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Present at the Destruction

An Iraqi view of how the U.S. won the war -- and lost the peace.

By 8.24.07

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This review appears in the July/August 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.

The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace
By Ali A. Allawi
(Yale University Press, 518 pages, $28)

ALI ALLAWI, AN ECONOMIST by training, was minister of trade and briefly minister of defense under the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and then minister of finance following the 2005 elections that established Iraq's transitional government. Allawi has written an important book, The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace, the first major work by an Iraqi on this conflict. Its subtitle seems to reflect the view of most Iraqis, to judge from this reviewer's experiences in Baghdad in recent weeks. Iraqis are grateful Saddam is gone, but there is electricity only one or two hours a day, because insurgents are toppling the transmission towers. The water supply is erratic, because it depends on electricity, and fuel is expensive and in short supply. The U.S. "surge" has improved security somewhat, but Baghdad remains dangerous.

In short, life is difficult here, and Allawi's firsthand account of events helps explain why. The United States long had great difficulty finding and working with Iraqis to replace Saddam's regime -- and this did not change with President George Bush's decision to oust that regime or even with its fall. The CIA and State Department, reflecting an Arabist perspective oriented to the Sunni Arab regimes allied with the United States, had one vision for Iraq -- essentially to reproduce a regime like theirs. The Pentagon and Vice President's office had another -- a democratic form of government that would end the dictatorship of Iraq's minority Sunni Arabs and accommodate the Shia majority, as well as the Kurds. Rhetorically, President Bush embraced democracy for Iraq, but in prac-tice, policy flip-flopped.

The original U.S. idea after the fall of Baghdad was to turn authority over to the largely exile Iraqi politicians, with whom Washington had dealt throughout the 1990s. In late April 2003, U.S. officials in Baghdad told them that Donald Rumsfeld had agreed to the formation of a Provisional Government, based on a leadership council they had recently elected.

That decision was soon reversed, however, and Iraq was to fall under American-British occupation. (Allawi attributes the shift to pressure from the U.S. State Department and the British.) An individual with no significant background in the Middle East and no experience managing a large organization, L. Paul Bremer, was named top civilian administrator. As Allawi scathingly writes, Bremer "was not in the first division of American career diplomats or Republican foreign policy experts." Rather, he seemed to have been chosen "precisely because of his lack of prior involvement" with Iraq. He straddled "two antagonistic camps" and "the process that led to his appointment was short and hasty.... The recruitment process for the leadership of a country of over twenty-five million people would not have passed muster with even the most indifferent of corporate headhunters."

The Defense Department and Vice President's office had wanted to develop Iraqi institutions before the war, such as a military police, but the CIA and State Department opposed anything that might give the Iraqi exiles a leg up in the new Iraq. So the American-British plan for governing Iraq in the post-Saddam era was to rely on the existing bureaucracies, removing only the top officials. Yet significant elements within the Iraqi bureaucracies remained unreliable, indifferent to the new order, if not loyal to the old, even as many of the Americans sent to run Iraq knew little about the country. "The ignorance, inexperience and simple anxiety about the unknown that was the mark of many newly arrived administrators from the Coalition played into the hands of crafty and skilled manipulators from the totalitarian bureaucracy." Allawi dubs this "The Old Bureaucracy Inside the 'New Iraq'" and believes that de-Ba'athification did not go far enough.

U.S. officials were slow to recognize the extent and significance of resistance from the old regime. One component of its strategy -- now keenly felt in Baghdad -- was to render ineffectual the administration of the new order. That began early on. While Rumsfeld dismissed the looting that followed Baghdad's fall as "stuff happens," former regime loyalists "operating under the cover of looters and arsonists" set about destroying Iraqi government data bases. "Ministries were not only methodically picked over, but were then ransacked and burnt down.... In a few government departments, enterprising individuals were able to spirit away key records.... The Coalition laboriously had to reassemble organizational charts and decision-making structures in an environment of great fear and uncertainty." The one exception was the Oil Ministry, which U.S. forces chose to guard.

The attacks on Iraq's infrastructure started in earnest in the summer of 2003, with assaults on oil and electrical facilities. Major bombings began in August, targeting the Jordanian embassy, then UN headquarters, where 22 people were killed, including Sergio de Mello, the UN's Special Representative in Iraq, and then a major Shia politician, Ayatollah Baqir al Hakim, murdered in yet one more bloody blast that month.

Possessed of a "smug indifference," the CPA viewed the violence as "the desperate acts of the remnants of a defunct regime." Not until March, did it start to recognize that the violence was truly serious. Around that time, the White House decided on bringing Bremer home and installing an interim Iraqi government.

