The revenge of Saddam
The secret history of US mistakes that let former Iraqi dictator and his allies unleash an insurgency
By : Joe Klein - From Time Magazine
September 25, 2005
FIVE men met in an automobile in a Baghdad park a few weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime in April 2003, according to US intelligence sources. One of the five was Saddam. The other four were among his closest advisers.
The agenda: how to fight back against the US-led occupation of Iraq. A representative of Saddam’s former No 2, Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, was there. But the most intriguing man in the car may have been a retired general named Muhammad Yunis al-Ahmed, who had been a senior member of the Military Bureau, a secret Baath Party spy service. The bureau's job had been to keep an eye on the Iraqi military – and to organise Baathist resistance in the event of a coup. Now a US coup had taken place, and Saddam turned to al-Ahmed and the others and told them to start "rebuilding your networks".
The 45-minute meeting was pieced together months later by US military intelligence. It represents a rare moment of clarity in the dust storm of violence that swirls through central Iraq. The insurgency has grown well beyond its initial Baathist core to include religious extremist and Iraqi nationalist organisations, and plain old civilians who are angry at the American occupation. But Saddam’s message of "rebuilding your networks" remains the central organising principle.
More than two years into the war, US intelligence sources concede that they still don’t know enough about the nearly impenetrable web of what Iraqis call ahl al-thiqa (trust networks), which are at the heart of the insurgency. It’s an inchoate movement without a single inspirational leader like Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh – a movement whose primary goal is perhaps even more improbable than the US dream of creating an Iraqi democracy: restoring Sunni control in a country where Sunnis represent just 20% of the population.
Intelligence experts can’t credibly estimate the rebels’ numbers but say most are Iraqis. Foreigners account for perhaps 2% of the suspected guerrillas who have been captured or killed, although they represent the vast majority of suicide bombers. ("They are ordnance," a US intelligence official says.) The level of violence has been growing steadily. There have been roughly 80 attacks a day in recent weeks. Suicide bombs killed more than 200 people, mostly in Baghdad, during four days of carnage last week, among the deadliest since Saddam's fall.
More than a dozen current and former intelligence officers knowledgeable about Iraq spoke with TIME in recent weeks to share details about the conflict. They voiced their growing frustration with a war that they feel was not properly anticipated by the Bush administration, a war fought with insufficient resources, a war that almost all of them now believe is not winnable militarily.
"We’re good at fighting armies, but we don’t know how to do this," says a recently retired four-star general with Middle East experience. "We don’t have enough intelligence analysts working on this problem. The Defence Intelligence Agency [DIA] puts most of its emphasis and its assets on Iran, North Korea and China. The Iraqi insurgency is simply not top priority, and that's a damn shame." The intelligence officers stressed these points:
* They believe that Saddam’s inner circle – especially those from the Military Bureau – initially organised the insurgency’s support structure and that networks led by former Saddam associates like al-Ahmed and al-Duri still provide money and logistical help.
* The Bush administration’s fixation on finding weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in 2003 diverted precious intelligence resources that could have helped thwart the fledgling insurgency.
* >From the beginning of the insurgency, US military officers have tried to contact and negotiate with rebel leaders, including, as a senior Iraq expert puts it, "some of the people with blood on their hands".
* The frequent replacement of US military and administrative teams in Baghdad has made it difficult to develop a counter-insurgency strategy.
The accumulation of blunders has led a Pentagon guerrilla-warfare expert to conclude: "We are repeating every mistake we made in Vietnam."
IT IS no secret that General Tommy Franks didn’t want to hang around Iraq very long. As Franks led the US assault on Baghdad in April 2003, his goal – and that of Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld – was to get to the capital as quickly as possible with a minimal number of troops. Franks succeeded brilliantly at that task. But military-intelligence officers contend that he did not seem interested in what would come next. "He never once asked us for a briefing about what happened once we got to Baghdad," says a former Army intelligence officer attached to the invasion force. "He said, ‘It’s not my job.’ We figured all he wanted to do was get in, get out and write his book." (Franks, through a spokesman, declined to comment for this article.)
The rush to Baghdad, critics say, laid the groundwork for trouble to come. In one pre-war briefing, for example, Lieutenant General David McKiernan – who commanded the land component of the coalition forces – asked Franks what should be done if his troops found Iraqi arms caches on the way to Baghdad. "Just put a lock on ’em and go, Dave," Franks replied, according to a former US Central Command (Centcom) officer. Of course, you couldn’t simply put a lock on ammunition dumps that stretched for several square miles – dumps that would soon be stripped and provide a steady source of weaponry for the insurgency.
US troops entered Baghdad on 5 April. There was euphoria in the Pentagon. The looting in the streets of Baghdad and the continuing attacks on coalition troops were considered temporary phenomena that would soon subside. On 1 May, President George W. Bush announced, "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended," on the deck of an aircraft carrier, near a banner that read MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. Shortly thereafter, Franks moved his headquarters from Qatar back to Florida. He was followed there in June by McKiernan, whose Baghdad operation included several hundred intelligence officers who had been keeping track of the situation on the ground. "Allowing McKiernan to leave was the worst decision of the war," says one of his superiors. (The decision, he says, was Franks’.) "We replaced an operational force with a tactical force, which meant generals were replaced by colonels." Major General Ricardo Sanchez, a relatively junior commander and a recent arrival in Iraq, was put in charge. "After McKiernan left, we had fewer than 30 intelligence officers trying to figure who the enemy was," says a top-ranking military official who was in Iraq at the time. "We were starting from scratch, with practically no resources."
