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“War is a struggle of wills. You look at the Arab press; they say, “We drove the Americans out of Beirut, we drove them out of Somalia… we’ll drive them out of Baghdad.”

I wrote this article in search for answers about the failed invasion of Iraq by the United States of America and its allies. In my previous article about Iraq, entitled “How Did the Islamic State Come to Be”, I discussed the illegality of the war, the ruthless disrespect of the coalition towards international law and the United Nations, as well as the birth of a terrorist state inspired by injustice.

This investigative piece serves not only to inform the public of the decisions taken by the Bush and Blair administrations, but also to point out the criticality of colonizing a country, the importance of paying attention to details when decolonising it, and the role of intergovernmental organisations in implementing international law. 


When American troops entered Baghdad, they were welcomed with joyful cries and roses. Red petals filled the streets, while tanks ran over them. Soldiers took photos of the scenes in which they were welcomed gloriously. Chants of “No Saddam!” and children’s jubilant exclamations could be heard echoing in the air. Saddam was a dictator and controlled Iraq with an iron fist so it is understandable why many Iraqis rejoiced, but only a few knew that this was the beginning of a long descent into chaos.

The romance was cut short, as on the same day troops entered Baghdad, looting of banks, ministries and governmental buildings started. Citizens all over Iraq were seen coming out of buildings carrying all kinds of valuables. Instead of finding a way to take control of the situation, the US Army stood by and did nothing as ordered by the White House. There was lawlessness on the streets and yet no martial law or curfews were imposed to stop the looting. But what kind of foreign invading force enters a country, deposes their government, then decides to let the country loose by not taking control and allowing a power vacuum that would result in a sovereign state becoming a failed state?

The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the transitional government in charge of the reconstruction of Iraq, had given the Pentagon a list of 20 recommended sites that should be protected during the occupation. The list included the national archives, national library and national museum which stored cultural relics dating back 7000 years. However, the only entity that remained largely intact throughout the war was the Ministry of Oil which was afforded extra protection by US soldiers — a decision that has dealt immeasurable harm to Iraq’s cultural heritage. 

But with time, the looting became more organized and efficient. It began taking a different shape, transforming into the organized violent destruction of the city,  The irony is that then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had continuously rejected claims of chaos and disarray in the streets of Baghdad, claiming that the press was exaggerating. He famously stated in the West Wing press conference room that “stuff happens”, refusing to comment on the uncontrolled situation of looting.

The CPA and two orders that changed Iraq forever

Jay Garner, a retired general who had served as the head of humanitarian efforts in Kurdish areas of northern Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War was designated as the Director of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. Just one month after his appointment and arrival in Iraq, he was replaced by Paul Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority. In an interview with Frontline, Garner stated the following:

I think if I’d had 120 days, I could have gotten a hell of a lot of stuff done. But you never know. I thought I could, and I left thinking I could. … If we had been quicker on getting people back to work, if we had been quicker on getting people involved in the governmental process, I think that we stood a chance. We would at least have an opportunity to have a different outcome.

This was the administration’s first wrongdoing: replacing a war veteran — one who was in Iraq during the First Gulf War, personally knew Kurdish, Sunni and Shia leaders, understood the demographic pluralism of Iraq and the religious peculiarity of what used to be Babylon — with Bremer, a businessman with no prior experience as an officer in Iraq. After attending a two week crash course in Middle East politics, Bremer arrived in Baghdad and his first day wasn’t very promising as he himself admitted in the “Losing Iraq” documentary:

I did one thing that wasn’t very smart, which was suggest to the staff meeting that I thought we should shoot the looters, that our military should have authority to shoot the looters, which they did not have at that time. It wasn’t very smart to do because somebody on the staff immediately told the press that I had suggested shooting the looters, and we had a problem.

This embarrassing moment showed why Bremer was the wrong pick: not only did it reveal his lack of experience but also his lack of authority over the military. Last but not least, the press both at home and in Iraq circulated Bremer’s gaffe extensively, which did not make for great optics for the US in its first months in Iraq.  After settling in the Green Zone, and in his first two weeks as Presidential Envoy, Bremer released two CPA orders that would change Iraq forever for the worst.

