— CHAPTER 1 — ANBAR PROVINCE, IRAQ
Late July 2010
As I opened the door of my flimsy CHU, the “compartmentalized housing unit” at Camp Ramadi in the Iraqi desert where I had slept after arriving from Baghdad, a gust of wind covered me with sand. The thermometer on the trailer door registered 100. It was six in the morning.
“Welcome to Spa Ramadi!” Maj. Ryan Cutchin said.
Tall, sandy haired, and army fit, Ryan loved mornings. Twenty years a soldier, he had probably been out for a run.
Summer was an insane time to visit Iraq. But I wanted to report on the US military’s withdrawal before Ryan finished his final deployment here, his third in seven years. America’s war in Iraq was ending. Soldiers like Ryan were leaving in what military spokesmen insisted on calling a “responsible drawdown of forces.” President George W. Bush had established the withdrawal schedule by December 2011. President Barack Obama was implementing it rigorously.
When we had first met seven years earlier in March 2003, then Captain Cutchin was serving in the 75th Field Artillery Brigade in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The brigade had been charged with finding WMDs in Iraq. Embedded for the New York Times, I was the only reporter with his then-secret
brigade, known as the 75th Exploitation Task Force. The XTF, as it was called, would find only traces of the weapons that the CIA and fifteen other American intelligence agencies had concluded Saddam Hussein was hiding, a nightmarish cache that the soldiers searching for them (and I with them) were convinced existed: remnants of some 500 tons of mustard and nerve gas, 25,000 liters of liquid anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin, 29,984 prohibited munitions capable of delivering chemical agents, several dozen Scud missiles, and 18 mobile biological weapons vans—not to mention its ambitious nuclear weapons program, according to US estimates based on United Nations reports of what Iraq had made and claimed to have destroyed.1
My bond with Ryan and other XTF members, forged during that often frustrating, infuriating, ultimately fruitless four-month search, had endured.
“We were so sure we’d find WMDs! Any day now,” Ryan recalled, as we sipped coffee in the ice-cold trailer housing the Green Bean cafeteria, one of the few private contractors left at the forsaken army base on the outskirts of Anbar Province, a Sunni Muslim stronghold sixty miles west of Baghdad.
Neither of us would ever forget that maddening hunt, or the faulty intelligence that had helped justify the war, some of which I had been the first to report. When the war had begun, I accompanied Ryan and other XTF members day after exhausting day—inspecting sites on a list of more than eight hundred suspect places that the intelligence agencies had identified based on the outdated reports of UN inspectors. Most of those sites had been heavily looted by the time we arrived. At one villa in Baghdad, soldiers found a singed fifteen-page list of Iraqi front companies and individuals authorized to buy dual-use equipment in Europe and Asia suitable for conventional or unconventional weapons. The list and other weapons-related documents were smoldering in an old metal steamer trunk when the soldiers arrived. The contents had been set on fire—we never learned by whom. Tewfik Boulenouar, the unit’s Algerian-born translator, had salvaged some pages by stamping out the fire with his boot. Most of the time, intelligence about what was stored where were stunningly wrong.
“Remember those packets we got each morning, with the glossy pictures
and a tentative grid?” Ryan reminisced. “Go to this place. You’ll find a McDonald’s there. Look in the fridge. You’ll find French fries, cheeseburger, and Cokes. Then we would get there, and not only was there no fridge and no fries, there hadn’t even been a thought of putting a McDonald’s there.”
One day in mid-April 2003, Ryan had raced to the city of Bayji, 130 miles north of Baghdad, to inspect a dozen fifty-five-gallon drums in an open field that soldiers had unearthed. The Iraqis buried everything of even remotely potential value, which increased suspicions about them among US intelligence agencies. Ryan, who led Mobile Exploitation Team (MET) Bravo, was told that one of the drums had tested positive for cyclosarin, a deadly nerve agent. “It turned out to be gasoline,” he recalled. On another trip, his soldiers had dug up a crate containing a sofa.
In late May 2003 Ryan’s friend, Chief Warrant Officer Richard “Monty” Gonzales, the head of search team MET Alpha, was sent to Basra in southern Iraq to investigate what senior weapons experts had described as nuclear equipment. What they found were industrial-scale vegetable steamers. The contents of the crates had all been clearly marked—in Russian.2
By the time their deployment and my embed ended in June 2003, the soldiers who had tried to remain optimistic about their mission were bitter. After promising leads had fizzled and Iraqi weapons scientists who had cooperated with the XTF were turned over to the Iraq Survey Group (the XTF’s larger successor), Ryan Cutchin, Monty Gonzales, and Dave Temby, a veteran Defense Department bioweapons expert, called the suspect site list “toilet paper.” They had reached another disheartening conclusion: while weapons hunters were likely to continue uncovering remnants of chemical and biological munitions, suspect chemicals, and WMD precursors, they were unlikely to find stockpiles of modern unconventional weapons that administration officials claimed had posed the “grave threat” to America. We were gobsmacked.
What we did not know then was that Saddam Hussein had been playing a double game: while he wanted the UN to believe that he had given up his WMD so that sanctions would be lifted, he also wanted Iran, Israel,
and his other external and internal enemies to believe that he had kept those weapons. Moreover, as America’s top weapons analysts would later conclude, even Saddam wasn’t absolutely sure what was left in his stockpiles. At a Revolutionary Command Council meeting in October 2002, he had asked his senior staff whether “they might know something he did not about residual WMD stocks,” Charles Duelfer, America’s top Iraq weapons inspector, would write in 2013.3
But a decade earlier, as we were crisscrossing Iraq in search of the elusive WMD stockpiles and the scientists who had produced them, all we knew for certain was that the intelligence the XTF had been given about Iraq’s unconventional weapons was wrong. With this came the devastating realization that, as a result, some of my own earlier WMD stories were wrong, too.
I had not been wrong about Saddam, though. He was a mass murderer, a true psychopath. Sure, there were lots of bad people in the world, and some of them even led countries. It would have been folly for the United States to try to oust them all. But after years of reporting in the Middle East, I considered Saddam special.
When I had first visited Iraq, in 1976, Saddam, not yet president, was already consolidating power. An American assistant secretary of state had described him at the time as a “rather remarkable person,” “very ruthless,” and a “pragmatic, intelligent power.”4
During my first visit to Baghdad, my suitcase was stolen. The incident would not have been noteworthy if I hadn’t been the only journalist covering two US senators on a visit chaperoned by US security officials and a large contingent of Iraqi uniformed and secret police. Although I was reporting for the Progressive, an obscure leftist midwestern monthly, the delegation had a high profile.
I had seen my bag loaded onto a well-guarded van as we left for the airport. Still, someone, perhaps one of the many Iraqi “minders,” had been brazen or desperate enough to walk off with it. The incident was telling. If Saddam was trying to build a “new socialist Arab man”—secular, disciplined, marching confidently into an oil-rich future—this petty theft was not an encouraging start.
