Invasion 2003: Bremer’s blunders and endless war
Beirut - On March 9, 2003, US president George W. Bush announced that the US-led invasion of Iraq had begun, essentially picking up where his father — then-president George H.W. Bush — had ended the earlier war in 1991, leaving Saddam Hussein in power to rebuild his forces while crushing Iraq’s rebellious Shias and Kurds.
As in 1990, this new war began with a pulverising air campaign. When George W. Bush told Americans they were at war with Iraq for the second time in just over a decade, it was the middle of the night in Iraq. US warplanes were blasting Baghdad and other key targets with precision weapons.
There were also broadsides of Tomahawk cruise missiles, mostly fired from US warships in the Gulf, cutting fiery trails across the night sky in counterpoint to the graceful lacework of anti-aircraft fire that was quite useless against the stealthy, radar-evading US B-2 bombers and F-117 Nighthawks.
Baghdad fell within three weeks and Saddam went into hiding. But an insurgency by the remnants of his regime ensued, fuelled by Islamist extremists who took root amid the chaos the Americans seemed incapable of controlling. Within months, a new and more frightening war was under way and it was bloody.
Insurgents began to seize whole cities, such as Falluja, where US Marines fought their toughest battles since Vietnam. From this emerged the new generation of jihadist leaders, more ferocious by far than Osama bin Laden and his veterans of the Afghan war.
The Americans staggered from blunder to blunder. Their post-invasion plans to establish an outpost of Western democracy in the heart of the Arab world, an objective that underlined the overarching geostrategic ambitions of the all-powerful neocons in the Bush administration, collapsed.
Corruption was endemic. In the end, US congressional investigators concluded that in excess of $23 billion in US aid vanished into the black hole that was occupied Iraq, much of it stolen by American officers and contractors. Few were ever convicted.
The Americans eventually contained the jihadists by sending thousands more troops to Iraq but just when it seemed their commanders were beginning to understand the nature of the war they were fighting, President Barack Obama pulled US forces out in December 2011, vowing never again to allow the United States to be dragged into such madness.
But, as security analyst and author Peter Bergen of the New American Foundation notes, “One of George W. Bush’s most toxic legacies is the introduction of al- Qaeda into Iraq, which is the ISIS mother ship.”
One of the most fateful of the many disastrous decisions the Americans made in Iraq was the dismantling of the Iraqi armed forces and the Ba’ath Party by the US proconsul in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer. At a stroke, he broke up the two institutions in the country that could have held it together at a critical time.
The result was to drive the people in these institutions into the clutches of al-Qaeda and the brewing insurgency — a conflict that still rages today, three years after the US withdrawal.
On May 23, 2003, some six weeks after Saddam was toppled and Iraqis embarked on an orgy of looting that the Americans made no effort to stop while they hunted for weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. Bremer, as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, issued Order No. 2 that dissolved the Iraqi defence establishment and put some 400,000 military personnel, many of them armed and disgruntled young men, onto the street. Bremer, who was later heavily criticised for this action and withdrawn in 2004, claimed that the army had already “self-demobilised” during the US-led invasion of March 2003 and he was sweeping away the remnants of Saddam’s tyranny. In fact, the military was still pretty much intact and US commanders were negotiating with senior Iraqi officers on absorbing these forces into the post-war security structure.
Some of those Iraqi officers are the generals commanding Islamic State forces that have conquered a vast area of territory across northern Syria and western Iraq and proclaimed it an Islamic caliphate. “Bremer himself never understood Iraq, knew no Arabic, had no experience in the Middle East and made no effort to educate himself — as his statements clearly show,” analyst Nir Rosen observed in May 2007. “Bremer was not alone in his blindness…
“Bremer claims that Iraqis hated their army at the time of the US invasion. In fact, the army was the most nationalist institution in the country, one that predated the Ba’ath Party,” said Rosen, a fellow of the New America Foundation who spent years in Iraq.
“In electing not to fight US forces, the army was expecting to be recognised by the occupation — and indeed, until Bremer arrived, it appeared that many soldiers and officers were hoping to cooperate with the Americans.”