The Struggle for Iraq is a vivid personal account of the Iraqi people’s fight for democracy and justice by an American political scientist. Thomas M. Renahan arrived in southern Iraq just three days before the capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Later he worked in Baghdad through the dark days of the country’s sectarian violence and then in Iraqi Kurdistan. One of the few Americans to serve in all three major regions of Iraq, he spearheaded projects to develop democratic institutions, promote democracy and elections, and fight corruption. With inside accounts of two USAID projects and of a Kurdish government ministry, this engrossing and cautionary story highlights efforts to turn Baathist Iraq into a democratic country. Renahan examines the challenges faced by the Iraqi people and international development staff during this turbulent time, revealing both their successes and frustrations. Drawing on his on-the-ground civilian perspective, Renahan recounts how expatriate staff handled the hardships and dangers as well as the elaborate security required to protect them, how Iraqi staff coped with the personal security risks of working for Coalition organizations, and the street-level mayhem and violence, including the assassinations of close Iraqi friends. Although Iraq remains in crisis, it has largely defeated the ISIS terrorists who seized much of the country in 2014. Renahan emphasizes, however, that reconciliation is still the end game in Iraq. In the concluding chapters he explains how the United States can support this process and help resolve the complex problems between the Iraqi government and the independence-minded Kurds, offering hope for the future.
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About the Author
Thomas M. Renahan is a political scientist, public administrator, and international development consultant. He is coeditor of the Iraq- and ISIS-focused Daesh Daily newsletter.
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The Struggle for Iraq
A View from the Ground Up
By Thomas M. Renahan
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2017 Thomas M. Renahan
All rights reserved.
An American Advisor in the New Iraq
Down by the River
Welcome to Iraq
It all started with a newspaper story. In mid-2003, shortly after the American-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein, a front-page Washington Post story announced a local governance assistance project for Iraq. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) had awarded the contract to RTI International of North Carolina. I had extensive experience in local government. I applied without waiting for an announcement.
After several months' delay, I was hired by an RTI subcontractor, the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA), of which I was a longtime member. The delay gave me just enough time for a thyroid cancer operation that saved my life. At RTI's excellent three-day training program in North Carolina, the opening statement was "Never trust anyone in Iraq." I was assigned to Amarah, a southern Iraq city near Iran.
My decision to go to Iraq met two contrasting responses. One, from my pastor and others, was "What a great opportunity!" The other, often preceded by a puzzled expression, was some version of "You must be nuts!"
Although my education was internationally oriented, including a master's degree in Asian Studies, I had never worked abroad or served in the military or studied the Middle East or the Arabic language. None of that concerned me, as I was a political scientist with a PhD and had spent my career in government-related work, including city management and managing federal projects for contract firms. I had also served for years in civic and community organizations.
Going to Iraq reflected my career commitment to public service and my Christian social commitments. That's not usually a path to affluence, and USAID-approved salaries are based on recent earnings, presumably making me one of the lower-paid project staff despite my career experience. As money was never my goal in life, I had no issue with that. Moreover, we had a six-day week, to match the Iraq workweek (with Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, off), and were paid for the extra day. Like U.S. government personnel in Iraq, we got large add-ons for hardship pay and, ominously, danger pay. That didn't influence my decision to go but was one reason some were willing to work in Iraq. Countless others refused to go there at any price.
As for the risk, I considered several factors. I was long divorced, and my only child, Lisa, was an adult with her own family. The job came with substantial life insurance, which would pay my obligations if the worst happened to me. I was already sixty-two.
And so it was that on December 8, 2003, I landed in Kuwait, just south of southeastern Iraq. After a long transatlantic flight and a long connection from Europe, I arrived at RTI's Kuwait office a bit tired but eager to get started. The pleasant downtown and thriving modern commercial scene offered sharp contrasts to what awaited me on the other side of the border.
Two restful days later I was squeezed into a heavily loaded vehicle convoy. It rolled up the highway to the Iraqi border about sixty miles (one hundred kilometers) away, where we presented our U.S. passports at a dusty border post and were met on the Iraq side by an RTI security team for an escorted convoy to Basra, southern Iraq's major city and Iraq's second most important city. RTI's still-in-progress South Region offices there were co-located with its Basra provincial team behind extremely high walls and constant security.
