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Snatching defeat from victory

Invading Iraq 20 years ago turned out to be a bad idea. by BOBBY GHOSH BLOOMBERG | March 26, 2023 at 1:59 a.m.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette illustration by John Deering.

Twenty years ago last week, I watched the start of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq on TV in a hotel room in Amman, Jordan, wondering whether it was good or bad luck that I was not in Baghdad to experience the so-called "shock and awe" bombing campaign.

I had been forced to leave only a few days before, as the government of Saddam Hussein had begun selectively evicting foreign journalists. The Ministry of Information wanted to reduce the number of unruly cats it would have to herd when hostilities broke out.

In vain I had protested that my visa was good for two more weeks. Permission to enter had been very hard to get, and I had hoped to use some of my remaining time to start the laborious process of securing another one.

"Don't worry, you will be back in Baghdad soon," said the lugubrious official who had ordered me to leave. "But it may not be the same Baghdad."

I hoped he was right, on both counts.

By the time I was able to return, less than a month later, no visa was necessary. I had arranged to be smuggled in past the Iraqi border guards, but needn't have bothered: They had abandoned their posts. So we took the regular road to the Karameh crossing into Iraq, where Jordanian officials barely glanced at my passport before waving me on.

After spending the night in a town few people outside Iraq had heard about--Fallujah--I arrived in Baghdad on April 10, the day after the world had watched the statue of Saddam being pulled down in Firdos Square.

It was not, as the Iraqi official had feared and I had hoped, the same Baghdad. The bombing campaign had flattened many government buildings, Here and there were signs of desultory gun battles. On the sides of one boulevard were piles of uniforms, left there by Iraqi soldiers who refused to stand and fight for the dictator. Still, it didn't feel like a defeated city.

Instead, a sense of relief filled the air, and not just over the end of the fighting. The mood was cautious, naturally: The generation raised in Saddam's republic of fear could hardly be expected to turn optimistic overnight. But the prospect of escaping his iron grip was real.

I found Nael, who had driven me around the city before the war. I recalled how frightened he had been when I had enquired about a grand building we were driving past. "Don't point, don't point," he had said, in panic. "That's Saddam's palace."

Now he drove me there, eager to check it out himself. As I went inside to talk to the Marines who were going through the dictator's papers and possessions, he joined a crowd of Iraqis who cheered each time an American emerged from the palace.

We drove all over town, late into the night. I marveled at my freedom to roam without a government minder. Nael confessed he was relieved he didn't have to submit a written account of my movements to an official at the end of the day.

The building where he had to turn in his reports had been bombed. "Good," he declared as we drove past it. "Terrible place."

A couple of days later, we drove to another of Saddam's palaces, on the outskirts of town. There, we helped ourselves to one of the giant carp that were raised for the dictator's delectation. We brought it back to the city and found the owner of one of the fish restaurants on the banks of the Tigris. He opened the place for us, and had the carp grilled in the Iraqi "masgouf" style.

Joining us for the meal, he kept exclaiming between bites, "We're eating Saddam's fish!"

At one point, he brought out a bottle of arak, the anise spirit favored in the Arab world, and raised a series of progressively more expansive toasts to the Americans, who had made this magical evening possible.

None of us could have imagined such a possibility so soon after the start of the invasion. That the war would go so well, and so quickly, had been unthinkable.

The restaurant owner and his chef were all veterans of Saddam's 1991 invasion of Kuwait, and had up-close experience of the might of the American war machine. Even so, they were amazed--shocked and awed, you might say--that the U.S.-led coalition had taken Baghdad in such short order.

It had been, we all agreed, a military masterpiece.

What none of us could have known in those heady first days after the fall of Saddam was that the plan for what came after the war was poorly conceived and even more poorly executed.

Shelves of books written since 2003 catalog the many mistakes that quickly sent the hopes of Iraqis crashing down. For those of us who watched it go horribly wrong on the ground, three errors of judgment stand out.

The first, as I had witnessed at the Karameh crossing, was the lack of thought given to securing Iraq's borders. The way was wide open for agents provocateur--whether Iranian intelligence operatives from the east or jihadist terrorists from the west and north--to enter the country, join up with fifth columnists within and quickly establish underground networks throughout the country.

In the months ahead, they would undermine the coalition's efforts to establish law and order and begin a political process.

Much of this is down to the stubbornness of one man: U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who was determined to demonstrate a new way of war (the so-called Rumsfeld Doctrine) in which victory could be achieved by overwhelming superiority in the air and a small footprint on the ground.

His deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, summed up the policy: "There's been a good deal of comment, some of it quite outlandish, about what our postwar requirements might be in Iraq. ... [T]he notion that it will take several hundred thousand U.S. troops to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq [is] wildly off the mark."

The invasion force had 150,000 American troops, sufficient to win the war in short order but not to secure the peace, which should have included protecting the borders and reestablishing law and order.

The most logical way around this was to encourage elements of the defeated Iraqi army to take up some of the responsibility, under the coalition's supervision.

Many of those who had refused to fight for Saddam were patriotic Iraqis, and would have welcomed an opportunity to defend their country. Likewise, many who had served in the police force would have kept the streets safe.

Instead came the second big mistake: Within days of taking charge of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Paul Bremer issued CPA Order No. 1, dismissing tens of thousands of government employees for having been members of Saddam's Ba'ath Party.

Bremer (and his bosses in Washington) had neglected to consider that in the Saddam era, party membership had effectively been compulsory for most government jobs, and especially in the security services.

The de-Baathification process deprived the CPA of the services of the people who knew how to manage--and protect--the Iraqi state.

Third, to make matters infinitely worse, the very next day Bremer issued CPA Order No. 2, disbanding the Iraqi armed forces, the Ministry of Defense and other security institutions.

Implemented indiscriminately and with little regard for due process, the two orders fueled a powerful sense of grievance among those suddenly left jobless. Many who could have protected Iraq from the Iran-sponsored Shiite militias and Al Qaeda-backed Sunni terrorist outfits instead joined them.

The mayhem they would unleash, directed more against Iraqis than the coalition forces, doomed all prospects for peace.

The ranks of the Shiite militias included the restaurant owner who had expressed so much admiration for the U.S. military as we feasted on Saddam's fish.

He stayed in touch with Nael, which allowed me to chart his rise up the ranks of the Mahdi Army as I covered events on the ground, until he was killed in Najaf in the summer of 2004, by the very Americans to whom he had raised glasses of arak that night by the Tigris.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor in chief at Hindustan Times, managing editor at Quartz and international editor at Time.

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