Four Years of Conflict in Iraq. The False Enemy and the Unforeseen War

Ignacio Rupérez

Spanish Ambassador to Iraq

How can we find a way out of the labyrinth of Iraq? This detailed analysis of the military and political keys to what the author defines as “the greatest strategic error of our time” seeks to identify part of the many negligent actions that have taken a country and its inhabitants to the brink of the abyss. This needs to be rectified, says Rupérez, and to do so it is important to be conscious of the background and later unsuccessful decisions that have been feeding back into the conflict.

I do not know if the coincidence of the dates of invasion of Iraq, in the early morning of 20th March, and the Persian New Year celebrated in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Kurdistan, was intended to achieve a marked symbolism when initiating a primordial phase in the project of the Great Middle East and in the War Against Terror of the Bush Administration. Since then, each annual celebration, not of the New Year but of the invasion, has been sadder than the previous one, with the successive anniversaries signalling the continuation of the war, the discredit of the great political project for the region, as well as the agony of a people who have not been relieved of the horrors of Saddam Hussein’s long dictatorship, prolonged and even augmented with four years of military occupation and all it has brought with it. Iraq was not the enemy to be defeated, but it was decided to act against it based on erroneous information, without solid international support, and without plans or mentalities for an interminable foreign military presence, which has served peace and reconstruction little or nothing. Democracy has yet to come to Iraq but also the civil war, the disintegration of the nation and the regional conflict.

An extraordinary confidence in the justice of its action, linked to an equally extraordinary confidence in the efficacy of its arms, has led the main occupying power to believe in its day that Iraq was a country saturated with weapons of mass destruction, with a people that would welcome the foreign soldiers as liberators, to rapidly receive the benefits of liberty, democracy, reconstruction and the market. Pessimism in terms of the threat and optimism in terms of the occupation, as Thomas Ricks points out, in combination, constituted the greatest strategic error of our time. In exaggerating the threat that came from Iraq, pessimistic thinking meant that war was considered inevitable. But in trivialising the difficulties of reconstructing Iraq, optimistic thinking considered them easier to overcome and cheaper than what they have turned out to be for the lives and the economy of Americans. At this stage, it is impossible to judge the adventure of Iraq by the brilliance of the execution of the military operations; it must be done by considering the mediocrity of the actions taken once hostilities had ceased, splashing around in the mud of a country that has continued to be immensely unlucky. The evaluation of this could not be more devastating.

In short, Iraq is a country destroyed, with an extremely high level of social disintegration, around two million refugees abroad and many more displaced in national territory, highly elevated insecurity that rivals Afghanistan in the exporting and importing of terrorists, and which in its turn constitutes, because of its sectarian, territorial and ethnic tensions, a bad example to follow and a focus of destabilisation of regional and world scope. Because of all this, what Iraq was and is now, one can justifiably talk of that adventurism generated by the intellectual acrobatics, incompetence and arrogance of those who launched an invasion with a deficient operations plan and a profound ignorance of what it would mean to occupy a country of more than 25 million inhabitants and a surface area similar to that of Spain. As the premises were wrong, everything that came after prolonged the mistakes. During the military campaign and especially at the end of 2003, with the controversial leadership of Paul Bremer at the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the tragedy was already gestating, as were the insurgence, terrorism and sectarian violence, which since then have continued to have their own ascending dynamic.

Since March 2003, with the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the country’s situation and the so-called problem have indeed continued to get worse and become more complex, both on the domestic and international fronts. Iraq often appears, always very tragically, as if time had not passed and it was yesterday for all those of us who served there in the time of the Rais Saddam Hussein and in that of the Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and General George W. Casey. Books, articles, political debates and news do not refer so much, or only, to what is happening in Iraq but rather to the early stages, the antecedents, the justifications and, in short, the rationality of invading a country and destroying it physically and socially, relegating it to the worst condition it has ever suffered in its history. Consequently, we gradually know more about the process of adoption of decisions that led to war and how military operations were developed, while there is a lack of knowledge when looking at the current dramatic panorama. The inhibition increases when wondering where the way out and resolution of the conflict are, and when a country which today is so miserable will recover.

