IRAQ. Baghdad. A US Marine in front of a burning poster of Saddam Hussein. April 10 2003.

The Changing of the Overlords

From the Rubble of the U.S. War in Iraq, Iran Built a New Order

A U.S. Marine in front of a burning poster of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad on April 10, 2003. Photo: Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos

About a month before the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, Tariq Aziz, one of Saddam Hussein’s most trusted comrades, sat in his office in Baghdad in an olive green uniform, cigar in hand, wearing house slippers. The man who for decades had served as the public face of high-stakes Iraqi diplomacy offered a political analysis that might well have gotten him executed in years past.

“The U.S. can overthrow Saddam Hussein,” said Aziz, an Iraqi Christian and one of the most senior figures in Saddam’s government. “You can destroy the Baath Party and secular Arab nationalism.” But, he warned, “America will open a Pandora’s box that it will never be able to close.” The iron-fisted rule of Saddam, draped in the veneer of Arab nationalism, he argued, was the only effective way to deal with forces like Al Qaeda or prevent an expansion of Iranian influence in the region.

When the U.S. invaded, Aziz was the eight of spades in the card deck the Pentagon created to publicize its high-value targets. He was ultimately captured, held in a makeshift prison at the Baghdad airport, and forced to dig a hole in the ground to use as a latrine. He died in custody of a heart attack in June 2015. But Aziz lived long enough to watch exactly what he warned of come to pass, accusing U.S. President Barack Obama of “leaving Iraq to the wolves.”

FILE - In this Dec. 2, 1998 file photo, former Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz stands to attention as the Iraqi national anthem is played at a conference in Baghdad, Iraq. Officials say Aziz has died in a hospital in southern Iraq on Friday, June 5, 2015.  (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)

Former Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz stands to attention as the Iraqi national anthem is played at a conference in Baghdad on Dec. 2, 1998.

Photo: Peter Dejong/AP

The 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq marked the moment when the U.S. lost control of its own bloody chess game. The chaos unleashed by the U.S. invasion allowed Iran to gain a level of influence in Iraq that was unfathomable during the reign of Saddam. Secret documents from the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security, obtained by The Intercept, give an unprecedented picture of how deeply present-day Iraq is under Iranian influence. The sovereignty once jealously defended by Arab nationalists has been steadily eroded since the U.S. invasion.

The country that Iran assumed influence over had been shattered by decades of war, military occupation, terrorism, and economic sanctions. Iraq is still struggling with the legacy of years of sectarian bloodshed, the emergence of violent jihadi groups, and widespread corruption unleashed by the U.S. invasion and occupation. In the face of this national tragedy, some citizens express nostalgia for the authoritarian stability of Saddam’s regime. Navigating this chaotic situation is no easy task for any foreign power.

In the years after the 2003 invasion, some U.S. politicians cited the “Pottery Barn” analogy to justify a continued long-term presence in Iraq. It was the invasion that broke Iraqi society. So, as the analogy went, having broken the country, the United States now needed to buy it. In reality, the U.S. shattered Iraq and ultimately walked away. It was Iran that ended up figuring out what to do with the pieces.

BASRA, IRAQ - MARCH 29:  Civilians on foot pass tanks on a bridge near the entrance to the besieged city of Basra March 29, 2003 in Iraq. Baath Party loyalists have taken up positions in Basra, Iraq's second largest city, making it a target of the U.S.-led war on Iraq.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Civilians on foot pass tanks on a bridge near the entrance to the besieged city of Basra, Iraq, on March 29, 2003.

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Disaster of De-Baathification

A little over a decade before George W. Bush decided to overthrow the Iraqi government, his father’s administration had taken a very different path. After mercilessly destroying Iraq’s civilian and military infrastructure in a bombing campaign during the 1991 Gulf War, George H.W. Bush was persuaded that it would be too dangerous to march on Baghdad. Not because of the potential human costs, or deaths of U.S. soldiers in combat, but because Saddam was a known quantity who had already proven valuable in the 1980s when he attacked Iran and triggered the brutal Iran-Iraq War. During that eight-year conflict, the U.S. armed both countries but overwhelmingly favored Baghdad. More than a million people died in trench warfare reminiscent of World War I. Henry Kissinger put a fine point on the U.S. strategy in that war when he quipped that it is “a shame there can only be one loser.”

Even after the war had ended, the American fear of Iran outweighed any appetite for regime change in Iraq. So Saddam remained.

Bush’s son took a different view. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, high-ranking figures in his administration began falsely connecting Saddam’s regime to Al Qaeda. In reality, the religious extremists were mortal enemies of the Baathists. But the process for Saddam’s removal had already been determined by neoconservatives who had been bent on waging war against Iraq years before 9/11.

