The end of the occupation

March 22, 2018

Fifteen years ago this week, George W. Bush launched the invasion of Iraq. Bush and Co. intended the second Iraq War as a stepping-stone to wider domination of the Middle East, and they claimed victory when Saddam Hussein's dictatorial regime fell quickly. But within months, the U.S. faced mass resistance to the occupation, and 15 years later, the war represents both a setback for U.S. imperialism and a catastrophic human tragedy.

In the last article in a four-part series written in 2013, Ashley Smith explains how the U.S. scrambled to maintain its grip on Iraq--including fomenting a terrible civil war--but ultimately was forced to withdraw in failure.

THE IRAQI resistance to occupation, despite being fractured among different groups in Iraq, successfully blocked the Bush administration's strategy of using their country as a stepping stone for rolling regime changes throughout the Middle East.

But even as the resistance put pressure on the occupiers, the U.S. lashed back, determined to at least hold on to Iraq as a base of operations. To accomplish this, Bush and Co. turned to the oldest imperialist trick in the book--divide and rule. The U.S. triggered a civil war that raged at a high pitch from 2006 through 2008, causing terrible carnage and destruction in a country already suffering from both.

It has become commonplace for the corporate media to absolve the U.S. of any culpability for the civil war. In only the latest example, Ranj Alaaldin, a senior associate at the pro-war Next Century Foundation, claims that the U.S. "did not instigate, encourage or provoke civil war in Iraq." Instead, Alaaldin and others blame Iraqis themselves.

A camp flooded with refugees from the ongoing disaster caused by U.S. imperialism in Iraq
A camp flooded with refugees from the ongoing disaster caused by U.S. imperialism in Iraq

It's true, of course, that the divisions between Sunnis, Shia and Kurds existed before the U.S. invasion, and that Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party manipulated these divisions. The regime was disproportionately comprised of Sunnis, and repression was meted out against the Shia majority and Kurdish minority. But there was no history of mass civil war and ethnic cleansing. In fact, before the war, nearly one in three marriages in Iraq were between Sunni and Shia.

Moreover, in early 2004, when Moktada al-Sadr rallied the Shia to the support the Sunni resistance in Falluja, it looked like the two religious groups would overcome their divisions and unite against the U.S. occupation. On walls throughout Arab-majority Iraq, graffiti appeared with slogans like "Sunni + Shia = Jihad Against Occupation."

The U.S. precisely feared this development and did everything in its power to drive a wedge between Sunnis and Shia. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez worried, "The danger is we believe there is a linkage that may be occurring at the very lowest levels between the Sunni and Shia. We have to work very hard to ensure it remains at the tactical level."

Divide and Rule

Washington's divide-and-conquer strategy was a guide in the design of the new Iraqi state to replace Hussein's dictatorship. When Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) set up the Iraqi Governing Council, it used the Lebanese model that institutionalized proportional representation, not by politics, but by religious grouping.

The U.S. then established an election law for the vote for the transitional National Assembly and the subsequent parliamentary election that exacerbated the tendency toward sectarian politics. As a result, the three votes--for the National Assembly, the referendum on the Constitution, and the 2006 Parliamentary election--broke Iraq into three antagonistic religious and ethnic camps. The Shia, Sunni and Kurdish elites and their parties each scrambled to consolidate their position, thus breaking the possible national unity against the occupation.

The Sunni elites advocated a boycott in the first elections, which they knew they would lose to the Shia majority. The Shia parties formed a bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), to secure a Shia state under eventual Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The Kurdish parties won a minority of the vote--and were anyway preoccupied with consolidating their hold over the practically autonomous region in the country's North. The U.S. had thus communalized Iraq's politics.

Maliki consolidated a Shia state by stuffing the state with Shia bureaucrats. He also allowed the Badr Brigades of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and Moktada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army to form the base of the country's new security forces and police.

In reaction to this consolidation of a Shia state, Sunni jihadists grew in strength and increasingly targeted the Shia as infidels for collaborating with the occupation. They not only attacked Shia politicians and police, but also religious ceremonies, holy sites and innocent civilians. The destruction of one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam, the Golden Dome, on February 22, 2006, set off a full-scale civil war.

In the following days, Shia militias, especially Sadr's Mahdi Army, exacted their revenge, killing 1,300 Sunni civilians and destroying 50 Sunni mosques. The outgunned Sunni guerillas counter-attacked. At the height of the civil war, Patrick Cockburn estimates, "[M]ore than 3,700 Iraqis died in a single month, the great majority of them in Baghdad." Each side engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. As a result, Baghdad, which had been 65 percent Sunni, became 75 percent Shia.

Instead of stopping this fratricidal violence, the U.S. fueled it. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte implemented the so-called "Salvador Option," which he helped develop during the Reagan administration in the 1980s when the U.S. backed death squads in Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua against left-wing movements and governments. Negroponte encouraged the ISCI's Badr Brigades inside the security forces to target not only Salafists, but the whole of the Sunni resistance itself.

