December 16, 2005
Dispelling Myths About Iraq
The bruising debate over U.S. Iraq policy often seems to stray
far from the reality on the ground inside Iraq. Although Iraq’s
progress on the political, security, and economic tracks has been
uneven and many difficult problems remain, there is considerable
evidence indicating that there has been gradual progress across
many fronts. This paper seeks to contribute to the public
debate over Iraq by refuting some of the major myths that have
distorted the public’s understanding of U.S. policy
The U.S. is making no progress in defeating the insurgency
“I’m absolutely convinced that we’re making
no progress at all, and I’ve been complaining for two years
that there’s an overly optimistic—an illusionary process
going on here.” — Representative John Murtha (D–PA),
“Meet the Press,” NBC, November 20, 2005.
Over the past 18 months, the U.S.-led coalition and the Iraqi
government have made substantial progress in eliminating
insurgent strongholds in Fallujah, Mosul, Najaf, Samara, and Tal
Afar and in many smaller towns in western Anbar province along
the Syrian border. Most of Iraq is secure from major guerrilla
attacks, particularly the predominantly Shiite south and
the predominantly Kurdish north, which actively support the Iraqi
government. Most insurgent attacks are mounted in the heavily
Sunni Arab central and western portions of Iraq, although small
numbers of insurgents continue to launch terrorist attacks,
including suicide bombings at soft targets, throughout the
country. Outside of Iraq’s Sunni heartland, which benefited
the most from Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime, the
insurgents lack popular support. Their terrorist strategy has
failed to intimidate Iraqi Shiites, Kurds, Turcomans, and
Assyrians, who altogether comprise more than 80 percent of Iraq’s
army and police forces are growing larger, better trained, and
more effective. The Iraqi army and security forces have grown
from just one operational battalion in July 2004 to more than
120 today. Over 200,000 trained and equipped Iraqis are now playing
an increasingly active role in rooting out insurgents. While
only one battalion is rated at the U.S. Army category “Level
One,” about 40 are at “Level Two.” Level Two
battalions are capable of fighting “with some support”—usually
just logistics and air/artillery support—from American
forces. These units patrol their own areas of operations, relieving
U.S. troops to perform other duties. The cities of Najaf and Mosul
are now exclusively patrolled by Iraqi security forces, as are
large portions of Baghdad.
now six police academies in Iraq and one in Jordan, training 3,500
Iraqi police every 10 weeks. Today the vast majority of Iraqi
police and army recruits are trained by Iraqis, not Americans—the
result of systematic efforts to “train the trainers.”
Since the January 30, 2005, elections, no Iraqi police stations
have been abandoned under attack, as used to happen frequently,
because police have fiercely resisted attacks even when outnumbered
and outgunned, confident that help would come from 20 provincial
SWAT teams and coalition forces.
several military offensives in 2004, Iraqi security forces now
are strong enough to garrison and control the cleared areas,
making the Bush Administration’s recent adoption of a “clear,
hold, and build” security strategy possible. Iraqi forces
were able to take a leading role in the successful September
2005 offensive at Tal Afar, which involved 11 Iraqi and five coalition
effectiveness of the Iraqi security forces has inspired optimism
among the Iraqi people. This is reflected in the growing
number of intelligence tips from Iraqi civilians. In March
2005, Iraqi and coalition forces received 483 intelligence tips
from Iraqi citizens. This figure rose to 3,300 in August and more
than 4,700 in September. According to a poll from early November,
71 percent of respondents believed that the Iraqi security forces
are winning the war against the insurgents, while only 9 percent
believed they are losing. The data were gathered from Iraqi callers
who were passing intelligence tips to the Iraqi National Tips
Line, which was created to provide Iraqis with a safe and anonymous
means of passing on information about insurgent activity to their
The U.S. is making little or no political progress in Iraq.
“It is surely a joke of history that even as the White House
sells this weekend’s constitutional referendum as yet another
‘victory’ for democracy in Iraq, we still don’t
know the whole story of how our own democracy was hijacked on
the way to war.” — Frank Rich, “It’s Bush–Cheney,
not Rove–Libby,” The New York Times, October
Iraq has made remarkably rapid progress in establishing the foundations
of a democratic political system after more than three decades
of dictatorship. Pessimistic critics of U.S. policy have been
repeatedly wrong in predicting that Iraqis would not be ready
for the June 2004 transfer of sovereignty, the January 2005 transitional
government elections, the writing and approval of a constitution
by October 2005, and the December 15 elections that will create
a government that will lead Iraq for the next four years.
inability to block the January elections, combined with a simmering
resentment of their indiscriminate violence, has led many Sunni
Arabs to reconsider their boycott of the political process.
Even the Association of Muslim Scholars, an anti-American
group, has called for Sunni Arabs to join the Iraqi security services.
The insurgents’ political base is weakening as it becomes
clear that they are opposed not just to the American presence,
but also to the elected government.
attacks and threats of intimidation, 8.5 million Iraqis voted
in the January elections; almost 10 million voted in the
October referendum on the new constitution; and turnout for the
December 15 elections is expected to be even greater. Many Sunni
Arabs realize they erred in boycotting the January elections and
are likely to vote in far larger numbers on December 15. More
than 300 parties and coalitions have registered for the elections.
Iraq’s political process is messy and slow, as in other
newly democratic political systems, but a new class of political
leadership is emerging that over time can build a national consensus
and drain away support for the insurgency, which is dominated
by Islamic radicals and diehard adherents of Saddam’s hated
while Americans appear to be growing more pessimistic about Iraq’s
future, Iraqis are growing more optimistic. According to
a poll conducted by Iraqis affiliated with the country’s
universities, two-thirds of Iraqis believe they are better off
now than they were under Saddam’s dictatorship, and 82 percent
are confident that they will be better off a year from now than
they are today. An October survey conducted by the International
Republican Institute found that 47 percent of Iraqis believed
that their country is headed in the right direction, while 37
percent believed that it was going in the wrong direction. And
56 percent believed the situation would get better in six months,
while only 16 percent believed the situation would get worse.
The Bush Administration exaggerated the threat of Iraqi weapons
of mass destruction (WMD) to justify the war.
“In his march to war, President Bush exaggerated the threat
to the American people.” — Senator Edward Kennedy
(D–MA), quoted in U.S. Fed News, November 10, 2005.
The Bush Administration acted on the basis of intelligence conclusions
that were widely shared by previous Administrations and foreign
governments. President Bush was not the first American President
to emphasize the long-term threat posed by Iraq. President Bill
Clinton justified Operation Desert Fox, a three-day U.S. air offensive
against Iraq, by invoking the threat posed by Iraqi WMD on December
as they are, the costs of action must be weighed against the
price of inaction. If Saddam defies the world and we fail to
respond, we will face a far greater threat in the future. Saddam
will strike again at his neighbors; he will make war on his
own people. And mark my words he will develop weapons of mass
destruction. He will deploy them, and he will use them.
National Security Council adviser Sandy Berger warned of Saddam’s
threat in 1998, “He will use those weapons of mass destruction
again, as he has ten times since 1983.” Former Vice President
Al Gore said in 2002, “We know that [Saddam] has stored
secret supplies of biological and chemical weapons throughout
his country.” CIA Director George Tenet, a holdover from
the Clinton Administration, declared that the presence of Iraqi
WMD was a “slam dunk.”
services of Britain, France, Russia, Germany, and Israel,
among many others, held the same opinion. French Foreign Minister
Dominique de Villepin told the U.N. Security Council on February
now, our attention has to be focused as a priority on the biological
and chemical domains. It is there that our presumptions about
Iraq are the most significant. Regarding the chemical domain,
we have evidence of its capacity to produce VX and Yperite.
In the biological domain, the evidence suggests the possible
possession of significant stocks of anthrax and botulism toxin,
and possibly a production capability.
Ambassador to the United States, Wolfgang Ischinger, said on NBC’s
“Today” on February 26, 2003, “I think
all of our governments believe that Iraq has produced weapons
of mass destruction and that we have to assume that they still
have—that they continue to have weapons of mass destruction.”
Administration may have been wrong about Iraqi WMD, but so were
many other governments, few of which have been accused of
lying. Moreover, three independent commissions have found that
there is no evidence that the Bush Administration exaggerated
the intelligence about Iraqi WMD.
In July 2004,
the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report with
the following conclusions:
83. The Committee did not find any evidence that Administration
officials attempted to coerce, influence or pressure analysts
to change their judgments related to Iraq’s weapons of
mass destruction capabilities.…
84. The Committee found no evidence that the Vice President’s
visits to the Central Intelligence Agency were attempts to pressure
analysts, were perceived as intended to pressure analysts by
those who participated in the briefings on Iraq’s weapons
of mass destruction programs, or did pressure analysts to change
2005, the bipartisan Robb–Silverman commission reached the
Commission found no evidence of political pressure to influence
the Intelligence Community’s pre-war assessments of Iraq’s
weapons programs. As we discuss in detail in the body of our
report, analysts universally asserted that in no instance did
political pressure cause them to skew or alter any of their
analytical judgments. We conclude that it was the paucity of
intelligence and poor analytical tradecraft, rather than political
pressure, that produced the inaccurate pre-war intelligence
2004 Butler Report, issued by a special panel set up by the British
Parliament, found that the famous “16 words” in President
Bush’s January 28, 2003, State of the Union address were
based on fact, contrary to the claims of former ambassador Joseph
Wilson, who has alleged that Bush’s assertion was a
lie. Bush said, “The British Government has learned that
Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium
from Africa.” The Butler Report called Bush’s 16 words
“well founded.” The report also made clear that some
forged Italian documents, exposed as fakes after Bush spoke, were
not the basis for the British intelligence that Bush cited
or the CIA’s conclusion that Iraq was seeking to obtain
The war in Iraq has set back the war on terrorism.
“It’s the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong
time.” — Senator John Kerry (D–MA), September
Some critics contend that Iraq is a detour in the war on terrorism
and a distraction from the hunt for Osama bin Laden, but this
criticism is greatly overstated. The war in Iraq was a different
type of struggle from the war against al-Qaeda. It required different
kinds of resources. Strategically, the U.S. is certainly capable
of engaging in multiple operations on a global level.
intelligence assets were diverted from the search for bin Laden
to Iraq, but bin Laden had already gone underground, hunkering
down on the Afghan–Pakistan border 18 months before the
Iraq war. And there is no evidence that bin Laden would have been
caught if there had been no war in Iraq.
the U.S. has made substantial progress in the war against al-Qaeda.
More than three-quarters of al-Qaeda’s known leaders have
been detained or killed. These include:
Atef, al-Qaeda’s senior field commander, killed in
a bombing raid in Afghanistan;
* Abu Zubaida,
Osama bin Laden’s field commander after the killing
of Atef, captured in Pakistan;
Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the September 11 attacks, captured
Binalshibh, a coordinator of the September 11 attacks, captured
top strategist for al-Qaeda’s associate group Jemaah Islamiah
in Southeast Asia, captured in Thailand;
* Abd al-Rahim
al-Nashiri, al-Qaeda’s chief of operations in the Persian
Gulf, captured in the United Arab Emirates;
Khalfan Ghailani, a suspect in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies
in Kenya and Tanzania, captured in Pakistan;
* Abu Issa
al–Hindi, an operations planner, captured in Britain;
* Abu Faraj
al-Libbi, another major field commander, captured in Pakistan.
to the leaders, more than 4,000 suspected al-Qaeda members
have been arrested worldwide since September 11, 2001. Al-Qaeda
cells have been uncovered, dismantled, and disrupted in Europe,
the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. More than $140 million of its
assets have been blocked in over 1,400 bank accounts worldwide.
overlooked benefit of the war is that Iraq is no longer a state
sponsor of terrorism. This is important because the United States
cannot win the war on terrorism unless it eliminates or at least
greatly reduces state support for terrorism. Al-Qaeda, often held
up as the premier example of “stateless terrorism,”
actually was helped tremendously by the support of states.
The Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the radical Islamic regime
in Sudan provided the sanctuary and cooperation that allowed al-Qaeda
to develop into the global threat that it is today.
bin Laden has lost a potential ally, if not an actual ally, in
Saddam’s regime, which had a long and bloody history of
supporting terrorists and many reported contacts with al-Qaeda.
Moreover, free Iraqis increasingly are joining the fight
against terrorism. Osama bin Laden’s associates in Iraq
clearly are worried about the expansion of the Iraqi security
forces. A 2004 message from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who later was
named al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, lamented Iraq’s progress:
“Our enemy is growing stronger day after day and its intelligence
information increases. By God, this is suffocation.”
The war to
liberate Iraq, coming after the successful war to liberate
Afghanistan from the Taliban, has disabused terrorists of
the notion that the United States is a paper tiger. This perception
was created by American withdrawals, following terrorist
attacks, from peacekeeping operations in Lebanon and Somalia
that did not involve vital American national interests.
from the war is the effect that it has had on other rogue regimes.
Libya was induced to disarm because of the Iraq war. In fact,
Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi told Italian Prime Minister
Silvio Berlusconi that he did so after seeing what happened to
Saddam’s regime. Iran, also pushed by international pressure,
decided to open up its nuclear program to more inspections. Syria,
caught red-handed in the assassination of Lebanon’s former
Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, now is isolated and on the defensive.
is true that some Islamic extremists are going to Iraq to join
the fighting, many of them would have ventured elsewhere to slaughter
civilians had the Iraq war never occurred. As well, the indiscriminate
murder of innocent Iraqis by Zarqawi’s terrorists has
undermined al-Qaeda’s appeal throughout the Muslim world.
Zarqawi’s November 9, 2005, bombing of three hotels
in Jordan outraged Jordanians and other Muslims, even those
who previously had been sympathetic to al-Qaeda. While the war
in Iraq has helped al-Qaeda’s recruitment efforts,
on balance it has helped the war on terrorism by preventing Osama
bin Laden and other terrorists from receiving any future support
from Saddam’s regime.
Iraq has become, by al-Qaeda’s own reckoning, a crucial
front in the global war against terrorism, the United States and
its allies cannot allow Zarqawi’s thugs to establish a permanent
base in Iraq. From there, al-Qaeda would be in a better position
to penetrate the heart of the Arab world, threaten moderate Arab
regimes, and disrupt Persian Gulf oil exports than it enjoyed
under the protection of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime
from 1996 to 2001. Finally, any “exit strategy” for
withdrawal from Iraq that is perceived by Muslims as a victory
for al-Qaeda would boost the group’s ability to recruit
new members far beyond the current rate.
The war in Iraq is another Vietnam.
“Iraq is George Bush’s Vietnam.” — Senator
Edward Kennedy (D–MA), April 5, 2004.
Iraq is Iraq. Most Iraqis share American goals of building
a pluralistic, democratic, and prosperous Iraq. Even many Sunni
Arabs who boycotted the January elections due to terrorist
intimidation now are participating in politics. The Iraqi
insurgents do not have the military strength, popular support,
political unity, ideological cohesiveness, major power support,
charismatic leadership, or alternative political program that
the Vietnamese communists possessed. Nor are the Iraqi insurgents
likely to develop these advantages in the future. The insurgents
are divided by ideology, religious affiliation, and factional
rivalries into separate groups, including remnants of Saddam’s
Baathist regime, Sunni Islamic radicals, Shiite Islamic radicals,
tribal forces, and foreign Islamic radicals such as Abu Musab
Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda faction.
appear to be growing between some of the insurgent groups—particularly
animosity toward Zarqawi’s group, which has killed hundreds
of civilians in indiscriminate suicide bombings and provoked a
backlash that other groups fear will undermine the insurgency.
While many insurgent factions have been hurt by the improved flow
of intelligence to government forces since the January elections,
Zarqawi’s group has suffered disproportionately heavy
losses. More than 20 of his lieutenants have been captured
or killed since the beginning of the year, and Zarqawi himself
reportedly was almost captured twice. His predominantly non-Iraqi
forces are so concerned about being betrayed by Iraqi informants
that they reportedly confiscate cell phones in the areas that
insurgency in Vietnam, which had a relatively broad base of support,
the Iraqi insurgents are actively supported by only a minority
of the Sunni Arab population, which makes up at most 20 percent
of the Iraqi population. The Iraqi insurgents cannot defeat the
Iraqi people, but can only play a spoiler role.
who have served in Iraq see little comparison between the
two wars. A USA Today reporter who interviewed many Vietnam
War veterans now serving in Iraq wrote, “They see a
clearer mission than in Vietnam, a more supportive public back
home and an Iraqi population that seems to be growing friendlier
The U.S. has little allied support in the war in Iraq.
“With the exception of British troops in Basra, we are essentially
going it alone across the rest of Iraq.” — Senator
Frank Lautenberg (D–NJ), quoted in U.S. Fed News,
October 25, 2005.
Those who argue that the U.S. fights “alone” in Iraq
ignore the contributions of the Iraqis themselves, who have
committed 212,000 soldiers and police to fighting the insurgency
and suffer the largest number of casualties. In addition, the
U.S. has the strong cooperation of the 26 other nations that have
deployed troops in Iraq. In addition to 155,000 Americans,
there are 8,000 Britons, 3,200 South Koreans, 3,000 Italians,
1,400 Poles, 900 Ukrainians, 450 Australians, 400 Bulgarians,
and smaller contingents from Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia
and Herzegovina, the Czech Republic, Denmark, El Salvador, Estonia,
Georgia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Mongolia,
the Netherlands, Norway, Romania, and Slovakia.
Iraqi women were better off under Saddam’s regime than they
are under the new constitution.
“It looks like today—and this could change—as
of today, it looks like women will be worse off in Iraq than they
were when Saddam Hussein was president of Iraq.” —
Howard Dean, “Face the Nation,” CBS, August 14, 2005.
Iraq’s new constitution mandates that women hold one-quarter
of the seats in Iraq’s parliament and protects them
against gender discrimination, unlike Saddam’s capricious
legal system. In 1990, women held 11 percent of the seats in Saddam’s
rubber-stamp parliament. Today, they hold 31.6 percent of the
seats, according to the 2005 United Nations Human Development
Report. Iraqi women now enjoy more political power than
they did under Saddam’s dictatorship, which was run exclusively
by men. There were no high-ranking women at the top of Saddam’s
1980 invasion of Iraq and 1990 invasion of Kuwait resulted
in the deaths of so many men that many women were brought into
Iraq’s labor force to replace them. But this economic advancement
came at a terrible price in repression. Entire Iraqi families
were jailed as collective punishment for alleged crimes against
the state. Saddam’s goons tortured, killed, and raped
women to punish their husbands or male relatives for political
opposition. Those who argue that Iraqi women were better off under
Saddam ignore the terrible crimes against women that were carried
out by his regime.
Iraq’s economy is getting worse.
“Basic services such as electricity have never been worse
and the economy of Arab Iraq is in ruins.” — Andrew
Gilligan, The Evening Standard (London), February 14,
Reconstruction and economic progress have come relatively quickly,
compared to the reconstruction efforts in postwar Germany and
Japan, and this is despite continued insurgent attacks on Iraq’s
infrastructure and economic targets. Unemployment remains
high, estimated by the government at 28 percent, but U.S. policy
did not create that unemployment.
economy is beginning to thrive. Real GDP is expected to grow 3.7
percent in 2005 and 16 percent in 2006. Iraqi per-capita
income has doubled since 2003, according to the World Bank. Private
investment, bolstered with capital remitted from family members
abroad, has fueled rapid growth in the private sector. More than
30,000 new businesses have registered with the authorities
since the war, and thousands of other businesses are believed
to have been established without registering.
oil production has not recovered as fast as many projected, due
to sabotage of pipelines and other facilities and the greater-than-expected
damage done to Iraq’s oil infrastructure by many years
of neglect, poor maintenance, and lack of investment under
Saddam’s regime. Oil production, which was approximately
2 million barrels per day in 2002, is approximately 1.9 million
barrels per day today. But the slow recovery of oil production
is partially offset by high world oil prices. Iraq is expected
to earn about $17 billion in revenues from oil exports this year.
infrastructure, neglected by Saddam’s regime for many years
and damaged in three wars triggered by Saddam, has been strained
to its capacity, but the situation is gradually improving.
Since the war, U.S. efforts have added 1,400 megawatts of power
to the Iraqi power grid, expanding access to 4.2 million Iraqis
throughout the country. While some Baghdad residents had more
electrical power under Saddam’s regime—because it
diverted power from other parts of Iraq—many Iraqis now
have much greater access to electricity than they had before the
war. While Iraqis outside of Baghdad only had three to six hours
of access to electricity in 2002, today they average almost 14
hours a day.
Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies in
the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies,
a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for
International Studies, at The
on the political campaign to paint intelligence mistakes as deliberate
lies, see Norman Podhoretz, “Who Is Lying About Iraq?”
Commentary, December 2005.
on the U.S. Intelligence Community’s Prewar Intelligence
Assessments on Iraq, Select Committee on Intelligence, U.S.
Senate, July 7, 2004, pp. 284–285.
Charles S. Robb
and Laurence H. Silberman, “The Commission on the Intelligence
Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass
Destruction,” March 31, 2005, p. 50.
Komorow, “Vietnam Vets in Iraq See ‘Entirely Different
War’,” USA Today, June 21 2005.
Nations, Human Development Report, 2005, at http://hdr.undp.org/statistics/data/countries.cfm?c=IRQ.
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