Women of the household watch as soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division arrest a man, who the commander of the 1st Brigade identified as a  prominent Ba'ath Party member in Tikrit, Iraq, Wednesday April 30, 2003.  Heavily armed troops of the 4th Infantry Division raided a house in Saddam Hussein's hometown late Wednesday and arrested a local Baath Party official accused of trying to run a ``shadow regime'' opposing the Americans. His two sons were also arrested. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)
A U.S. marine watches a statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled in downtown Bagdhad Wednesday April 9, 2003. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Left/top: In Tikrit, Iraq, on April 30, 2003, women of the household watch as U.S. soldiers arrest a man who the commander of the 1st Brigade identified as a prominent Baath Party member. Right/bottom: A U.S. marine watches a statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled in downtown Baghdad on April 9, 2003. Photos: Saurabh Das/AP; Jerome Delay/AP

Within weeks of the 2003 invasion, Saddam was out of power and on the run. A right-wing ideologue who had cut his teeth working under Kissinger was placed in charge of Iraq for a period after the invasion. The country’s new “viceroy,” L. Paul Bremer, once referred to himself as “the only paramount authority figure — other than dictator Saddam Hussein — that most Iraqis had ever known.” Though a longtime diplomat, Bremer had never served in the Middle East and had no expertise in Iraqi politics. But he had become obsessed with the idea that the Baath Party was analogous to the German Nazi Party and needed to be eliminated in its entirety. Under his leadership at the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S. implemented one of the most disastrous policies in the modern history of postwar decision-making: liquidating the Iraqi Army as part of a policy known as de-Baathification.

In his book on the Iraq War, “Night Draws Near,” the late Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anthony Shadid wrote, “The net effect of Bremer’s decision was to send more than 350,000 officers and conscripts, men with at least some military training, into the streets, instantly creating a reservoir of potential recruits for a guerrilla war. (At their disposal was about a million tons of weapons and munitions of all sorts, freely accessible in more than a hundred largely unguarded depots around the country.)” A U.S. official, quoted anonymously by the New York Times Magazine at the time, described Bremer’s decision more bluntly: “That was the week we made 450,000 enemies on the ground in Iraq.”

Paul Bremer (C), top US civilian administrator in Iraq, views Iraq's new post-war army during their graduation ceremony 04 October 2003 in Kirkush. More than 700 soldiers of the new army, seen as one of the pillars of the occupied county's reconstruction hopes, graduated from basic training during the event.  AFP PHOTO/Marwan NAAMANI / AFP PHOTO / MARWAN NAAMANI        (Photo credit should read MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP via Getty Images)

Paul Bremer, the top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, during a graduation ceremony for Iraq’s new postwar army on Oct. 4, 2003, in Kirkush.

Photo: Marwan Naamani/AFP via Getty Images

The impact of Bremer’s decision can be discerned in the secret Iranian intelligence cables written more than a decade later. Many of the Sunni insurgents who went to war against the government of Nouri al-Maliki in 2013 are described in the documents as “Baathists,” a reference to militant groups led by former Iraqi military officers. These groups have nostalgically identified themselves with the pre-2003 political order. The documents show that the Iranians have worked to either destroy them or co-opt them into the fight against the Islamic State.

As the leaked intelligence reports show, the sectarian bloodletting that started with the U.S. invasion has never really ended.

Many former Baathists also found themselves fighting in the ranks of ISIS itself, an organization whose military leadership has included senior officials from Saddam’s disbanded military.

De-Baathification coincided with another ugly development in Iraq: the rise of sectarian politics. The United States played a critical role in this phenomenon as well. To take one example, the U.S. occupation authorities after the invasion went on the offensive against a Shia cleric named Moqtada al-Sadr. Sadr, whose father and brothers were assassinated by Saddam’s henchmen, was an Iraqi nationalist who spoke the language of the people, though he was often at odds with other Shia clerical leaders. Iranian intelligence cables from 2014 cite pro-Iranian individuals in Iraq expressing continued frustration with Sadr for refusing to go along with their program. He remains a thorn in the side of the current Iraqi government and Iranian interests generally, despite having lived and studied in Iran for many years.

NAJAF, IRAQ - JULY 11:  Outspoken Iraqi sheikh Muqtada al-Sadr delivers Friday prayers on July 11, 2003, at the mosque in Kufa, near Najaf, where his father Mohamed Sadeq al-Sadr--one of Iraq's most respected clerics, who was killed by Baathists in 1999--first began giving sermons. The faithful line up in their thousands at the Kufa mosque to hear the cleric give a message of "wait and see," regarding the US occupation and new government of Iraq, and how Iraq's majority Shia Muslims should deal with it. Al-Sadr has also sparked a divide within Iraq's clerics, as he faces off with more moderate, and higher ranking religious leaders. (Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

Sheikh Moqtada al-Sadr delivers Friday prayers at the mosque in Kufa, Iraq, on July 11, 2003.

Photo: Scott Peterson/Getty Images

Following the U.S. invasion, Sadr’s popularity rose after he organized social services and infrastructure to address the abysmal conditions faced by Iraqis, particularly in the Shia slums that had been brutally repressed by Saddam. When the Sunni city of Fallujah was first attacked by the U.S. in April 2004, following the killing of four Blackwater mercenaries, Sadr organized blood donations and aid convoys and condemned the American aggression. For a brief moment, the U.S. had very nearly united Shia and Sunni forces in a war against a common enemy.

This situation was untenable. By 2005, the U.S. had become fully invested in policies that greatly exacerbated sectarianism in Iraq. It began arming, training, and funding Shia death squads that terrorized Sunni communities in a war that altered the demographic makeup of Baghdad. As the position of the Sunnis became increasingly dire, groups began to emerge that grew more and more extreme, including Al Qaeda in Iraq and its successor, the Islamic State.

As the leaked intelligence reports show, the sectarian bloodletting that started with the U.S. invasion has never really ended. As late as 2014, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security was documenting the continued violent cleansing of Sunnis from areas around Baghdad by Iraqi militias associated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

BAGHDAD, IRAQ - NOVEMBER 11, 2019:   Iraqi security forces try to push back anti-government demonstrators to Tahrir Square (Liberation Square) and the Al-Jumuriyah, firing tear or even sometime real bullets to prevent protesters occupied again other bridges  in downtown Baghdad  More than 300 protesters have been killed during the unrest, which started October 1. (Photo by Laurent Van der Stockt/Getty Images)

Iraqi security forces try to push back anti-government demonstrators to Tahrir Square on Nov. 11, 2019, using tear gas and bullets to prevent the occupation of bridges in downtown Baghdad.

Photo: Laurent Van der Stockt/Getty Images

Iran’s Calculation, Iraq’s Anger

When the Obama administration conducted a made-for-television “withdrawal” from Iraq in 2011, large swaths of the country were still in a state of political and humanitarian collapse. The Iraqi state that had existed before the war had been utterly destroyed. For better and for worse, Iran has sought to fill the gaping void in Iraq that Washington’s policies created. Out of the rubble of the country, Iranian leaders saw an opportunity to create a new order — one that would never again threaten them the way Saddam Hussein’s regime had.

The protests now paralyzing Iraqi cities are a vivid demonstration of how unpopular Iranian policies have been in Iraq. Several hundred demonstrators have been killed by security forces firing live ammunition into crowds. The sovereignty of Iraq was effectively annihilated by the 2003 U.S. invasion, but the idea of an Iraqi nation is still cherished by young people in the streets braving bullets to assert their independence.

Iran’s aggressive approach toward Iraq has to be seen in the context of history. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any rational nation-state actor that would not have pursued a similar path given the same circumstances. The invasion led to fears in Iran that the next stop for the U.S. military would be Tehran. These fears were heightened after the Bush administration rebuffed a proposed “grand bargain” from Iran in 2003 that offered talks aimed at resolving the differences between the two sides. Instead, the United States continued to treat Iran as an enemy and pursued a path of occupation in Iraq that left in its wake a trail of failures and hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis.

That Iran would seize an opportunity to assert its influence in Iraq is no shock. While Iran’s role has been far from positive, the United States has long since lost any claim to be a legitimate broker regarding the future of either country. In 1963, the U.S. helped initiate Iraq’s long nightmare when it aided the overthrow of the popular government of Abdel Karim Kassem, who sought to nationalize Iraqi oil and create social welfare programs. The U.S. supported the ascent of Saddam and continued to back his regime over the years, mainly as a bulwark against Iran, even in the face of high-profile atrocities like the gassing of Kurdish civilians in the city of Halabja and the massacres of Shia Iraqis following the Gulf War.

For more than six decades, the U.S. has played a central role in fomenting disasters that have destroyed the lives of entire generations in Iraq and Iran. Any criticisms of Iran’s role today cannot efface this ugly record. How Iraqis respond to the information about Iran’s secret dealings in their country is their business. Perhaps there are international organizations and countries whose advice and counsel would be welcome. But given its atrocious legacy in Iraq, the United States should not be among them.

Join The Conversation