The political climate deteriorated dramatically three years later in 1979, when Saddam assumed the Iraqi presidency in a characteristic bloodbath. He celebrated his inauguration in a giant hall in Baghdad by denouncing party members and even close friends whom he considered insufficiently loyal. As Saddam intoned their names one by one, the men were surrounded by goons and dragged out of the room. He had then called upon senior ministers, party leaders, and loyalists to form instant firing squads to kill their colleagues. After he had finished reading the list of the condemned, officials of the ruling Ba’ath Party who had not heard their names called wept openly with relief and began hysterically chanting in Arabic “Long Live Saddam!” “With our blood, with our souls,” they shouted, “we will sacrifice for you, O Saddam!” (It more or less rhymes in Arabic.)
Years later, I would hear an audiotape of the astonishing assembly, the details of which Laurie Mylroie, a scholar at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and I would be among the first to describe in a book we wrote and published in 1990 just before the US-led liberation of Kuwait.5
I had joined the Times in 1977 and became its Cairo bureau chief in 1983, responsible for covering most of the Arab Middle East. I traveled to Iraq more than a dozen times to cover the Iran-Iraq war and had grown to dread those visits. The war that Saddam had launched against neighboring Islamic Iran less than a year after becoming president was not turning out as he—or the CIA—had predicted. Though weak and internally divided, Iran’s revolutionary government, which in 1979 had ousted the Shah and created the world’s first militant Shiite Islamic state, was fighting back ferociously. Outgunned but not outmanned, given a population some three times that of Iraq, theocratic Iran seemed at times on the verge of defeating the secular state that Arabs regarded not only as the cradle of their civilization but also the “beating heart” of Arab nationalism.
During my visits in the mid-1980s, it was still unclear which side would win. Officially, the United States was neutral. But President Ronald Reagan had secretly decided that “secular” Iraq could not be permitted to lose to anti-American theocrats who, in 1979, had attacked the US Embassy in Tehran and held American diplomats hostage for more than a
year. So even after the United States received evidence that Saddam was using poison gas and other chemical weapons against Iranian forces and, later, his own citizens, Reagan extended credits to Iraq. America would also give intelligence guidance to Iraq’s military to enhance the accuracy of its bombing raids and missile strikes. Once Saddam concluded that the United States would let him “get away with murder,” as one scholar put it, his use of chemical weapons increased.6
Throughout the eight-year war, however, Washington had quietly provided, or tried to provide, covert assistance to both Iraq and Iran, reflecting what was euphemistically known as a “realist” foreign policy.
On my seventh trip to Baghdad in March 1985, I saw firsthand what our cynical policy meant for the Iranians and the Iraqis. After landing in Baghdad late at night and checking into the Sheraton, I was just dozing off when a missile struck. Its high-pitched whoosh was followed by an ear-splitting boom. The blast shattered the sliding glass terrace door of my seventh-floor room overlooking the Tigris River.
I bolted upright in bed, moving my hands slowly across the sheets. There was no glass on the bed, but shards covered much of the floor near the window. Barefoot, I inched my way across the room toward the light switch. Nothing. The blast had knocked out the power.
I had come to Baghdad to investigate whether Iran had begun firing Libyan-supplied Scud-B missiles at Iraq in retaliation for Iraq’s relentless rocket attacks in the “war of the cities,” the latest escalation of the Iran-Iraq war, then in its fifth year. The missiles I was trying to find almost found me.
Flashlight in hand, my duffel bag strapped over one shoulder, and my purse dangling from the other, I inched my way down the unlit emergency stairwell to the hotel’s gaudy marble lobby. Its lights were still glowing brightly—a surreal scene, given the darkness and chaos above.
An Iraqi concierge, who only an hour earlier had been overly solicitous while checking me in, suddenly barked at me, “Where are you going?”
I was leaving the hotel, I told him as calmly as possible. My room had just been destroyed by a missile.
“You are not going anywhere,” he commanded.
Seeing him reach for the bulge under his ill-fitting hotel uniform
jacket, I froze as he retreated behind the front desk. Handing me a sheet of paper listing over $1,000 in charges for the night and the week I had planned to spend there, he insisted that I pay my bill, in cash. Rattled but furious, I flung two $100 bills on the desk and left. As I bolted out of the hotel, I was pretty sure he wouldn’t shoot me.
While I walked to the home of a European diplomat, I thought about the Iraqi leader. In a region of brutal tyrants, Saddam stood out. The Godfather was his favorite film—a nugget that Laurie and I unearthed in researching our book. His role model was Joseph Stalin. “I like the way he governed his country,” Saddam had told a well-known Kurdish politician.7
Like Stalin, Saddam had institutionalized terror as an instrument of state policy. With more than 150,000 employees of his competing intelligence agencies watching citizens in a country of fourteen million people (the population would surge to thirty million by 2010), his reliance on arbitrary punishment and the promotion of the most obsequious had destroyed Iraq’s civil society and all centers of opposition. Individuals were subordinate to the whims of a state that—as noted by Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi writer and exile whom I had befriended—was synonymous with Saddam.
No one could escape his vile gaze. Thirty-foot-high portraits and smaller renditions of him—as soldier, peasant, teacher, and tribal elder—were everywhere. With his black hair and trademark mustache, his portrait graced the entrances of hotels, schools, public buildings, city squares, private offices, and even the dials of the gold wristwatches favored by the political elite. As Makiya wrote, the government had devoted an entire agency, the Very Special Projects Implementation Authority, to creating and maintaining such depictions of him.8
Iraqi women died for him, literally and figuratively, and men emulated his style of dress, his swagger, even the cut of his mustache. All mustaches in Iraq seemed to resemble his; I longed to see a goatee or a handlebar mustache. In the land where Sumerians had invented writing, discourse had been degraded to a single ubiquitous image.
All roads led to Saddam, the “leader-president,” “leader-struggler,” “standard-bearer,” “leader of all the Arabs,” “knight of the Arab nation,” “hero of national liberation,” “father-leader,” and my personal favorite title,
the “daring and aggressive knight” (al-faris al-mighwar).”9
A scholar said that Saddam’s name was mentioned between thirty to fifty times an hour in a typical radio broadcast; his TV appearances often lasted several hours a day. Makiya argued that Saddam’s name and image were so ubiquitous that he had become the personification of what Iraqis perceived to be the “Iraqi” character.10
In Saddam’s Iraq, real and imagined critics had a disconcerting way of ending up dead, in jail, or simply disappearing. Saddam had used the war as a pretext for persecuting the two groups he feared most: the Iraqi Shiites, a majority, and the Kurds, the luckless minority in northern Iraq who spoke their own language, had their own distinct culture, and constituted 20 percent of the population.
