Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State (2015)
Chaos theory and fact
Firdos Square in Baghdad is not really a square; it is a roundabout and more often than not it is clogged with traffic. The roads running off Firdos are lined with concrete bomb-blast walls sheltering some embassies and the homes of ordinary Iraqis that cower behind them. On one side of the square is a large mosque with a beautiful blue dome, and on a plinth in the middle stand two metal boots, providing one of the more incongruous sights in the Iraqi capital. The boots belonged to the statue of Saddam Hussein which once stood in the square with right arm held aloft in salutation, a sixty-fifth birthday present from a grateful nation, until the invading American army arrived on 9 April 2003.
Most of the international media corps were staying in the Palestine Hotel opposite the mosque and various new teams stood on the flat roof of the hotel’s extension to get a good view of the toppling of the statue. Andrew Gilligan was there for BBC Radio and had a front-row seat for what remained the iconic moment of the Iraq War. First the Iraqi wrestler Kadhem Sharif attacked the plinth with a sledgehammer before American soldiers used a recovery vehicle to pull the statue down. Gilligan said:
I was standing on the roof of the hotel which overlooked Firdos Square watching them do it and giving a live commentary on one of the networks. The Iraqis couldn’t get the statue down so the Americans gave a hand and a scream of joy went up when the statue came down.
We then went for a drive around the city to do some reporting. You could see that there was a lot of joy and jubilation that day, but the looting had already started. It really got underway in earnest the following day. The 10th of April was madness. The streets were full of people in trucks and minibuses with anything they could carry, just crammed into these vehicles. They even used the red British double-decker buses Baghdad had in those days; you could see them being driven all over the road, erratically all over the road, and when you got closer to them I could see they were rammed with looted goods. There were no police at all.1
However, the jubilation soon dissipated and the atmosphere deteriorated rapidly. ‘It started turning nasty, lots of people’s houses were being broken into and people being attacked in their homes,’ said Gilligan. ‘Also there was no electricity. We had electricity back at the Palestine Hotel from the generator and we also had security courtesy of the Americans. We also had the only electricity equipment still with its original owners.’
Two days later, Gilligan reported on the mounting chaos for Radio Four’s Today programme, saying that Iraqis were probably ‘living in more fear than they have ever known’, which brought an angry response from the British government. The junior defence minister Adam Ingram accused the BBC of ‘trying to make the news rather than report the news’.2 Within two months of course Gilligan found himself at the centre of a huge political storm after running a story alleging that the British government had deliberately ‘sexed up’ a pre-war dossier on Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to justify war with Saddam.
Senior US officials also seemed to be in a state of denial, with US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld claiming that TV images of isolated acts of looting and violence were being played over and over again by the networks for sensational effect. ‘It’s the same picture, of some person walking out of some building with a vase,’ Rumsfeld said dismissively.3
The weeks following the fall of Baghdad are crucial to understanding the rise of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and later Islamic State. The post-invasion mayhem and looting would soon be compounded by decisions taken by the new interim bodies that would run Iraq on behalf of the US-led coalition, decisions that would prove disastrous for years after they were taken.
The initial failure to provide sufficient security has been blamed on an institutional failure in Washington and London to understand the scale of the task following the military campaign. Allegedly, the coalition leaders made few plans for how to deal with Iraq once victory was won. From the start American and British leaders expected the occupation to be short and that the main challenge would be dealing with war damage.4
‘I saw no evidence of any particular planning for post-war operations,’ a senior British general, Major General Tim Cross, would say later.5 He added, ‘The paradigm effectively was the plan is we do not need a plan. The plan is that once we have moved into Iraq, then the Iraqi people, generally speaking, will welcome us and we will move very quickly on to establishing ministries and some form of democracy, but that pretty quickly, as in six months, we will downsize the military commitment and we will have secured this issue.’6
At the time of the invasion, Clare Short was the secretary of state for the UK’s Department for International Development. She thought the war reckless and resigned shortly after the invasion. She told me the failure to plan for the post-invasion period was all wrapped in the flawed case put forward for the war by the US and UK governments, which was based on the false claim that Saddam Hussein had WMD. She said, ‘The deceit explains the failure afterwards. The American neo-cons7 convinced themselves that they were going to be made so welcome with flowers in the streets and all that; they threw away all the preparations that had been made in the State Department, which were extensive. Also there had been links made with the main players in humanitarianism. All that was thrown away.’8
Short claimed that until late in the day, both governments still maintained the pretence that war could be averted if Iraq complied with their pre-war demands over WMD. She said that that explains the failure to properly prepare for post-invasion reconstruction, adding:
The US didn’t listen to any of the experience and advice we had in the international system about how to go about these things because the deceit that led to war meant they couldn’t share planning with all the responsible bodies. The American people were lied to when they were told that the attack on the Twin Towers came out of Iraq and the British people were lied to in different ways - that Britain was going to stick with the United Nations and that it was all about bringing democracy to Iraq, but in reality Tony Blair [UK prime minister] had given promises to the US that he would go along with it and he believed that America was such a powerful country that its preparations would be good enough, and the tragedy goes on.
