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Iraq Ten Years Later

16 March 2013

Iraq Ten Years Later

By Gwynne Dyer

Why did George W. Bush choose 19 March, 2003 to invade Iraq, rather than some day in May, or July, or never? Because he was afraid that further delay would give United Nations arms inspectors time to refute the accusation (his sole pretext for making an unprovoked attack on an independent country) that Saddam Hussein’s regime was working on nuclear weapons.

The US president couldn’t say that, of course, and so instead his administration’s spokesmen mumbled about the need to get the war over and done with before the summer heat made fighting impossible. Yet American soldiers proved perfectly capable of operating in that summer heat during the ensuing seven years of fighting, in which over 4,000 of them were killed.

That was nothing compared to the number of Iraqi deaths. At least five times as many Iraqis have died violently in the decade since the US invasion as were killed by Saddam’s regime in the ten years before the invasion. The exact number is unknown, but Saddam’s secret police were probably killing less than 2,000 people a year in 1993-2003. An estimated 121,000 Iraqi civilians have died in the military and political struggles of the past ten years.

Iraq’s infrastructure has still not recovered to its prewar level. More than a million Iraqis still live in internal exile, unable to return to the homes from which they were “cleansed” during the Sunni-Shia sectarian war of 2006-2007. Another million have fled the country for good, including a large proportion of the country’s intellectual and professional elite.

Iraq ranks eighth from the bottom on Transparency International’s corruption index, ahead of Somalia and North Korea but below Haiti and Equatorial Guinea. The government in Baghdad, though dominated by sectarian Shia politicians, does little for the impoverished Shia majority. The Sunni minority fears and hates it. And the Kurdish ethnic minority in the north just ignores Baghdad and runs a state that is independent in all but name.

Iraq’s courts do the regime’s will, torture is endemic, and the swollen army and “security” forces (used almost exclusively for internal repression) eat up a huge share of the budget. And from the perspective of American grand strategy, the main result of the war has been to weaken the position of the US in the Gulf region and strengthen that of its perceived opponent, Iran.

The United States spent about $800 billion on the Iraq war, and will eventually spend at least another trillion dollars on military pensions, disability payments and debt service. Yet it achieved less than nothing. Why on earth did it invade in the first place?

Even the defenders of the invasion have stopped claiming that Saddam Hussein was cooperating with al-Qaeda terrorists who were plotting to attack the United States. They were also plotting to overthrow and kill Saddam, as everyone with any knowledge of the Middle East already knew.

The UN weapons inspectors never found the slightest evidence that Saddam had revived the nuclear weapons programme that had been dismantled under UN supervision in the early 1990s. The people in the White House who took the decision to invade must have known that there was no such programme: the way they carefully worded their propaganda in order to avoid explicit lying is ample evidence of that.

The strategist Edward Luttwak once suggested that the real reason was that the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 had been too easy. After 9/11 the American people really wanted to punish somebody, and Afghanistan had not provided enough catharsis. So another invasion was an emotional necessity, and (given the American public’s ignorance about the Middle East) almost any Arab country would do.

There was certainly a parallel desire among the neo-conservatives in the Bush White House to restore American power to unchallenged dominance after what they saw as the fecklessness of Bill Clinton’s administrations in the 1990s. That required a short and successful war that would put everyone else in awe and fear of American military might – but, once again, any weak and unpopular country would have done. Why Iraq?

The closest we can come to a rational answer is the argument, common in Washington a decade ago, that permanent military bases in Iraq would give America strategic control of the entire Gulf region.

The role of those bases would not be to ensure prompt delivery of the region’s oil to the United States at a low price: only 11 percent of US oil imports come from there. The bases would instead enable the United States to block Gulf exports of oil to China if the United States found itself in a confrontation with that country. (Geo-strategic arguments are often frivolous.)

None of these explanations can justify what was done, and we haven’t even gone into the damage done to international law by this blatantly criminal act. But can we at least conclude that the world, or even just the United Nations, has learned a lesson from all this?

Probably yes for the United States, at least until memories fade. (Give it ten more years.) Not so much for the rest of the world, but then most other countries are less prone to invade faraway places anyway.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 8 and 9. (“Iraq…name”; and “Even…that”)



Iraq: A Model Young Democracy

12 November 2010

Iraq: A Model Young Democracy

By Gwynne Dyer

“There are things we got wrong in Iraq, but the cause is eternally right,” wrote George W. Bush in his recent memoir. “The region is more hopeful with a young democracy setting an example for others to follow.”

