Iraq War II, Part 8: Sectarian War
(Karim Kadim / AP)
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.
Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine, Part Ten, Part Eleven, Part Twelve, Part Thirteen, Part Fourteen.
Listen to the Audiobook chapter
The first Battle of Fallujah began at the very end of March 2004. The trouble started when the Israelis assassinated the leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, in the Gaza Strip. This caused a riot in Fallujah where four Blackwater mercenaries were killed and their burnt corpses left hanging from a bridge. In retaliation, Marine Gen. James Mattis launched two massive attacks on the city, one almost immediately that spring, and another just after President Bush’s reelection in November. The rules of engagement were overly broad, including vast free-fire zones where all people were to be considered enemy combatants. Many innocent civilians were killed as a result.
It may be worth quoting the commander in chief’s statement to the generals before the spring assault began. According to Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, George W. Bush told them:
Kick ass! If somebody tries to stop the march to democracy, we will seek them out and kill them! We must be tougher than hell! This Vietnam stuff, this is not even close. It is a mindset. We can’t send that message. It’s an excuse to prepare us for withdrawal. There is a series of moments, and this is one of them. Our will is being tested, but we are resolute. We have a better way. Stay strong! Stay the course! Kill them! Be confident! Prevail! We are going to wipe them out! We are not blinking!
U.S. military forces are very strong. So, there is nothing they cannot accomplish with firepower, right? Rather than crushing the insurgency, Gen. Mattis’s marines just turned Fallujah into a “Remember the Alamo!”-type battle cry and helped to energize the predominantly Sunni-based insurgency against the U.S. in towns and cities across Iraq. Perhaps this is part of what Mattis had in mind when he said in 2013 that, “I paid a military-security price every day as the commander of CENTCOM because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel.”
As the great war reporter Dahr Jamail documented, another part of the attack’s consequences were that many of the refugees from predominantly Sunni Fallujah fled to Baghdad to go and stay with their friends and family. This led to some disruption, fighting and backlash among the local Shi’ite residents.
The U.S. then went to Ramadi to hunt Sunni insurgents, causing reprisal attacks against some Shi’ites and their displacement. This process kept being repeated. Because of the large attacks on these cities, many refugees would always be driven out. Those displaced people would then displace others wherever they sought shelter. This helped drive tit-for-tat and revenge attacks between the opposing sides.
General Ray Odierno, as head of the fourth infantry division, further provoked massive insurgency in Anbar Province. In 2004, the Sunni tribal leaders offered a ceasefire under the same terms that Gen. Petraeus later accepted during the “Awakening.” Instead, Odierno tried to defeat them by cracking down on the entire population, rounding up “fighting-aged males” by the thousands and driving even more people into the arms of the insurgency. The Army themselves later confirmed that 90 percent of the people arrested by their forces were completely innocent.
Army Gen. David Petraeus got his start in Iraq stationed in Mosul in the predominantly Sunni Arab northwest of the country. He had launched a major initiative to arm and train Sunni fighters to serve as the local police force there. This program collapsed when the entire group of more than 3,000 took their weapons and joined the insurgency against U.S. forces. The second battle of Fallujah, in November 2004, also only created more resistance in response.
The Pentagon then doubled down on support for Shi’ite forces to fight the insurgency in predominantly Sunni towns in Iraq’s west. The culmination of this strategy was the “Salvador Option,” named for policies implemented against leftist insurgents in El Salvador in the 1980s. In practice, this meant Gen. Petraeus and his special advisers, retired colonels James Steele and James Coffman, hired Shi’ite death squads, primarily ISCI’s Badr Brigade, to hunt down and kill the leaders of the Sunni-based insurgency. They also wanted to make the Sunni population pay the price for their resistance to U.S. and Shi’ite forces. In fact, before he made his name as the famous leader of the Iraqi “surge” of 2007, Gen. Petraeus’s job was training and arming up the Badr Brigade to serve as the core of the new Iraqi army and Iraqi National Police, as well as running their private death squads through Steele and Coffman. An investigation by the Guardian and BBC Arabic demonstrated that Steele and Coffman, both of whom worked directly for Gen. Petraeus, were implicated in overseeing the torture of Iraqi prisoners.
