Iraq – Five Years On

Mar 27, 2008 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

March 27, 2008
Number 03/08 #07

Today’s Update features some examples from the many retrospectives that have been appearing in the international media in recognition of the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq.

First up is the noted American academic Dr. Fouad Ajami, who recalls the history of the war’s initial popularity and subsequent loss of public support, followed by the tuning point of the surge. He argues that, nonetheless, the war was a proper response to 9/11 and that post-Saddam Iraq remains a worthwhile achievement, despite the bloodshed and the many mistakes. For Ajami’s elegantly written take on where things currently stand on Iraq,  CLICK HERE. Also commenting on the relationship between events in Iraq and public opinion in the US is former New York Times correspondent Clifford May and columnist Jeff Jacoby.

Next up is Canadian columnist and former White House insider David Frum, who stresses that while war supporters such as himself were wrong about the difficulties of reconstituting Iraq following the toppling of Saddam, war critics have been equally wrong about the surge, and it is very hard to break through the entrenched positions with new information or views. While castigating the White House’ mistakes –  especially failing to respond to evidence that things were deteriorating in 2003-2004 – he also calls attention to the achievements, and points out that most public opposition to the war comes from its lack of success – which is basically a critique of its management.  For Frum’s assessment of where things are now in the debate,  CLICK HERE. A good editorial along similar lines comes from the Wall Street Journal. Highlighting to a greater extent the war’s mismanagement is Jeffrey Goldberg of the New Yorker. Arguing strongly that the war was just despite the mistakes is journalist and author Christopher Hitchens.

Finally, two former American officials in Iraq, Dan Senor and Roman Martinez, discuss someone who has been in the news in recent days, having largely faded from the headlines over the past year, radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and his Mahdi militia. Senor and Martinez rightly point out that the coalition defeat of al-Sadr’s efforts to establish a state-within-a-state, a defeat al-Sadr has himself conceded, was highly important to the progress of recent months, and discuss how this was achieved. They also point out that he could nonetheless clearly be a future problem, a worry increased by the fighting in Basra in recent days. To read it all, CLICK HERE. News stories on the battle between Iraqi government forces and the Mahdi Army at Basra are here and here. Veteran reporter in Iraq Michael Yon comments on why this should be seen as mainly a good thing here.

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No Surrender


Wall Street Journal, March 19, 2008; Page A17

“I am the same man and do not alter, it is you who change, since in fact you took my advice while unhurt, and waited for misfortune to repent of it . . . But you must not be seduced by citizens like these nor be angry with me — who, if I voted for war, only did as you did yourselves.”

— Pericles’s funeral oration, “The Peloponnesian War” by Thucydides

Wars have never been easy to defend. Even in “heroic” cultures, men and women applauded wars then grew weary of them. This Iraq war, too, was once a popular war. It was authorized and launched in the shadow of 9/11. During the five long years that America has been on the ground in Iraq, the war was increasingly forced to stand alone.

At a perilous moment in early 2007, when the project was in the wind and reeling, the leader who launched this war doubled down and bought time. The polls — and this might be the war most endlessly measured by pollsters — tell us that two out of every five Americans are now willing to stick with this endeavor.

The tipping point came with “the surge.” The new policy was marked by stoicism and an acceptance of the burdens of this war. For once, there was no promise of easy success. “Victory will not look like the ones our fathers and grandfathers achieved,” President George W. Bush said when he announced the new policy some 14 months ago. “There will be no surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship.”

In Iraq, America was surrounded by enemies who were sure from the start that the great foreign power was destined to fail. They could not be given the satisfaction of a hasty American retreat. The stakes had grown: We were under the gaze of populations with a keen eye for the weakness of strangers. It was apt and proper that the leader who launched this war did not give up on it.

Speaking in Nashville, Tenn., to the convention of National Religious Broadcasters on March 11, President Bush defended, yet again, the war in Iraq: “The decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision early in my presidency; it is the right decision at this point in my presidency; and it will forever be the right decision.”

Mr. Bush made freedom in Arab-Islamic lands his cause. He rejected laments that Arabs do not possess a freedom gene, and that they are fated to tyranny. “The liberty we value is not ours alone,” he told this Nashville convention. “Freedom is not America’s gift to the world; it is God’s gift to all humanity.”