During my assignment in Cairo in the mid-1980s and my visits to the region, I had managed to interview almost every Arab leader—but not Saddam. I kept a stack of fifty rejected faxed requests for meetings with him in a file in Cairo. Saddam rarely gave interviews to journalists, especially foreigners.
On another trip to Baghdad in 1985, I had yet another encounter with a bomb. I was having lunch at the home of a British defense official with David Blundy, a British reporter for the London Sunday Times—a brilliant, dashing friend with whom I often collaborated. (A sniper killed David four years later, while he was covering the war in El Salvador.) As the diplomat, David, and I talked about the war, an Iranian missile struck. By the sound of the explosion and proximity of the white smoke, our host guessed that the missile had landed nearby. Since this could be a rare opportunity to see precisely which missile the Iranians were firing, we hopped in the diplomat’s jeep and raced to the bomb site.
Arriving before the Iraqi police, we ran toward the smoking crater. Scud-B missiles were more than thirty-three feet long and capable of carrying 2,200 pounds of explosives, the defense expert told us. This missile was less than half that size, and the damage around it suggested that it had contained less than 500 pounds of explosives.
I snapped pictures of the crater and the surrounding damage, removed the film from my camera, put it in my purse, and inserted instead a half-used
roll of film containing photos of a boring government-sponsored trip to the Iraqi front that I had taken the previous day.
The defense attaché was measuring the crater when we saw an unmarked black car with tinted windows—standard issue for the Mukhabarat, secret police—in the far distance. If we all began running, David warned, the Iraqis would surely catch us. It could be fatal for foreigners to be anywhere near such sites. David and I agreed that while we should stay, it would be riskier for a diplomat to be found there. The Iraqis might accuse him of being a spy and us his accomplices. I shoved the film roll I had just taken into his hand, hoping that he would get it out of Iraq in a diplomatic pouch. “We’ll be all right,” Blundy assured the Brit as he made a dash for his jeep.
The black car rolled to a halt, and three stocky men in black suits scrambled out, pistols drawn. David and I raised our hands and yelled in unison, “Sahafi! Sahafiya!,” Arabic for “journalists,” among the first Arabic words foreign correspondents in this treacherous region learned.
The men took us to a police station in a part of Baghdad I did not know. There we were thrown into an insufferably hot, pee-stinking cell. There was no toilet, no water, no bed, and no shortage of flies. While I paced back and forth, blinking at the graffiti in Arabic on the cell’s peeling walls, David spread his safari jacket out on the least filthy part of the floor and dozed off instantly. His ability to catnap through any crisis was impressive, if infuriating. “Cheer up,” he yawned an hour later, restored by his nap. “It’s cheaper than the Sheraton.”
The hours passed slowly. I was desperate for a cigarette, and so was David, but my pack was in my confiscated purse. As an Iraqi guard walked by, cigarette in hand, David called out to him. “Habibi,” he pleaded, using the Arabic for “dear friend,” “have you got a cigarette?”
The guard, who appeared to speak no English, moved closer to the cell. He had clearly understood, as he blew a smoke ring in David’s face through the bars. “What you give?” He smiled menacingly, extracting an Iraqi cigarette from his uniform’s shirt pocket and waving it in front of David.
“Ma fi lira!” David replied. “I h-a-v-e no m-o-n-e-y. You have my wallet,” he added, dramatically emptying his jeans pockets.
“What you give?” the guard repeated. David looked at me, grinning diabolically.
“Take the woman!” David offered, pointing at me—a joke utterly lost on the guard.
Only David could make me laugh at such a moment. The mystified guard walked away, shaking his head. “Majnoon,” he muttered: foreigners are “crazy.”
Several hours later, we were escorted to a bureaucrat’s office. The garishly lit room was filled with overstuffed leather sofas, ornate, wood-carved armchairs, and plastic flowers—standard issue in Arab government offices. Seated behind a desk beneath a giant photo of—guess who?—was an officious young man in an expensive double-breasted suit and a well-practiced smile. He motioned for us to sit down. He had no mustache.
Rafik, as he called himself, had just returned from university in England. He had loved studying there, he told us, showing off his English. He was responsible for determining whether David and I were spies, he continued quite casually. Why were we at the bombing site?
We were journalists doing our jobs, David explained in a tone meant to imply that surely such a sophisticated Iraqi would appreciate what reporters do. We happened to be in the neighborhood when the missile struck.
Was there no one else with us?
David and I avoided looking at each other. If the secret police had seen the diplomat, we were in trouble. We were alone, David insisted.
Didn’t we know that taking pictures of such attacks was strictly forbidden? Punishable by prison and possibly death?
“We didn’t take any pictures,” I lied. He could verify that by developing the film the police had confiscated in my camera.
Rafik picked up the phone and summoned an officer. Almost twice Rafik’s age, the officer groveled before his young superior. Rafik snapped an order at him. I couldn’t quite decipher what he said, but the policeman looked chagrined.
Suddenly hospitable, Rafik offered us tea. A tray of sticky baklava appeared, which David and I, ravenous by now, ate quickly. An hour later, the officer returned and whispered something in Rafik’s ear. From his demeanor,
I sensed that the police had developed the authorized photos I had taken of Iraqi soldiers hoisting their weapons at the front.
Rafik smiled. We were free to go, he said, dismissing us. He did not apologize for having thrown us in jail. I asked for his business card. Still convivial, he said that his cards weren’t ready yet. Besides, he added, while he had enjoyed our “chat,” it would be better for all of us, especially us, if we did not meet again, or mention how we had spent our afternoon. In the future, he concluded, we should avoid bombing sites.
I did not write about our detention. Back then, the Times frowned upon first-person accounts by reporters about our professional or personal woes. Moreover, I had to continue working in Baghdad. Writing about the incident would have risked future visas for me and other Times correspondents. David and I hadn’t been beaten or tortured. We had simply been locked up and denied water, food, cigarettes, and our freedom for a half day. That was hardly news “fit to print,” as the paper’s motto boasted. Especially considering what would have happened to us had we been Iraqi.
During the 1991 Gulf War to liberate Kuwait, I was in Saudi Arabia. I had been trapped there when the Saudis, without warning, closed their airspace in January on the eve of the American-led invasion. The Times began ramping up its prewar coverage in the fall of 1990, and Joe Lelyveld, then the paper’s executive editor, had sent me back to the Middle East as “special Gulf correspondent” after reading Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf, the bestseller that Laurie Mylroie and I had written after Saddam invaded Kuwait in August. I had a license to roam freely and report on the ambivalent Arab reaction to the impending invasion of the region’s most powerful Arab state.
