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ISR Issue 55, November–December 2007

The invasion and occupation of Iraq
Anatomy of an imperial war crime


Let me clear it up for any moron with lingering doubts. It’s worse, it’s over, you lost. You lost every single family whose home your soldiers violated. You lost every sane, red-blooded Iraqi when the Abu Ghraib pictures came out and verified your atrocities behind prison walls, as well as the ones we see in our streets. You lost when you brought murderers, looters, gangsters, and militia heads to power and hailed them as Iraq’s first democratic government. You lost when a gruesome execution was dubbed your biggest accomplishment. You lost the respect and reputation you once had. You lost more than 3,000 troops. That is what you lost, America. I hope at least the oil was worth it.
—Riverbend, Iraqi blogger1

THE INVASION and occupation of Iraq is one of the greatest crimes in the history of imperialism. According to a study published in the British medical journal, the Lancet, there were 665,000 excess deaths between 2003 and 2006 attributable to the occupation.2 The United Nations reports that the United States has created the biggest refugee crisis in Middle East since the Israeli expulsion of Palestinians in 1948.3 Iraq, which once had the living standards of Greece in the 1970s, now falls below Burundi as one of the poorest countries on the planet.4 And it is coming apart under the stress of a civil war that the U.S. orchestrated by pitting Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds against one another. In the 2007 Failed States Index, issued by the Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy magazine ranks Iraq as the second-most unstable country in the world, behind Sudan and ahead of the ravaged Sub-Saharan states and even Haiti.5 One of the birthplaces of civilization now lies in burning ruins.

The Bush administration had aimed to use the political capital it obtained in the wake of the September 11 attacks to pursue a more preemptive, aggressive foreign policy designed to cement the U.S. as the world’s unchallengeable superpower. After first dismantling Taliban rule in Afghanistan, the Bush administration hoped to install a sympathetic government in Iraq, conduct regime changes of a similar nature in Syria and Iran, and settle other conflicts in the region like those in Lebanon and Palestine on U.S. terms. With the region and its strategic oil reserves under its control, the U.S. hoped to hold all potential challengers that are dependent on Mideast oil, such as China, under its thumb.

Events have turned out much differently. The Bush administration has spent close to two trillion dollars, sacrificed more than 3,600 soldiers, and maimed and psychologically damaged tens of thousands more in this war against an Iraqi resistance that wasn’t supposed to exist, only to find itself stuck in what is routinely referred to as a Vietnam-style “quagmire.” The U.S. ruling class now recognizes the war as a failure and fears that Iran, rather than the U.S., has emerged as its victor. General William Odom, the former head of the National Security Agency, called the Iraq invasion the “greatest strategic disaster in American history.”6 Not only has the U.S. weakened its position in the Middle East and the world, it has also lost support of the majority of Americans for its war in Iraq, after spending three decades rebuilding its credibility in the wake of the Vietnam defeat. Today, 70 percent of Americans oppose the war,7 and 72 percent of soldiers wanted the war ended in 2006.8

This failed war was not simply cooked up by Bush and a cabal of crazy right-wingers, though they played a role in ensuring its failure. It was the logical outcome of U.S. policy in the Middle East, and it had the backing of the American establishment. The establishment, however, realizes along with the rest of the population that Bush has failed, and is concerned chiefly with finding a way out of the quagmire that does not undermine U.S. interests in the Middle East or its international standing as the dominant world power.

From ally to foe

In the wake of Washington’s Vietnam debacle, the U.S. recoiled from direct military intervention abroad. In the Middle East it relied on three pillars—Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia—to enforce its domination of the region and to combat the threat of Arab nationalism, the secular Left, and the Soviet Union. However, when a revolution toppled the shah of Iran and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the Carter administration shifted U.S. policy from indirect to direct intervention. Michael Klare writes,

Abandoning reliance on local surrogates, Carter decreed that the United States would henceforth assume the primary responsibility for the defense of the Gulf. This was the Carter Doctrine, enunciated in his State of the Union address on January 23, 1980. Access to Persian Gulf oil was a vital national interest, Carter declared, and to protect that interest the United States was prepared to use “any means necessary, including military force.”9

The U.S. cultivated Iraq as its pivotal ally against Iran at a time when the two countries were engaged in a brutal war. The Iran-Iraq War ended in a stalemate that left both countries in shambles. Iraq had squandered its oil wealth and prosperity, accruing $40 billion in debt, much of it owed to Kuwait, and a million Iraqi and Iranian people died between 1980 and 1988. Mistakenly thinking he had a green light from Washington, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, hoping to plunder the country’s oil and gold reserves, pay off his debt, and project Iraq as the new Pan-Arabist power in the Middle East.

Alarmed that its ally had slipped the leash, the U.S. built a multilateral UN coalition to force Iraq out of Kuwait, conducting an air war and brief ground invasion that destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure and killed more than 200,000 people. Though the Bush administration would have welcomed a military coup against Saddam, when the Shias and Kurds rose up at the end of the Gulf War, Bush abandoned them, allowing Saddam Hussein to murder tens of thousands and drive a million Kurdish refugees into Turkey.
Genocidal sanctions and the failure of dual containment
In the aftermath of the Gulf War, the Bush and Clinton administrations developed a policy of “dual containment” of Iraq and Iran designed to isolate both regimes and maintain the status quo in the Middle East. The U.S. prohibited American companies from investing in Iran and enforced UN sanctions on Iraq. Its air force patrolled no-fly zones in Iraq’s Kurdish north and Shia south. It also forced Iraq to admit weapons inspectors to eliminate the caches of weapons of mass destruction that Iraq had built up with Western assistance during the Iran-Iraq War. But this policy of dual containment was a temporary solution and fell apart in the late 1990s.

The sanctions prevented Iraq from rebuilding its infrastructure and killed untold numbers of people, disproportionately women and children. According to former UN official Denis Halliday, “You have a situation where we see thousands of deaths per month, a possible total of 1 million to 1.5 million over the last nine years. If that is not genocide, then I don’t know quite what is. There’s no better word I can think of. Genocide is taking place right now, every day, in Iraq’s cities.”10 When asked whether containing Saddam Hussein justified sanctions that killed 500,000 children, Clinton’s secretary of state, and then-UN ambassador, Madeleine Albright responded, “we think the price is worth it.”11

Both Iran and Iraq began to escape the clutches of dual containment, making contracts with Arab countries that pressured the U.S. to lift the sanctions, as well as with other powers in the European Union, Russia, and China. Finally, after Clinton and the UN withdrew their weapons inspectors before bombing Iraq in 1998, Saddam refused to allow inspectors to return. The dual containment policy went into crisis.

The U.S. policy establishment split, with a minority calling for regime change. These so-called neoconservatives grouped together in the Project for a New American Century and romanticized Reagan’s rollback of the Soviet Union as a model for U.S. policy in the Middle East. They wrote an open letter to the Clinton administration in 1998 arguing, “The policy of ‘containment’ of Saddam Hussein has been steadily eroding over the past several months. Diplomacy is clearly failing…[and] removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power…needs to become the aim of American foreign policy.”12 In a profound policy shift, Democratic President Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998, made regime change the official strategy of the United States, and thus blazed the trail that Bush would follow to its disastrous end.

The decomposition of Iraq

On the eve of Bush’s war and occupation, nearly three decades of Baathist rule, two wars, and genocidal sanctions had dramatically transformed Iraq. In the 1970s, Iraq had used its vast oil wealth to develop social welfare, education, and health care systems that were the envy of the Middle East. By 2003, its infrastructure was in ruins, its social institutions wracked with crisis, and its people desperate and poor.

