Another "Nightmare Scenario"

Grotesque images from Fallujah—of charred, butchered flesh framed with jubilant children’s faces—remind the world that the Sunni Triangle is a dangerous place for Americans. Elsewhere, events in the hitherto quiescent Shiite south bode badly, too, for the occupation.

The chief Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, opposes the interim constitution, approved by the Interim Governing Council under Paul Bremer’s guidance. He may issue a fatwa against it, and against participation in the still-shapeless regime that might “assume power” after the “restoration of sovereignty” by June 30. Sistani refuses to meet with occupation officials, whose authority he rejects. Meanwhile firebrand junior cleric Moqtada Sadr lashes out at the occupation, and frankly embraces Hamas and Hizbollah. He knows the occupiers consider these Palestinian and Lebanese groups “terrorist” and will likely tar him with the same brush. He’s throwing down a gauntlet. He sees his newspaper closed down for 60 days by the Coalition Provisional Authority—on their (rejected) authority which, to but it mildly, has dubious legal basis. Then foreigners take Sadr’s top aide, Mustafa al-Yaacubi, into detention.

Soon, predictably, outside the holy Shiite city of Najaf, Sadr supporters clash with Spanish-led troops, killing four Salvadoran “Coalition” troops and one American soldier. In Shiite Basra, workers demanding jobs clash with British forces and burn down the central post office. In largely Shiite East Baghdad, Sadr’s neighborhood, a U.S. tank runs over two Sadr supporters following a protest demonstration. On Sunday, April 4, seven U.S. troops are killed in encounters with militiamen and militiawomen in Sadr’s banned but apparently powerful Army of the Mahdi. It was, as the New York Times put it, “a coordinated Shiite uprising spreading across the country, from the slums of Baghdad to several cities in the south. By day’s end, witnesses said Shiite militiamen controlled Kufa, a city south of Baghdad, with armed men loyal to [Sadr] occupying the police stations and checkpoints.”

Wait now, some might think. This was not how it was supposed to happen. The Shiites are supposed to be the good Iraqis, those who, having been most abused by Saddam Hussein’s regime, would naturally welcome the occupation. But around Najaf Shiites are chanting: “No, no America! No, no, Israel!” That of course is what the Sunnis have been saying too. Some have been predicting a civil war between Shiites and Sunnis (fomented perhaps by the mysterious Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) either in the wake of a U.S. withdrawal or even while the occupation continues. That would be an occupier’s nightmare scenario. Here’s another, worse one. Sunni and Shiite (and Christian, and other—recall that Iraq has for many years been ruled by a secular party that has not attempted to promote any particular religion) all united in demanding that the foreign troops, having no valid reason to be there, go home, taking their consultants and carpet-baggers with them.

Residual Baathist elements? Outside agitators? Will such a characterization of the Iraqi resistance wash with the American people if the Shiites—60% of the invaded, “liberated” population—come to lead the complex, multifaceted resistance? Continuing this imaginary scenario: the American people come to generally conclude that the ultimate justification for an unjust war, boldly pronounced as the WMDs and al-Qaeda connections disappeared like mirages in the Syrian Desert, was just another delusion. We didn’t “free” them. They don’t want us there. The Iraqi people didn’t want us to invade, didn’t ask us to invade, and being invaded, are understandably very angry. That’s the satori awaiting millions of Americans as the images from hell proliferate.


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As such a realization dawns upon people, the Bush administration will endlessly reiterate its case. Here’s its current case, in a nutshell.

1. 9-11 showed that the U.S. was vulnerable to terrorist attack.

2. That fact required and justified a policy of preemption, a policy of acting against terrorist organizations and nations that sponsor them.

3. Preemption required regime change.

4. The first target for regime change was Afghanistan.

5. Al-Qaeda was greatly weakened by the Coalition attack on Afghanistan, and its Taliban sponsors were overthrown.

6. Afghanistan was liberated and is now making strides towards democracy.

7. The second target for regime change had to be Iraq.

8. The attack on Iraq was justified by the fact that the best intelligence available indicated that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that could be used against the United States, its friends and allies; and that there had been a long history of cooperation between Saddam Hussein’s government and al-Qaeda.

9. It appears there were some flaws in the pre-war intelligence that produced an exaggerated view of these threats, but Saddam was a genuine threat because he had demonstrated his intention to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

10. The most important result of the war is that a dictator was overthrown, and Iraq is now free.

11. Americans are safer now than they were two years ago.

12. The Patriot Act has better empowered government to protect the people.

13. All the above show that we need four more years of war and regime change.

(I think that is a fair representation of the Bush viewpoint, and apologize to the Bush people if there is any error at all in that representation.)