This has been Mr. Bush’s wager ever since the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq ran aground, and the war and its sacrifices had to be defended and fortified. Grant Mr. Bush his due: He upheld his belief that liberty can stick on Iraqi and Arab soil, in the face of great doubts and misgivings.

In the five years that America has been in Iraq, this drawn-out war has seemed like a fight between American power and the laws of gravity. Sectarianism tested our souls and our patience; the fury of the region around Iraq was bottomless. Its misfits found their way onto Iraqi soil. We wanted a new life for that country, and there were sectarian hatreds beyond our comprehension.

For our part, we did not always fight this war most wisely and skillfully. It took us a while to get the right commanders and envoys on the scene. We did not have the linguists we needed, for the 1990s had not prepared us for wars of ideology and culture.

Even the bureaucracy itself — the State Department, CIA — was full of people who doubted the wisdom of this war and second-guessed it at every turn. Some of the very people dispatched to Baghdad were no friends of this project.

Still, five years on, this endeavor in Iraq is taking hold. The U.S. military was invariably the great corrector. In their stoic acceptance of the mission given them and in the tender mercies they showed Iraqis on a daily basis, our soldiers held out the example of benevolent rule. (In extended travel in and out of Iraq over the last five years, I heard little talk of Abu Ghraib. The people of Iraq understood that Charles Graner and Lynndie England were psychopaths at odds with American military norms.)

In those five years, the scaffolding of the war came under steady assault. People said that there was no connection between al Qaeda and Saddam, that no “smoking gun” had been discovered, and that the invasion of Iraq had turned that country into a breeding ground of jihadists.

But those looking for that smoking gun did not understand that the distinction between secular and religious terror in that Arab landscape was a distinction without a difference. The impulse that took America from Kabul to Baghdad was a correct one. Radical Arabs attacked America on 9/11, and a war of deterrence had to be waged against Arab radicalism.

Baghdad was the proper return address, as a notice was served on the purveyors of terror that a price would be paid by those who aid and abet it. It was Saddam Hussein’s choice — and fate — that he would not duck and stay out of harm’s way in the aftermath of 9/11. We have not fully repaired the ways of the radicals in the intervening years. But the spectacle of the dictator’s defeat, and the sight of him being sent to the gallows, have worked wonders on the temper of the Arab street.

So we did not turn Baghdad into a democratic city on a hill, and we learned that the dismantling of Sunni tyranny would leave the Arab world’s Shiite stepchildren with primacy in Iraq. A better country has nonetheless risen, midwifed by this American war. It is not a flawless democracy. But compare it to the prison it was under Saddam, the tyranny next door in Damascus and the norms of the region, and we can have a measure of pride in what America has brought forth in Baghdad.

This is not a Shiite state that we uphold. True, the Shiite majority was emancipated from a long history of fear and servitude, but Iraq’s Shiites have told us in every way they can that their country is not a “sister republic” of the Persian theocracy to their east. If anything, the custodians of political power in Iraq have signaled their long-term intentions: an extended American presence in their midst and the shoring up of an oil state in the orbit of American power.

There has been design and skill in recent American endeavors. The Sunnis had all, but wrecked their chances in the new order. The American strategy in the year behind us worked to cushion the Sunni defeat. The U.S. now sustains a large force of “volunteers,” the Sons of Iraq, drawn mainly from the Sunni community. This has not met with the approval of the Shiite-led government, but the attempt to create a balance between the two communities has been both deliberate and wise.

In the same vein, American power has given the Kurds protection and a historic chance in a neighborhood that had hitherto snuffed out all their dreams. But a message, too, has been sent to the Kurds. The condition of this protection is a politics of sobriety and a commitment to the federalism of Iraq. We have not re-invented that old, burdened country, but this war is the first chance Iraqis have had to emerge from a history of plunder and despotism.

In the past five years, the passion has drained out of the war’s defenders and critics alike. Our soldiers and envoys are there, but the public at home has moved onto other concerns. Still, the public is willing to grant this expedition time, and that’s for the good. There is no taste in this country for imperial burdens and acquisitions in distant lands. But Americans also know that the lands and sea lanes of the Persian Gulf are too vital to be left to mayhem and petty tyrants.

Mr. Ajami, a Bradley Prize recipient, teaches at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of “The Foreigner’s Gift” (Free Press, 2006).

