Fireworks lit up the Baghdad sky on the evening of June 30th, signaling the advent of “National Sovereignty Day.” Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared the new holiday to commemorate the withdrawal of American combat troops from the Iraqi capital and all other major urban centers, although thousands of “advisers” would remain in the cities, embedded with Iraqi forces. The celebration transpired inside a city that has been radically transformed over the past six years. Even with American combat forces ostensibly withdrawn, Baghdad remains one of the most militarized urban areas in the world. It wasn’t always so. When I was in Baghdad during the 1990s, I was struck by the lack of an overt military presence for a nation purported to be governed by one of the world’s worst militaristic dictatorships.
Of course, in the city areas housing Saddam Hussein, his family and inner circle, and the seat of government, one would see green-clad soldiers of the Special Republican Guard standing watch over the gates controlling access into and out of these islands of power and privilege. But in the rest of the city—the vast majority of the city—there was no military presence. Traffic police stood on little islands in the middle of busy intersections, keeping the bustle of a modern city moving along at a brisk pace. There were soldiers in uniform around, but they carried no weapons, being on leave from their duties in Iraq’s conscript military. Just like their fellow servicemen in other cities around the world, they would enjoy a day or two walking the streets and markets of Baghdad, taking in the sights and sounds, grabbing a glass of tea, a quick meal and the sight of pretty girls neatly attired in Western-style dress.
Let there be no doubt, Iraq was a police state, and the streets of the city were also filled with agents and informers of the regime, quick to detect any hint of rebellion or insurrection. Telephone calls were listened in on and conversations illicitly recorded in the hope of finding evidence of dissent. And when dissent was found, the forces of repression would mobilize quickly to crush it—secret police and paramilitary forces for small incidents, and the battalions of Special Republican Guard for larger threats. But Baghdad, like Mosul and other major cities, was also a place where someone—whether resident, visitor or even U.N. weapons inspector—could leave his or her home or workplace in the evening and travel freely without fear of endless roadblocks, checkpoints, car bombs and firefights.
One could take in a street market in what was then known as Saddam City (today we call it Sadr City), the Shiite-dominated neighborhood in the northeast corner of Baghdad. Or grab a kebab in Karrada, a Sunni-dominated neighborhood in the center of town. Or visit the shopping districts of Monsouriyah, or tour the gold-domed mosques in Khadamiyah (Shiite) or across the Tigris River in Adamiyah (Sunni). The quality of the Baghdad-Iraq experience fluctuated given the state of the economy (U.N. sanctions crippled Iraq from 1991 until 1996, when the controversial oil-for-food program breathed new life into what had become a stagnant existence). But whether the shelves in a given shop were full or empty, one thing remained constant—Baghdad and the other major cities of Iraq functioned in a manner more in keeping with the open societies of Europe, and less like the municipality under siege that exists today.
Baghdad survives now as a city defined not by its thousands of years of history, but rather segregation brought on by policies of deliberate ethnic cleansing. The city is now a checkerboard of neighborhoods walled off from one another by giant concrete-block dividers installed by American troops in an effort to keep Iraqis from killing one another, a phenomenon born from ethnic and religious differences which have violently come to a head in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. Once we get beyond the pageantry and spectacle of the deception that is taking place in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities “formerly” occupied by U.S. troops, the pretense of progress is difficult to sustain.
Iraqi soldiers, primarily Shiite troops loyal to the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister al-Maliki, are everywhere. They man checkpoints and mini-garrisons throughout the city and constantly patrol streets and neighborhoods which function less as communities and more like tiny feudal fiefdoms. Militias, like street gangs in Western ghettos, lurk inside every walled-off zone, sometimes working with the Iraqi military, sometimes working against it. To attempt to move from zone to zone today is an exercise in futility and frustration, as well as a flagrant temptation of fate. Sunni and Shiite, Arabs and Kurds, Christians and Muslims—all used to be able to mingle freely in the streets of Baghdad. Today these diverse elements are segregated from one another, their daily existence dictated by a kill-or-be-killed mentality that manifests itself in violence and a growing diaspora of Iraqi refugees no longer able to sustain life in a city they once called home.