That the investigations, despite the time that has passed, continue to focus on the invasion and the occupation is understood by the immense damage caused and also by the political weapons of destruction mounting up against President Bush and Prime Minister Blair; in a settling of scores which extends to other countries, reputations and authorities, all related by action or omission in what would be the most enormous strategic error committed in modern times. The retroactivity in the understanding of the Iraqi question also results from the fact that four years after the start of the war the problems generated by the presence of foreign troops are the same, only more serious, as those warned of at the time. The accounts of what happened are accounts of what is still happening. That is, the United States still does not have sufficient troops in the country to guarantee control of the territory, even less to combat the insurgency and deal with the numerous ensuing problems, all provoked by the military intervention itself but which those who prepared and ordered it did not foresee at all. It is true that the United States demonstrated enormous efficacy in waging the war and, apparently, defeating the enemy and achieving victory.

The Repetition of the British Episode

In fact, after its initial defeat, the enemy was not long to regroup and the war to acquire another physiognomy; with the conventional war over, there began the guerrilla warfare and that of Al Qaeda and the disintegration of the country. The United States has not shown its efficacy in pacifying and reconstructing Iraq, in creating a democracy, strengthening civil society and all that is denominated nation-building. The fateful mixture of arrogance and ignorance, this maximalist and blind contempt towards Saddam Hussein and all that surrounded him, perhaps contributed to saving the promoters of the operation the study of the unpleasant military experience of the British in Mesopotamia, less than a century ago but very similar, the complexity of the tribes and the sects, making the familiar and determined will of the insurgency incomprehensible to the occupying forces. To elucidate whether Iraq is in civil war means getting tangled up in absurd and trivial nominalist questions, something similar to elucidating the sex of angels or verifying the exact moment when water boils. Today it is probably in a worse situation than that of a classic civil war, in which two sides are confronted and each side clearly differentiates the good and the bad, because mine is good and the other is bad.

In Iraq many groups fight and murder and, consequently, there are many good and many bad groups given that it is a conflict that some pedantic analyst would classify as variable geometry. The reality is that the country is experiencing and suffering four internal conflicts, which in general terms are located geographically. First, the Sunni insurgency in the West. Second, the antagonism between diverse Shiite sects in the South. Third, a struggle in the centre of the country between Shiites and Sunnis. And the fourth conflict, the ethnic tensions between Arabs and Kurds in the North. All of these conflicts tend to worsen and become more acute. Of course, none of them developed in isolation, with a dynamic disconnected from the rest; on the contrary, they relate directly or indirectly with the rest, and vice versa, as Iraq is a country that until March 2003 had a high percentage of mixed peoples that, clearly and unfortunately, since then have continued to isolate themselves and kill each other. Baghdad is the example of the concentration and deconcentration of the Iraqi population, of peaceful coexistence in the past and traumatic alienation now, a story of two cities that present the multiple variables in the phenomenology of everyday incidents.

Thus, Baghdad has passed from being a city of “one thousand and one nights” and hundreds of art galleries to the highly dangerous city of innumerable murders, the breakwater of all the Iraqis – Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Turcomans and Kurds, even Yazidis –, with the Tigris as the river of death and dividing wall sought by all to defend themselves behind its shores. In general figures, I repeat, between one and two million Iraqis have fled the country, and another two million Iraqis have been displaced within, abandoning their homes, neighbourhoods and cities. The Shiites have done so towards the South, the Sunnis towards the North and West, the Kurds have withdrawn to their region and those with the means have mostly gone to Syria, Jordan and countries of the Gulf. If the four aforementioned conflicts were not enough, they transversally connect with the fifth conflict, full or part time, generated by a nonsensical and unpunished criminality, very violent and merciless, with common crimes, thugs and assassins of the squadrons of death, kings of the night in Baghdad, although we will never know the other reasons that they act in their free time or extra hours, given that they frequently wear military or police uniforms and travel in regulation vehicles.

