“People never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war or before an election.”
In The Iraq Inquiry II, we focused on the downfall of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the controversial statements and decisions of White House officials, the breach of human rights in Abu Ghraib prison, and the mounting insurgency by an angry Sunni community that has been threatened by the invasion. Adding to the latter development are the scandals of Fallujah and the American urge to turn over power to the Iraqi authorities in order to leave.
In the busy summer of 2004, the White House was stranded between a re-election period and the insurgency probe. The Bush team wanted to make sure that there would not be any more bad news from Iraq that could potentially endanger President Bush’s re-election. Rumsfeld chose a four-star general, George Casey, to take over military operations in Iraq. This man would be in charge of the biggest military operation since Vietnam yet he had never himself led troops into battle. He was given orders to minimise American casualties, train and shift responsibility to the Iraqi army, get Iraq under basic control to hold elections and leave the country as soon as possible.
In this last instalment of the series revisiting the Iraq War, we will explore the countless methods used by the Bush administration to clean the image of the invasion through lies, media and military strategies. We will also discuss how all of these attempts failed and contrast them with the state of Iraq today.
The Light Footprint and Lies of the Counter-Insurgency
Casey’s new strategy was the “light footprint” i.e. trying to avoid any violent confrontations especially after the Fallujah battle. The plan was not to counter the insurgency but to stabilise the situation, set up a government via the organising of elections and transfer power to the new council. The US government believed it was time for the army to pack its bags and leave. The admiration of the US army in the eyes of Iraqis was gone: They had lost legitimacy after the multiple failures of the CPA, Fallujah massacre, the Abu Ghraib fiasco, and were not seen as the protector of the Iraqi people anymore. The days of cheers and red roses were clearly over, it was rather fear and anger that was taking over. As Leon Wieseltier notes:
Obviously, not all “revolutions” are in favour of the greater good. The plan was to leave behind a representative democracy to counteract the mass anger that was taking over the streets of Iraq from different sects which turned into an organised militia. The plan was simple: transfer power to the Iraqis, consolidate American bases and reduce the footprint before finally withdrawing American troops. The forces would retreat to large bases and engage in battle only when necessary: confronting the insurgents was not the target, unless they engaged with US troops directly.
The journalist Thomas Ricks states: “You had war tourism – units based on big forward operating bases (FOB), going out and doing patrols from Humvees. Not foot patrols but mounted patrols and then going back to their base. If that’s the way you’re operating, you’re not in the war, you are just a war tourist”.
The infuriating fact here is that President Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld all lied about launching a counter-insurgency strategy. Quoting Gen. Jack Keane:
The mission was to exit, and do it so well that the world wouldn’t notice how bad Iraq had become. The objective of an exit strategy is to exit; the notion of succeeding on the ground in Iraq had no real strategy, no real plan.
The Shia Insurgency and Failed Elections
The Mahdy Army (led by Muqtada Al Sadr) continuously challenged the light footprint strategy, engaging against the Americans and forcing Casey to bring his troops out. In the Shia city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, the militia engaged US soldiers in street fighting. A deal was cut to calm the insurgency down. It was reported in the “Losing Iraq” documentary that the US paid US$1.2 million to buy back weapons from the Mahdy army and also paid US$330 million for so called “reconstruction funds”. The Washington Post reported the following on May 12th 2004:
In order to give the state back to the Iraqis, they needed an Iraqi army and it was obvious a fully trained Iraqi force was years away as was a governmental administration that would be united and representative to hold the republic together. The deadline to turn over authority to an interim government was 30th June and the Sadr insurgency threatened it.
On election day, millions went out. There were long queues all over Iraq in voting stations. But the good news stops here, as 2 years of invasion full of slipups, lies and gaffes had resulted in a 10% Sunni turnout. This was a blow to the prospective government and another indication on how big America’s failure in Iraq was. The parliament elected was divisive with a Shi’a majority and a strong presence by the Kurdish community.
Al Qaeda Is Here… So is The Civil War
The February 22nd 2006 bombing of the al-Askari mosque in Samarra will be remembered as a turning point of the Iraq war. It was part of an Al Qaeda plot to initiate a civil war between Sunnis and Shias via one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam. Even though there were no injuries, the mosque was severely damaged. What was a one sided Sunni insurgency became a two sided civil war. The Mahdy army and Al Qaeda faced off in the streets and the US lost complete control. It was clear that a new man was needed to take control of the situation. The new man was Nouri al Maliki, a Shia member of parliament who sought refuge in Iran and Syria during Saddam’s era and tried to take him down. This man had no experience in running a government nor was he popular. By May of 2006, he was elected the new prime minister of Iraq. Al Maliki and Bush befriended each other and regularly communicated allowing Bush to “school Maliki in the arts of politics” due to his lack of experience – something Maliki definitely needed, but so did Bush.
But Maliki was not the right choice at all, as his policies endorsed sectarianism in the form of the removal of Iraq’s most effective commanders on the basis of their sects/religion, efforts to ensure Shia majorities in all ministries as well as the non-delivery of services to Sunni areas. This did nothing but inflate Sunni anger and divide the country even more. But Bush had made his choice and decided to stand by Maliki.
Before handing over powers to President-elect Barack Obama, Bush went to Iraq to sign a deal with Maliki that would keep American troops in Iraq until 2011. He probably felt it was an obligation after the devastating consequences the invasion had on Iraq – an invasion based on false facts and mostly economic interests. Obama’s idealistic message of hope was at odds with the realistic state of Iraq.
As Orwell writes: “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable”. George W. Bush, Tony Blair and their respective allies have succeeded at doing so and have been untarnished despite their crimes. Today, when Bush addresses the world and demonises Trump for his stance against refugees, we call him a hero, while he has been a key player in creating refugees in the Middle East with the wars he launched in Afghanistan then Iraq. This also shows the failure of the international system in instating justice, as there is no peace without justice. Thousands of Iraqis and hundreds of American soldiers were killed and we deserve to know why. Remembering the great David Frost, who gave Nixon the trial he never had is maybe a good reminder that there is still a possibility in finding justice as the incapable International Criminal Court is not operational anymore.
Saddam was demonized for being a dictator in 2003, but he had been one ever since he took over Iraq. But before then, he was important for the US and was untouchable. When Bush Sr had issues with Saddam conquering Iran, he threatened him. When Bush Jr rose to power, he wanted him out for having weapons of mass destruction (which were never found) and took him out.
Politics is a game of interests and we are often lied about wars. But wars are profitable for some people and that is why the truth is always well hidden. But watch out for what happens in North-Korea. Let’s make sure we are not lied about the war there too.