Iraq War 10 years later: The occupation & the resistance
March 21, 2013
George W. Bush declared victory and an end to combat operations on May 1, 2003, but the war in Iraq was, in fact, just beginning.
The U.S. military would hunt down the Baathist leadership one by one, eventually killing most of them, including Saddam Hussein himself, who was captured and ultimately hung in December 2006. But this was only a sideshow to the U.S. war on the multiple and fractured Iraqi resistance movements.
Bush’s colonial viceroy in Iraq, Paul Bremer, carried out a campaign of terror and repression. Yet the resistance managed to bog the U.S. down in a brutal counter-insurgency campaign, preventing Bush and Co. from their neoconservative plan to topple regimes in Iran and Syria.
Occupation Triggers Resistance
The dominant explanations for why the resistance forces grew are simply wrong.
One common argument made by figures like Gen. Eric Shinseki is that the U.S. didn’t have enough troops to enforce order after toppling Saddam Hussein. But the truth is that the Iraqi people, like any other oppressed people in history, from colonial America under the English king to Vietnam in the 1960s, were going to rise up against occupation.
The second explanation, made by Democrats like Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, is that the U.S. didn’t have a plan for how to reconstruct Iraqi society. This, too, is false. However bungled, the Bush administration did have a plan to transform Iraq. It wanted to impose a neoliberal democracy on the country, open up the economy to multinationals and establish permanent U.S. military bases from which the neocons could carry out their plans for rolling regime change.
That plan to occupy and transform Iraq into a servile state actually sharpened the Iraqi resistances.
While the U.S. had promised that Iraq would have the first free and fair election in decades, it did the opposite. The Bush administration delayed elections and instead installed Bremer as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in April 2003. Bremer ominously declared himself “the only paramount authority figure—other than dictator Saddam Hussein—that most Iraqis had ever known.”
Bremer’s first three orders transformed the smoldering Sunni and Shia frustration with the U.S. invasion into active resistances.
His Order Number One commenced the de-Baathification of the Iraqi state and society. The 2 million members of the Baath Party had been disproportionately Sunni. They had joined the party not out of any conviction, but in order to get jobs in state-run industry. Bremer’s order was thus a direct attack on both the Sunni elite and Sunni workers—it drove them into opposition to the occupation.
Bremer’s Order Number Two dissolved the Iraqi military and security forces, immediately pushing 450,000 people into unemployment and destitution. The military was the last integrated Arab institution, made up of predominantly Sunni officers and a majority of Shia conscripts. One U.S. general told the New York Times that this order “made 450,000 enemies on the ground in Iraq.” Sunni soldiers joined the burgeoning guerilla resistance, and the Shia gravitated toward Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.
Bremer then issued Order Number Three that postponed democratic elections and declared that his CPA would rule Iraq. The U.S. realized that the main Shia Islamist parties—the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and Dawa—would win any election and would ally with Iran, nominally America’s next target for regime change.
So Washington nixed an early election, and in doing so, alienated the Shia majority. As one Army colonel admitted, “When they disbanded the military and announced we were occupiers, that was it. Every moderate, every person that had leaned toward us, was furious.”
The Neoliberal Deconstruction of Iraq
Bremer’s dictatorship then proceeded to impose the neoliberal deconstruction of Iraqi state-based capitalist economy.
Iraq’s people had wrongly expected the U.S. would actually rebuild their economy, as promised, and bring back the country’s “Golden Age” during the 1970s oil boom, when Iraqi living standards rivaled those of Greece. Instead, Bremer inflicted a free-marketeer’s fantasy on Iraq, impoverishing Iraq’s population in the process.
The CPA slashed the top tax rate from 45 percent to a flat tax of 25 percent; abolished import-export duties to the advantage of multinational corporations; established foreign investment protocols that allowed Iraqi companies, including, crucially, the state oil industry, to be at least partly foreign-owned; and started the privatization of state monopolies.
The CPA’s neoliberal plan was a failure—but a very profitable failure for American capital. In his book The Occupation, journalist Patrick Cockburn reports:
Before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, 50 percent of Iraqis had access to drinkable water, but this figure had dropped to 32 percent by the end of 2005. Some $4 billion was spent by the U.S. and Iraqi governments on increasing the electricity supply, but in April 2006, this fell to 4,100 megawatts, below the pre-invasion level, which represents half the 8,000 megawatts needed by Iraq. Oil production touched a low of 1.4 million barrels a day. These figures meant that most Iraqis lived on the edge of destitution, surviving only because of cheap government rations. At least 50 percent of the people who could work were unemployed.
Nevertheless, Bush’s favored corporations—Halliburton, Bechtel and Blackwater—secured no-bid contracts in Iraq and raked in untold profits. Bush thus replaced Hussein’s decrepit state capitalism with a crony neoliberalism that shattered Iraqi expectations of a rejuvenated economy. As a result, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh concluded, “The disaster that is the reconstruction of Iraq has been the key cause of the insurgency.”
To control the growing resistances, the CPA diverted more and more money to policing and repression. It ploughed billions into constructing five massive military bases throughout Iraq. It spent approximately 25 percent of its budget on security.
By early 2006, the U.S. had paid $1 billion to the private security firm Blackwater. In total, there were 60,000 of these so-called private contractors in Iraq—about half of them were, in fact, mercenaries hired to repress Iraqis.