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A Noble Project, Badly Managed            

By David Frum

National Post  (Canada)
Publication Date: March 22, 2008

Five years later, the debate over the Iraq war rages as hot as when it began. We have never ceased looking over our shoulders. We have attempted to fight our way forward with our eyes fixed backward.

Mired in these old arguments, it becomes impossible to see anything new.

Just last week for example, the Pentagon released a study of 600,000 captured Iraqi documents. These documents detailed Saddam Hussein’s long history of support for Islamic terrorist groups, including Egyptian Islamic Jihad–which merged into al-Qaeda in 1998.

Yet this study was almost universally shrugged off: The debate is frozen and cannot accept fresh evidence.

It is never safe to make predictions about Iraq. The optimistic early projections of those like me who supported the war have proven disastrously wrong: I admit that.

Likewise, it becomes impossible to absorb the success of the new American tactics in Iraq. Iraqi civilian casualties have fallen to the lowest level since the liberation of Baghdad, down by more than three-quarters since November, 2007. U.S. casualties are down, Iraqi police casualties are down, car bombings are down, the flow of refugees is down. Some 80,000 previously unemployed Iraqi men now draw salaries to serve in the pro-government militia. Iraq oil exports rose 9% in 2007 over 2006, and have risen in January and February over their levels in 2007.

We slight the improving internal politics of Iraq. Iraq’s Sunni parties have ended their boycott of the parliament. Evidence accumulates that young Iraqis are turning away from religious extremism: the firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in particular draws much smaller crowds at his rallies.

Even direct statements by the Iraqi insurgents receive little attention. On Feb. 12, 2008, a newspaper in Qatar published a lengthy interview with Abu-Turab al-Jaza’iri, the al-Qaeda commander in northern Iraq. As translated by Memri.org, al-Jaza’iri acknowledged: “It is true that we have lost several cities and have been forced to withdraw from others, after a large number of [Sunni] tribal leaders betrayed Islam and when their tribe members joined forces against us.” He described al-Qaeda’s position as “very difficult,” and acknowledged that in certain regions, there was even “paralysis.”

In Memri’s dry summation: “Asked about possible reasons for the decrease in al-Qaeda’s popularity, Al-Jaza’iri said that indiscriminately murdering civilians had been a mistake that had “harmed the organization’s reputation.” You don’t say.

It is never safe to make predictions about Iraq. The optimistic early projections of those like me who supported the war have proven disastrously wrong: I admit that. But equally wrong have been the dire predictions of 2006 and 2007, before the surge, when not exactly impartial observers such as former Clinton secretary of state Madeleine Albright were damning the war as “the worst foreign policy disaster in American history.”

The Iraq war has been frustrating, protracted, costly and bloody. But it has also achieved large and important goals, of immense benefit both to the West and to the Arab Middle East:

  • The war removed from power an aggressive and dangerous dictator who did support terrorism on a very large scale, who did run nuclear and biological weapons programs in the 1980s and 1990s, who did use genocidal tactics against his country’s Kurdish minority and who did start two wars against his neighbours Iran and Kuwait.
  • The war has produced an elected government in Iraq, and put an Arab army into the field against an al-Qaeda insurgency. Television audiences across the Middle East have had to watch Islamic terrorism murder not just Westerners, Indians and Jews, but fellow Arabs and fellow Muslims.
  • The war has mobilized an Arab coalition against Iranian adventurism. Countries such as Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, which had played a double game on extremism and terrorism in the 1990s, have been forced into a much less ambiguous alliance with the United States.
  • Al-Qaeda is on the verge of suffering an emphatic and discrediting military defeat, brought on by its own fanaticism, incompetence and bloodthirstiness. Al-Qaeda gunmen have chopped the fingers off Iraqis caught smoking cigarettes, attacked the families of prominent tribal leaders — even on one occasion forbidden merchants to display cucumbers and tomatoes in the same vegetable stall. (Traditional Islam does not require the separation of vegetables, but the sex-obsessed Islamists regard cucumbers as too phallic and tomatoes as too breast-like to be allowed near one another.)

These are real gains, and they point the way to a very different verdict on Iraq from that most often heard.

