The Iraq War Part 3 – BBC2

The BBC broadcast the final episode of its three part series on The Iraq War on 12 June. I was away at the time, so have only just watched it. I previously blogged about the first episode, dealing with the build up to the war and the second, which covered its immediate aftermath.

The BBC’s website describes the final episode, titled It’s Hell, Mr President, as follows:

The last episode in this three-part series brings the Iraq story up to date. Tony Blair and Dick Cheney describe how they responded as horrific sectarian violence overtook Iraq. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw tells how he and Condoleeza Rice compelled Iraq’s prime minister to resign. Other key insiders reveal how they selected and supported his replacement.

With an exclusive interview with controversial Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, the programme tells how the war ended and why Iraq today faces the worst sectarian violence in five years.

There were still 130,000 US troops in Iraq three years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, President George W. Bush made a speech saying that US strategy was that ‘as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.’ By the summer of 2006 this plan looked hopeless.

Meghan O’Sullivan, Bush’s top adviser on Iraq, was told by an Iraqi friend that the US must stay, or else Iraq would descend into mass killings and violence. Bush called a meeting of his Iraq team, telling them that a new strategy was needed. Their hopes lay with new Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. However, the Americans would soon wonder whether he was the solution or part of the problem.

The majority of Iraqis are Shias, but the Sunni minority had dominated under Saddam. Al Qaeda set out to provoke Shias into attacking Sunnis. On 22 February 2006 a bomb destroyed the al-Askari mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest Shia sites.

This led to attacks by Shias on Sunnis. Sunnis claimed that the Shia militias killing Sunnis were using government equipment and operating from government buildings. Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaaaferi, the leader of a Shia religious party, was unwilling to take action against Shias, claiming that all the Shias were doing was ‘vent[ing] their feelings.’ Sunnis retaliated, and Jaaferi eventually declared a curfew, which General George Casey, the Coalition military commander in Iraq, had called for at the start of the violence.

The USA and UK decided that Jaaferi, who had been democratically elected, had to go. US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw flew to Baghdad to persuaded him to grudgingly accept that he had to go.

The new PM had to be a Shia, but the US was concerned that many of the candidates might be pro-Iran, where most of them whilst in exile from Saddam’s government. They chose Maliki, a relative unknown who had spent his exile in Syria. Bush’s strategy was simply to back Maliki, who took power on 20 May 2006.

However, many other Shia leaders were more popular than Maliki. The strongest militia was the Mahdi Army, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, who had great support amongst the 3 million Shias living in the slums of the Sadr City district of Baghdad. Its political wing had enough MPs to make or break Maliki’s coalition.

The US attacked the Sadr City militia soon after Maliki took power, but without consulting him. He asked Casey not to launch attacks against certain individuals and al-Sadr’s militia without his permission. He refused to allow an attack despite being shown a video of two innocent people being kidnapped and killed by the militia.

Soon afterwards, al-Qaeda set off a car bomb in Sadr City. A cycle of killing by one side followed by retaliation by the other ensued; 1,855 Baghdad residents had been killed by the end of July. Casey wanted the Iraqi government to restrain the Shia militias. However, Mowaffak Rubaie, Maliki’s National Security Adviser, argued that it was better to let the Shia militias and al-Qaeda fight it out, and then deal with the winner after it had been weakened by the sectarian conflict.

O’Sullivan, who had many contacts in Baghdad, then told Bush that Baghdad was ‘hell.’ Stephen Hadley, Bush’s National Security Adviser, then suggested that the US send more troops, although the US public wanted US troops to be brought home. Bush hesitated because he was uncertain whether or not he could trust Maliki.

According to Hadley the question was whether Maliki was a sectarian or else somebody who wanted to act in the interests of all Iraqis, but lacked the means to do so. Bush flew to Iraq on 30 November 2006 to find out. He offered a ‘troop surge’, but on condition that there was no political interference with targeting of extremists. Maliki accepted this.

20,000 US troops were to be sent, along with a new commander, General David Petraeus. At the same time the 7,000 British troops in Basra were due to leave. Pertraeus flew to London to try and persuade British Prime Minister Tony Blair to keep the British troops in Basra. Blair argued that there was less need for troops in Basra, but Petraeus convinced him that British withdrawal would send the wrong message, so the British troops stayed.

