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Raad Alkadiri

March 17th, 2023

Aliens in the Green Zone and the Tragedy of Iraq

7 comments | 19 shares

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

Raad Alkadiri

March 17th, 2023

Aliens in the Green Zone and the Tragedy of Iraq

7 comments | 19 shares

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

by Raad Alkadiri

A US Army Apache AH-64 attack helicopter hovers over the scene of a suspected car bombing, near the Green Zone in Baghdad, during the invasion of Iraq, 2003. Source: Picryl

A Spaceman Came Travelling

On a trip together to Iraq in May 2003, just after the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, the brilliant analyst of Iraq Toby Dodge observed that the Green Zone, which housed the US-led occupation government, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), was like a spaceship that had landed in central Baghdad: the travellers were sealed in their protective capsule, worried about the increasing toxicity of the air outside it, and surprised by the hostility of natives whom they did not know or understand; those outside the spaceship were fascinated by it, and keen to find a way to get in, in the certainty that this was a route to bounty.

When I found myself resident in Spaceship Green Zone a few months later as part of the UK Special Representative’s office, I would often ponder on the prescience of this analogy. And in many ways, it stood the test of time, even as American overlords were replaced by Iraqi leaders. It not only captured the detachment of the US-led CPA (and, subsequently, the powerful US embassy) from Iraq and Iraqis in general, but also the isolation and protection that Iraqi political leaders, who eventually made the spaceship their own (physically and metaphorically), enjoyed from forces beyond its walls. Much of the mess that is Iraqi politics in 2022 can be traced back to this seclusion, and the type of governments that it perpetuated.

While much ink has been spilled debating the purpose, legitimacy, and virtue of overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s regime. But the original sin was not the invasion itself, but rather how unprepared US occupation officials were for what was to follow, and how separated they remained from Iraq itself. That US forces, civilian and military, were understaffed, and ill-equipped to pick up the pieces of a broken country and put it back together is a familiar trope. The toxicity of the pre-war debate in the US and across the world put ideological purity, rather than practical competence, at a premium in the CPA. Few if any of the occupiers had anything but the most superficial knowledge about the nature of Iraq and what it would take to rebuild its shattered husk. At times, the occupation authority seemed to treat the country like an ideological chemistry set, a gift handed to US and coalition officials to experiment on with their political and economic theories. Small government, decentralisation of power, neoliberal economics, transparency, democracy; an Iraqi friend, an ardent critic of Saddam’s who nonetheless had never left the country, once joked cynically that these buzzwords could be inserted into any policy or directive in order to justify it. Internally, the CPA itself often used the term ‘the right side of history’ to position its proposals and policies, as if the tide of events would inevitably lead in only one direction.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

What was missing was any real understanding of the need to rebuild institutions and how to put in place rule of law to secure Iraq’s path to genuine representative government. Institution-building often seemed like an anathema to CPA officials, not just because it was at odds with the prevailing small-government and neoliberal orthodoxy, but because establishing durable foundations for effective governance would have necessitated a much bigger occupation footprint, and a more robust – and longer-lasting – occupation presence than anything the Bush Administration was willing to consider. It would necessitate not just more troops, but an army of effective administrators who could understand the country and run it effectively for years. The CPA could have reached into the ranks of Iraqis outside Spaceship Green Zone to help achieve the task, but that would have undermined moves towards dismantling all vestiges of the former regime, as most Republican zealots and Iraq’s new political leaders demanded. More importantly, it would have forced a confrontation with the cadre of chosen Iraqis partners – largely formerly exiled opposition members and now fellow Green Zone dwellers – that the US chose to work with to rebuild the ‘new Iraq,’ as it was always termed. The paradox that the CPA faced – balancing the need for a longer and larger occupation in order to transform the country with demands for a rapid transfer of power from the Iraqi leaders that the CPA had anointed – increasingly dogged the CPA. The risks were clear; the effective solutions politically complicated. Ultimately, Washington resolved this dilemma through a compromise formula that proved politically feckless: an accelerated handover but with a US overlord presence.

This blunder was not simply a matter of US ignorance and hubris. While the Bush Administration and its successors demonstrated a healthy dose of both, they never consciously set out to undermine the fabric of the Iraqi state or create the Frankenstein’s monster that is the legacy of the 2003 invasion and occupation. True, as one former general put it to me prior to the war, the US invaded Iraq for the same reason a dog licks its balls: because it could. It was, to some extent at least, an act of imperial revenge and a demonstration of might in the aftermath of the trauma and tragedy of 9/11, an event that scarred the US in a way few non-Americans have really understood. Washington was determined to remake the Middle East in the aftermath of the twin towers, to start a domino effect that would entrench what it thought would be an allied neoliberal order in the region that would no longer pose a threat. And there always appeared to be a genuine belief that, offered the ‘foreigners’ gift,’ the Iraqi people, and the Iraqi leaders that the US was working with, would gratefully accept it.

The Iraqi people might have done, if they had been given signs of material benefits beyond Saddam’s demise. But that would have taken time and detachment, both of which Washington lacked. From the outside, Iraq was not just a foreign policy or military engagement; it was a domestic political issue for the Bush Administration and its successors. As such, decisions were dictated by US domestic political timetables and US public opinion, rather than by the realities and needs of the situation in Iraq. As US public support for the increasingly unpopular war waned, the pressure on the White House to show rapid progress rose, and the measure of that progress became narrower and more superficial. Elections were fast-tracked, debates over key legislation truncated, and decision-making confined to an increasingly small set of Iraqi interlocuters – Kurds and selected Islamist Shi’a – whom Washington trusted to shepherd its agenda. State-building, a process that – given Iraq’s damaged history – would naturally have taken years if not decades, was shortened to months. Short-term fixes were introduced to paper over differences on the most fundamental constitutional and legal issues, limiting much-needed domestic debated or compromise. As one US ambassador subsequently admitted to me, the US forced through incomplete or ambiguous policy in areas such as the constitution or hydrocarbon arrangements because it had to, believing that Iraqi leaders would fill in the gaps later on.

Ganging Up

Thus, Washington’s decisions were guided increasingly by US political interests, not Iraqi ones. Moreover, far from being a detached imperial overlord – if that was ever possible – the US became a partisan player in the Iraqi political scene. US interests guided policy making and engagement with Iraq. I remember being told by a senior US official in 2007, just as the US was beginning ’the surge’ that empowering a major Shi’a militia to manage security in a southern province independent of the Iraqi Security Forces was a tactical necessity for the US, and consideration of the likely negative long-term implications for wider Iraqi politics and security would have to wait until the immediate security imperative was addressed. The surge, the eventual US military withdrawal, and much in between, were similarly driven and implemented primarily by Washington’s political needs, not Iraq’s. What was good for the US would have to be good enough for Iraq; if it wasn’t, so be it, as long as any actions did not threaten the domestic political fortunes of US administrations.

But in quickly becoming part of the game, rather than being above politics, Washington contaminated Iraq’s new political order. Senior US leaders – with the possible exception of CPA Administrator Paul Bremer – never seemed to appreciate that Iraq’s opposition were not allies and friends, but rather cynical operators who saw US military might as a means to a political end that never aligned with Washington’s idealism. Some of the most influential CPA officials were particularly guilty of blurring the lines between political and personal, leaving themselves prey to manipulation. Moreover, the very limited access most Iraqis had to Spaceship Green Zone, especially compared to the former Iraqi opposition who were on the inside from the beginning, and who closely guarded that advantage, created a political echo chamber, where competing or contradictory views from the unanointed were regularly dismissed or ignored. The parties of the Iraqi Governing Council had their long-held dreams of power delivered to them on a plate, and they were not about to risk their prize by having their agendas – and claims – challenged by Iraqi rivals that US officials instinctively distrusted anyway.

Here lies the real link between then and now. Washington preached democracy and freedom, but never looked too closely at how at odds and parochial the agendas of their chosen Iraqi allies were. There was wilful ignorance to the fact that these Iraqi parties (many acting in concert with regional powers) were not interested in democracy or freedom, but instead in seizing and consolidating power, of revenge, and of bending the system to benefit their prerogatives. It was a fight over the political pie, or the ‘hummus,’ in Iraqi idiom. Moreover, as the US’ channel into wider Iraq, these parties – especially the most powerful Kurdish and Islamist Shi’a ones amongst them – could shape what they were reporting to reinforce their agendas.

Very quickly, the US and these parties became conjoined, with Washington the more malleable of the two. US administrations needed to show political results that resonated with US domestic audiences over much shorter time frames; as such, Washington judged outcomes in Iraq primarily on the basis of US interests. This gave their Iraqi political allies a distinct advantage, allowing them to manipulate outcomes in their favour under the guise of ‘success’ or – later – ‘combatting Iranian influence,’ enabled further by the enthusiastic support and affirmation of influential ‘expert’ voices in the US and the west, The two main Kurdish parties, the KDP and PUK, were masters of the game of rallying US political support even before the war began. But the Shi’a, especially in the guise of Adel Abd al-Mahdi and his party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, quickly became grandmasters themselves, and the lesson has been learned by others, no more so than former Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi, who perfected the art of chameleonism in the service of political – and financial – self-interest.