CPA Order 1, released on 16 May 2003, dismantled the Baath party and removed Baathists from leadership positions, ensuring that Iraqi government would not be threatened by a return of remnants of the old regime. This decree excluded the top four levels of the party membership from public employment and also sectioned the top three layers of management in every national government ministry for interviews to identify possible affiliation with the old regime. Moreover, all governmental institutions would be reviewed for possible connections to the Baath party and those suspected of having ties with the old regime would be detained. This model was inspired by the de-Nazification of post-WWII Germany, But the model was completely misunderstood by American and British officials as well as their Iraqi counterparts, solely on the fact that Iraq’s demography is not the same as Germany’s.

Yes, both the Nazi and the Baath parties were monolithic with a large membership of 8 million and 2 million respectively, but Iraq’s particular social fabric and its sectarian demography were major obstacles in the de-Baathification project in which a historically privileged Sunni minority under Saddam were excluded from the new political landscape in order to empower the historically repressed majority of Shia and Kurds. This disproves Bremer’s claims that they were attempting to create a representative democracy when an important faction of Iraqi society was made to be distrustful of foreign invaders and feared for their security. This cleansing of the Baath party was done for the sole purpose of signalling to Sunnis and remnants of the old regime that their time in power and their privileges and securities were endangered. Instead of consolidating efforts and handing over power and responsibilities from the Saddam government to a “representative” one, the coalition snatched it while unknowingly waking up a sleeping monster.

A Marine Corps M1 Abrams tank patrols a Baghdad street after its fall in 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom – Wikicommons

CPA Order 2, released just one week after the first order on 23 May 2003, disbanded the Iraqi military (including the Republican Guard, the Navy, and the Air Force), intelligence infrastructure as well as the whole security body of the state. This means that all employees of these now dissolved entities were released from their service obligations indefinitely. What Bremer did was fire approximately 40,000 employees and soldiers — the inevitable outcome being the unemployment of tens of thousands of young men, frustrated and most of them even armed — a great way to inspire a multitude of subsequent insurgencies and to threaten Iraqi security. Even though there were both Sunnis and Shi’a within the army, this fact is largely irrelevant because there was not only a Sunni insurgency but also a Shi’a one and both groups responded to the disbanding of the army by mobilising unemployed youth to join their respective resistances against the ‘western evil conqueror’ — young Sunnis joining Al Qaeda whilst young Shi’a joined the Mahdi Army. These developments will be discussed in more detail in the second instalment of this series revisiting the Iraq War. 

Ironically, 72 hours after the order was signed, the first major attacks took place and ended up killing two US soldiers. On the following day, 27 May, an army unit was attacked in Fallujah and two more soldiers were killed. That was only the beginning of what would soon become a prolonged nightmare, fuelled by uninformed decisions which continued to be made in the absence of efforts to consult the Iraqi people. The invasion of Iraq cannot just be deemed as a ‘mistake’ by Bush and America. Rather, it is the cost and consequence of an unprepared invasion and ‘reconstruction’. A forced regime change, there was no adequate replacement of the old regime with a new and structured body, which allowed a vacuum to emerge that became too hard to fill.

So far, we have only covered the first month of the CPA’s presence in Baghdad. In total, the CPA was in Iraq for 14 months and the vast majority of their decisions was based on inaccurate intel. This can be attributed to one of their main sources of intel, the CIA, and its sole focus pertaining to Iraq: finding weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. Therefore, there was little to no time to focus on the security of the state, the subsequent armed resistances that would take Iraq by storm or even the simple matter of budget required to reconstruct Iraq.

CPA Order 1 destabilised Iraq’s political structure which was too complex for any foreign force to handle; CPA Order 2 destabilised Iraq’s security apparatus. These two orders resulted in a crumbling political system and an executive branch in disarray: both symptoms of a failed state. 

And this is when the war really starts.

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