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How to Get Out of Iraq


In the year since the United States Marines pulled down Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, things have gone very badly for the United States in Iraq and for its ambition of creating a model democracy that might transform the Middle East. As of today the United States military appears committed to an open-ended stay in a country where, with the exception of the Kurdish north, patience with the foreign occupation is running out, and violent opposition is spreading. Civil war and the breakup of Iraq are more likely outcomes than a successful transition to a pluralistic Western-style democracy.

Much of what went wrong was avoidable. Focused on winning the political battle to start a war, the Bush administration failed to anticipate the postwar chaos in Iraq. Administration strategy seems to have been based on a hope that Iraq’s bureaucrats and police would simply transfer their loyalty to the new authorities, and the country’s administration would continue to function. All experience in Iraq suggested that the collapse of civil authority was the most likely outcome, but there was no credible planning for this contingency. In fact, the US effort to remake Iraq never recovered from its confused start when it failed to prevent the looting of Baghdad in the early days of the occupation.

Americans like to think that every problem has a solution, but that may no longer be true in Iraq. Before dealing at considerable length with what has gone wrong, I should also say what has gone right.

Iraq is free from Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party. Along with Cambodia’s Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein’s regime was one of the two most cruel and inhumane regimes in the second half of the twentieth century. Using the definition of genocide specified in the 1948 Genocide Convention, Iraq’s Baath regime can be charged with planning and executing two genocides—one against the Kurdish population in the late 1980s and another against the Marsh Arabs in the 1990s. In the 1980s, the Iraqi armed forces and security services systematically destroyed more than four thousand Kurdish villages and several small cities, attacked over two hundred Kurdish villages and towns with chemical weapons in 1987 and 1988, and organized the deportation and execution of up to 182,000 Kurdish civilians.

In the 1990s the Saddam Hussein regime drained the marshes of southern Iraq, displacing 500,000 people, half of whom fled to Iran, and killing some 40,000. In addition to destroying the five-thousand-year-old Marsh Arab civilization, draining the marshes did vast ecological damage to one of the most important wetlands systems on the planet. Genocide is only part of Saddam Hussein’s murderous legacy. Tens of thousands perished in purges from 1979 on, and as many as 300,000 Shiites were killed in the six months following the collapse of the March 1991 Shiite uprising. One mass grave near Hilla may contain as many as 30,000 bodies.

In a more lawful world, the United Nations, or a coalition of willing states, would have removed this regime from power long before 2003. However, at precisely the time that some of the most horrendous crimes were being committed, in the late 1980s, the Reagan and Bush administrations strongly opposed any action to punish Iraq for its genocidal campaign against the Kurds or to deter Iraq from using chemical weapons against the Kurdish civilians.

On August 20, 1988, the Iran–Iraq War ended. Five days later, the Iraqi military initiated a series of chemical weapons attacks on at least forty-nine Kurdish villages in the Dihok Governorate (or province) near the Syrian and Turkish borders. As a staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I (along with Chris Van Hollen, now a Maryland congressman) interviewed hundreds of survivors in the high mountains on the Turkish border. Our report, which established conclusively that Iraq had used nerve and mustard agents on tens of thousands of civilians, coincided with the Senate’s passage of the Prevention of Genocide Act of 1988, which imposed comprehensive economic sanctions on Iraq for crimes against the Kurds. The Reagan administration opposed the legislation, in a position orchestrated by the then national security adviser, Colin Powell, calling such sanctions “premature.”

Except for a relatively small number of Saddam Hussein’s fellow Sunni Arabs who worked for his regime, the peoples of Iraq are much better off today than they were under Saddam Hussein. The problems that threaten to tear Iraq apart—Kurdish aspirations for independence, Shiite dreams of dominance, Sunni Arab nostalgia for lost power—are not of America’s making (although the failure to act sooner against Saddam made them less solvable). Rather, they are inherent in an artificial state held together for eighty years primarily by brute force.


American liberation—and liberation it was—ended the brute force. Iraqis celebrated the dictatorship’s overthrow, and in Baghdad last April ordinary citizens thrust flowers into my hands. Since then, however:

• Hostile action has killed twice as many American troops as died in the war itself, while thousands of Iraqis have also died.

• Terrorists have killed the head of the United Nations Mission, Sergio Vieira de Mello; Iraq’s most prominent Shiite politician, the Ayatollah Baqir al-Hakim; and the deputy prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Sami Abdul Rahman, along with hundreds of others.

• Looting has caused billions of dollars of damage, most of which will have to be repaired at the expense of the US taxpayer.

