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Iraq: how the west lost

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Iraq was supposed to be the war that finally erased the memory of defeat in Vietnam. Instead, says Simon Assaf, ten years on it is clear that the conflict dealt another blow to imperialism
Issue 2344

Iraq was supposed to be the war that finally erased the memory of defeat in Vietnam. Instead, says Simon Assaf, ten years on it is clear that the conflict dealt another blow to imperialism

It was a war designed to demonstrate US military power, but ended exposing its limits. The invasion of Iraq ten years ago was sold on lies. There was a heady optimism that Iraq would become a model for neoliberal success—and that invasion would give a hard lesson to those who challenged US imperialism.

By December 2011, when the last US combat troops left, Iraq had replaced Vietnam as the symbol of imperial disaster. The country suffered over one million dead, countless wounded, maimed and displaced.

Far from the shining example of success, the US emerged from the occupation with few tangible gains. The much sought after oil fields of southern Iraq are now under the control of Chinese companies. In the north, Turkish companies have swept up many of the lucrative reconstruction contracts.

The foundation for the failure of the Iraq war was laid before the first Western soldier fired a bullet. 

The invasion began on 20 March 2003. Iraq had already been ruined by a decade of punitive economic sanctions aimed at the regime of dictator Saddam Hussein. 

The West had armed and courted Hussein for years until he invaded Kuwait. Sanctions were put in place following the 1990 Gulf War. They reversed decades of social and economic progress. 

The country experienced an epidemic of poverty and shortages, and the destruction of its infrastructure. 

The “shock and awe” barrage of cruise missiles unleashed by the US in the lead up to the ground invasion destroyed what little remained. 

When Western troops poured into the country they were able to drive into Baghdad with barely a fight. The demoralised Iraqi army melted away.

The speed of the initial victory led US president George Bush to make his now infamous “mission accomplished” speech. According to the neo-cons in the US government, the war seemed to vindicate their strategy of the “light footprint”—invade, destroy the enemy and leave in its place a compliant puppet regime. 

The US and its allies hoped to replace Saddam Hussein’s regime with exiles. Iraq would undergo “neoliberal shock therapy” that would “reform” whatever institutions and economy survived sanctions and war.

But instead of vast throngs of welcoming locals, the country descended into anarchy.

Crowds of looters stripped bare ministries, hospitals, schools and universities. Whatever remained of the infrastructure was quickly cannibalised. 

For the exiled Iraqi politicians, the post-Saddam era did not play out as planned. On the surface they appeared to have gained 

everything they wanted—from ministerial portfolios to lucrative reconstruction contracts.

Both US officials and their allies suffered from the same delusion— that there was no need to build a constituency in Iraq as long as they had one in Washington. 

But having disbanded the Iraqi army in May 2003, the US discovered there was no army or police left on which to build a puppet regime.

A few weeks after Bush’s declaration of victory, Western troops faced waves of demonstrations demanding an end to the occupation.

Fallujah fight showed unity

On 28 April 2003 a crowd gathered near a school housing US troops in the Sunni Muslim city of Fallujah. It demanded that the troops withdraw. Soldiers opened fire and killed 13 unarmed people. 

This touched off a national uprising that would eventually humiliate the world’s most powerful army. 

That summer saw rising numbers of attacks on Western troops. The occupation reacted by seizing men, boys and sometimes women. 

Both Sunni and Shia Muslims joined growing resistance organisations in increasing numbers. In Sunni regions powerful nationalist and Islamist currents emerged.

In the overwhelmingly poor Shia areas young men began to rally to the Mehdi Army led by the young and charismatic cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. He became a figurehead for the national resistance movement.

The growing hostility among Shia was in marked contrast to the warm reception they initially gave occupation forces. 

The publication of the infamous pictures of torture and abuse in Abu Ghraib prison in April 2004 destroyed any moral credibility of the occupation. 

Resistance organisations attacked helicopters, tanks and troops, sabotaged oil pipelines, and assassinated interpreters and officials working for the occupation. 

By October 2003 most of Iraq’s towns and cities were under the control of a popular armed resistance. Over the next few years this insurgency would stretch occupation forces to breaking point.

Uncertainty over the goals of the war began to filter into the ranks of the US army.

For many soldiers the Iraq adventure would come to resemble US humiliation in Vietnam, with “Fallujah” becoming a symbol of another imperial defeat.

It was in response to this movement that occupying troops used torture, mass arrests and sectarian death squads. 

The strength of the Iraqi resistance forced a dramatic shift in US strategy. It dumped the exile politicians, began to court the conservative Shia religious establishment and reach out to “moderate” Sunni leaders.

It was a calculated move by occupying forces to stoke ethnic and sectarian tensions. Ministries and contracts would be dished out to this end.

The US awarded those at the top of each “community” a share in the spoils of state power, to dispense as patronage to those further down.

Baghdad became a symbol of a divided city, with marauding death squads, kidnappings and murder. Its many neighbourhoods became walled compounds, divided from each other. 

Meanwhile the war, and economic collapse, took a growing toll on an exhausted population.

The US banked on playing the sectarian card to weaken the resistance. But the firestorm it unleashed threatened to destroy any chance that Iraq could emerge as a stable country.

Limits of the resistance

Despite its early promise, the Iraqi resistance failed to build a credible national movement. Many of its brigades, although formally fighting for a unified country, were split between Sunni and Shia groups.

The US military began to play on this weakness. It engineered a struggle between Sunni nationalist and Salafi currents, and radical forces loyal to Moqtada al?Sadr and sectarian Shia militias. 

In the north it encouraged the Kurdish minority to seek greater autonomy. This added a dangerous ethnic component to a fracturing country.

The growing chaos in Iraq led to splits in US administration. Some wanted to negotiate a way out. Others, often the neo-con supporters of the war, wanted a new “surge” in troop numbers.

With the 2008 election of Barack Obama the “pragmatists” won out. Obama’s strategy was one of “managing defeat”. He ordered the last combat troops out of Iraq at the end of  2011.

The economic bonanza for US companies expected out of the war failed to materialise. The real “winners” were companies from China, Turkey, South Korea and Iran.

Iraq today has become one of the world’s largest oil producers, pumping more crude than at any time in its history. But little of this money is reaching ordinary people, whose lives have not improved much since the invasion ten years ago. 

The US has built its largest embassy in the centre of Baghdad—a giant fortified compound. Part of the exit deal was to tie the country into expensive US weapons contracts, and the right to send the troops back in if needed.

But despite the decade of misery, sectarianism and war, Iraq is now experiencing a revival in a popular movement. This began last month with anti-government demonstrations in Fallujah, and has jumped across the sectarian and ethnic boundaries.

The expectations generated by this “Iraqi Spring” are that the popular movement can overcome the divisions created in the country. 

This is the era of Arab revolutions. It points to a possible future, free of occupation and its legacy. 

Chaos and conflict

  • George Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq to reassert US military power in the Middle East in the wake of the crisis created by 9/11 attacks.
  • The war left the region in chaos. Nevertheless, the same neo-cons that wanted to occupy Iraq now argue for an attack on Iran.
  • Right wing politicians are also arguing for intervention in Syria. They want to co-opt the revolt and maintain a grip on any future government
  • The Arab Spring terrified Western rulers. They feared client regimes would fall like dominoes. 
  • The movement from below shows that Saddam Hussein could have been beaten by Iraqis.


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