These criminal teams are dedicated to rape, theft, extortion, kidnapping, torture and mutilating the remains of their victims, who the next day, every day, appear unrecognisable in the waters of the Tigris, on the outskirts, in the gutters and in the rubbish dumps of the capital and other cities. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein was done by forcing the Iraqis to pay the extremely elevated price of the destruction of the country and the elimination of a quality of life which, if it was already low then has never been as poor as today. The state apparatus which, in some way, was the backbone of Iraq was eliminated; the Baas Party, which, apart from its sinister leading members, had come to be a kind of cooperative for favours, jobs and mutual aid; the military and police forces, victims rather than accomplices of Saddam Hussein’s regime, with the exception of the chosen bodies which were linked to his intimate circle of relatives, people from his own town and friends. All these indiscriminate movements, precisely those that Baghdad and Washington are trying to correct, threw onto the street and into unemployment an entire professional and administrative elite who, accompanied by the discontent and bitterness, finally turned to insurgency as a mode of action.

In this way, with vast rations of frustration and alienation for the Sunnis, some currents overwhelmingly favourable to the Shiite majority and to its exiled elite that holds power today were nourished. The community confrontation corresponds to an also confronted government, and everything comes together in a combination of devastating effects with the humiliating military occupation, but which has become indispensable for the precarious national stability. The result is so heartbreaking and so much is suffered every day, so distant seems the perspective of reconciliation between Iraqis and the recovery of coexistence, that it is hard to imagine how and when it will be possible to spiritually, socially and physically reconstruct Iraq, even if the country remains just as we have known it. Such is the perplexity caused by the Iraqi labyrinth, from which nobody can find the way out, that it is constantly compared with other conflicts, as if something will be resolved by doing so: with that of Vietnam, of course, but also with the Spanish Civil War, the decolonisation of Algeria or the Suez Crisis, not to mention the comparisons with the Lebanese civil war and the tension between its communities. The question has something of all the conflicts and perhaps surpasses them for its peculiarity.

Partition and Ethnic Cleansing Threats

Also hanging over the question is the ghost of partition, in a way that evokes what in its day hung over the Iran controlled by the British in the South and the Russians in the North, with a central space that it was planned to leave to the Iranians for them to govern in Teheran. In any case, it will be difficult to unite what has been disunited and antagonised so much since March 2003; but what cannot be avoided by any partition, or even by any regional project in the federal framework permitted by the 2005 Constitution, is that it would be done through a generalised and forced ethnic cleansing probably greater and more intense than what is being undertaken in the whole country. At this point, and continuing with the comparisons, there are also sad similarities with the Yugoslav case and serious threats from Kurdish irredentism. None of the comparisons offers future, consolation or optimism; their precedents should rather have served to avoid the repetition of mistakes and disasters. Of such calibre are those of Iraq, and so unusual, that the evils of Saddam Hussein would have passed to a second level, which is why we ask, and why the majority of the population asks, not so much about what the Satrap did but what those who came afterwards have done with Iraq.

Therefore, we have enough to continue talking for years about this grave national and international crisis, which so profoundly affects the Arab and Muslim world, can notably destabilise the Middle East and, yet again, like the Palestinian and Lebanese conflict, strains relations between the West and Arabs so that the position of the United States will deteriorate. At present in Iraq all the paradoxes are suffered daily due to the presence of foreign soldiers who were not asked to come, but also cannot leave if they are not asked to do so. In addition to fighting with the insurgency they have to mediate between the Shiites and Sunnis, between Arabs and Kurds, to ensure a minimum order and extinguish the fire that they themselves lit. Everyone who lives in Iraq suffers from this and other paradoxes, pays an over-priced bill for food which is unpleasant and had not been ordered, and keeps guard in odious sentry boxes lamenting the presence of the American soldiers who it implores not to leave, because it is all there is and there are no alternatives. Without peace it is impossible for Iraq to be reconstructed, but powerful forces are acting to avoid peace and reconstruction, to make the chaos ever greater.