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the “young democracy” has finally got a new prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. He’s the same one who led the last government, although every party (including much of his own) wanted to get rid of him after the election last March. Iraq’s ethnic and religious rivalries have become so fierce that no new and more inclusive coalition of parties could be agreed on.

It’s taken eight months of tortuous negotiations to get this far, a world record for the length of time taken after an election to create a new government. And the job’s not actually done yet. Maliki now has a month to form a cabinet, which means fierce rivalry between and within the parties for control of the ministries that are the main source of wealth and power in Iraq. Even now, the deal could still fall apart.

And what about the al-Qaeda terrorists whose supposed links with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein were one of Mr Bush’s pretexts for the US invasion of the country in 2003? (The other pretext was Saddam’s alleged “weapons of mass destruction”, but the less said about that the better.)

Osama bin Laden’s Islamist extremists actually had no links at all with Saddam Hussein, nor any presence in Iraq until 2003; it was the invasion that gave them a role there. And although al-Qaeda’s fanatical desire to kill Shia Muslims and Christians, rather than concentrate on the American occupation forces, eventually alienated even the Sunni minority from them during the “surge” period in 2007-08, that has changed too.

“Now they’re back,” said General Hussein Kamal, the head of the intelligence division at Iraq’s interior ministry, in an interview with The Guardian. “It’s like 2004 again….They are pure al-Qaeda, not a mixture of groups like before.”

2004 was the year when Iraq began its descent into hell. The invasion killed a lot of people, but the resistance really only got underway in the following year, when the Sunni Muslims started attacking US troops – and the al-Qaeda volunteers among them also began murdering Shia Muslims in industrial quantities.

That triggered the Sunni-Shia civil war of 2005-2007, which the Sunnis decisively lost. So the Sunni community turned against the al-Qaeda fighters who had brought this disaster upon them, and that in turn enabled the US “surge” to succeed for a while. But the subsequent years have seen the Sunnis systematically excluded from any meaningful share of power, and the clock is turning back to 2004.

At no time in the past few years has the killing stopped in Iraq, but now it is ramping up again fast. On 31 October, al-Qaeda gunmen stormed a Christian church in Baghdad, killing 58 worshippers and security officers. On 2 November there were fifteen almost simultaneous bombs in Shia districts of the capital that killed scores of people and injured hundreds.

On 10 November there were eleven more bombs, this time targeting Christians in their homes. Half of Iraq’s million-strong Christian minority has already fled the country, and the rest are thinking seriously about following suit. And Iyad al-Allawi, whose party got most of the Sunni vote in the election and actually won the largest number of seats, has effectively been frozen out of power by a Shia-Kurdish alliance. Just like after the previous election.

Under huge US pressure, Allawi has been persuaded to become “chairman of the National Council for Strategic Policy,” a new body that has been created precisely to give him a job. But it is a pretty poor consolation prize, and may turn out to mean nothing at all. The United States has lost almost all influence in Baghdad (although there are still 50,000 American troops in the country), and Iran rules the roost.

From the moment that George W Bush decided to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein, it was certain that Iran would be the big winner. Almost two-thirds of the Iraqi population, although Arab, belongs to the Shia sect of Islam, and Iran is the one great Shia power. When the post-invasion scramble for power began in Iraq, it was perfectly natural for Iraqi Shias to turn to Tehran for support against Sunnis in their own country.

During the eight months of haggling and stonewalling that preceded the deal on 11 November, both Maliki and Allawi spent more time seeking support in Tehran and the capitals of Iraq’s Sunni neighbours to the south than negotiating with their rivals in Baghdad itself. The country has become a pawn in the confrontation between Iran and the Arab countries, but Iran has emerged as the clear winner.

