The United States has officially declared the war in Iraq ("Operation Iraqi Freedom") over. The conflict lasted a little over seven years. It began on March 20, 2003, when 125,000 U.S. and British troops invaded. Another 100,000 troops went in during the next six weeks. Within three weeks, Baghdad had been captured, Saddam Hussein went into hiding and his government, and armed forces, were destroyed. On May 1st, the U.S. declared hostilities over.
But Saddam and his followers had other ideas. Even before the invasion, there were rumors that Saddam had a Plan B. This involved trying to use irregular warfare (mostly terrorism) to drive the foreign troops out, and regain power. By the end of 2003, the U.S. removed the Sunni Arabs from power, and declared that democracy, and majority rule, would prevail. Democracy was anathema to the Iraqi Sunni Arabs, who, as only 20 percent of the population, feared retribution from the majority (Kurds and Shia Arabs). In addition, there was the money angle. The Sunni Arabs had been keeping a disproportionate share of the oil wealth for themselves, and had been doing so for decades. In order to avoid poverty and prison, the Sunni Arabs began a terror campaign against the coalition (mainly U.S. and British) troops. In early 2004, they allied themselves with al Qaeda, and Islamic terrorists in general. Al Qaeda saw the invasion of Iraq as an attack on their heartland, and an opportunity to defeat the United States, and the West in general.
The basic U.S. strategy in Iraq was, historically, sound. You help the locals get organized so they can take care of themselves. That means elections and help to rebuild local institutions. But there's never a guarantee that will work. The U.S. Marines were in Haiti for nearly 30 years (from 1914), and the country still reverted to dictatorship and poverty when the marines left. This exposes a truth that many refuse to acknowledge. Fixing countries isn't easy. The "civil society" that we in the West take for granted, cannot just be conjured up. The harmonious relationships that enable some democracies to work, are not a given. Those relationships often require a lot of bad habits to be changed. This is not easy. Just check a history book.
Iraq, and most of the countries in the Middle East, are broken. They have been for a long time. We in the West have generally ignored it, because there were no workable solutions that were easily available. Then came the latest wave of Islamic terrorism. This got worse, until September 11, 2001, and then the prospect of mass murder in our own backyard became a reality. But at that point, the West became divided over the solution. Do we keep treating the terrorists as a police problem, and wait them out? That is known to work. But the threat of even deadlier terrorist attacks made more dramatic moves attractive to many, especially in the United States. That resulted in Iraq, confronting the Arab problems up close and personal. It ain't pretty. But unless the Arab problems are solved, the ugly aftereffects will still be there, and so will the threat of mass murder on the street where you live. The war on terror, and the war in Iraq, are all part of a struggle within Islam. Do we keep on with the same pattern of rebellion and repression, or do we try developing a civil society. Until the Iraqis decided what kind of country they wanted to live in, the war went on.
The anarchy that followed the American conquest of Baghdad was quickly accepted for what it was, spontaneous revenge against the Sunni Arab dictatorship and the thieves that ran it. Things settled down for a while, until the Sunni Arabs began the terror campaign to drive the Americans out, intimidate the Shia Arabs, and regain control of the country. These were all high-risk undertakings, and all failed. But not until after four years of terror, and over 100,000 dead Iraqis, did most Sunni Arabs admit defeat.
The Sunni Arab terror campaign was, admittedly, an attempt to trigger a civil war between Sunni minority (20 percent of Iraqis) and Shia (who were 60 percent of the population, plus another 20 percent who were Kurds and other minorities). The U.S. persuaded the Shia to remain relatively calm, at least until early 2006. Then, in February, 2006, Sunni terrorists bombed a major Shia shrine at Samarra. This enraged the Shia, and many Shia formed death squads that proceeded to murder any Sunni they could get their hands on. This resulted, over the next year, in most of the Iraqi Sunni Arabs fleeing their homes. Over 30 percent of the Sunni Arabs fled the country. The Sunni Plan B turned out to be a bad idea.
