Systematic Destruction of Iraq

Note: This article is based on a presentation I gave at a Cost of War Conference held at Liverpool Hope University (June 2009). The presentation, and the article below, stressed the need to look at the 2003 war against Iraq as one episode of a long process that set out to transform Iraq from a country that was functioning reasonably well to one that is hardly recognisable as a national entity. Publication of the latest Arab Human Development Report in July 2009 prompted me to publish this article as whatever ills afflict the Arab countries can be seen in very sharp focus in Iraq; only magnified several fold.

Why ‘systematic’?

There has been undoubtedly a systematic attempt to destroy Iraq. In this context the word systematic is used in its popular sense. However, in this article I argue that there has been a more sinister effort to attack that nation as a living entity. Iraq, like other nations, is a complex system. Its fortunes are shaped in the main by how well or badly its people are able and capable of interacting with each other (in business, government, cultural life, etc.) in accordance with simple rules that command general acceptance by the citizens. Iraq itself is part of a larger complex system; the international environment that it shares with others regionally and globally. Again, Iraq’s fortunes are determined by how well or badly it interacts with other nations and international organisations.

If citizens are healthy and well educated and if their lives are regulated by fair and well-enforced laws then the nation is potentially able to perform efficiently as a system. Such a system stands a good chance to evolve over time through learning from experience, and then survival in readiness for the next cycle of adaptation. As in all forms of organic evolution, this cyclical process is slow and uncertain. It helps a great deal if the nation is able to interact with other nations in a similarly efficient way. For that to happen, the nation must have a healthy and wise leadership (in both the public and private sectors).

If the above conditions did not exist, then the nation as a system would function at a lower level of efficiency and in some cases the system might actually grind to a halt. Iraq has been brought to this sorry state of impotence through a lengthy process that started decades ago. The 2003 war was just the latest, and most punishing, episode.

Painful statistics about Iraq’s current state are plentiful. A few examples are enough to paint a sombre picture. The Quality of Life Index 2009 places Iraq fifth from bottom out of 192 countries, having joined the usual stragglers of Afghanistan, Sudan, Yemen and Somalia (see The 2008 corruption index (published by Transparency International) puts Iraq at third from bottom out of 180 countries, just above Myanmar and Somalia! And finally, according to the IMF (2008) in ‘oil rich Iraq’ the gross domestic product per head is now just under $3,000. Iraq’s GDP per head in 1980 was about $3400. To illustrate the scale of this decline, the equivalent figures for Switzerland are $67,385 (2008) and 17,289 (1980).

The 2003 war was only part of a lengthy process

Most commentators, and many Iraqis who should know better, think of the illegal attack on and occupation of Iraq in 2003 as an isolated event that has caused incalculable harm to that country. At one level this is correct: the war was a catastrophe in every respect, but it was the culmination of other equally damaging steps for which Iraq’s leaders, past and present, must shoulder some responsibility. They provided the right environment for a motley collection of official and unofficial evil-doers to pursue their diverse agendas at Iraq’s expense. I expressed this awkward view on responsibility at the International Association of Contemporary Iraqi Studies (IACIS) Third Conference, held in London, 16-17 July 2008.

Basically, the 2003 war was part of a process of destruction in which many partners took a hand without being part of an organised conspiracy. In fact some of the perpetrators were and are antagonistic to each other! And many of those taking actors were Iraqis who might have thought they were acting from the best of intentions; but then ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’! The intent behind the destruction went much further than the obvious question of oil. The Western military industrial complex in addition to consulting and construction firms were actively involved. Israel had an interest to cut Iraq (and any Arab country in its sight) down to size. This is not a new venture: Flashback: A Strategy for Israel in the Nineteen Eightees by Oded Yinon described Israel’s intentions to perfection. Iran was also determined on crippling its troublesome neighbour. The Kurds had their own hopes of independence and control of rich oil revenues from fields in the north of Iraq. And of course there were others inside Iraq who had agendas and scores to settle. Space does not allow a full description of all the players that brought Iraq to its present deplorable state but I did give a full presentation on that subject at Lancaster University in February 2007 under the title of Iraq- Mission in their Madness available on this website.

