America’s War So Far

in Baghdad

It has been the strangest war. A thousand days ago the US and British armies started a campaign which ended a few weeks later with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

It seemed so easy. President George W Bush announced that the war was over. The American mission had been accomplished. Months passed before Washington and London realised that the war had not finished. In fact it was only just beginning. Of the 18,000 US servicemen casualties in Iraq 94 per cent have been killed and wounded since the fall of Baghdad. There is no sign that the election for the 275-member Iraqi parliament this Thursday will end the fighting. The Sunni Arabs, the core of the insurrection, will vote for the first time but there is no talk of a ceasefire. A leaflet issued by one resistance group in Baghdad yesterday encouraged its followers to vote but warned: “the fighting will continue with the infidels and their followers. ” It was such a strange war because the US began a conflict in 2003 to change radically the Middle East, the most volatile and dangerous region in the world. This was in complete contrast to the first Gulf War in 1991 when the main war aim of President George Bush senior was to evict Saddam Hussein from Kuwait and restore the status quo.

There was a further sharp difference between the two wars. Bush senior had expended enormous effort in creating an international coalition under the UN to fight Iraq. His son, by way of contrast, seemed to revel in isolation. He made the Iraq war the supreme test of American military and political strength. The US would fight it alone, aside from Britain tagging along behind, and win it alone. It did not need allies outside or even inside Iraq.

There was a terrible cost to be paid for this hubris. None of the neighbours of Iraq, from Saudi Arabia to Iran, wanted the US to succeed in Iraq. This was hardly surprising. Washington had made clear that the Iraqi regime was only the first on its list of possible targets. The insurgents received vital if covert assistance from abroad.

But the rebellion against the US occupation was always essentially home grown. Disillusionment with their liberators set in among Iraqis almost as soon as the American troops captured the capital in April 2003. The poor poured out of the slums of Baghdad in a frenzy of destruction and theft. Everything was looted, even the stuffed animals in the Natural History Museum.

Iraqis expected much from the fall of Saddam Hussein. They had endured 23 years of war and sanctions. The Iraqi armed forces, even supposedly elite units like the Special Republican Guard, simply packed up and went home. Nobody wanted to die for the old regime. Instead they hoped to enjoy the fruits of their oil wealth for the first time and begin to live like Kuwaitis or Saudis.

Instead the US installed a colonial regime. Iraqis were marginalized and their opinions ignored. Iraqi professionals with PhDs and fluent in several languages found themselves being ordered about by young Americans whose only qualification was links to the Republican party. The army and security services were dissolved. The five million-strong Sunni community was enraged. The first attacks on US patrols and vehicles began. An ominous sign was that whenever I visited the site of an ambush I saw young Iraqi men dancing in jubilation around the blazing vehicles.

By November 2004 it was clear that a serious guerrilla war was underway. The 140,000 strong US army was hopelessly ill-equipped for such a conflict. Once I saw an American artillery unit trying to quell a fist fight among Iraqi drivers in a queue at a petrol station. They had brought with them an enormous howitzer designed to fire a shell 30 kilometres because they had nowhere to store it.

The face of Baghdad began to change. The symbol of the new regime was the concrete block, enormous obstacles to car bombs looking like gigantic grey tombstones. Walls of them sealed of the Green Zone in the centre of Baghdad where the US and Britain had established their headquarters.

The suicide bombers began to make their terrifying impact. Nobody was safe. The UN headquarters was reduced to a heap of rubble as was the building housing the Red Cross. Iraqi police stations and US positions were all hastily fortified. On some days there were a dozen attacks. Later they fell in number but became more sophisticated with one bomber trying blast a way through the concrete walls so the second could reach the targeted building.

People in Baghdad and the centre of Iraq lived in perpetual terror of suicide bombers, kidnappers, Iraqi army and US troops. The roads to the capital were all cut by insurgents or bandits. Better-off Iraqis, fearful of kidnappers who preyed on their children, fled to Jordan, Syria and Egypt. In the face of Sunni Arab attack the US relied more and more on the two other great Iraqi communities. The Shia make up 60 per cent of the population and the Kurds 20 per cent. Some Iraqi leaders had an acute perception of the American dilemma in Iraq. “Let them try to run the country without us and they will see what trouble they will be in,” said a Kurdish leader in the summer of 2003. “Then they will come running to us for our help.”

Last year the US learned that it could contain but could not suppress the Sunni insurrection. This year has seen Iraq slowly coming under the control of a Kurdish-Shia alliance whose authority is likely to be reaffirmed by the election on Thursday. The Kurds and Shia triumphed again at the polls on January 30 and voted for a new constitution on October 15. Iraq at the moment is an extraordinary patch-work with conditions varying in every part of the country. Kurdistan is more prosperous than at any time in its history. The skylines of its cities are crowded with cranes. In Baghdad there is hardly any sign of construction and richer districts are often inhabited only by armed security guards. Their inhabitants have fled. The ethnic and religious complexity of Iraq means opinion polls are peculiarly misleading. For instance a BBC poll yesterday showed that half of those questioned say that Iraq needs a strong leader while only 28 per cent cited democracy as a priority. But it would be a mistake to think that Iraqis could agree on the same strong leader. The Sunni would like a strong man to put the Shia in their place and the Shia feel likewise that the priority for a powerful leader would be dealing with the Sunni. Iraqis have great resilience. They are also cynical about their political leaders. The election results are likely to show that the great majority of Iraqis will vote along ethnic or religious lines as Shia, Sunni or Kurds. The country is turning from a unitary state into a confederation. There is no sign yet of the thousand-day war ending. Every month up to a thousand fresh corpses arrive at the mortuary in Baghdad. A new Iraq is emerging but it is already drenched in blood.


Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).