Within the U.S. establishment, however, as author Ali Allawi notes, “the ignorance of what was going on in Iraq was monumental. None of the proponents of the war including the neoconservatives, and also no one in the institutes and think tanks that provided the intellectual fodder for the war’s justification, had the faintest idea of the country they were about to occupy.”13

The British had carved Iraq out of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. They created a country made up of three groups—Arab Sunnis who comprised 20 percent of the population, Arab Shias who formed the majority with 60 percent, and a Kurdish minority of 20 percent. Like the Ottomans before them, the British wooed the Sunni elite to rule over the Shia majority and Kurdish minority. They installed King Faisal as a puppet to ensure Western access to the country’s oil.

A secular nationalist movement led by General Abdul Karim Qassim overthrew the monarchy in 1958 and won the Shia and Kurdish elite to accept a nationalist compact for modern Iraq that muted, but perpetuated, Sunni dominance. For the first time, the new government recognized Iraq as a binational state of Arabs and Kurds. The Iraqi Communist Party played a key role in overcoming Iraq’s divisions and uniting its working masses.14 In fact, both the Sunni-based Baath Party and the Shia fundamentalist Dawa Party were set up by their respective elites to compete with the communists’ successful appeal to the Arab and Kurdish working classes.

The Baath Party under Saddam Hussein eventually won the political battle for rule of the country, eliminating both the communists and Dawa as political forces by the 1970s. The Baath regime, however much it proclaimed its nationalist credentials, was based in the Sunni ruling elite, in Saddam’s case, the tribal elite in the so-called Sunni triangle.

The Baathist regime specifically targeted the Kurds and Shias. It suppressed the Kurdish fight for independence in 1974–1975, used chemical weapons against them when they rose up in 1988, and again attacked them in the aftermath of the Gulf War. Similarly, Saddam repressed the Shias, most dramatically when his regime killed 100,000 to put down their rebellion after the Gulf War. In that campaign, the Republican Guard went into battle under the slogan “there will be no Shia after today.”15

By the end of the 1990s, Iraq’s secular traditions had completely fallen apart. Saddam Hussein had already eliminated the communists and his own regime’s brutality discredited secular nationalism. Saddam Hussein himself turned to Islam to legitimate his vulnerable rule. He claimed descent from the Prophet Mohammed and launched one of the largest mosque-building campaigns in the world. He even allowed the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, the fraternal organization of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, to emerge from the underground and organize public meetings.

Saddam could do nothing to co-opt the Kurdish nationalists, who built a regime under the watchful eye of the U.S. in the northern no-fly zone. But he did attempt to co-opt the Shia clergy and win back support among the Shia masses. Muqtada al-Sadr’s father, Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, took advantage of the opening to build a mass movement for Shia rights based in the vast slums around Baghdad. Saddam Hussein killed Sadr and suppressed the movement. In Iran, the Shia fundamentalist party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), whose Badr Brigades had fought on Iran’s side in the Iran-Iraq War, bided its time, plotting for a Shia religious state in Iraq.

Three decades of catastrophic Baathist rule had transformed Iraq from an industrially developed, secular society into an economic wreckage, riven by religious and ethnic rivalries. On the eve of the invasion, Iraq was already coming apart at the seams.

9/11 and regime change

The Bush administration did not come into the White House in 2000 intent on an invasion to overthrow Saddam. In fact, Bush had campaigned against Clinton’s humanitarian interventions as “nation building” and actually demanded a return to traditional realism in foreign policy, with a special emphasis on great power politics toward Russia and China.

The neoconservatives denounced the Bush administration for turning the U.S. into “a cowering super-power.”16 William Kristol and Lawrence Kaplan declared, “Far from transforming containment into rollback, the White House proceeded to water down even the demands that the Clinton team had imposed on Iraq.”17

The neoconservatives did have a layer of officials on the second rung of the Bush administration—Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, among others—who formed a current agitating for regime change in Iraq and preemptive war. But it was the events of 9/11 that created the new conditions prompting the Bush administration to adopt their policies. The administration (and various ruling-class think tanks) believed that 9/11 created a window of opportunity to assert American power more aggressively. Condoleezza Rice summed up the new consensus:

An earthquake of the magnitude of 9/11 can shift the tectonic plates of international politics. The international system has been in flux since the collapse of Soviet power. Now it is possible—indeed probable—that that transition is coming to an end.

If that is right, if the collapse of the Soviet Union and 9/11 bookend a major shift in international politics, then this is a period not just of grave danger, but of enormous opportunity. Before the clay is dry again, America and our friends must move to take advantage of these new opportunities. This is, then, a period akin to 1945 to 1947, when American leadership expanded the number of free and democratic states—Japan and Germany among the great powers—to create a balance of power that favored freedom.18

The so-called war on terror became—like fighting communism in the 1950s—the new axis around which this more aggressive policy could be justified. Some of the neocons were so eager to pursue their aims in the Middle East that they argued for overthrowing Saddam Hussein first. Eventually they settled on toppling the Taliban and then going after Iraq. In close alliance with Israel, the U.S. hoped to stage regime changes in Syria and most importantly Iran, establish regimes allied to the U.S., and restore U.S. domination of the region’s oil reserves, as part of a broader plan to establish the U.S. as the world’s sole superpower for generations to come.

Washington Post journalist Anthony Shadid captures the Bush regime’s hubris and naiveté:

Once the dictator was removed, by force if need be, Iraq would be free, a tabula rasa on which to build a new and different state…. If we can change Iraq, George W. Bush and his determined lieutenants maintained, we can change the Arab world, so precariously adrift after decades of broken promises of progress and prosperity. This rhetoric—idealistic to Western ears, reminiscent of century-old colonialism to a Third World audience—envisioned the dawn of a democratic and just Middle East, guided by a benevolent United States.19

Selling the war

Of course, the Bush administration had to offer more compelling public reasons than oil and empire. The Bush administration claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), intended to supply terrorists like al-Qaeda, and was therefore a threat to the United States. The entire establishment, from the intelligence agencies to the media and the Democratic Party leadership helped Bush substantiate its case.
The Bush administration got the intelligence it asked for from the CIA and other intelligence agencies. Richard Dearlove, the former head of British intelligence, remarked, “Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam Hussein, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”20

To cobble together the case for war, the Bush administration turned to a host of American neoconservatives like conspiracy nut Laurie Mylroie and Iraqi expatriates like convicted embezzler Ahmed Chalabi and the ex-Baathist darling of the CIA, Iyad Allawi. With such “expert” support, the CIA produced the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in 2002 that, according to Thomas Ricks, presented “opinion as fact. As a political document that made the case for war the NIE of October 2002 succeeded brilliantly. As a professional intelligence product it was shameful. But it did its job, which wasn’t really to assess Iraqi weapons programs but to sell a war.”21

The American media from Fox News to the Washington Post and the New York Times parroted the administration’s line. The New York Times, particularly Judith Miller, ran all the propaganda fit to print. In one infamous scare story, Miller and Michael Gordon implied Iraq was overflowing with WMDs and ended it with a quote from an unnamed administration official that “the first sign of a ‘smoking gun’ might be a mushroom cloud.”22
Far from challenging Bush, Democratic Party leaders supported the drive to war. They held hearings where Clinton policy wonks like former UN Ambassador Richard Holbrook and Kenneth Pollack, who headed up Clinton’s Iraq policy in the National Security Agency, made the case for invasion and regime change. “Dennis Ross, who had been Clinton’s top Middle East negotiator,” writes David Corn, “said that Iraqi people would rejoice if Saddam were overthrown.”23 Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright also backed military intervention.