Among others on board was Jabir Algarawi, an Iraqi American real estate agent from Arizona, returning to help his native country, where his family still lived. He had escaped Iraq in 1991 after joining the failed rebellion against Saddam, walking for days to reach the Saudi Arabia border. Jabir also had another unusual distinction: a significant acting role in a 1999 Gulf War–themed movie with George Clooney called Three Kings. Jabir became a good friend who helped offset my lack of familiarity with the natives.
The next day, after sleeping on the floor for lack of beds, Jabir and I took another convoy, headed for Amarah, the capital of Maysan Governorate. As we drove through Basra, a fast-growing city of 1 million people by United Nations (UN) estimate and 1.5 million by British estimate, the bustling street scene seemed promising, despite decades of decline under Saddam, but was overwhelmed by poor and marginalized people. It is a Shia Muslim city but also has a Sunni Muslim minority (including some who had positions or elevated status under Saddam), and Christians (some prominent in business). Basra had been a city favored by foreigners — more cosmopolitan, diverse, and tolerant than other Iraqi cities — the kind of place where you could buy a drink.
Amarah is about two hours north of Basra, or an hour and a half at convoy speeds. Security people had figured out that a really fast-moving vehicle is harder for armed bad guys to hit. Other road hazards included the donkey carts, seemingly accorded the status of vehicles; overloaded pickup trucks; the fast-rising number of imported cars; and Iraqis' myriad carefree and unsafe driving practices (straddling lanes, to name one). There were apparently no rules of the road and no driving instructors either.
Pulling away from Basra toward the countryside, the view for mile after mile was a bleak arid landscape interrupted by settlements of crude homes. Green space gradually increased. Shepherds, including children, walked with small herds, and cattle grazed near the road. There were occasional agricultural plots. Maysan is mostly rural and agricultural, but its dominant economic sector is oil. About 70 percent of Iraq's oil came from southern Iraq. It was clear from my passing observation, however, that oil had not brought the region's people out of poverty.
As the convoy pulled into Amarah, we got the first glimpse of our new home city on the Tigris River. It was densely settled, with mostly run-down brick buildings, people moving in all directions, and a lot of children, reflecting the typically large Iraqi families.
RTI was at the end of a dirt path, separated from the Tigris by a narrow road. Iraqi security guards admitted our convoy through a locked gate. We were eagerly welcomed into a moderately attractive five-building compound called "the villas." It had a high wall all around, though not nearly as high or reassuring as the one in Basra. Just across the river was Amarah's main commercial area, where the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and Maysan government had their offices. I would be spending a lot of time across the river.
From the moment we exited the vehicle, we saw a flurry of activity. RTI-Amarah, like RTI-Basra, was a work in progress. Only Building 1 by the main gate had been in use, and it was really cramped. Everyone was working, eating, socializing, and sleeping in one small house. Jabir and I became the first residents of Building 2 just down the walkway. The hardship-level bathroom featured yellow shower water — a mixed blessing from the Tigris.
My orientation to Iraqi customs began immediately. That very night gunfire broke out. Startled, I demanded to know "What is that?" Not to worry, I was told. "It's Thursday night — wedding night. People always fire their rifles into the air at weddings."
The Civilian Coalition in Maysan
Building 2 soon had more bedrooms, a kitchen and nice dining room served by a cook and kitchen crew, and a cleaning crew. We already had drivers, maintenance men, and enough security men to guard the entire perimeter 24/7. All made wages trivial by our standards but higher than most of Amarah and were happy to escape its pervasive unemployment.
The master of this emerging domain was Ahmed Al-Harazi, a Yemeni now from New York. He had arrived in August, with a water engineer and one security man. Al-Harazi had a master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania but also an intuitive skill at dealing with the natives in their own language. Despite his clashing cultural identities, "the Yemeni tribesman from New York City" smoothly bridged the differences.