On 23 May, the US made what is generally regarded as a colossal mistake. L Paul Bremer – the newly arrived administrator of the US government presence, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) – disbanded the Iraqi army and civil service on Rumsfeld’s orders. "We made hundreds of thousands of people very angry at us," says a western diplomat attached to the CPA, "and they happened to be the people in the country best acquainted with the use of arms." Thousands moved directly into the insurgency?– not just soldiers but also civil servants who took with them useful knowledge of Iraq’s electrical grid and water and sewage systems. Bremer says he doesn’t regret that decision, according to his spokesman Dan Senor. "The Kurds and Shi’ites didn’t want Saddam’s army in business," says Senor, "and the army had gone home. We had bombed their barracks. How were we supposed to bring them back and separate out the bad guys? We didn’t even have enough troops to stop the looting in Baghdad."
A third decision in the spring of 2003 – to make the search for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) the highest intelligence priority – also hampered the US ability to fight the insurgents. In June, former weapons inspector David Kay arrived in Baghdad to lead the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), which had 1,200 intelligence officers and support staff members assigned to search for WMD. They had exclusive access to literally tons of documents collected from Saddam's office, intelligence services and ministries after the regime fell. Kay clashed repeatedly with US military leaders who wanted access not only to the documents but also to some of the resources – analysts, translators, field agents – at his disposal. "I was in meetings where [General John] Abizaid was pounding on the table trying to get some help," says a senior military officer. "But Kay wouldn’t budge." Indeed, a covert-intelligence officer working for the ISG told TIME correspondent Brian Bennett that he had been ordered in August 2003 to "terminate" contact with Iraqi sources not working on WMD. As a result, the officer says, he stopped meeting with a dozen Iraqis who were providing information – maps, photographs and addresses of former Baathist militants, safe houses and stockpiles of explosives – about the insurgency in the Mosul area.
"The President’s priority – and my mission – was to focus on WMD," Kay told TIME. "Abizaid needed help with the counterinsurgency. He said, ‘You have the only organisation in this country that’s working.’ But military guys are not used to people telling them no, and so, yes, there was friction." Sanchez learned that autumn that there were 38 boxes of documents specifically related to the city of Fallujah, a hotbed of Sunni rebellion. Months later, when military-intelligence officers finally were able to review some of the documents, many of which had been marked "No Intelligence Value", the officers found information that they now say could have helped the US stop the insurgency’s spread. Among the papers were detailed civil-defence plans for cities like Fallujah, Samarra and Ramadi and rosters of leaders and local Baathist militia who would later prove to be the backbone of the insurgency in those cities.
US military-intelligence sources say many of the documents still have not been translated or thoroughly analysed. "You should see the warehouse in Qatar where we have this stuff," said a high-ranking former US intelligence official. "We’ll never be able to get through it all. Who knows?" he added, with a laugh. "We may even find the VX [nerve gas] in one of those boxes."
AS early as June 2003, the CIA told Bush in a briefing that he faced a "classic insurgency" in Iraq. But the White House didn’t fully trust the CIA, and on 30 June, Rumsfeld told reporters: " I guess the reason I don’t use the term guerrilla war is that it isn’t ... anything like a guerrilla war or an organised resistance." The opposition, he claimed, was composed of "looters, criminals, remnants of the Baathist regime" and a few foreign fighters. Indeed, Rumsfeld could claim progress in finding and capturing most of the 55 top members of Saddam’s regime – the famous Iraqi deck of cards. (To date, 44 of the 55 have been captured or killed.) Two weeks after Rumsfeld’s comment, the Secretary of Defence was publicly contradicted by Centcom commander Abizaid, who said the US indeed faced "a classical guerrilla-type campaign" in Iraq.
In a sense, both Rumsfeld and Abizaid were right. The backbone of the insurgency was thousands of Baathist remnants organising a guerrilla war against the Americans. According to documents later seized by the US military, Saddam – who had been changing locations frequently until his capture in December 2003 – tried to stay in charge of the rebellion. He fired off frequent letters filled with instructions for his subordinates. Some were pathetic. In one, he explained guerrilla tradecraft to his inner circle – how to keep in touch with one another, how to establish new contacts, how to remain clandestine. Of course, the people doing the actual fighting needed no such advice, and decisions about whom to attack when and where were made by the cells. Saddam’s minions, including al-Duri and al-Ahmed, were away from the front lines, providing money, arms and logistical support for the cells.
But Saddam did make one strategic decision that helped alter the course of the insurgency. In early autumn he sent a letter to associates ordering them to change the target focus from coalition forces to Iraqi "collaborators" – that is, to attack Iraqi police stations. The insurgency had already announced its seriousness and lethal intent with a summer bombing campaign.
On 7 August, a bomb went off outside the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad, killing 19 people. Far more ominous was the 19 August blast that destroyed the UN’s headquarters in Baghdad, killing UN representative Sergio Vieira de Mello and 22 others. Although al-Qaeda leader Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the attack, US intelligence officials believe that remnants of Saddam's Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) carried it out. "It was a pure Baathist operation," says a senior US intelligence official. "The Iraqis who served as UN security guards simply didn’t show up for work that day. It wasn’t a suicide bomb. The truck driver left the scene. Our [explosives] team found that the bomb had the distinctive forensics of Saddam's IIS."
On 27 October, 2003, the assaults on "collaborators" that Saddam had requested began with attacks on four Iraqi police stations – and on International Red Cross headquarters – in Baghdad, killing 40 people. The assaults revealed a deadly new alliance between the Baathists and the jihadi insurgents. US intelligence agents later concluded, after interviewing one of the suicide bombers, a Sudanese who failed in his attempt, that the operation had been a collaboration between former Baathists and al-Zarqawi. The Baathists had helped move the suicide bombers into the country, according to the US sources, and then provided shelter, support (including automobiles) and coordination for the attacks. Additional reporting by Brian Bennett inWashington and Michael Ware in Baghdad
© 2005 Time Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of Time Inc. All rights reserved.
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