It is, therefore, essential to view what happened to Iraq as a long running process, involving more than the main players of USA and Britain, to understand why it simply disintegrated so rapidly and so badly after 2003. Compare that to what happened to Britain, Japan, and Germany in World War II and you will grasp the difference. Iraq was hardly a functioning system by the time the first American soldier set foot on Iraqi soil.

It is simple systematically to destroy a nation as a living entity

An analogy from gardening might help at this point. There are two ways to destroy weeds in a garden: contact weed killers and systemic weed killers. The latter are more effective as they internally poison the whole structure of the plant: roots and branches. The plant is rendered unable to sustain its operating system. Iraq has been under systemic attack for decades. The main player was the USA, aided by Britain as its ever willing partner, but others moved in helped by the conditions created by the leading powers.

Systemic onslaught on a nation is straightforward. First, reduce or eliminate the capability of its citizens to interact. A nation of malnutritioned, unhealthy, and badly educated people fulfils this condition perfectly. Iraqis were managing well up to the 1960s and that continued under its own momentum for a few years after that. They were well-fed, well-educated, and they had a perfectly adequate healthcare system. As described below that capability was destroyed to bring the nation to its knees.

Second, reduce the ability of citizens to interact normally in day to day activities. There are three reliable ways to do this and Iraq experienced them all. Under rigid dictatorship the rule of law is suspended and replaced by capricious dictates emanating from the ‘sole leader’, ‘the people’s father’, etc. Iraq witnessed this feature in plenty from 1958 onwards. The 1950s was the take-over period when leaders in the Arab world had to switch allegiance from Britain to the USA as the new hegemonic power or be replaced by ones more to US liking. Democracy was hardly a matter of concern: control on behalf of the USA was everything. This was brought to perfection during the Saddam years. Order was imposed in a condition similar to death of a living organism. The other way to reduce the ability of citizens to interact is to have no rules at all; as seen for several years after 2003. In this case the system is in chaos. A properly functioning system lies in a state of self-organisation that lies between deathly order and wasteful chaos; described in the case of economics by Adam Smith as the ‘invisible hand of the market’. Iraqis were rendered unable to interact normally to achieve self-organisation by application of these two simple means; brutal dictatorship and disruptive chaos..

Third, just to make sure that citizens are unable to interact normally create conditions of conflict and strife internally and externally. Wars with neighbours are an example and Iraq had a field day with both Iran and Kuwait. Wars with even more powerful opponents further afield are even more effective. And of course interminable factional conflicts prompted by inter-faith and intra-faith arguments and ethnic differences are most helpful in accelerating the downward process of disintegration.

These destructive steps were applied in abundance in Iraq

The process began in July 1958 when a group of army officers mounted a savage coup d’etat that was marked from the start by appalling acts of cruelty. There were understandable reasons why a change in regime was seen by some as being desirable, but the manner chosen for the transfer of power became the model for future events. Two innovations became the standard: if you want to attain power then destroy everyone that had anything to do with the previous regime, and if you want to retain power then be utterly ruthless to one and all; including both allies and enemies. No debate or discussion was allowed and the professional and administrative class that managed the country had to be destroyed periodically to punish ‘supporters’ of past leaders and to make room for supporters of the new regime that were by definition less experienced and less knowledgeable. Saddam was simply the product of this disastrous syndrome. In short, a process of dumbing-down has been in operation in Iraq for decades. The level of competence plummeted and Iraq was increasingly governed by the least educated and able people.

Iraq’s new leaders were not simply mediocre. They were incapable of running a minute business let alone a country of twenty plus million people. The process of ridding Iraq of its few remaining talents was made official when Bremer arrived in Baghdad in May 2003 as America’s ‘Viceroy’. Acting under orders from Rumsfeld and Douglas Feith (Bremer claimed on page 39 of his My Year in Iraq), the Coalition Provisional Authority No. 1 (so-called De-Baathification of Iraqi Society) was issued on 16 May 2003. Interestingly, Rumsfeld in his orders to Bremer, and that was underlined by Feith, insisted on this course of action “even if implementing it causes administrative inconvenience”! By that stage Iraq has had decades of administrative inconvenience of being governed by second rate decision-makers. CPA No. 1 simply made matters worse but it made previous practice official policy.