Meanwhile, Iraq may be sliding into another mini-civil war, and there is no reason to think that the quite astonishing level of corruption in the ministries is going to decline. There are not many countries in the region that want to follow the example set by this “young democracy.” They are just hoping that the bloodshed and the hatred do not spread.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“It’s taken…apart”; and “Under…roost”)

Iraq: Good-Bye and Good Luck

5 July 2010

Iraq: Good-Bye and Good Luck

By Gwynne Dyer

As the American withdrawal gains speed, there are fewer American troops in Iraq than in Afghanistan for the first time since 2003. By the end of August there will be no US combat troops left in Iraq, though some tens of thousands of support troops will remain until next year. And still there is no new Iraqi government, although it is now four months since the election on 7 March.

US Vice-President Joe Biden was in Baghdad at the week-end urging Iraqi politicians to end the political deadlock, but America’s influence over events in Iraq has been falling as fast as its troop numbers. In the end, the same broad coalition of Shia Arabs and Kurds that ran the country before will probably rule again, excluding the Sunni Arabs, but it’s unclear who will lead the new coalition.

The last election made Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic rivalries even sharper, if that is possible. The corruption is universal and shameless. Dozens of people are still being killed by suicide bombers every week. But the country cannot really fail, because there is just so much oil.

After three decades of foreign wars, UN sanctions and American occupation, Iraq’s oil exports bottomed out at 1.8 million barrels per day in 2008, but they are already back up to 2.5 million b/d – and Baghdad plans to be producing 9.9 million b/d only ten years from now. That would make it the world’s first, second or third-largest exporter (depending on what happens to Saudi Arabian and Russian production), and drown it in a tidal wave of cash.

The target is plausible, because this is not speculation about production from new oilfields; it is just enhanced production from existing fields. Contracts to build the infrastructure to pump that extra oil have already been signed with two dozen foreign oil companies. Since the foreigners are only paid a fee per barrel, Iraq gets most of the profits.

On the reasonable assumption that the price of oil will not drop below $50 per barrel in the next decade, that means that the Iraqi government will have an oil income of at least $150 billion a year by 2020. Two-thirds of the current government’s income is stolen by the political elite and there is no reason to think that this will change, but that would still allow some $50 billion a year to trickle through and serve the needs of ordinary Iraqis.

That is probably enough to buy the grudging loyalty of most Shia Arabs to the Iraqi state. The Kurds are a different case, but the hostility of all their neighbours to full Kurdish independence will probably persuade them to maintain their current semi-detached relationship with Baghdad. And the Sunni Arab minority can be either bought off or repressed.

In the old days, there might have been a popular revolution to sweep away the emigre elite that came back from the US, Europe and Iran to feed off the long-suffering Iraqi people, but those days are gone. After Abdulkarim Qasim, the Baathists, Saddam Hussein, and the Americans – fifty years of disappointment – the Iraqis don’t believe in saviours any more. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” could be the national anthem.

All the Iraqis can reasonably hope for, in the aftermath of the US occupation, is corrupt governments riven by sectarian and ethnic divisions, but that is probably a stable outcome provided there is enough money. And to be fair to the Americans, no other post-Saddam, post-occupation outcome was ever likely.

So what happens in the next few months? The union last month between outgoing prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s secular but overwhelmingly Shia State of Law Party and the two religious Shia parties in the Iraqi National Alliance creates a bloc that is within striking distance of a parliamentary majority. Recreate the alliance with the Kurds that Maliki had in the last coalition, and the deal is done.

That coalition has not yet happened because Maliki would almost certainly not be the prime minister in it: one of the Shia religious parties, led by Moqtada al-Sadr, hates him too much. The coalition talks may continue at a stately pace down to September as Maliki seeks to stay in power, but he will probably fail.

His only hope is to make a deal instead with Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiyya party, which got most Sunni Arabs’ votes across the west and north of the country, but also significant support from secular Shias in and around Baghdad. But the Kurds would probably not join such a coalition, because Iraqiyyah ran on an anti-Kurdish platform across northern Iraq – and besides, Allawi and Maliki cannot stand each other.

Some sort of deal will be done in the end, because the spoils of power are just too tempting – and meanwhile, the Americans are leaving as quietly as possible. As quietly, that is, as you can move 1,900 heavy tanks and fighting vehicles, 43,000 trucks, 600 helicopters, and 34,000 tonnes of ammunition.