Leading Democrats like Richard Gephardt, John Kerry, Al Gore, and Hillary Clinton voiced nearly unqualified support for war. In one speech on the floor of Congress, Hillary Clinton railed, “Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile delivery capability, and his nuclear program. He has given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including al-Qaeda members.”24 Colin Powell sealed the case with his disgraceful February 5, 2003, UN speech that presented false evidence to ramp up support for invasion. As David Corn states, “Virtually all of the allegations Powell presented would turn out to be wrong.”25 As the antiwar movement argued from the beginning, and now everyone knows, there were no WMDs, no link with al-Qaeda, and Iraq was not a threat but a prostrate nation on the verge of collapse.

No plan for occupation

The Bush administration and their neoconservative officials naively believed that they would win the war, install a democratic government made up of their exiled allies, and enable the U.S. to withdraw its combat forces within a few months. As a result, they underestimated the troops they needed to conquer Iraq and failed to design a functional plan for occupying the country.

The delusions were grand. Wolfowitz roundly attacked as “outlandish” General Eric Shinseki’s claim that the U.S. would need 300,000 troops to pacify Iraq. Wolfowitz reasoned that since “they will greet us as liberators…that will help us keep requirements down.”26 They also believed the war would be cheap. Andrew Natsios, the head of United States Agency for International Development (USAID), told ABC’s Nightline that the U.S. government’s contribution to the Iraq War would be just $1.7 billion, and they could recoup their expenses with Iraqi oil sales.27 As they would discover to their surprise, they were wrong on all counts.

The planning of the occupation itself was an afterthought. As Rajiv Chandrasekaran writes, “On January 17, 2003, two months before the war began, Feith called Jay Garner, a retired lieutenant general, and asked him to take charge of postwar Iraq. It wouldn’t be long, Feith predicted, an Iraqi government would be formed and an American ambassador would be dispatched to Baghdad.”28 As a result, the official army historian of the war wrote, “There was no single plan as of 1 May 2004 that described an executable approach to achieving the stated strategic endstate of the war.”29 In the end, Garner produced a twenty-five-page document entitled “A unified mission plan for post hostilities in Iraq” with only the vaguest outlines of how the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) would transform Iraq.

Even if the U.S. had a better plan for the war and occupation, they would not have been successful. As Zbigniew Brzezinski argued in the Washington Post, “America is acting like a colonial power in Iraq. But the age of colonialism is over. Waging a colonial war in the post-colonial age is self-defeating.”30

Victory, occupation, and chaos

The U.S. won the war easily, which was not surprising given Iraq’s economic devastation, its military weakness, and Saddam Hussein’s unwillingness to organize a popular resistance given his fear of the Iraqi people. The Iraqi military for all intents and purposes melted away. Contrary to expectations, however, U.S. troops were not greeted as liberators.

The U.S. coalition deployed only 145,000 troops, nowhere near the number of troops it needed to control a country of 25 million. Moreover, these focused more energy on locating WMD caches than destroying conventional weapon stockpiles. Ricks documents how “U.S. commanders rolling into Iraq refrained from detonating those bunkers for fear that they also contained stockpiles of poison gas or other weaponry that might be blow into the air and kill U.S. soldiers or Iraqi civilians…. So bunkers often were bypassed and left undisturbed by an invasion force that was already stretched thin—and the insurgents were able to arm themselves at leisure.”31 The resistance, which began to emerge almost immediately after the invasion, seized 250,000 tons of conventional weapons stockpiles.32

The Iraqi reaction to the invasion surprised the United States. As Patrick Cockburn reports,

Most Iraqis wanted to see the back of Saddam Hussein, but they already viewed their liberators—the Americans and the Iraqi exile parties—with suspicion. A civil servant in Baghdad said of the latter: “the exiled Iraqis are the exact replica of those who currently govern us…with the sole difference that the latter are already satiated since they have been robbing us for the past thirty years. Those who accompany the American troops will be ravenous.”33

Iraq’s three main groups responded differently, revealing tensions that the U.S. would later exploit and transform into a civil war. The Shia population was happy to see Saddam dethroned, but instead of embracing the invaders, they used the opportunity for an outpouring of religious faith and rituals long suppressed by the Baathist regime. Their elite in the clergy and fundamentalist parties agitated for Shia majority rule. The Sunnis, fearing loss of status, reacted across the board with hostility to the new occupier and feared the assertion of Shia power. Only the Kurds in the north were jubilant, but they set their eyes on expansion of their autonomous territory and hopes of a Kurdish nation.

In the south, where the Shia comprise an overwhelming majority, the Shia fundamentalist parties, SCIRI and Dawa, along with Muqtada al-Sadr’s forces, established control. In the so-called Sunni triangle, Sunni tribal leaders and clerics set up provisional governmental structures. In the north, the Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), were already in control of the region before the war. In the war’s aftermath they aimed to reestablish their control of oil-rich Kirkuk and drive out the Arabs that Saddam Hussein had sent to weaken the Kurdish majority.

In Baghdad, troops defended the Oil Ministry but failed to impose order and security in the rest of the city. Desperate people looted government buildings, schools, and even the treasures from the National Museum and Library. The looting did more damage than the invasion itself. Allawi describes how “Baghdad’s police force, normally 40,000 strong, had disappeared, and there were no firefighters to dampen the flames. Fires raged out of control for days on end, and Baghdad was strewn with a large number of gutted and burnt-out buildings. The scene of devastation was striking, and had never been anticipated by the war’s planners.”34

The emerald city

In an act of unmistakable symbolism, the U.S. set up its occupation headquarters in Saddam Hussein’s former Republican Palace, and established a heavily fortified area around it known as the Green Zone (officially now called the International Zone). Bush quickly fired the hapless Garner, who was replaced with Paul Bremer and his UN-approved Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). With a Sunni resistance already attacking U.S. forces, the CPA built seventeen-foot blast barricades topped with razor wire to protect the U.S. administration and its growing colonial bureaucracy.
Chandrasekaran describes the suburban tranquility of the zone compared to the horror surrounding it:

From inside the Green Zone, the real Baghdad—the checkpoints, the bombed-out buildings, the paralyzing traffic jams—could have been a world away. The horns, the gunshots, the muezzin’s call to prayer, never drifted over the walls. The fear on the faces of American troops was rarely seen by the denizens of the palace. The acrid smoke of a detonated car bomb didn’t fill the air. The sub-Saharan privation and Wild West lawlessness that gripped one of the world’s most ancient cities swirled around the walls, but on the inside, the calm sterility of an American subdivision prevailed.35
Bremer hired officials not for their competence, but for their ideological loyalty to the president, asking applicants their position on abortion and whom they voted for in the 2000 election. Eliminating Democrats and liberals, the CPA stacked its personnel with Republican neophytes, half of whom had never been out of the U.S. and had just gotten their first passport. Tellingly, the most common piece of clothing other than military uniforms was “Bush-Cheney 2004” T-shirts.36

The Green Zone fell prey to Republican frat boy culture. Fox News pumped out its war propaganda from nearly every television. Heavy metal rattled out of the Green Zone’s own English language radio station called, predictably and lamely, Freedom Radio 107.7. To keep the yahoos well watered, the Green Zone boasted bars for different divisions of the occupying agencies, seven in total, with the CIA joint calling itself “Babylon.” Chandrasekaran reports that while he could not find it, there were rumors of an active brothel to service the colonial staff.37

The Green Zone did nearly everything to offend and alienate Arabs, Muslims, and especially Iraqis. The few American Arabs and Muslims the CPA hired experienced constant harassment and suspicion of being terrorists.38 The CPA seemed to have little interest in communicating with Iraqis themselves as it initially had only six fluent Arabic speakers. The CPA became so suspicious that its Iraqi employees were working with the resistance that they increasingly replaced them with foreign workers.39

Nightmare in shining armor

The new viceroy, Paul Bremer, turned the occupation into a catastrophe. An absurd figure in his suit and boots, Bremer declared himself “the only paramount authority figure—other than dictator Saddam Hussein—that most Iraqis had ever known.”40 His CPA would rule Iraq from April 2003 through June 2004, when the U.S. nominally transferred authority to the new Interim Iraqi Government.
Bremer’s first three orders undermined the state he had inherited and alienated the Sunnis and Shias. Order Number One, his infamous de-Baathification program, unleashed a purge that attacked both the top of the party and its middle-class membership, leading to the firings of more than 30,000 people from state and private jobs.