This Salvador Option played a large role in the outbreak of full-scale sectarian civil war in Iraq. Not only had the Shi’ite parties won the elections, now they were working in full alliance with the Americans to attack the Sunni Ba’athist and tribal forces. Iraq war logs revealed by Manning through Wikileaks show how the Badr Brigade was acting as an extrajudicial death squad, engaging in widespread torture and murder against Sunni Arabs. One of the biggest stories to come out of the Iraq War Logs was about a “fragmentary order,” Frago-242. It instructed American troops that they were not to report and were forbidden from interfering with the Badr and Wolf Brigades and other Shi’ite militias taking Sunni captives off to be tortured unless given specific orders to the contrary from higher up the chain of command. This was long after the torture at Abu Ghraib prison had been exposed, and new orders banning such abuse by U.S. military members had been issued.
Readers may be familiar with the 2014 Clint Eastwood Iraq war film American Sniper, where the protagonist saves innocent victims from enemy terrorists torturing them with power drills. In the real world, it was the American-backed Shi’ite militias such as the Badr and Wolf Brigades whose signature was torturing Sunnis to death with drills through their hearts, brains and eyeballs. That is who the U.S. military fought the war for, not who they saved the Iraqi people from.
Zarqawi’s men attacked the Shi’ite al-Askari “Golden” mosque in the city of Samarra in February 2006. This bombing represented an effort by Zarqawi to do everything he could to turn the Sunni-based insurgency against the U.S. occupation and new Baghdad government into a war against Shi’ite civilians. This was because reprisal attacks by Shi’ites against other Sunni civilians helped drive more into his camp in response. It was the so-called “strategy of savagery,” meant to terrorize the enemy and empower their own forces as well. Al Qaeda leaders hiding back in Pakistan tried to advise him against it, but he would not stop. Zarqawi was trying to destroy the modern Iraqi state so that it might be replaced by something much worse.
American politicians, generals and pundits, flustered by the rise of the new generation of jihadist fighters in Iraq, began to push the “flypaper theory”: sure, maybe they had spread chaos to a formerly stable, secular country, but that was a good thing because it was drawing all the would-be terrorists from around the region to the “flypaper” that was Iraq’s sectarian war. This simply allowed the U.S. army to meet them and kill them there in Iraq, far away from innocent American moms and babies. However, that argument presumed there was a finite number of Sunni “fighting-age males” who could ever get mad enough about others being killed to choose to join the fight. This was wishful thinking at best. Desperate spin put out to undermine the rising new consensus was a more likely explanation.
A 2004 report by the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board and two National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) of the combined American National Intelligence Council (NIC) from 2005 and 2006 showed that the war was increasing bin Ladenite terrorists’ influence in Iraq and across the region as they rallied against the U.S. and the rise of Shi’ite power in Baghdad.
Saudi and Israeli studies from 2005 concluded that virtually all the foreign fighters who traveled to fight under Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq and allied groups there were young new recruits. None of them were mujahideen from the war against the Russians in Afghanistan. The only role the older terrorists were playing was in recruitment and sending new volunteers off to fight. An entirely new generation of not just local Sunni insurgents but international fighters came from around the region to join the battle, just as they had gone to Afghanistan to fight the Russians twenty years before. The foreign fighters tended to be the most radical and aligned with Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq, engaging in terrorist attacks against soldiers and civilians alike. They were radicalized by the war itself, not before it.
And the Saudis should know. One of the most important buried stories of Iraq War II is that when Bush failed to put another Sunni strongman in power but instead took the side of the Shi’ites in the creation of the new Iraqi state, the Saudis, outraged and panicked, began financing the Sunni-based insurgency and sending jihadists off to join the fight against their American friends. The CIA and NSC complained to their friends in the newspapers a few times, but the Bush administration apparently never insisted the Saudis cease this betrayal.
David B. Low, primary author of the 2006 NIE, told the Washington Post the invasion of Iraq provided the bin Ladenites with
a training ground, a recruitment ground, the opportunity for enhancing technical skills. … There is even, under the best scenario, over time, the likelihood that some of the jihadists who are not killed there will, in a sense, go home, wherever home is, and will therefore disperse to various other countries.
The report itself said that, “The al Qaeda membership that was distinguished by having trained in Afghanistan will gradually dissipate, to be replaced in part by the dispersion of the experienced survivors of the conflict in Iraq.”
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.
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