Some of this stuff will go straight back to the United States, but quite a lot of it will be repaired in Kuwait and then sent on to Afghanistan. The “dumb war”, as President Obama called it, is over. The almost-as-dumb war continues.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 12. (“In the old…anthem”; and “His only…other”)

Iraqi Election

3 March 2010

Iraqi Election

By Gwynne Dyer

There are some bombs going off, but apart from that the election in Iraq on 7 March is a model of its kind. There are more than 6,000 candidates for the 352 seats in parliament, and the country is flooded with foreign observers who will monitor the process. Unlike last time, no major group is boycotting the election – and nobody knows who is going to win it.

Iraq has come a long way since the Sunni-Shia civil war of 2005-07, when 3,000 murdered people were being found in Baghdad each month. True, the most violent elements could just be waiting until all the Americans leave next year to start the fighting again, but it’s unlikely that they would let this election unfold smoothly if they had the power to disrupt it. And the more credible the election, the greater the legitimacy of the resulting government.

It could be literally a new government, in the sense that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would no longer be running it. Maliki’s personal popularity among more “nationalist” Shias (i.e. less sectarian ones) is undiminished, and his “State of Law” alliance leads in the opinion polls, with a predicted 30 percent of the seats in the new parliament. But 30 percent is not a majority.

To form a new government, Maliki’s party will need the support of either the secular nationalists of former prime minister Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National Movement, now at 22 percent in the polls, or of the conservative Shia religious party, the Iraqi National Alliance, which has 17 percent. They have both said that they will not accept Maliki as prime minister in any coalition government they join, and they may actually mean it.

Maliki would doubtless prefer to recreate the existing coalition with the Kurdish parties, but that arithmetic probably doesn’t work any more. Kurds are 20 percent of Iraq’s population, and when they all voted for the two traditional Kurdish parties (which cooperated at the national level), they were the king-makers of Iraqi politics. The recent rise of the reforming Goran (Change) party, however desirable in itself, destroys that Kurdish unity.

But how nice it is to make such boring, routine calculations about the outcome of an Iraqi election! It’s almost as if the place had become a normal country again, and a democratic one at that. Iraqis certainly deserve such a happy ending after all the horrors they have been through. Are they are really going to get one?

Al-Qaeda, which gained a foothold among the Sunni Arab minority in Iraq after the American invasion in 2003, retains the ability to commit atrocities like the suicide bombings that killed 32 people in Baquba on Wednesday, but it is now only a marginal force among the Sunnis. The question is really whether the rest of the community has accepted its minority status and decided to make the best of it.

The alienation of the Sunnis is very great. They dominated Iraqi politics for centuries, and ten years ago most did not even realise that the Shias outnumbered them three-to-one. The US invasion drove them from power, they bore the brunt of the fight against the US occupation, and then they were dragged into a war against the Shias by the al-Qaeda fanatics.

In the course of that war most mixed neighbourhoods in Baghdad were “cleansed” of their Sunni population, and the city is now overwhelmingly Shia. A very large proportion of the two million Iraqi refugees abroad and the two million internally displaced people are Sunnis. Even in this election, the Shia-dominated “de-Baathification” committee disqualified a number of prominent Sunni candidates from running.

Yet most Sunnis will be voting this time, rather than boycotting the election as they did in 2005. In retrospect the Sunni community sees that as a grave error, as they had almost no influence on central government policy between then and now. They are now willing at least to try to live within the new reality of minority status in a country where religion plays a far larger role than previously.

The threat of an Arab-Kurdish civil war over the disputed city of Kirkuk is also in decline, despite the importance to the Kurds of its surrounding oil-fields. The new Goran party takes a more conciliatory approach to the Arabic-speaking minority in that city, most of whom were settled there decades ago as part of Saddam Hussein’s Arabisation programme. It does not control the Kurdistan Regional Government, but it is certainly a moderating influence.

It’s a bit early to see Iraq as a kind of Middle Eastern Belgium, with as many bitter internal divisions as that deeply divided country but also its enduring commitment to democracy. (One parallel, however, is a given: it will probably take as incredibly long to form a coalition government after this election as it does in Belgium.)

The wounds in Iraq are very fresh, and its democracy is still new and fragile. But after the decades of oppression, the hundreds of thousands killed since 2003, the millions more turned into refugees, and the steep fall in the status of women, it would be nice if Iraq had something positive to show for its long ordeal. We’ll know by 2020.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“Maliki…unity”; and “The threat…influence”)