Iraq: The War So Far

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January 28, 2008: Because of Saddam's continued support of terrorists, weapons of mass destruction and bad behavior in general, the U.S. invaded Iraq. Using three divisions, the country was conquered in three weeks. Britain had done the same thing in 1941 with three divisions, and also took Baghdad in less than three weeks. But in 1941, the British went in because Iraq had declared itself an ally of Nazi Germany. After deposing the pro-German Sunni Arab politicians, the Brits simply installed a pro-British Sunni Arab strong man.

When the U.S. led coalition ousted Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1991, most observers, including media pundits, missed a very important detail. The U.S. has gotten Arab nations to join the operation only because of a promise not to invade Iraq itself. This was no secret at the time, and was a reflection of Arab politics. That is, the Sunnis must be in charge, especially in Iraq, which is considered the front line for the defense of the Arab world from Iran.

In 2003, the U.S. removed the Sunni Arabs from power, and declared that democracy, and majority rule, would prevail. That was anathema to the Iraqi Sunni Arabs, who feared retribution from the Kurds and Shia Arabs. In addition, there was the money angle. The Sunni Arabs had been keeping a disproportionate share of the oil wealth for themselves, and had been doing so for decades. In order to avoid poverty and prison, the Sunni Arabs began a terror campaign against the coalition (mainly U.S. and British) troops. In early 2004, they allied themselves with al Qaeda, and Islamic terrorists in general. Al Qaeda saw the invasion of Iraq as an attack on their heartland, and an opportunity to defeat the United States, and the West in general.

The basic U.S. strategy in Iraq was, historically, sound. You help the locals get organized so they can take care of themselves. That means elections and help to rebuild local institutions. But there's never a guarantee that will work. The U.S. Marines were in Haiti for nearly 30 years (from 1914), and the country still reverted to dictatorship and poverty when the marines left. This exposes a truth that many refuse to acknowledge. Fixing countries isn't easy. The "civil society" that we in the West take for granted, cannot just be conjured up. The harmonious relationships that enable some democracies to work, are not a given. Those relationships often require a lot of bad habits to be changed. This is not easy. Just check a history book.

Iraq, and most of the countries in the Middle East, are broken. They have been for a long time. We in the West have generally ignored it, because there were no workable solutions that were easily available. Then came the latest wave of Islamic terrorism. This got worse, until September 11, 2001, and then the prospect of mass murder in our own backyard became a reality. But at that point, the West became divided over the solution. Do we keep treating the terrorists as a police problem, and wait them out? That is known to work. But the threat of even deadlier terrorist attacks made more dramatic moves attractive to many, especially in the United States. That resulted in Iraq, confronting the Arab problems up close and personal. It ain't pretty. But unless the Arab problems are solved, the ugly aftereffects will still be there, and so will the threat of mass murder on the street where you live. The war on terror, and the war in Iraq, are all part of a struggle within Islam. Do we keep on with the same pattern of rebellion and repression, or do we try developing a civil society. Until the Iraqis decided what kind of country they wanted to live in, the war went on.

The anarchy that followed the American conquest of Baghdad was quickly accepted for what it was, spontaneous revenge against the Sunni Arab dictatorship and the thieves that ran it. Things settled down for a while, until the Sunni Arabs began the terror campaign to drive the Americans out, intimidate the Shia Arabs, and regain control of the country. These were all high-risk undertakings, and all failed. But not until after four years of terror, and over 100,000 dead Iraqis, did the Sunni Arabs admit defeat.

After the coalition took over, there was no more Iraqi police force or army. That's because the Saddam era security forces were recruited mainly for loyalty to Saddam, and the Sunni Arab minority. Before Saddam was ousted , the active duty army consisted of about 250,000 troops. Some 40 percent of these were the elite Republican Guard. Nearly all the army officers, and most of the NCOs, were Sunni Arabs. In the Republican Guard, everyone was Sunni Arab, as this outfit was, in effect, Saddam's "royal guard" and his main defense against a revolt by the army. The other 150,000 troops were mainly Sunni and Shia draftees, although there were Kurd and other minorities (Turks, and several Christian groups). At the time of the invasion, about 100,000 reservists (men who had done their conscript service recently) had been recalled to active duty. There were another 600,000 or so reservists who could have been called up. But many of these were Shia Arabs, and Saddam didn't want to see lots of armed Shia, in uniform or not.

