Chalabi ran the little con on Iraq, but Bush ran the bigger one

Christopher Dickey writes: Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi mathematician, banker, schmoozer, spy and source of dubious intelligence provided to journalists and politicians alike, died today of an apparent heart attack in Baghdad at the age of 71. And at least one breaking news headline called him “the man who drove the U.S. to war in Iraq.”

That’s a common, and perhaps convenient, perception. But for my part, as someone who first met Chalabi 30 years ago, and stayed in close touch with him up to and through the first years of the disastrous American occupation of his homeland, I think the blame is misplaced.

George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and crew were hellbent on war with Saddam Hussein, and if they hadn’t had Chalabi supplying grist to their mill, they’d have found someone else. Their attachment to fantasies was infinitely greater than their attachment to facts, and, believing in American omnipotence, they wanted to make their dream of an utterly overhauled Middle East a reality. Chalabi played to their delusions and prejudices, but he didn’t create them.

Do you remember the ideas floating around Washington in those days? With a minimum of force, the United States would invade Iraq; the people would rise up; Saddam would fall; Iraq would recognize Israel (and Iraq’s Jews would return to Baghdad); Iran would be intimidated. The Middle East would be set on a path to democracy. Oh, and a grateful Iraq probably would give American companies great deals on Mesopotamian oil and gas.

Anyone who knew the region well, and there were many in the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department who knew it very well, realized that these were pipe dreams. But the top officials in the Bush administration systematically excluded those voices. [Continue reading…]


Iran’s Suleimani viewed Chalabi as ‘too liberal’

Following the death of Ahmed Chalabi, one of the leading proponents of the war in Iraq, The Guardian reports: In the past five years Chalabi’s relationship with Iran’s leaders and the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), the most powerful institution in Iran, came to define him almost as much as the invasion. Chalabi was one of a handful of senior Iraqis regarded as confidantes of the IRGC’s foreign relations arm, the Quds Force, and in particular its leader, Qassem Suleimani.

He actively promoted causes that were central to Iran’s interests, including making contacts with the opposition in Bahrain, which was almost exclusively Shia and at odds with the ruling Sunni establishment. In the early years of the Syrian war Chalabi was a regular visitor to Damascus, where he met often with the overlord of Bashar al-Assad’s security apparatus, Mohammed Nassif. In Beirut, where Chalabi maintained a house, he was regularly received by the Shia resistance bloc Hezbollah.

Chalabi’s influence within Shia circles was evident when he stepped in to rescue the Guardian’s then Iraq correspondent, Rory Carroll, in late 2005, several days after Carroll had been kidnapped by Shia militiamen in Sadr City. Chalabi received Carroll at his farm in west Baghdad after contacting the hostage takers directly.

In mid-2014, with the Sunni jihadi group Isis on the doorstep of Baghdad, Chalabi made one final play for political power, lobbying vigorously to replace Nouri al-Maliki as Iraq’s prime minister after Maliki’s authority had been crippled. His allies, including Suleimani, regarded him as a liability; perhaps one of the greater ironies of Chalabi’s life, the Iranian general had marked him down for being, in his words, “too liberal”. [Continue reading…]


Blair offers hollow apology for war in Iraq

The Guardian reports: Tony Blair has moved to prepare the ground for the publication of the Chilcot enquiry into the Iraq war by offering a qualified apology for the use of misleading intelligence and the failure to prepare for the aftermath of the invasion.

In an interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN, the former British prime minister declined to apologise for the war itself and defended armed intervention in 2003, pointing to the current civil war in Syria to highlight the dangers of inaction.

Blair, who will be aware of what Chilcot is planning to say about him in the long-awaited report into the Iraq war, moved to pre-empt its criticisms in an interview with CNN. He told Zakaria: “I apologise for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong.

“I also apologise for some of the mistakes in planning and, certainly, our mistake in our understanding of what would happen once you removed the regime.” [Continue reading…]


UN funding shortfalls and cuts in refugee aid fuel exodus to Europe

The New York Times reports: One of the prime reasons for the wave of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers washing into Europe is the deterioration of the conditions that Syrians face in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, a worsening largely caused by sharp falls in international funding from United Nations countries, officials and analysts say.

That shortfall in funding, in contrast with the greater resources provided by Europe, is prompting some to make the hazardous journey who might otherwise remain where they are. The United Nations Syria Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan, which groups a number of humanitarian agencies and covers development aid for the countries bordering Syria, had by the end of August received just 37 percent of the $4.5 billion appeal for needed funds this year.

António Guterres, the high commissioner for refugees, recently said that his agency’s budget this year would be 10 percent smaller than in 2014, and that it could not keep up with the drastic increase in need from the long Syrian conflict, which includes shelter, water, sanitation, food, medical assistance and education. The United Nations refugee agency’s funding for Syria this year is only at 43 percent of budgeted requirements. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: Najim Rahim says that when he looks around his neighborhood in the northern city of Kunduz now, “I feel lonely.”

His friend Ahmad Ulomi, who worked in the photo shop down the street, gave up his photography studies and left with five family members, striking out across the Iranian desert on the way to Europe. The shop’s owner, Khalid Ghaznawi, who was Mr. Ulomi’s teacher, decided to follow him with his family of eight, and he put his business up for sale. Mr. Rahim’s friend Atiqullah, who ran the local grocery shop, closed it and also left for Iran with his wife. Another neighbor, Feroz Ahmad, dropped out of college and last week called from Turkey to say he was on his way to Europe.

All of that happened in the past two weeks as people in Kunduz are rushing to seize what many see as a last chance to make it to Europe, just as others are doing throughout Afghanistan. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: Thousands of migrants poured into Austria on Saturday after being bounced around countries overwhelmed by their arrival and insistent that they keep moving.

Hungary — which had taken the most draconian and visible measures to turn back the exodus, notably the construction of a razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia — partly caved Friday evening. It grudgingly allowed at least 11,000 migrants to enter from Croatia, and then sent them by bus and train to processing centers along its border with Austria.

The Austrian authorities said that about 10,000 people entered the country on Saturday, from Slovenia and Hungary. [Continue reading…]


The world’s failure in Syria

The Guardian reports: The full horror of the human tragedy unfolding on the shores of Europe was brought home on Wednesday as images of the lifeless body of a young boy – one of at least 12 Syrians who drowned attempting to reach the Greek island of Kos – encapsulated the extraordinary risks refugees are taking to reach the west. [Continue reading…]

To speak of the world’s failure in Syria, presupposes some sort of global responsibility, yet many war-weary Americans might wonder: what makes Syria our responsibility?

The answer is simple: the war in Iraq.

Had the U.S. and its allies not invaded Iraq in 2003, it’s hard to envisage that the region with Syria at its epicenter would now be ripping itself apart.

That’s not to suggest that absent the Iraq war, there would now be something that could reasonably be called Middle East peace.

Yet it’s fair to assume that however the region’s systemic injustices might have metastasized over the last decade, the result would most likely not have been the worst refugee crisis since World War Two.


How Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri became the leader of ISIS

William McCants writes: Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri was born in 1971 in Samarra, an ancient Iraqi city on the eastern edge of the Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad. The son of a pious man who taught Quranic recitation in a local mosque, Ibrahim himself was withdrawn, taciturn, and, when he spoke, barely audible. Neighbors who knew him as a teenager remember him as shy and retiring. Even when people crashed into him during friendly soccer matches, his favorite sport, he remained stoic. But photos of him from those years capture another quality: a glowering intensity in the dark eyes beneath his thick, furrowed brow.

Early on, Ibrahim’s nickname was “The Believer.” When he wasn’t in school, he spent much of his time at the local mosque, immersed in his religious studies; and when he came home at the end of the day, according to one of his brothers, Shamsi, he was quick to admonish anyone who strayed from the strictures of Islamic law.