In the end, according to the UN Refugee Agency, the civil war drove 4.7 million people from their homes. Over 2 million, mostly Sunnis, fled the country, half of them to Syria. The rest were internally displaced within Iraq. "There is no national identity any longer," Ghassan al-Attiyah, an Iraqi political scientist and commentator, told journalist Patrick Cockburn. "Iraqis are either Sunni, Shia or Kurd."

The Myth of the Surge

While the civil war took over the attentions of the media, the U.S. nevertheless faced unrelenting resistance to the occupation in different forms. Sadr's Mahdi Army continued its protests and the Sunni militias escalated their guerilla attacks on U.S. forces--between 2005 and 2006, they grew from 26,496 to 34,131. On top of that, Maliki's government increasingly drifted away from U.S. control toward establishing political and economic ties with Iran.

Thus, Iraq, which Bush and Co. had hoped to turn into a beachhead for the transformation of the Middle East, was slipping out of American control. With its dominion over the region threatened, the U.S. political establishment split between the diehard neocons of the Bush administration and a bipartisan group that advocated a new strategy.

This bipartisan faction coalesced around the report of the so-called Iraq Study Group (ISG), which advocated a phased withdrawal of some U.S. troops and redeployment of the remaining forces to the U.S.'s five enduring bases, from which they could police the country and region. The ISG also argued that the U.S. had to open negotiations over the future of Iraq and the region with Iran and Syria, Washington's enemies.

Bush balked at these recommendations and instead opted for the much-hyped "surge" of combat troops to Iraq. He appointed Gen. David Petraeus, the advocate of counter-insurgency as a strategy to defeat the resistance, to lead the operation. Petraeus argued that the U.S. had to deploy more U.S. troops in insurgent strongholds, clear out the resistance fighters, and then embed those troops in the community to ensure security.

Initially, much of the establishment--the Democrats, in particular--opposed the surge. But soon, with the Bush administration claiming that its strategy had led to a drop in resistance attacks and civilian violence, even the Democrats joined in surge triumphalism, proclaiming Petraeus the savior of the Iraq occupation.

The truth could not be more different. Bush deployed 30,000 troops in 2007, bringing the total U.S. troop presence to about 160,000, mainly concentrated in Baghdad and Anbar Province.

The surge actually caused a massive spike in violence. Lauren Frayer, a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem, reported that 2007 was "the deadliest year for U.S. troops despite the recent downturn, according to an Associated Press count. At least 852 American military personnel have died in Iraq so far this year--the highest annual toll since the war began in March 2003."

The real reason for the subsequent drop in resistance attacks and civilian violence had little to do with the surge. First, the Sunni tribal and clerical establishment turned their guns away from targeting occupation forces to go after al-Qaeda and other Sunni jihadist forces, whom they blamed for bringing Shia wrath on their community. These forces formed Awakening Councils in Sunni cities in Anbar to suppress the jihadists. The U.S. coopted this movement to do its dirty work, putting as many as 77,000 Sunnis on the U.S. payroll.

Second, Sadr decided to call off Mahdi Army attacks on U.S. forces and bide his time, waiting for a more favorable balance of forces to continue his movement's agitation against the occupation.

Third, the civil war had burned itself out after the Shia militias routed Sunni forces. As Charles Crain wrote in Time Magazine, "[M]any neighborhoods have completed their brutal sectarian segregation, leaving fewer easy targets for intimidation and murder." Thus, Patraeus's decision to build giant walls between Sunni and Shia neighborhoods did not stop the violence, but merely enforced the new sectarian division in Baghdad.

The Tilt to the Sunnis and the Shia Ultimatum

During the surge, Bush and Co. tried to weaken the Shia state and break its ties with Iran. They exploited the long simmering antagonism between Prime Minister Maliki and Moktada al-Sadr, who had broken with the Shia United Iraqi Alliance and renewed protests against the occupation in 2008.

Bush encouraged Maliki to order the Iraqi Army to assault Sadr's stronghold in Basra. With Sadr weakened, the U.S. hoped to finally negotiate an extension of the occupation and ram through laws to open up Iraq's oil industry to multinational energy corporations. But Sadr's forces were able to withstand the Army's assault and fought it to a standoff.

Iran stepped in to broker a peace deal, thereby strengthening its position as the key arbiter of power among the Shia factions. Flush with victory, Sadr threatened to call a million-strong demonstration in Baghdad against the occupation. When the U.S. responded with a joint military assault with the Iraqi Army on Sadr City, the teeming slum of 2 million Shia in Baghdad, Sadr called off the demonstration.

The U.S. realized that it could not rely on Maliki to govern Iraq on its terms. So it opted to tilt away from the Shia parties and build an alternative base of support in the run-up to elections in 2010. The Bush administration started raising the specter of a "Shia Crescent," headquartered in Iran and extending through a Shia-dominated Iraq to Syria and the forces of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia were only too happy to respond to the call for a network of Sunni states aligned with the U.S. against Iran and its influence in Iraq. They poured money into Iraqiya, an Iraqi party led by Ayad Allawi, America's old CIA asset. While a secular Shia, Allawi's party attracted most of its support from Sunnis. Iran, on the other hand, backed Shia formations like ISCI, Dawa and the Sadrists. Bush thus regionalized the sectarian civil war it fomented in Iraq.

