The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War without End, by Peter Galbraith

From the day the war in Iraq became imaginable, my husband and I have not missed a peace march. Nonetheless, as the slaughter continues, I have worried about how the US can extricate itself. Ambassador Peter Galbraith’s book is reassuring, if that’s the right word, that a prompt withdrawal really can’t make matters worse.

Galbraith has been accused of advocating the partitioning of Iraq–in the face of long-term U.S. insistence on a unified Iraq. Not so, he says. The Iraqis have already partitioned themselves–on paper and on the ground. On paper, the new constitution creates a federation of provinces–a federation so loose that it leaves the central government only a handful of exclusive functions, notably, foreign affairs, defense policy, monetary and fiscal policy, and managing the flows of the Tigris and Euphrates. On the ground, there’s Kurdistan in the north, Shiites in the south, and Sunnis in the central western triangle.

There’s a long history here, which the Bush Administration has totally disregarded. The British created Iraq itself after World War I, by combining three mutually-hostile provinces of the former Ottoman Empire. They put the relatively more educated Sunni minority in charge, and even appointed a foreign Sunni Arab as king, Feisal I, in 1921. In 1958, the military overthrew the monarchy. Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party seized power in 1968; he made himself president in 1979. In 1980, he picked a border war with Iran; when the war went badly, the US helped him target Iranian troops–with poison gas. In 1988, after the war was settled along the original borders, Saddam proceeded to poison and bulldoze Kurdish villages in the north, and then to invade Kuwait.

Following the Kuwait war, Saddam brutally reasserted control in the north and in the south. Galbraith himself campaigned actively to have the US impose the northern no-fly zone that then allowed Kurdistan to become a de facto independent state in 1991. When the US invaded in 2003, deposed Saddam, abolished the Ba’ath Party, and dissolved the Sunni-dominated army, it unstuck the glue that held Iraq together. As Galbraith puts it, Humpty Dumpty fell from the wall. The Shiite clerics returned from exile in Iran, turning southern Iraq into a collection of theocracies allied to Iran. Only the Sunnis, occupying an oil-less territory, still seek a unified Iraq.

Galbraith supported the invasion of Iraq. However, as an active observer and advisor in the post-invasion negotiations between the various groups, he quickly ran afoul of the “arrogance, ignorance and political cowardice” of the Bush Administration. He recites one mind-boggling incident after another. For example, at the start of the war, Bush knew nothing of the implacable religious hostility between Sunnis and Shiites, each of whom regard the others as apostates. Or, to administer billions in reconstruction funds, the Pentagon hired a group of 20-somethings whose only qualification proved to be that they had posted their resumes to the Heritage Foundation website!

How does Galbraith see the present situation? Much of Iraq is actually fairly stable and peaceful–completely so in Kurdistan. However, horrendous “ethnic cleansing” goes on in border areas, as populations relocate to ethnically pure communities. Baghdad is “the most dangerous city in the world.” The now Shiite-dominated army and police cannot solve the problem–they ARE the problem. The US army cannot and will not act as police; there is no other capable entity in the wings (like NATO in former Yugoslavia). The US should leave, retaining only a strike force in friendly Kurdistan, in case Al Qaida attempts to establish training camps in the Sunni triangle.

Iraq is a tragedy, made inevitable by British colonial manipulation, but worse by US bungling.

From 1979 to 1993 Peter Galbraith was senior advisor to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. From 1993 to 1998, he served as first Ambassador to Croatia, where he helped broker the peace process. He is currently a fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

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