The process of destruction gathered momentum at each step

A series of debilitating plots and counterplots engulfed the country after 1958. However, the Iran/ Iraq war that lasted from1980 to 1988 was highly destructive to Iraq (and Iran) as an operating complex system. Up to one million people died. “Whenever one side seemed in sight of victory Washington would begin secretly helping its opponent.” (See Illusions of Triumph by M Heikal) Actually 50 countries supplied arms; 22 of them even-handedly armed both sides! (See Trading in Death by J Adams) Clearly, there were several beneficiaries including Western powers and their weapons manufacturers, Israel, and some Gulf states. However, leaders in both Iraq and Iran did their best to cooperate in the mayhem. The US National Security Archives for the period make very interesting reading in throwing light on the US administration’s machinations in the region (see for instance National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 82, ). Book No. 82 is also interesting in relation to Iraq’s flirtation with Weapons of Mass Destruction: the technology and ingredients it seems were provided by a variety of Western (including American) companies and that was not unknown to governments that later sited WMDs as the main reason for the invasion of Iraq in 2003!

The end of the Iraq/ Iran war left unfinished business. Both countries gained experience in fighting a lengthy war albeit at great cost. In the case of Iraq the response by opponents was quick. For Iran the response is still rumbling on. Kuwait suddenly began to cause all kinds of problems for Saddam who hardly needed much provocation to start a war. It is difficult to imagine that the Kuwaitis were acting without sanction or encouragement from their American handlers. Having obtained, he thought rightly or wrongly, the green light from the US ambassador in Iraq Saddam launched a brief and fatal invasion of Kuwait. That episode and its aftermath reinvigorated the process of destruction. The impact is still to be felt in Iraq years after the execution of Saddam and the installation of a government in Iraq that is totally compliant to US wishes and demands. Kuwait is pursuing energetically (in 2009) loans they handed over to Saddam to maintain his war with Iran. There were suggestions in 2003/ 2004 that Iraq’s debts to Kuwait had been sub-contracted to a consortium of private firms including the Carlyle Group and Madeleine Albright’s consulting firm, the Albright Group (see The Nation, 28 October 2004). However, this story is difficult to confirm one way or the other. Certainly, Carlyle announced after the ‘privatisation of Kuwait’s debt’ became public that they had withdrawn from the consortium.

The short occupation and then withdrawal from Kuwait was followed by sanctions that were imposed by the UN in August 1990 that went on until the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The impact of the sanctions on ordinary citizens of Iraq would have been classed as genocide if it had happened elsewhere and under different sponsors. By 1995 UN’s FAO declared that “more than one million Iraqis have died- 567,000 of them children- as a result of the economic sanctions.” Deaths were not the only price paid by Iraqis. All aspects of life; including health, nutrition, education, water supply and sanitation were affected. As is always the case with sanctions the ruling elite were not touched: in fact they profited from the sanctions in collaboration with some of the very people who were supposed to be managing the ‘punishment’. Despite all that Madeline Albright felt “the price is acceptable.” (see Iraq’s Holocaust and Iraq RIP on this website.) National reserves of every type (including human resources) had been virtually exhausted by 2003. The quick and total social, political, and economic collapse of Iraq after a very short war in 2003 was only to be expected. Viewed in that light, the years leading to that war can be seen for what they really were: preparatory scene setting.

