When U.S. troops entered Baghdad on April 9, 2003, it was after a relatively easy victory over the Iraqi army and irregular militias. Immediately, U.S. leaders in charge began to disestablish the remnants of the Iraqi state. One of the ﬁ rst edicts passed on June 17, 2003, by the new “viceroy,” Paul L. Bremer III, was the dissolution of the Iraqi army.
Other pronouncements on the same date annulled the Ministries of Defense and Information and began the process of “deBaathiﬁ cation,” which was supposed to eradicate by the root all the ideological, political, and security excesses incurred under 35 years of Baathist rule in Iraq.
The hope was that, by dismissing thousands of Baathist professors, government ofﬁ cials, and army ofﬁ cers, any national government following in the wake of the U.S. military administration would begin with a clean slate. But it was not so simple. Undeterred by thousands of years of history, the Americans blundered into a country of which they knew virtually nothing. Their comeuppance was to begin almost immediately.
The U.S. plan for postwar Iraq, such as it was, was based on a radical blueprint worked out partly in secret by neoconservative ideologues in the Bush administration, with the aid of fellow travelers in American right-wing think tanks and select members of the Iraqi opposition in exile (Naomi Klein, 2004). According to this blueprint, Iraq, the “failed state,” was to be the theater for a massive restructuring exercise that would jettison the dirigiste command economy, dismantle the trappings of the authoritarian state structure, and open wide the doors to the beneﬁ ts of an untrammeled free market. Although Bremer immediately signaled his intention to aggressively conform to this agenda, several events conspired to waylay his strategy.
One important reason why the blueprint did not immediately materialize was the American disregard for history, especially Iraq’s own. This allowed the administration to concoct a pastiche of traditions and principles, mostly imbibed from British rule in Iraq in the period between 1917 and 1932. For instance, it believed that the greatest army in the world could easily control the country on its own and that a military institution sufﬁ ced to run the country.
However, exactly as had happened under the British, the administration was soon forced to change at least the externals of this plan (even under Bremer’s civilian administration, the army still ran a signiﬁ cant part of the operation). After months of pretending that he could govern Iraq alone, however, Bremer was ultimately forced to bring the Iraqis into government, circumscribed though it was by lack of real power and sovereign control.
The Governing Council was appointed by Bremer on July 13, 2003; it was composed of 25 members from different ethnic, confessional, and linguistic groups. Again, in direct imitation of the seemingly easily tradable “traditions” of the ﬁ rst Iraqi government under British occupation, in which the elderly Shaikh Abdul-Rahman al-Gailani took on the post of prime minister, the equally venerable Sayyid Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum (an 80-year-old former exile) became the most inﬂ uential voice on the council. The sole difference, of course, and this was an important change, was that al-Gailani had been a Sunni Muslim and Bahr al-Ulum is a Shii.
Exactly as had happened under the British, revolts began to brew. While not attaining the momentum of the Iraqi uprising of 1920 against the British, on a piecemeal basis, these revolts made the United States very uncomfortable. In fact, the burgeoning Iraqi insurgency; the seemingly endemic corruption in the ﬁ rst contracts awarded to big American multinationals; the lackadaisical attempts to ﬁ x electricity, sewage, and water plants; the skyrocketing rate of unemployment; the indiscriminate arrest and imprisonment of random (and, quite frequently, innocent) civilians that the American troops had come to liberate; and the arrogance of the Coalition Provisional Administration’s bureaucrats with regard even to their Iraqi allies created the conditions for a national emergency.
While at ﬁ rst the Americans were fortunate that no two sects or parties made common cause against the occupation, by the beginning of 2006, the situation had become so dire that almost 2,200 U.S. service personnel had been killed (the number of Iraqis who died was a state secret, but independent sources, most notably the British Lancet study of October 2004, put the ﬁ gure at close to 100,000 civilians dead).Quickly taking a page out of British colonialist strategy in Iraq, and egged on all the while by the most inﬂ uential Shii ayatollah in Iraq, Sayyid Ali al-Sistani, the Americans pushed forward national elections as the solution for a free and independent Iraq. In January 2005, several million Iraqis braved bombs and indiscriminate violence to vote for their parties’ choice of candidates.
The “mandate for change” (in President George Bush’s terminology) ushered in a Shii majority led by a political coalition grouping powerful religious parties with a smattering of secular groups. Meanwhile, a referendum on an Iraqi constitution in October was passed, not to everyone’s satisfaction.
In December 2005, Iraqis went to the polls again, to elect a permanent four-year government. After several months of wrangling, the political stalemate produced by Shii negotiations with the Kurds and Sunnis suddenly was reversed, and an “independent” government was announced.
The rest, as they say, is history. From 2005 to 2008, the struggle to control Iraq occupied various parties—the U.S. administration in Washington, D.C.; the U.S. embassy in Baghdad; the U.S. army brass in Iraq; several U.S. contractors; the Iraqi government; the Iraqi army; armed militias of various hues and ideologies; political parties and citizens’ fora; local neighborhood organizations; and several Arab and foreign governments—turning the country into a deadly combat zone, which even patchily applied “surge” strategies failed to tamp completely.
Despite the decapitation of the Baath regime and the arrest, imprisonment, and execution of Saddam Hussein and many of his henchmen, it has been estimated that the United States and its Iraqi allies had fallen far short even of their own goals with regard to Iraq. Once again, the Americans’ propensity to dispense with thousands of years of Iraqi history had led them astray, as a result of which their zeal to control Iraq’s oil and to create of the country a strategic gateway to the entire region is still not entirely guaranteed.
As of this writing, there is still no accord on oil policy or a Status of Forces Agreement to concretize the U.S. presence on Iraqi soil, and, should the opinion of a wide array of different local forces in Iraq be taken into account, there may never be.
In fact, judging from Iraq’s past record, the only sure-ﬁ re guarantee seems to be that resistance movements to U.S. hegemony will grow as time goes by. From the ﬁ rst insurrections in Iraq against Umayyad rule to the civil war erupting in Baghdad as a result of the Persian annexation of Basra in the 1770s to the opposition movement spawned by the government signing of the Portsmouth Treaty in 1948, Iraqis have always rebelled at externally imposed diktats and foreign hegemony. And they will continue to ﬁ ght foreign invaders until they leave the country once and for all, taking with them the patchwork agreements and piecemeal treaties the invaders once thought could govern the thousand-year-old nation of Iraq.