Now Ibrahim al-Badri is known to the world as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ruler of the Islamic State or ISIS, and he has the power not just to admonish but to punish and even execute anyone within his territories whose faith is not absolute. His followers call him “Commander of the Believers,” a title reserved for caliphs, the supreme spiritual and temporal rulers of the vast Muslim empire of the Middle Ages. Though his own realm is much smaller, he rules millions of subjects. Some are fanatically loyal to him; many others cower in fear of the bloody consequences for defying his brutal version of Islam. [Continue reading…]


Many opponents of Iran deal were proponents of Iraq war

Grace Cason and Jim Lobe write: “Many of the same people who argued for the war in Iraq are now making the case against the Iran nuclear deal,” President Obama observed August 5 at American University in perhaps his most forceful and aggressive speech in favor of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

There really is no question regarding the fundamental truth of that assertion. Virtually all of the political appointees who held foreign-policy posts under George W. Bush—from Elliott Abrams to Dov Zakheim, not to mention such leading lights as Dick Cheney, John Bolton, Paul Wolfowitz, Eric Edelman, and “Scooter” Libby—have all assailed the agreement as a sell-out and/or appeasement with varying degrees of vehemence, if not vituperation.

This is reminiscent of the curious Committee for the Liberation of Iraq (CLI), an organization established by the Bush White House in November 2002 to “mobilize U.S. and international support for policies aimed at ending the aggression of Saddam Hussein and freeing the Iraqi people from tyranny.” Indeed, Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI), perhaps the most aggressive anti-Iran group over the past couple years, is based at the same offices as CLI was. Three of the CLI’s staff of four were associated with the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). CLI’s president, Randy Scheunemann, among other things, enjoyed an especially close relationship with Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress (INC), and CLI and INC also seemed to share websites (as shown by the screen shot below.) A carefully chosen bipartisan group of 33 prominent individuals served on CLI’s advisory board. [Continue reading…]


Most of the drivers of regional destruction have little to do with Iranian-Saudi rivalry

Rami G Khouri writes: [Regional] destruction is painfully visible every day in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Bahrain, and Yemen, at the very least. This spectacle of multiple fragmenting states is bad enough; it is made even worse by the latest troubling development — it is too early to call it a trend — which is the spectacle of repeated bomb attacks and killings of government officials and security forces in three of the most important regional powers that should be stabilizing forces in the Middle East: Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Add to this the ongoing war in Yemen, and the erratic battle against “Islamic State” (ISIS) forces in Syria, Iraq and other tiny pockets of ISIS presence around the region, the massive refugee flows and the stresses they cause, and the dangerous sectarian dimensions of some of the confrontations underway, and we end up with a very complex and violent regional picture that cannot possibly be explained primarily as a consequence of Iranian-Saudi rivalries.

A more complete explanation of the battered Arab region today must include accounting for several other mega-tends: the impact of the last twenty-fix years of non-stop American military attacks, threats and sanctions from Libya to Afghanistan; the radicalizing impact of sixty-seven years of non-stop Zionist colonization and militarism against Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians and other Arabs; the hollowing out of Arab economic and governance systems by three generations of military-led, amateurish and corruption-riddled mismanaged governance that deprived citizens of their civic and political rights and pushed them to assert instead the primacy of their sectarian and tribal identities; and, the catalytic force of the 2003 Anglo-American led war on Iraq that opened the door for all these forces and others yet — like lack of water, jobs, and electricity that make normal daily life increasingly difficult — to combine into the current situation of widespread national polarization and violence.

Most of these drivers of the current regional condition have little to do with Iranian-Saudi sensitivities, and much more to do with decades of frail statehood, sustained and often violent Arab authoritarianism, denied citizenship, distorted development, and continuous regional and global assaults. [Continue reading…]


No, torture doesn’t make terrorists tell the truth — but here’s what actually works

BuzzFeed reports: Hollywood has a lot to answer for. Thanks to the hit TV show 24 and movies like Zero Dark Thirty, we think we know what terrorist interrogations look like: After being roughed up and threatened, the suspect breaks down and reveals all. Mass murder is thwarted. Osama Bin Laden is shot.

The end, we tell ourselves, justifies the ugly means.

Even after the abuses committed at CIA “black sites” were laid bare last year by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, most Americans stuck to this view. Some 59% believed the CIA’s harsh interrogation methods were justified, in a December 2014 poll run for the Washington Post and ABC News.