Now the critics’ case, in a nutshell:

1. The administration wished and planned to attack Iraq from its inception in January 2001. Some high officials also favor attacking neighboring Syria and Iran as part of a sweeping plan for Middle East change.

2. The preemption doctrine, as part of a general rethinking of post-Cold War U.S. “defense” strategy, which requires “full spectrum dominance,” had been established long before 9-11. It didn’t result from the attacks.

3. The atmosphere of grief, anxiety, and anger in the U.S. following 9-11, and the mass media’s slavish cooperation with administration objectives, allowed the administration to act upon the plan to attack Iraq with much public support.

4. Some members of the administration favored that attack before, or even instead of, an attack on Afghanistan, and immediately after 9-11 attempted to find intelligence linking Iraq to al-Qaeda.

5. Unable to obtain this from the CIA, they established the Office of Special Plans in the Defense Department to produce intelligence justifying war on Iraq. This office relied heavily on the Iraqi National Congress, a U.S.-funded exile body headed by convicted swindler Ahmad Chalabi, which had long urged the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by U.S. troops. The “flawed intelligence” was deliberate: an executive-branch decision.

6. The war on Afghanistan resulted in the scattering of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the death of an unknown number of their forces, the overthrow of one repressive regime and the reestablishment of another. All the talk about freeing Afghan women from the burqa was nonsense.

7. Events since have greatly increased support for al-Qaeda and sympathy for Osama bin-Laden, who is still at large. There has been a massive increase in anti-U.S. sentiment in Pakistan and elsewhere.

8. The Taliban is resurgent and has regained control in some Pashtun areas. The Bush administration doesn’t emphasize these matters because Afghanistan was a sideshow to begin with.

9. The attack on Iraq was seen by most of the world as unjustified on the grounds given by the Bush and Blair administrations, and has produced great antipathy towards the U.S. throughout the world, including in European countries traditionally closely allied with the U.S.

10. Iraq has not been freed, but thrown into chaos. The occupation is highly unpopular, and meets with increasing resistance. This cannot be attributed merely to Baathists and Islamic fundamentalists.

11. The doctrine of preemption central to the “War on Terrorism” (which the administration states will continue for many years) is a disaster, has made the whole world including the U.S. less safe.

12. The Patriot Act has allowed the government to curb civil liberties, violate privacy, and attack dissent on a scale not seen since the COINTELPRO 1970s.

13. Those responsible for all the above should at the very least be removed from power, and if there is any justice in the world, be placed on trial.

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Back in 1990, officials in the first Bush administration called it the “nightmare scenario.” Iraq had invaded Kuwait (on grounds more justifiable than those deployed by Bush II to invade Iraq). Bush 41, characterizing Saddam as a “Hitler,” demanded he withdraw. Saddam agreed to do so in December, accepting terms presented by separate delegations from the USSR and France. (This alone demonstrated the ridiculousness of Bush’s analogy; Hitler would not have withdrawn from the Austria in 1938. His nation was much, much more powerful, relative to the other powers of the time, than Iraq was relative to the U.S. and its allies in 1990.) The nightmare to the president’s advisors was the prospect that Saddam would survive with his army intact, and that Iraq—a large, advanced, secular, relatively “progressive” Arab nation—would continue to build up its military strength, as other comparable nations tend to do. While a quasi-ally of the U.S. throughout the 1980s, when both Iraq and the U.S. wanted to bleed Iran, Iraq following the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988 seemed no longer helpful to U.S. interests in the region. It had to be cut down to size, and it was. On the “Highway of Death” between Mutlaa (in Kuwait) and Basra, tens of thousands of fleeing, defenseless Iraqi troops were eliminated by bombing. “Like shooting fish in a barrel,” as one U.S. pilot put it.

So in that round, a nightmare was visited on the Iraqi people. Bush made sure that the nightmare continue by insisting on the economic sanctions which, within a few years, resulted in the deaths of half a million Iraqi children. By encouraging, then declining to support, a Shiite rebellion, he contributed to tens of thousands more deaths. One might say, “Fair enough that Bush 43—and his reelection campaign—should now face this ongoing bad dream.” But the smirking somnolent son perhaps loses no sleep, while the families of 613 American soldiers, and countless more Iraqi families, surely do.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa, Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa, Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900.

He can be reached at:


Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: