The US Occupation of Iraq

The tragedy unleashed by the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq defies description. According to the most recent findings of the Lancet medical journal, the number of “excess deaths” in Iraq since the U.S. invasion is more than 650,000. “Iraq is the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world,” according to Refugee International: nearly two million Iraqis have fled the country entirely, while at least another 500,000 are internally displaced. Basic foods and necessities are beyond the reach of ordinary Iraqis because of massive inflation. “A gallon of gasoline cost as little as 4 cents in November. Now, after the International Monetary Fund pushed the Oil Ministry to cut its subsidies, the official price is about 67 cents,” the New York Times notes. “The spike has come as a shock to Iraqis, who make only about $150 a month on average-if they have jobs,” an important proviso, since unemployment is roughly 60­70 percent nationally.

October 2006 proved to be the bloodiest month of the entire occupation, with more than six thousand civilians killed in Iraq, most in Baghdad, where thousands of additional U.S. troops have been sent since August with the claim they would restore order and stability in the city, but instead only sparked more violence. United Nations special investigator Manfred Nowak notes that torture “is totally out of hand” in Iraq. “The situation is so bad many people say it is worse than it has been in the times of Saddam Hussein.” The number of U.S soldiers dead is now more than 2,900, with more than 21,000 wounded, many severely.

The underlying trend is clear: each day the occupation continues, life gets worse for most Iraqis. Rather than stemming civil war or sectarian conflict, the occupation is spurring it. Rather than being a source of stability, the occupation is the major source of instability and chaos.

All of the reasons being offered for why the United States cannot withdraw troops from Iraq are false. The reality is, the troops are staying in Iraq for much different reasons than the ones being touted by political elites and a still subservient establishment press. They are staying to save face for a U.S. political elite that cares nothing for the lives of Iraqis or U.S. soldiers; to pursue the futile goal of turning Iraq into a reliable client state strategically located near the major energy resources and shipping routes of the Middle East, home to two-thirds of world oil reserves, and Western and Central Asia; to serve as a base for the projection of U.S. military power in the region, particularly in the growing conflict between the United States and Iran; and to maintain the legitimacy of U.S. imperialism, which needs the pretext of a global war on terror to justify further military intervention, expanded military budgets, concentration of executive power, and restrictions on civil liberties. The U.S. military did not invade and occupy Iraq to spread democracy, check the spread of weapons of mass destruction, rebuild the country, or stop civil war. In fact, the troops remain in Iraq today to deny self-determination and genuine democracy to the Iraqi people, who have made it abundantly clear, whether they are Shiite or Sunni, that they want U.S. troops to leave Iraq immediately; feel less safe as a result of the occupation; think the occupation is spurring not suppressing sectarian strife; and support armed attacks on occupying troops and Iraqi security forces, who are seen not as independent but as collaborating with the occupation.

It is not only the Iraqi people who oppose the occupation of their country and want to see the troops leave. A clear majority of people in the United States have expressed the same sentiment in major opinion polls and in the mid-term Congressional elections, which swing both houses of Congress and the majority of state governorships to the Democrats, in a clear vote against the imperial arrogance of Bush’s “stay the course” approach to the disaster in Iraq. The public did not vote for more money for the Pentagon (as incoming Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada immediately promised, announcing a plan to give $75 billion more to the Pentagon), for more “oversight” of the war (the main Democratic Party buzzword these days), or for more troops (as Texas Democrat Representative Silvestre Reyes, the incoming chair of the House Intelligence Committee, has demanded), but to begin bringing the troops home. A clear majority of active-duty U.S. troops want the same thing, as a much-ignored Zogby International poll found in early 2005, with 72 percent saying they wanted to be out of Iraq by the end of 2006.

But Bush’s response to the groundswell of opposition to the war, which has led not only to his setbacks in the midterm elections but to even further erosion in his already abysmal approval ratings (with approval of his handling of the war reaching a new low of 27 percent), is to insist that the sun still revolves around the earth. “Absolutely, we’re winning,” Bush told reporters. “I know there’s a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there’s going to be some kind of graceful exit from Iraq,” Bush said. “This business about a graceful exit just simply has no realism to it whatsoever,” he added. “We’re going to stay in Iraq to get the job done.” In a similar vein, Vice President Cheney said, “I know what the President thinks. I know what I think. And we’re not looking for an exist strategy.We’re looking for victory.”

After the midterm elections Bush was forced to jettison his deeply unpopular defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, but nominated in his place someone who is unlikely to oversee any fundamental shift in U.S. strategy. Robert Gates, an old CIA hand, is a dedicated Cold Warrior who advocated, among other enlightened policies, the bombing of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua for daring to challenge the corrupt order of death squad dictatorships in Latin America. Bush also dropped UN ambassador John Bolton, a man who embodies everything that the world hates about U.S. foreign policy today.