Iraq remains, of course, a very unpopular war, inside the United States and around the world. Yet the politics of Iraq are nothing like those of America’s previous unpopular war, Vietnam. This week, antiwar groups called for giant demonstrations to protest the war’s anniversary. Only about 1,000 people showed up in Washington, with comparably small numbers in other major cities.

While millions of Americans regard Iraq as a mistake, only a fanatical few dare to suggest that it was somehow morally wrong to topple the murderous dictator Saddam. What offends Americans about Iraq is lack of success. The negative public judgment on the war is a judgment on the war’s management–and better management will lead to a more favourable public judgment.

No excuses can be made for the war’s bad management, and especially for the unconscionable delay in correcting early mistakes. It was plain by the summer of 2003 that things were going wrong–yet not until the summer of 2007 did President Bush change course.

The President has received harsh criticism for this stubbornness, and deservedly so. Yet at the same time, a less stubborn man would probably have folded up in Iraq in the dark days of 2006 and 2007. Had, for example, John Kerry won the 2004 election, the United States likely would have fled Iraq at the low point, accepting humiliating defeat for itself and bequeathing chaos and theocracy to Iraqis.

Instead, at this five-year anniversary we see better grounds for hope than at any time in a long time. The surge will end this summer. U.S. troops will begin to withdraw. If Iraq remains stable, more troops will soon follow, and the U.S. and coalition role inside Iraq can then shrink.

In the end, the struggle in Iraq is the Iraqis’ struggle. But the West can provide decisive aid. Thanks to the heroic sacrifices of American service men and women–and also, I should add, to a new battle-plan devised in large part by my colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute–that aid has achieved more and better results in the past few months than at any time since the war began.

Does this mean success is at last in sight in Iraq? No–but it means that for the first time in a long time, success looks like a realistic goal.

If anything deserves commemoration this week, it is not some arbitrary anniversary, but instead that astonishing turnaround, rich with hope for Iraq and the wider world.

David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.

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Whatever Happened to Moqtada?


Wall Street Journal, March 20, 2008; Page A19

“I have failed to liberate Iraq, and transform its society into an Islamic society.”
— Moqtada al-Sadr, Asharq Al Awsat newspaper, March 8, 2008

Moqtada al-Sadr — the radical cleric dubbed “The Most Dangerous Man in Iraq” by a Newsweek cover story in December 2006 — has just unilaterally extended the ceasefire he imposed on his Mahdi Army militia last summer. And on the eve of the Iraq War’s fifth anniversary, Sadr also issued a somber but dramatic statement. He not only declared that he had failed to transform Iraq, but also lamented the new debates and divisions within his own movement. Explaining his marginalization, Sadr all but confessed his growing isolation: “One hand cannot clap alone.”

What happened? Over the past five years, Sadr has been one of the most persistent and insurmountable challenges for the U.S. Leveraging his family’s prestige among the disaffected Shiite underclass, he asserted his power by violently intimidating rival clerics, agitating against the U.S. occupation, and using force to establish de facto control over Baghdad’s Sadr City (named after his father, and home to two million Shiites on the east bank of the Tigris) and large swaths of southern Iraq.

The story of his rise, and fall, illustrates the complex relationship between security and political power that drives the fortunes of the U.S. mission in Iraq.

Sadr’s postwar ascent caught the U.S. Government completely off-guard. Iraqi society was impenetrable in the 1980s and 1990s. Neither our intelligence community nor our diplomats, who had left Iraq in 1990, knew anything of significance about Sadr. The western press and punditry had never reported on him before the war (a Nexis search reveals not a single news article mentioning Sadr’s name in the year leading up to the war). The oft-cited “Future of Iraq Project,” produced by the State Department, failed to warn about Sadr in its thousands of pages of projections and scenarios. Few knew he existed, let alone anticipated the influence he would one day wield.

That influence was vast: Moqtada al-Sadr came very close to establishing a state within a state inside Iraq, much like Hezbollah had done in Lebanon.

It began in 2003, when Sadr’s followers orchestrated the murder of Majid al-Khoie, a moderate Shiite cleric whom the U.S. government had hoped could play a pivotal role in building a democratic Iraq. It continued with a series of armed uprisings across the south in April 2004, which took the lives of scores of American troops, and led to the collapse of Iraq’s fledgling security forces. These culminated in a dramatic standoff against the Iraqi government and U.S. forces at the Holy Shrines in August 2004. In 2005 and 2006 Sadr expanded his territorial reach, using his militia to expel Sunnis from their Baghdad neighborhoods and massively infiltrating the Iraqi police forces.

