The invasion of Iraq

Justification number 3


I think all foreigners should stop interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq.

Paul Wolfowitz, Baghdad, 21 July 2003


There is no justification for Iran or any other country interfering in Iraq

Tony Blair, Downing Street, 6 October 2005


Lt General John McColl gave evidence to the Defence Select Committee on 2 February 2005 about the insurgency in Iraq.  He was well-equipped to do so, having recently returned from Baghdad, where he had served for a year as the British Military Representative and deputy commander of the occupation forces in Iraq.  He summarised his view in the following terms:


“I think the insurgency can be divided roughly into three.


“The first element is what I would describe as the Shia militias, epitomised by al-Sadr and his people. They, in the uprising in April and then in the uprising in August, were dealt, I think, a fairly serious blow - and one can see that in some of the ways in which they have modified their behaviour - and whilst I think they will continue to be a threat, particularly in the South, I do not think they will represent a strategic threat.


“The second element is Jihadists, epitomised by Zarqawi and his group. I think that, as long as there is a significant Western presence in Iraq, we will continue to see significant Jihadist activity. Having said that, during the time I was there we analysed the number of attacks that were emanating from Zarqawi and his people, and it was around one per cent of the total attacks. So, whilst they are very high profile and whilst they are very effective in terms of grabbing the headlines, in terms of the numbers of attacks they are actually quite limited. [My emphasis]


“Which brings us on to the third group, which is the former regime elements. I think, by common consent, over the last year they have developed in terms of coherence and sophistication. I do not think we can deny that. They are trying to represent themselves as freedom fighters, in terms of the western and multinational force and coalition presence, and, in doing so, bind themselves with the other two groups that I have just mentioned.  However, I do think the recent successful elections will have been a significant blow, in terms of trying to dent that, because I do not think there is a great deal of support for the former regime elements but they can develop support based upon this idea of being some kind of freedom fighting organisation.


“I think those are the three elements. There is no doubt which poses the major threat, and that is the former regime elements and those who coalesce around them, and those are the people we need to target. Certainly the development in democracy that we have seen just recently is by far the most effective way of doing that.”


This can be taken to be the official view of the British and American military at the beginning of 2005.  It is remarkable for the assessment that a mere 1% of the attacks were not home grown (though he doesn’t say what period the assessment covers).  It bears no relationship to how the Government portrayed the insurgency, at that time or since.


It is also remarkable in that he says that this “Jihadist activity” is a response to “Western presence in Iraq”, which won’t go away until the “Western presence” goes away.  This leads to the obvious conclusion that the way to end “Jihadist activity” in Iraq is for the US/UK to “cut and run” (which might also end “Jihadist activity” in London).  Strangely, we have yet to hear this expert assessment by General McColl from the Prime Minister’s lips.


McColl’s remarks also reveal the extravagant hopes that the US/UK military authorities entertained that the January elections would dampen down the third element of the insurgency, hopes that were largely in vain, though there was certainly a lull in insurgent activity for a month or so after the election.


The Iraq Coalition Casualty website shows that the occupation force casualty rate has fallen from a peak of over 4 a day in the month before the election to an average of 2.21 a day since, making 589 deaths in all (560 US, 12 UK and 17 Others) since the election and uncounted thousands of Iraqis.  At the time of writing, total occupation force deaths stand at 2196 (1997 US, 97 UK and 102 Others), an average of 2.31 a day since the invasion.


Blair misrepresents insurgency

I was reminded of General McColl’s remarks as I listened to the Prime Minister on BBC1’s Sunday AM programme on 25 September 2005 (see transcript here), at the start of the Labour Party Conference.  Asked by Andrew Marr if he has anticipated the level of insurgency that occurred in Iraq, he replied:


“No, I didn’t expect quite the same kind of ferocity from every single element in the Middle East that came in and is doing their best to disrupt the political process.”


The implication of this is that the insurgency in Iraq is, in large measure, inspired from outside Iraq and gets its manpower from outside Iraq.  If Andrew Marr had been doing his job, he would have intervened and asked something along the lines of:


“But surely, Prime Minister, the insurgency is mostly home grown, and not from outside Iraq?  I recall our former man in Baghdad, General McColl, saying last February that only 1% of the attacks were from Zarqawi and his people.”


He might also have asked:


“Surely, Prime Minister, it is an extraordinary failure on your part that Iraq is now a hotbed of terrorism?  After all, it was a terrorist free zone before you and George Bush invaded.”


