How the U.S. Set Iraq on Fire

Iraq lies in ruins today, destroyed by three decades of U.S. imperialism. Ashley Smith reviews a new book on the occupation that explains how this catastrophe happened.

Since the new phase of its war on Iraq began with the March 2003 invasion, the U.S. has caused the death of at least 655,000 Iraqis — though that is only a part of the death toll from two Gulf Wars, and the decade and a half of strict economic sanctions between them.

Despite all the promises, the U.S. has wrecked rather than reconstructed Iraqi society, and from the beginning of its occupation, it stoked a civil war between Sunni and Shia Muslims that has now taken hold and is wreaking horrific damage.

In the 1970s, Iraq had the living standards of Greece. Today, it ranks below Burundi, as one of the poorest countries in the world.

How did the U.S. set Iraq on fire? A new book, The Occupation, by Ali Allawi, who held the posts of trade, defense and finance ministers in successive governments following the U.S. “handover” of power in Iraq, is the most detailed and thorough account yet of this imperial war crime.

The backdrop to the U.S. occupation of Iraq lies in the previous colonial era, when Iraq was ruled by Ottoman Empire in present-day Turkey, and then the British following the first World War.

Allawis’ book describes how these imperial overlords manipulated divisions between Iraq’s three main peoples — Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, using a Sunni ruling class to dominate the country’s Shia majority and Kurdish minority.

In 1958, a secular nationalist movement led by Gen. Abdel Kareem Qasim overthrew the British-installed monarchy, and formed a historic compromise with the Shia and Kurdish elite to form modern Iraq. But it preserved, however muted, the domination of Sunni over Shia and Kurd.

By this point, the U.S. had replaced Britain as the preeminent imperialist power in the region. It aimed above all else to maintain control over the Middle East’s oil and natural gas reserves in order to dominate the world system.

With the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979, the U.S. turned to Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime as a pivotal ally in the region. It supported Iraq in its 1980s war against Iran that killed over a million Iraqis and Iranians, and left Iraq’s economy in shambles.

In a foolish solution, Hussein invaded Kuwait to the south, to seize oil wells and money, and project Iraq’s military power into the rest of the Middle East. The U.S. now saw the regime it had once supported as a threat — one that, along with Iran, challenged its dominance of the Middle East.

The first Bush administration launched the 1991 Gulf War, driving Iraq out of Kuwait. The Gulf War, destroyed much of Iraq’s infrastructure and killed an estimated 300,000 people, but the Hussein regime didn’t fall. The U.S. feared that Iran might take advantage of a power vacuum, so it stood by as Hussein and the Baathists massacred hundreds of thousands of Shia and Kurds who rose up after the war.

The U.S. implemented a policy of dual containment of Iran and Iraq, enforced by new military bases that the U.S. established in Saudi Arabia. Bush and Clinton backed UN sanctions that strangled Iraq’s bombed-out economy, further destroyed the living standards of ordinary Iraqis and led to the death of over 1 million people.

The dual containment policy began to fail as both Iran and Iraq evaded sanctions. They made economic deals and alliances outside U.S. control with — among others — the European Union, Russia and China.

Under pressure from neoconservatives and Iraqi exiles like Ahmed Chalabi, Bill Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act in 1999, which shifted U.S. policy from containment to “regime change” — setting the U.S. on a road toward invasion.

Taking advantage of the September 11 attacks, neoconservatives in the Bush administration, like Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, argued that the U.S. should set out to overthrow Hussein, impose a free-market system that would be a model for the rest of the Middle East, and set the stage for the U.S. to achieve further regime changes in Iran and Syria.

With the help of expatriate Iraqis, the administration concocted intelligence–now completely discredited — to claim that the Hussein regime possessed weapons of mass destruction and had links with al-Qaeda, and therefore posed an imminent threat to the U.S. The bulk of the U.S. establishment — Republicans and Democrats alike — endorsed regime change and supported the invasion.

The U.S. easily won the war against a demolished Iraqi army. But it had no plan for the occupation and creation of a new Iraqi government.

“The entire process of managing the affairs of a country of over 25 million people that had been enmeshed in wars, sanctions and dictatorship was reduced to an office that had been established less than eight weeks before the invasion of the country,” writes Allawi.

Bush appointed Jay Garner to head up Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs (ORHA) to reorganize Iraqi society. According to Britain’s special envoy, John Sawers, it was “an unbelievable mess.” He said the ORHA had “no leadership, no strategy, no coordination, no structure and [was] inaccessible to ordinary Iraqis.”

Thanks to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s plans for a “streamlined” military, the U.S. didn’t have enough troops on the ground to guarantee even the semblance of security. Across the country, the Baathist state fell apart, and desperate people looted everything, from state institutions to the National Museum and the school system — spawning lawless chaos and further wrecking weakened social institutions.