Like many of those I was interviewing, I had mixed emotions about the impending war. On the one hand, I believed strongly that the United States and its allies had to eject Saddam from Kuwait—Iraq’s “nineteenth province,” as he called it—and punish him for having plundered his oil-rich neighbor. If the world failed to react to Saddam’s latest aggression, respect for the sovereignty of nation-states on which the United Nations
was based would mean nothing. At the same time, I had seen enough of war in the Middle East—the civil war in Lebanon, for instance—to know that wars are fiendishly hard to end.
I saw American diplomacy at its best under President George H. W. Bush before that war. Led by Secretary of State James A. Baker III, Bush’s team overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles to build an effective coalition against Iraq. Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd had been persuaded to let the United States station forces on its soil—heretofore unimaginable, given the xenophobia of the kingdom’s Wahhabi religious establishment. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney impressed me by flying to Riyadh armed with satellite photos showing Iraqi troops massing near the Saudi border. He convinced the king that Saddam might invade Saudi Arabia next. Only decades later would Cheney confirm why King Fahd had overruled his more cautious relatives and embraced American protection. “The Kuwaitis waited,” Cheney quoted the king as having told his timorous relatives, “and now they are living in our hotels.”11
Covering the normally reclusive kingdom during the war was thrilling. Journalist visas to Saudi Arabia had been rare during my three-year stint in Cairo. But with Saddam’s forces massing near their border, the Saudis suddenly seemed delighted to host the infidel Americans.
King Fahd’s review of the coalition forces was a dramatic, made-for-TV spectacular. It had begun with his visit to 1,500 American and Saudi troops assembled on a giant tarmac at Hafr al-Baten air base. The royal entourage had then raced across the desert in a fifty-car motorcade as journalists struggled to keep pace in our jeeps and vans. At King Khalid Military City, some five thousand foreign troops from over thirty coalition nations stood in formation, each battalion behind its national flag and signposts identifying it in English and Arabic. Fahd, wearing a flowing white thobe, a gold-embroidered, sand-colored cloak, and the traditional red-and-white-checked head scarf, had used a small footstool to hoist his enormous frame onto the floor of an open jeep. At his side was Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the beefy commander of America’s ground forces. Together they drove slowly past troops assembled on the desert as far as the eye could see. Saddam had no idea what was in store for him, I thought, as I gazed at the
largest international military force ever assembled for war in the modern Middle East.
Later that day, Fahd, who rarely gave interviews, spoke to me and a small group of female reporters.12
Adel al-Jubeir, then an irreverent young press aide who would later become Saudi ambassador to Washington, had suggested this unorthodox nod to American feminism to his bosses. In a tent scented by incense and roses, Fahd held forth. About seventy-two years old—Saudis are usually vague about their age—Fahd was imposing, well over six feet tall. Seated in an ornate, high-backed chair while we stood clustered around him on luxurious Arabic carpets, he answered eight questions with a ninety-minute monologue. The king obviously had no interest in mastering the art of the press conference.
Like most of the other rulers I had managed to interview for the Times before the war, Fahd said that he felt betrayed by Saddam. Although he had given Iraq $25 billion in aid during the 1979 Iran-Iraq war, Saddam had repaid him by sending an assassination squad to kill him after they had quarreled over money and policy. For Fahd, this war was personal.
The same was true for Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, whom I had interviewed two months earlier in Cairo. A firm supporter of the war, Mubarak disclosed his heretofore secret efforts to save Saddam from himself. His account, too, was a terrifying portrait of Arab politics: lies, backstabbing, and betrayals by Saddam and other Arab leaders who had once called Mubarak their “brother.”13
Mubarak, who led the largest, historically most significant Arab nation, had bluntly warned Saddam that war was inevitable unless he withdrew. “How can Saddam make such a miscalculation of his situation?” Mubarak wondered aloud.
Two decades later, I, too, dwelt on the puzzling consistency of Saddam’s behavior. The Iraqi leader had almost always miscalculated—in failing to see that his invasion of revolutionary Iran in 1980 would solidify, not topple, the new militant Islamist regime, and a decade later, in underestimating America’s resolve to uphold the sovereignty of Kuwait in 1991. After 9/11, he failed to appreciate America’s fury against Al Qaeda and its supporters and President Bush’s determination to prevent a hostile leader
who had already used WMD against his own people from threatening to use such weapons in terror attacks against the United States, or providing them to those who would. Saddam had been the only world leader to praise the 9/11 attacks—America’s “cowboys” were “reaping the fruit of their crimes against humanity,” he declared—an insult that neither the Bushes nor Cheney would forget.14
A bully, Saddam distinguished himself by being unwilling to retreat, even when confronted with the prospect of overwhelming retaliation.
After the 1991 Gulf War, Prince Khalid bin Sultan, the head of the non-American coalition forces, took me with him to liberated Kuwait. While he met his Kuwaiti counterparts, I interviewed Kuwaiti mothers weeping over their missing sons, visited their looted homes, and breathed the city’s acrid air. I stood on a cold, deserted street in the slums of Kuwait City, taking notes about a desperate Palestinian family. Cradling a notebook on top of my elbow, I held my pen in one hand, a flashlight in the other. There was still no electricity. Because Saddam had set Kuwait’s oil fields on fire, the air was black from burning oil; it was impossible to write or even navigate the streets of the capital without a flashlight. Noon felt like midnight. Yet even darker was the evidence, everywhere, of the torture that the Kuwaitis had endured at the hands of Saddam’s forces.
Prince Khalid had warned me that the allied victory might not mean the end of Saddam, then an unconventional view. By the end of February, the coalition’s seven hundred thousand troops had crushed Iraq’s exhausted, poorly supplied forces—the world’s fourth largest army. Kuwait had been liberated in four days. Most Iraqi soldiers had surrendered or retreated to Iraq. Though Khalid and others told me that the Saudis had wanted the war to continue, Bush had declared a cease-fire when Iraq indicated it would honor the coalition’s demands. One hundred twenty-five American soldiers had died; another twenty-one were missing in action. The “hundred-hour war” was hailed as a triumph for America and its European and Arab allies.
Years later, several officials who had overseen the war, Vice President Cheney among them, would regret not having forced Saddam from power. In his memoir and an interview, Cheney lamented having agreed to let
Saddam’s armed helicopters overfly Iraq. I had reported the consensus view among Arab and American intelligence analysts: such concessions to Iraqi dignity mattered little, as Saddam’s regime would soon fall. No ruler could survive such a humiliating blow. Once again, the intelligence community would underestimate Saddam. And so would I.