Unless you wanted an Iraqi security force led by Sunni Arabs, many of dubious loyalty to a democratic Iraq, you had to disband the security forces. The army and police force had to be rebuilt. After two years of enormous effort, a new force was created. This was not easy, for the old Iraqi army was widely considered (based on performance alone) to be one of the most inept in the world. Despite spending over a hundred billion dollars on it, Saddam was never able to build a force that could fight effectively. Without the widespread use of chemical weapons in the 1980s, Iraq would have been overrun by an army of poorly equipped Iranian amateurs. The main problem was that the old Iraqi army was designed more for political, than combat, reliability. That's the main reason it was disbanded shortly after Iraq was conquered in 2003.

Saddam's army did have some troops who could fight effectively. That was the Republican Guard, a force of about 100,000 troops selected mainly for loyalty, but also given lots of training to make them effective fighters. Saddam wanted effective troops, but only wanted them if they would be loyal to him. That meant there were very few Iraqis he could find for such a force. But the Republican Guard experience did prove that with the right training and equipment, you could turn Iraqis into effective soldiers.

Equipping the new Iraqi army was the easy part. Just provide 700,000 uniforms, 210,000 sets of body armor, over 300,000 small arms, half a billion rounds of ammunition, 20,000 vehicles (mostly trucks), and twenty new bases (including five large enough to house a division.) By 2005, three divisions were activated (1st, 3rd and 7th), although these troops mainly operated as infantry battalions attached to American units. Some Iraqi brigades were being formed to conduct larger scale operations. The U.S. (and Germany) have also been training Iraqi staff officers, but no one could be sure when these divisions would be able to operate by themselves. Battalion and brigade officers were now getting there first combat experience in 2005.

Over 500,000 Iraqis joined the new army and security forces (many of whom are paramilitary SWAT teams), and over half of them were dismissed (as untrainable) or deserted. Those that remained served in 115 battalions. The most important thing about these battalions was that each of them have a ten man American training team. These guys continue teaching, often by demonstrating how things are done. For example, the old Iraqi army never stressed marksmanship, or small unit leadership and combat drills. The American style has the troops shooting lots of bullets at targets, with repeated instruction on how to hold and aim the rifle properly so that you could hit what you were aiming at. The infantry drills are demonstrated by American trainers, and U.S. troops. Iraqi troops constantly saw American soldiers and marines in action, and the American training teams in each Iraqi battalion were always ready to show the Iraqis exactly how it has done. The Iraqis were told they can be as effective as the Americans, but they had to train hard to get there.

The hardest job was getting Iraqis who can, and will, serve as effective NCOs and officers. In Saddams army, being an officer or NCO was seen as a form of patronage, not a responsibility. It's hard to change that attitude, as it was alive in Iraq for generations. Again, the Iraqis were reminded that if they wanted to be super-troopers like the Americans, someone had to take on the leadership responsibilities. After two years of looking, several thousand capable candidates were found. But the training took time, and the American training teams spent a lot of time showing the officers and NCOs the many little things that go into making a capable combat leader.

All this has been a difficult story to report, leaving Americans with a vague idea of what was happening with the Iraqi armed forces. Most journalists have no idea what the old Iraqi army was like, and what kind of changes had to be made to create a new one. But the changes were being made, and every week, more Iraqi troops became capable of fighting. They didn't have to be as good as American troops, just being better than the terrorists and irregulars they face gave them a decisive edge. And each week, more of them achieved the edge.

Nearly all of the violence was in central Iraq, where there were many mixed (Sunni Arabs living in close proximity to Kurds and Shia Arabs). In the far north, the Kurds had been free of Sunni Arabs for a decade before 2003. There were very few terrorist attacks in the Kurdish controlled area, and by 2005, Iraqis were going to the Kurdish north for vacations. The Kurds had very strict border controls, especially for Sunni Arabs. In the south, where most areas were completely, or overwhelmingly, Shia Arab. The only violence was between Shia militias.

