Where America’s Democracy Went to Die – By Paul D. Shinkman Aug. 14, 2015 | 12:01 a.m. EDT

In Iraq, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s bold plan to revitalize a country ravaged by war may provide stability – or it could undo it all.

More than a decade after being invaded by the U.S., Iraq is moving away from the democracy the West tried to establish in the country.

On the streets of Baghdad, and in other corners of Iraq where locals have endured almost unimaginable chaos and tragedy over the last decade, two popular phrases capture the complexities of modern life.

“We used to have one Saddam Hussein, now we have a thousand,” one saying goes. The other: “The patch is small, and the hole is big.”

The first adage helps personify what has become endemic corruption in Iraq, giving rise to massive protests against public officials’ exploiting their positions to steal money and the government’s failure to stop it. The second represents the inherent fear among Iraqis that no leader, particularly in the current government, possesses the vision to see beyond the country’s existing problems and come up with a proactive solution in service of Iraq’s future.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi attends a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel following talks at the Chancellery on Feb. 6, 2015, in Berlin.


Abadi’s Bold Plan for Iraq

The sentiments reflect the concerns of demonstrators who have taken to the streets in recent days in frustration over the government’s inability to deliver basic services like a reliable flow of electricity at a time when summer temperatures have topped 120 degrees. The largely peaceful and nonsectarian protests, set against the urgency of war with the Islamic State group, prompted Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to announce a bold set of anti-corruption reforms over the weekend aimed at making the government more effective. The seven-point plan attacks fraud and waste in key areas of the political, national security and leadership infrastructure where Abadi, a Shiite Muslim, sees some of the most flagrant abuses.

Some consider it the beginning of a labyrinthine path to actual reform. For others, it suggests a power grab by Abadi, who may have just laid the foundation to oust encroaching rivals, consolidate power and build his base of support.

Regardless, in a country defined by autocrats, the move almost certainly marks the official death of the model of democracy the U.S. attempted to impose over a decade of war.

“Iraqis in general blame the U.S. government [for choosing to] fund, train and support the present, corrupt Iraqi government,” says Kamal Jabar, an Iraqi-American human rights activist and journalist who recently returned to the U.S. from Baghdad and has been closely monitoring the tenor of the protests in and around the capital city. Many of the protesters on the streets celebrated the news, he says, but Iraqis have learned to temper their optimism.

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Who stood to profit most over the years? – AUGUST 02, 2015 8:53 AM ET

25 Years In Iraq, With No End In Sight – GREG MYRE


U.S. Marines arrive at Saudi Arabia's Dhahran Air Base on Aug. 21, 1990. The U.S. began a buildup in the region just days after Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2 of that year. The U.S. military has been active in Iraq virtually nonstop for the past quarter-century.

U.S. Marines arrive at Saudi Arabia’s Dhahran Air Base on Aug. 21, 1990. The U.S. began a buildup in the region just days after Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2 of that year. The U.S. military has been active in Iraq virtually nonstop for the past quarter-century. Gerard Fouet/AFP/Getty Images

It started so well. When Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, the United States swiftly cobbled together a broad coalition, unleashed a stunning new generation of air power and waged a lightning ground offensive that lasted all of four days. Iraqi troops were so desperate to quit that some surrendered to Western journalists armed only with notebooks.

Kuwait was liberated, U.S. commander Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf was a hero, and the pundits confidently declared the U.S. had buried its “Vietnam syndrome,” the fear of being sucked into a quagmire. In the annals of war, it doesn’t get much easier than this.

So on the 25th anniversary of that first Iraq conflict, how is it possible that the U.S. is still entangled in a messy, complicated war with no end on the horizon?

Iraq President Saddam Hussein is shown in Baghdad in January 1991, just before the first U.S. war in Iraq. The American forces would oust the Iraqi leader 12 years later in a second war.i

Iraq President Saddam Hussein is shown in Baghdad in January 1991, just before the first U.S. war in Iraq. The American forces would oust the Iraqi leader 12 years later in a second war.


Aside from an intermission from December 2011 until August 2014, the U.S. military has been rumbling through the sweltering sands or soaring over the desert skies for this entire quarter-century, a military engagement unparalleled in U.S. history.

Before the first Iraq battle, the U.S. had never fought a large-scale war in the Middle East. Yet freeing a tiny Gulf emirate from Saddam’s clutches has morphed into a seemingly permanent state of war, metastasizing to so many countries it’s tough to put a precise number on it.