The large-scale looting inflicted terrible harm on an infrastructure already ravaged by years of economic sanctions imposed by the West following the 1990-1 Gulf War. It also destroyed the capacity of any government to provide many essential services. Seventeen of Iraq’s twenty-three government ministries were completely ransacked,9 often it seems at the organized instigation of the country’s own civil servants.
‘The objectives were manifold, and included sowing the seeds of administrative chaos and disorganization,’ wrote Ali Allawi, a future Iraqi government minister. ‘In many ministries, individual managers were responsible for organizing and directing the theft and burning of their departments.’10 So much copper electricity wiring was being stripped out of the walls and melted down for scrap that it created a surplus and metal prices in Iraq and neighbouring Kuwait plummeted.11
On top of that, after thirty-three years of misrule by Saddam, Iraq’s infrastructure was already in an advanced state of dilapidation. Eighty percent of the country’s schools were falling down, and none of Baghdad’s sewage treatment plants were operational, which meant some 500,000 tons of untreated sewage was being pumped into the Tigris and Euphrates rivers every day.12 The availability of drinking water had dropped by sixty percent during the 1990s.13
That was bad enough, but within a month of the fall of Baghdad, the US-led coalition would make two catastrophic decisions which essentially acted as recruiting sergeants for Zarqawi and other violent insurgent groups: the two decrees aimed at destroying the Iraqi army and Saddam’s ruling Ba’ath Party. At the core was the fault line between Iraq’s Shia and Sunni communities that had lain dormant for years. Later I will explain what has separated the Sunni and Shia for more than 1,300 years and why it is so central to the rise of Zarqawi and later Islamic State.
Only fifteen percent of the world’s estimated 1.6 billion Muslims are Shia, but their influence far outweighs their numbers in many countries in the Middle East, and they make up the majority in a few. Crucially, in Iraq, the Shia account for up to sixty-five percent of the population, and in Iran to the east they make up ninety-five percent of the population.14 Iraq is the true heart of Shia Islam. It is where the schism between Sunni and Shia took place - back in the days following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 ad - and it is where the most important Shia shrines are located and the most significant Shia imams are buried. At the time of the invasion, the Shia had been a persecuted majority in their own country, constituting considerably more than half the population; the dominant Sunnis made up around forty percent.15
For hundreds of years, under the Ottoman Empire and later under the Ba’ath Party from the late 1960s onwards, the Sunnis had been primarily in charge, although they were in the minority. Established in the 1940s, the Ba’ath was a radical Arab nationalistic, supposedly socialist, movement - ba’ath means ‘resurrection’ in Arabic.16 The party believed in one-party rule by itself, in other words dictatorship. The Ba’athists consolidated their power over Iraq with two coups, the first bloody revolt occurring in 1963, after which they ruled for just nine months.17 The second coup in 1968 established the Ba’ath dictatorship for more than thirty-four years, ending with Saddam’s overthrow in 2003. In a democracy, the majority Shia seemed certain to dominate the country, its government and an increasingly embittered Sunni minority.18