Ahmed was supported by Yuen Huang, a Californian and former Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia. His sharp management skills, some learned at the former Arthur Andersen consulting firm doomed by the Enron scandal, offset the lack of an operations officer. Engineer Nicholas Adrien, a Haitian from Miami, was coordinating engineering work for reconstruction projects projected to cost tens of millions of dollars. Amarah was a long-neglected mess.
We were officially the Local Governance Program (LGP), but our short-term focus was mainly on the provinces, called "governorates" (a really ugly word in English). Local government units in Iraq are districts (qadha in Arabic), divided into subdistricts (nahiya), but all were administrative units of the national government in the absurdly overcentralized Iraq system. Local councils were almost powerless and were not democratically elected and in some places were self-appointed or controlled by tribal sheikhs. It was an easy decision, as a former city manager, to favor local self-government. John Doane of the Basra team, another former Maryland city manager and a previous acquaintance, had already drafted a decentralization plan.
Maysan was in the British military zone and the regional coordinator a British diplomat, but the CPA-Maysan civilian staff was a mix of Brits and Yanks, while CPA-Basra reflected many nationalities. Other Coalition countries in the four-province South Region included Italy, responsible militarily for Dhi Qar Province, and The Netherlands, responsible for Muthanna, where Japan had a contingent of 600 military engineers. Japan also contributed major sums to reconstruction projects. Denmark had a large number of civilians in Basra making a major contribution. The United States had recruited many nations for the Coalition, in part to counter international criticism of the invasion, and seventeen had joined up, many in minor roles. RTI teams included many non-Americans, and our South Region coordinator was an Australian, Ross Worthington. On the ground there really was an international coalition in Iraq.
Maysan reflected the historical tendency of Iraq's population centers to develop along the rivers. Amarah's 337,000 people were 45 percent of Maysan's 741,000. Straight north along the Tigris were Kumait (39,000), Ali Al-Sharqi (18,000), and Ali Al-Gharbi (23,000). To the south were Majar Al-Kebir (80,000) and Qalat Salih (41,000), both with problem reputations, especially Majar, ungovernable even for Saddam. Others included Maymouna to the west and Al-Kahla to the south, plus about three hundred small villages.
CPA-Maysan held weekly NGO (nongovernmental organization) coordination meetings on Saturdays, and I attended my first one two days after I arrived. The NGOs included foreign NGOs with established reputations and Iraqi NGOs too new to have any reputation.
Foreign NGOs had an important role in the civilian coalition. Most prominent NGOs in Maysan were British. The Salvation Army (big in America but founded in England) was renovating schools and other facilities; Mine Tech was removing land mines and other unexploded munitions; Ockenden International was registering and helping thousands of returnees from Iran; the Mercy Corps (U.S.) was working on schools and health care facilities, as was the Czech group People in Need, which had selected Maysan as the province most in need.
There were about fifteen Iraqi NGOs, several represented at the meetings, showing that even in conservative Maysan people were trying to promote change and help others. Most were without resources, and some hoped to get a contract from the CPA or RTI, as a few did.
One idea I brought to Iraq was using television to convey democracy messages to the general public. One impressive and handsome young man at the first NGO meeting caught my attention as a possible spokesman. Haider Al-Maliki had cofounded one of the Iraqi NGOs, the Iraqi Society for Change, though he was only twenty-four. As the main English-Arabic interpreter for these meetings, he skillfully and effortlessly interpreted between people on opposite sides of the room from anywhere in the room.
The Bitter Legacy of Saddam
Sunday, December 14 — just three days after my arrival. Suddenly, widespread gunfire broke out. I was again startled — but it was happy gunfire. People had just learned that Saddam had been captured! The celebratory firing went on for hours. It seemed to me that every household in Amarah owned a gun and an inexhaustible supply of ammo. Similar barrages erupted in Basra and other cities.
This was not just a spontaneous celebration, however. It was a deeply felt reaction to the misery Saddam had inflicted on his own people for over three decades. Understanding this emotional outpouring is a key to understanding the post-invasion struggle for Iraq. Saddam's bitter legacy is our first "story behind the story." Count all the dead people and their miserable survivors.
