Patrick Cockburn – Iraq Policy Failed

Tomgram: Patrick Cockburn, Iraq Dismantled

Patrick Cockburn has been hailed by Sidney Blumenthal in Salon as “one of the most accurate and intrepid journalists in Iraq.” And that’s hardly praise enough, given what the man has done. The Middle Eastern correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent, he’s been on the spot from the moment when, in February 2003, he secretly crossed the Tigris River into Iraq just before the Bush administration launched its invasion.

Here, for instance, is a typical striking passage of his, written in May 2003, just weeks after Baghdad fell. If you read it then, you hardly needed the massive retrospective volumes like Thomas Rick’s Fiasco that took years to come out:

“[T]he civilian leadership of the Pentagon… are uniquely reckless, arrogant and ill informed about Iraq. At the end of last year [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz was happily saying that he thought the Iraqi reaction to the capture of Baghdad would be much like the entry of the U.S. Army into Paris in 1944. He also apparently believed that Ahmed Chalabi…, then as now one of the most unpopular men in Iraq, would be the Iraqi Charles de Gaulle.

“These past mistakes matter because the situation in Iraq could easily become much worse. Iraqis realize that Saddam may have gone but that the United States does not have real control of the country. Last week, just as a[n] emissary [from head of the U.S. occupation Paul Bremer] was telling academics at Mustansiriyah, the ancient university in the heart of Baghdad, who should be purged from their staff, several gunmen, never identified, drove up and calmly shot dead the deputy dean.”

How much worse it’s become can be measured by the two suicide bombs that went off at the same university a month apart early in 2007, killing not a single deputy dean but more than 100 (mostly female) students.

Or it can be measured by this telling little tidbit written in October 2003: “The most amazing achievement of six months of American occupation has been that it has even provoked nostalgia in parts of Iraq for Saddam. In Baiji, protesters were holding up his picture and chanting: ‘With our blood and with our spirit we will die for you Saddam.’ Who would have believed this when his statue was toppled just six months ago?”

Or by this description, written in the same month, which offers a vivid sense of why an insurgency really took off in that country:

“US soldiers driving bulldozers, with jazz blaring from loudspeakers, have uprooted ancient groves of date palms as well as orange and lemon trees in central Iraq as part of a new policy of collective punishment of farmers who do not give information about guerrillas attacking US troops… Asked how much his lost orchard was worth, Nusayef Jassim said in a distraught voice: ‘It is as if someone cut off my hands and you asked me how much my hands were worth.'”

Or by this singular detail from June 2004 that caught the essence of the lawlessness the U.S. occupation let loose: “Kidnap is now so common [that] new words have been added to Iraqi thieves’ slang. A kidnap victim is called al-tali or the sheep.”

Or this summary of the situation in May 2004, one year after Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech: “Saddam should not have been a hard act to follow. After 30 years of disastrous wars, Iraqis wanted a quiet life. All the Americans really needed to do was to get the relatively efficient Iraqi administration up and running again. Instead, they let the government dissolve, and have never successfully resurrected it. It has been one of the most extraordinary failures in history.”

Last September, typically, Cockburn travelled on his own to dangerous Diyala Province just as the fighting there was heating to a boil. He summed up the situation parenthetically, as well as symbolically, when he commented that Diyala was not a place “to make a mistake in map reading.”

Cockburn should gather in awards for guts, nerve, understanding, and just plain great war reporting. Before heading back to Iraq yet again, he put his years of reporting and observation together in an already classic book, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq, which no political library should be without. The following essay that he just wrote in Baghdad will be the introduction to the paperback edition of that book, when released this fall — and special thanks go to his publisher, Verso, for letting this site post it. Tom


A Small War Guaranteed to Damage a Superpower: What the Bush Administration Has Wrought in Iraq
By Patrick Cockburn

At 3 am on January 11, 2007 a fleet of American helicopters made a sudden swoop on the long-established Iranian liaison office in the city of Arbil in northern Iraq. Their mission was to capture two senior Iranian security officials, Mohammed Jafari, the deputy head of the Iranian National Security Council, and General Minojahar Frouzanda, the head of intelligence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. What made the American raid so extraordinary is that both men were in Iraq at the official invitation of the Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who held talks with them at his lakeside headquarters at Dokan in eastern Kurdistan. The Iranians had then asked to see Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, in the Kurdish capital Arbil. There was nothing covert about the meeting which was featured on Kurdish television.