Here’s one way to count: President Obama has ordered airstrikes on seven Muslim countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Libya and Somalia) in less than seven years in office.

“Before 1990, the region was a secondary or even tertiary area of importance to Washington. The United States had rarely deployed military forces in the region,” Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official now at the Brookings Institution, wrote recently. “What had been a backwater for the U.S. military has become since 1990 the principal arena of conflict. This shows no sign of ending anytime soon.”

The U.S. military involvement has spanned four presidencies and a panoply of evolving goals.

In rough order, the shifting aims have been to reverse Saddam’s aggression, ensure the safe flow of oil from the Gulf, contain Saddam, oust Saddam, search for nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, build democracy, pummel al-Qaida in Iraq, and currently, suppress the self-proclaimed Islamic State. If there’s a unifying theme, it’s the U.S. forecasts that have consistently been too optimistic.

“It’s been a 25-year-long enterprise, with different aims and approaches, none of which have yielded the results promised,” said Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel who served in Iraq and now teaches international relations at Boston University.

The U.S. policies have included five distinct phases. Here’s a closer look at them and their consequences:

1. Overwhelming Force (1991): The world was turning America’s way when, after a six-month military buildup, the U.S. began bombing Iraq on Jan. 17, 1991. The Berlin Wall had fallen, the Soviet Union would crumble by year’s end and the U.S. was the lone superpower.

The brief war only reinforced the notion that the U.S. was uniquely positioned to remake the global order in the wake of the Cold War. The only debate at the end of the first Iraq war was whether the U.S. squandered an opportunity by not advancing all the way to Baghdad, ousting Saddam and occupying Iraq.

Iraqi antiaircraft fire lights up the skies over Baghdad in response to U.S. warplanes that bombed the Iraqi capital in the early hours of Jan. 18, 1991. The U.S. campaign drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait in a little over a month.

Iraqi antiaircraft fire lights up the skies over Baghdad in response to U.S. warplanes that bombed the Iraqi capital in the early hours of Jan. 18, 1991. The U.S. campaign drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait in a little over a month.

Dominique Mollard/AP

But President George H.W. Bush cautioned against the risks of taking over Iraq. His top military adviser, Gen. Colin Powell, summed it up with the “Pottery Barn rule” – if you break it, you own it.

Bush wanted to withdraw the troops as quickly as possible to avoid any potential complications. His successors have had similar instincts, yet each American drawdown in Iraq has been followed by a fresh wave of forces at a later date.

“The 1991 war was quick and easy and created the myth that this is how we could fight wars now,” said James Dubik, a retired general and Iraq veteran who’s now at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. “This set us up for a misunderstanding of how to wage war in the years that followed.”

There were other unanticipated consequences. Osama bin Laden would cite the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia — sent in the run-up to the war and remaining in its aftermath — as one of his main grievances against the U.S.

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U.S. Troops Were Injured by Old WMDs in Iraq, Which Doesn’t Mean Bush Was Right – By Margaret Hartmann October 15, 2014 4:18 a.m

Photo: MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images

In a bombshell report on Tuesday night, the New York Times‘ C. J. Chivers revealed the existence of a “largely secret chapter” in the Iraq War. Between 2004 and 2011, American troops and Iraqi police officers repeatedly found chemical weapons produced by Saddam Hussein’s regime before 1991, and at least 17 U.S. service members were wounded by deteriorating shells filled with nerve or mustard agents. The men suffered burns, severe blisters, respiratory problems, and other long-lasting health problems, but the U.S. government prevented the troops from receiving medical care, and refused to recognize that they had been wounded in the line of duty. And to make matters worse, ISIS now controls the area where most of the weapons were found.

There’s a lot of infuriating information in the 10,000-word report and accompanying documentary. Instead, conservatives quickly pounced on one point that isn’t even true:  U.S. troops found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so President Bush was right to invade.

It’s well known that Saddam Hussein produced chemical weapons in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, and by 2003 the shells and rockets were so old and damaged that they could not be used as designed. The Times report makes it abundantly clear that these were not the WMDs the Bush administration was referring to in the lead up to the war. This is the tenth paragraph:

The United States had gone to war declaring it must destroy an active weapons of mass destruction program. Instead, American troops gradually found and ultimately suffered from the remnants of long-abandoned programs, built in close collaboration with the West.