The interim government consisted of the CIA's favorites among the Iraqi exiles, producing "a version of the Arab authoritarian state with its semi-democratic embellishments." Ayad Allawi, a one-time Ba'athist who had broken with Saddam, was made prime minister. (The two Allawis are cousins.) The CIA provided a list of two or three candidates for each ministry, among whom Ayad Allawi could chose. Thus, Iraq's interim government was very much a U.S. creation.

Corruption had been a problem under the CPA, but the interim government produced an "explosion in corrupt practices, bordering on the open plunder of the state's resources." Most spectacular was the theft of over one billion dollars by the minister of defense, Hazem Sha'alan, with the connivance of other top Iraqi officials. (Sha'alan, it would emerge from Iraqi intelligence files, was an agent for Saddam until at least January 2003.) Because of the growing violence, the ministry of defense was given $1.7 billion to create two divisions of rapid deployment forces. In a series of "brazen decisions that broke every contracting and procurement rule," the defense ministry began awarding "huge contracts without any bidding and with minimal documentation." The bulk of those contracts were signed with a small, recently established company, with only $2,000 in paid-up capital. "Full payments of the contracts were often made in advance with none of the usual requirements for performance bonds or guarantees."

Rather than use the Trade Bank of Iraq, established to finance government letters of credit, the defense ministry sent the money to private accounts in a Jordanian bank (a facility Saddam had used to siphon money from the UN's Oil for Food program). Iraq thus "parted with more than a billion dollars, moved into the accounts of unknown people in a foreign country." In turn, Iraq received equipment it could not use, such as Soviet-era helicopters, 30 years old.

The full details of the scandal were uncovered by Iraq's Bureau of Supreme Audit, a number of whose members were assassinated. Meanwhile, most of the culprits fled the country as the transitional government assumed office. After a brief stint in London, Sha'alan now resides in Jordan, and, according to Allawi, part of his stolen money is used to finance the insurgency (sources here in Baghdad concur). Sha'alan has been indicted in Iraq, but Jordan refuses to extradite him or even answer questions about the stolen funds. "The saga of the grand theft of the Ministry of Defense," Allawi concludes, "perfectly illustrated the Panglossian spin that permeated official pronouncements of the government, the U.S. embassy, and the MNF [Multi-National Force]."

THE TREATMENT ACCORDED Sha'alan et al. should be compared to that of Ahmad Chalabi, the CIA's least-favorite exile politician. In May 2004, as the United States prepared to hand over power to the interim government, his home was raided and searched for alleged misdeeds at the ministry of finance. As Allawi reports, an Iraqi prosecutor (favored by the State Department) "laid a series of patently false charges against [Chalabi], including counterfeiting of currency -- about three dollars' worth. An arrest warrant was issued against him and another entirely spurious warrant" issued against his nephew, Salem Chalabi. "These charges were so contrived that the Interim Government's Minister of Justice threatened to resign," if the indictments were not withdrawn. Nothing at all came of this, and Chalabi would go on to become deputy prime minister in the transitional government, following the January 2005 elections.

Allawi is excellent in recounting those events in which he was directly involved, particularly economic matters, but he can be surprisingly off-base on issues remote from his own experience. He does not understand that the reasons for the U.S. war with Iraq were firmly grounded in national security concerns, above all, weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, and he is too quick to embrace the now-conventional wisdom that Saddam had no such weapons nor significant ties to terrorists. (A knowledgeable Iraqi source here says that Saddam's weapons were moved to Syria between November 2002 and February 2003 -- essentially what Lt. Gen. James Clapper, head of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency during Operation Iraqi Freedom and now undersecretary of defense for intelligence, told reporters in the fall of 2003.)

Thus, despite Allawi's claims, the professor of political philosophy, Leo Strauss, had nothing to do with the Iraq war. The Pentagon's Office of Special Plans did not generate intelligence -- it was the policy office that dealt with Iraq and Iran, given, perhaps, an ominously inappropriate name as war with Iraq loomed. Nor is the policy debate over going to war in Iraq properly described as one between "realists" and "neo-conservatives," whom Allawi casts in a villainous light. Neither Rumsfeld nor Cheney, strong advocates of the war, fit easily into the latter category.

With these caveats in mind, Americans will learn much from this book, not only about Iraqi perspectives on the war, but about very major problems in the U.S. handling of Iraq that have contributed significantly to present difficulties, yet which have failed to receive the attention they merit.

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About the Author

Laurie Ann Mylroie, Ph.D., most recently served in Iraq and Afghanistan, where she provided cultural advice to the U.S. military. She is now an adjunct Senior Fellow with Frontiers of Freedom and Editorial Fellow with the Canadian technology and data company, RIWI.