Recognizing the brewing crisis, the Bush administration fired Garner and brought in their new pro-consul, Paul Bremer — who with UN approval established the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) as the occupation government of Iraq.

Bremer ruled autocratically from his headquarters in Saddam’s former Republican Palace in Baghdad, inside what would become know as the Green Zone. His CPA issued unrealistic promises of reconstruction, imposed foolish orders and soon alienated almost every section of Iraqi society.

Bremer’s Order No. 1 was a program of de-Baathification to purge party members from the state and other institutions. The order, however, led not just to the removal of Baathist leaders, but also tens of thousands of teachers, doctors and other professionals who had joined the party of 2 million members merely to advance their careers.

Bremer then abolished the Iraqi Army with Order No. 2. Not only did this decree exacerbate the growing lawlessness in Iraq by gutting any effective security services, but it led fired Sunni officers and soldiers to join the developing resistance — bringing with them both military training and caches of armaments.

The order also thrust hundreds of thousands of Shia into unemployment, without much hope of a job in a desperately poor country.

Bremer also decreed free-market reforms to privatize state-owned businesses and open up Iraq to international investors. “The kind of raw and unfettered Darwinian capitalism that the more radical of the CPA advisers were trying to promote was totally unsuitable for Iraq in its current bankrupt state,” Allawi writes.

Nevertheless, Bremer promised that such reforms would lead to economic reconstruction and expansion. The CPA did serve up billions of dollars in no-bid contracts to well-connected U.S. corporations like Halliburton, Bechtel, KBR, Blackwater and the ironically named Custer-Battles.

But CPA contracts didn’t deliver promised reconstruction. On the contrary, unemployment skyrocketed to 70 percent, oil production plummeted, and electricity output dropped below pre-war levels. Social chaos flowed from the economy’s collapse.

Far from being greeted as liberators, the U.S. occupiers were soon confronted with a genuine, if fractured, resistance. Only the Kurds supported the occupation without reservation.
The Sunni resistance developed in mosques where clerics denounced the real injustices of the occupation and supported armed action. Increasingly, resistance leaders drew on Sunni fundamentalism — from the rest of the Middle East, rather than within Iraq, where it had not had a base — with its anti-Iranian and anti-Shia theology.

The resistance mounted a campaign of attacks designed to isolate the U.S. from its allies, attacking the UN, offices of countries like Jordan that collaborated with the occupation, and Iraqi civilians who worked for the CPA. Soon, the insurgents began to target U.S. forces with their infamous improvised explosive devices.

The Sunni-led resistance, however, fell into a sectarian trap. It alienated the Shia, who comprised the bulk of civilians targeted for collaborating with the occupation. Even worse was the infusion — though in relatively small numbers — of foreign extremists with a Salafist ideology, like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who were intent on attacking not only collaborators, but all Shia.

The Shia establishment — including religious parties like the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and Dawa, as well as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani — didn’t like the U.S. occupation, but did hope to use it for the purpose of winning Shia majority rule.

In contrast, the militant Shia cleric Moktada al-Sadr agitated against the occupation among the Shia poor, whose lives had been further devastated by the war. He combined Iraqi nationalism, including calls for solidarity across sectarian divisions, with Shia fundamentalism.

The U.S. turned to repression to put down the growing Sunni — and eventually, Shia — resistance. Its forces swept through entire neighborhoods, breaking into houses, arresting all young men and throwing tens of thousands into overcrowded prisons like Abu Ghraib, where they were abused and tortured for information.

This reign of terror only further inflamed the fractured resistance. In the spring of 2004, Bremer nearly united all tendencies of the resistance into a genuine national liberation struggle when he simultaneously provoked uprisings in predominantly Shia Najaf and predominantly Sunni Falluja.
In March, Bremer had one of Sadr’s deputies arrested, and shut down publication of his newspaper. Sadr’s forces rose up across the South and occupied Najaf. Bremer railed that he wanted Sadr “killed or captured,” and laid siege to the holy city.

Meanwhile, in April, the U.S. ordered an assault on the resistance in Falluja as punishment for the murder and hanging of four Blackwater private security contractors. The U.S. assault and the Sunnis’ determined stand turned Falluja into a rallying point for the resistance.

Sadr announced his solidarity with the uprising in Falluja, and Falluja rebels voiced their support for Najaf. Allawi quotes U.S. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez saying that he saw a danger of “a linkage that may be occurring at the very lowest levels between the Sunni and Shia. We have to work very hard to ensure that it remains at a tactical level.”

Fearing a united resistance, the U.S. called off both sieges. For a moment, it seemed a nationalist resistance movement was cohering. But Sunni Salafist attacks against Shia continued to break up the possible unity. Meanwhile, the Shia demand for majority rule confirmed fears among Sunnis that they were being left out of a new national compact.

