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The End of Iraq -- definitive, tough-minded, clear-eyed, describes America's failed strategy toward that country.
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The End of IraqHow American Incompetence Created a War Without End
By Peter W. Galbraith
Simon & SchusterCopyright © 2006 Peter W. Galbraith
All right reserved.
On March 2, in Basra's Sa'ad Square, an Iraqi tank driver turned his turret toward a two-story portrait of Saddam Hussein and fired. The shell ignited a rebellion that spread from Basra up the Euphrates and Tigris river valleys, reaching the southern outskirts of Baghdad.
In Nasiriyah, crowds literally tore Ba'ath Party officials apart. Government offices, Ba'ath Party headquarters, and military installations were looted and burned. The intensity of Shiite feelings was encapsulated for me in an incident that I witnessed a few weeks later.
I was in a refugee camp on the Iraq-Kuwait border when a U.S. Army medic in a Humvee drove into the camp. Four children, he said, had been collecting tomatoes on the Iraqi side of the border when they stepped on unexploded American ordnance. It had detonated. Was there a doctor, he asked. I rounded up the only available medical person, a Kuwaiti medical student, and drove him into Iraq. Three of the children had been moved to an American field hospital. The medic pointed a pin light in a twelve-year-old boy's eyes. There was no response.
As I watched, the boy's mother came up the road, unaware that anything had happened. Then she saw her dead son, his knees torn open. Asshe ripped at her hair and clothes, the first words from her lips were "Saddam did this."
About ten days after the uprising began, Saddam consolidated his position sufficiently to move some Republican Guards south. Unlike the conscript army, the Republican Guards were mostly Sunni Arabs and their officers included many from Saddam's own Tikriti clan. The Republican Guards were the regime's last line of defense and Saddam had deliberately kept them out of battle in Kuwait. They were intact and not demoralized by military defeat.
In mid-March, American troops still occupied southern Iraq, holding positions not far from the cities and towns along the Euphrates Valley. The Iraqi advance on the rebellious Shiites arguably violated the cease-fire terms ending the Gulf War dictated by the U.S. theater commander General Norman Schwarzkopf, which Iraq had accepted on March 3. American troops in Iraq could have stopped the Republican Guards and saved tens of thousands of lives. But they had strict orders not to intervene.
Saddam's retribution was swift and terrible. Republican Guard tanks blasted apart ancient city centers. Shiite shrines became battlegrounds and then slaughterhouses as rebels, clerics, and unlucky civilians were massacred. The Republican Guard attached nooses to the gun barrels of their tanks, hanging Shiite men -- several at a time -- by elevating the gun. As all this took place, American soldiers looked on, many seething with anger because they were not allowed to stop the killings. Patrick Lowe was one of the soldiers who witnessed the atrocities. Years later, he heard me on the radio and sent me an e-mail describing what he had seen:
I was a recon scout with the 1st Armored Division. I was responsible for graves registration and EPW's [enemy prisoners of war] for the Squadron. After the ground war I was assigned to an area on the Baghdad to Basrah Highway, about 3 miles outside of Basrah. I watched as Iraq helicopter gun ships flew into the city and gunned down everything in their way. I watched as troops were sent in and I can tell you, first hand, what was going on in Basrah.
I was the one that had to process the civilian refugees that fled the town. They pleaded with me to do something, anything to stop this wholesale mass murder. I heard stories of women and children being burned alive, in their homes. Women being raped to death, men being chopped up alive. Civilians being used for target practice, mass hangings. I can hear their screams and wailing to this day on bad nights. I remember one day in particular. I had been pleading for almost 3 days with my chain of command to let me do something about what was going on. The Squadron Commander flew up to my position, and we had a face to face. He ordered me to do nothing without express orders. In 12 years of service that is the closest that I ever came to disobeying a serious direct order. I even went to the point of sending a patrol out to get closer to the killing fields to see if the Iraq soldiers would shoot at them so that I had a reason to engage and protect those innocent civilians. They did not engage and so we continued to sit and watch. I have never been more ashamed of our country's actions as I was at that point.
To this day, the time I spent on the Baghdad to Basrah highways haunts me. I should have not just sat there and watched. I should have fought for them. I should have done something, anything to stop the blood bath. We are sworn to protect and yet we sat, I sat and watched hundreds of thousands die in the most horrible ways possible.
Between March and September 1991, the Iraqi Army and security services killed as many as 300,000 Shiites. One mass grave near the city of Hillah is said to hold 30,000 bodies alone.