Even before 2003, therefore, Iraq was unrecognisable as a normal healthy nation. As intended, the complex system that was Iraq had stopped functioning. People were unable and incapable of carrying on with life as experienced elsewhere. In the absence of day to day interactions the system had run out of energy and had become comatose. That was no accident: Iraq’s will and ability to resist any demands imposed on it had been eliminated. Preparations began for the final coup de grace; formal invasion by the US and its allies and penetration by a collection of local and regional actors. As is the case with Iran at present, a pretext had to be found and weapons of mass destruction was the one chosen. At some point it was quite clear that Iraq was interested in developing WMDs (with help from Western sources) but by 2003 and under an unprecedented regime of inspections whatever WMDs had existed had been destroyed. This was communicated quite clearly and repeatedly to UN inspectors as well as to US government officials by Major General Hussam Amin (‘Six of Clubs’ on Bush’s card deck of ‘most wanted Iraqis’). He surrendered after 2003 and was tortured and imprisoned for a lengthy period before being released without trial. (see Iraq Prison Diary: Whatever Happened to the ‘Six of Clubs’? )

Lack of WMDs was hardly a problem. Evidence was manufactured out of thin air; including a dossier based in part on a student’s postgraduate thesis, that suggested Saddam could hit Britain in 45 minutes! Driven by arrogance (and apathy by potential objectors) there was in essence hardly any attempt at developing a remotely convincing story. Those who tried to argue paid a heavy price; as was the case with the government weapons scientist David Kelly who met a mysterious death after he was identified as the source for reports by BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan who subsequently resigned from the BBC. The machinations that led to the 2003 invasion are now well known and little is left to be discovered by the latest inquiry launched on 30 July 2009 by the British Government. The only aspects that remain unresolved are legal and moral quilt but these were explicitly excluded from the terms of reference of the inquiry. The chairman, Sir John Chilcot said, however, that the inquiry’s report would criticise people if found necessary. Significantly, Tony Blair will be called to give evidence towards the end of the work of the inquiry in late 2010 or early 2011; in short after the next general election in Britain.

The consequences of the invasion and occupation of Iraq are obvious. Deaths of Iraqi civilians fall in a wide range from about 50,000 to 600,000 (up to June 2006). Oddly, there was little interest by the invaders and the government they installed to count Iraqi deaths. As usual injuries were on a much higher scale but again exact figures are unavailable. Deaths and injuries are painful consequences but they do not reflect the true extent of the harm done to Iraq. The intention from the start was to strip Iraq of its identity and its ability to function as a healthy nation. (see Carnage and Despair published by Amnesty International in February 2008 for detailed information.)

The subtler forms of destruction that began at the same time as the war, therefore, should be highlighted here as they reveal more about the nature of the long term process. For instance, the Iraqi national archives were looted as were the leading museums; curious targets! Just as curious, the invading military forces did not step in to stop that activity. Destruction took a less subtle form when leading professionals and academics became a target. The aim was clearly to eliminate them as a human resource for Iraq’s recovery. It seems CPA No. 1 (see above) was not enough! Some were kidnapped and released after a ransom was paid with advice that they should leave the country immediately. Others were less ‘lucky’: they were simply assassinated. History is indebted to a few brave people who chronicled these abductions and deaths. Dr Isam al-Rawi (professor of geology) started the Combined Targeted Assassination List (CTAL) until he was himself assassinated. Others continued the work including Dr Ismail al-Jalili.

Their work and that undertaken by others is illuminating as it exposes the targeting aspects and the intended consequences. For instance, a 2006 presentation given by Dr Jalili at the Madrid International Conference on the Assassination of Iraqi Academics shows that some 500 had been killed by that stage. Their ethnic and religious backgrounds reflected the proportions in Iraqi society. In other words these were not key elements in choice of victims. However, 64 percent were PhDs and 43 percent were deans and professors, and 18 percent were presidents and rectors of institutes of higher learning. The targets were chosen carefully it seems to cause maximum harm. Clearly, 500 might not seem much but that combined with abductions and threats was enough to force 40 percent of Iraq’s academics and doctors to leave the country. The project was obviously successful: no country could continue to function properly with that sort of loss in top-level human resources.

The scale of the brain drain has been highlighted by other commentators:

“According to official Iraqi sources, more than 2,200 doctors and nurses have been killed and more than 250 kidnapped since 2003. Of the 34,000 doctors registered in 1990, at least 20,000 have left the country.”
(Iraq: No Let-up in the Humanitarian Crisis, International Committee of the Red Cross, March 2008)

Left at that, the activity could have been dismissed as in the nature of “stuff happens” as described so callously by Rumsfeld. But that was not the end of the process. Two million people left Iraq. They were in the main those who had money, qualifications or connections abroad: in short primarily the middle classes that were essential if Iraq were to lift itself off the floor. Two million others were displaced inside Iraq in a vast ethnic and religious cleansing activity. (see Patrick Cockburn, The Independent of 1 February 2007 and Rising to the Humanitarian Challenge in Iraq published by Oxfam in July 2007.) Again, this loss was not the end of the story.