The consequences were devastating for the U.S. occupation. First, it gutted many already weak social institutions, from education to health care. “As a result of de-Baathification,” reports Chandrasekaran, “entire schools were left with just one or two teachers in some Sunni-dominated areas.”41 Second, the Sunni population saw it not as de-Baathification but as de-Sunnification, reducing them to second-class citizens. Bremer thus drove an already hostile Sunni population over to the developing resistance. Most of the Baath Party membership of 2 million had joined merely to advance middle-class careers and few were ideologically committed to Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Moreover, while the party was multiethnic and superficially nonsectarian, it was predominantly comprised of Sunnis.

Bremer followed up this disastrous edict with another, Order Number Two, dissolving the Iraqi military and security forces. The army was the last integrated Arab institution made up of predominantly Sunni officers and overwhelmingly Shia conscripts. These forces were key in maintaining social order, however repressive. Nevertheless, Bremer opted to abolish them in one fell swoop, firing 450,000 people. The decision compounded problems the U.S. was already having in enforcing security.

Both the Sunni officers and Shia conscripts were suddenly unemployed and deprived of jobs and pensions in a country with an unemployment rate in 2003 of 70 percent.42 Major Saad Omri told Chandrasekaran that the Sunni officers and soldiers are “all insurgents now. Bremer lost his chance.”43 The unemployed Shia conscripts also turned against the occupation, many of them joining opposition Shia militias such as the Mahdi Army. “That was the week we made 450,000 enemies on the ground in Iraq,” a U.S. official told the New York Times.44

Bremer then announced Order Number Three, overturning prewar promises, postponing elections for an Iraqi government, and declaring that the CPA would rule Iraq. They did so out of fear that any election would bring the Shia fundamentalist parties into power and that such a government would tilt toward Iran, the archenemy of the U.S. in the region. As a direct result, Bremer alienated the Shia majority. U.S. Army Colonel King admitted, “When they disbanded the military, and announced we were occupiers—that was it. Every moderate, every person that had leaned toward us, was furious.”45

U.S. fails at free-market reconstruction

The CPA’s economic policies alienated Iraqis even more. “It’s a full-scale economic overhaul,” Bremer announced. “We’re going to create the first real free-market economy in the Arab world.”46 Raising Iraqi expectations for a return to their “Golden Age” during the oil boom in the 1970s, the CPA then dashed these hopes, failing to reconstruct the society, and only succeeded in dumping billions of dollars into the coffers of American corporations like Halliburton, Bechtel, and Blackwater.

The CPA viewed Iraq’s state-capitalist regime with all its government-owned industries as socialist, and aimed to dismantle it with Eastern European-style shock therapy. Allawi rightly argues, “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.”47 The CPA ignored these conditions and imposed their neoliberal fantasies: they slashed the top tax rate from 45 percent to a flat tax of 15 percent; established free trade to the advantage of multinationals by ending import/export duties; established foreign investment protocols that allowed Iraqi companies, including the oil industry, to be at least in part foreign owned; and threatened to privatize all state-owned industries.

They hoped such radical measures would help rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure and economy. Cockburn itemizes their failure to deliver:

Before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein 50 percent of Iraqis had access to drinkable water, but this figure had dropped to 32 percent by the end of 2005. Some $4 billion was spent by the U.S. and Iraqi governments on increasing the electricity supply, but in April 2006 this fell to 4,100 megawatts, below the pre-invasion level, which represents half the 8,000 megawatts needed by Iraq. Oil production touched a low of 1.4 million barrels a day. These figures meant that most Iraqis lived on the edge of destitution, surviving only because of cheap government rations. At least 50 percent of people who could work were unemployed.48

A large percentage of CPA expenditures were spent on running the occupation itself. The U.S. dished out more money on administration than all projects related to education, human rights, democracy, and governance combined.49 Billions more were plowed into setting up U.S. military bases, as Ricks relates:

“The U.S. military seemed more concerned about its own well-being than about Iraqis,” said Lt. Col. Holshek, who during the summer of 2003 was based at Tallil air base in southern Iraq. “We had all this hardware, all these riches at hand, yet we didn’t do anything to help,” he said of that time. “An extraordinary part of the U.S. military effort was devoted to providing for itself, with a huge push to build showers, mess halls, and coffee bars, and to install amenities such as satellite television and Internet cafes.”50

With a growing resistance and rising criminality, the CPA was forced to spend 25 percent of its budget on security. The Times of London stated, “In Iraq, the postwar boom is not oil. It is security.”51 By early 2006, the U.S. had spent over $1 billion on the private security firm Blackwater and had more than 60,000 of these so-called private contractors in Iraq, 15,000 to 20,000 of whom were engaged in combat operations of various sorts.52
These neoliberal storm troopers were not bound by either military or U.S. laws. “The power of mercenaries has been growing. Blackwater’s thugs with guns now push and punch Iraqis who get in their way,” Robert Fisk reported. “Baghdad is alive with mysterious Westerners draped with hardware, shouting at and abusing Iraqis in the street, drinking heavily in the city’s poorly defended hotels. They have become, for ordinary Iraqis, the image of everything that is wrong with the West. We like to call them ‘contractors,’ but there is a disturbing increase in reports that mercenaries are shooting down Iraqis with total impunity.”53

Rise of a fractured resistance

The occupation provoked a fractured resistance among the Sunni and Shia population. The claim that Baathist “dead-enders” or foreign fighters made up the resistance is completely wrong. As Allawi reports, “In October 2003, a major study on the insurgency, embodied in the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), concluded that the insurgency was driven by local factors, and that it drew its strength from deep grievances and a widespread hostility to the presence of foreign troops.”54

The Sunni elite, especially its tribal leaders and clergy, began to organize and support the Sunni guerrilla resistance. They felt an acute sense of loss after the toppling of the Baathist regime and de-Baathification. Lacking any secular nationalist or socialist alternatives, the Sunni masses turned to the Sunni clergy and their associated political parties, the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS) and the Iraqi Islamic Party. Sheikh Mudhafar, the leader of the AMS, gave voice to the Sunni resistance: “We reject this occupation…. Until now we have not seen anything good, only killing, searches, and curfews. There is a reaction for every action. If you are choking me, I will also choke you. We have a resistance just like the Palestinians, Chechens, and Afghans…. [The occupation forces] should leave today.”55

The Sunni resistance was not monolithic or unified. As Nir Rosen notes, “Instead there are resistances, and insurgencies, and terror movements. They differ in location, motivation, and ideology. The majority of anti-coalition fighters in Iraq are part of an indigenous resistance to the American occupation. They are motivated by factors such as nationalism, religion, and a sense of disenfranchisement.”56 As many as 10,000 guerrilla fighters were organized in various militias that found able leadership from fired Sunni officers, plundered unguarded weapon storehouses, and developed elaborate funding sources inside and outside of the country.57

The Sunni resistance launched a wave of attacks in June and July 2003, just a few months into the occupation. At first they targeted the various forces that collaborated with the occupation in order to isolate the United States. They attacked the Jordanian embassy, blew up the UN headquarters, killing its top envoy Sérgio de Mello, and murdered the SCIRI leader Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir Hakim. They also targeted the new Iraqi police that the U.S. used to enforce order. The Sunni guerrillas then attacked U.S. convoys, the Green Zone, and U.S. bases.

