Dreams of Babylon

Dreams of Babylon

Mini Teaser: Iraq is not yesterday’s war. If Obama withdraws too quickly, the tenuous peace will collapse.

by Author(s): Ryan Crocker

 SINCE THE March 7 national elections in Iraq, we have watched the high drama and low comedy of the government-formation process: candidates disqualified and reinstated, fraud alleged, recounts ordered and results upheld, coalitions forming and shifting in bewildering variations. And when all of this is finally concluded and a new government is formed, it will face a huge agenda of unresolved issues: Kurdish-Arab tensions; disputed internal boundaries; corruption; challenges from neighbors; institutional development; friction among federal, regional and local governments—the list is virtually endless. The truth is that more than seven years after the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Iraq is still at the very beginning of this chapter in its long history.

IRAQ IS hard. It has always been hard, and it will go on being hard. In Islam’s first century, a rebellion of the Khawarij in Iraq (whose fundamentalist theology and inclination to violence resemble that of al-Qaeda) necessitated the dispatch of the Umayyad Empire’s most successful and ruthless general, al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf. He began a famous speech at the Kufa mosque with these words: “Ya ahl al-Iraq, ahl al-shiqaq wa al-nifaq” (“Oh people of Iraq, people of disunity and hypocrisy”). Iraqis quote him today with perverse pride—they are the toughest guys on the Middle Eastern block.

Some argue that whether it be Hajjaj at the turn of the eighth century or Saddam Hussein in the twenty-first, both were uniquely successful as rulers in the land of the two rivers because there were no limits to their use of terror and violence to maintain order. I was in Iraq early in my career, from 1978 to 1980. I was there when Saddam assassinated the founder of the Dawa Party (of which politician Nuri al-Maliki is a member), Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr. His supporters risked torture and death to plaster the walls of Baghdad with posters commemorating his death. I still have one. I was there when Saddam ordered the arrest and execution of his minister of planning and protégé, Adnan Hussein, for daring to contradict him at a meeting of the Revolutionary Command Council, then the supreme executive and legislative body in Iraq. Our driver was taken in the middle of the night and imprisoned for years for the crime of working for the Americans—and for being Kurdish. My neighbors were afraid to talk to me. It was, as Iraqi scholar and former exile Kanan Makiya so accurately described it, the “Republic of Fear.” From the highest officials to the everyman in the street, Saddam inspired a culture of terror. I served in police states before and after, but neither the Shah’s Iran nor the Syria of Hafez al-Assad remotely approached Saddam’s Iraq.

I returned to Baghdad in 1998 as the U.S. representative to UNSCOM’s special team charged with inspecting Saddam’s palaces for weapons of mass destruction—the first American diplomat in Iraq since 1990. I met Abd Hamoud al-Tikriti, Saddam’s personal secretary and one of the most feared men in the regime. He took delight in showing me the palaces of his boss’s two sons-in-law who had defected to Jordan in 1995 and were brutally murdered following their return. I knew I was in the presence of the man who had arranged those murders—and countless others. I saw the physical fear on the faces of every Iraqi he encountered. I was back in Iraq in June 2003 when he was arrested. It was a satisfying moment.

Americans forget this heritage of fear. Iraqis do not. Virtually all of the current leadership is scarred by Saddam, in some cases literally. Ayad Allawi, whose coalition emerged from March’s election with the most seats in Iraq’s parliament, survived an ax attack by Saddam’s agents. He walks with a limp. Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani spent more than a decade in solitary confinement for refusing to assist Saddam’s nuclear program. Prime Minister al-Maliki got out just ahead of regime assassins. Other members of Dawa and his own family were not so fortunate. Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani survived Saddam’s notorious Anfal campaign against their people. Vice Presidents Tariq al-Hashemi and Adel Abdul Mahdi were hunted. Al-Hashemi lost two of his siblings to regime death squads. Such experiences make men tough. But they also make compromises difficult. There is a phrase in Pakistan—“two men, one grave.” It’s you or me. Losing an election can be far more serious than being forced out of office. It is a legacy that haunts Iraq.