But Marr, who makes David Frost seem like a rottweiller, allowed this gross misrepresentation of the character of the insurgency to pass.  And Blair went on to say, without challenge, that Britain had to stay in Iraq in order to defeat the terrorists that wouldn’t be there if Britain and America hadn’t invaded in the first place, and that General McColl said was a response to our presence:


“There is no doubt in my mind at all that what is happening in Iraq now is crucial for the future of our own security, never mind the security of Iraq or the greater Middle East. It is crucial for the security of the world. If they are defeated - this type of global terrorism and insurgency in Iraq - we will defeat them everywhere.”


At which point Marr should have intervened and said:


“But, Prime Minister, our intervention seems to have brought about this terrorism in Iraq.  And I recall our former man in Baghdad, General McColl, saying last February that as long as there is significant Western presence in Iraq, we will continue to see significant Jihadist activity there.  Surely, therefore, reducing or eliminating the Western presence in Iraq the key to ending it?”


(It was too much to expect Marr to challenge the illogicality at the heart of Blair’s final sentence, which is akin to saying that, if England can beat Northern Ireland at Old Trafford, they can beat them anywhere, anytime.)


Earlier justifications unusable

The misrepresentation of the nature of the insurgency has become necessary because the only public justification that Blair can now advance for the continued US/UK occupation of Iraq is that it is part of the so-called “global war on terrorism”.  Other, earlier, justifications have melted away like snow off a ditch. 


The initial justification – that Iraq possessed, or was in the process of developing, “weapons of mass destruction” – became unusable shortly after the invasion when it became clear that Iraq had none, and wasn’t developing any.


The next justification – that the invasion was a humanitarian intervention to get rid of the murderous regime of Saddam Hussein and save Iraqi lives (which contradicted the first since Blair had specifically stated that the regime of Saddam Hussein could remain in power if he gave up his “weapons of mass destruction”) – has become progressively less usable as the carnage in Iraq has mounted.  It has become harder and harder to say that we intervened to stop Iraqis being killed when, as a consequence of our intervention and under our occupation, Iraqis are now been killed at perhaps a hundred times the rate of extra-judicial killings in the years immediately before the invasion when Saddam Hussein was in power.


You don’t believe me?  Amnesty International estimated that “scores of people, including possible prisoners of conscience, were executed” in 2002, a similar number in 2001 and “hundreds” in 2000, and nobody can accuse Amnesty International of being soft on Saddam Hussein.


By contrast, at least thirty thousand Iraqis, and perhaps many, many more, have been killed in the two and a half years since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein (see, for example, the estimates of Iraq Body Count here).  The killing rate has increased by a factor of perhaps a hundred because of the US/UK invasion and occupation.


This is a crude estimate, but what it is absolutely certain is that tens of thousands of Iraqis who are now dead would have been alive if the Bush and Blair hadn’t intervened, and there is no end in sight – which is why it’s become increasingly difficult to present the invasion and occupation as driven by a humanitarian desire to save Iraqi lives.


Justification number 3

So, justification number three – that the US/UK are fighting the “global war on terror” in Iraq in order to preserve our way of life in the West – has come to dominate in Blair’s public justification for invasion and occupation, despite the fact that Iraq was a terrorist free zone before the invasion.  As Blair said in his conference speech on 27 September 2005:


“Terrorism struck most dramatically in New York but it was aimed then, and is aimed now, at us all, at our way of life.  This is a global struggle.  Today it is at its fiercest in Iraq.”


To make this public justification credible, the insurgency in Iraq has to be presented as a foreign Jihadist import, and the home grown element of it played down and characterised as FREs (former regime elements) and not as popular resistance to occupation amongst Sunni Arabs.


Of course, from the outset, President Bush presented the invasion of Iraq as an integral part of the “global war on terror”.  (Even though God, allegedly, told him go and end the tyranny in Iraq, he didn’t present the invasion in those terms).  Thus, in his address to the nation on 19 March 2003, after military action had started, Bush told the American people that he was taking action in order to eliminate terrorists who would otherwise attack the US homeland, saying:


“We will meet that threat now, with our Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and Marines, so that we do not have to meet it later with armies of fire fighters and police and doctors on the streets of our cities.”