A few paragraphs down, Chivers makes the point even more explicitly:

The discoveries of these chemical weapons did not support the government’s invasion rationale.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Bush insisted that Mr. Hussein was hiding an active weapons of mass destruction program, in defiance of international will and at the world’s risk. United Nations inspectors said they could not find evidence for these claims.

The Times reports that “American troops secretly reported finding roughly 5,000 chemical warheads, shells or aviation bombs,” which is far more than previously reported, but it’s been known for the past decade that old chemical weapons were found in Iraq.

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How the Iraq War Launched the Modern Era of Political BS – —By Chris Mooney | Wed Jun. 25, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Factual divides over whether Iraq had WMD, and whether Saddam was working with Osama, set the stage for today’s battles over reality.

Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush, and Dick Cheney 

That queasy sensation of déjà vu you’re experiencing is understandable. With Iraq back in the news, and Paul Wolfowitz and Bill Kristol on TV sounding off about the situation, there’s every reason to worry that a new wave of misinformation is on the way.

There is no debate that the Iraq War was sold to the American public with a collection of claims that ended up being proved false. Iraq was said to have weapons of mass destruction, but this wasn’t the case. Advocates for the war insinuated that Saddam Hussein was colluding with Al Qaeda and was somehow involved in the 9/11 attacks. That, too, was false.

Yet many Americans (and some of their leaders) still believe this stuff. It’s a tragedy, but it’s also a kind of natural experiment in misinformation, its origins, and its consequences. And since 2003 social scientists, psychologists, and pollsters have been busy examining why false beliefs like these are embraced even in the face of irrefutable evidence—and what impact this sort of disinformation has on American political discourse.

An International Atomic Energy Agency inspector taking samples at an Iraqi factory in 2002 IAEA/Wikimedia Commons

The resulting research shows that the Iraq War looks like an early version of a current phenomenon: the right wing rooting its stances in simple untruths about the world (see climate change). So here’s a quick trip through some of the ground-breaking scholarship on how the Iraq war polarized the US public over the acceptance of basic facts:

The role of Fox News. In a pioneering study that laid the groundwork for much future work, the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland used a series of post-Iraq War polls (conducted from June through September in 2003) to analyze the the preponderance of false beliefs about the war. The study first defined three clear falsehoods: (1) real evidence linking Iraq and Al Qaeda had been uncovered; (2) WMD had been discovered in Iraq following the US invasion; and (3) global public opinion was in favor of the US invasion. Then, it examined the likelihood of holding such incorrect beliefs based upon a person’s political party affiliation and habits of news consumption.

Fox viewers led the way in embracing these false assertions, with 80 percent of them believing at least one of the three. For consumers of both NPR and PBS, in contrast, only 23 percent believed one or more of these pro-war myths.

Sure enough, Fox viewers led the way in embracing these false assertions, with 80 percent of them believing at least one of the three. Seventy-one percent of CBS viewers also held one of these three false beliefs. For consumers of NPR and PBS, only 23 percent believed one or more of these pro-war myths. Notably, Republicans and supporters of George W. Bush had a much higher level of belief in these falsehoods. So what caused these misperceptions to exist? Republican ideological allegiance likely led to an initial belief in these misrepresentations, but then Fox watching bolstered these views. For Democrats, too, watching Fox worsened their misperceptions.



Saddam’s Ex-Officer: We’ve Played Key Role In Helping Militants – by LEILA FADEL June 19, 2014 5:40 PM ET

Kurdish peshmerga forces look at a checkpoint held by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in Iraq's second city, Mosul, on Monday.

Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images


Screen Shot 2014-06-20 at Jun 20, 2014 2.34

Kurdish peshmerga forces look at a checkpoint held by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in Iraq’s second city, Mosul, on Monday.

As they steamrolled across northern Iraq, Sunni militants had important help from an old power in the country — former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party and his army.

One retired air force colonel said he is a member of a newly formed military council overseeing Mosul, the large city captured last week by ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and its allies from Sunni Arab armed factions.

He spoke in a phone interview from Mosul and agreed to talk only on the condition that he not be named. He said he was worried about being targeted. NPR confirmed through acquaintances that he had served as colonel in the air force during the rule of Saddam, who was ousted in the U.S. invasion of 2003.

The former officer said there were multiple armed Sunni Arab factions that feel marginalized by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government.

“They [ISIS] are not in charge. They are not responsible [for] everything,” the officer said.

He described ISIS as one of five armed factions opposing the government. The others are made up of people like himself who previously belonged to the military or the Baath Party.

Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a former member of Saddam Hussein's inner circle (shown here in 2002), leads one of the Sunni armed factions helping ISIS in its fight against the Iraqi government.i

Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a former member of Saddam Hussein’s inner circle (shown here in 2002), leads one of the Sunni armed factions helping ISIS in its fight against the Iraqi government.

Jassim Mohammed/AP

One of the biggest factions is the Naqshbandi, ostensibly an order of the mystical Sufi sect but in essence a collection of Baathist holdovers. It’s led by Saddam’s former crony Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the King of Clubs on the U.S. military’s deck of cards ranking former regime targets.

Other support for ISIS comes from forces loyal to the Baathist former Gen. Mohamed Younes Ahmed, who for years has helped the Sunni insurgency, reportedly from Syria. Assistance is also coming from smaller groupings of Saddam loyalists from the old military and security apparatus — men who are valued for the tactical experience and intelligence-gathering they perfected under Saddam’s iron-fisted rule.

“They have got good skill, good experience. They have good training … and they have good weapons and that’s why they got a victory [so] fast.”

A key component of the militants’ strategy is state-building, not just military victories, he said, adding that he’s a member of the ad hoc council that’s trying to restore basic services to Mosul.

And although black ISIS flags now fly over the city and ISIS has issued laws based on its extreme ideology, the ex-colonel claims that it is former Sunni military officers, not ISIS, who have been left in control of the city.

“Everything is OK and our people, they decided to continue their operation to Baghdad to change that government,” he said.

The goal, he said, is to remove Maliki and take over the country. ISIS may share that goal, but it’s not clear which group would ultimately be more powerful.

Others outside his movement, including a former Iraqi interior minister, Falah al-Naqib, agree that ISIS is just the tip of the spear, perhaps no more than 15 percent of the anti-government forces.

“Mainly it’s the ex-military commanders, the army, the ex-army which have been dissolved,” Naqib said.

Paul Bremer, who led the U.S. occupation of Iraq after the invasion, dissolved the Iraqi army and put hundreds of thousands of men out of work. Many analysts say that move gave birth to the Sunni insurgency that persists today.

Naqib said that the Sunni groups agree on their military goal, but they don’t agree on the tactics. He referred to mass executions that ISIS has boasted about online. He claimed some 500 people were executed by ISIS around the city of Tikrit, angering former officers who are trying to pressure the group to stop.

Naqib is in northern Iraq furiously trying to help find a solution, because he’s afraid of what will happen if the Sunni fighters reach the capital, Baghdad.

But the former colonel in Mosul said it’s too late for dialogue and Shiite militias are already mobilizing.

“They are killing the people just because he is Sunni in Baghdad and then in Mosul they kill them. Why?” said the ex-colonel.

With the Iraqi army foundering, the government is now calling on Shiite paramilitaries to take part in the fight to defend the state.

7 Talking Points You Need For Discussing the Iraq Crisis—By David Corn | Fri Jun. 13, 2014 3:23 PM EDT

ISIS fighters marching in Syria. 

1. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney invaded Iraq with no clear and comprehensive plan for what to do after the invasion and the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Weeks before the war, the administration stated there was no reason to fear that sectarian conflict would ensue after Saddam was booted.

2. Following the invasion, the Bush-Cheney administration decided to prohibit the Sunni-dominated Baath Party from participating in a post-Saddam government and decommissioned the existing Baathist-led military. This caused deep resentment among Sunnis, especially former military commanders and soldiers (who would now be available for an armed opposition). The move had the effect of banishing Iraqis with governing and security experience from the post-Saddam order. That would be good for chaos and conflict.

3. The Bush-Cheney deciders, having decimated the Sunni ruling establishment, backed the creation of a government led by hard-line Shiite religious parties, including the party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Maliki regime has been corrupt, authoritarian, and incompetent—and allied closely with the Shiite government in Iran. (Iran was a key sponsor of Maliki when he was in exile during the Saddam years.) The thuggish Maliki government, supported by the Bush administration and then the Obama administration, has treated the Sunni areas of Iran as enemy territory and refused to share power with Sunnis—stoking the deep-seated tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. (As the murderous Sunni ultra-extremists of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, have gained power in Mosul and other Sunni-dominated cities and towns, non-extremist Sunnis have sided with—or tolerated—the jihadists because of their shared hatred of the Maliki regime and the Iraqi military, which Sunnis in Mosul considered an occupying force).


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