Under Saddam, the Ba’ath Party had progressively hollowed out and ingested all important state, political and civil society institutions19 and party membership was the key to advancement, privileges and power. Naturally, at first, membership was extremely exclusive. In the mid-80s there were only thirty thousand members, representing a pitiful 0.2 percent of the Iraqi population.20 Benefits of party membership included bonus points for children’s secondary school examination results, vehicles and greater ease of access to government jobs and promotion. High-ranking members enjoyed extrajudicial powers over their fellow Iraqis. Some members received a monthly stipend of $250, potentially a life-saver as Iraq suffered terribly from the sanctions imposed by the international community in the wake of the First Gulf War.21 Ba’athists could be paid up to fifty times the pitiful wage rates prevalent in the public sector. A non-Ba’athist primary school teacher would be paid around $3 a month whereas a Ba’athist in the same post would expect $150.22
Saddam clearly needed more friends after his disastrous wars with Iran and over Kuwait so he opened up Ba’ath Party membership to more and more people. By the time of the invasion of 2003, membership was estimated at around 600,000,23 of which an estimated 15,000 to 40,000 were considered to be ‘senior members’.24
A key objective of the invasion, as far as the US was concerned, was not only the removal of Saddam Hussein but the purging from Iraqi society of the Ba’ath Party, the force that had sustained him in power for so long. The Americans and the British saw the Ba’ath, rightly in many ways, as Saddam’s instrument of terror against his own people. As events turned out, there proved to be three big problems with this. First, many ordinary people who may have hated the regime had clearly felt pressured into joining the Ba’ath Party to get on in Iraq; and second, it was not possible to get a job with the military or security forces without the recommendation of a member.25 ‘People join for party benefits - jobs, access to places in the university - or merely to avoid suspicion of disloyalty,’ wrote one keen observer of the Ba’ath.26
The third and most lethal problem was that members of Iraq’s Sunni minority were disproportionately represented in the Ba’ath upper ranks,27 particularly in senior posts in the military and the security services, as well as other top government jobs, being populated ‘overwhelmingly’ by Sunnis. Saddam Hussein himself was a secular Sunni Muslim. Zarqawi was a different kind of Sunni altogether and one who already believed Shia Muslims were ‘evil scorpions’,28 although they represented less than two percent of the population in his native Jordan.29 Zarqawi was a Sunni Muslim from an overwhelmingly Sunni country determined to wage jihad against the newly dominant Shia of Iraq to achieve his caliphate, and his partners in crime would be the embittered remnants of Saddam’s Ba’ath. These remnants would form the nucleus of ISIS and Islamic State.
The US military had already officially ‘disestablished’ the Ba’ath Party on 16 April 2003 with an initial proclamation by General Tommy Franks,30 but it was the so-called ‘de-Ba’athification proclamation’ issued by the new Coalition Provisional Authority on 16 May 2003 that would prove so devastating.
The new man in charge of both Iraq and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was an American diplomat called L. Paul Bremer III, known to his family and friends as ‘Jerry’. As CPA administrator and presidential envoy, Bremer’s task was to promote the development of a functioning democracy that could be returned as soon as possible to the Iraqis. Like some feudal monarch, Bremer possessed full executive, legislative and judicial power.31 On his arrival in Baghdad, on 12 May 2003, Bremer announced almost immediately that he would purge senior Ba’ath Party members and disband the army.