The Sunni resistance, however, did not develop into a genuine nationalist movement. The elite leaders looked with suspicion upon the Shia elite and their parties like SCIRI that had collaborated with the invasion. They also drew their ideas from the Sunni radicals in the rest of the Middle East and adopted much of their anti-Shia prejudices. Moreover, the guerrilla attacks on the predominantly Shia employees and police forces sowed suspicion among the Shia majority toward the Sunni resistance. Foreign Sunni Salafists like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his al-Qaeda organization enraged Shias. They murdered innocent Shia civilians for being “infidels.” Although many in the Sunni resistance condemned such sectarian terror and in some cases attacked the Salafists, they did not uproot them as a force.58

The Shia opposition did not develop with the same speed or in the same manner. Shia religious parties, including SCIRI and Dawa, collaborated and supported the invasion, but opposed the occupation because they wanted to secure Shia majority rule. The Shia religious establishment led by the Grand Ayatollah Sistani took the same position. The Shia elite vacillated between collaboration to secure majority Shia rule and opposition to U.S. interference with that goal.

Muqtada al-Sadr formed the most extreme anti-occupation wing of the Shia establishment. From the beginning, he opposed the U.S. occupation, imitating his father’s combination of Iraqi nationalism and Shia fundamentalism. Sadr built a massive but loose organization based in the Shia poor in the Baghdad slum Sadr City and across the south of Iraq. Like Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Sadrists built their organization by providing social services, Islamic courts, and security with their Mahdi Army.

Sadr called for unity among all Muslims in a nationalist resistance to the occupation. At first Sadr did not forge an armed resistance, but focused on mass demonstrations, distribution of his newspaper Hawza, and organizing his Mahdi Army. He became a thorn in the side of Bremer and the CPA, especially after they decided to defer elections. Sadr, like the rest of the Shia establishment, vacillated between nationalist opposition to the occupation and trying to use it to establish a Shia religious state.59

U.S. repression, detention, and torture

The U.S. vowed to strangle the growing resistance. “We are going to fight them and impose our will on them and we will capture or, if necessary, kill them until we have imposed law and order upon this country,” Bremer railed.60 But the U.S. counterinsurgency only succeeded in further radicalizing the Sunni and Shia population against the occupation itself.

Ricks describes how “senior U.S. commanders tried to counter the insurgency with indiscriminate cordon-and-sweep operations that involved detaining thousands of Iraqis. This involved ‘grabbing whole villages, because combat soldiers [were] unable to figure out who was of value and who was not.’”61

The military detained tens of thousands of Iraqis, most of them innocent of any crime.

The U.S. crammed the detainees in many locations including Saddam Hussein’s most dreaded jail, Abu Ghraib. They filled it with 3,500 detainees by September 2003, and then doubled that to 7,000 in the next month.62 They brought in the head of the Guantánamo prison camp, Major General Geoffrey Miller, with specific instructions to “rapidly exploit detainees for actionable intelligence.”63 Captain William Ponce wrote a memo telling his interrogators that “the gloves are coming off regarding these detainees” and stated that the second highest intelligence officer in Iraq “made it clear that we want these individuals broken.”64

The interrogators followed their orders and inflicted violence and psychological torture on hundreds of mostly innocent Iraqis. Photographs from Abu Ghraib emerged in April 2004, depicting such things as groups of naked Iraqi prisoners forced to lie in a pile and naked men smeared in excrement, causing one of the first major domestic scandals of the war. Across the world, the media replaced the choreographed image of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue with the far more representative image of the U.S. in Iraq—a hooded Iraqi torture victim with electrodes dangling from his extended arms.

Twin uprisings of spring 2004

In the spring of 2004, Bremer’s reign of terror nearly transformed Iraq’s fractured resistance into a united movement for national liberation when he launched military attacks against the Sunni resistance in Fallujah and the Sadrists in Najaf. His spring offensive only succeeded in enflaming both the Shias and Sunnis.

Bremer had wanted to put down the Sadrists from the earliest stages of the occupation. Finally, in March 2004, after Sadr’s newspaper ran a headline “Bremer follows in footsteps of Saddam,” Bremer ordered the paper shut down and the arrest of Sadr’s lieutenant Mustafa Yaqoubi. Bremer told his forces to “kill or capture” Sadr.65 The U.S. hoped to split and isolate Sadr from the moderate Shia fundamentalist parties and clergy in order to weaken both forces.

Sadr responded by calling on his Mahdi Army to rebel and take control of Sadr City and towns across the south. U.S. forces cornered Sadr in the holy city of Najaf. But their siege backfired, and it rallied Ayatollah Sistani and the Shia parties SCIRI and Dawa to Sadr’s side. Whatever their disagreements with Sadr, they realized that if the U.S. was able to take down Sadr, they would likely be next. Sistani cut a deal with the U.S. that allowed Sadr to escape with his Mahdi Army fully intact. The U.S. divide-and-conquer strategy toward the Shia failed. Instead, Sistani secured a united front of the Shia religious leadership.

At the same time, Bremer escalated the campaign against the Sunni resistance in the Sunni triangle, especially its stronghold in Fallujah. Known as the City of Mosques, Fallujah is a rural, conservative city of some 300,000 people. Its tribal elite had formed one of the key bases for Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime and built a new local governing authority that was hostile to the U.S. occupation from the beginning.

From the start of the occupation, the U.S. attacked the city. They repeatedly shot innocent civilians—killing fifteen, for example, when angry protesters demanded that U.S. soldiers leave a school they had occupied a few weeks after Saddam Hussein’s fall. Actions such as these turned the entire population against the occupation and into support of the resistance fighters.66 When four Blackwater mercenaries lost their way in Fallujah, resistance fighters ambushed them and an enraged crowd tore their bodies apart, hanged them from a bridge, and celebrated.

The Bush administration ordered a siege of Fallujah. The new Iraqi Army balked at participating in the attack and its soldiers deserted their companies declaring that they had not signed up to fight Iraqis.67 The U.S. therefore had to rely on its own forces, animated by a spirit of revenge. One sergeant told his troops, “Marines are only really motivated two times. One is when we’re going on liberty. One is when we’re going to kill somebody. We’re not going on liberty…. We’re here for one thing: to tame Fallujah. That’s what we’re going to do.”68 The U.S. attacked the city and killed 1,000 civilians, mostly women and children.

This siege backfired and turned Fallujah into a rallying point for opposition to U.S. imperialism around the world and a recruiting tool for the Sunni resistance. The U.S. called off the attack and agreed to have an Iraqi force, the Fallujah Brigade, patrol the city. Ironically, the brigade was more loyal to the resistance than to the Americans. Fallujah continued to provide a base for Sunni guerrillas.69 Thus the agreement could only have been a temporary measure while the U.S. regrouped for yet another assault.

