Iraq: It's too soon to tell

Staff Sgt. Luke P. Thelen, U.S. Air Force

U.S. Army 1st Lt. Julie Leggett and Sgt. Leonard Doan, from Security Detachment, 25th Special Troops Battalion, 25th Infantry Division, talk with a town leader about a site survey of businesses in Sequor, Iraq, on Aug. 12, 2009.

Article Highlights

  • It may be a long time before we really know the outcome of the Iraq war.

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  • The price of removing Saddam Hussein was high, but he was a danger to the Iraqi people and to the region.

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  • Those who paid the price of fighting to remove Saddam Hussein can take pride in what they accomplished in Iraq.

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  • Although it is late in the day, perhaps it's not too late to forge a coalition, including Iraq, to end conflict in Syria.

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It may be a long time before we really know the outcome of the Iraq war. To put that in perspective, consider that the Korean armistice was signed 60 years ago, but South Korea struggled for decades after that. Even after 30 years, only an extreme optimist would have predicted that South Korea today would not only have one of the world’s most successful economies but also a democratic political system that has successfully conducted six free and fair presidential elections over the last 25 years.

So too, it may be many years before we have a clear picture of the future of Iraq, but we already do know two important things. An evil dictator is gone, along with his two equally brutal sons, giving the Iraqi people a chance to build a representative government that treats its people as citizens and not as subjects. And we also know that Americans did not come to Iraq to take away its oil or to subjugate the country. To the contrary, having come to remove a threat to the United States, Americans stayed on at great sacrifice and fought alongside Iraqis in a bloody struggle against the dark forces that sought to return the country to a brutal tyranny. Iraqis rarely get enough credit for their own heroism in that struggle, but roughly 10,000 members of the Iraqi security forces are estimated to have died in that fight (twice the American total) in addition to tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians.

Evil is not a word to use lightly, but Saddam deserves something even stronger. When Americans say, as they often do, that “yes, Saddam Hussein was a bad guy, but the world is full of bad guys,” it is clear that they don’t know much about Saddam Hussein. After Saddam invaded Kuwait, I was told by Arab leaders in the region about a videocassette that he distributed to leaders around the Gulf, showing him before his National Assembly, on the day he was formally named president, calling out the names of “traitors” in the room to be hauled out and summarily executed. Of course, I knew about Saddam’s appetite for violence, about the war he started with Iran that left perhaps as many as a million dead and his brutal invasion of Kuwait, and I had read Kanan Makiya’s remarkable book Republic of Fear. I knew that he had spoken contemptuously of the United States to our ambassador in Baghdad as “a society which cannot accept 10,000 dead in one battle.” But I still had trouble believing that the leader of one of the most important countries in the Arab world would actually boast of his ruthlessness like a Mafia boss.

When Baghdad was liberated, 10 years ago, copies of that notorious video began to appear for sale in the market, along with other records of the regime’s use of terror. One video appeared to be a kind of “training film” for the fedayeen Saddam (a Ba’athist militia). It showed people being thrown off tall buildings for disobeying orders or having their arms broken by their “comrades.” At Abu Ghraib prison some of the last political prisoners were found buried in shallow graves, shot by guards fleeing from advancing American troops. In the prison was a pair of side-by-side gallows, because hangings were such a frequent occurrence. In southern Iraq we found the vast desert Saddam had created by draining the marshes, in order to wipe out the Marsh Arabs, a group whose identity goes back 4,000 years, a genocide that would have been completed by now if Saddam had remained in power. And there are the mass graves that provide both a morbid archaeological record of that regime as well as a forecast of what might have been if Saddam and his sons had remained in power.

The price of removing Saddam was high, in both military and civilian blood and in treasure. But he was clearly a danger to the Iraqi people and to the region; and his rule was not going to end peacefully, or even with his own death, as his sons could have carried on for another generation. Even though the Iraq Survey Group, which produced the definitive report on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, could not find the stocks of chemical and biological weapons that virtually all foreign intelligence agencies believed he had, it also concluded that Saddam planned to rebuild his WMD capabilities as soon as he could free himself from sanctions. He also posed a more immediate danger because terrorists, including Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, had already begun operating from Iraqi territory to plan terrorist attacks in Europe and the Middle East.

Those Americans and Iraqis (and other coalition members) who paid the price of fighting to remove this evil despot—and their loved ones who paid that price along with them—can take pride in what they accomplished, fighting against those who sought to destroy the possibility of a new Iraq. Usually insurgents at least pretend that they are fighting for a brighter future for the people, but the unholy collection of al Qaeda terrorists, former members of Saddam’s security services and Iranian-backed militias offered nothing but death and destruction to instill fear in the population. It wasn’t the U.S.-led coalition or Iraqi Security Forces that drove suicide trucks into mosques or set off roadside bombs indiscriminately.

It has become almost fashionable to say that Saddam was a useful counterbalance to Iran. But was it useful when he started a war with Iran that cost a million lives, including massive use of chemical weapons? Was he balancing Iran when he invaded Kuwait a few years later? Were he still in power today, he would likely be either assisting Assad, for fear that a successful rebellion might inspire Iraqis, or supporting those rebels who share his own hostility to the United States and to his Arab neighbors. It is unlikely that he would be playing a moderating role.

There are many things that one could wish had been done differently in Iraq. Even supporters of the war can make a long list. My own list starts with the U.S. decision to establish an occupation government instead of handing sovereignty to Iraqis at the outset, and with the four–year delay in implementing a counter-insurgency strategy. It was already clear, soon after we got to Baghdad, that the enemy was pursuing an urban guerilla strategy—in order to prevent a new Iraqi government from succeeding and so that the U.S. would give up and leave—and an appropriate counter-insurgency strategy should have been developed much sooner.

But the U.S. should not be sorry about the “failure” to install a new dictator in Iraq to restore the old false stability. On the contrary, having removed Saddam from power out of concern for our own security, it would have been unforgivable to deny Iraqis an opportunity to determine their own government.

What did require a U.S. apology—which the ambassador to Iraq, Jim Jeffrey, offered in the Fall of 2011—was the failure to assist the Shia uprising in 1991, in the aftermath of Saddam’s defeat in Kuwait. When Saddam used armed helicopters to slaughter the rebels, the U.S. did not withdraw permission for the Iraqi army to fly helicopters, which had been granted on the pretext that they were needed because so many bridges had been destroyed.

The U.S. could have easily stopped Saddam’s helicopters from flying and could have stopped Saddam’s armor from moving through the Euphrates River valley to crush the rebellions in Basra and other cities, without moving a single kilometer further into Iraq or incurring significant additional risk to American forces. Just days earlier, the U.S. stopped attacking Iraqi forces as they fled from Kuwait, to avoid creating a “highway of death.” Now, by permitting Saddam’s Republican Guards to move south unhindered to crush the rebellion, it facilitated a different and more consequential “highway of death.”

Contrary to a common belief, the U.S. failure to act was not the fault of the Saudis. To the contrary, when I accompanied Secretary of State James Baker on his first trip to the Gulf after the cease fire, I heard Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi Foreign Minister, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., plead with Baker to support the Shi’ite uprising.

A month later, the U.S. finally did lead a multinational force of light infantry into northern Iraq, to create a sanctuary for the Kurds. But by this time it was too late for the Shi’ites of Iraq’s south. Their attempt to liberate themselves had been crushed, more brutally even than Assad has done recently in Syria. Had the U.S. acted sooner to assist in the liberation of the south as well as the north, Saddam might well have been overthrown. Iraq would have been liberated, and largely by its own people, without many years of additional suffering and the recent costly war.

Unfortunately, that generous Saudi attitude toward Iraq’s Shi’ite Arabs 20 years ago has been absent in the policies and actions of Iraq’s Arab neighbors during the past decade. At best they have acted as though they hoped for a restoration of minority Sunni Arab rule over Iraq’s Shi’ite Arabs and Sunni Kurds. At worst, they helped to incite violence on behalf of the so-called “resistance” or, in the case of Syria, actually permitted the easy transit of suicide bombers on missions to kill Iraqi civilians.

For those Gulf countries that would like to have peace in the region and would like Iraqi help to balance Iran, that approach is not only ungenerous but also short-sighted. Even those nostalgic for the so-called “stability” that Saddam provided should recognize that there is no way back. The way forward to a stable Iraq that lives at peace with its neighbors is through an Iraqi government that is inclusive and earns the trust of its citizens. And the way to keep Iraq out of Iran’s embrace is by supporting Iraq’s new government, not by distancing oneself from it.

This isolation, not a love of Persians, is what has pushed Iraq too close to Iran. As those Saudi leaders pointed out to Secretary Baker more than 20 years ago, Iraq’s Shi’ite Arabs have no desire to be dictated to by Tehran. But when you live in a dangerous neighborhood, you may have to appease a bad neighbor if you can’t get help from your friends.

And it is not only the GCC countries who have distanced themselves from Baghdad. In recent years the U.S. has been doing so as well. That distancing was noticeable four years ago, after three near-simultaneous bombings on August 19, 2011, struck the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, the Finance Ministry, and the Al-Rashid Hotel, where Prime Minister Maliki had planned to attend a conference. When the Syrians refused to hand over two suspects whom Maliki believed were behind the attacks, he withdrew his ambassador to Damascus and appealed to the UN Secretary General to investigate Syria’s interference in Iraq.

The new US administration, however, had begun an effort to “engage” Syria and on August 26 the State Department spokesman said that “We consider that an internal matter . . . We hope this doesn’t hinder dialogue between the two countries.” The Iranians apparently had no such scruples about interfering, reportedly pressuring President Talabani to ease off on the criticism of Syria. It should not be surprising that Maliki now ignores American pleas to take the risky course of opposing Assad and his Iranian allies.

Although it is very late in the day, perhaps it would not yet be too late to forge a coalition, one which includes Iraq, to bring an end to the bloody conflict in Syria and provide international support for a new Syrian government. But that would require real U.S. leadership, whereas the U.S. is not even “leading from behind” as it did in Libya. And it is already too late for the tens of thousands of Syrians who have died and too late to avoid some very damaging long term consequences

But it is not too late for the U.S. and Europe and the GCC countries to engage with Iraq to help steer it on a course toward inclusive and accountable governance. That may sound like an unrealistic goal today, but it seems more plausible if one recalls Iraq’s past. One of the most impressive Iraqi leaders I know, a man who was fortunate to spend more than two decades outside the grasp of Saddam’s tyranny, commented to me once that he had been shocked to discover how much the Iraq to which he had returned resembled an abused child, with no confidence in itself and no trust in others. The scars of that abuse run deep, even deeper than the scars the Soviets left in Eastern Europe, and the scars of Soviet communism are still felt some two decades after the Berlin Wall came down.

Considering that challenge, it is remarkable that Iraq has done as well as it has thus far. Not only Iraq but other Arab countries emerging from decades of tyranny have deep scars of the past to overcome. But it will take time. Just as Korea took time. Just as the U.S. took time. Just as so many other countries have needed time to transition from autocratic rule to representative government.

This transition needs and deserves the help of the United States, of all the western democracies, and of all those neighbors of Iraq who desire peace for that troubled part of the world.

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