The story behind the story. First, there was the horrible impact of Saddam's military adventures. Just a year after seizing full power in 1979, he launched his war against the new Islamic regime in Iran. It lasted from 1980 to 1988, and its often ghastly violence killed at least several hundred thousand people, making it one of the deadliest wars in history, and produced enormous damage in both countries. Iraq has never fully recovered. Basra and Maysan Provinces were especially hard-hit, as most of the fighting within Iraq occurred there. Tens of thousands of families were shattered and often made destitute by losing their men in the war.
Thousands of Marsh Arabs, culturally distinct people inhabiting a large rural area between Amarah and Basra, fled into Iran, and some joined a military division there, the Badr Brigades, which fought on the Iranian side. At times during the war Saddam launched attacks against his own people. His worst was the 1988 Anfal genocide against the Kurds in the North, punishment for their support of Iran during much of the war. The Anfal campaign killed between 60,000 and 80,000 people, including more than 5,000 in the infamous March 1988 poison gas attack on Halabja, near the Iranian border, a city I would later visit. Over 100,000 Kurds fled to Iran and others to Turkey.
In August 1990, just two years after the Iran-Iraq War ended, Saddam's troops invaded Kuwait, quickly overran much of it, and captured Kuwait City. The U.S.-led coalition, organized by President George H. W. Bush, drove the Iraqis out in about three months and killed at least 20,000 to 25,000 Iraqis, including between 2,000 and 3,000 civilians.
Bush then urged Iraqis to overthrow Saddam but sent no help. The largely spontaneous March 1991 uprising at first succeeded throughout southern Iraq, then was crushed. Another 30,000 to 60,000 people were killed, maybe more; some were just massacred. Tens of thousands escaped to Iran. Jabir Algarawi was one of 50,000 who escaped to Saudi Arabia. By 2003 Bush's mixed message was twelve years past, and its deadly consequences still reverberated in southern Iraq, where many Iraqis still called it a betrayal (and many still do).
Saddam's army retaliated especially against the Marsh Arabs, attacking the historic but ecologically fragile marsh areas with bombs, troops, and house burnings, and executing many. He then ordered the marshes drained, which turned one thousand square miles into desert; displaced about 200,000 people, close to 90 percent of the population; and destroyed a way of life built around fishing, farming, and livestock raising.
A simultaneous uprising in the Kurdish north also had early success but was then overwhelmed. The peshmerga guerrillas and a high percentage of the population evacuated their cities and villages and fled into the mountains, where thousands died from impossible living conditions, and a half million fled into Iran and Turkey. The United States responded by imposing a no-fly zone, which grounded Saddam's helicopter gunships. The operation enabled the rebels to regain control of most of Iraqi Kurdistan and establish two autonomous governments, a historic development.
Saddam's wars imposed a huge financial burden on the country. United Nations economic sanctions, imposed right after the Kuwait invasion, continued to the end of his regime in 2003. Until 1999 Iraq was prevented from selling much of its oil, which had generated well over 90 percent of its revenues. The sanctions had a deadly effect on Iraq's economy and health care system, adding greatly to people's misery, and led to the deaths of thousands more.
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Table of Contents
List of Maps List of Abbreviations Introduction: Iraq from the Ground Up Part 1. Southern Iraq 1. An American Advisor in the New Iraq 2. The Campaign for Democracy 3. Democracy and the Culture of Violence 4. Bottoming Out Part 2. Baghdad and Beyond 5. “Welcome Back to Your Country” 6. Islam and Democracy in the New Iraq 7. The Struggle to Reduce Corruption 8. Extending the Anti-Corruption Struggle to the National Level 9. The Struggle for Human Rights 10. The Struggle to Protect Civil Society Organizations 11. The Personal Meaning of Terrorism 12. The Day the Music Died 13. Sinking Your Own Ship 14. The Instinct to Control 15. USAID and Lessons Learned in Iraq Part 3. Kurdistan from the Inside 16. The Kurds—Red, White, and Blue and Shades of Gray 17. A Ministry from the Ground Up 18. Reforming a Ministry—Starting Low, Aiming High Part 4. America and the Future of Iraq 19. Picking Up the Pieces in a Shattered Country 20. Winning the Endgame in Iraq 21. Drawing Lines in the Sand 22. The American from Iraq Acknowledgments Notes Glossary Bibliography Index