MY TWO years in Iraq as ambassador from 2007 to 2009 saw some significant developments, a virtuous circle following the vicious spiral of 2006 when the February al-Qaeda bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, one of Shia Islam’s most revered sites, triggered an escalating wave of sectarian violence that brought the country to the verge of civil war. President Bush’s “new way forward,” popularly known as the surge, changed the dynamics. Sunnis in Anbar, confident that we had their backs, turned against al-Qaeda. As this Awakening moved into Baghdad, Iraqi Shia began to notice that Sunnis were now fighting a common enemy. As extremist Shia militias like Jaish al-Mahdi became less necessary for security, they became less popular, and in early 2008 al-Maliki could order his forces to confront them in Basra and Baghdad’s Sadr City with the full support of the population. Iraqi Sunnis in turn saw al-Maliki behaving as a nationalist rather than a sectarian leader and rejoined his government that summer. Landmark legislation on provincial powers (a major step toward resolving Iraq’s states’ rights issues), a reform of the controversial de-Baathification regulations and budget allocations for the Kurdistan region passed in the National Assembly as political leaders were able to fashion compromises in an atmosphere of dramatically reduced violence.

Iraqis certainly deserve the credit for this transformation; but it would not have happened without intensive, sustained U.S. engagement, particularly by those in the military who carried the surge forward. The hardest months of my life came in the first half of 2007, as our casualties mounted with no guarantee that the strategy would work. But it did, and the people of both nations owe a tremendous debt to those who fought to secure the Iraqi population, one hard block at a time. It was good to see al-Maliki lay a wreath in Arlington National Cemetery last summer to honor their sacrifice.

But the surge was not the only strategy that helped to bring calm. We were engaged at all levels—political, economic and diplomatic. My colleagues and I spent countless hours with Iraqi political figures throughout the country, working to find compromises, suggesting alternatives, even providing drafts. We were in the backrooms and on the floor of the assembly at key moments. For some time to come, we will remain the indispensable partner. It is noteworthy that when our two agreements on U.S. troop withdrawal and what the postwar country would look like came to a vote on Thanksgiving Day 2008, they had the support of all Iraqi political factions except the Sadrists. And even the Sadrists are now publicly acknowledging the success of the surge and U.S. involvement in stabilizing Iraq.


IT IS vital that this engagement continue. Iraq is not yesterday’s war.

Strategic patience is often in short supply in this country. It is not a new problem for us, and it is not limited to Iraq. My time in the Foreign Service, from Lebanon in the early 1980s to Iraq twenty-five years later, was in many respects service in a long war. Dates such as 4/18 and 10/23—the bombings of the U.S. embassy and Marine Corps barracks in Beirut in 1983—were seared into my memory well before 9/11. I learned a few lessons along the way. One is we need to be careful about what we get into. It is a complex, volatile region with long experience in dealing with outside interventions—our adversaries often do not organize for the war until some point after we think we have already won it. But a second lesson is that we need to be even more careful about what we propose to get out of. Disengagement can have greater consequences than intervention.

Our withdrawal from Lebanon in 1984 was a victory for Syria and Iran who created and used Hezbollah against us with devastating consequences. They drew conclusions about our staying power, and when I stepped off the helicopter in Baghdad on a warm night in March 2007 as the new American ambassador, I had the eerie feeling that I was back in Lebanon a quarter of a century earlier. Iran and Syria had again combined efforts against us, this time supporting Jaish al-Mahdi and al-Qaeda instead of Hezbollah (in fact, Hezbollah trainers were working with Jaish al-Mahdi).

The surge confounded their expectations—we stepped forward instead of back. But they almost succeeded. When then–commander of U.S. forces in Iraq General David Petraeus and I testified before Congress in September 2007, the surge was starting to make a difference. But Americans, and much of Congress, were tired of the war. A major theme in our testimony was that we needed to consider that the costs of disengaging from Iraq could be far greater than those of continued involvement. Al-Qaeda would have had a base on Arab soil from which to plan operations throughout the region—and beyond. Iran and Syria would have won a major victory over the United States, fundamentally realigning the entire area with very grave consequences for the security of our allies, as well as our own. We continue to pay for our loss in Lebanon more than a quarter of a century ago. The costs of defeat in Iraq would have been exponentially higher.

Image: Pullquote: If it is true that failure in Iraq would have had far-reaching consequences for our interests in the region and beyond, it is also true that the emergence of a stable, prosperous and pluralistic country can have a positive impact far beyond its borders.Essay Types: Essay