I Worked in Iraq During the US Occupation. The ‘Rot’ in the Project Was Known to Us All

A former US official reflects on Iraq’s slide into sectarianism, corruption and violence — on his watch

I Worked in Iraq During the US Occupation. The ‘Rot’ in the Project Was Known to Us All
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

The very first advisory body established by Americans in the wake of the March 20, 2003, invasion of Iraq was revealing in terms of the way that America saw the country. Its 25 exiled opposition figures were chosen by aiming at a balance among sectarian and ethnic groups. Trying to ensure perfect representation of all the segments of Iraq, the occupation depended on long-exiled oppositionists and diminished the value of an Iraqi nationalist identity. Before the occupation authority left in June 2004, it chose the prime minister of the interim government, Ayad Allawi, a Shiite; and the president, Ghazi al-Yawar, a Sunni. (Anyone taking notes will observe that the Americans especially liked leaders who could speak good English.) As Iraqi divisions started to deepen, the violence started to build. The American forces and the American choices for leaders seemed impotent.

What was less clear in these early days was how comprehensively Iraqi politicians would humiliate America, running rings around the teams in Iraq as well as the politicians in D.C. Many of the sectarian human rights abuses and actions to undermine the democratic structures being put in place were known to us, yet we proved powerless to act. Indeed, our choices merely strengthened the hands of the corrupt politicians we were propping up. Around this 20th anniversary, many are looking for lessons to learn from America’s actions. But what remains inexplicable is that many knew at the time what the problems were, and there was an abundance of evidence.

I first worked in Iraq as a senior official in the occupation administration and then at the U.S. Embassy there. I was therefore witness to many of the actions and decisions that contributed to Iraq’s slide into widespread violence by militias and governments alike. As head of the political office in the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, my team and I watched the negotiations resulting from the 2005 national election, which was boycotted by Sunnis. Shiite Islamist and Kurdish parties worked together to choose a new prime minister, cabinet, parliament speaker and president in one grand deal. We did press for the inclusion of a few Sunni Arabs in the cabinet, but we didn’t ask for any particular cabinet post or name, and the Sunni Arabs got little in the new government.

Further, we learned that a Shiite Islamist with ties to the vicious Badr militia backed by Iran was going to take over the interior ministry and thus the police force. The embassy twice warned the White House that this would allow the Badr militia en masse into the police force, and twice word came back: The president says stay out of it and let the new Iraqi democracy make its choices.

Sure enough, within weeks, we received reports from around Iraq of Badr members being hired into police ranks. Ethnic cleansing of Sunni Arabs from mixed Baghdad neighborhoods escalated, as did fighting between the police/Shiite militias on one side and Sunni Arab militias and al Qaeda on the other. The new prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and his security ministers did little to contain it.

Thus, after the next Iraqi election in December 2005, the president reversed course and told our embassy to rid us of the lame Jaafari. The embassy political section drew up a list of five candidates who could win support in the new parliament, largely based on what our many Baghdad-based Iraqi political contacts told us. Our ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, thought Nouri al-Maliki was the best choice, and Washington readily agreed. The Americans encouraged opposition to Jaafari within Shiite ranks and then convinced Kurds and Sunni Arabs to back Maliki. We also pushed hard for more serious Sunni Arab inclusion in the new grand deal announced in May 2006. A few Sunni Arab leaders, including from the Iraqi Islamic Party, the (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, held prominent positions in the new government.

Prime Minister Maliki left the Badr militia alone, but he did try in 2008 to stomp down on a competing Shiite Islamist militia loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, scion of a prominent clerical family. The Americans were pleased, but the campaign didn’t stop the sectarian violence. The ethnic cleansing of Sunni Arabs from mixed neighborhoods of Baghdad reached its peak in late 2006. We also recognized Maliki’s deep antagonism toward Sunni Arabs, noticing that, within his office of 54 advisers, there was not one Sunni Arab.

But we said nothing, paving the way for our declining influence over Iraqi politics, despite our stated intentions and large amounts of funding. We saw Maliki centralize authority over the security forces, undercutting the defense minister (a Sunni Arab named to shut us up in the grand deal negotiations) and the chief of staff (a Kurdish general also backed by the U.S.). The Americans weakly urged caution but, crucially, didn’t firmly object. We saw Maliki force out Iraqis we thought were nationalist, not sectarian, such as the intelligence chief, Mohammed Abdullah al-Shahwani (strongly backed by the CIA), while Maliki also set up competing intelligence offices loyal foremost to him. We murmured a few protests but quickly acquiesced.

And so, from the beginning, the Iraqi leadership learned how to go their own way while appeasing Washington enough to gain our support on the ground and in their coffers. This repeated humiliation was seen nowhere more starkly than in 2010, when Maliki came up for reelection.