Perhaps most significantly, though, in the face of the failures in Iraq, Congress resorted to the old strategy of bringing in the “wise men” to repackage a failing war, convening the Iraq Study Group (ISG), with Bush family fixer James Baker III, former Indiana representative Lee Hamilton, and other foreign policy establishment figures with little or no knowledge of Iraq. The commission was never going to advocate any radical reversal of U.S. policy in Iraq, but even so, Bush has hedged his bets from the outset, setting up two different internal military review committees to make suggestions to the White House about the next steps in Iraq (much as he had overseen a separate intelligence operation to create the evidence that would be used to sell the invasion in the first place). Indeed, when the report’s findings were made public on December 6, Bush immediately distanced himself from its highly limited recommendations. As the New York Sun noted, “Barely 24 hours old, the bipartisan report has been placed on a high shelf to gather dust, its principle function having been to take the heat off the president for a time while allowing him to gather his resolve to press on” with the same course as before. Bush immediately rejected the report’s call to negotiate with Iran and Syria, the Wall Street Journal reported: “A senior administration official said the White House doesn’t feel bound by the report and is unlikely to implement many of its recommendations, especially regarding calls for diplomatic outreach to U.S. foes Syria and Iran.” In addition, “The White House has rejected mounting calls for a course correction in Iraq, insisting it would maintain the current number of U.S. military personnel in Iraq indefinitely.”

But even if the Bush administration sought to immediately implement every recommendation of the Iraq Study Group report, it would only be a recipe for more death, displacement, and despair. The ISG report explicitly rejects setting any deadline or timetable for withdrawal, asserts the need for a “considerable military presence in the region, with our still significant force in Iraq and with our powerful air, ground, and naval deployments in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar, as well as an increased presence in Afghanistan” for years to come, and basically repackages the Bush Doctrine of “as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down,” that is “Iraqization” of the conflict, much as “Vietnamization” was presented as the solution in Vietnam.
It is worth briefly reviewing the various options now being considered by the Bush administration, none of which offers any real alternative:

Sending in more troops in the short term

The idea that sending in more troops would provide stability and improve the situation in Iraq ignores the fact that the U.S. is the main source of violence and instability. More troops breed both more opposition and more sectarian violence. Observes Michael Schwartz, “Instead of entering a violent city and restoring order, [U.S. forces] enter a relatively peaceful city and create violence. The accurate portrait of this situationis that the most hostile anti-American cities like Tal Afar and Ramadi have generally been reasonably peaceful when U.S. troops are not there.” Even the ISG notes that Operation Together Forward II, which redeployed thousands of U.S. troops to Baghdad in August 2006, achieved the opposite of its stated goal: “Violence in Baghdad-already at high levels-jumped more than 43 percent between the summer and October 2006.” Schwartz also explains the way in which the higher presence of U.S. combat troops exacerbates sectarian violence:

American patrols in Shia neighborhoods immobilize the local defenses and make the community vulnerable to jihadist attack; while American invasions of Sunni communities are even more damaging. They not only immobilize the local defense forces, but almost always involve the introduction of Iraqi Army units, made up mainly of Shia soldiers (since the army being stood up by the Americans is largely a Shia one). What results is violence in the form of battles between a Shia military (as well as militia-infiltrated Shia police forces) and Sunni resistance fighters defending their communities. These attacks generate immense bitterness among Sunni, who see them as part of a Shia attempt to use the American military to conquer and pacify Sunni cities. The result is a wealth of new jihadists anxious to retaliate by sacrificing their lives in terrorist or death-squad-style attacks on Shia communities-which, in their turn, energize the Shia death squads in an escalating cycle of brutalizing violence.

The U.S, in addition, cannot add more troops without straining an already badly overtaxed military and relying on greater use of backdoor draft measures that are provoking more opposition at home and within the military to the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, another failing occupation.
We’ll stand down as they stand up

The idea that training Iraqi troops can be improved, a major recommendation of the ISG report, suggests that there’s a technical solution that the U.S. faces in Iraq. But the root of resistance to U.S occupation is political. As long as the U.S. remains an occupying power, the police and military will continue to be seen as collaborators and illegitimate. Resistance groups in Iraq, meanwhile, face no such training problems, and are carrying out increasingly sophisticated operations, including direct military battles with U.S. troops, because their fighters are politically motivated and have a defined goal that has widespread support.
Engage Iran and Syria