Steven Kleinman knows better. In 2003, he was one of the U.S. Air Force’s top interrogators, sent to Iraq to oversee the questioning of suspected insurgents. After arriving in Baghdad, he walked into a darkened room to find a handcuffed detainee kneeling before a seated military interrogator. The suspect was slapped across the face every time he answered a question — whatever he had to say. Kleinman was told that it had being going on for half an hour.

Then a lieutenant colonel, Kleinman pulled rank and halted the interrogation. But what he had witnessed was by then standard practice. “Later I saw people being stripped nude and forced to stand for a long period of time,” Kleinman told BuzzFeed News.

Kleinman was appalled not only because what he saw breached human rights, but also because his long experience in interrogation told him that it just wouldn’t work. “It’s not even close to a consistent means of getting reliable information,” Kleinman said. [Continue reading…]


25 years in Iraq, with no end in sight

Greg Myre writes: 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? [Continue reading...]


An ex-senator, a former CIA officer, and an Iraqi mogul lobby Congress for a private army, led by Saddam’s officers, to take on ISIS

Shane Harris writes: The magnificent Chartwell House, a 10,000-square foot mansion surrounded by lush, manicured grounds about 18 miles from central London, might seem an odd place to start a war. But that’s where Mudhar Shawkat, a wealthy Iraqi businessman who has a long history with U.S. intelligence, is making his stand against the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

Shawkat, a Sunni who made his money in the telecom business and running a private security firm called Babylon Eagles, says he’s fielding an autonomous, Sunni army to go toe-to-toe with ISIS and liberate the huge swaths of Iraq that the militants have conquered. And his men are ready to fight without the help of the central government in Baghdad, he says.

Shawkat gave his London address on disclosure forms filed with the U.S. Senate last week, when he hired a band of Washington, DC, lobbyists to help him open a second front in his campaign. The firm is run by former Idaho senator Steve Symms and two ex-senior congressional aides. Their mission: To arrange meetings for Shawkat with U.S. lawmakers and power brokers who might bless his grand vision and help it gain support in Washington. [Continue reading…]


Obama notes that opposition to Iran deal is like support for Iraq war

The New York Times reports: President Obama said Tuesday that opponents of the nuclear deal with Iran were behaving like those who pushed for war with Iraq more than a decade ago, and said the United States should choose diplomacy instead of another rush to armed conflict.

In remarks to members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Mr. Obama said the criticism of the Iran agreement offered “echoes of some of the same mind-set and policies that failed us in the past,” and was being put forward by “the same folks who were so quick to go to war in Iraq.”

The president did not mention President George W. Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney by name in his remarks, but the implication was clear. As he seeks to persuade members of Congress not to reject the Iran deal, Mr. Obama urged what he called “a smarter, more responsible way to protect our national security.” [Continue reading…]


ISIS is here to stay

Andrew J. Bowen and Courtney Bliler write: As the United States struggles to grapple with a strategy in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is growing more diffuse yet more salient. In Kuwait, a suicide bombing at a Shia mosque on June 26 killed 27 people. In France on that same day, one man was beheaded in an attempt to blow up an American-owned chemical plant. In Tunisia, the massacre of 38 tourists at a beach resort in Sousse has prompted the Tunisian government to declare a state of emergency. ISIS claimed responsibility for all three attacks and is now actively recruiting Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. These events ignite fears that ISIS could gain formal footholds in other states besides Syria, Libya, and Iraq and mobilize sleeper cells to perpetrate remote terrorist attacks.

“The army of terror will be with us indefinitely.” This argument, made by columnists Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan in their new book ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, seems supported by recent events. The book seeks to answer the question: “Where did ISIS come from, and how did it manage to do so much damage in so short a period of time?” Starting from the early life of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of ISIS’s organizational ancestor Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the authors paint a detailed historical narrative of the ideological and political evolution of ISIS.

Most importantly, their argument strikes down the assumption often embedded in government statements, media stories, and public sentiment that ISIS’s power is only temporary and that it, like its peers and predecessors, can be resolutely targeted, denied safe haven, defeated and ultimately destroyed. ISIS is not merely a terrorist group, Weiss and Hassan point out. Rather, ISIS is a “conventional military that mobilizes and deploys foot soldiers with a professional acumen that has impressed members of the U.S. military.” It is also a “mafia adept at exploiting decades-old transnational gray markets for oil and arms trafficking.” ISIS is an experienced “intelligence-gathering apparatus.” The extremist group is a polished and effective “propaganda machine.” These differences, Weiss and Hassan argue, distinguish the success of ISIS from the stagnation or failure of its predecessors, namely Al Qaeda. ISIS is here to stay.