While George H. W. Bush's call for the uprising may well have been a careless ad lib, this is not how Iraq's Shiites saw it. They believe Bush encouraged the uprising and intentionally allowed Saddam to crush it because Bush wanted Shiites to be killed.
The Kurdish uprising began in a similar manner to the Shiite uprising, but ended very differently. On March 6, 1991, a mob attacked the Ba'ath Party headquarters in Rania, a town at the edge of the mountains in Eastern Kurdistan. By March 14, rebels controlled most of Kurdistan, and on March 21 the Kurds took over Kirkuk, the place some call Kurdistan's Jerusalem.
Like the Shiites in the south, the Kurds vented their fury against the regime. When the rebels took over the General Security Directorate headquarters in Suleimania, they caught the security agents about to execute the remaining prisoners. Instead, the security men were shot. An elderly woman threw herself on one of the corpses, biting and kicking it. As the crowd tried to pull her off, she explained, "He killed three of my sons. Don't I have the right to do this to him?"
On March 30, I was finally able to accept Talabani's invitation from the month before. A Kurdish medical student accompanied me from Damascus to Qameshli, a dusty town in Syria near the junction with Iraq, and Turkey. There, Kemal Kirkuki, a peshmerga commander, arranged with the Syrian authorities for me to cross into Kurdish-held Iraq. He assigned Abdul Karim, an engineer, to be my escort and driver. Karim proved unflappable, which was the only realistic option considering what happened.
From the Syrian bank of the Tigris, I could see, and film, Iraqi Army mortars exploding near the Kurdish peshmerga positions on the Iraqi side of the river. For reasons I cannot quite fathom now, I did not worry about the danger of being killed. I was, however, worried that the shelling could make it impossible for me to return to Syria in time for meetings scheduled in a few days. My absence might call career-ending attention to my presence in Iraq. I had been deliberately vague both with the U.S. Embassy in Damascus and with my bosses at the Foreign Relations Committee about northern Iraq being on my itinerary, although the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Edward Djerejian, understood that my interest in spending Easter in Qameshli had nothing to do with the place's intrinsic charms. Karim assured me I had nothing to worry about because the peshmerga were planning an operation that night to take out the Iraqi firing positions.
We crossed the Tigris in a small boat with an outboard motor and jumped into a captured Iraqi Army Toyota Land Cruiser waiting on the Iraqi side. There were two bullet holes on the driver's side of the windshield but I decided not to ask about them. At one point the asphalt stopped and there was an area where the road had been dug up. Karim and another peshmerga had an animated discussion as to which way to go and then carefully followed the ruts made by an earlier vehicle a few hundred yards to where the asphalt resumed. Only when we were back on the road did I realize we had just threaded our way through an Iraqi minefield. Our first stop was Zakho, a town of 100,000 on the Khabur River. In the town center, politicians gave speeches to enthusiastic crowds, and political banners were displayed everyplace. I had my picture taken under a banner written in English -- "We librated [sic] Kurdistan from the aggressors" -- and then we continued to Dahuk, a city of 300,000 fifty miles farther south.
Our vehicles were the only ones heading south. All the other traffic was coming north. Not only were cars and trucks full of people, but most also had suitcases and furniture stacked on the roofs. This was not a good sign.
By the time we approached Dahuk, night had fallen. I listened to the boom of Iraqi artillery as flashes of light from the tracer rounds crossed the sky. Just outside the city we passed a rocky escarpment, and, all of a sudden, the night air was white and smoky. A phosphorous shell had exploded on the road a few seconds before. Karim veered sharply to avoid the fire and smoke.
Inside the city's administration building, I found Jalal Talabani discussing rule of law and minority rights with about seventy city leaders. A teacher asked what would happen to the collaborators with Saddam's regime, making clear his preference for a peremptory approach to justice. Talabani insisted that there had to be a fair trial. An Assyrian asked about religious rights. Talabani replied that the protection of minority religions was an essential part of the program of the Iraqi Kurdistan Front. The back and forth reminded me more of a Vermont town meeting than anything in the Iraq I knew, and as the audience became more engaged -- it was surely the first time they had ever been able to question a leader -- I wondered if I was the only one also hearing the rumble of Iraqi artillery.
Talabani invited me to speak. Perhaps a bit grandiosely, I recalled Woodrow Wilson's promise to the Kurds of their own state, and how pleased I was to be the first American official present on soil governed by the Kurds themselves. As I spoke I was aware that I had nothing concrete to offer these people who clearly were in a dire situation, but they seemed to appreciate my remarks just the same.
