Ten years after Coalition forces invaded Iraq, Iraqis still live with daily violence and a leader who continues to increase his grip on power. How did it turn out this way?
A BBC documentary to be shown on UK television tonight tries to answer this question, examining the final days of the Iraq War. It focuses on the Coalition’s attempts from 2006 onwards to end the civil war, and to reach a strategic and political solution that would enable them to withdraw from the country.
The third and final episode of a mini-series on the Iraq War, the film was previewed at the IISS on Monday, and features interviews with key decision-makers including Tony Blair, then-UK foreign secretary Jack Straw, current Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, and members of the UK and US armed forces, who recall their attempts to respond to the escalating civil war. It reveals how measures taken to strengthen Maliki politically in an effort to stop the violence have now enabled him to rule in an increasingly authoritarian manner.
‘Our aim was to find out what exactly happened, not to point the finger at anyone,’ said Norma Percy, the series producer, when she introduced the film. The screening was followed by a question-and-answer session with Percy, series director David Alter, Toby Dodge, IISS Consulting Senior Fellow for the Middle East, and Dina Esfandiary, Research Associate, Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme.
Toby Dodge was asked how Maliki changed from a weak political candidate into a ‘shadow’ of Iraq’s former dictator Saddam Hussein. Dodge – who recently published an Adelphi book on the subject – believed the answer lay not so much in Maliki’s personal characteristics, but in the unique circumstances that provided the ideal ‘structural conditions’ for Maliki to consolidate power: the structure of the Iraqi state, a strong army and the exploitation of sectarian divides within Iraqi society.
The documentary recounts how some of these factors were put in place. In 2006, Iraq was sliding towards civil war. Iraq’s prime minister at the time, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, seemed to lack, in Tony Blair’s words, the ‘executive capacity’ to make necessary changes. As a result, said Jack Straw, ‘Condi and I thought it was time … to pay Dr Jaafari a fraternal visit.’ Straw recalls how he and then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice persuaded Jaafari to step down and allow his second-in-command, Maliki, to take over.
In the face of worsening sectarian violence and al-Qaeda’s attempts to destabilise the country, the US felt it had no choice but to back Maliki, even though he was an ‘unknown quantity’. Though he also seemed politically weak at first, as time went on he became increasingly bold, exploiting sectarian fears to justify his own violence toward perceived enemies.
President George W. Bush’s last throw of the dice was the ‘surge’, sending 20,000 more troops into Iraq in 2007. This played a central role in vanquishing both al-Qaeda in Baghdad and Maliki’s Shia opponents, led by Moqtada al-Sadr, in Basra. Maliki used these US-backed strategic victories, Dodge explained after the screening, to ‘stamp his authority’ on the country. The US also helped build up what is now a million-strong Iraqi army that Maliki has brought under his control, along with the police and intelligence services. Since the departure of most US forces in 2011, Maliki has continued to dismantle Iraq’s democracy, expelling international journalists and arresting those he deems a threat.
The question-and-answer session touched upon the difficulties of telling the immensely complex story of the Iraq War within three hour-long episodes. The producers explained they had to choose some stories over others, and were also limited by who was prepared to tell them their side of the story.
However, the IISS’s Ben Barry congratulated the producers for allowing those involved to be ‘judged by their own words’ and for showing ‘the contradiction between words and events’. The latter was striking, and underlined the stark contradiction between the US’ expectations for the invasion and present realities.
Dina Esfandiary answered questions about the relationship between Maliki and Tehran in the context of other sectarian conflicts in the region, especially Syria. ‘I do think that what is going on in the region will impact the course of this relationship,’ she said. Just how remains to be seen, however: ‘To this day, neither is in control of the relationship.’
Towards the documentary’s conclusion, footage is shown from a December 2008 press conference in Iraq. The footage shows Bush, flanked by Maliki, announcing that the surge had succeeded and that US forces would begin withdrawing in 2011, before he dodges a shoe thrown at his head by an Iraqi journalist. The camera rests on Bush’s reaction, with the narrator commenting that: ‘Bush left Iraq as he had come in – not quite understanding the country he had liberated.’