The de-Ba’athification decree declared that senior party members ‘are hereby removed from their positions and banned from future employment in the public sector’.32 In addition, any Ba’ath Party member with a job in the top three management layers of any government ministry and any other government institution or affiliated corporation would be automatically fired. That included staff in universities, institutes and hospitals.33
Bremer thought the order would affect around 20,000 Iraqis but as many as 85,000 people were driven out of their jobs, including ‘40,000 teachers who had joined the Ba’ath to keep their jobs’.34 This mass firing took place when Iraq’s unemployment rate stood at around fifty percent.35
Clearly, America’s model was the policy of de-Nazification used by the Allies to remove all influences of the Nazi Party from Germany.36 Bremer would later repeatedly compare Saddam and the Ba’ath party to the Nazis.37 On one occasion, in May 2003, an evidently emotional Bremer visited a mass grave containing the Shia victims of a Saddam massacre that had been discovered near the central Iraqi town of al-Hillah, not far from the ancient ruins of Babylon. ‘It’s like the Einsatzgruppen during the Holocaust,’ Bremer remembered telling a perplexed young US marine, before explaining, ‘Hitler’s mobile killing squads, army, and police massacred over a million people at isolated places like this…Jews, Gypsies, prisoners of war, Catholic clergy.’38
Bremer’s policy of de-Ba’athification simply burrowed far too deep into Iraqi public and private life and seriously inflamed rising tensions between the Shia majority and Sunni minority. The senior British general at the time, Sir Mike Jackson, said later the deteriorating situation was ‘exacerbated’ by the decision to ‘de-Ba’athify right down to a very low level, even talking about the privatization of the state industries, in particular oil, at a time when Iraq had gone through this extraordinary trauma of invasion and defeat’.39
At least two senior US government officials stationed in Iraq, Bremer’s immediate predecessor, Lieutenant General Jay Garner, and the local CIA station chief, were appalled when they read the proposed decree. The CIA station chief pleaded with Bremer to reconsider, reminding him that the people he was targeting understood the country’s tatty infrastructure from electricity to water. Furthermore, he warned, ‘By nightfall, you’ll have driven 30,000 to 50,000 Ba’athists underground and in six months you will really regret this.’40 Bremer refused to back down and has always insisted that President George W. Bush and in particular his immediate boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, had given him his ‘marching orders’.41
Bremer’s second decree was also to have far-reaching consequences that are still being felt today. On 23 May 2003, Provisional Order Number 2 proclaimed the ‘dissolution of entities’ that included the army and all armed services, associated militias, three government ministries involved with security, including the ministry of defence, as well as all intelligence bodies. It was a breathtaking dismantling of Iraq’s security and intelligence infrastructure, and it involved the wholesale dismissal of thousands of military officers and security officials. One section read, ‘Any military or other rank, title, or status granted to a former employee or functionary of a Dissolved Entity by the former Regime is hereby cancelled.’ All conscripts were released from their service obligations. Conscription was suspended indefinitely, subject to decisions by future Iraq governments. Every soldier or defence security official was dismissed ‘effective of 16 April 2003’.42
Among those thrown out onto the streets with little prospect of work were some eleven thousand embittered army generals, and that’s according to Bremer’s own estimate.43 As Bremer pointed out, that compared to just three hundred generals in the US army!44 Also out of work was a corps of several hundred thousand mostly Sunni officers.45 Most senior officers were threatened with poverty. Anyone above the rank of colonel would be ‘deemed a Ba’ath Party member’ unless they could prove otherwise and ‘no payment, including a termination or pension payment will be made to any person who is or was a Senior Party Member’.46 One of the most extraordinary documents I unearthed from those times is a list of military officers whom the Americans disqualified from future service in the Iraqi military. Running to 278 pages, it lists some 8,697 officers from lieutenants to lieutenant generals, forever barred from being in the military.47
In total, more than 700,000 people were fired, including 385,000 Iraqi armed forces personnel and nearly 300,000 interior security staff.48 Many well-armed, experienced and angry army officers and other ranks joined the various insurgency groups and would later follow Zarqawi and his successors. Given their training and skills set, it is hard to see who else would have employed former Ba’athist soldiers and security officials in Iraq at that time. After all, they knew how to torture people, use guns and make bombs.
