Iraq, a war foretold

The gap between the invaders' expectations and the reality that emerged in Iraq was immense. But even as the ground war opened on 20 March 2003, there were clear indications of the carnage to come.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
22 March 2013

The night of 19-20 March 2003 marked the beginning of the Iraq war, whose early days were marked by a series of intense bombing-raids and missile-attacks on key command-and control-centres across Baghdad. This was the long promised, and dreaded, intensive “shock-and-awe” campaign. The ground war almost immediately followed on 20 March, with United States and British forces crossing into southern Iraq. The next three weeks saw rapid movement by the US army and marine corps along the course of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers until they reached Baghdad itself.

American forces were in control of most of Baghdad by the second week of April. Saddam Hussein's statue in the centre of the city was pulled down by military engineers on 9 April, and the invaders moved further north towards the Iraqi leader's home town of Tikrit. There had already been reports of looting and lawlessness, especially in the capital, but the overriding sense was that key aims had been achieved and the regime was finished. Few took seriously the claim of the Iraqi information minister  Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf  (widely mocked as “Comical Ali”) that “We will bury you”. 

True, the anticipated flower-waving, cheering and welcoming crowds had not materialised on the streets, even in the Shi'a heartland of Basra. But by 1 May 2003, President George W Bush was sufficiently confident to make a speech from the flight-deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln behind a banner that announced “mission accomplished”. The aftermath of war would be short; plans were already being made to instal US bases across Iraq; and there was every confidence that the country would transition smoothly to a pro-western free-market economy presided over by a "Coalition Provisional Authority" answerable not to the  state department but to the Pentagon.

Behind the lines

The contrast between such expectations and the reality that evolved was huge. It can be measured, for example, in the appalling human costs. Iraq Body Count's report, The War in Iraq: 10 Years and Counting (19 March 2013) records the death of over 6,700 civilians in those first three weeks - more than double the losses in the 9/11 attacks. IBC's meticulous approach finds a maximum of 122,438 deaths over the whole ten-year period, though this number is being supplemented by WikiLeaks's "Iraq War Logs" which show a further 11,500 civilian as well as 39,900 combatant deaths. The total of 174,000 killed to date is complemented by figures from Iraq's ministry of health concluding that 250,000 people were seriously injured.

Several analyses published on the eve of the war or in its very early stages predicted high civilian casualties, an insurgency and a rise in anti-Americanism (see, for example, "Iraq: Consequences of a War", Oxford Research Group, 1 October 2002). Some contemporaneous reports contained a signal of what would become serious problems.

Here is a description what happened just after the US-British entry into Iraq from Kuwait: 

"The first indication of the unexpected nature of the war with Iraq came just a few hours into the ground invasion. At about 05.30 (London time) on 21 March, the BBC's 24-hour news channel called up one of its correspondents, Adam Mynott, who was with a group of US soldiers as they crossed the border from Kuwait into Iraq.

Whereas other reports had indicated rapid progress of US and British troops, Mynott came on air breathless from having to take cover as the convoy he was with faced up to small arms and rocket attack from Iraqi forces. It was clearly unexpected, and gave the first indication that the Iraqi resistance to the invasion would be fierce” (see "The quicksand of war", 24 March 2003).

Such experiences notwithstanding, the initial optimism persisted. It was reported on 21 March that the Iraqi seaport of Umm Qasr had been taken with little resistance, though the claim proved short-lived and it took many days for the port to be finally cleared of defenders. This turned out to be a developing pattern: rapid advances by highly mobile and powerfully armed army and marines units towards Baghdad, while Iraqi paramilitary groups emerged from the background to start attacking supply-lines.  Most western media reported on the advances, and only intermittently did a handful of journalists begin to sketch a different and more complicated picture.

The latter included the New York Times's Bernard Weinraub. A few days into the war, he pointed to the unexpected capabilities and determination of numerous paramilitary groups that were already bearing the brunt of the fighting against the Americans: “Officers said that American military strategy had wrongly assumed that paramilitary forces would mainly remain in Baghdad - to fight the U.S. - and would stay underground in defensive positions…  But U.S. military officers said they were surprised by the brazenness and scale of the attacks. 'We did not expect them to attack,' one top army officer here said” (see “A Nation At War: Paramilitary; Army Failed To Anticipate The Attacks By Irregulars", New York Times, 26 March 2013).

Weinraub was told that some American officers were now realising that their vulnerability was the massive supply-chain required to support the movement north. The logistics were exposed; the resisting groups were likely to be well trained and motivated; and some assailants wore civilian clothes while covertly seeking opportunities to attack.

In the beginning

All this may seem unsurprising in retrospect, especially after the bitter insurgency that soon developed in Iraq. But this initial period can be regarded as more than just a "prelude" to what occurred later; for the sheer level of civilian deaths at the hands of the Americans' “shock and awe” in those first weeks may also have motivated many Iraqis to take up arms. In turn, it became all too easy for the overthrown regime's propagandists to present the conflict as a war against the people of Iraq.

A further, little noticed aspect of the time was that the troop-crossing from Kuwait into Iraq coincided with (and completely overshadowed) the start of a major military operation in Afghanistan. Amid simultaneous clear signs that a Taliban-led insurgency was rapidly evolving in parts of southeast Afghanistan, a thousand US soldiers were engaged in a campaign called Valiant Strike in the Samir Ghar mountains (see Jane Perlez, "1,000 Troops Raid Afghan Towns", New York Times, 20 March 2003).

Over the next years, 100,000 western troops were being deployed in occupied Iraq and tens of thousands more in Afghanistan. It was indeed all very different from the drawing-board plans. But perhaps most remarkable of all is that in Iraq and Afghanistan alike the signs were clearly there on 20 March 2003, the very day that the ground war in Iraq was launched.

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