After the meeting, we went for dinner to the home of Lizginn Hamzani, a jash commander who had switched sides to support the uprising. We were joined by Sami Abdul Rahman, back in Dahuk for the first time in years; Yacoub Yousif, an Assyrian leader; and Ahmed Barmani, a Kurdish political leader originally from the nearby town of Barmani. Hero Talabani, Jalal's wife, was the only woman present. She had left her young sons with family in London to spend years in remote Kurdistan valleys where she endured the hardships of the peshmerga while assembling -- in her head, on paper, and in photographs -- a record of Iraq's crimes against the Kurds. I was fascinated and horrified by her detailed accounts of Iraqi atrocities. The proximity of the Iraqi Army gave these reports, which included much new information she had gathered since the uprising, an immediacy.
As we dined on a whole lamb, chicken, and an enormous fish, the shelling intensified. In an effort to be reassuring, Ahmed Barmani would tell me that a particular round was Kurdish counterfire, although, in fact, the Kurds had no artillery. At one stage, Hero and I had a discussion of the difficulty of photographing artillery attacks. Yacoub Yousif wanted to take me to Easter Mass in an ancient Assyrian church that had been closed by the regime and reopened after the uprising. As the shelling increased, the Mass kept being postponed, and it was never held.
Jalal Talabani took me upstairs to a child's room to discuss how to respond to an invitation from Saddam to negotiate. "If we have hope for outside help, we will never negotiate. If there is no hope, we cannot refuse to negotiate." I knew that for the Kurds to open a dialogue with Saddam would damage their reputation in the United States, but I could hardly disagree with his assessment. I could see no help on its way.
Well after midnight we left Hamzani's house for another part of Dahuk to spend the night. At 6:15, Ahmed Barmani woke me, softly asking if I was ready to go. A minute later, I was outside in the early morning drizzle. The uprising had collapsed and Iraqi troops were moving into the city. We sped north in our Land Cruisers, passing shuttered shops and empty streets. Once we got on the road to the mountains, the outlines of the catastrophe overtaking the Kurds emerged.
Along the side of the roads, refugees walked alone -- or in small family groups. The walkers could carry only enough food for a day or two. Those lucky enough to have a car and gasoline stuffed as many family members as possible inside. Some even rode in the open trunk. Higher in the mountains, the trek was still an adventure for children who I saw playing among the wildflowers of an early Kurdish spring. A week later, some of these same children would die from diarrhea and exposure on the stony mountainsides of the border with Turkey.
I felt for Talabani and his colleagues. While the uprising had begun spontaneously, the Kurdistan political parties had moved quickly to take control. While the Bush Administration's repeated snubs ought to have alerted the Kurdish leaders as to how they were seen in Washington, they had continued to have a blind faith in the goodness of the United States and its leaders. They had thought President Bush meant it when he called on the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Now the illusions were stripped away. The Kurdish leaders faced the final destruction of the Kurdistan revolution, and the possible obliteration of the Kurdish people in Iraq. On that Easter Sunday, no one imagined that the refugees fleeing to the mountains would return.
At Amadiya, a Christian town spectacularly situated on a tabletop mountain, Talabani and I said goodbye. He headed toward the Iranian border, while I had no choice but to try to return to Syria. Mohid, a young peshmerga who spoke reasonable English, was assigned to take me to Qameshli. East of Zakho, we passed one of Saddam's "Victory Cities," the quasi-concentration camps where Kurdish villagers had been forcibly relocated. I asked to stop. It was as grim as the places Haywood Rankin and I had seen being constructed in Eastern Kurdistan four years before. The inhabitants were now free, but they had nothing. As I walked around on the rutted and muddy streets, I came across a group of men carrying a fifty-kilo grain bag. It was grain that had been treated to be rat poison. The men planned to wash it in the hopes of making it edible.
Our original plan was to stay in Zakho until night, and then cross the Tigris under the cover of darkness. But with the Iraqis having taken Dahuk, further south, early that morning, panic was spreading in Zakho. Not knowing exactly how soon the Iraqi Army would arrive, Mohid decided we could not wait. But even in these circumstances, Kurdish hospitality trumped other considerations. Before we headed to the river, Mohid arranged a multidish lunch which we ate sitting cross-legged on a plastic tablecloth in the home of a local resident. (Our host acted as if he had all the time in the world, but he probably headed for the mountains shortly after we left. Feeding both peshmerga and an American would have marked him especially for retribution.)
Back at the Tigris, the shelling was much worse than the day before. We sprinted through reeds to a sandbagged position on the river's gravelly edge. My peshmerga companions stood guard while I lay on the ground. When they heard the mortar blast, they ducked down on top of me. Afterward, we all stood up, and I filmed the plume with my Sony video camera. The peshmerga shouted repeatedly for the boatman to come from the Syrian side to pick me up, but he was obviously reluctant, and for good reason. Iraqi artillery had found the range, and several mortars landed in the river not far from the boat. Mine was the last crossing. A sniper shot the boatman in the head on his next attempt.
