The U.S. war machine unleashed in Iraq

March 20, 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 second article in a four-part series written in 2013 on the anniversary, Ashley Smith describes the impact of the full might of the U.S. arsenal used against the Iraqi people.

HAVING RUN roughshod over the UN, world public opinion and a massive wave of protest, the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003.

Behind all the propaganda about weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and liberating the Iraqi people, Washington's real intention was to assert American hegemony over the Middle East's oil and thereby secure dominance over potential rivals like China.

In fact, the U.S. had already prepared the country for regime change through two decades of economic sanctions and escalating military conflicts that had already incapacitated Hussein's regime, destroyed the country's infrastructure and decimated its people.

The U.S.-UN Genocide in Iraq

Now buried deep down the proverbial memory hole, the U.S. was actually allied with Saddam Hussein during his decade-long war with Iran in the 1980s. Bush's arrogant Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld actually visited Hussein as an ally in 1983, representing the Reagan administration. The Guardian reported that he encouraged the U.S. to "allow the export of biological agents, including anthrax; vital ingredients for chemical weapons; and cluster bombs sold by a CIA front organization in Chile."

Bombs fall on government buildings in Baghdad during the "shock and awe" bombardment at the beginning of the war
Bombs fall on government buildings in Baghdad during the "shock and awe" bombardment at the beginning of the war

The U.S. thus helped Hussein develop the chemical weapons he used against Iraqi Kurds, who had allied themselves with Iran, in the notorious Halabja massacre in 1988.

After Iran-Iraq War ended in a stalemate, Iraq invaded the small neighboring country of Kuwait in August 1990. The aim was to seize Kuwait's oil fields, drive up the cost of crude and reap extra profits to pay back $80 billion in loans he borrowed to finance the war with Iran.

A misleading communiqué from U.S. Ambassador to Iraq April Gillespie gave Hussein the impression that the U.S. would remain neutral if Iraq invaded. Instead, the U.S., under George H.W. Bush, mobilized its biggest war effort since Vietnam to crush Hussein's regime by decimating his economic and military power. The U.S. literally bombed the country back to the Stone Age, hammering not only military targets, but civilian infrastructure like the sewage facilities and power systems.

But the U.S. stopped short of overthrowing Hussein and his regime because it feared leaving a vacuum of power that might be filled by Iran. Instead Bush called "for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside and then comply with the United Nations' resolutions and rejoin the family of peace-loving nations."

Yet when the Iraq's oppressed Kurds and Shia rose up in simultaneous rebellions that threatened the regime, Bush and the U.S. betrayed them, standing aside while the Iraqi military carried out mass slaughters. The U.S. preferred its former ally-turned-demonized enemy to a popular revolution it couldn't control.

In order to contain the Iraqi regime, Bush Sr. and his successor Bill Clinton secured UN support for the most brutal regime of sanctions known to history. Hussein was forced to admit weapons inspectors to eradicate his chemical, biological and nuclear programs, which the U.S. had helped to start. The U.S. also imposed a no-fly zone over the Kurdish North and Shia South and staged regular missile strikes against regime targets.

The combination of sanctions and air strikes prevented reconstruction of the country's infrastructure, impoverished its people, undermined basic medical care--and, consequently, led to an enormous increase in the mortality rate, especially among children. The former UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq Denis Halliday denounced the sanctions for leading to "thousands of deaths per month, a possible total of 1 million to 1.5 million over the last nine years...Genocide is taking place right now, every day, in Iraq's cities."

As the humanitarian disaster escalated, Leslie Stahl interviewed Clinton's Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on 60 Minutes. Stahl stated, "We have heard that a half a million children have died. I mean that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And--you know, is the price worth it?" Albright infamously and coldly replied, "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price--we think the price is worth it."

Shock and Awe

By the time Bush Jr. launched the Iraq War, the U.S. had caused a humanitarian catastrophe that it would now only compound.

The U.S. began with a campaign of air terror called "shock and awe," which had the stated goal of further undermining the regime, the infrastructure and the will of its people to fight the planned invasion and neoliberal transformation of Iraq.