In the event the U.S. attack failed. It was only able to net five junior Iranian officials at the liaison office that had existed in Arbil for years, issuing travel documents, and which was being upgraded to a consular office by the Iraqi Foreign Ministry in Baghdad. The Kurdish leaders were understandably furious asking why, without a word to them, their close allies, the Americans, had tried to abduct two important foreign officials who were in Iraq at the request of the Iraqi president. Kurdish troops had almost opened fire on the American troops. At the very least, the raid showed a contempt for Iraqi sovereignty which the U.S. was supposedly defending. It was three months before officials in Washington admitted that they had tried and failed to capture Jafari and General Frouzanda. The U.S. State Department and Iraqi government argued for the release of the five officials as relative minnows, but Vice-President Cheney’s office insisted fiercely that they should be held.

If Iran had undertaken a similar venture by, for example, trying to kidnap the deputy head of the CIA when he was on an official visit to Pakistan or Afghanistan, then Washington might have considered the attempt a reason for going to war. In the event, the US assault on Arbil attracted bemused attention inside and outside Iraq for only a few days before it was buried by news of the torrent of violence in the rest of Iraq. The U.S. understandably did not reveal the seniority of its real targets — or that they had escaped.

Multiplying Enemies

The Arbil raid is significant because it was the first visible sign of a string of highly significant American policy decisions announced by President George W. Bush in an address to the nation broadcast in the U.S. a few hours earlier on January 10. There have been so many spurious turning points in the war — such as the capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the handover of sovereignty to an Iraqi government in 2004, or the elections of 2005 — that truly critical moments are obscured or underrated.

The true importance of Bush’s words took time to sink in. In the months prior to his speech, the U.S. seemed to be feeling its way towards an end to the war. The Republicans had lost control of both houses of Congress in the November 2006 elections, an unexpectedly heavy defeat blamed on the Iraq war. Soon afterwards, the bipartisan Iraqi Study Group of senior Republicans and Democrats, led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, spelled out the extent of American failure thus far, arguing for a reduced U.S. military commitment and suggesting negotiations with Iran and Syria.

President Bush did the exact opposite of what the Baker-Hamilton report had proposed. He identified Iran and Syria as America’s prime enemies in Iraq, stating: “These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq.” Instead of reducing the American commitment, Bush pledged to send 20,000 extra troops to Iraq to try to secure Baghdad. In other words, the U.S. was going to respond to its lack of success in the conflict by escalating both the war in Iraq and America’s confrontation with Iran in the Middle East as a whole. The invasion of 2003 had destabilized the whole region; now Bush was about to deepen that instability.

The raid on Arbil showed that the new policies were not just rhetoric. Iraqis were quicker than the rest of the world to pick up on what was happening. “People are saying that Bush’s speech means that the occupation is going to go on a long time,” the Iraqi political scientist Ghassan Attiyah told me soon after the President had stopped speaking. Although the new U.S. security plan for Baghdad, which began on February 14th, was sold as a temporary “surge” in troop numbers, it was evident that the reinforcements were there to stay.

In April, the Pentagon announced that it was increasing Army tours in Iraq from 12 to 15 months. Without anybody paying much attention, American officials stopped talking about training Iraqi army troops as a main priority. This was an important shift in emphasis. Training and equipping Iraqi troops to replace American soldiers — so they could be withdrawn from Iraq — had been the cornerstone of U.S. military planning since 2005. Now, the policy was being quietly downgraded, though not abandoned altogether.

Could the new strategy succeed? It seemed very unlikely. The U.S. had failed to pacify Iraq between 2003 and 2007. Now, with much of the American public openly disillusioned with the war, Bush was to try for victory once again. Common sense suggested that he needed to reduce the number of America’s enemies inside and outside Iraq, but his new strategy was only going to increase them.

The U.S. Army was to go on fighting the five-million-strong Sunni community, as it had been doing since the capture of Baghdad. The Sunni demand for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal was not being met. At the same time, the U.S. was going to deal more aggressively with the 17 million Shias in Iraq. It would contest the control over much of Baghdad and southern Iraq of the Mehdi Army, the powerful militia led by the nationalist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is regarded with cult-like devotion by many Shia Iraqis. Not content with this, Washington was also more openly going to confront Iran, the most powerful of Iraq’s neighbors.

As with so many U.S. policies under Bush, the new strategy made sense in terms of American domestic politics, but in Iraq seemed a recipe for disaster. Iran was easy to demonize in the U.S., just as Saddam Hussein had been blamed four years earlier for everything wrong in Iraq and the Middle East. The New York Times, which had once uncritically repeated White House claims that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction, now ran articles on its front page saying that Iran was exporting sophisticated roadside bombs to Iraq that were killing American soldiers. There was no reference to the embarrassing discoveries of workshops making just such bombs in Baghdad and Basra. Above all, the Bush administration was determined to put off the day — at least until after the Presidential election in 2008 — when it had to admit that the U.S. had failed in Iraq.

Read all of it here.

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