His party came in second, behind the more nationalist coalition led by Ayad Allawi. According to the Iraqi constitution, Allawi should have been given the first chance to form a cabinet for parliamentary consideration. But a swirl of legal cases and parliamentary maneuvers spurred by Maliki led to stalemate. The Americans grew impatient. The Obama administration wanted a government with which it could negotiate the future of American forces in Iraq. Finally, Obama’s point man on Iraq, Vice President Biden, made the decision to break the logjam and back Maliki at the urging of the American ambassador, Chris Hill. The argument was that Maliki could win a parliamentary majority faster than competing candidates.

It was not a unanimous call within the American ranks. The senior military commander, four-star General Ray Odierno, advised against Maliki, as did some at the American Embassy, myself included. We pointed to Maliki’s polarizing sectarianism. We lost the argument.

Maliki took the opportunity to further diminish the incipient democracy America was attempting to nurture, by gutting institutions that might place checks on his authority. Independent agencies that the Americans had set up to hold future governments accountable — such as Iraq’s Human Rights Commission, the anti-corruption Commission of Integrity watchdog and the central bank — all would henceforth report to the cabinet, and thus to Maliki, according to a new ruling by his ally and head of Iraq’s supreme court, Judge Medhat Mahmoud, who had benefited from American largesse under rule-of-law programs. Maliki also enfeebled inspection authorities within the cabinet ministries. While the Americans watched, checks and balances disappeared.

There is a revisionist version of history that purports that, if we had just undertaken more micromanagement of Iraqi domestic politics after 2011, we could have limited the corruption and sectarian abuses. That is a wish, not an analysis. The reality is that American micromanagement between 2005 and 2010, at best, knowingly accepted and, at worst, knowingly promoted those who committed the abuses. At no time were we prepared to just quit or even threaten to quit Iraq and leave Jaafari and Maliki to their own devices and those of their Iranian friends. There is no track record of American success in micromanaging Iraqi politics.

Between 2004 and 2011, Washington spent over $25 billion training and equipping the Iraqi army and police forces. Our goal was to build Iraqi security forces strong enough to maintain essential security so we could withdraw our own forces. Between 2004 and 2007, that goal seemed far out of reach. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) launched daily car bomb attacks in the capital and other predominantly Shiite cities, while it also killed opponents in the Sunni Arab community, including Iraqi Islamic Party members. Shiite militias and militiamen hired into the police force were retaliating. On one side were Sunni Arab militants committing abuses entirely outside the state, while on the other were Shiite militias and state actors committing abuses.

In November 2005, acting on a tip from an Iraqi general who was independent of the Shiite Islamists, American forces uncovered a secret detention facility in the Jadriyah district of the capital. A Ministry of Interior special interrogation unit was holding 160 Sunni Arab prisoners in horrific conditions. First, the interior minister’s aides implied that Sunni opponents of the Shiite-led government had exaggerated the story. Then he denied any knowledge of it. Ambassador Khalilzad, U.S. four-star General George Casey and I went to Prime Minister Jaafari. As always, Casey’s staff had prepared a detailed PowerPoint presentation for the prime minister. After he glanced at a couple of the damning slides, Jaafari shrugged. He would do nothing urgently. The Iraqi government eventually did investigate, but the deputy prime minister who headed the team admitted to us in private that it was a whitewash that would absolve the interior minister and top aides. The American military did its own report, but again nothing happened.

One particular meeting stands out in my mind as indicative of our inability to act during those terrible months. This was in Ambassador Khalilzad’s office at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in early March 2006, during the height of the sectarian violence then ripping through the country. My office had been receiving reports for months of Iraqi police detaining and murdering Sunni Arab civilians; wounds from drills to the head and kneecaps were their grisly calling cards. We knew, in part from American liaison officers, about particular units involved in the atrocities. In the ambassador’s office that day in March, I urged that the U.S. government finally start holding Iraqi commanders accountable. Martin Dempsey, then a three-star general in charge of military assistance to the Iraqi security forces and later the four-star Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, exploded at me, demanding that I “lay off our Iraqi forces.” The room was silent, and the meeting ended with no conclusions. After the meeting, we learned that Dempsey ordered his staff to stop talking to the embassy political office. Despite this, some U.S. officers continued to approach us, discreetly, with information about particularly bad units. They too wanted those commanders punished. But there was no such punishment, and the sectarian violence got steadily worse. The violence led the Americans to raise the amount of aid for the police alone to $1.6 billion for 2007. And it finally pushed President Bush to demand that the embassy get rid of Jaafari.