Many in the West continue to delude themselves into seeing progress—and therefore “victory”—when in fact the situation in Iraq has only regressed. It is in vogue for Western journalists, pundits and government officials to compare and contrast conditions in Baghdad today with those that existed in 2007, when the U.S. began its “surge” of military forces into the urban areas of Iraq in an effort to quell violence that had reached epidemic proportions. There is no debate over the fact that the level of violence in Baghdad and elsewhere throughout Iraq has dropped dramatically since the surge was instituted. But the cost paid by Iraqi society, shredded by ethnic cleansing and segregation, raises the question of whether or not the alleged “cure” is any better than the “disease” it purports to address. One thing is certain: Iraq remains a very sick patient. The U.S., in designing a surge that addressed only the most visible symptoms of the problems which ravage Iraq in the post-Saddam era, has created a false sense of accomplishment when in fact the underlying conditions that caused the violence prior to the surge still exist. It’s like a cancer temporarily stunned into remission by a drug that weakened the body and now is being withdrawn without actually curing anything. The Shiite-Sunni schism has only worsened, and there is increasing risk that the Arab-Kurd disagreement over oil rights will escalate from a war of words into something more violent.
The absolute failure of the surge is even more evident when one considers conditions inside Iraq before the U.S. invasion in 2003. There is simply no serious benchmark by which one can make a viable argument for improvement. Even the Bush administration stopped the pretense that we had brought democracy to the country. Stability is now the term of choice, and when one compares the situation in Iraq circa February 2003 to today, the facts scream out loud and clear that Iraq is far more unstable in its present condition than when governed by Saddam Hussein.
Take oil, the commodity that was going to pay for the invasion and guarantee the political and economic future of Iraq. Not only is the Iraqi government divided on how to move forward with a new legal framework designed to encourage foreign investment in Iraq’s oil sector, but the billions of dollars already spent on Iraq’s oil industry since the U.S. invasion have actually produced less oil per day than when Saddam was in power—and one must keep in mind that Saddam’s Iraq suffered under crushing economic sanctions.
The number of Iraqi refugees has more than quadrupled since the invasion. Some 500,000 Iraqis had fled the abuses of the Saddam regime, while today more than 2 million Iraqis have been compelled to leave the country as a direct result of the U.S.-led invasion and subsequent occupation. Another 2 million have been forced from their homes and are internally displaced.
Unemployment is rampant. Iraq’s health care system is in tatters, as is its education system. But apparently these figures are meaningless in the face of the one major statistic the Twitter-crazed Western media seems to have fallen in love with: There are nearly 18 million cell phones in use in Iraq today, up from a mere 80,000 when Saddam Hussein governed. The fact that most of these phones operate with intermittent or nonexistent service is irrelevant. Iraq has cell phone coverage. God Bless America.
It is wishful thinking to believe that the Iraqi military and paramilitary forces under the government of Prime Minister al-Maliki will be able to hold the ruins of Iraqi society together without major U.S. intervention. The sad reality is not only that Baghdad is a far more militarized city today than at any time under Saddam Hussein, but the United States has assumed the role of Saddam’s Special Republican Guard. American soldiers are now an iron fist lurking on the edges of the city, waiting to be called in to crush any sign of rebellion or insurrection. That our role has so readily transformed from liberator to occupier should come as a surprise to no one.