Hassan and Weiss note that ISIS, for all its singularity, still borrows a number of traditions from its jihadi progenitors. Many of ISIS’s current trademarks—fondness for televised beheadings, mobilization of fighters through mass media, and fixation on killing Westerners, Shi’ites, and non-Salafist Sunnis alike—find their origins in al-Zarqawi’s fringe interpretation of takfiri ideology, which emphasizes targeting Shia and non-Salafi “apostates” before turning to the United States and Middle Eastern regimes colluding with the “far enemy.” The group has learned from the mistakes of its predecessors and actively creates its own narrative, rather than allowing the foreign press to drive popular perceptions about the group.

The law of unintended consequences is the most common refrain in Weiss and Hassan’s narrative. [Continue reading…]


The Unraveling, by Emma Sky

Christopher Dickey writes: Emma Sky has a lovely sense of irony about many things, from her evocative name to her frustrated dreams for Iraq, where, in the first decade of this century, she spent what she thinks of as the most important years of her life advising senior officers in the American military. “Amidst the horror of war, I had experienced more love and camaraderie than I had ever known,” she writes. “I had become part of their band of brothers.”

Many soldiers have felt that way, but Sky was no soldier, and not even American. She had been among those who opposed the war, an Arabist in her mid-30s working for the British Council, a cultural and educational organization. She thought she would go on temporary duty to Iraq after the shock and awe of 2003 to apologize, if she could, and try to help the Iraqi people. This was a common sentiment among Western Arabists at the time: We shouldn’t have done this, but having done it, we must make it work.

Almost against Sky’s better judgment, as she writes in her important and disturbing memoir, “The Unraveling,” she quickly found herself sucked deep into the business of occupation as she tried to sort out the chaos after the fall of the tyrant Saddam Hussein. She thought she would be working with the British in the coalition forces that had participated in the invasion, but they told her to talk to the Americans running the show. She also thought she would be in Baghdad, but wound up about 150 miles to the north in Kirkuk.

Sky made herself useful in whatever way she could. She provided expertise in the region and the language that was appallingly rare in American ranks. Faute de mieux, she began to function very quickly like the Orientalists of the old British Empire — part diplomat, part diviner of local moods and frequent mediator in bitter disputes. She became the indispensable adviser to the United States colonel trying to hold together the explosive, contested Kirkuk region, which sits on 40 percent of Iraq’s enormous oil reserves. As Sky puts it, sardonically, “Within weeks of the fall of Saddam I had found myself governing a province.” [Continue reading…]


How one U.S. soldier blew the whistle on a cold-blooded war crime in Iraq

William Langewiesche writes: Jess Cunningham was a staff sergeant in a mechanized unit of the U.S. Army—Alpha Company, First Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, First Infantry Division—during the intensified fighting that accompanied the surge of American troops in Baghdad in 2007. This was his second tour in Iraq, and his first with Alpha Company. He had been a high-school football star in Bakersfield, California, before heading off to war. He had excelled in the army, rising rapidly through the ranks. Now 26, he was strong, alert, and accustomed to battle. He had a bright future.

But he also had a problem. Although Alpha Company appeared from the outside to be like any other infantry unit, neatly integrated into the larger American force structure, on the inside it revolved to an unusual degree around a single personality—that of an imposing first sergeant, a hard-charging 18-year veteran named John Hatley, who dominated the company. Hatley was a burly Texan who spoke with a drawl. He carried his 240 pounds on a six-foot frame, and at the age of 40 still achieved a perfect 300 on the army’s physical-fitness test. He had been the company’s first sergeant for three years and had delayed a promotion to sergeant major in order to return with his men to the fight. He reveled in his power. He made it clear that the rules of engagement that mattered were the ones he alone defined. Cunningham had never encountered such a sergeant before. He himself was a team player and not immune to Hatley’s leadership qualities, but over the first few months in Baghdad he began to struggle privately with doubts. The company called itself Wolf Pack and sometimes seemed to act like one. Cunningham did not question the war itself, but he wondered about the treatment of Iraqi detainees and the actions of certain gunners who seemed to be playing loose with their justifications for killing.