If the process of degradation in which fanaticism and incompetence go hand in hand is not resolved, this unfortunate country, Mesopotamia and the Earthly Paradise of certainly better times, will suffer the fate of Somalia, Sudan and Rwanda, that of a country without a state and of a failed country, which it was not before March 2003, the last victim of imperial ambition and rivalry between neighbours. All comparisons are odious, sometimes inevitable, but I offer them in the hope that they do not come to be and apologise for mentioning them. But we compare and relate historical experiences because we are not talking about isolated cases. Iraq, Lebanon and the Holy Land are the focuses of a long conflict in the Middle East that in the course of the year 2006 have been substantially activated; three conflicts that end up connected, if we are not dealing with a single conflict developed in diverse phases or stages, scenarios and generations. After a time, the Middle East repeatedly demands a renewed task of strategic, political and social conceptualisation to distinguish the actors who participate in the confrontations and contribute to activating them, actors who shift, interchange and have multiple employment, perhaps increasingly more intensively.

In what is on the way to becoming another Hundred Years War, it is possible to distinguish a stage of confrontations between Arab states and the State of Israel, from another stage in which, at least at the moment, we would find ourselves, characterised by the predominant participation of political and opinion movements, of guerrillas, insurgents and terrorists; in short, of non-state agents, whether against Israel in the case of Lebanon and the Holy Land, or against the United States and the forces of the international coalition in the case of Iraq. The plurality and diversity of elements of course complicates scenarios and increases the possibilities of mobilisation and significant participation. And it also increases them because the proliferation of participants and manifest popular discontent increasingly more visibly oppose passivity, absenteeism or the inhibition of important state actors whose pacifying, humanitarian and diplomatic intervention is frequently lacking. The low official Arab presence in the Middle East conflicts is indeed surprising when observing the gradual development of an increasingly more radicalised public opinion, and which at the levels of information and ideology benefit from the notable growth in Arab media and their influence, a phenomenon of which Al Jazeera is the best known example.

Signs of alarm at the incongruence of such separation between political absenteeism and popular indignation, between official Islam and popular Islam, emerge as a politically explosive paradigm in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, even in Jordan, generally classified as moderate Arab countries. The abyss between official policy and public opinion makes it difficult, in its turn, for the United States to follow the respective national evolution of such countries, somewhat questioning the maintenance of their status as allies of Washington and their friendly relations. Moreover, highly suspicious in the Lebanese theatre was the assassination first of the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and later of the Minister Pierre Gemayel, events that served, apart from blaming Syria, to destabilise the country, provoke the Israeli military invasion, and encourage an eventual new civil war between the Lebanese factions. The rapidity and bluntness of accusing Syria and demonising it, while targeting Iran, belongs more to the world of official interests interpreted from a Sunni perspective, and to those of the combination of interests of determined Western countries, than to that of the generalised feeling in public opinion and the verified information on episodes of a very dark nature.

The Call to Syria and Iran

In addition, any rumour or indication of more open relations between the United States and Syria and Iran, recommendable in terms of any reasonable idea of the Middle East, and possibly being developed, has systematically been aborted by a formidable convulsive movement which has generally taken place in Lebanon. But at the end of 2006, and in the first months of this year, and already in previous years, it seems quite clear that the United States and the international coalition have been incapable of controlling the situation in Iraq alone. The normalisation of the country demands vigorous regional action, which may even serve to support and praise the American forces, requiring the influential presence of Syrians and Iranians in the process. Without them weapons and Jihadists will go on penetrating the Iraqi theatre, or at least they will be accused of promoting such exchanges. However, it seems that any pressure on Damascus and Teheran would be automatically opposed by any action in Beirut, shaming the Syrians, detecting the long arm of the Iranians in all Middle East affairs, denouncing the links between Hezbollah and Hamas as sufficiently confirmed and reiterating the accusations of intervention in Iraqi affairs.

War generates victims but also makes friends. There will be no solution to the Middle East conflict without the active participation of the main Arab countries. They are the ones who in the first place should be interested in resolving them, but they are also, it must be acknowledged, those that occasionally have been employed in promoting, or allowing, situations of problems that do not concern them, in order to annoy the neighbour, which has benefited them only in the short term. The extra regional alliances established by such countries, the interests of the elite in power, are frequently more important than neighbour, ethnic or religious ties. The projects of the Great Middle East and the aggressive movements of Israel, if they have had any possibility of success, or initial success, are due to their influence on, and their exploitation of, one minority over another, one country against its neighbour, independently of whether one or another shared the same religion, tribal ties, had the same Arab status, belonged to the same country or formed part of the same region. In fact, foreign powers have always acted in this way and with such influences in the Middle East, using one against the other, with the antipathy fomented between Arabs to take care of the rest.

The United States already had problems maintaining the Arab coalition united against Iraq in the first Gulf War, because Iraq was nevertheless the only Arab country who then dared to confront Israel, but they did not find insuperable difficulties in invading and occupying it in March 2003 given that it was a country that, largely thanks to Saddam Hussein, awakened notable distrust and fear among it neighbours. Some of them clung to the possibility of receiving benefits from the war and from the eventual partition of the country, others have celebrated the unleashing of chaos that at the very least, and at the cost of the people of course, serves to wear down the United States and keep it sufficiently occupied to stop it looking for new adventures. In short, everyone was happy that Saddam Hussein was overthrown. All this until Arab and international opinion, based on seeing Al Jazeera as well as CNN, and the respective governments, have finally seen the magnitude of a ceaseless drama, that the Iraqi conflict is the mother of all the conflicts in the Middle East and has become a weapon of mass destruction, which this time was found, with after effects not limited to national frontiers, of an extremely elevated lethal capacity for the whole region, in a possible generalised civil war.

Iraq, therefore, is not just a country that needs help, it is also an extremely serious international problem (and how!) whose disintegrating force would spread gradually throughout the Arab and Muslim world. This is how the forms of terrorism practised in Iraq modernise, import and improve those of Afghanistan, which very probably are already being transferred to other scenarios. In the same way, the brutal confrontations between Shiites and Sunnis seem to be prolonged in those that would be gestating in Lebanon, without excluding Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, probably provoking nexuses of union between Shiites and Sunnis of Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq in favour of the fight against Israel and the United States. The strangest combinations and all kinds of recipes are imaginable, as well as the most unthinkable bed mates, and multiple alternatives and options for cynics, unscrupulous individuals and opportunists, selective murders, squadrons of death, precision operations and mass executions. Maintaining the games of war in the Middle East, continuing to offer free reign to the intelligence and security forces, the assassins and arms dealers, means recreating the permanent intrigue, reducing the number and the category of the valid and decent interlocutors.

It cannot be denied that all of this responds to a certain will to expand the battle fronts, to Syria and Iran preferably, which at the end of 2006 it was feared could soon be verified and today fortunately seems to be treated with more prudence. The last elections in Israel, like the partial elections in the United States of last November, offered clues to orientation for future movements, as well as indications that hopefully will proliferate and be well received for the effective rectification of errors in what finally has meant the crushing strategic mistake of the War in Iraq, the increase of terror based on fighting those who are not enemies, destroying the realisation of the major project of the Great Middle East. This could have been admitted as such projects ─ recurrent given the fantasy, power and religion of the United States ─, even the so-called road maps that are so in fashion, do not involve Baghdad, but Washington and Tel Aviv, Beirut, Jerusalem, Gaza, Ramallah, etc., Damascus and Teheran, the participation of the Arab capitals, Brussels and New York, as well as the territorial commitment between Israelis and Palestinians, the regeneration of Arab society and of the Western presence in it.

The West Moves Away From the Middle East

It does not seem to me fitting to identify a new crusade of the West against the East, nor a clash of civilisations, nor to simplify the disaster we are facing as a consequence of so many aggressions by Christian countries. What seems opportune to recall is that the Middle East was always also a Western world, and from time immemorial a classical and Mediterranean space, sanctified by the three revealed religions in the Book, a pluralist and tolerant world that has been assaulted by what we call in a rather reductionist way the West. In fact, what the West has done there is to assault itself, making its presence odious while narrowing the Arab horizon. It is enough to ask oneself about the decreasing number of local Christian populations and the oppression of the minorities, about the almost exclusive disappearance and almost total inefficacy of the nationalist, liberal and socialist parties in all these countries, to understand why such labour to alienate and impoverish, rightly or wrongly identified today with Israel and the United States, has left Islam almost as the only form of representation and identity, and why it has been able to promote the good terrorist.

