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The Day We Lost the Iraq War

London -- It is Iraq anniversary season, those four weeks of the year when assessments and opinions on what the Bush Administration wrought when it overthrew Saddam Hussein fill up the airwaves, Internet and newspapers. We’ll be performing these annual assessments for years to come because the final result of the Bush action is still unknowable and because so much of the public debate has been led in a spirit of willful ignorance.

When it comes to the Iraq conflict “Fog of War” doesn’t refer to the smoke and dust of the battlefield but rather to the hot air emanating from the mouths and pens of partisans and pundits, many of them living inside the confines of the Green Zone on the Potomac, virtually none of whom were in Iraq during the period of major combat operations and very few of whom have made the journey to that country subsequently. Their analysis is flawed by their lack of eyewitness experience of the conflict.

Given how little objectivity has been brought to bear on understanding Iraq by the official classes, I have come to realize that the accounts of those of us who reported this conflict really are the closest thing the world possesses to a “first draft of history.” Three years on, based on my experience as an unembedded reporter covering “major combat operations” in northern Iraq, I have reached a conclusion: it didn’t have to turn out the way it did. I base this conclusion on what I saw in Mosul, a city of around 1 and a half million people on April 11th 2003 and subsequently.

In the small hours of that day Saddam’s regime evaporated and as the sun rose the city was sacked by its own citizens with considerable help from their Kurdish neighbors in Erbil an hour’s drive away and villages in between.

It was a glorious spring day and as I drove from Erbil, my base throughout the previous weeks, I saw a surreal carnival: papers stacked up on the side of the road, records of Ba’ath party meetings, school reports, purchase orders, the entire bureaucratic detritus of a hideous dictatorship; the World Food Program warehouse was smoldering and people were dragging massive bags of rice out of it; a group of Kurdish pesh merga had tied a tow rope around an abandoned artillery piece and were driving it slowly back towards Erbil.

Not every one in the streets was looting. Along the half-excavated, grass covered walls of ancient Nineveh and in the park surrounding it thousands of people were wandering in a daze, somnambulists walking in the blazing spring sunshine. These were people awakened from a nightmare into a state that offered neither immediate comfort nor security. There were no public services as the state had collapsed, there were no shops open, and there was no sense of what would happen next.

In the city’s main square, Diwassa, the National Bank was being ransacked. Kurdish pesh merga had appointed themselves local sheriffs and were trying to stop the daylight robbery. A gun-battle ensued as chaotic as anything Hollywood could dream up, I cannot say whether it was as deadly as reality can be as I saw no bodies carried out of the bank in the five minutes I was there.

I had intended to stay in Mosul but it didn’t take long to figure that wasn’t going to happen so at the end of this day I drove back to Erbil. On the way out of town I saw committees from the mosques walking down the streets led by men shouting through bullhorns, calling on looters to return the goods they had stolen.

The next day I returned to Mosul. At the gates of the city’s university, I met a group of perhaps fifteen men, professors and caretakers at the campus. They had chained the gates shut and had established themselves as an unofficial committee of public safety. They were dressed in western clothes and did not look particularly threatening but they were doing what they could in the absence of authority. We engaged in a bit of role reversal with them peppering me with questions. “There is no security. Where is the American military?” several men demanded in a tone of voice that indicated they expected I might be able to answer on some General’s behalf.

“Is this what Bush means by democracy?” asked another gesturing out to the empty street and beyond towards the whole city. It became clear to me that at that moment, as the only American around, I was somehow a representative of my government. I could only beg them to be patient.

“Patient, how long will it be like this?” Being someone with a firm belief in the awesome logistical power of the American military, I blithely told them it would take no more than a week, a month at the outside, for the army to restore order. For some reason this seemed to mollify the posse.

I regained the questioning initiative and asked them about the committees from the mosques I had seen the evening before. Had they succeeded in shaming the looters to return things? The men directed me to a mosque just up the road. There the courtyard was stacked high with stuff that had been stolen from university dormitories: beds, refrigerators and ceiling fans. Apparently some folks had heeded the call of the previous evening. Up a flight of stairs from the courtyard in what was presumably a little study area were dozens of boxes of drugs and medical paraphernalia. It had been looted from the local hospital and returned, although whether out of a sense of guilt or at gunpoint wasn’t clear. Three doctors were conducting an impromptu clinic, providing what care they could for locals.

It was clear that day that there was a strong sense of civic responsibility amongst the Iraqis. The cadres to create a new civil society were to be found among the men guarding the gates at the university and the doctors caring as best they could for local patients. Mosques were the one aspect of civil society that still functioned. It is important to understand that even in the anarchy and chaos that attended the too swift overthrow of Saddam there was a window of opportunity for the U.S. authorities, military and civilian, to help Iraqi’s create a decent society and there were enough Iraqis around who wanted to do this. That window was open as long as those people were safe and I can tell you precisely when the window started to shut.

My guide on those days in Mosul was my translator Ahmad Shawkat. He fully embraced the possibilities of building a new civil society post-Saddam. With funding from the U.S. he started a weekly journal of political and cultural opinion. He called the newspaper Bilattijah, which translates roughly as “Without Direction.” The title was his poetic attempt to name the new era in Iraq, a time when his countrymen, like the somnambulists wandering along the walls of Nineveh the day the regime collapsed, did not know which direction to take. The first issue came out at the end of August and conveyed Ahmad’s hope for the future tempered by a realistic understanding of the precariousness of the situation in his country. “Salvation has surprised us,” he wrote. “So we surrendered to our chaos.”

By the end of September the situation had become clearer. Ahmad Shawkat noticed with bitter irony the coming together of radical Islamists and the Ba’ath thugs who used to spy on them back when Saddam was in charge. These two sets of fascists were beginning to operate at levels of society the Americans could not see. He saw the possibility of building a new Iraq slipping away and his editorials began to take on the tone of prophecy, “The Freedom that descended on us is a gift from God – and damaging such a gift might be a cause for its vanishing.”

At the end of October, in utter despair at the corruption that was already running rampant in Mosul, and ordinary people’s inability to embrace the opportunity of this new era, Ahmad wrote an editorial headlined “The Defunct Regime is Still Alive.” He asked, “Don’t they (the Americans) understand we are a people who have never learnt to work without someone standing over us? ... We want to open American eyes and remind them that decay has reached everywhere in their short rule. That means their first step was not successful.”

Before that editorial appeared Ahmad was assassinated. The date was October 28th 2003. My friend was not the first grassroots advocate of a better Iraq to be murdered, and he certainly wasn’t the last. But his death a mere six months after his hometown was “liberated” marks the moment when, in this eyewitness’s judgment, the window of opportunity for Iraqis as well as the U.S. began to shut down. The era “Without Direction,” a time of possibility and peril, was over. Iraq found its direction – and the fresh bodies by the roadside each and every day since then mark its path.