The idea behind this strategy, another major thrust of the ISG report, is that the root of resistance to U.S. occupation in Iraq is foreign, rather than indigenous-much as we were told that the popular resistance of the Vietnamese to U.S. state terrorism was directed by Moscow and Beijing. In this delusional worldview, Iran and Syria, and groups such as al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, are the sources of violence in Iraq. This baseless theory then leads to the equally baseless idea that the U.S. will somehow stabilize Iraq through talks with two governments it is committed to overthrowing. As the Financial Times observes, there is little reason to think Bush “would be willing to follow advice that contradicts his deeply held belief that the U.S. should not talk toIran and Syria” because doing so would “reward bad behavior.” Bush has repeatedly said that a precondition for talking to Iran is a suspension of the country’s legal nuclear enrichment program, something that Iran has no reason to agree to in advance of negotiations. At any rate, even if talks do take place, Iran and Syria are not the masters of events in Iraq, which are driven by the internal politics and the dynamics of the U.S. occupation.
Gradual withdrawal

Proposals for gradual withdrawal with no timetable are a recipe for pursuing an infinitely receding horizon. The idea behind gradual withdrawal was put accurately, if cynically, by Donald Rumsfeld in a secret leaked memo, written November 6, just a few days before his resignation: “Recast the U.S. military mission and U.S. goals (how we talk about them)-go minimalist.” In other words, change the rhetoric while lowering expectations, but pursue the same goals. “Announce that whatever new approach the U.S. decides on, the U.S. is doing so on a trial basis. This will give us the ability to readjust and move to another course, if necessary, and therefore not ‘lose.'”


A frequent buzzword in discussions of the occupation of Iraq today, especially among Democrats, is redeployment. On November 14, 2006, Senator Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat considered to be at the extreme left end of the party’s elected officials, introduced a bill “requiring U.S. forces to redeploy from Iraq by July 1, 2007.” But the plan itself calls for keeping troops in Iraq. “My legislation would allow for a minimal level of U.S. forces to remain in Iraq for targeted counterterrorism activities, training of Iraqi security forces, and the protection of U.S. infrastructure and personnel.” In other words, redeployment envisions U.S. bases, U.S. troops, and U.S. occupation, while merely shifting some personnel to other military bases in the region-where they can be quickly mobilized to strike when necessary-and most likely shifting to greater reliance on air power in Iraq and in the region to pursue U.S. imperial objectives.

One plan that the ISG did not recommend, and which Bush has also criticized, but which remains a real possibility as the crisis in Iraq unfolds, is partition. The deteriorating situation on the ground has encouraged some analysts and politicians-including incoming Democrat Joseph Biden, the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair-to call for the breakup of Iraq into three independent countries or three relatively autonomous territories within a loosely federated state. Such a division of Iraq, however, could only be accomplished by massive ethnic cleansing. The largest urban concentration of Kurds in Iraq is not in the northern zone that would likely make up a future Kurdish enclave or state, but in Baghdad. Most cities described by reporters as “Sunni strongholds” or “Shiite townships” have mixed populations with significant minorities of Sunni, Shiite, Turkmen, Kurds, or Assyrians. In addition, any predominantly Sunni state in central and western Iraq that emerged from a tripartite division of the country would be significantly impoverished compared to its oil-rich southern and northern neighbors.
The iron fist

Another option-one with a long history in Iraq and the Middle East-remains support for a new “iron fist.” Eliot A. Cohen, Robert E. Osgood Professor of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, suggests that “A junta of military modernizers might be the only hope of a country whose democratic culture is weak, whose politicians are either corrupt or incapable,” a narrative that is gaining much more popularity in the establishment press and among pundits and politicians seeking an explanation for the disaster in Iraq that avoids looking at its real roots. This is a refurbishing of an old idea-a Saddam-style regime without Saddam-that became impossible as soon as the Bremer administration in Iraq dismantled the army and the Baath party, the only political and administrative basis on which such a dictatorship could have been established.


Despite the ISG’s recommendations of direct talks with Iran and Syria, and the caution of Robert Gates and others about the pitfalls of pursuing Iran militarily, the threat of the U.S. expanding the war in Iraq remains very real. In summer 2006, Washington sponsored the disastrous and bloody Israeli invasion of Lebanon, hoping to gain some tactical advantage in the region and hence in Iraq. The gamble failed miserably, but some feel another such gamble is necessary. As Seymour Hersh writes in the New Yorker, “many in the White House and the Pentagon insist that getting tough with Iran is the only way to salvage Iraq. ‘It’s a case of “failure forward,”‘ a Pentagon consultant said. ‘They believe that by tipping over Iran they would recover their losses in Iraq-like doubling your bet.'”

Whatever Bush’s new plan for Iraq may be, a major clash of expectations is likely to come about as the Democrats fail to pose any real challenge to the war. Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stressed “bipartisanship” the moment the results were announced, adding that impeachment of Bush was “off the table.” Pelosi and the new Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also said they would take off the table the greatest power the Democrats have in Congress, the ability to cut off funds for prolonging the occupation. As Alexander Cockburn wrote in the Nation: “It’sthe role of elections in properly run western democracies to remind people that things won’t really change at all. Certainly not for the better. You can set your watch by the speed with which the new crowd lowers expectations and announces What is Not To Be Done.”

