I Told You So: The Collapse of U.S.-Occupied Iraq

In February, before thousands of bombs bought with your payroll deductions killed thousands of Iraqis for no good reason, one Neil Pollack despoiled these pages to insult my worries about the looming war. “The lengthy shriek of a madman, but presented so authoritatively, so matter-of-factly, that you have to shrug,” Pollack declared my essay. I can’t address my sanity or my literary shrugability quotient as eloquently as Dave Eggers Lite. But: I may be nuts and I may be boring, but I was right. Postwar Iraq has deteriorated exactly as I predicted back on Feb. 6.

First and foremost, I argued, we didn’t have an excuse to go to war. Poor weapons maintenance, parts shortages caused by sanctions, routine U.S. bombing sorties under President Clinton and United Nations arms inspections had rendered Saddam Hussein harmless to anyone beyond the 400-mile range of his best missiles. Iraq hadn’t attacked anyone. And there was no proof that it possessed nuclear, biological or chemical weapons proscribed by the 1991 Gulf War ceasefire agreement. “Maybe there isn’t any evidence,” I wrote, “because Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction.”

And it didn’t.

Iraq’s failure to defend itself with poison gases isn’t ipso facto proof of their nonexistence—knowing that defeat was inevitable, Saddam might have refrained from using them to make Bush look bad. If Iraq had such prohibited weapons, however, they would probably have turned up by now. After all, the hunt for WMDs became the Bush Administration’s top priority after securing the oil fields. In April, Bush conceded as much to NBC News: “There’s going to be skepticism until people find out there was, in fact, a weapons of mass destruction program.” Tick, tock. The world is waiting.

Fox News and other Republican-controlled media deluged Americans in hysterical reports of Iraqi mobile chemical weapons labs that turned out to be nothing of the sort. The WMD stories were debunked one after the other—inside the book, below the fold, where few noticed. Bushy Regime officials even speculated that the “missing” WMDs might have made their way to Syria (they have a Baath Party too!) or Iran (never mind that blood feud/religious hatred thing)—but ultimately tugged back that silly trial balloon.

It was finally time to admit what the rest of the world took for granted: Bush had lied. Buried on page A13 (above the fold!) of the May 28 New York Times is a simple, galling admission: “Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld suggested publicly for the first time yesterday that Iraq might have destroyed chemical and biological weapons before the war there.” Isn’t that what we wanted them to do?

Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says: “It’s impossible to destroy or hide the quantities the administration said they had without our noticing it.” First Osama, then the budget surplus, then Saddam, now the WMDs: the Bush years are playing out like a lousy episode of “In Search Of.” But he’s killing people, not ratings.

“Invading a sovereign state to impose ‘regime change,’ I posited in February, “is a bad idea. If people don’t like their government, whether or not to launch a revolution should be their decision. But given that you are going in, the least you can do is do the job right.”

As anyone who had paid attention to post-Taliban Afghanistan knew would happen, we didn’t do the job at all.

Starting in World War II, the U.S. Army created Civil Affairs detachments to administer the areas captured by American forces until local officials can be appointed to keep things running. Even as ferocious fighting continued, thousands of Civil Affairs soldiers with experience in law enforcement, electrification, banking, agriculture and protection of museums and historical sites were parachuted over the beaches of Normandy the day after D-Day 1944 to establish law and order. In most towns, the power vacuum between Nazi and American occupation lasted only a few hours.

Army chief of staff Gen. Eric Shinseki estimated that a nation of Iraq’s geographic size and population would require an occupation force of several hundred thousand soldiers, as well as tens of thousands of Civil Affairs personnel. Rummy, who had declared victory in Afghanistan with an 8,000-man “liberation” of the Kabul city-state, scoffed at that analysis. “The idea that it would take several hundred thousand U.S. forces is far off the mark,” he said—and sent a skeleton crew to remake the Middle East.

But Iraqi resistance was fiercer than anticipated. As cities were “liberated,” they disintegrated into an orgy of looting, rape and ethnic cleansing. U.S. soldiers encountered more snipers than giddy women bearing flowers. Public buildings, except for the Oil Ministry, burned as Marines stood idly by. Archeologists compared the pillaging of thousands of Mesopotamian and Sumerian artifacts from Baghdad’s National Museum of Iraq to the burning of the library at Alexandria. As Kurdish peshmerga guerillas expanded their autonomous zone into Arab Iraq, Turkish and Kurdish troops each threatened to invade one another. American officers confessed that they were stretched too thin to take control of the situation.

More than a month after the Pentagon staged its iconic toppling of the Saddam statue in Farbus Square, most Civil Affairs squadrons remained in Kuwait. Without water, electricity, food, or law and order, Iraqis missed Saddam. I asserted in February: “Like all half-assed endeavors, occupation on the cheap is the worst possible strategy. You piss off the locals without disarming them. You radicalize moderates. You get blamed for everything that goes wrong, without having enough of a budget to make anything better.” We’re just beginning to understand this principle. The Defense Department has just revised its estimated occupation force for Iraq from 70,000 to Shinseki’s “hundreds of thousands,” but we’ve already lost our chance to make a good first impression.

Most of all, I worried that we would replace “Iraq’s execrable Baath Party with something even worse.” That has already occurred. Bush has broken his solemn promise to maintain Iraq’s territorial integrity. By allowing the Kurdish peshmerga to keep their automatic and heavy weapons, he has effectively endorsed a nascent Republic of Kurdistan. No one denies that the Kurds deserve, and probably need, a homeland. But Bush sold us Operation Iraqi Liberation, not Operation Two Liberations and a Civil War. And, as usual, the hawks aren’t prepared for the coming Kurdish-Turkish showdown—a first-class shitstorm that could tear plunge Turkey and the Middle East into worse chaos and bloodshed.

Radical Shiite militias, funded by Iran and guided by fundamentalist clerics, are filling the power vacuum left by the dual absence of the Baath Party and U.S. Civil Affairs. Congratulations, America—you’ve just created the Taliban. Again.

An influential mullah, Murtada Sadr, is demanding that post-Saddam Iraq adopt Sharia law, which exhorts the faithful to stone adulteresses to death and amputate the limbs of thieves. “The banning of alcohol and the wearing of the veil should be spread to all and not only to Muslims,” Sadr preaches. Baghdadi Imam Mohammed al-Fartussi gave cinema operators and women who talk to Americans until May 23 to stop their “sinful” ways or face murder. These Philistines, who control vast swaths of occupied Iraq, favor the suppression of music, radio and television—and they’re being funded and armed by—you guessed it—you and me, as U.S. occupation forces try to outbribe their Tehran paymasters.

Bush lied about the WMDs and screwed up the occupation, but there’s still a chance to put things right. You see, Saddam may still be available to run Iraq! CBS News reported on May 28 that the CIA has found neither bunker nor bodies nor anything but “giant holes” at the site where we supposedly bombed Hussein to death on the opening night of the war.

Go ahead, George, call your dad. I’m sure he still has Saddie’s number.

© 2003 Ted Rall, All Rights Reserved.