In early 1993 I returned to northern Iraq after being shown samples of still-secret Iraqi documents that Kanan Makiya had helped smuggle out of Iraq with the help of US diplomats, the Iraqi opposition, and the US Air Force.15
At an archives facility in Maryland, researchers from Middle East Watch, a private human rights group, and the US government’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)—groups that rarely worked together—collated, scanned, and analyzed more than four million pages of Iraqi files, proof of Saddam’s genocide against Iraq’s Kurds. The decade-long slaughter and repression of Kurdish Iraqis had reached its zenith between March and August 1988, but the campaign, dubbed Anfal, or “booty,” had never before been substantiated by official Iraqi records.
Like the files of the Stasi, the East German intelligence agency that had trained Iraq’s security police, the material described in chilling bureaucratese the “liquidations,” “expulsions,” and “transfers” of Kurdish victims, who were almost invariably referred to as “saboteurs,” “criminals,” “traitors,” and “human cargo.” The files included routine vacation requests, payroll records of mercenaries and informants, intercepted letters and postcards, and so on—but also page upon page of authorizations of “purifications,” “liquidations,” and other euphemisms for mass murder.
“Dear Comrades,” stated one from the Ba’ath Party People’s Command in Zakho, dated June 14, 1987. “The entry of any kind of human cargo, nutritional supplies, or mechanical instruments into the security-prohibited villages . . . is strictly prohibited. It is your duty to kill any human being or animal found in these areas.” In a cover story for the New York Times Magazine, I wrote that the tattered, partly burned, and water-stained documents, often held together in characteristic Iraqi fashion with shoelaces and pins, constituted the best evidence to date of Saddam’s genocidal campaign against his Kurdish minority.
What I saw inside the Kurdish area of Iraq in 1993 was even worse.
Having taken pride in America’s swift expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, I was forced to confront the conflict’s human wreckage. What most officials and many reporters, including me, had acclaimed as a decisive military victory for the American-led coalition, seemed decidedly less glorious as I stood next to yet another newly discovered Kurdish mass grave. The stench of human decomposition was overwhelming—a smell no one ever forgets. The remains were carefully catalogued by human rights workers to present as physical evidence at a future trial for genocide. But no nation was willing to bring charges against Iraq. Saddam’s oil had let him escape justice.
Joost Hiltermann, a Dutch researcher for Middle East Watch who had spent months investigating human rights abuses in Kurdistan, estimated that Saddam’s forces had leveled about four thousand villages and killed some 180,000 Kurds in Anfal—a “counterinsurgency gone wild,” I wrote.16
Thousands had been shot and buried in mass graves. Others had starved to death in desert prisons, or been gassed in Halabja, Iraqi Kurdistan, where between 3,500 and 5,000 civilian adults and children had died on a single day in March 1988. Saddam had used chemical weapons against the Shiites in the south, but his attack in Halabja remains the world’s largest chemical attack against a civilian-populated area in history. When I visited the city again in 2006, the cemetery for those who had perished in chemical attacks and other Anfal victims was still the town’s largest open space. Gravestones stretched as far as I could see.
What I saw in Kuwait (and later in Iraqi Kurdistan) made me ashamed that the United States was continuing to ignore Saddam’s brutality because it did not affect Americans directly. As victory parades were being held in New York in the spring of 1991, Saddam’s forces were draining the marshes of southern Iraq and slaughtering their inhabitants—descendants of a distinctive river culture—and mowing down other Shiite Muslims who had challenged the regime, as President Bush had urged them to do. Opponents whom Saddam did not kill had fled Iraqi terror. Tens of thousands of Kurds had huddled for weeks, hungry and homeless, in the mountains of neighboring Turkey. Saddam’s depraved repression—captured on film by CNN—finally shamed Washington into establishing no-fly zones in Iraq, first in the north to protect the Kurds, and eighteen months later, over
southern Iraq as well. The no-go zone was a godsend to the Kurds, who quickly began using the safety assured by American-patrolled skies to build their own independent economic, cultural, and political institutions. But by the time the no-fly zone was extended to the south, as I wrote bitterly at the time, Saddam had crushed the Shiite uprising. The Iraqi Shia, I would later learn, never forgave America for encouraging and then ignoring the uprising.
I thought about the savagery I had covered in Iraq and the hope I had felt about Bush’s decision to topple Saddam in March 2003 as Ryan Cutchin and I sipped our drinks in forlorn Anbar Province and caught up on what had happened since my last trip here two years earlier.
This was Ryan’s fourth deployment since we had first met—one was in Afghanistan—and my fourth trip back to Iraq since my frustrating WMD embed. But in July 2010 Major Cutchin was no longer hunting for WMDs or even seeing much combat. He was overseeing “civil affairs” work for the First Brigade, Eighty-Second Airborne Division, the “build” part of the military’s counterinsurgency mantra of “clear, hold, build.” He had spent the past eight months trying to win Iraqi “hearts and minds” to get intelligence about the identity and whereabouts of remaining insurgents in the area and their weapons caches. Ryan’s mission, part of the 2007 shift to a counterinsurgency strategy and the surge of US forces, was to train Iraqi soldiers and police and to help civilians create new institutions, or resuscitate those paralyzed by Saddam’s twenty-nine-year reign of terror and the ensuing anarchy and civil war in the wake of America’s invasion. Ryan knew he would not be returning to Iraq. We were done here.
Ryan was tired. His eyes showed the strain of too many deployments in too few years. This last had begun only a week after his third child, a son, was born. The endless series of counterinsurgency campaigns had stretched American military capacity to its limits and beyond. But Ryan insisted that his mission in Anbar, the scene of half the fighting and nearly half the US deaths in Iraq, had largely succeeded. The war against terrorism in Anbar, at least for now, he told me, had “irreversible momentum.”
There were few signs of Ryan’s “big mo” as we drove the next day to
Ramadi, the provincial capital. Ryan had succeeded in hitching us a ride in an MRAP, a heavily armored Mine Resistant Ambush Protected transport tank, to the provincial governor’s compound. Taking the MRAP meant putting on protective gear in the scorching heat—an extra twenty pounds of armor that included a bulletproof Kevlar vest and helmet, protective glasses and gloves, all for a fifteen-minute ride. But Ryan said that it beat walking in the heat or getting blown up by an IED, an improvised explosive device—or as we civilians called it, a homemade bomb. At roughly $850,000 apiece, the MRAP could withstand all but the latest versions of Iranian-designed and -supplied IEDs. Soldiers told me that it was just a matter of time before “irreconcilables” in Iraq or Afghanistan found a weakness in the vehicle.
The 1.5 million people of this deeply tribal Sunni province roughly the size of South Carolina seemed to be adjusting resentfully to second-class status in Iraq led by the increasingly autocratic Shiite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. There were no longer overt signs of Al Qaeda, which had sunk roots among the province’s fellow Sunni Muslims soon after the American invasion. Anbar had been one leg of that infamous Sunni Triangle where so many Americans had died. In early 2007 Al Qaeda’s black flag had flown here. Young Muslim militants with guns had snapped orders to the proud elders of Anbar’s thirty major tribes—even to the province’s “paramount sheikhs.” But their brutality and fanatical disrespect for Anbar’s tribal ways had been their undoing.17
Fed up with the impudent extremists—and above all, with their greedy interference with the local sheikhs’ profitable smuggling—Anbaris had turned on Al Qaeda, ending what had always been, at best, a marriage of convenience.