In 1999 I warned Americans that a war between Iraq and the United States would appear on the surface to be deceptively easy. I predicted that a force of no more than 250,000 troops (we actually did it with less—about 200,000 troops deployed either in Iraq or in theater) would require less than a month (the U.S.-led attack began on March 19, and Baghdad was occupied on April 9), and would result in relatively few casualties (139 American military personnel died in action from March 20 through May 1, 2003). The easy part, I noted, would be getting rid of Saddam Hussein. The hard part would be securing victory in the aftermath of Saddam’s demise. And this task, I warned, would be made even harder, indeed virtually impossible, by the fact that the U.S.-led invasion would lack any justification under international law, especially if a case for war were to be cobbled together using U.N. weapons inspections and Iraqi WMD as an excuse. The U.S. did invade, and the rest is history.
The incompetence, corruption and futility of the U.S. occupation of Iraq are matters of record. America has failed in Iraq, a fact many Americans recognized when they voted for change in 2008 by electing Barack Obama over John McCain. And yet today these same Americans appear to be as self-deceiving as those who supported George W. Bush’s attempts to spin the tragedy of the American experience in Iraq as something noble and worthy of support. To date, the war in Iraq has cost more than 4,300 American service members their lives. Tens of thousands more have been physically wounded or permanently scarred by the psychological horror of participating in the Iraqi conflict. We’ve stopped seriously trying to count the number of Iraqi dead, with estimates ranging from 100,000 to more than a million.
Even before the U.S. “withdrawal” from Baghdad, acts of violence in that city and elsewhere were on the rise. There is little doubt that the many Iraqi enemies of the government of al-Maliki will soon try to flex their muscle. Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence is all but assured. Some Iraqi military units will, at least initially, perform well; others will not. Neighborhoods once secured by U.S. occupiers will fall out of the control of central Iraqi authority. The more the Iraqi military tries to suppress this dissent, the more the dissent will grow. Though major U.S. combat forces are currently out of Baghdad, there is little doubt that there will soon be a call for their return, in force, either to respond to an ambush of a U.S. convoy supplying the American Embassy enclave in central Baghdad or to bail out the Iraqi military when it fumbles its effort to suppress the opponents of the government.
Iraq, for President Obama and his military leaders, is a lose-lose situation. There is no path toward military victory there today. With American forces out of the major urban areas of Iraq, the next step for Obama is to complete the planned withdrawal on schedule, with most U.S. forces leaving Iraq in 2010. This will be impossible to accomplish if America finds itself sucked back into the urban centers of the country to maintain the false perception of stability created through the surge.
The biggest challenge in Iraq facing the Obama administration is not to fall victim to the need to be seen as victorious. Victory today can be measured only in terms of mitigating the consequences of failure. There will be no “Battleship Missouri moment,” with the forces of a defeated Iraqi insurgency lined up to formally surrender. Instead, America will have to deal with the reality that, no matter how we spin facts, President Bush’s ill-advised Iraqi adventure has ended in defeat. Whether this defeat is memorialized with imagery reminiscent of the U.S. retreat from Saigon, with helicopters pulling the last occupiers from the roofs of the American Embassy in Baghdad (unlikely), or repeats the pathos of the Russian retreat from Afghanistan, with a convoy of American troops crossing over into Kuwait in orderly fashion (more likely), there is no victory to be had in the classic sense.
In one of the last patrols conducted by U.S. forces before the formal withdrawal from Baghdad, four American soldiers lost their lives. The patrol itself was wholly symbolic—a show of force and will at a time when every military reason for the patrol had ceased to exist—a tragic yet fitting analogy for the entire U.S. military presence in Iraq. No more American troops need to die, or be physically or psychologically maimed, participating in futile “last patrols” designed to salvage the reputations of politicians. There are those who will argue for sustaining the failed military misadventure in Iraq out of a misplaced sense of national pride and honor. President Obama must confront his own ego and hubris and accept the fact that in order to secure a lasting legacy as a peacemaker he will need to ride out the short-term criticism.
AP photo / Hadi Mizban
Iraqi national police stand guard at a checkpoint in central Baghdad two days before U.S. troops withdraw from the city, as a sandstorm blankets Iraq’s capital.