Meanwhile, the coalition helped Iraq build new security forces. The pre-2003 military and police had been disbanded. That's because the Saddam era security forces were recruited mainly for loyalty to Saddam, and the Sunni Arab minority. Before Saddam was ousted , the active duty army consisted of about 250,000 troops. Some 40 percent of these were the elite Republican Guard. Nearly all the army officers, and most of the NCOs, were Sunni Arabs. In the Republican Guard, everyone was Sunni Arab, as this outfit was, in effect, Saddam's "royal guard" and his main defense against a revolt by the army. The other 150,000 troops were mainly Sunni and Shia draftees, although there were Kurd and other minorities (Turks, and several Christian groups). At the time of the invasion, about 100,000 reservists (men who had done their conscript service recently) had been recalled to active duty. There were another 600,000 or so reservists who could have been called up. But many of these were Shia Arabs, and Saddam didn't want to see lots of armed Shia, in uniform or not.
Unless you wanted an Iraqi security force led by Sunni Arabs, many of dubious loyalty to a democratic Iraq, you had to disband the Saddam era security forces. The army and police force had to be rebuilt. After two years of enormous effort, a new force was created. This was not easy, for the old Iraqi army was widely considered (based on performance alone) to be one of the most inept in the world. Despite spending over a hundred billion dollars on it, Saddam was never able to build a force that could fight effectively. Without the widespread use of chemical weapons in the 1980s, Iraq would have been overrun by an army of poorly equipped Iranian amateurs. The main problem was that the old Iraqi army was designed more for political, than combat, reliability. That's the main reason it was disbanded shortly after Iraq was conquered in 2003.
Saddam's army did have some troops who could fight effectively. That was the Republican Guard, a force of about 100,000 troops selected mainly for loyalty, but also given lots of training to make them effective fighters. Saddam wanted effective troops, but only wanted them if they would be loyal to him. That meant there were very few Iraqis he could find for such a force. But the Republican Guard experience did prove that with the right training and equipment, you could turn Iraqis into effective soldiers.
Initially, about 500,000 Iraqis joined the new army and security forces (many of whom are paramilitary SWAT teams), and over half of them were dismissed (as untrainable) or deserted. Those that remained were organized into 115 battalions. The most important thing about these battalions was that each of them have a ten man American training team. The U.S. troops trained and advised, often by demonstrating how things were done. For example, the old Iraqi army never stressed marksmanship, or small unit leadership and combat drills. The American style has the troops shooting lots of bullets at targets, with repeated instruction on how to hold and aim the rifle properly so that you could hit what you were aiming at. The infantry drills are demonstrated by American trainers, and U.S. troops. Iraqi troops constantly saw American soldiers and marines in action, and the American training teams in each Iraqi battalion were always ready to show the Iraqis exactly how it has done. The Iraqis were told they can be as effective as the Americans, but they had to train hard to get there.
The hardest job was getting Iraqis who can, and will, serve as effective NCOs and officers. In Saddam's army, being an officer or NCO was seen as a form of patronage, not a responsibility. It's hard to change that attitude, as it was alive in Iraq for generations. Again, the Iraqis were reminded that if they wanted to be super-troopers like the Americans, someone had to take on the leadership responsibilities. After two years of looking, several thousand capable candidates were found. But the training took time, and the American training teams spent a lot of time showing the officers and NCOs the many little things that go into making a capable combat leader.
All this has been a difficult story to report, leaving Americans with a vague idea of what was happening with the Iraqi armed forces. Most journalists have no idea what the old Iraqi army was like, and what kind of changes had to be made to create a new one. But the changes were being made, and every week, more Iraqi troops became capable of fighting. They didn't have to be as good as American troops, just being better than the terrorists and irregulars they face gave them a decisive edge. And each week, more of them achieved the edge.