It is impossible to detain and redirect such a process, which in my judgement has much of the degenerative and impoverishing, especially for the young, women and free thinking, in a world in which peace continues to move away and every day new and unsuspected opportunities emerge for violence and fanaticism. In this way, it is not only true that, according to certain readings, the West has confronted the East, but that in doing so as if it was the enemy to be brought down it has allowed the loss of innumerable Western contributions that were there for centuries and were local. Based on unresolved conflicts, which increase and proliferate with time and the new generations, superimposing conflicts over others, the rivalries multiply, become deeper and provide renewed opportunities for manipulation and intrigue. The civil war feared so much in Iraq, even avoiding the use of the term as if this would lead to a reality, and not the reverse, is unfortunately a perspective that could also be opening for other countries, as the bloody rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites, the distrust of minorities and the threat of extermination for all that moves and dissents are generalised.

Since March 2003, and especially at the end of that year, the Iraq conflict slowly exhausted, and is still exhausting, the motives for optimism and euphoria over the military triumph, revealed as the consequence of other conflicts and the accumulation of the strategic errors and the blindness of the proud. Diverse events in Lebanon and Palestine and the uncertainties with respect to Syria and Iran, open situations or conflicts in gestation, and all the cases amalgamate with the Iraqi crisis and present us with a shifting panorama, with unpredictable ramifications and a great capacity for threat. With the nature and evolution of the Iraqi conflict and its ramifications, it is no exaggeration to conclude that the world has become more insecure as a result of the invasion and occupation of the country, provoking its disintegration, and making it the origin and destination of terrorist circuits, the focus of enormous regional and international tensions and, finally, into an arm-wrestling table for Americans and Iranians. From the first moment of the adventure, in contrast to what happened with the coalition in the first Gulf War, it has been possible to see the refusal or resistance of diverse nations to participate in the war or the reconstruction of the country.

It is obliquely or openly argued that given that the United States has made such a mess it should clean it up itself. What this really means is that the Bush Administration would have compromised the prestige of the West in Iraq but without having the resources of the West, something which becomes clearer as the occupation becomes more difficult to carry out, its benefits are not demonstrated and the coalition weakens. It cannot be denied that this combination of incompetence and defeatism tends to embolden extremist Islamic forces, ready for new attacks. Four years later, the failure of the occupation and the rebellion of public opinion in the United States are provoking a movement of reflection and rectification that must acquire an immense vigour so that Iraq can emerge from the profound crisis in which it finds itself, and the wrong enemy is not chosen again and an unwanted war is not waged again. The reflection involves a very painful revision of the why and how of the military intervention, which continues to produce a whole wealth of publications with essays and research of great value on the idea and management of the Iraqi crisis, the mentality and the invention of the Bush Administration, the aspirations of the neocons, the messianism and the exceptionality of the chosen nation, etc.

The rectification also embraces an infinite field that of course ranges from the new war material for a war that took time to be understood and is increasingly more dangerous to the reopening of the old state factories that were closed with the occupation. They certainly did not fit in with the rules of the market, nor did they respond to the appropriate cost-profit relationship, but they brought employment and salaries, which have not been generated and are the most necessary thing in a country whose employment rate is today 50% of the active population. And, in the meantime, the rectification means reconsidering the massive and indiscriminate purges of soldiers and Baasists, the call for the cooperation of Syrians and Iranians, or the modulation of the crushing military operations with tactics of the contra insurgency, of more selective use of force, which avoid alienating the population. But there is urgency, time is running out, the feeling is spreading that this is the last opportunity for the United States to at least save face, and to save a country before being fully absorbed in the hurricane of massacre and disintegration. The revelation lies in the fact that neither was Iraq the real enemy of the United States nor is the United States waging the war in Iraq that it imagined. To the detriment of everyone.