Alpha Company’s area of operations lay in southwest Baghdad, one of the most active battlefields in Iraq. Sunnis and Shiites were fighting over the neighborhoods, and insurgents from both groups were warring on American patrols. The U.S. mission was to promote stability. This boiled down to convoys of recent American high-school graduates lumbering around in Bradley troop carriers and armored Humvees from which they could barely see, struggling to distinguish combatants from civilians in an indecipherable city, and waiting to get attacked. Cunningham served as a squad leader in the company’s Second Platoon. They were based with Hatley’s headquarters platoon at a fortified combat outpost called Angry Dragon, which also housed the company’s Tactical Operations Center, an office and briefing room known as Wolf Den on the radios. Wolf Pack, Wolf Den, Angry Dragon—the bravura was probably useful, given the youth of the soldiers. The engagements were frequent and anything but child’s play. They resulted in uncounted numbers of Iraqi deaths. By contrast, the accounting of American losses was carefully done. During Alpha Company’s 14 months on the ground, six soldiers were killed and three were gravely wounded—a toll that amounted to a casualty rate of about 15 percent in Cunningham’s platoon alone. The first soldier died four months into the fight, on February 27, 2007. He was a tall, 22-year-old staff sergeant named Karl Soto-Pinedo, who was shot in the head by a sniper after he rose too high above the hatch of his Bradley. Three weeks later, on March 17, 2007, a 30-year-old specialist named Marieo Guerrero was lost to a jerry-rigged land mine, an I.E.D. [Continue reading…]


In Iraq, everything started going downhill again after Maliki was allowed to stay in power despite losing the election

Often described as “the most influential Brit in Iraq,” Emma Sky arrived there in 2003 after having been an opponent of the war.

Tim Lewis: The title of your book – The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq – makes it clear you view the west’s involvement in the country since 2003 as a grand failure but also a preventable one. What were the biggest mistakes?

Emma Sky: There have been a series. The whole experience of Iraq is a rollercoaster and those who didn’t watch it closely just assumed it was going to be disastrous because of the way we went in. But there was that period in the middle – the surge from 2007 to 2009 – when those of us who spent a long time there, we saw things really improving. By 2009, we thought – and the Iraqis thought – that the country was going in the right direction. The big mistake of the Obama administration was in 2010, after a good election, not helping to broker the formation of the government and deciding to keep Nouri al-Maliki in power despite him having lost the election. Everything from then started to go downhill again and it’s heartbreaking to see what’s happening now.

It could have been very different?

Maliki went after all his rivals, pushing them out, and things just started to unravel. So watching that you think, over 150,000 Iraqis lost their lives, almost 200 British soldiers, 4,500 American military. After that sacrifice, we hoped to leave Iraq in a better place. So it’s awful to watch it now.

Although a British civilian, you were the political adviser to the US general Ray Odierno from 2007 to 2010 – you’ve been described as “the most influential Brit in Iraq” for almost a decade. Is that how you felt?

When you are working so hard, you don’t sit there thinking, oh, look at me, I’m so important. But in the role I had, I felt I was able to influence the general. He valued the different perspective that I brought. Full credit to him, because they always tell you that you must surround yourself with people who are different to you, but people never do. General Odierno told me he wanted somebody to tell him when he was making mistakes. So I thought, Oooh [rubs hands together], what a great job! Nobody ever asks you to tell them when they’re screwing up.

When you told the Iraq inquiry – also known as the Chilcot inquiry – how you ended up in Iraq, they scarcely believed you. Can you explain?