Nearly all of the violence was in central Iraq, where there were many mixed (Sunni Arabs living in close proximity to Kurds and Shia Arabs). In the far north, the Kurds had been free of Sunni Arabs for a decade before 2003. There were very few terrorist attacks in the Kurdish controlled area, and by 2005, Iraqis were going to the Kurdish north for vacations. The Kurds had very strict border controls, especially for Sunni Arabs. In the south, where most areas were completely, or overwhelmingly, Shia Arab. The only violence was between Shia militias.
The U.S. tactics, from the beginning, were to minimize American casualties, creating Iraqi security forces, collecting as much information on the Sunni Arab terrorist groups as possible, and maintaining supply routes from Kuwait. This was still a lot of activity, usually amounting to over 2,000 convoys and patrols a day at its peak.
The enemy included al Qaeda, which imported thousands of Sunni Arabs for suicide attacks. Nearly half of these were from Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Most of the rest were from North Africa, which, next to Saudi Arabia, has long been a major source of Islamic radicals. But most of the attacks were by Iraqi Sunni Arabs, who tried to coordinate operations with al Qaeda. After only a year of this, the merger began to fray, as Iraqi Sunni Arabs grew tired of the indiscriminate suicide bomb attacks.
But more worrisome was the growing number of Shia Arab death squads that proliferated after the February 2006 bombing of the Shia shrine. This was scary for the Sunni because Saddam's secret police and militias used terror to keep the Shia Arabs in line, and these terrorists did their work openly. No masks, just bad behavior, done for maximum impact on the greatest number of people. The Shia Arabs wanted revenge, and by late 2006, the Shia Arab death squads were on their way to expelling all Sunni Arabs from the country. They Shia killers went out at night and killed Sunni Arabs. Some they would take prisoner, and torture them before killing them. The Sunni Arabs had death squads as well, but there were far more Shia Arabs than Sunni Arabs.
Even by 2005, an increasing number of Sunni Arabs were fleeing the country. Jordan and Syria accepted these refugees. Both countries also allowed these refugees, many of them wealthy members of the defunct Saddam government. Jordan insisted these terrorist organizers and paymasters be discreet. But Syria allowed them to organize a smuggling operation that got foreign Sunni Arabs, recruited from all over the world, to fly in and be moved across the border. This did not get shut down until 2007. At that point, even the Syrians could see they were backing the losing side, and it was time to play nice with the Americans, and the new Iraqi government.
Elections were held in 2005, and the new government was dominated by Shia Arabs. By 2006, about half the Sunni Arabs were gone. The country was now about ten percent Sunni Arab, 65 percent Shia Arab, and most of the remainder were Kurds. The Sunni Arabs were faced with extermination and that led to one last terror offensive in late 2007 and early 2008. This killed 3,500 in September, and in February, they killed 3,000. The dead were civilians and security personnel (mostly civilians). The Spring Offensive was quickly brought to halt by a U.S. "Surge Offensive." This was done with five more American brigades being brought in, to join the fifteen already there, and the 250,000 Iraqi security forces (half soldiers and half police). By the Summer, most Sunni Arabs had had it with the terrorism, and the Americans were able to cut deals with most of the Sunni Arab tribes, and recruited another 70,000 Sunni Arabs for local defense forces. These turned on the Sunni Arab terrorists in their midst. By January, 2009 only about 300 Iraqis a month died from the violence. By the end of 2007, the Sunni Arab rebellion was broken, and the U.S. commander said that U.S. troop could start going home in 2008. This evolved (by the end of 2008) into a plan that had U.S. forces down to 50,000 in August, 2010, and all will be gone by the end of 2011.
There remained some major problems, mainly massive corruption, and incompetence in the government. Except for Israel and Turkey, there are no working democracies in the region. It's all bullies and police state politics. Many Iraqis realize that the old ways have not served them well. But building an effective government is not easy, even with everyone saying corruption is a bad thing and must be eliminated. There's no guarantee that this "war on corruption" will work, but things will remain bad if you do nothing. The Arab world is a mess because of the corruption. Not just all the dictatorships, but an economy that under-performs the rest of the world (including many areas without natural resources, like oil). There's an "Arab Reform Movement" operating throughout the region, but so far all they have been able to do is bring the problems out into the open. That's progress, but not a solution.