• $150 billion has already been spent on Iraq, an amount equal to 25 percent of the non-defense discretionary federal budget. (By contrast, the first Gulf War earned a small profit for the US government, owing to the contributions of other nations.)

• Discontent with the US-led occupation boiled over into an uprising in the Shiite areas of Iraq on the first anniversary of liberation and a persistent insurgency in the Sunni Triangle degenerated into a full-scale battle in Fallujah. Many on the US-installed Iraqi Governing Council strongly opposed the US military response, and the US-created security institutions—the new Iraqi police and the paramilitary Iraqi Civil Defense Corps—refused to fight, or in some cases, joined the rebels.

• US credibility abroad has been undermined by the failure to find weapons of mass destruction. Spain’s elections, Tony Blair’s sinking poll results, and the prospective defeat of Australia’s Howard government underscore the political risk of too close an association with the United States.

• Relations with France and Germany have been badly hurt, in some cases by the gratuitous comments made by senior US officials.

• The United States does not now have the military or diplomatic resources to deal with far more serious threats to our national security. President Bush rightly identified the peril posed by the nexus between weapons of mass destruction and rogue states. The greatest danger comes from rogue states that acquire and disseminate nuclear weapons technology. At the beginning of 2003 Iraq posed no such danger. As a result of the Iraq war the United States has neither the resources nor the international support to cope effectively with the very serious nuclear threats that come from North Korea, Iran, and, most dangerous of all, our newly designated “major non-NATO ally,” Pakistan.

With fewer than one hundred days to the handover of power to a sovereign Iraq on June 30, there is no clear plan—and no decision—about how Iraq will be run on July 1, 2004. Earlier this month, the Bush administration praised itself generously for the signing of an interim constitution for Iraq—a constitution with human rights provisions it described as unprecedented for the Middle East. Three weeks later, as I write, the interim constitution is already falling apart.

As is true of so much of the US administration of postwar Iraq, the damage here is self-inflicted. While telling Iraqis it wanted to defer constitutional issues to an elected Iraqi body, the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority could not resist trying to settle fundamental constitutional issues in the interim constitution. The US government lawyers who wrote the interim constitution, known formally as the Transitional Administrative Law, made no effort to disguise their authorship. All deliberations on the law were done in secret and probably fewer than one hundred Iraqis saw a copy of the constitution before it was promulgated. To write a major law in any democracy—much less a constitution—without public discussion should be unthinkable. Now that Iraqis are discovering for the first time the contents of the constitution, it should come as no surprise that many object to provisions they never knew were being considered.

Iraq’s Shiite leaders say that the National Assembly due to be elected in January 2005 should not be constrained by a document prepared by US government lawyers, deliberated in secret, and signed by twenty-five Iraqis selected by Ambassador Bremer. In particular, the Shiites object to a provision in the interim constitution that allows three of Iraq’s eighteen governorates (or provinces) to veto ratification of a permanent constitution. This, in effect, allows either the Kurds or the Sunni Arabs, each of whom make up between one fifth and one sixth of Iraq’s population, to block a constitution they don’t like. (It is a wise provision. Imposing a constitution on reluctant Kurds or Sunni Arabs will provoke a new cycle of resistance and conflict.) The Shiite position makes the Kurds, who are well armed, reluctant to surrender powers to a central government that may be Shiite-dominated.

At the moment the Sunni Arabs have few identifiable leaders. The Kurds, however, are well organized. They have an elected parliament and two regional governments, their own court system, and a 100,000 strong military force, known as the Peshmerga. The Peshmerga, whose members were principal American allies in the 2003 war, are better armed, better trained, and more disciplined than the minuscule Iraqi army the United States is now trying to reconstitute.

Early in 2005, Iraq will likely see a clash between an elected Shiite-dominated central government trying to override the interim constitution in order to impose its will on the entire country, and a Kurdistan government insistent on preserving the de facto independent status Kurdistan has enjoyed for thirteen years. Complicating the political struggle is a bitter territorial dispute over the oil-rich province of Kirkuk involving Kurds, Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, Sunni Turkmen, and Shiite Turkmen.

It is a formula for civil war.


How did we arrive at this state of affairs?

I arrived in Baghdad on April 13, 2003, as part of an ABC news team. It was apparent to me that things were already going catastrophically wrong. When the United States entered Baghdad on April 9 last year, it found a city largely undamaged by a carefully executed military campaign. However, in the two months following the US takeover, unchecked looting effectively gutted every important public institution in the city with the notable exception of the Oil Ministry. The physical losses include:

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