The architect of "shock and awe" was National War College professor Harlan Ullman. "We want them to quit. We want them not to fight," he told CBS News. To succeed, Ullman said, the attack needed to have a:

simultaneous effect, rather like the nuclear weapons at Hiroshima, not taking days or weeks but in minutes...You're sitting in Baghdad, and all of a sudden, you're the general and 30 of your division headquarters have been wiped out. You also take the city down. By that, I mean you get rid of their power, water. In two, three, four, five days, they are physically, emotionally, and psychologically exhausted.

In the end, the U.S. opted for a slightly more moderate version of "shock and awe," targeting mainly the Iraqi military--or so the Pentagon spokespeople claimed.

Bush first attempted to assassinate Saddam Hussein with a cruise missile attack on March 19, and then escalated the air war into a full-scale bombing campaign on March 21. The U.S. launched 1,700 sorties and fired over 504 cruise missiles in the coming days, principally targeting Baghdad, a city of 7 million people. While the military pornographers in the corporate media portrayed "shock and awe" as something like Fourth of July fireworks, the people in the bombarded city cowered in fear as bombs thudded all around them. Journalist Robert Fisk captured the horror of the aerial assault:

A pulsating, minute-long roar of sound brought President George W. Bush's crusade against "terrorism" to Baghdad. There was a thrashing of tracer on the horizon from the Baghdad air defenses and then a series of tremendous vibrations that had the ground shaking under us, the walls moving, the sound waves clapping against our ears. Tubes of fire tore into the sky around the Iraqi capital, dark red at the base, golden at the top. Looking out across the Tigris from the river bank, I could see pinpricks of fire reaching high into the sky as America's bombs and missiles exploded on to Iraq's military and communication centers and, no doubt, upon the innocent as well.

While the U.S. claimed its smart bombs didn't kill civilians, the Iraq Body Count website documented that "the highest intensity of civilian killings over a sustained period occurred during the first three 'shock and awe' weeks of the 2003 invasion, when civilian deaths averaged 317 per day and totaled over 6,640 by April 9th, nearly all attributable to US-led coalition-forces, reaching 7,286" by May 1. No one has yet studied the number Iraqi cases of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the American blitzkrieg.

Invasion and Regime Change

The U.S. began the ground invasion on March 20, with 145,000 soldiers racing to seize power in Baghdad. The U.S. threw its entire panoply of weapons against the Iraqi military, including its own favored chemical weapon--shells tipped with depleted uranium, which had poisoned Iraq's people during and after the first Gulf War. Faced with this air and ground barrage, the Iraqi forces, including the much-hyped Republican Guard, collapsed and fled the battlefield.

Saddam Hussein's regime buckled because it had no popular backing. In fact, the country's soldiers and people despised Hussein for exploiting and oppressing them--just as they had two decades before when he was a U.S. ally. So Hussein's call to fight the invaders went unanswered in the opening weeks. As a result, the U.S. seized Baghdad and declared victory on April 14, just three-and-a-half weeks after the start of the war. The U.S. now effectively ruled Iraq as a conquered semi-colony.

The Pentagon fabricated some photo ops to confirm the Bush administration prediction that U.S. forces would be welcomed as liberators. In the most famous one, the corporate media reported that Iraqi civilians welcomed U.S. soldiers to help them topple the giant statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square. The scene was broadcast around the world as a sign of triumphant unity between U.S. forces and the Iraqi people.

In fact, as the Los Angeles Times reported a year later, the Army itself determined that "it was a Marine colonel--not joyous Iraqi civilians, as was widely assumed from the TV images--who decided to topple the statue...And it was a quick-thinking Army psychological operations team that made it appear to be a spontaneous Iraqi undertaking."

The Iraqi people were not going to be tricked into support for the American invaders and their Iraqi accomplices. As left-wing journalist Patrick Cockburn reported:

Most Iraqis wanted to see the back of Saddam Hussein, but they already viewed their liberators--the Americans and the Iraqi exile parties--with suspicion. A civil servant in Baghdad said of the latter: "the exiled Iraqis are the exact replica of those who currently govern us...with the sole difference that the latter are already satiated since they have been robbing us for the past 30 years. Those who accompany the American troops will be ravenous."

The Bush administration, however, seemed to believe its own propaganda. Thus, in an act of arrogance befitting a Roman emperor, Bush celebrated "victory" on May 1 by landing a fighter jet on a U.S. aircraft carrier and then delivering a speech in front of a giant banner emblazoned with the slogan "Mission Accomplished."