The war was remarkable for many reasons, most of them little noted in the media. For example, there was an enormous effort to keep American casualties down. This was successful, with the death rate being a third of what it was in Vietnam, and at a record low level historically. This has amazed military experts the world over, but was accomplished by adopting tactics that limited what American troops could do. The civilian deaths, as a result of U.S. combat operations, declined even more. That got little media attention either. But it was a big deal with the Iraqis.
Iraq can either be a turning point in Middle Eastern history, or the democracy can be corrupted, as it was in 1958 when the constitutional monarchy was overthrown by the Sunni Arab dominated military. To that end, the Iraqis are trying to negotiate a long term treaty with the United States that would include an American promise to "coup-proof" elected Iraqi governments. That's novel, but depends on the election process remaining uncorrupted. Nothing is simple in the Middle East.
The war in Iraq did serious damage to al Qaeda. The primary cause has been Moslems killed as a side effect of attacks on infidel (non-Moslem) troops, Iraqi security forces and non-Sunnis. Al Qaeda played down the impact of this, calling the Moslem victims "involuntary martyrs." But that's a minority opinion. Most Moslems, and many other Islamic terrorists, see this as a surefire way to turn the Moslem population against the Islamic radicals. That's what happened earlier in Algeria, Afghanistan, Egypt and many other places. It's really got nothing to do with religion. The phenomenon hits non-Islamic terrorists as well (like the Irish IRA and the Basque ETA).
The senior al Qaeda leadership saw the problem, and tried to convince the "Al Qaeda In Iraq" leadership to cool it. That didn't work. As early as 2004, some Sunni Arabs were turning on al Qaeda because of the "involuntary martyrs" problem. The many dead Shia Arab civilians led to a major terror campaign by the Shia majority. They controlled the government, had the Americans covering their backs, and soon half the Sunni Arab population were refugees.
Meanwhile, the "Al Qaeda In Iraq" leadership was out of control. Most of these guys were really out there, at least in terms of fanaticism and extremism. This led to another fatal error. They declared the establishment of the "Islamic State of Iraq" in late 2006. This was an act of bravado, and touted as the first step in the re-establishment of the caliphate (a global Islamic state, ruled over by God's representative on earth, the caliph.) The caliphate has been a fiction for over a thousand years. Early on, the Islamic world was split by ethnic and national differences, and the first caliphate fell apart after a few centuries. Various rulers have claimed the title over the centuries, but since 1924, when the Turks gave it up (after four centuries), no one of any stature has taken it up. So when al Qaeda "elected" a nobody as the emir of the "Islamic State of Iraq", and talked about this being the foundation of the new caliphate, even many pro-al Qaeda Moslems were aghast.
When al Qaeda could not, in 2007, exercise any real control over the parts of Iraq they claimed as part of the new Islamic State, it was the last straw. The key supporters, battered by increasingly effective American and Iraqi attacks, dropped their support for al Qaeda, and the terrorist organization got stomped to bits by the "surge offensive" of last year. The final insult was delivered by the former Iraqi Sunni Arab allies, who quickly switched sides, and sometimes even worked with the Americans (more so than the Shia dominated Iraqi security forces) to hunt down and kill al Qaeda operators.
There are still a lot of Moslems who believe in al Qaeda, and profess to be members. But there is no real organization left to join. Al Qaeda has become a concept, one that includes using murder and terror to persuade people to follow you. Not a winning strategy, but it has been popular among Moslems since the founding of the religion. Many Moslems deny this, despite the abundant historical evidence to the contrary. But the true believers are willing to die to bring back the good old days. Over 30,000 of them died in Iraq, and al Qaeda's poll numbers plummeted throughout the Moslem world. Al Qaeda is kept alive by the Internet and headline-starved mass media.