Baghdad had been a city of mainly mixed neighbourhoods, but was becoming divided into Shia and Sunni enclaves. Petraeus  sent troops into the warring districts, but also needed a political solution. His British deputy, General Graeme Lamb, was ordered to find some warring leaders who might be prepared to stop fighting. Some US generals were reluctant to talk to those who had been fighting them, but agreed to try this strategy.

A local Sunni leader, Abu Abed, was unhappy at the way in which al Qaeda had imposed strict Islamic law in his neighbourhood. He approached the Americans to tell them that his men intended to attack al Qaeda. They succeeded in forcing al Qaeda to retreat on the first day, but were then forced back by a counter attack and surrounded. At this point the US (Fifth) Cavalry appeared and defeated the al Qaeda forces

Abu Abed and other Sunni leaders agreed to co-operate with the US. Petraeus wanted Maliki to include them in the Iraqi security forces, but Maliki was sceptical, wanting to know who the volunteers were. The Americans had taken DNA tests, finger prints and retina scans from the volunteers so that they would know who they were.

Those volunteers who had been al-Qaeda foot soldiers were able to provide intelligence on the leadership, allowing the US to target it hard core. Sectarian killing began to fall in September 2007, and Maliki agreed that 20% of the Sunni volunteers could join the Iraqi security forces. He also took control of senior appointments in the security forces, and had the special forces report directly to him.

In early 2008 al Sadr’s Mahdi Army took control of Basra after British troops left. On 22 March Maliki told Petraeus that he intended to take personal command of an attack on Basra. Petraeus said that it would take six months to organise the assault, but Maliki said that he would go ahead, and required only air transport from the Americans.

The Mahdi Army beat off the government forces. Petraeus said that there was some doubt as to whether Maliki should receive full US support since he had taken such a rash decision. However, Bush thought that this was the Iraqis stepping up, and ordered Petraeus to support him. The US sent attack helicopters and armed drones to support the Iraqis, who had no air power.

Maliki’s forces, with US air support, took Basra. He gave al-Sadr an ultimatum to either disband the Mahdi Army or else be banned from future elections. Al Sadr agreed to a ceasefire.

Maliki, having defeated both his Shia and the Sunni opponents, now asked Bush to set a date for US departure, which he agreed to do.

However, Maliki’s political opponents claimed that he was using his security services and the police against them in the to intimidate them ahead of the next election. Ayad Allawi, a former Prime Minister, formed al Iraqiya, a coalition of non-sectarian and Sunni parties, to oppose Maliki. In February 2010, weeks ahead of the election, 66 of its candidates were disqualified on the grounds that they had links to Saddam’s regime.

Despite the intimidation al Iraqiya won two seats more than Maliki’s supporters in the March 2010 election. Maliki demanded a recount, but it did not change the result. It was agreed that Maliki would remain Prime Minister, with Al Iraqiya receiving three senior cabinet posts, including Saleh Mutlaq as Deputy Prime Minister

However, Maliki did not implement the power sharing agreement, leading to street protests. 23 protestors were killed and more than 600 Sunnis were arrested, as was the head of the electoral commission. Maliki blamed continuing terrorism on Sunni leaders who, he alleged, wanted to bring back Saddam’s regime.

President Barack Obama’s new US administration backed Maliki, claiming that he headed a democratic Iraq, with its ‘most inclusive government yet.’ Saleh Mutlaq, the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, told Obama that he was ‘dreaming.’ He also said that Iraq had a ‘one man, one party show’ and that Maliki was a dictator. Two days after making these comments his house and those of two other Iraqiya ministers were surrounded by troops commanded by Maliki’s son.

One of the three, Vice President Tariq Hashimi, was under suspicion of terrorism. Petraeus, now Director of the CIA, flew to Baghdad. He pointed out that only Sunnis, and not Shias, were being arrested. Hashimi fled the country, and was convicted of orchestrating murder and sentenced to death, five times, in his absence. The bodyguards of al Iraqiya leaders were arrested. Under interrogation they implicated their bosses in terrorism; one of the bodyguards died in custody.

Sunnis returned to the streets to protest. Maliki sent in troops, who fired on the protestors. Sunni extremists attacked police and soldiers. In April 2013, the tenth anniversary of Saddam’s fall, 700 Iraqis died in sectarian violence, the worst month for five years. Maliki banned journalists from 10 TV channels including al Jazeera.

The Iraq War and its aftermath have led to 170,000 deaths. The result seems to be the replacement of a Sunni dictator, Saddam Hussein, with a Shia one, Nouri Maliki.

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Filed under Political History, Reviews, War History

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