Out now

Indeed, the one option that remains truly off the table in Iraq is the only sensible one: complete and unconditional immediate withdrawal, followed by reparations to the Iraqi people for the massive harm the occupation-and before that the sanctions, the Gulf and Iran-Iran Wars, and years of supporting the dictatorship-have caused. According to the New York Times, “In the cacophony of competing plans about how to deal with Iraq, one reality now appears clear: despite the Democrats’ victoryin an election viewed as a referendum on the war, the idea of rapid American troop withdrawal is fast receding as a viable option.”

The debate today in Washington remains one largely over tactics, not strategy or principles. In fact, the one debate over principles that is taking place is a racist one: more and more “experts” now question whether Bush’s folly was in thinking he could bring democracy to Arab or Muslim people, who, we are told, “have no tradition of democracy,” are from a “sick society,” a “broken society.” In a much-lauded speech, Barack Obama, the great hope of the Democrats, couched his criticism of the Bush administration’s policy by saying there should be “No more coddling” of the Iraqi government: the United States “is not going to hold together this country indefinitely,” he explained, adding that “we should be more modest in our belief that we can impose democracy.” Richard Perle, former chair of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee, one of the main neoconservative enthusiasts of the invasion of Iraq, in explaining why things had gone so contrary to his glorious predictions, now says he “underestimated the depravity” of the Iraqis. And the ISG report chides that “the Iraqi people and their leaders have been slow to demonstrate their capacity or will to act,” and therefore the U.S. “must not make an open-ended commitment” to them. In other words, blame the victim. As Sharon Smith wrote on CounterPunch, “Within a few short weeks, the Washington ‘consensus’ has rewritten the history of the U.S. invasion of Iraq-as if Iraqis invited the U.S. to invade their sovereign nation in 2003 and now have failed to live up to their end of the bargain.”

As the crisis in Iraq unfolds, we can expect these arguments to gain even wider traction, providing more cover for the real U.S. objectives in the Middle East.

The tragedy unfolding in Iraq is still far from over. In Act I of the tragedy, we were told that Washington would invade Iraq, quickly topple the dictatorship, install a stable client government, and then-having radically changed the balance of power in the Middle East-march on from Baghdad to confront the regimes of Iran and Syria. With that dream in tatters, the United States commenced Act II: the manipulation of sectarian divisions in Iraq to form a Shiite and Kurdish coalition government that would isolate the Sunnis (though it would seek to co-opt as much of their political leadership as possible) and serve the intended client role, if less effectively than Washington had hoped, allowing the U.S. to gain at least some foothold in Iraq and claim victory. By mid-2006, the failures of this strategy could no longer be ignored, however. Having invaded Iraq intending to weaken Iran and Syria, to strengthen its position and that of Israel and its Arab allies in the region, the United States instead achieved the opposite. (Of course, all of this ignores the many stages of the tragedy authored by the United States before the March 2003 invasion, through its support of the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein, its nefarious role in the Iran-Iraq War and then the 1991 Gulf War, and the more than twelve years of sanctions and bombing that followed.)

Acts I and II in the tragedy of the Iraq occupation have now come to a close. But Act III has only just begun. All the signs suggest that the endgame in Iraq is likely to be long and very bloody. Iraq and the Middle East are so strategically important to the United States that neither party is willing to withdraw and admit defeat; such an outcome would be more disastrous for the United States than its defeat in Vietnam.
But there is one factor in the Iraq tragedy that we should not discount. The question of how long this war lasts, whether it will expand to Iran and Syria, whether more troops will be sent to needlessly kill and be killed for profit and power, does not only depend on the decisions and internal conflicts of the ruling class. It also depends on the level of public opposition in Iraq, at home, and within the military itself. Groups like Iraq Veterans Against the War are already playing a leading role in the struggle to end the occupation. But we are still only at the beginning of organizing the kind of opposition we need to affect the course of the war decisively.

The U.S. war against Vietnam was lost by 1968, if not sooner, but continued for years after, with millions of lives lost as a consequence. We cannot allow a repeat of that tragic history. The Vietnam War, though, also has another lesson to teach us: that when people speak out and organize, they can deter even the most powerful and reckless government. The war against the people of Indochina would certainly have lasted even longer-and might have spread even farther-had concerted opposition at home and internationally not forced the United States to retreat. That is a lesson we badly need to relearn-and put into practice-today.

ANTHONY ARNOVE is the author of Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal, just published in an updated paperback edition, with a foreword by Howard Zinn, in the American Empire Project (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt). He is on the editorial boards of Haymarket Books and International Socialist Review. This article appears in the January­February issue of the ISR.