The Sahawa al-Anbar, “Anbar Awakening,” spread quickly through the Sunni heartland, stunning even the US military. By mid-2008, one hundred thousand Sunni self-designated “Sons of Iraq,” many of them former insurgents, or Shia militia members, had joined the Americans. A year earlier, Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of US and coalition forces in Iraq, and his operational commanders had developed a plan that persuaded President Bush to support these new Iraqi allies with weapons and later money and to increase US forces here to help protect the people from a
resurgence of Al Qaeda and extremist Shiites. The American shift in strategy from keeping soldiers on US bases to adding thirty thousand new US troops and deploying them to villages and neighborhoods to recruit Iraqis and later pay them to help destroy Sunni and Shiite extremists became known as the “surge.” The gamble succeeded, at least through 2011, beyond expectations.18
Within the United States, Bush’s belated but bold decision in 2007 to surge US forces in Iraq had been savaged by American politicians and many journalists. The Iraq Study Group headed by Republican guru James Baker and former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton had urged Bush to accelerate the training of Iraqi forces so that America could withdraw all of its own forces as soon as possible. Senator Hillary Clinton had opposed the surge. So, too, had Senator Joe Biden. The “surge,” he predicted, stood “zero” chance of success. “Victory is no longer an option,” the New York Times declared after Bush announced the increase. Senator Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska Republican and former Vietnam War hero, called it “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.” Even Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was quietly warning the president she had advised earlier as director of the National Security Council that the surge might not work.
In Iraq, striking a balance between assuring Iraqis sufficient protection and promising to leave once the country was stable had been tough. General Mattis recalled his effort to assure Sunni Iraqis that America would not abandon them prematurely. Americans would not leave until they wanted them to go, he said; in fact, he was going to retire in Iraq. “I found a little piece of property down on the Euphrates,” he told them.19
Despite their pivotal role in reversing the fortunes of America’s ineptly prosecuted war, Iraqi Sunnis, who compose no more than 20 percent of the population, feared they were destined to be the losers of America’s invasion. Those who had once ruled Iraq, repressing the Kurds and the Shiite majority, were now a relatively powerless minority. Their bitterness was palpable.
The reception hall inside the provincial governor’s compound in downtown Ramadi was still a wreck from a suicide bombing less than a week before my arrival. The bomber had ignited his explosives on a
Sunday—“grievance day,” when widows and other women traditionally sought help here. As Ryan and I walked through the charred hallway, remnants of the strike were visible. While the largest pieces of embedded flesh had been removed from the walls, the orange-brown streaks of dried blood remained. This had been the fourth suicide bombing near or within the governor’s compound that year, plus one near miss. In fact, Iraq, on any given day, still remained statistically more dangerous than Afghanistan. I was suddenly grateful that Ryan had made me wear my armor.
Deputy Governor Fouad Hikmat welcomed us in his office, undamaged by the suicide bomb. At the center of the ornate, wood-paneled, heavily air-conditioned room was a giant mock-up of “New Ramadi,” a $6 billion plan for a new city, the governor’s dream. Designed by a South Korean company to help win a huge construction contract, New Ramadi was to include sixteen thousand homes and villas, office space, cafés, and restaurants—even an international exhibition center. Since virtually no new housing had been built here in decades, Anbar needed at least eighty-three thousand new housing units just to meet the province’s birthrate, Hikmat said.
But the grand vision demanded good security, which despite the surge of US forces, was still a challenge. Hikmat himself was proof of that. In office for only eighteen months, he had been shot at thirty times, he told us; Allah had protected him, “all praise be unto him,” the translator added. But neither God nor the Anbaris’ American protectors had yet provided this Sunni region with enough clean water, electricity, or real jobs to meet local needs. Anbaris averaged less than four hours of power a day. The province lacked essential services. Though Ramadi was less than sixty miles from Baghdad, security checkpoints made the trip a three-hour drive. But even if security in the province improved, as Ryan and his commanders predicted it would, “New Ramadi” seemed a pipedream.
Qasim Mohammad Abed al-Fahadawi, the dynamic fifty-five-year-old provincial governor, sounded even more bullish about Anbar’s future. Prime Minister Maliki and the central government in Baghdad had routinely shortchanged his region, he complained. But somehow he would find financing for his pet project. Iraqis loved visiting Anbar, he asserted.
Under Saddam, the province had been a vacation destination. Tourism would rebound, and Iraqis would vacation once more at the resort at Lake Habbaniyah.
I glanced at Ryan, whose poker face hid even a hint of skepticism. It was hard to imagine Iraqi families braving Baghdad’s gauntlet of security checkpoints and still-dangerous roads to vacation at the dilapidated, rubbish-strewn, state-owned villas on a lake that was evaporating in a five-year drought compounded by upriver damming and massive overuse. Privately, American development officials were calling the ruin of a resort a “do-over.” Ditto the giant state-owned glass factory on the edge of town that hadn’t produced a single glass since a bombing in 2006. The government still paid salaries of the roughly 5,500 employees, but those payments would end soon. Where would they find work?
The governor had paid dearly for the lack of security. Widely admired by Americans for his role in the Sunni Awakening, he had lost his left hand in the province’s deadliest suicide bombing at his compound in late 2009. The US military had saved his life. Rushed for treatment to a nearby military hospital, Qassim was later flown to the United States and given a new, state-of-the-art robotic hand.
When his compound was hit yet again on July 4, 2010, shortly before my visit, the Iraqis whom Ryan’s First Brigade had trained made none of their earlier mistakes. Anticipating a second strike, the task force chief established an outer perimeter to prevent people from entering the crime scene. He left dead bodies in place: the hardest thing for an Iraqi officer to do, Ryan told me. His team ferried the wounded to medical care and collected evidence. As their American advisers looked on, the Iraqis had cased, photographed, and mapped the site, systematically collecting body parts, blast fragments, glass, wire, cement chips—anything that might help identify the bomb and its maker. The evidence was then bagged, sealed, and registered. After locating the bomber’s head and upper torso, they severed his head, plucked out his eye, and sent it in an ambulance to a nearby forensics lab, also American equipped and funded. Though the iris did not find a match in a US biometrics database of jihadis, the compound’s security video revealed that the bomber, clearly visible on camera, had been
escorted into the compound by a provincial passport officer. This had been an inside job.