But the nature of that mission was just becoming clear in all its horror. The American forces were determined to impose what Naomi Klein calls "disaster capitalism"--they wanted to destroy every vestige of Iraq's state capitalist regime and replace it with a neoliberal system allied to the U.S. that opened up its oil industry to multinationals.

Therefore, U.S. forces permitted the looting of government ministries throughout the country to destroy most of the remnants of the Iraqi state. As Robert Fisk wrote:

U.S. troops have sat back and allowed mobs to wreck and then burn the Ministry of Planning, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Irrigation, the Ministry of Trade, the Ministry of Industry, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Information. They did nothing to prevent looters from destroying priceless treasures of Iraq's history in the Baghdad Archaeological Museum and in the museum in the northern city of Mosul, or from looting three hospitals.

The Americans have, though, put hundreds of troops inside two Iraqi ministries that remain untouched--and untouchable--because tanks and armored personnel carriers and Humvees have been placed inside and outside both institutions.

And which ministries proved to be so important for the Americans? Why, the Ministry of Interior, of course--with its vast wealth of intelligence information on Iraq--and the Ministry of Oil. The archives and files of Iraq's most valuable asset--its oil fields and, even more important, its massive reserves--are safe and sound, sealed off from the mobs and looters, and safe to be shared, as Washington almost certainly intends, with American oil companies.

The Resistance Begins

In opposition to U.S. plans for Iraq to be a colony in all but name, each of Iraq's three major population groups--the Sunnis, the Shia and the Kurds--began to assert their aspirations for a new Iraq.

The Sunnis ruling class, which had been disproportionately represented in the upper echelons of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and in state institutions, reacted with hostility to the occupation. They feared that leaders of Shia would now benefit at their expense in the new state and economy. So they began to organize the Sunni population in the first efforts at armed resistance.

The Shia, which had long been oppressed and repressed under Hussein, took the opportunity to organize gigantic marches on their religious holidays. One leader Moktada al-Sadr, who combined Shia religious ideas with Arab nationalism, began to organize the Mahdi Army and agitate against the occupation.

Only the Kurdish elites were wholly jubilant at the American seizure of Iraq. But they, too, had plans that would bring them into conflict with Iraq's Arab rulers and with the U.S. occupiers. They aimed to seize the northern city of Kirkuk, push out the Iraqi Arabs installed by Hussein's regime, claim the surrounding oil fields as their own and operate with autonomy from any future central government.

They also toyed with declaring an independent Kurdistan that would include the Kurdish population in the surrounding region, a project that would put them at odds with U.S. ally Turkey, which had long denied its own Kurdish minority's the right to self-determination.

Finally, as an important present-day expression of the Iraq's working class historic efforts at self-organization, oil workers began to organize a new independent union and oppose U.S. plans to privatize the oil industry. They saw the industry as a national treasure that needed to be protected--and they would use their class power to do so.

Thus, within just months of the invasion, the U.S. already faced a potential resistance that, in its hubris, it had not anticipated. In the meantime, the Bush administration faced a possible public relations disaster when it failed to find any WMDs. As the former weapons inspector Scott Ritter had announced to the world before the war, Iraq had no chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and nor any program to develop them.

Even the CIA's Iraq Study Group, which sent 1,750 experts to 1,200 suspected WMD sites all over Iraq, could find nothing. "Iraq's WMD program was essentially destroyed in 1991," reported the Christian Science Monitor, "and Saddam ended Iraq's nuclear program after the 1991 Gulf War."

Bush dismissed his failure to find WMDs with a wink and a smirk. At the annual Radio and Television Correspondents' Association dinner in early 2004, Bush narrated an inane and insulting slide show of photos from inside the White House. One depicted the president looking under furniture in the Oval Office, while he joked, "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere. Nope, no weapons over there...maybe under here?"

For a brief period, Bush could yuck it up, but soon, the Iraqi resistance would destroy his imperial plan to remake the Middle East under American hegemony. Bush would, in turn, make the Iraqi people pay an enormous price for their opposition to U.S. imperialism--proving that the only weapon of mass destruction in the country was the U.S. military.

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