Fleeting moment of unity

The Sadrists in Najaf and the Sunni resistance in Fallujah forged a brief and fragile unity. Sadr proclaimed,

You are witnessing the union of Sunnis and Shiites toward an independent Iraq, free of terror and occupation. This is a lofty goal.... Our sentiments are the same, our goal is one and our enemy is one. We say yes, yes to unity, yes to the closing of ranks, combating terror, and ousting the infidel West from our sacred lands.70

In Fallujah, the resistance unfurled banners that declared, “The Martyrs of Fallujah, Najaf, Kufah, and Basra Are the Pole of the Flag that Says God Is Great.”71 Throughout the country, graffiti appeared such as “We shall knock the gates of heaven with American skulls” and “Sunni + Shia = Jihad against Occupation.”72 Shia forces temporarily blocked the supply lines to the U.S. troops besieging Fallujah.73

The resistance exploded. Attacks on American forces soared from an average of 200 a week to over 600 in the aftermath of the twin uprisings.74 By 2006, one report found that 88 percent of Sunnis approved of attacks on U.S. forces and 41 percent of Shias did as well.75 Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of the occupation forces, feared that a nationalist resistance was developing and had to be split. “The danger is we believe there is a linkage that may be occurring at the very lowest levels between the Sunni and the Shia.” He declared. “We have to work very hard to ensure that it remains at the tactical level.”76

Though Shia and Sunni leaders professed unity against the Americans…they hated each other. As spring wore on, Sunni and Shia newspapers grew more brazen in their attacks against each other. The only things they agreed on were the need for an Islamic government (thought they disagree on what it will look like) and their insistence that the Jews and the Americans were to blame for all their woes. The Sunnis were scared, fearing the impending Shia takeover of Iraq if anything resembling a democratic election took place. Shias did not fear the Sunnis; they just disliked them. The Shias began supporting Turkmen in the north, who are often Shias as well, in their bloody clashes with the Kurds.77

Moreover, Sunni Salafist attacks against Shias shattered any sense of solidarity. As Cockburn writes,

The course of the twin rebellion showed the residual strength of Iraqi nationalism, but…national solidarity between Sunni and Shia was very temporary. The Shia sent a convoy of trucks piled with goods to support Fallujah only for seven of the Shia drivers to be executed by the very insurgents they had come to help. Many of the Sunni fighters, Salafi and Jihadi, were as hostile to Shia Iraqis as they were to Americans. Neither had a place in their pure Islamic state these ferocious and bigoted men were fighting for.78

Because the resistance was so divided along sectarian lines, the U.S. was able to regroup and launch a second siege of Fallujah in November 2004 without the danger of triggering a national uprising. They cut off the electricity to the city and drove 250,000 of its 300,000 inhabitants from the city. They then went in for the kill, dropping incendiary bombs and white phosphorous, a chemical weapon designed to burn the flesh off victims. The U.S. forces obliterated Fallujah, destroying 2,000 buildings and 60 of the city’s 200 mosques.79

Sectarianism had so undermined nationalist solidarity that not even Sadr condemned the second assault on Fallujah. Resentful and desperate, many Sunni refugees took out their anger on Shia police, soldiers, and civilians. The Shias in turn responded with initially defensive counterattacks to protect their neighborhoods. The sectarian fracture prevented the consolidation of a national resistance.

U.S. strategy: Divide and rule Iraq

In traditional imperial fashion, the CPA exploited the divisions between Iraq’s three main groups. They pitted each group against the other in the process of setting up the new Iraqi government, deepened sectarian and ethnic nationalist conflicts, and triggered a civil war.

The U.S. divided Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds from the very beginning. The CPA set up the Governing Council using the Lebanese model with a quota system that divvied up seats according to religious and national identity. The quota system favored the Shia with a proportional majority. The Sunnis on the council were not only a minority but also very weak as most of their elite political leadership had been in the Baath Party and were therefore banned from the council. As a result, the Sunnis perceived the council as a sectarian formation and they refused to recognize it.80

The CPA initially saw it as a temporary formation until they could hold elections. But the Bush administration quickly realized that any election would bring SCIRI and Dawa to power, both of which had friendly relations with America’s regional competitor, Iran. So they deferred elections and appointed the Interim Iraqi Government. The U.S. tried to craft it to appeal to the Sunnis, co-opt their leadership, and bring them into the political process as an ally against the Shias. The U.S. selected ex-Baathist and former CIA asset Iyad Allawi to become prime minister. They reversed their de-Baathification orders and consciously brought back many officials from the old regime.

The U.S. symbolically handed power over to Allawi in June 2004 and dissolved the CPA. Allawi took a hard line against the Sadrists and became an aggressive advocate of the second siege of Fallujah. Consequently, his Baathist-lite regime backfired. It enflamed the Sunni resistance and galvanized the Shia clergy and fundamentalist parties’ determination to secure majority control of the state.

The Shia agitation for majority rule forced the U.S. to concede to a series of elections, first for the Transitional National Assembly, the referendum on the constitution, and then parliamentary elections. The election law that the U.S. created to oversee these votes treated Iraq as one electoral district. “Iraq’s election law itself seemed designed to promote civil war,” notes Rosen. “Ethnic and religious blocs preferred one district because they were nationally known, and they would be able to avoid challengers who had genuine grassroots local support.”81

The election for the Transitional National Government, the referendum on the constitution, and the vote for the parliament broke Iraq finally into three separate and antagonist camps—Shia, Kurd, and Sunni—each lead by elites intent on mutually incompatible projects. The Sunnis boycotted the first election and then joined the religious and ethnic battle for control of the powerless Iraqi state.

As Anthony Shadid writes, “one constituency’s victory was another’s loss, and during the deliberations, religious Shia parties worked to consolidate their gains and hopefully their agendas; Kurds attempted to preserve their independence in the north at all costs; Sunni Arabs, frustrated by the election results, were casting their accumulated losses as an existential question.”82 The U.S. had communalized Iraq’s politics and stoked the flames of civil war.

Iraqi government: Powerless, corrupt, and sectarian

The U.S. created a weak Iraqi government that controlled virtually nothing. With their largest embassy and largest CIA station in the world, backed up by nearly 150,000 troops, the U.S. continues to be the real state in the country. The Iraqi government has been reduced to cronyism, corruption, and sectarianism. The U.S. has used the government either to pursue its imperial goals or, more often, as a scapegoat.

Iyad Allawi’s interim government revitalized corrupt Baathist networks, embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars, and made fake reconstruction and defense contracts that spirited away billions of dollars. Ali Allawi reports that “the head of the Integrity Commission, Judge Radhi al-Radhi, said regarding the alleged theft at the Ministry of Defense, ‘What Sha’alan [the former minister of defense] and his ministry were responsible for is possibly the largest robbery in the world…. Our estimates begin at $1.3 billion and go up to $2.3 billion.”83

The Shia United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) that won the two parliamentary elections continued the cronyism and amplified the sectarianism. Prime ministers Ibrahim Jafaari and Nuri al-Maliki allowed Shia militia like SCIRI’s Badr Brigades and Sadr’s Mahdi Army to join the new police force and the Interior Ministry security forces. In the south of Iraq, the Mahdi Army made up 90 percent of the police forces. These Shia militias also “swept up legions of young Sunni men—sometimes torturing and killing them—with acquiescence of the new government.”84 The Sunnis, shut out of any power and under threat, turned more and more to sectarian elements inside the resistance.

Civil war: Bitter fruit of occupation

The simmering Iraqi civil war finally boiled over when Sunni Salafists blew up one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam, Samarra’s Mosque of the Golden Dome on February 22, 2006. From then on the U.S. has overseen a spiral of religious and ethnic violence that has torn Iraq asunder.

The Shia forces retaliated and set in motion a cycle of attacks and counterattacks. Shia militias, especially Sadr’s Mahdi Army, killed 1,300 Sunni civilians and blew up 50 Sunni mosques in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the Gold Dome. Sunni and Shia neighborhoods were torn apart, as families were terrorized into moving from predominantly Sunni or Shia neighborhoods to be with their “own” group in a process of ethnic cleansing reminiscent of Bosnia. An Iraqi conveyed the crisis to Rosen:

I’m living here in the middle of shit, a civil war will happen I’m sure of it…. You can’t be comfortable talking with a man until you know if he is Shia or Sunni.... People don’t trust each other.... To be clear, now Shia are Iranians for the Sunni, and Sunni are Salafi terrorists for the Shia. We have a civil war here.85

At the same time, a low-intensity conflict has developed between the Iraqi Arabs and Iraqi Kurds in the north, especially in the oil-rich area of Kirkuk. The Kurdish elite aims to regain control of that region and exploit the reserves for its benefit and have threatened to displace Arabs that Saddam Hussein had moved into the area. Fearing their loss of control, Sadr’s militias have had numerous conflicts with the Kurdish forces. Moreover, Turkey has supported the area’s Turkomen minority.