Investigators issued the first arrest warrants within twelve hours of the attack. Brig. Gen. Baha’a al-Karkhi, Ramadi’s energetic police chief, told me that while the passport official had fled, six other Iraqis, four of whom also worked in the compound, had been arrested and charged—all based on evidence and not merely on what, in Saddam’s day, would have been forced confessions.
A former military officer from Baghdad, Baha’a was one of those experienced Sunni army officers whom L. Paul (Jerry) Bremer III, America’s viceroy in Iraq, had sent home after having officially disbanded the Iraqi army in 2003. Many in Iraq and Washington considered this among Bush’s worst early mistakes in a war that was littered with them.
Focused now on completing his training mission in Anbar, shutting down operations here, and getting his soldiers home without death or further injury, Ryan Cutchin was working around such stupidity, corruption, and the waste of war. He did not complain that roughly one of every four dollars spent on contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan—roughly $60 billion over the decade—had been misspent, and mostly by Americans.20
He dodged my questions about whether the United States had really “succeeded” in Iraq. Would Prime Minister Maliki, paranoid and dictatorial, try to cut the Sunnis and Kurds out of power, as so many Iraqis and American experts had predicted? Would long-standing sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shia, Kurds and Arabs, Christians and Muslims explode once American soldiers were gone? Ryan changed the subject.
On the last day of my last embed, I pressed him again: Had this war been worth the cost? Had the losses throughout his three deployments—the death and wounding of friends, the far more widespread suffering of Iraqis, the interminable separations from his wife and children—been worth toppling Saddam and giving Iraq a shot at democracy?
“Am I talking to Judy Miller, my old friend,” Ryan asked me, “or Judith Miller, the reporter?”
My heart sank at his implicit verdict. We hugged and said good-bye.
Polls in the summer of 2010 showed that 80 percent of Iraqis wanted American forces to leave. But many Iraqi activists who were struggling to save their country from sectarian and ideological extremism complained bitterly about what they saw as America’s abandonment.
“What’s your rush?” Mowaffak al-Rubaie asked when I visited him that summer in Baghdad’s Green Zone, the American-guarded Iraqi Government Center. A former adviser to Maliki who had fallen out with him, as had so many other former counselors, Rubaie feared for Iraq when America was no longer there to help Iraqis navigate their treacherous new political terrain. “America still has forces in Italy, Germany, and South Korea, and those conflicts ended decades ago,” he told me. I suppressed an impulse to remind him that American forces were not being targeted, maimed, and killed in Naples, Frankfurt, or Seoul.
Like so many Iraqis, Rubaie argued that only the presence of American forces, however unpopular with the average Iraqi, would prevent a coup d’état, the outbreak of another civil war, or the “Lebanonization” of Iraq—a splitting again along sectarian lines. Iraqis had “failed miserably” so far to build new state institutions, he said. Corruption was endemic. Few among the elite trusted Maliki, who cared only about perpetuating his own power and was overly influenced by Iran, they complained. His repressive Interior Ministry employed five times as many Iraqis as the Ministry of Education, yet even Baghdad was still far from secure.
The only truly secure, thriving place in Iraq was one hundred miles north of Baghdad: the Kurdish region—the “other Iraq,” as Kurds relished calling their three prosperous, liberated provinces. With their own flag, their prime minister, their 175,000-man army, or Peshmerga—in Kurdish, “those who face death”—and even their own immigration stamp, the region’s four million Kurds seemed to be living in a different country. This infuriated Baghdad, of course.
Kurdistan was possibly the most pro-American place on the planet in 2010. Kurds loved thanking American visitors for having liberated them from Saddam’s murderous regime—something, understandably, I didn’t hear often from Iraqi Sunnis. The Kurds knew that the United States was responsible for their relative success. They had been essentially running their own affairs since 1991, when President George H. W. Bush created
the no-fly zone north of the 36th parallel after Saddam had crushed their US-encouraged uprising. The Kurds, at long last, were governing themselves with a determination born of vengeance.
Kurdish per capita gross domestic product had skyrocketed since Saddam’s fall; illiteracy had been reduced from 56 percent to 16 percent; foreign investment was pouring into the Kurdish Regional Government—an estimated $35 billion from neighboring Turkey alone since 2003, and $5 billion from Iran. Since the KRG had ratified a liberal new foreign investment law in 2006, a half-dozen international airline carriers had begun operating direct flights to Erbil, often bypassing Baghdad. The regional government had built more than two thousand schools; there were now seven universities in Kurdistan; many schools offered English, rather than Arabic, as their second language. Though the world’s thirty-million-strong Kurds considered themselves the largest nation without its own independent state, Iraqi Kurds enjoyed success that their brethren in neighboring Turkey, Iran, and Syria could envy.
Cranes vastly outnumbered minarets in this predominantly Sunni region. Majidi Mall Shopping and Entertaining Centre was mobbed, and Dream City, a new apartment complex, was selling some units for over $1 million each. Israelis were rumored to have bought several units. Unlike Iraqi Arabs, Kurds had been doing business informally with Israel for years and had few hang-ups about the “Zionist entity,” as Israel was sometimes denigrated in Baghdad.
Kurdistan was safer than Turkey, its murder rate lower than Chicago’s. Not a single American soldier had been killed in the region.
But Kurdistan had problems, Fuad Hussein, a key adviser to the Kurdish Regional Government, acknowledged when we met for lunch at the newly refurbished Erbil International Hotel. Corruption was still rampant: some called it worse than Baghdad’s. But Kurdish officials didn’t just pocket proceeds and leave their people without basic services, like their kleptocratic Arab counterparts.
Yes, Kurdish president Massoud Barzani was far too thin-skinned, given the political and economic clout he was accumulating. Although a secular opposition party called Gorran, or “Change,” was taking hold,
journalists and other critics who displeased the Kurdish establishment sometimes wound up in jail on trumped-up charges—or, in the case of a few critics, including a journalist, dead. Violent intimidation and honor crimes remained challenging, given the Kurds’ powerful clan structure. But enlightened Kurdish officials understood that such repression was bad for business, antithetical to the “Other Iraq” brand they were striving to nurture. The Kurds were the winners in America’s invasion to overthrow Saddam.
Still, Fuad worried. Why was the United States leaving Iraq “empty-handed,” having invested so much “blood and treasure?” he asked me.
Americans were tired of the two wars since 9/11 that had consumed and exhausted us, I told him. With almost 4,500 American soldiers dead and 30,000 more wounded, and with the deaths of over 100,000 Iraqis, the exile or displacement of over 2 million Iraqi civilians, and over a trillion US dollars spent, America’s patience was gone. Most Americans no longer cared what happened in Iraq.