Divide and rule was and is an ever reliable means to subjugate a nation. As the following quote shows this means was applied to perfection by the latest rulers of Iraq:

“The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) never used the term Iraqi people…[preferred] ’Kurds’, ‘Turkmen’, ‘Arabs,’ ‘Sunnis,’ “Shias,” “Assyrians”, etc…” Despite the fact that these division were important but not critical in Iraq prior to 2003: “Of the different prime ministers who took office between 1920 and 2003, eight were Shia and four were Kurds. Out of eighteen military chiefs of staff, eight were Kurds…The majority of the leadership of the Baath party were Shia,…Out of the fifty-five people on the “Wanted List” that the occupying authority published, thirty-one were Shia.” (see Doctor Hasseeb’s lecture on this website)

Education and health were not ignored: the upcoming generation had to be targeted as well:

“Only 28 percent of Iraq’s 17 year olds sat their final exams in summer, and only 40 percent of those sitting exams achieved a passing grade (in south and central Iraq).”
“Only 20 percent outside Baghdad had working sewerage in their community, and access to safe water remains a serious issue.”
(see UNICEF News Note 21 December 2007 and UNICEF News Note 17 June 2008.)
And the continuing problem of massive pollution by depleted uranium, cluster bombs, and other detritus left after successive wars remains to wreak havoc with Iraqis, young and old.

In conclusion

Curiously, many of the strategies adopted by the 2003 coalition authorities were tried by the British when they invaded Iraq early in the twentieth century; including creation of the Levi army composed mainly of Assyrian Iraqis to quell popular uprisings (by mainly Arab Muslims) and use of bribed tribal chiefs to fight on the side of British forces (known as Sahwa or Awakening groups by the coalition authorities nowadays). But that is another story! Another feature that has caused much comment and amusement concerns the near identical words used by General Maude when British forces invaded Iraq in March 1917 and those used by Bush in his address to the Iraqi people almost a century later in March 2003. However, that also is another story.

The statistics given in this article are not intended as exhaustive evidence that substantiates the claim made here that the 2003 war should not be seen in isolation, but it presents compelling examples that are difficult to ignore. Moreover, these facts and others refute the mistaken contention often made by some authors that the war and its dreadful consequences were little more than the actions of a few incompetent people led by an ignorant president and an over-ambitious prime minster. The 2003 war was not a ‘fiasco’. When seen in its true perspective as a link in a chain that spans several administrations in the USA and Britain composed of people from parties of the ‘left’ and ‘right’ the true nature of the project becomes clear. And the USA and Britain were not the only players. There were many others from both the public and private sectors drawn from people within Iraqi as well those of regional and international affiliations.

The question that remains unanswered is whether Iraq could revive after this protracted onslaught. In the short term, the answer is clear: Iraq as was known several decades ago is no more. It is not just different from before; it is simply not functioning as a normal nation. In the longer-term, the answer is less clear. As a complex system it had undoubtedly experienced an ‘inflection point’ that has thrown into a different direction of travel with different characteristics from the past. Iraq will obviously revive in many decades to come but the shape of what the new entity will be like is impossible to predict.

There is one aspect that deserves highlighting in the context of this unpredictability: many of those who left Iraq are unlikely to come back. This is a sad conclusion but one that has to be faced. It has a key policy indicator though: Iraqis abroad might have a useful but limited role to play but Iraq’s future lies in the hands of next generations born, brought up, educated, and looked after in Iraq. Present rulers of the country do not give much confidence about prospects of success but one has to live in hope.

PS. A reader sent me an article (in Arabic) about the destruction of Iraq in numbers which provides specific information about a variety of aspects touched on by the above article. Please see: