Why We’re Not Going Back to Iraq

We have no right to expect any gratitude from the people of Iraq.    We relieved them of Saddam Hussein, who deserved, if anyone does, to swing from the end of a rope.  We did, however, invade Iraq as a matter of our own policy; and we did it to look after our own interests, not as a favour to the people of Iraq.  We smashed the place to bits and only made half-funded attempts to put it back together again.

Shia militias hustled us out of Iraq as quickly as they possibly could.  Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, probably against his will, helped us on our way.  Iran enjoyed our willingness to stay and be pummelled.  Now Iraq’s Shi’ites are in danger of bloody revenge for the sectarian cleansing of Baghdad.  It is not surprising that neither the Americans nor the British are interested in putting our body parts back into that particular mangle.

A Norahammars Bruk model 3005-2 mangle from 1934
A mangle. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons CC-BY)

Now, astonishingly, there are people who think we ought to have another go.  Some of those people shoud know better.  The Iraqi Prime Minister who pushed us out has even suggested we loan him our air forces in hopes of destroying his enemies.

Ayatollah Sistani is summoning bands of Shi’ite thugs to keep Sunni thugs out of his cities.  Prime Minister al-Maliki is scrambling to put some backbone into the Iraqi Army and move it out of Shi’ite-dominated safe areas into the fighting.  Prime Minister Maliki and Ayatollah Sistani are right to be afraid.  The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) is not capable of taking and holding Shi’ite areas of Iraq, but where they can they will exact merciless revenge against their Shi’ite enemies.  For years they have bombed Shi’ite neighbourhoods and cities.  If Iraqi government forces and the militias cannot stop ISIS, the streets of Baghdad will run red.

The British Army was defeated in Basrah and Maysan Provinces, at the hands of Shi’ite militias

The Shi’ite majority which rules Iraq is the Shi’ite majority which pushed us out.  The British Army was defeated in Basrah and Maysan Provinces by 2007.  This defeat was administered largely at the hands of Shi’ite militias, notably the Jaysh-al-Mahdi and the Special Groups.  The bands of thugs Ayatollah Sistani is trying to re-create are the same thugs who made it impossible for the British brigade in Basrah to stay.

The United States forces were able to achieve a stalemate elsewhere in the country.  They did this by achieving a balance between the country’s three main groups. They had already created a semi-independent Kurdistan.  The US re-created an Iraqi Army which functioned as the country’s main Shia militia.  They and their regional allies bankrolled a Sunni militia which had been Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, then the Islamic State in Iraq, which became the Concerned Local Citizens, then the Sons of Iraq, and now the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

The US was willing to maintain garrisons in Iraq, but it had become politically impossible.  The Iraqi Shia narrative in particular said that the Americans were enemies who had to be expelled, and Iraq’s Shia-majority government was unable or unwilling to change that.

The United States did an awful job of trying to reconstruct Iraq after the 2003 invasion, and the British government, handicapped by dissenting cabinet ministers, did not do any better.  With the exception of Iraq’s Kurds, however, the peoples of Iraq did their bit to make Iraq ungovernable.

Iran did its best to achieve hegemony over as much of northern and Eastern Iraq as they could influence, but the sectarian cleansing of Baghdad by the Shia and the violent bombings of the Shia majority made the difference between difficult reconstruction and impossible reconstruction.

The Americans are fond of summarising their commitment to war with the phrase ‘blood and treasure’, which conjures up visions of great chests of gold coins and pools of gore; and the US and British commitments to Iraq (to say nothing of the other coalition states) wasn’t far from that.

A Photo taken from the Highworth Bridge over the A420 at Shrivenham, this photo shows the Seven Service Men Who Returned Home To the United Kingdom on 29th June 2010
Why isn’t the 2003 Coalition eager to go back to Iraq? (photo credit: Flickr user/James Dell CC-BY)

The British in Basrah were pushed out because the Shia of southern and Eastern Iraq had decided we were no longer their friends.  We took them at their word, withdrew to the airport, and left as quickly as we decently could.

The Shia population of Iraq, through their elected representatives, made it impossible for the US to maintain forces there.  Their insistence that US forces would be subject to Iraqi law seems in a sense reasonable, but it was the equivalent of a the bum’s rush.  The US left, and it is not surprising that they and we are not interested in going back.

About the Author
Dr Lynette Nusbacher is a strategist and devil's advocate. She is Principal at Nusbacher & Associates, a strategy consultancy. She has been a senior national security official in the United Kingdom, was Senior Lecturer in War Studies at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and served as a military intelligence officer.
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