“Iraq is too important and dangerous to be left to others,” he warned. “How will you protect your interests here and your friends?” I had no answer. Washington would offer no guarantees. We both knew that America had betrayed them before and might do so again. Though Kurdish officials had repeatedly invited the US military to open a base in their region, Washington demurred, given the opposition of Baghdad, Turkey, and Iran, all of which feared that the Kurds might try to turn their semiautonomous region into an independent state.
Though the geopolitical cards were stacked against them, Barham Salih, then the region’s president, told me the night before I left that he hoped Kurdistan would become a “model” for what all of Iraq might be—if Iraqis could overcome their religious and sectarian differences and autocratic traditions. That was a big “if.”
When I left Iraq in mid-2010, many Iraqis and American analysts were still optimistic about Iraq’s future. The success of the surge in stabilizing the country, Kurdistan’s dynamism, the rise of the historically oppressed
Shiites, and the largely untapped potential of oil-rich Iraq—already the region’s second-largest oil producer—led many Middle East analysts to defend America’s war. No matter how grave the mistakes, Saddam was gone. Neither he nor his even more brutal, psychotic sons would torment Iraqis or the region again. While Iraq had destroyed its stocks of chemical and biological weapons and agents and ended its nuclear weapons program before the US invasion, chief weapons inspector Charles Duelfer said that debriefings of Saddam in prison and thousands of hours of taped conversations with his top aides showed that he had remained determined to acquire nuclear weapons and to re-create his chemical and germ weapons capabilities once sanctions were lifted. In 2008 Duelfer disclosed that, in 1998, after President Clinton had bombed Iraq’s weapons facilities, Saddam had signed a top-secret order (only three copies were made) declaring that Iraq would no longer be bound by or comply with UN resolutions. After his arrest, Saddam told his FBI debriefer that restoring his country’s WMD arsenals was the only way to “reassert Iraq’s place in the region” and “match the military capabilities of others.”21
American security had been strengthened by Saddam’s ouster, said optimists such as Francis “Bing” West, a former marine who had made sixteen trips to Iraq and written an influential book endorsing the war. Despite such “anomalies” as the humiliation and abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison, West argued, no nation had ever fought “a more restrained and honorable war.” Former ambassador Peter Galbraith, a long-standing champion of and adviser to the Kurds, whom I had met in 1979 when he was a staff aide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, argued that life for 80 percent of Iraqis—not just the Kurds, but also the majority Shiites—was immeasurably better than it had been under Saddam.22
Violence was abating. Oil exports were slowly recovering. Eager for a second term as prime minister, Maliki had secured American support in American-brokered talks by promising to share power with his rivals and abide by Iraq’s new constitution. That promise would soon prove hollow, but supporters of the war took him at his word.
Still, President Obama did not claim “victory” in his speech at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, when he welcomed the last American forces home
from Iraq in December 2011. Thanking the soldiers for their “sacrifice,” he spoke about being proud to have left a “stable, sovereign, and self-reliant Iraq” that could take charge of its own future. Even then, given all the danger signs I had seen and concerns I had heard on my latest trip, his assessment seemed wildly optimistic. Worse, the war had strengthened Iran, a far more tenacious regional foe.
In a foreword to the US Marines’ volumes on the surge and counterinsurgency, Lt. Gen. John F. Kelly steered far clear of glory. “Words like ‘won’ or ‘victory,’?” he wrote in 2009, didn’t apply in counterinsurgency operations. Insurgencies grew from problems and discontents within a given society. “Solve the problems and the insurgency goes away.” But, he warned presciently, it wasn’t necessarily “defeated.”23
America had only itself to blame for the insurgency that had nearly defeated US forces in Iraq, he wrote. Whether the “humiliation” of disbanding the Iraqi army in 2003, or America’s “overreaction” to “small acts of resistance or violence” by Iraqis, the “heavy-handed approach” of both US soldiers and civilians had played into Al Qaeda’s and the militant Shiite militia’s ugly narratives. Yes, the belated shift in 2007 to a counterinsurgency strategy, including the surge of US forces coupled with the Iraqi Awakening, had staved off defeat and enabled the United States to stabilize Iraq, curtail much of the violence in most of the country, and leave. But progress had come too late, at far too high a cost. As I left Iraq, I feared that stability would require a sustained US military presence for several more years. That, I knew, was impossible given America’s exhaustion and the growing belief at home that despite the surge’s success, the war had been a terrible mistake.
Negotiations in Baghdad over America’s presence in Iraq soon bogged down. At Iran’s behest in late 2011, Prime Minister Maliki stalled efforts to renew the so-called Security Agreement required to permit US combat forces to remain in Iraq.24
President Obama, eager to claim credit for having ended America’s “stupid” war and withdraw all American combat forces from Iraq, rejected his military’s advice that twenty-six thousand US soldiers would be needed to ensure stability and continued political progress there. His negotiators
offered to leave fewer than ten thousand soldiers in place. “Maliki knew then that the US offer was not serious,” said Gen. Jack Keane, a retired four-star widely regarded as a key promoter of the “surge.”
Soon after the US troop withdrawal, Maliki ordered the arrest of his longtime rival, Sunni vice president Tariq al-Hashimi, forcing him to flee Iraq and eventually sentencing him to death in absentia for allegedly running assassination squads. Breaking his pledges to rival Iraqis and Washington, Maliki made himself interior minister, defense minister, and chief of intelligence, and repressed his critics, especially Sunnis.
Outraged by Maliki’s crackdown, the Sunnis of Anbar and other minority strongholds rebelled again. Weekly security incidents throughout Iraq, which had dropped from an average of 1,600 in 2007 to fewer than 100 by March 2012, began rising less than three months after US combat forces were withdrawn. By the end of 2013, the UN reported that 8,868 Iraqis had been killed that year, the highest death toll since the worst of the sectarian bloodletting in 2006. Ba’athist generals and other disenfranchised Sunnis allied themselves once more with Al Qaeda’s lineal successor, the new jihadis of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, an even more extreme, better financed, and more dangerous group that had emigrated from Iraq and planted roots in civil war–torn Syria. Stripped of competent, nonsectarian officers by Maliki, the American-equipped and -trained Iraqi army folded. Its officers, Maliki’s Shiite cronies, fled their posts. In August 2014, ISIS overran the western towns of Sinjar and Makhmour, reaching Gwer, only fifteen miles from Erbil, the Kurdish capital. Kurdistan’s famed Peshmerga, ill equipped and poorly trained, had also crumbled, suffering a humiliating defeat. Too many of its officers had bought the Kurdish dream and traded in their military fatigues for real estate licenses. Desperate, both Iraq’s prime minister and the Kurdish region’s president appealed once more to Washington for weapons with which to fight, intelligence support, and air cover. By late 2014, ISIS had seized territory in Iraq and Syria equal to that of Great Britain. In Fallujah and Ramadi, where Ryan Cutchin’s soldiers had made such progress, militant Islam’s black flag flew once more.