Historians would later record how Secretary of State Colin Powell prevailed in a key Cabinet meeting in early 2003, when he refused to go before the United Nations because he lacked proof that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
“What if the U.N. inspections have actually worked, Mr. President?” he asked. “It would be a disaster if we invade and then can’t find anything.”
A reluctant George W. Bush agreed, maintaining the no-fly zones and other pressure but postponing the invasion. Saddam Hussein kept his crowing to a minimum, recognizing his narrow escape. What’s more, he had other problems....
Despite the obsequious yes-men around him, Saddam was still cunning enough to maintain back channel intelligence sources who told him at least part of the truth. He heard that unrest among the Shi’a majority continued to grow, despite the repression, and there were even grumblings from the Sunni. His regime had always depended on huge amounts of oil money to pay off the people with public works and populist health and education spending, and to also finance a giant network of informers.
But Iraq’s oil earnings were way down, due partly to deteriorating infrastructure and a stubbornly low world price. Saddam had invaded Kuwait in 1990 mainly for financial reasons, but that gambit failed. Iraq was cheating on the U.N.’s oil-for-food program, but he still was not getting enough income to maintain his system.
So in late 2003, when the first uprisings broke out in the south, the Iraqi army, with aging equipment and low morale, was slow to respond. The revolt spread to Saddam City right in Baghdad itself, which the Shi’a majority there had already started called Sadr City in honor of one of their martyrs. Hundreds were killed, but just as in the uprisings against the hated Shah in nearby Iran a quarter-century earlier, the deaths only inspired even more resistance.
After 6 months or so, the Sunni tribal sheikhs northwest of Baghdad recognized Saddam was losing control, which jeopardized their privileged position within the system. Their efforts to persuade him to leave peacefully failed, in part because no country could be found to accept him and his family into exile. So eventually, some of the Sunni generals staged a coup, killing him and many of his immediate entourage.
Yet violence only got worse. Armed militias formed from various religious and tribal groupings, and waged a horrible civil war, characterized by widespread torture and murder. The violence looked anarchic, or atavistically religious, but there was actually a grim but understandable logic to it. At bottom, the armed groups were fighting over access to Iraq’s oil wealth.
As the death toll climbed, commentators in the shocked outside world deplored “the flaws within Arab and Muslim culture“ and cited passages from the Koran they said explained the violence. But genuine scholars reminded the public that 620,000 people had died in the American Civil War itself, and that after the war was over white people in the U.S. south had lynched thousands more, most of them black, to restore and maintain white political control. Others added that Europe in the 20th century also had plenty to answer for with respect to war and mass murder.
At least there were no American occupation troops in Iraq to make the violence even worse. General David Petraeus, a brainy but little known lecturer at the National War College, pointed out in an Op-Ed piece: “Foreign soldiers can become a big part of the problem. Most of the local people reject their presence, and some start to attack them. The armed factions try and manipulate the occupiers into taking sides, which inflames and prolongs the conflict. Money from outside is also an incentive to keep fighting – just imagine if we had flooded Iraq with many millions of dollars! We Americans are lucky our far-sighted president kept us out.”
Without the complication of foreign troops and financial support, it only took the Iraqis a couple of years of fighting to realize they had to compromise. The warfare had cut off just about all oil exports, and the leaders of the various factions understood that they needed peace to get back to business. The negotiations were lengthy and painful. Certain injustices, such as the increased Sunni-Shi’a residential segregation in Baghdad, were ratified, at least provisionally, over the heated objection of Iraqi human rights groups.
By the middle of 2007, a working coalition government was in power in Baghdad. Violence continued, but at a much lower level. General Petraeus published another opinion piece. “The violence in Iraq in recent years has been horrible,” he wrote. “But with a U.S. invasion it might be still continuing – until 2010, or even longer, hard as that may be to imagine.”