The U.S. tactic from the beginning was to minimize American casualties, creating Iraqi security forces, collecting as much information on the Sunni Arab terrorist groups as possible, and maintaining supply routes from Kuwait. This was still a lot of activity, usually amounting to over 2,000 convoys and patrols a day.

The enemy included al Qaeda, which imported thousands of Sunni Arabs for suicide attacks. Nearly half of these were from Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Most of the rest were from North Africa, which, next to Saudi Arabia, has long been a major source of Islamic radicals. But most of the attacks were by Iraqi Sunni Arabs, who tried to coordinate operations with al Qaeda. By 2005, this merger began to fray, as Iraqi Sunni Arabs grew tired of the indiscriminate suicide bomb attacks. But more worrisome was the growing number of Shia Arab death squads. Saddam's secret police and militias used terror to keep the Shia Arabs in line, and these terrorists did their work openly. No masks, just bad behavior, done for maximum impact on the greatest number of people. The Shia Arabs wanted revenge, and in 2004, the Shia Arab death squads began to operate. They went out at night and killed Sunni Arabs. Some they would take prisoner, and torture them before killing them. The Sunni Arabs had death squads as well, but there were far more Shia Arabs than Sunni Arabs.

By 2005, many Sunni Arabs were fleeing the country. Jordan and Syria accepted these refugees. Both countries also allowed these refugees, many of them wealthy members of the defunct Saddam government. Jordan insisted these terrorist organizers and paymasters be discreet. But Syria allowed them to organize a smuggling operation that got foreign Sunni Arabs, recruited from all over the world, to fly in and be moved across the border. This did not get shut down until 2007. At that point, even the Syrians could see they were backing the losing side, and it was time to play nice with the Americans, and the new Iraqi government.

Elections were held in 2005, and the new government was dominated by Shia Arabs. By 2006, about half the Sunni Arabs were gone. The country was now about ten percent Sunni Arab, 65 percent Shia Arab, and most of the remainder were Kurds. The Sunni Arabs were faced with extermination and that led to one last terror offensive in late 2007 and early 2007. This killed 3,500 in September, and in February, they killed 3,000. The dead were civilians and security personnel (mostly civilians). The Spring Offensive was quickly brought to halt by a U.S. "Surge Offensive." This was done with five more American brigades being brought in, to join the fifteen already there, and the 250,000 Iraqi security forces (half soldiers and half police). By the Summer, most Sunni Arabs had had it with the terrorism, and the Americans were able to cut deals with most of the Sunni Arab tribes, and recruited another 70,000 Sunni Arabs for local defense forces. These turned on the Sunni Arab terrorists in their midst. By January, only about 300 Iraqis died from the violence. The Sunni Arab rebellion was broken.

There remained some major problems, mainly massive corruption, and incompetence in the government. Except for Israel and Turkey, there are no working democracies in the region. It's all bullies and police state politics. Many Iraqis realize that the old ways have not served them well. But building an effective government is not easy, even with everyone saying corruption is a bad thing and must be eliminated. There's no guarantee that this "war on corruption" will work, but things will remain bad if you do nothing. The Arab world is a mess because of the corruption. Not just all the dictatorships, but an economy that under-performs the rest of the world (including many areas without natural resources, like oil). There's an "Arab Reform Movement" operating throughout the region, but so far all they have been able to do is bring the problems out into the open. That's progress, but not a solution.

Despite the need for solutions, too many American politicians were more concerned with political correctness. That isn't always bad. For example, there has been enormous emphasis, in Iraq, on keeping American casualties down. This has been a success, with the casualty rate being about half what it was in Vietnam, and at a record low level historically. This has amazed military experts the world over, but was accomplished by adopting tactics that limited what American troops could do. The civilian deaths, as a result of U.S. combat operations, declined even more. That got little media attention either. But it was a big deal with the Iraqis.

Iraq can either be a turning point in Middle Eastern history, or the democracy can be corrupted, as it was in 1958 when the constitutional monarchy was overthrown by the Sunni Arab dominated military. To that end, the Iraqis are trying to negotiate a long term treaty with the United States that would include an American promise to "coup-proof" elected Iraqi governments. That's novel, but depends on the election process remaining uncorrupted. Nothing is simple in the Middle East.

 

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