In Damascus on April 1, I stopped in to see Tony Touma, a Syrian Christian working for ABC's Damascus bureau whose expertise and contacts were legendary. When I mentioned that I had home video of the uprising's collapse, an ABC engineer asked to see it. I overheard the engineers critique my camera work as they ran it through their dubbing machine (it was only the second time I had used a video camera) but then they asked if they could send it to New York. That evening my footage from Iraq led the ABC Evening News. Peter Jennings did an on-camera interview from New York in which I described the humanitarian catastrophe overtaking the Kurds. At 4 A.M. Damascus time, ABC in New York woke me at the Damascus Sheraton to ask if I would narrate my film for Nightline. That evening Ted Koppel concluded his broadcast with a five-minute segment from my film.
I had violated a cardinal rule of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: staff should never be quoted in the press. But I was the only Westerner who had actually gotten out of Kurdistan by April 1. Hundreds of thousands of lives were at risk. I also felt an obligation to those who had gotten me out of Iraq alive, at considerable risk to their lives. Also, as it happened, the committee chairman, Claiborne Pell, was in Albania, a country possibly more cut off from the world than rebel-held Kurdistan. I knew it would be a while before I faced the music.
I responded to every media request. From Jerusalem a few days later, I was a guest on another Nightline, this time with conservative commentator George Will and Republican Senator Alfonse D'Amato. I could no longer contain my outrage. I asked, rhetorically, how George Bush, who had compared Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler, could now allow a new holocaust while American troops were on Iraqi soil. George Will, in the uncomfortable position of defending the Administration, expressed amazement at my language but D'Amato cheered me on. Afterward, a producer asked incredulously if I still worked for the U.S. government. I later received letters from viewers all over the United States who had watched the broadcast and shared my anger.
Over the next week, 500,000 Kurds walked across the mountain range that divides Turkey from Iraq, setting up camp on the steep mountains on the Turkish side. Without shelter or food in chilling rain, they began to die by the hundreds. President Ozal refused to let them further into Turkey, but he did make a decision that would reshape the Middle East. He allowed television cameras to film the suffering. The CNN effect was born.
Televised images of Kurdish men burying the small wrapped corpses of their children were contrasted with the president on vacation fishing in Florida. It became too much -- first for Ozal, then for British Prime Minister John Major (America's most important coalition partner), and lastly for President Bush. After flailing for a solution, Bush ordered U.S. troops into northern Iraq to secure a safe area for the Kurds. The cowed Iraqi Army complied with a U.S. order to withdraw from a triangle formed by Zakho, Dahuk, and Amadiya. Not long after, the United States declared a "no-fly" zone at the 36th parallel and northward from which all Iraqi aircraft were prohibited. American and British aircraft patrolled the zone for twelve years, up until the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Refugees streamed home in a matter of days, most of them bypassing a reception and feeding center set by the U.S. Army in a grassy field east of Zakho. The United States and its allies now protected the same area in Dahuk Governorate that Saddam had gassed in his final offensive in August 1988.
In Kurdistan's east, Iraqi forces took Kirkuk on March 28, Erbil on March 30, and Suleimania on April 3. But as an Iraqi tank column headed north from Erbil, a peshmerga force attacked it in a narrow pass near the village of Kore. The Kurds destroyed the three lead tanks and the column retreated. Just east of Suleimania, the peshmerga stopped the Iraqi Army on Aznar Mountain, which overlooks the city. This left a vast territory in the east in Kurdish hands. Connected to the American-protected safe area by treacherous mountain roads, the eastern valleys and the Dahuk Governorate became the nucleus of a self-governing Kurdistan. In September 1991, Saddam Hussein abruptly withdrew the Iraqi Army and civil administration from the main Kurdistan cities of Erbil and Suleimania, and imposed an internal blockade. Without funding from Baghdad, Saddam expected the Kurdistan administration would collapse, paving the way for the restoration of central government authority. But for the Kurds, there was no privation that was not preferable to resumed control from Baghdad.
Copyright 2006 by Peter W. Galbraith
Excerpted from The End of Iraq by Peter W. Galbraith Copyright © 2006 by Peter W. Galbraith. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Peter W. Galbraith served as the first U.S. Ambassador to Croatia. He is currently the Senior Diplomatic Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books. He lives in Townshend, Vermont.
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