Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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April 15, 2003

A Perspective on the Consequences of the Fall of Baghdad

Analysis. By Mark Kagan, GIS. The Arab world — which includes millions of Arabs who live outside the Middle East — is experiencing a collective hangover following the fall of Baghdad to US forces during the first half of April 2003, which is more shock and dismay and humiliation than “shock and awe”.

There is shock and dismay that it took the US forces less than three weeks to reach and occupy Baghdad. The city’s occupation by a non-Arab and non-Muslim invasion force is being widely compared in apocalyptic language to the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1258, which ended the ‘Abbassid Caliphate.

There is deep shock and humiliation at how little resistance the Iraqis put up to Coalition forces, especially when the hopes and sympathies of many Arabs were aroused during the first week of the war by the resistance of Iraqi irregulars and paramilitary forces in southern Iraq. Shock and humiliation become dismay and anger because an Arab leader and his Government have again proven to be full of empty, vainglorious and bloodthirsty boasts while inept on the battlefield.

Although most opinion in the Arab world was inclined to believe that the overwhelmingly superior Coalition forces would eventually defeat Iraq, few believed — or could believe — that the Iraqi resistance would be so short-lived. [Indeed, it is still possible that some symbols of Iraqi “resistance” will still appear — Ed.] There is also widespread dismay and denial at the general Iraqi welcome of the Coalition forces now that the former Government is undeniably gone. The disbelief and incomprehension are grounded in the widely held view before and during the war that held that “we support Iraq, although we don’t necessarily support Saddam, and we don’t support the use of outside force to overthrow an unpopular regime”.

However, this view failed, and still fails to understand that for most Iraqis, supporting Iraq while claiming not to support Saddam Hussein was a contradiction in terms. Unlike the rest of the Arab world, the Iraqi people had long since realized that “supporting” Iraq while Saddam Hussein was President did mean supporting Saddam Hussein and the continuation of his brutal and dysfunctional dictatorship. They had also realized that the removal of Saddam and his Government could not come from within, especially after the horrific suppression of the revolt in Iraq following the 1990 Gulf War.

While many voices in the Arab world are comparing the downfall of Saddam Hussein to the “disasters” of the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948-49 and 1967, they are also expressing anger that — again — most Arabs were taken in by the boasting propaganda of an Arab leader and his Government. Some of this anger has also resulted in a backlash at the Arab media, and especially the Arab television stations, which reported — mostly as fact — the official Iraqi propaganda of fierce resistance throughout the country to the invasion and heavy Coalition losses. A few voices have noted that the belief in Iraqi victories and Coalition losses by both the TV stations and their audiences was largely wishful thinking, but for the moment these are not voices that many people want to hear.

As usual, an abundance of conspiracy theories are being generated — on top of the conspiracy theories which preceded the war — to account for these developments, although the assertion that the “fall” of Baghdad was a fake “Hollywood-staged” production has fallen to the reality of mass and multiple media. The most popular theory, which may have been started by a retired Egyptian general who was an Al-Jazeera military analyst, was that Saddam Hussein had cut a deal with the Allies to allow him and his inner circle to escape Iraq in exchange for not putting up a fight. This, the Egyptian general felt, was the only explanation for the “inexplicable” lack of Iraqi resistance to the Coalition invasion, especially in Baghdad.

Likewise, many of the other conspiracy theories now circulating include notions of Iraqi Government sellouts and deals with the Allies. They are eerily reminiscent of the conspiracy theories which circulated in the Arab world after the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war, such as the popular Egyptian belief that the Israeli Army captured the heavily fortified Syrian Golan Heights in less than two days because the Syrians had sold out to Israel.

There is a great deal of speculation, and not just in the Arab world, that Syria may be the next “target” of the United States for “regime change”. Official US complaints about possible Syrian military assistance to Iraq during the war and current US warnings to the Syrian Government about the consequences of harboring fleeing high-level Iraqi Government officials who were wanted for war crimes did nothing to dampen these speculations. Neither have the denials of senior US Government officials quieted concerns that the United States had embarked on a long-term plan to forcibly make the Middle East safe for democracy (for which most Middle Eastern audiences read “safe for the United States and Israel”).

At the same time, there is much other speculation about the possible consequences of the downfall of Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Party in Iraq for the suffocating political environments and authoritarian governments in some other Arab countries. Many, including some who were vehemently against the invasion of Iraq, were hoping that the shock may lead to political reforms in these countries.

The Syrian Ba’ath Party, which has been in power in Syria since the early 1960s, and Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Asad, are undoubtedly experiencing even greater shock and dismay than the rest of the Arab world and the other Arab leaders. The Syrian Ba’ath and Iraqi Ba’ath Parties were often in conflict through the years over ideological and Arab leadership issues. In addition, there was always the underlying historical rivalry which dated from the overthrow of the ‘Ummayad Arab Empire, whose capital was in Damascus, by the ‘Abbassid Empire, whose capital was in Baghdad. Nevertheless, the Syrian Ba’ath and the Iraqi Ba’ath were still kindred parties, with similar views about Arab nationalism, and similar conspiratorial origins and conspiratorial worldviews.

The US-UK invasion of Iraq and its removal of Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath Government had to have been the worst confirmation of that conspiratorial view of the world. Undoubtedly Syrian Ba’ath Party loyalists will come up with new conspiracy theories to explain why, after three decades of Ba’ath indoctrination of the Iraqi people, those same people mostly remained passive and did not resist the invasion of their country by the imperialist/colonialist powers and, even worse, seemed happy to see the back of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party.

Meanwhile, Pres. al-Asad’s advisers, while assuring him that Syria and the Syrian people are very different from Iraq and the Iraqis, will probably be advising him in the coming weeks and months to roll back the extremely limited political and economic reforms that he has instituted since becoming President. They will point out that the new conspiracies swirling around Syria, the heart of the Arab world, and the very real threat of US forces next door in Iraq call for tightening the political screws in Syria, not loosening them. Finally, they may also point out that the political and economic reforms instituted by Pres. Mikhail Gorbachev were “precisely” what led to the downfall of the Soviet Union, and therefore Syria must not go down that road lest it end the same way for the Syrian Ba’athists.