While the three-way civil war has dominated media coverage of Iraq, the fractured resistance nevertheless continues to wage a guerrilla war against U.S. imperialism. The scale of the attacks on U.S. forces and their collaborators increased from 26,496 in 2005 to 34,131 in 2006.86 As a result two wars rage inside Iraq: a fractured war for national liberation and a civil war over the nature of the future Iraq.

Refugee crisis

The occupation, poverty, and civil war have created one of the biggest refugee crises in the world. “The current exodus,” according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “is the largest long-term population movement since the displacement of the Palestinians following the creation of Israel in 1948.”87 Iraq is hemorrhaging its people.

Close to 2 million Iraqis have fled for other countries in the region. The UNHCR estimates that in 2006 alone 425,000 refugees left Iraq. And the numbers show every sign of increasing. Refugee experts report that as many as 100,000 are leaving each month. Another 1.7 million Iraqis have left their homes in integrated areas to live in their ethnic community inside Iraq. This internally displaced population is expanding by 50,000 each month and the UNHCR predicts that it could reach a total of 2.7 million people by the end of 2007. Nearly 4 million people out of a prewar population of 25 million have become either refugees or internally displaced people.

The U.S. has turned a blind eye to this tragedy. “The United States and the United Kingdom who led the invasion of Iraq,” writes Human Rights Watch, “have paid scant attention to the regional fallout caused by their intervention. Neither country has resettled more than a handful of Iraqi refugees from Jordan or Syria.”88 In fact, the U.S. shut down its borders to Iraqi refugees and all refugees in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Since 2003, they have only allowed 466 Iraqi refugees into the U.S.89 The U.S. also cut its support for the UNHCR from $19.9 million in 2005 to $7.9 million in 2006.90 As a result, the UN has also been completely unable to address the refugee crisis.

The Iraqi Nakba

The U.S. has ripped Iraq apart. It is impossible to avoid comparing this crime with the Israeli destruction of Palestine in 1948—dispossession, expulsion, and immiseration. The Palestinians call it their Nakba, their catastrophe. The U.S. has created an Iraqi Nakba. As the Chatham House report warned, “Iraq is on the verge of being a failed state which faces the possibility of collapse and fragmentation.”91

The Iraqi people are suffering untold horrors. Save the Children reports that Iraq has endured a 150 percent increase in the rate of infant mortality since the beginning of sanctions in 1990.92 This increase is worse than infant mortality in AIDS-ravaged sub-Saharan Africa. Half of the country’s children suffer from malnutrition. Less than a third of them now attend school, in contrast to the near universal attendance before the invasion in 2003.93 Women’s status has plummeted. The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq declares “Women of Iraq have gradually let go of most of their 20th century gains and privileges in the last 4 years of occupation.” 94 Estimates of unemployment range from 48 percent to as high as 70 percent. The UN found that among those who are employed, 54 percent survives on less than $1 a day. The Iraq government’s Central Statistical Bureau found that 43 percent of Iraqis suffer “absolute poverty,” lacking adequate access to food, clothing, and shelter to survive.95

In such dire circumstances, the Iraqi masses have been as yet unable to find the political and social foundation for a resistance capable of winning their liberation. The secular Left was discredited by the Baathists’ bankrupt nationalism and the trail of mistakes made by the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP). The Sunni and Shia clerical elite and their fundamentalist parties in Iraq do not have the politics or interests in building a united resistance. Nor do they recognize the Kurds’ legitimate right to self-determination, as a population historically oppressed by the Arab majority. Moreover, the economic chaos has disorganized and uprooted the working class, which has a deep history of interethnic and nonsectarian class struggle, and made it difficult for unions and the miniscule secular Left to provide an alternative leadership.

That weakness has been compounded by the mistakes of the secular Left. The small remnant of the once great ICP has collaborated with the occupiers, discrediting the ICP in the eyes of the masses. Other secular Left forces have marginalized themselves by equally condemning American imperialism and the resistance because of the latter’s ties to fundamentalism. But it would be foolish to underestimate the tenacity of both Iraqi nationalism and the resiliency of the working class in Iraq.

However grim the current situation, there are dynamics that might generate an alternative. Muqtada al-Sadr has reached out to the Sunni tribal forces in Anbar province and also called for an end to Madhi Army attacks on Sunnis in an attempt to rebuild a nationalist force against the United States. But his opportunist vacillation, religious politics, and his Mahdi Army’s sectarian violence may undermine this effort.

Some Sunni resistance organizations met in Jordan to organize a united resistance. They condemned Salafist attacks on Shias and have also called for unified resistance with those Shias who have resisted the occupation. But it is not clear how representative or influential these forces are or whether they are merely positioning themselves to negotiate an alliance with the U.S. after withdrawal.96

Another hope might emerge from the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions and their campaign to oppose the oil law that threatens to open the country’s reserves to U.S. multinationals.97 But this fight is also fraught with sectarian competition between the Kurdish and Shia elites for regional control of the oil reserves. Nevertheless, the U.S. occupation will keep pushing Iraq’s masses to find effective ways to win their emancipation.
Imperial rehabilitation or anti-imperialism?

There is only one positive result of the U.S. occupation; it has become the cemetery of neoconservative dreams and has set back U.S. imperialism in the Middle East and around the world. The resistance and civil war in Iraq has stopped the U.S. dead in its tracks. Iran now has allies that nominally govern Iraq, making it the real victor of the war. The U.S. suffered another blow when its proxy Israel was defeated by Iran’s ally, Hezbollah, in Lebanon.

Finally recognizing that they bet their fortune in the Middle East on a clique of incompetent fools, the U.S. ruling class is split for the first time since its defeat in Vietnam. The majority wing now opposes the neoconservatives and has turned to “realist” Republicans and the Democratic Party grouped together in the Baker-Hamilton Commission’s Iraq Study Group to salvage U.S. imperialism from further disaster. The minority wing of “victory or death” Republicans and Joe Lieberman reject the Iraq Study Group and advocate Bush’s surge plan.

The wing behind the Iraq Study Group supports traditional balance of power realism, use of soft power, and rebuilding international alliances. In no way do they challenge U.S. imperialism’s strategic aim of dominating the Middle East and its oil. Many had supported the war and now only oppose it because it has failed. They want a domestic regime change in 2008 to replace the Bush administration and rehabilitate U.S. imperialism. Their solution for Iraq is not withdrawal of troops, but redeployment; they want to pull American troops out of combat in Iraq, keep many in the country and base most in the surrounding countries to contain the chaos the U.S. has caused in Iraq, and still maintain the U.S. stranglehold on the region.

The Bush administration’s surge plan hopes to pressure the Shia government to reconcile with the Sunni resistance and thereby stabilize Iraq. At the same time, the Bush administration has attempted to generalize Iraq’s civil war by rallying its Sunni allies inside Iraq and in the region as a whole against the threat of an Iranian Shia crescent.