The Ba’athists and the jihadis had much in common, both ideologically and their shared belief in rule through terror and violence. In late 2002, almost a year after the 9/11 attacks and six months before the invasion of Iraq, the American writer Paul Berman wrote with great prescience that the Ba’ath and the Islamists were ‘two branches of a single impulse which was Muslim totalitarianism’.49 Berman described this instinct for totalitarian rule as the ‘Muslim variation on the European idea’ of fascism and Nazism. Above all Zarqawi’s movement, and ultimately Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s ‘caliphate’, constituted the consummation of a marriage of convenience between a terror organization and a terror apparatus. The savagery and crimes of IS become that much more comprehensible when you remember that under Saddam the Ba’ath slaughtered thousands of Kurds and Iranians with poison gas and thousands more Shia by mass shootings. When it comes to killing, both the Ba’ath and the jihadis often display great relish. Apparently, one of the Ba’ath’s favourite ways of dispatching dissidents was to feed them feet first through giant shredders or wood chippers.50
By 2014, the top ranks of Islamic State were filled with former Ba’athist officers such as Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, ex-leader of the IS provisional council, a former intelligence colonel. There was also Abu Ayman al-Iraqi, member of the IS governing shura council. A former Ba’ath party member in Saddam’s time, Ayman served in air defence intelligence. Abu Ahmad al-Alwani, who sat on IS’s military council, was also in Saddam’s army. Perhaps most important of them all was Haji Bakr, once a brigadier general in Saddam’s notorious intelligence services, who was eventually killed in Syria in January 2014.51 Later, according to authoritative leaks probably from within the IS hierarchy itself, Bakr, whose real name was Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi, acted as kingmaker to Baghdadi in 2010 and helped him liquidate his internal enemies to secure the future ‘caliph’ leadership of the group.52Documents recovered from Bakr’s home after his death also showed him to have been the architect of the intelligence and terror structure of ISIS/IS. Who better than a former senior Saddam spy?53 These dangerous men would provide IS with the military expertise and know-how to fight their common enemies, and take over territory. They had helped Saddam Hussein terrorize and oppress the Iraqi people and they would do the same for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
I interviewed Dr Ali Makki, a senior Sunni member of Iraq’s parliament, about Bremer’s decision to disband the army. He said:
A high percentage of Islamic State fighters and advisers are previous Iraqi army officers, who had very good training and are professional and [proved] very capable.
The decision by the US to get rid of the army was a disaster; it insulted the situation in Iraq. It was really the cornerstone of what we describe [as] the national resistance to Americans. Paul Bremer made some very bad decisions.54
The promise to create a new army outlined in the decree cut little ice with many of the officers dismissed because Bremer’s first decree had banned Ba’ath party members from future employment in the public sector.55 In any event, Bremer envisaged a much smaller new army of around forty thousand personnel with no tanks or artillery.56 Soon thousands of angry soldiers were protesting in the streets of Baghdad.57
Even senior Shia politicians regret the decisions taken immediately after the US military had declared ‘Mission Accomplished’.58 Saad al-Muttalibi, a senior Shia politician, who has advised two Iraqi Shia prime ministers, told me:
A series of mistakes took place but I don’t think the Iraqis are innocent in all this because if they wanted they could have stopped Ambassador Bremer, or they could have advised him at least otherwise.
We knew and we were talking to Bremer and other people at that time. Many times Bremer mentioned that the dissolving of the army was to please Masoud Barzani [a senior Kurdish politician and president of Iraqi Kurdistan since 2005]. It was done at the insistence of Barzani that the army must be dissolved. The de-Ba’athification was done to please other people. So the Iraqis are not innocent of the mistakes that were made. Those [that] were close to Ambassador Bremer and involved in politics at the time, they share the same responsibility.
De-Ba’athification was a mistake because it was a political tool not a legal tool. The actual bad Ba’athists managed to stay in power, or were in jail. But the poor Ba’athists who weren’t real Ba’athists, who had to join for whatever reasons, who had to join the Ba’ath Party for whatever reasons, social or economic, they were kicked out. So it was used selectively.59
The years following the invasion witnessed attempts mainly by the US to mitigate the effects and extent of de-Ba’athification, but these often met with stiff resistance from powerful and often sectarian-minded Shia politicians who had suffered persecution and exile at the hands of the Ba’athists.60 The bungled de-Ba’athification project added to the chaos of post-invasion Iraq and would do irreparable damage to attempts at a national reconciliation for years to come. For the US, vengeance on Saddam and his apparatus of oppression would not be sweet, as would soon become clear. There is no better example of the ‘law of unintended consequences’. Observing the wreckage of his country’s disastrous retribution on Iraq, the former US navy secretary John Lehman later observed, ‘We provided revenge, which felt good after 9/11, but [it] has sown more dragons’ teeth.’61