What, exactly is our beef with Iraq? Like Afghanistan, we have been there for the entirety of my childrens’ school life to date. I remember my twenty-year-old asking me if we would kill children by mistake when we bombed Iraq. When she was seven.

What was going on in Iraq before we showed up (US, that is…)?

As we described earlier in our primer about the making of the Middle East, Iraq was formerly a province of the Ottoman Empire, until the First World War. Britain took it over and installed a King, and it gained its independence technically in 1932. In 1958 it became a republic, and since then was ruled by your typical Arab strongman. Saddam Hussein gained power with the country’s Ba’ath party in 1979 and ruled until displaced by the US-led invasion in 2003, which led to his capture, trial and execution.

Why did the US (and its “allies”) invade?

There were two Gulf Wars against Iraq. The first began in 1990, following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of his neighbor, Kuwait. The latter, a tiny, repressive oil-rich Gulf State, had been part of the same province as Iraq under the Ottomans, and SH claimed it was rightfully his. But in reality Saddam needed the oil revenues from Kuwait to fill his coffers after fighting a decade long war with his other neighbor, Iran, which destroyed the economies of both countries.

Kuwait was no friend of the “West” being vehemently anti-Israel, and largely supported by the Russians. But Britain and the US concluded that regional stability, and oil prices, could not stand Saddam in Kuwait, and put together a UN -sanctioned coalition to oust him.

Said coalition kicked the Iraqis out of Kuwait and invaded southern Iraq, disabling the Iraqi army but stopping short of taking out their leader.  What followed was a genocide of Iraqi Kurds living in the north of the country, where the allies established a no-fly zone, but too late to protect the region’s inhabitants from Saddam’s initial purge.

Gulf War II might never have happened were it not for 9/11. After that signal terrorist attack, the George W. Bush administration and its famous “Neo-Cons” decided, for purely political reasons, to invade Iraq and take out the repressive tyrant once and for all.  While in many ways this was an awesome idea, it was based on spurious reasoning. The Bush administration had to be seen to act quickly and decisively after 9/11. Afghanistan may have driven the Taliban out of Kabul, but more was required.

They used two main arguments to go after Saddam: The first suggested that he was talking to Al Qaeda, and therefore was responsible in some way for 9/11. This was never likely. Saddam came from a strictly non-religious political tradition, more associated with nationalism/socialism than fundamentalism. His peers around the Middle East (Mubarak in Egypt, Asad in Syria) had hounded the Muslim Brotherhood for decades, killing fundamentals Muslims whenever they could.

The second involved weapons of mass destruction. The US administration claimed that Saddam was working on weapons of mass destruction. If he was, they never found them. A US-led coalition invaded Iraq anyway, determined to take out Saddam and”drain the swamp.”  (actually Saddam had already done that, draining the thousands of acres of marshes of southern Iraq-an entire ancient eco-system where some rebels were hiding out).  In March, 2003 the US led coalition invaded, and the Iraqi government collapsed three weeks later.

Saddam was convicted of crimes against humanity by an Iraqi court in 2006 and executed by hanging.

But the job of the US-Led coalition had just begun. In Colin Powell’s famous appropriation of the Pottery Barn rule If you break it, you own it, Iraq was now the coalition’s to fix. What ensued was a decade-plus of struggle, beginning with mopping up pro-Saddam hardliners, dregs of the regime. Then the “Coalition Provisional Authority (mostly staffed by recent US grads with distinctly Republican political leanings–ignorant of Islam, the Middle East, Iraq, etc) disbanded the Iraq army of half a million men. A widespread insurgency began and the US and its friends struggled to gain control over a large and diverse population of Iraqis, a nation that had been only held together, with no natural coherence, by a strong, nay despotic, ruler.

In 2005 the Iraqis held their first elections in decades. The upshot was that the Shi’ites, who are a majority in the population, prevailed over Sunni parties. Saddam came from the Sunni minority, and promoted their interests. The Sunni-Shi’a split soon became all encompassing in Iraq, leading to widespread violence around the country and creation a one-issue political system.

In the ensuing chaos, as the US and allies tried to train the army and police force, Iraq became a destination for global Jihadis as Al-qaeda set up shop there, fighting the foreign infidels, and the Shi’ites (Al-qaeda promoting a sunni version of Islam–more on that split in future primers).

Like Afghanistan, the toppling of the regime in Iraq led to a decade-plus of nation building, with several complicating factors. The first was that in both countries foreigners have variously been seen as filthy infidels, and the presence of foreign soldiers has, like the world over, been resented. Much infrastructure-building has taken place in both countries, although in Iraq this was largely only necessary because the war destroyed it in the first place. Secondly the destruction of the regimes in both places precipitated a spiraling of sectarian violence in which the ethnically and religiously diverse populations were free to have a go at each other–and the foreign soldiers. Lastly, al-Qaeda offshoots, such as the Islamic State in Iraq, have been able to make camp in both countries and this has prolonged and complicated the job of reconstruction.

Where will it go from here?

I don’t know. This is a just a primer.

But suffice it to say the debate will continue about how much and what kind of role the US will have in Iraq going forward. With the growing activity of Islamic groups like ISIS and Boko Haram there is continued political pressure  in Washington to have boots on the ground in many Middle Eastern venues, as well as drones in the sky and other resources in play.



About the Author
Adrian Cole studied Arabic at Exeter University in the UK, Alexandria, Egypt and Harvard University. He is now a freelance writer, living on an island in Casco Bay, Maine, with his wife and children. His book The Thinking Past was published by Oxford University Press in 2014.
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