But nothing improved with the change at the top. Under Jaafari’s successor, Maliki, no one was ever held accountable for Jadriyah or for another grisly detention center the Americans discovered called “Site 4.” The Ministry of Interior might occasionally fire a policeman guilty of human rights abuses officially, but we never saw reports of any such officer actually being jailed. More importantly, nor did other Iraqis. Usually, an offender was merely transferred away from American eyes. A September 2007 report by an independent commission of retired U.S. generals appointed by Congress stated that “the Ministry of Interior was rife with political and sectarian intrigue” and was “dysfunctional” and “ineffective.”

And sectarian fighting raged on. In the spring of 2007, I was heading a team helping with the planning for a surge of American troops into Iraq to restore stability. My group prepared the political plan to accompany the boost in U.S. troop strength. In one of our final meetings, I stressed the need for accountability for Iraqi Security Force abuses, so that Sunni Arab and Shiite communities would cooperate with the government after the surge forces withdrew. I got no response. To drive my point home, I asserted that, if necessary, we needed to see a few of the worst Iraqi offenders hanged from light poles in Firdos Square in downtown Baghdad as a warning to others. It was a shocking thing to say, but I was frustrated. There was a stunned silence. When I suggested that we insist, as the price for our ramping up our security operations, that Maliki shut down at least one of his operational commands acting in such a vicious, sectarian manner, the response was, “Robert, that’s a really heavy lift.” The implication was that it wasn’t worth trying.

One useful American tactic to reduce the violence was hiring Sunni Arabs into local militias paid for and loyal to the Americans. They helped defeat al Qaeda in Sunni Arab communities for a time. But this American invention was not sustainable, especially with an Iraqi prime minister who was so distrustful of the Sunni Arab community. To our faces, Maliki promised to hire 20% of the Sons of Iraq force into local police forces or government jobs. In reality, Maliki’s commanders arrested many of the Sons of Iraq leaders we worked with and paid very few salaries. When, in 2009 and 2010, I raised the slow pace of salary payments and hiring and spoke out against the arrest of a trusted Sunni militia commander with whom our troops worked well against al Qaeda, the prime minister’s top political aide floated suspicions of Sunni Arab conspiracies. Maliki’s chief of staff, meanwhile, repeatedly promised to look into the problems, but nothing moved. Our military colleagues made little discernible progress when they raised the problems themselves. When I left the embassy for the last time in March 2010, it was clear that Maliki wouldn’t keep the commitments he had made. Meanwhile, U.S. military aid to Iraqi forces in 2009 alone was another billion dollars.

Some or all of that funding went to the U.S. special forces’ training and equipping of an Iraqi counterterrorism force that Maliki put under his direct command — just as the army was by that point. The counterterrorism force gained a reputation for nasty human rights abuses, including at its own detention facility, Camp Honor, not far from the American Embassy, as well as its habit of targeting Sunni Arab political opponents. Our State Department team on the ground reported extensively about it. In the army, Maliki changed more generals and senior officers whom the Americans had liked but he himself didn’t trust. New generals bought their positions from the prime minister’s office and recouped their investment by skimming salaries of troops on the rolls but not actually in the ranks. Officers resold supplies.

The fact is that we knew all this and had long before accepted all of it, even while our total aid to the Iraqi security forces had exceeded $25 billion by December 2011, when our last soldiers withdrew. Inevitably, the Iraqi Security Force structure, rotten on the inside, came crashing down in the face of the Islamic State group’s advance in 2013-2014. Sunni Arab discontent had grown, due to broken promises over hiring and salaries as well as harassment and torture by newly deployed majority-Shiite security forces in their communities. In 2012 and 2013, protests in Fallujah and Ramadi were brutally suppressed; dozens of protesters died at the hands of Iraqi security forces. As a direct result, by the second half of 2013, the Islamic State was feeding off renewed Sunni Arab resentment. The Islamic State advanced steadily in western Iraq by the end of 2013, and ultimately seized Mosul in June 2014.

Some commentators believe that, had we left a small military force in Iraq after 2011, we could have stopped the rot in the Iraqi security forces. That is absurd. In the period between 2005 and 2010, we identified the rot but, even with 100,000 troops and billions of dollars of aid, we could not stop it.

Why? Because, first, we didn’t try very hard. Second, the Iraqi leadership had its own agenda which was, in short, ensuring Shiite Islamist domination of the government. They feared the Sunni Arabs would kill them if they didn’t repress the Sunni Arabs, and repress them hard. For Maliki and his circle, the fight with their Iraqi adversaries was existential. We never understood the intensity of an existential fight that allows for sectarian violence and routine violations of human rights. They would take our aid happily but, no matter what, they would fight, and they would fight in their own way.

This essay is one of a series marking the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Read Rasha Al Aqeedi on her vivid memories of the invasion 20 years later as an Iraqi, Muhammad Idrees Ahmad on the “lesson of Iraq” and retreat to fatalism, and Henrietta Wilson on the disarming of Iraq’s WMDs.

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