In areas under his control, Sadr set up extrajudicial Sharia courts to administer justice against Iraqi Shiite “heretics.” Large numbers of citizens found guilty were punished by death. The Mahdi Army militia also established its own security checkpoints in Baghdad and across the south — supplanting Iraq’s weak national army and lightly deployed U.S. forces.

This militia took over petrol stations, skimming funds to finance its own operations. And it had practically halted many of the civic society initiatives launched by the coalition, NGOs, and many Iraqis in Shiite towns. For example, in 2004 our U.S. colleagues Fern Holland, Robert Zangas and their Iraqi translator, Salway Oumaishi were assassinated by Shiite militiamen, just as they had courageously helped a group of Shiite women to build a successful program to train them in advocacy for their rights.

The principal reason for Sadr’s ability to augment his power during these years was the absence of security in Baghdad. This vacuum left the Shiite community completely vulnerable to an unrelenting wave of terror attacks from the Sunni insurgency and al Qaeda. With the U.S. Government’s failure to engage in serious counterinsurgency and make it a priority to provide basic safety for Iraqi civilians, Sadr and his Mahdi militia moved quickly to fill the void.

As one Sadrist militant told the International Crisis Group last year: “The Mahdi Army’s effort to conquer neighborhoods is highly sophisticated. It presents itself as protector of Shiites and recruits local residents to assist in this task. In so doing, it gains support from people who possess considerable information — on where the Sunnis and Shiites are, on who backs and who opposes the Sadrists and so forth.” By the end of 2006, U.S. military officials had concluded that sectarian violence by Shiite militants had surpassed al Qaeda and the insurgency as the principal threat to Iraqi stability.

In retrospect, that assessment marked the high point of Sadr’s influence. While his empire had expanded, it had generated its own resentments. Ordinary citizens chafed at the harsh version of Islamic law imposed by Sadr’s lieutenants, not to mention the corruption and brutality of functionaries manning checkpoints and patrolling the streets. Sadr’s hold on the broader Shiite community was actually quite tenuous, cemented chiefly by fear of the insurgency and al Qaeda.

In 2007, the U.S. military shifted approach, putting in place for the first time a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy backed by a surge of troops to support it. The new strategy paid large dividends against al Qaeda and Sunni insurgents, as attacks dropped to 2005 levels and Iraqi deaths due to ethno-sectarian violence declined 90% from June 2007 to March 2008. As Sunni attacks against Shiite civilians declined, so did the rationale for Sadr’s authority.

As the International Crisis Group concluded, one “net effect” of the surge “was to leave the Sadrist movement increasingly exposed, more and more criticized and divided, and subject to arrest.”

Other factors also contributed to Sadr’s marginalization. But the increased security provided by more U.S. forces was essential in removing an underlying rationale for the Sadrist movement. Newsweek’s 2006 profile had predicted that “the longer the American occupation lasts, the less popular America gets — and the more popular Sadr and his ilk become.” But as a recent ABC News poll of Iraqis makes clear, Shiite support for local militias has plummeted over the past year. The full implementation of the surge helped weaken Sadr, not make him more popular.

To be sure, Sadr’s diminished capacity to stir up trouble may not last forever. While he has not appeared in public in close to a year, he still has his family name and a base of support among the Shiite underclass, particularly in Baghdad. He may be biding his time, hoping a U.S. withdrawal will leave him with a weaker opponent in the fledgling Iraqi security services. And as this week’s deadly suicide bombing of a Shiite shrine in Karbala indicates, the security threats that enabled the Mahdi Army’s rise to power have not yet been fully defeated.

So while the progress made against Sadr has been remarkable, it may also be fragile. Sustaining it means recognizing that political progress depends fundamentally on security. This basic insight of counterinsurgency warfare — which has driven our progress against Sadr’s militants, the Sunni insurgency, and al Qaeda over the past year — is the central lesson America has learned in its five years of war in Iraq.

Messrs. Senor and Martinez were foreign policy advisers to the Bush administration. They were based in Baghdad in 2003 and 2004.

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