Hungry like the Wolf

Beyond facilitation, successive US administrations also protected the Iraqi political elite from accountability, allowing it to appropriate the state without domestic challenge. If the US military saved the Iraqi people from the worst instincts of Iraq’s leaders by acting as a buffer between rivals at critical junctures (a role that it gets insufficient credit for), US civilian leadership played a more insidious role, giving these same Iraqi leaders almost complete protection from the domestic consequences of their maladministration, destructiveness and venality. By the time that the US military drawdown was complete in 2011, and US political influence had waned, the post-2003 Iraqi political elite had consolidated its hold on the political, financial and security levers of power to the extent that politics was a game of fighting over the spoils – or dividing them – while the state withered, and the population suffered increasing depredation and insecurity, and Iran’s influence increased. Not quite ethno-sectarian dictatorship; but certainly not representative government, let alone democracy.

There were positive legacies of the US invasion, to be sure. One of the ironies of Iraqi politics is that the leading parties, so detached and determined to preserve their patronage and prerogatives, nonetheless feel compelled to resort to electoral politics to determine the internal balance of power between themselves. As the political elite has become more atomised over the past 20 years, shifting from large ethno-sectarian blocs to a set of smaller competitors, so elections have become more meaningful in shaping access to power. Party manifestos have no value, and electoral laws are manipulated, but how many seats a faction holds in the Council of Representatives nonetheless partially determines its negotiating hand in government-formation negotiations, and how effective its state-capture efforts are. It is telling that, following the 12 months of political standoff that preceded the latest government, the eventual compromise rested in part on agreement to hold another round of early elections in a bid to reshuffle the cards. Parties still see the outcome of the vote as indicative of their relative strength, and, in a perverse sense, of their popular legitimacy.

This process, and fear of losing access to power that the US originally delivered, creates a robustness to the present order, as the political elite instinctively cooperates to protect its interests. By many measures, Iraq is a failed state, characterised by corruption, maladministration, and a lack of transparency and political freedom. Access to arms, and to an ongoing oil-export bounty, tips the balance of power firmly in the elite’s favour, despite ongoing popular protests. Consequently, the elite is determined to preserve its uncontested access to the levers of state power. Successive governments and prime ministers have paid lip service to the need for reform, especially economic and fiscal. However, none are willing to do so at the expense of their own narrow personal and party interests.

This determination is what doomed the 2019 popular demonstration in Baghdad and Iraq’s southern provinces, and the opposition movement that it created. When faced with popular demands for change, the political elite – even the Sadrists, who coopted the protests – held together rather than fissured. Protecting what they stood to lose was, and remains, the priority. Indeed, the blueprint for the eventual political compromise that bore Prime Minister Mohammed Shi’a al-Sudani’s current government, was a return to the original post-war formula, with its emphasis on ethno-sectarian division and party control, not a departure from it.

It’s my Party, and I’ll Cry if I Want to

There always remains a risk that this elite will eventually fragment, driven by ambition or competition over resources. But as the most recent government formation deal that brought Sudani to power illustrated, Iraq’s political elite still prioritises access to the ‘hummus’ rather than risking it all by bringing the house down. For all of Sudani’s talk of reform and repairing the damage of the past two decades, the Iraqi political elite will remain focused on protecting its interests at the expense of anything resembling good governance. Pundits will debate the virtues of various prime-ministerial candidates and their relative proximity to Tehran or Washington, but the system – the legacy of 2003 – is designed to protect the status quo, while gradually eating away at the fabric of the Iraqi state.

Maybe this was all that could be hoped for when an entrenched regime is overthrown violently and quickly without sufficient attention being given to the ‘day after.’ Ideals alone do not a state, or an empire, make. Democracy does not just sprout; freedom does not just reign; and institutions do not just build themselves. Moreover, the moment early ideals are compromised for political expediency, as Washington did repeatedly as it tried occupation on the cheap and on the fly, their currency is shattered. People judge occupiers and the governments they spawn on the basis of tangible benefits, such as welfare and improved livelihoods, not promises of freedom, security, and good governance that never materialised.

At the end of the day, perhaps removing Saddam was enough for the architects – foreign and domestic – of the Iraq war, especially as there never were any easy fixes for a country as scarred and disturbed as Iraq was by 2003. Invasion and occupation are not acts of benevolence; they are extensions of politics. The US did the initial legwork, guided by its own political imperatives, both at home and in the Middle East. The failed state that is Iraq now is increasingly the responsibility of the Iraqi inheritors of Spaceship Green Zone, who have scavenged the country for their own narrow benefit, and betrayed any hopes that Iraqis had that their future would look better than the past. The United States has gone, now focused on other conflicts and opportunities. Iraq’s history over the next two decades will be written by its own leaders, and the outlook does not offer much cause for comfort.


[To read more on this and everything Middle East, the LSE Middle East Centre Library is now open for browsing and borrowing for LSE students and staff. For more information, please visit the MEC Library page.]

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About the author

Raad Alkadiri

Raad Alkadiri was Assistant Private Secretary to the UK Special Representative to Iraq from 2003–4. He tweets at @raadie66

Posted In: Iraq | Long Reads

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