Well, I was working for the British Council and I volunteered to go to Iraq in 2003. The British government said it would be for three months, before we handed the country back to the Iraqis. I was against the war and I thought this would be penance: I can go and apologise to everybody and help them rebuild. I’d spent a decade working Israel-Palestine, so I’d got experience in conflict mediation and institution development, and I thought I’d be useful. I didn’t know what my job was going to be, but when I arrived in Kirkuk, I was told: “Great! You are now the governor coordinator, you are in charge of the province.” It was a slightly embarrassing position to be put in. [Continue reading…]


Torture, false information and the Iraq war

David Abramowitz writes: In 2002, I was the chief counsel for the Democratic members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. At the time, the committee was considering legislation authorizing the use of force against Iraq. The central justification raised by the George W. Bush administration revolved around Iraq’s suspected and continued possession of weapons of mass destruction.

In the fall of 2002, the committee received a briefing on Iraq from the intelligence community. I remember thinking that almost all of the details presented to us by the Bush administration were old and familiar. It was concerning but not alarming. In fact, I felt a growing sense that there was no new information to suggest that Iraq was a real threat, and certainly not one that could justify U.S. military action.

Then the CIA briefer dropped a bombshell. With the great confidence that was this briefer’s hallmark, he stated that Iraq had provided chemical and biological weapons training to Al Qaeda members.

I remember the jarring impact of this revelation. I thought to myself that if we knew that, perhaps there was even more information we didn’t know, including a possible transfer of such weapons to Al Qaeda. I looked over to one of the senior staffers who shared my reaction: This was serious.

I had attended hundreds of briefings in my 10 years of working on Capitol Hill, but very few resulted in such an immediate change in my thinking or had such an emotional impact. Until that day, I had been dubious that the regime of Saddam Hussein would cooperate in any meaningful way with jihadists. Afterward, when lawmakers or staffers asked me about my own view, I would point to this intelligence as an important consideration. And I believe that lawmakers very much took the CIA briefer’s dramatic revelation into account when deciding whether to vote to use military force against Iraq.

We now know that this information was obtained from a single source. According to the New York Times, the individual, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, was captured in Pakistan, transferred to a military base in Afghanistan and then rendered to authorities in Egypt, where he claims he was tortured. Indeed, even at the time, his statements on Iraq were disputed within the intelligence community, and the Senate report on prewar intelligence indicates that no corroborating evidence was ever found. Once back in U.S. custody, Libi recanted his statements, and the CIA withdrew intelligence based on these remarks.

I am not writing to re-litigate the reasons we went to war with Iraq. And I recognize that this information was coerced by a foreign intelligence service, not by the CIA.

But we need to remember that nearly 4,500 U.S. service members lost their lives in a conflict that was justified, in part, using unreliable information obtained via torture. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis also lost their lives. And we are still dealing with the ramifications of our intervention there. [Continue reading…]


Why are the ISIS commanders so much better than the Iraqi Army?

Foreign Policy reports: One reason for the imbalance is military skill and commitment to the fight: the Iraqi security forces that are taking the field are facing off against battle-hardened officers trained under Saddam Hussein who have spent the past 12 years moving in and out of Anbar Province fighting both American and Shiite-led Iraqi forces.

Those former officers, in turn, have been given relative freedom to operate, with Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delegating command responsibility to his field commanders, said Ahmed Ali, a senior fellow at the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, a Washington based nonprofit that develops programs to help Iraqi youth. Having grown up in the Sunni heartland of Anbar, these leaders understand the terrain very well, “and their level of intelligence collection is straight out of the Baath Party playbook. Very precise, very personal,” Ali said.

The ISIS commanders, Ali said, also know the province’s tribes and social structures, helping the group identify which it can be co-opted and which would need to be defeated militarily.

The Islamic State’s advantages on the battlefield represent a long-term unintended byproduct of the U.S. decision to disband the Iraqi army in 2003 after Saddam Hussein’s regime melted away. A generation of Sunni military expertise was essentially turned out onto the streets and eventually lost to the insurgency. The situation worsened in recent years when then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite government purged even more experienced Sunni commanders from the security forces and promoted less capable Shiite officers and commanders.

For years, Maliki’s Shiite-led army and police acted as a sectarian militia, brutally suppressing Sunni leadership and taking orders directly from the prime minister, who appointed loyalists and consolidated all military decision making in his own office. Many Sunnis, furious at their treatment, began coalescing around the tribal militias and Islamist groups that eventually evolved into the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]