Two years later nothing has changed.  In his address to the nation on 28 June 2005, he told the same story:


Iraq is the latest battlefield in this war [on terror]. Many terrorists who kill innocent men, women, and children on the streets of Baghdad are followers of the same murderous ideology that took the lives of our citizens in New York, in Washington, and Pennsylvania. There is only one course of action against them: to defeat them abroad before they attack us at home.”


Presenting the invasion as a response to 9/11 and a means of preventing its reoccurrence had no basis in reality, but it served the higher presidential purpose of increasing popular support for military action about which many people were sceptical then, and many more are sceptical today.


It is an irony that, whereas Saddam Hussein kept al-Qaeda out of the part of Iraq he controlled, the US-led invasion has acted as a recruiting sergeant for al-Qaeda and produced an environment in Iraq in which it can flourish.  After 9/11, a familiar refrain coming out of Washington was that “terrorists” flourish in “failed states”, where they have the freedom to organise and train unhindered by the security apparatus of a state.  Doing something about “failed states” was said to be central to winning the “global war on terrorism”.  It is ironic therefore that the US/UK have now created a “failed state” in Iraq – and it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that some of those operatives trained in Iraq may end up on the streets of US cities.


Myth of foreign fighters

It may be that the makeup of the insurgency, and its modes of operation, has changed somewhat since General McColl gave evidence to the Defence Select Committee in February this year.  But there is no reason to believe that foreign fighters are now the dominant element in the insurgency.


Two days before Blair gave the impression to Andrew Marr that that they were, The Guardian ran a story entitled Report attacks 'myth' of foreign fighters, based on a report by the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), which judging by the content of its reports has access to information from the US military and other US government agencies, including information derived from detainee interrogation.  The Guardian story begins:


“The US and the Iraqi government have overstated the number of foreign fighters in Iraq, ‘feeding the myth’ that they are the backbone of the insurgency, an American thinktank says in a new report.


“Foreign militants - mainly from Algeria, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia - account for less than 10% of the estimated 30,000 insurgents, according to the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).”


There has been a widespread assumption that Saudi Arabia has been the source of most of the foreign fighters entering Iraq.  The CSIS report concludes otherwise:


“The conclusion of this investigation is that the number of Saudis is around 12% of the foreign

contingent (approximately 350), or 1.2% of the total insurgency of approximately 30,000.

Algerians constitute the largest contingent at 20%, followed closely by Syrians (18%), Yemenis

(17%), Sudanese (15%), Egyptians (13%) and those from other states (5%).” (page 5)


Interestingly, the report says:


“One of [our] primary conclusions is the unsettling realization that the vast majority of Saudi militants who have entered Iraq were not terrorist sympathizers before the war; and were radicalized almost exclusively by the Coalition invasion.” (page 5)


Most of the Saudi militants in Iraq were motivated by revulsion at the idea of an Arab land being occupied by a non-Arab country. … The catalyst most often cited is Abu Ghraib, though images from Guantanamo Bay also feed into the pathology.” (page 9)


Interestingly, also, the report accepts that Syria hasn’t got the resources to prevent foreign fighters crossing its border into Iraq:


Syria is clearly the biggest problem, but preventing militants from crossing its 380-mile border with Iraq is daunting.


“According to The Minister of Tourism, Syria is fast becoming one of the largest tourist destinations in the Middle East. In 2004, roughly 3.1 million tourists visited the country; the number of Saudis arriving in just the first seven months of 2005 increased to 270,000 from 230,000 in the same period in 2004. Separating the legitimate visitors from the militants is nearly impossible, and Saudi militants have taken advantage of this fact  …” (page 10-11)


“Even if Syria had the political will to completely and forcefully seal its border, it lacks sufficient resources to do so …” (page 11)


British problems in Basra

The British media underwent a minor convulsion about Iraq in the week beginning 19 September 2005.  This was prompted by the arrest of two SAS soldiers in Arab dress by the Basra police, and the refusal of the police to hand them over to the British military, which then demolished a police station in order to retrieve them.  Very little is certain about what happened at the time of the arrest, but it appears that the SAS soldiers shot at the police, killing a civilian and wounding a policeman.


The British military were completely within their legal rights in demanding that the soldiers be handed over to them, no matter what they had done.  It is doubtful if the Iraqi government can be said to be sovereign in any sphere, but there is one area in which it has no legal authority whatsoever, and that is over the activities of the occupation forces, who were granted immunity from Iraqi law by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), that is, by the occupiers themselves, in CPA Order 17.