However, the surge has failed. Instead of quelling the resistance and stabilizing the country it has done the opposite. Resistance attacks on U.S. troops, civilians, and infrastructure have soared to a total in June of 5,335, averaging more than 177 attacks per day. This is the highest number of attacks since May 2003 and over 82 percent of them are against U.S. forces and infrastructure, while only 18 percent are against civilians.98
Moreover, the U.S. clampdown on Baghdad has only served to spread the sectarian violence to other sections of the country. The Sunni Salafists finished off what remained of the minarets at the Mosque of the Golden Dome in June. Ominously, Sunni fighters have now targeted Kurds in Kirkuk where there have been long simmering tensions over whether Arabs or Kurds would control the oil reserves around that city. In reaction to the growing Kurdish national aspirations, Turkey, which oppresses its Kurdish minority, has amassed 140,000 troops on its border with Iraq in the north, threatening an even greater conflagration.99

Facing the obvious reality that their strategy is failing, the Bush administration has climbed down from its rejection of the Iraq Study Group. Without admitting it, they have adopted many of its recommendations; they have held regional conferences, met with the Syrians, and even made overtures to the Iranians. They have also reached out to China and Russia, as well as attempting to use the UN against Iran. But they are also contemplating a second surge to pacify the rest of the country.

While split between these two wings, the U.S. ruling class is united on two key things. First, both have come to forge a new “Washington consensus” that the catastrophe in Iraq is the fault not of the benevolent U.S. but of the Iraqis and their government. They resort to all sorts of racist alibis of empire—that Iraqis were not ready for democracy, they have been fighting each other for centuries, and that the government is not meeting its benchmarks. In reality, the U.S. paved Iraq’s road to hell.

Second, both wings agree on the need to confront Iran. It is now a potential regional power that is developing ties with Venezuela and U.S. competitors like Russia and China. U.S. imperialism cannot tolerate such a potential rival bloc with independent access to energy resources. As a result, the U.S. and Iran are now like two trains headed toward one another on the same track. While the U.S. is in a weak position now, it aims to rehabilitate itself for a new war on Iran.

We are thus at the opening of a new period of turmoil in the Middle East. The key project for the Left internationally is to develop an anti-imperialist movement against both wings of U.S. imperialism. In either its naked or well-dressed forms, U.S. imperialism is the enemy of the majority in the U.S. and around the world. As the great American revolutionary John Reed said long ago, “Uncle Sam never gives anybody something for nothing. He comes along with a sack stuffed with hay in one hand and a whip in the other. Anyone who accepts Uncle Sam’s promises at their face value will find that they must be paid for in sweat and blood.”

Ashley Smith is on the ISR editorial board.

1 Riverbend, “The rape of Sabrine,” February 20, 2007,
2 G. Burnham, R. Lafta, S. Doocy and L. Roberts, “Mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: a cross-sectional cluster sample survey,” Lancet, 368, no. 9545, October 21, 2006, 1,421–8.
3 There are approximately 2 million displaced internally, and 2 million who have fled Iraq. See “Iraq: The world’s fastest growing refugee crisis,” Refugees International,
4 Patrick Cockburn, The Occupation (London: Verso, 2006), 14–15.
5 Robin Wright, “Iraq, ‘sinking fast,’ is ranked no. 2 on list of unstable states,” Washington Post, June 19, 2007,
6 Cockburn, 4.
7 “U.S. poll finds opposition to Iraq War at highest level ever,” VOA News, July 10, 2007,
8 “U.S. troops in Iraq: 72% say end war in 2006,” Zogby International, February 28, 2006,
9 Michael Klare, Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum (New York: Metropolitan Books), 46.
10 Quoted in Anthony Arnove, Iraq Under Siege (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2000), 45.
11 Ibid., 15.
12 Thomas Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), 17.
13 Ali A. Allawi, The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 7.
14 For an excellent overview of the history of the Iraqi Communist Party see Ilario Salucci, A People’s History of Iraq (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005).
15 Allawi, 49.
16 Christian Alfonsi, Circle in the Sand: Why We Went Back to Iraq (New York: Doubleday, 2006), 383.
17 Ricks, 28.
18 “Remarks by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice on terrorism and foreign policy,” April 29, 2002,
19 Anthony Shadid, Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War (New York: Picador, 2006), 7.
20 Michael Isikoff and David Corn, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War (New York: Crown Publishers, 2006), 82.
21 Ricks, 52–53.
22 Isikoff and Corn, 34–35.
23 Ibid., 126.
24 Ibid., 150.
25 Ibid., 189.
26 Ricks, 98.
27 Ibid., 109.
28 Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City (New York: Knopf, 2007), 29.
29 Ricks, 110.
30 Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Five flaws in the president’s plan,” Washington Post, January 12, 2007,
31 Ricks, 145–46.
32 Allawi, 140.
33 Cockburn, 51.
34 Allawi, 94.
35 Chandrasekaran, 19.
36 Ibid., 81–82.
37 Ibid., 57.
38 Ibid., 92.
39 Ibid., 182.
40 Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army (New York: Nation Books, 2007), 64.
41 Chandrasekaran, 73.
42 Cockburn, 70.
43 Chandrasekaran, 77.
44 Scahill, 85.
45 Ricks, 164.
46 Chandrasekaran, 163.
47 Allawi, 198.
48 Cockburn, 5.
49 Chandrasekaran, 288.
50 Ricks, 200.
51 Scahill, 82.
52 Ricks, 371.
53 Scahill, 158.
54 Allawi, 186.
55 Nir Rosen, In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq (New York: Free Press, 2006), 84.
56 Ibid., 174.
57 Allawi, 176.
58 Rosen, 101–38.
59 Ibid., 7–35.
60 Scahill, 88.
61 Ricks, 195.
62 Ibid., 199.
63 Ibid., 199.
64 Ibid., 197.
65 Allawi, 273.
66 Scahill, 92.
67 Ricks, 31.
68 Scahill, 114.
69 Ricks, 345.
70 Shadid, 449.
71 Ricks, 149.
72 Cockburn, 140.
73 Rosen, 158.
74 Ricks, 337.
75 Cockburn, 166.
76 Allawi, 275.
77 Rosen, 144.
78 Cockburn, 144.
79 Dahr Jamail, Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from anUnembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq (Chicago: Haymarket Books, forthcoming October 2007).
80 Allawi, 220.
81 Rosen, 196.
82 Shadid, 478.
83 Allawi, 367.
84 Chandrasekaran, 297.
85 Rosen, 247.
86 Ricks, 414.
87 “UNHCR launches new appeal for Iraq operations,” UNHCR, January 8, 2007,
88 “Jordan: Bush and Abdullah must address Iraqi refugee crisis,” Human Rights Watch, December 1, 2006,
89 “Iraq: U.S. response to displacement remains inadequate,” Refugees International, May 8, 2007,
90 Hal Bernton, “Less aid going to Iraq refugees,” Seattle Times, December 26, 2006,
91 “Iraq: Fragmentation and civil wars,” Chatham House, May 17, 2007,
92 Celia W. Dugger, “Report on child deaths finds some hope in poorest nations, New York Times, May 8, 2007,
93 “Iraq: School attendance rates drop drastically,” Reuters, October 18, 2006.
94 “OWFI’s statement for IWD: After 4 years of occupation and oppression our struggles continue,” spring 2007,
95 “Defining ‘progress’ in Iraq,” Nation blog, May 18, 2007,
96 Seumas Milne, “Insurgents form political front to plan for U.S. pullout,” Guardian, July 19, 2007,,,2129675,00.html?gusrc=rss&feed=networkfront.
97 For an interesting discussion of this possibility, see Michael Schwartz, “The struggle over Iraqi oil,” ZNet, May 6, 2007,
98 David Morgan, “Daily attacks hit new a high,” Reuters, July 21, 2007,
99 Patrick Cockburn, “The next invasion of Iraq,” Counterpunch, July 18, 2007,
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