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Iraq War II, Part 6: Who’s Zoomin’ Who?
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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Iraq War II turned out to be, as General William Odom called it, “the greatest strategic disaster in United States history.” Those seeking to impose heightened American dominance in the region instead drove U.S. power and influence into the ground, wasting trillions of dollars and more than a million lives and achieving nothing but an escalating series of disasters.
For the entire eight years of Iraq War II, 2003–2011, the government and TV narrative depicted the Americans and the Iraqi people on one side versus “the terrorists” on the other. The U.S.A. was trying to help the nice citizens create a democracy, but on the other side were the bad guys attempting to thwart America’s effort to secure freedom for the people.
But there was no such thing as al Qaeda in Iraq at the start of the war. Abu Musab al Zarqawi had been hiding up in American-protected autonomous Kurdistan, out of Hussein’s reach. Though he quickly joined the fight on the side of the Sunni-based insurgency, Zarqawi and his men did not swear their loyalty to and join al Qaeda until after the second battle of Fallujah in the autumn of 2004, more than a year and a half into the war. For all the propaganda depicting the Jordanian terrorist Zarqawi and his group as the leaders of the insurgency, those who initially led the armed resistance against the United States were mostly former military men fighting on their own ground. In other words, they were local, indigenous forces, not international bin Ladenite terrorists who had signed on to this war to attack the United States. It was just not true, but the “terrorists” narrative prevented the Bush government and Pentagon from ever having to explain who was who and whose side the U.S. was on.
What the U.S. military was actually doing was causing a massive civil war by taking the side of the Shi’ite super-majority. These were the same people that George Bush Sr. had encouraged to rise up and then backstabbed and abandoned in 1991. In 2003, George W. Bush came in and picked up where his father left off, taking them all the way to Baghdad. But remember why Bush Sr. abandoned them: Iranian-based Iraqi militias were arriving to take over the campaign against Saddam. The same thing happened again. The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), their Badr Brigade militia and their counterparts from the Da’wa Party, who had been living in Iran since the start of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, came right across the border on the heels of the American invasion. President Bush had not only destroyed Iran’s greatest enemy in Hussein’s Ba’athist regime, but he had also put the U.S. military on a mission to install the Ayatollah’s loyal friends in power in Baghdad. That was who America was fighting for more or less throughout the whole war.
Mixed in with Iraq’s Sunni and Shi’ite Arabs and Kurds were small sects of Chaldean and Assyrian Christians, Turkmen, Yazidis and others. The Sunni Arabs had been the dominant class inside Hussein’s Ba’athist state. There were Shi’ites and Christians who were part of the government and ruling party, and there were mixed populations in the major cities. People lived together in ways that were sometimes compared to relations between Catholics and Protestants in America: most hardly noticed or cared to which sect their neighbors belonged. Still, the power at the top of the Ba’ath Party was in the hands of the minority Sunni tribes. That is how it had been since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.
But the U.S. invasion changed all that. First, the deputy secretary of defense for policy, Douglas Feith, and senior adviser to the Iraqi Coalition Provisional Authority, Walter Slocomb, insisted that U.S. “Viceroy” Paul Bremer dismiss the entire Iraqi army. They then outlawed Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party and decreed that no former member of it could hold a government job of any kind under the new regime. This gave an extra advantage to the Shi’ite factions vying for power in the capital. However, other than getting out of the country immediately, the Bush government left itself little choice. If the Americans had not abolished the army and previous government so entirely, they might have been forced to support them in another massive effort to crush newly empowered Shi’ite forces. The latter were determined to take President Bush and Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz up on their claims that this invasion was all about spreading democracy to the people of Iraq and the region.
The Clean Break crew had caused the war, but their goal of installing Ahmed Chalabi to rule (in place of King Hussein of Jordan, who had died two years before) had fallen apart. Bush did not trust Chalabi, but it would not have mattered anyway. The highest-ranking Shi’ite cleric in the world was and is the Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who had lived for decades in southern Iraq. Viceroy Bremer had planned to create a “caucus system” where the U.S. would handpick leaders from various Iraqi communities to come together to write the new constitution and form a new government. But al-Sistani had other ideas. In January 2004, he put out a statement saying that the faithful should go outside and demand one-man, one-vote, majority-rule democracy. They did, by the millions, in Basra, Najaf and Baghdad.
That was it. What was the U.S. going to do now, start the war all over again against the Shi’ite super-majority that had thus far stood aside and watched as our army got rid of Saddam’s Sunni dictatorship for them? No. Bush backed down, and the Shi’ite political parties, the “United Iraqi Alliance,” made up of SCIRI, Da’wa and working-class cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s group, has in one form or another been in power ever since. The Bush administration, unable to just admit they had been wrong and withdraw, instead became the Shi’ite forces’ humble servants, helping them to crush the Sunni-based insurgency that was primarily made up of officers and soldiers from the former regime.
That fall, the Shi’ite coalition wrote the constitution for the new “Islamic Republic of Iraq.” A few months later, in January 2005, the U.S. held the first mass elections for the new Iraqi parliament. American TV was extremely impressed with the women voting and proudly displaying the purple ink on their fingers. What they were really doing was pouring napalm on a smoldering fire. Sunni leaders, anticipating a significant defeat, had urged a boycott of the vote in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the process. This was a huge strategic mistake on their part because their abstention did not subvert the election since its results were being backed up by American guns. Instead, they ended up with even fewer seats and less influence in the new government than they were already destined to have under the rules of apportionment in the constitution. The new parliament was then dominated by the Iranian-backed Shi’ite parties and their Kurdish allies, who had done so well in the election. “Ayatollah you so,” wrote Billmon, legendary anonymous blogger of that era.
The Shi’ite United Iraqi Alliance, led by the Da’wa Party and SCIRI, had taken control of approximately 70 percent of the new parliament. Provincial elections in the nine southern provinces in Iraq all fell into the hands of religious Shi’ite parties, mainly the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. They renamed the group the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) after the U.S. won their revolution for them. They had taken over the country at the provincial level and had won a super-majority in the parliament. Though Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari — chosen by neoconservative policy adviser Zalmay Khalilzad — was from the Da’wa Party, the interior minister, minister of petroleum and the other executive leaders came from ISCI. Like Jaafari, his successors Nouri al-Maliki — also chosen by neoconservative policy adviser Zalmay Khalilzad — and Haider Abadi were from the Da’wa Party. The fourth Iraqi prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, was from ISCI. Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, sworn into power in May 2020, is the first Prime Minister who does not come out of Da’wa or ISCI, though he remains heavily dependent on their support for his power.
It was revealed after the war began that Iraqi National Congress chief Ahmed Chalabi, according to the CIA and DIA, had not only notified Iran that the U.S. had broken their intelligence agencies’ secret codes and told them about American plans for Iraq, but he had also been working for Iran all along to lie us into war against the Ayatollah Khamenei’s hated enemy and strategic rival Saddam Hussein. The fact that INC headquarters were in Tehran might have been considered a major tip-off, but apparently not. About those chemical and germ weapons stocks and Iraq’s “reconstituted” nuclear weapons program? I guess we were just “heroes in error,” Chalabi later told the Daily Telegraph.
The Financial Times’s John Dizard wrote a devastating take on the whole affair in 2004, called “How Chalabi Conned the Neocons.” About a year after the war began, it finally started to dawn on the hawks how easily their enemy had manipulated them. They wanted then to try to tilt to the Kurds or the Sunnis, but they were overruled. It was too late. Feith’s law partner, Marc Zell, whose firm represented Israeli settlers on the West Bank, raged to Dizard:
Ahmed Chalabi is a treacherous, spineless turncoat. He had one set of friends before he was in power, and now he’s got another. He said he would end Iraq’s boycott of trade with Israel and would allow Israeli companies to do business there. He said [the new Iraqi government] would agree to rebuild the pipeline from Mosul [in the northern Iraqi oil fields] to Haifa [the Israeli port and the location of a major refinery]. … He promised that. He promised a lot of things.
Chalabi had not only given those assurances to the neoconservatives privately but had vowed the same in a June 1997 speech at JINSA and in a 1998 interview with the Jerusalem Post. Even Benjamin Netanyahu bought the bit about the pipeline, Reuters reported in June 2003. Dizard wrote that, “With Chalabi’s encouragement, the Israeli Ministry of National Infrastructure, which is responsible for oil pipelines, dusted off and updated plans for a new pipeline from Iraq.” However, he continued:
Chalabi’s Arab admirers say they knew he’d never make good on his promises to ally with Israel. “I was worried that he was going to do business with the Zionists,” confesses Moh’d Asad, the managing director of the Amman, Jordan-based International Investment Arabian Group, an industrial and agricultural exporter, who is one of Chalabi’s Palestinian friends and business partners. “He told me not to worry, that he just needed the Jews in order to get what he wanted from Washington and that he would turn on them after that.”
In 2004, the FBI launched an investigation to determine who had informed Ahmed Chalabi that U.S. intelligence agencies had cracked Iran’s communications. But the probe was not limited to the Chalabi leak. The Washington Post reported that the FBI was also looking into Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz, David Wurmser, Richard Perle, Harold Rhode “and others at the Pentagon.” This was in regards to the FBI’s investigation of Pentagon Iran expert Larry Franklin’s passing of classified information on Iran to Israel through the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Secretary Powell’s then-chief of staff, Army Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, told the author that while all the neoconservatives were strong supporters of Israel, he always believed that Douglas Feith and David Wurmser were acting as literal agents of influence for the Israeli government. Perle and Wolfowitz had both been investigated by the FBI back in the 1970s for passing classified information to Israel. Franklin, who worked under Feith in the policy department, was prosecuted, but none of the neoconservatives were held accountable.
But it was Iran and not Israel that was getting what they wanted out of America’s war in Iraq. The Bush administration argued that creating a parliamentary democracy to provide a venue for all of Iraq’s problems to be worked out politically was the solution to the violence. In fact, it only provided the opportunity for entirely new groups to seize and consolidate power over their former overlords, driving those on the losing end to violent insurgency, rather than away from it. In the West, “democracy” by definition includes protections of individual rights, property rights, minority rights, freedom of religion, speech, association and so forth. But boiled down, democracy simply means majority rule, and God help the minority.
The reader may recall the common refrain from that time, “Well, even if we should not have invaded, we cannot leave now because the violence will get worse.” It was remarkably effective propaganda, especially for those who had supported the war in the first place and were trying to withhold judgment on the consequences for as long as possible. But the presumption that whatever we are doing there is making things more peaceful and that the fighting would have gotten worse if we left was completely false. Not only had our government introduced over 100,000 combat forces into the theater, they had essentially put them at the disposal of the Shi’ite factions. The way they spun it was that the Americans were using the Shi’ite militias to hunt down the leaders of the Sunni-based insurgency, but who was really using who? The answer is both, of course, but think of the perverse incentives and moral hazards involved when a local sectarian militia like ISCI’s Badr Brigade has the U.S. Army and Marine Corps at their beck and call to use against their enemies. The Americans were not tamping things down. They were making things worse.
Part of the problem is that in Iraq, all the oil is in the far north near Kirkuk, which is territory mostly shared by Kurds and Shi’ite Arabs, and in the south near the city of Basra, deep in eastern Iraqi Shiastan. There are few developed oil resources in the predominantly Sunni, western regions of the country. When these Sunni tribal groups and Ba’athists lost their dominance over the central government in Baghdad, they lost their power to run away with all that oil wealth. They were in danger of being left out while the Kurds and Shi’ites kept all the money for themselves. This is, in fact, what happened. It was an important reason why the predominantly Sunni insurgency fought so hard against the American effort to install the Shi’ites in power in the capital.
As experts like Robert Dreyfuss explained, Iran exploited Bush’s Iraq War II not just to extend their influence, but to support in power the most bigoted anti-Sunni extremists from ISCI and a “strong federalism” policy which essentially meant “cleansing” and seizing the capital of Baghdad, then cutting the predominantly Sunni regions off from the patronage of the central state. This plan of the Iranians to divide Iraq, similar to that advocated by Senator Joe Biden and his aide Antony Blinken during Iraq War II, played a significant role in setting the stage for the rise of the Islamic State a few years later.
Demographic maps from before and after the war show that Baghdad’s formerly mixed areas are now virtually all Shi’ite. The Sunnis have been pushed almost entirely out of the capital city except for its far southwest. It is hard to imagine what could reverse it. Baghdad is a more than 85 percent Shi’ite city now. It took six years of fighting for the American army and marines to give the Shi’ites control of an Arab capital for the first time in a thousand years. The bin Ladenites may fling suicide bombers at it from now unto eternity, but they will never be able to take it back for the Sunnis.
In December 2004, as he was predicting an overwhelming victory for the Shi’ite slate in the upcoming Iraqi election, King Abdullah of Jordan coined the term “Shi’ite crescent” to describe the newly empowered Iranian alliance system in the region. The Saudi King Abdullah shared his frustration. A State Department document leaked by U.S. Army Specialist Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning summarizes the Saudi king’s frustrations with the second Iraq war as he explained them to neoconservative policy adviser Zalmay Khalilzad:
King Abdullah promised Saudi cooperation, but was deeply skeptical of the chances of success and even appeared to question the bonafides of U.S. policy in Iraq. He commented that whereas in the past the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Saddam Hussein had agreed on the need to contain Iran, U.S. policy had now given Iraq to Iran as a “gift on a golden platter.”
So much for securing the realm.
Stay tuned to this space for the rest of Enough Already, Chapter 3 Iraq War II. They will be published every few days until the anniversary of the invasion in mid-March.
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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