This was originally signed by Paul Bremer, the head of the CPA, on 26 June 2003 and was subsequently amended and re-signed by him on 27 June 2004, just before the CPA dissolved itself.  Despite the demise of the CPA, Order 17 is still in force and under it:


“Unless provided otherwise herein, the MNF [Multi-National Force, aka the occupation forces], the CPA, Foreign Liaison Missions, their Personnel, property, funds and assets, and all International Consultants shall be immune from Iraqi legal process.”


As a result of this incident, the British media made the astounding discovery that the Basra police force was largely made up of members of the two main Shia militia groups, Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army and the Badr Brigade of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).  No matter that this information that has been in the public domain in Britain for months, certainly since 31 May 2005, when The Guardian ran a story entitled Basra out of control, says chief of police, which began:


“The chief of police in Basra admitted yesterday that he had effectively lost control of three-quarters of his officers and that sectarian militias had infiltrated the force and were using their posts to assassinate opponents.”


The chief, General Hassan al-Sade, a former officer in Saddam Hussein’s special forces, who was appointed to his post by former Prime Minister, Ayad Allawi , was quoted as saying:


“I trust 25% of my force, no more.”


The excuse given by the British military for rescuing the SAS soldiers by force – that their lives were at risk because “they had been handed over to militia elements” – doesn’t make much sense since the bulk of the Basra police are made up of “militia elements”.  However, the British military were merely enforcing the law, as agreed to by the present (and previous) Iraqi government.


In the aftermath of this incident, the word “infiltration” has been used continuously to describe the process whereby the Shia militias came to be present in the Basra police, as if it had come about by a secret process unknown to the British occupation authorities.  But it could not possibly have come about without their knowledge, and most likely came about with their encouragement, with a view to maintaining order in the Basra area at least cost to themselves.  In any event, the use of the word “infiltration” is inappropriate.


Exit strategy?

The US/UK “exit strategy” from Iraq is, we are told, to leave when the Iraqi security forces – police, army, national guard, etc – are capable of taking over from “coalition forces”, and to that end “coalition forces” are heavily engaged in “training” Iraqi security forces.  As Blair said in a press conference in Downing Street with the Iraqi President Talabani on 6 October 2005, the policy is:


“… we remain until the Iraqi forces are capable of securing their own country and so that Iraq is then capable of becoming a proper functioning and sovereign democracy”


It was too much to hope that the revelations about the police in Basra which briefly excited the media in Britain would have prompted a curiosity about Iraqi security forces in general and about whether the US/UK “exit strategy” was predicated on a condition that would never happen, and was therefore the military equivalent of waiting for Godot. 


For a year and more, the US/UK authorities in Iraq have poured out optimistic stories about the growing capability of Iraqi forces, occasionally accompanied by TV pictures of some soldiers in training and the occasional interview with an obviously handpicked Iraqi officer.  It is almost a year now since a few Iraq soldiers appeared briefly on our screens at the beginning of the US assault on Fallujah, though they didn’t appear to take part in the assault itself (and, according to Scott Ritter on Al Jazeera on 9 November 2004, they were a Kurdish militia incorporated en bloc into the Iraqi Army).  Earlier this year, the boast was that “trained” Iraqi security forces now outnumbered “coalition forces”.  Then on 11 September 2005 we were told that for the first time in a military operation Iraqi troops had outnumbered American troops: this was in an assault on Tal Afar, near the border with Syria.  However, the Guardian report of the incident the next day suggested that “the Iraqi Army’s role was inflated” and “images of Iraqis searching houses were largely cosmetic”.  Strangely, in Operation Iron Fist launched on 1 October 2005 on other towns on the Syria border the US decided to go it alone:  “No Iraqi troops are being used in the current operation”, said a BBC report next day.


Only one battalion

A few days earlier, the US commander in Iraq, General George Casey, revealed the true state of the Iraqi Army, as opposed to the optimistic rhetoric, under questioning at the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington on 29 September 2005.  The following is an account of it from Middle East Online here:


“Other senators sharply questioned the progress being made … in Iraq, zeroing in on a disclosure by Casey that only one Iraqi battalion was operating fully independently.  The last time Casey reported to Congress several months ago, he said three battalions were fully capable.


