitution, he had the right to have the first chance to form a new government. If anyone had a chance at leading a real move towards reconciliation, it might have been Allawi. As a former Ba’athist but also a Shi’ite, he had associations on both sides and may have been able to seek compromise.
But the Iranians insisted on keeping the ruthless anti-Sunni chauvinist Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister. Rather than use U.S. influence to push the Iraqi government to follow the law, Obama sent then-Vice President Joe Biden to resolve the situation. Biden threw his weight behind Maliki, even calling Allawi personally to tell him to give it up. The U.S. would continue to support Iran’s friends in power in the vain hope that someday the Iraqis would need us more than them. Obama and Biden would be back to kick Maliki out of power in a few years, but only after absolute disaster struck.
The prime minister’s attitude toward the Sunnis was just to cut them loose, treating them as outlaws and foreigners. All of Gen. Petraeus’s big promises that they would be integrated back into the Iraqi police, military and patronage systems meant nothing. They would get virtually no oil money, no jobs and no place in the new order at all. While some important Sunni tribesmen sat in the parliament, they had no real power to deliver for their people.
There is no guarantee that Allawi could have done any better. After all, the sectarian cleansing of Baghdad and many other cities was already complete. But he could have tried to split the difference and find a way forward. It was clear that he wanted to attempt it. Instead, under Maliki, the predominantly Sunni areas of western Iraq were just left adrift — and wide open for another regime change.
In the meantime, America’s War on Terrorism was still raging on other battlefields.
Looking to read ahead? Get a copy of my 2021 book Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism on Amazon.
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