After voters tossed the Republicans out of the White House in 2008, it was left to Barack Obama to attempt to salvage what he could from the occupation of Iraq.

Obama--who had won the Democratic presidential nomination as the leading candidate most associated with opposition to Bush's wars--started out by continuing the Bush administration's tilt toward the Sunnis and Allawi in 2010 elections.

In that vote, the divided Shia parties didn't put up candidates as part of a united slate, and Allawi's Iraqiya was able to win the largest block of seats in parliament. But ultimately, Maliki was able to convince all the main Shia parties, including the Sadrists, to join a united government.

The condition was that Maliki refuse U.S. demands to renegotiate the Status of Forces Agreement the Bush administration had struck in 2008. Under the agreement, the U.S. was required to withdraw completely from Iraq by the end of 2011. Despite his best efforts to force Maliki to renegotiate, allowing U.S. troops to remain in Iraq, Obama failed. He ordered U.S. forces to scuttle out of Iraq during the dead of night on December 18, 2011.

A Catastrophic Legacy

At a welcoming home ceremony at Fort Bragg, Obama declared that returning soldiers had accomplished "an extraordinary achievement nine years in the making. Everything that the American troops have done in Iraq--all the fighting and all the dying, the bleeding and the building, and the training and the partnering--all of it has led to this moment of success."

Of course, this was a lie. As Gen. William Odom stated, the Iraq war was the "greatest strategic disaster in American history." The U.S. achieved none of it avowed goals. It failed to establish Iraq as a puppet state or even an ally in the region. It failed to open up the Iraqi oil industry to multinational corporations. It failed to use the country as a beachhead for further regime change in Iran and Syria. In fact, Iran emerged as the biggest victor of the Iraq War.

The U.S. suffered a decline in its ability to control the region. The Arab Spring further destabilized the entire architecture of U.S. imperial domination over the region. Those mass revolts from below toppled U.S. allies in Tunisia and Egypt and have spread throughout the region, challenging both other allied dictatorships as well as enemies like the Assad regime in Syria.

Obama and the U.S. political establishment have no intention of allowing the Middle East and its strategic energy reserves slip from America's grasp. They have rallied the Sunni states in the region to build an international coalition to isolate Shia Iran.

Obama attempted to rehabilitate U.S. intervention in the region by hijacking the Libyan Revolution to secure an allied government in Tripoli. He has struck deals with the new regimes in Egypt and Tunisia and is trying to manipulate the Syrian Revolution to secure an "orderly transition" to the advantage of the U.S. Obama, just like Bush before him, will continue to spill blood for oil and empire in the Middle East.

Obama also lied about what the U.S. left behind in Iraq. At Fort Bragg, he boasted, "We're leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people."

The U.S. fought tooth and nail to deprive Iraq of its sovereignty. The fact that Iraq has even a little control over its destiny was the result of the multiple resistance movements that opposed the occupation and eventually forced the U.S. to withdraw.

To call Iraq's government representative and the country stable is an insult to anyone who reads a newspaper. Immediately after the withdrawal, the Maliki government moved to consolidate near-dictatorial powers for a Shia-dominated state. It sought revenge against the Sunnis the U.S. had backed, targeting their politicians and refusing to integrate the Awakening Councils into the security services.

As a result the civil war, which the U.S. precipitated, could easily erupt again as the Shia, Kurdish and Sunni elite continue to fight over the future of Iraq.

Meanwhile, for the masses of the Iraqi people, the U.S. invasion has left behind an unending social catastrophe.

Despite $60 billion supposedly spent on reconstruction of the country, Iraq's economic conditions are worse today than under Saddam Hussein. Outside of the Kurdish north, most Iraqis still don't have regular electricity nor reliable supplies of potable water. They suffer sky-high levels of unemployment and poverty. Journalist Juan Cole reports that the number of Iraqis living in slums jumped from 17 percent before the occupation to 50 percent today.

The consequences of the U.S. occupation will last generations. The use of depleted uranium weaponry has driven up cancer rates to astonishing levels. As antiwar journalist Dahr Jamail reported:

Official Iraqi government statistics show that, prior to the outbreak of the First Gulf War in 1991, the rate of cancer case in Iraq was 40 out of 100,000 people. By 1995, it had increased to 800 out of 100,000, and by 2005, it had doubled to at least 1,600 out of 100,000 people. Current estimates show the increasing trend continuing.

The U.S. war and occupation has created hell on earth in Iraq. The lesson of this history is one that the great U.S. revolutionary John Reed spelled out long ago:

Uncle Sam never gives anybody something for nothing. He comes along with a sack stuffed with hay in one hand and a whip in the other. Anyone who accepts Uncle Sam's promises at their face value will find that they must be paid for in sweat and blood.

Further Reading

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