“‘We fully recognize that Iraqi armed forces will not have an independent capability for some time, because they don't have an institutional base [??] to support them’, he said. ‘And so Level One [that is, capable of operating independently] is one battalion’.


“’It was three. Now it’s gone from three to one?’ interjected Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona.


“‘Things change in a battalion. We’re making assessments on leadership, on training. There are a lot of variables that are involved here, senator’, Casey said.”


This state of affairs will not come as a surprise to people who have read stories by Anthony Shadid and Steve Fainaru in the Washington Post in recent months.  Here are the opening lines from their story, entitled Building Iraq's Army: Mission Improbable, published on 10 June 2005:


“An hour before dawn, the sky still clouded by a dust storm, the soldiers of the Iraqi army's Charlie Company began their mission with a ballad to ousted president Saddam Hussein. ‘We have lived in humiliation since you left’, one sang in Arabic, out of earshot of his U.S. counterparts. ‘We had hoped to spend our life with you’.


“But the Iraqi soldiers had no clue where they were going. They shrugged their shoulders when asked what they would do. The U.S. military had billed the mission as pivotal in the Iraqis’ progress as a fighting force but had kept the destination and objectives secret out of fear the Iraqis would leak the information to insurgents.


“’We can’t tell these guys about a lot of this stuff, because we’re not really sure who's good and who isn’t’, said Rick McGovern, a tough-talking 37-year-old platoon sergeant from Hershey, Pa., who heads the military training for Charlie Company.


“The reconstruction of Iraq’s security forces is the prerequisite for an American withdrawal from Iraq. But as the Bush administration extols the continuing progress of the new Iraqi army, the project in Baiji, a desolate oil town at a strategic crossroads in northern Iraq, demonstrates the immense challenges of building an army from scratch in the middle of a bloody insurgency.


“Charlie Company disintegrated once after its commander was killed by a car bomb in December. And members of the unit were threatening to quit en masse this week over complaints that ranged from dismal living conditions to insurgent threats. Across a vast cultural divide, language is just one impediment. Young Iraqi soldiers, ill-equipped and drawn from a disenchanted Sunni Arab minority, say they are not even sure what they are fighting for. They complain bitterly that their American mentors don't respect them.”


Charlie Company may not be typical of the Iraqi Army, since it’s based in Baiji, a mostly Sunni Arab town North of Baghdad on the road to Mosul – there are obvious difficulties in occupation forces constructing an Army made up of Sunnis to fight a popular Sunni insurgency against occupation.


In another article, entitled Militias on the Rise Across Iraq, published on 21 August 2005, Shadid and Fainaru paint a picture of Shiite and Kurdish militias dominating the Iraqi security forces in other areas of Iraq.  It begins:


“Shiite and Kurdish militias, often operating as part of Iraqi government security forces, have carried out a wave of abductions, assassinations and other acts of intimidation, consolidating their control over territory across northern and southern Iraq and deepening the country's divide along ethnic and sectarian lines, according to political leaders, families of the victims, human rights activists and Iraqi officials.


“While Iraqi representatives wrangle over the drafting of a constitution in Baghdad, the militias, and the Shiite and Kurdish parties that control them, are creating their own institutions of authority, unaccountable to elected governments, the activists and officials said. In Basra in the south, dominated by the Shiites, and Mosul in the north, ruled by the Kurds, as well as cities and villages around them, many residents have said they are powerless before the growing sway of the militias, which instill a climate of fear that many see as redolent of the era of former president Saddam Hussein.


“The parties and their armed wings sometimes operate independently, and other times as part of Iraqi army and police units trained and equipped by the United States and Britain and controlled by the central government. Their growing authority has enabled them to control territory, confront their perceived enemies and provide patronage to their followers. Their ascendance has come about because of a power vacuum in Baghdad and their own success in the January parliamentary elections.


“Since the formation of a government this spring, Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, has witnessed dozens of assassinations, which claimed members of the former ruling Baath Party, Sunni political leaders and officials of competing Shiite parties. Many have been carried out by uniformed men in police vehicles, according to political leaders and families of the victims, with some of the bullet-riddled bodies dumped at night in a trash-strewn parcel known as The Lot. The province's governor said in an interview that Shiite militias have penetrated the police force; an Iraqi official estimated that as many as 90 percent of officers were loyal to religious parties.”


Which is where we came in.



David Morrison

Labour & Trade Union Review


24 October 2005