As a result, when the U.S. leveled Falluja in November 2004, driving 150,000 people out of the city, even Sadr failed to express solidarity with the victims.

Like all imperial occupations, the U.S. turned to a strategy of divide and rule. It used the process of setting up the new Iraqi state to pit Sunni against Shia against Kurd — with the goal of maintaining its grip.

In 2003, the U.S. set up the Iraqi Governing Council as a symbolic, consultative body to the CPA. Following the model that the French imposed on Lebanon a half century earlier, the U.S. apportioned seats on the council through representation of religious and national groups. This imposed a sectarian dynamic on Iraqi politics from the very beginning.

Despite promising early elections, the U.S. worried that Shia fundamentalist parties, with their fraternal relations with Iran, would be able to win a majority in any election. So over the protests of Sistani and the Shia parties, the U.S. appointed an interim government.

The U.S. named ex-Baathist Ayad Allawi, the secular Shia head of the Iraqi National Alliance, as prime minister of the interim government. He reversed de-Baathification and brought back many bureaucrats from the old regime. He and the U.S. hoped to build a “Baathist Lite” security state and woo back the Sunni politicians and masses who had been alienated by de-Baathification.

But Allawi’s support for ruthless U.S. repression of the rebellions in Najaf and Fulluja backfired. Allawi’s iron fist drove Sunnis more into the arms of the resistance, and united Shia fundamentalist efforts to seize control of the government for their own purposes.

The subsequent election in January 2005, the October 2005 referendum on the constitution, and the December 2005 election only deepened the sectarian divide. After Sunnis overwhelming boycotted the first vote, the U.S. coaxed them into participating in the referendum and the second election as a counterweight to rising Shia power.

“There was no doubt about the hardening of sectarian and ethnic opinion,” Ali Allawi writes. “Shias voted for the UIA; Sunnis voted for the Tawaffuq bloc or Saleh al-Mutlaq’s group; and the Kurds voted for the Kurdistan Alliance.”

The U.S. had thus transformed religious and national divisions into communal divisions–and set the stage for a civil war.

The Iraqi governments that replaced the CPA had no real power. They met in the Green Zone, under the watchful eye of U.S. forces and completely cut off from the real Iraq. The U.S. occupation called the shots on key issues, only using the new regime as political cover–and, increasingly, as a scapegoat for its failures.

Both the interim government and the subsequent governments of Prime Ministers Ibrahim Jafari and Nuri al-Maliki staffed their administration with cronies of their own. Iyad Allawi’s interim regime oversaw, in the words of the head of the integrity commission, “the largest robbery in the world”–as officials stole billions of dollars in reconstruction funding.

The Jafari and Maliki governments inherited a weak state, rife with corruption and without any real power over the country. They continued the American practice of grand promises of improvements with no delivery, and hired their own hangers-on to replace the Allawi’s ex-Baathists.

Worst of all, they rebuilt security and police forces with sectarian Shia militias. With tacit approval from top government officials, the SCIRI’s Badr Brigades and Sadr’s Mahdi Army unleashed a campaign of revenge and terror against the Sunni resistance, and eventually the Sunni population itself.

Ali Allawi describes how Sunni organizations “began to collect grisly evidence of the hundreds, later known to be thousands, of people who were summarily killed or abducted and had disappeared.” In self-defense, the Sunni masses turned more and more to their own militias for protection from government forces.

In 2006, the Sunni Salafist bombing of the Golden Dome, one of the holiest places in Shia Islam, became the tipping point that pushed the country toward a civil war. In revenge, Shia militias, including the Mahdi Army, massacred an estimated 1,300 Sunnis in the following days.

From then on, the civil war has continued unabated, with attacks and counter-attacks tearing entire communities apart. As many as 2 million Iraqis have been internally displaced by the conflict, and another 2 million people have fled to surrounding countries in the Middle East.

Today, Iraq lies in ruins. Allawi’s book is the most detailed account of how it happened. He retains vain hopes that it could have gone differently — that the U.S. could have done a better job of occupation with more troops, better planning, a more thorough transformation of the Baathist state and a more rigorous imposition of free market reforms.

But none of these could have overcome the fact that occupation does not bring liberation, but instead inevitably provokes resistance. The urgent task in the U.S. and in the Middle East is to build an anti-imperialist opposition capable of overcoming national and religious divisions–and defeating a wounded but still very dangerous U.S. imperialism.

Ashley Smith is a writer and activist from Burlington, Vermont. He writes frequently for Socialist Worker and the International Socialist Review. He can be reached at Read other articles by Ashley.

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  1. john tynan said on May 21st, 2007 at 3:12pm #

    as long as ican rember i have lived with news of the iraqi war but
    have never until reading this article been able to grasp any real understanding of its complex roots or its growth into its current catastrophe . i find myself asking the awfully obvious question . is there any way that peace can be pulled from the wreckage of this nation in its foreseeable future?