The U.S. Legacy in Iraq and the Fight Against ISIS

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi joins Intercepted to discuss the U.S. government’s legacy after years of occupation.

Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept

The U.S. government’s long-lasting occupation of Iraq led to “many killings, disintegrating the country, and opening old, previous wounds,” according to former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. This week on Intercepted, reporter Murtaza Hussain is joined by Abadi, who led Iraq from 2014 to 2018. During that time he waged war against the Islamic State and eventually retook control of the country from the group. Abadi discusses his role as prime minister, his fight against ISIS, the U.S. government’s lasting legacy in Iraq, and Iranian influence in the country. Abadi has a new book out titled “Impossible Victory: How Iraq Defeated ISIS.”

[Intercepted theme music.]

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

Murtaza Hussain: I’m Murtaza Hussain, a reporter with The Intercept.

In 2014, the Islamic State — also known as ISIS or “Daesh” — was advancing in Iraq.

Scott Pelley [for CBS Evening News]: In another major story tonight, Baghdad is close to being encircled by the Islamic terrorist group known as ISIS. Much of Anbar Province, to the West, and part of Diyala Province to the Northeast have fallen. 

Reporter [for CNN]: As ISIS seizes Talafar, another major city in Iraq, the terrorists possibly gaining control over its army base, which would mean more armored vehicles, weapons, and ammunition up for grabs — some of the weaponry provided by the U.S.

MH: As the Islamic State continued to take land in Iraq, the country was in shambles. Just three years earlier, the U.S. had pulled its last soldier from the country after the eight-year war and occupation that also destabilized the country.

As Iraq was falling to ISIS, the Prime Minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, and his military were facing allegations of widespread corruption. Protesters were demanding he resign.

In 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq, deposed Saddam Hussain, and began an eight-year occupation of the country. By 2005, the U.S. had become fully invested in policies that exacerbated sectarianism in the country.

The U.S. government also began arming, training, and funding Shia death squads that terrorized Sunni communities. In response, as conditions for Sunnis worsened, groups began to emerge that grew more and more extreme, including Al Qaeda in Iraq and its successor, ISIS.

The failed policies of the U.S. and years of instability led to the rise of ISIS. And in response, the Iraqi government had to act quickly.

Dr. Haider al-Abadi was elected as Prime Minister of Iraq after Maliki stepped down. With assistance from the U.S. and other major powers, he was able to stamp out the threat of ISIS as it made its way throughout the country.

During Saddam Hussain’s rule, Abadi joined the opposition against him. He spent 26 years in the U.K., organizing against Saddam Hussain and his rule. After Hussain was deposed during the U.S. ‘s 2003 invasion, Abadi returned to Iraq and later became minister of communication for the newly-formed Iraqi government.

I recently spoke with Abadi who has a new book out titled: “Impossible Victory: How Iraq Defeated ISIS.” I wanted to speak with Abadi about his thoughts of the aftermath of the War and his role in Iraq. We spoke about the fight against ISIS, the legacy of the U.S.’s occupation of Iraq, and the rising influence of Iran. 

I began our conversation by asking him what he found when he first arrived in Iraq in 2003 after 26 years away:

Dr. Haider al-Abadi: Yes, 26 years is almost more than a generation. And I expect to find huge changes. Yes, I did find changes. But to be honest with you, the changes are very disorganized; culturally, the country [looks] as if it’s been taken aback. I was surprised to see the country hasn’t developed as we expected over 26 years. Housing is not enough. There are not enough schools for the country, for the population; not enough hospitals — I was surprised to find the same hospitals [from when] I left the country are still there, without any new hospitals built. I was surprised to see the country went backwards over 26, 27 years.

MH: Before becoming prime minister in 2014, in your book, you say that your predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, established the conditions for ISIS to make a comeback. Can you expand on what al-Maliki did to lead to those conditions?

HA: Yes, I think extremism was there. It is in the region, not in Iraq. Don’t forget that extremism came from other countries. And these would-be suicide bombers came from all over the Arab world, and from almost over 100 countries, even some Western countries. And they were large numbers, and they managed to bring themselves in Syria, they did occupy quite large swaths of territory in Syria, and then they were able to cross into Iraq.

Now, the fault lines are this: Under these circumstances, you should win your population over. You shouldn’t push your population towards the other side. What happened because of political enmity, and political differences in the country, it was one against the other. So with the government, and the government has set an opposition, whether they are Shia or Sunni or Kurds. And these others, they were gathering against the government. By doing this, they were attracting people from all sorts of life, including terrorists, including those who resort to violence. And in that critical moment, the whole thing snapped. Terrorists, because they were able in Syria, they were being readied to cross the border to Iraq. And the atmosphere in Iraq was created that they will welcome these fighters in the country. And that was a major mistake by the government. And they could have done much better by winning over their own people, the Iraqi people, so that terrorists will not thrive into our own communities. 

And that’s what happened. The whole state collapse, security forces collapse, whole divisions of the army collapse, and the terrorists took over. And of course, some people in these areas welcomed these terrorists under the assumption that these terrorists will save them from — I put it in brackets — the oppressive means of the Baghdad government, although it wasn’t oppressive as such. But people were not happy. So they thought this Daesh, and these tours will help them to take out what they think is their own.

MH: So can you tell me a bit about what the atmosphere was like in Iraq at the time the city of Mosul fell to ISIS? This was obviously a major turning point in the emergence of the group and the collapse of the Iraqi state, and they seem to be generating a lot of fear and panic at that time. You were prime minister, what did you witness in the country when this was happening?

HA: Well, the morale of the army and our other security forces were so low. They don’t have the motivation to fight. The whole thing collapsed. They saw that they were supposed to defend their population, but the population turned against them. 

One of the reasons is the high level of corruption within security forces, where they were using different means to extract gains from the population. And that was one of the major reasons security forces felt they were not welcomed by their own constituents, by their own population, and whole divisions of the armed forces collapsed, including the federal police, local police.

And morally, I found many commanders, they tell me: Sir, we cannot present ourselves in front of the people. At checkpoints, we try to hide our ranks, because people will curse us when they see us with the ranks. And they will accuse us of humiliating the country, and letting them down. 

So it was a very, very difficult situation. A, You have to bring the morale of the fighting force back; B, you have to make the public aware that they should support the fighting force because, otherwise, we don’t have any means of winning this war against the terrorists; and C, to be fair with the population, the population must believe in you as a government. You are serving them. You are not a Shia government to protect the Shia against the Sunni, you are not an Arab government to protect the Arabs against the Kurds, and you are not a Muslim government to protect Muslims against others or to oppress others. You are a government for the benefit of the people, regardless of what your religion is, what your sect is. Every official must have a sect, he must have a religion. But regardless of that, his position will require him to serve other people. That is my main task was to bring back good governance, a government that will treat people the same: people will feel safe with this government.

That’s what I’ve done, to be honest with you. That’s what I have started to do, to bring the proper commanders — the right commanders for the right job – to hit very hard on corruption inside the security forces especially, and to give motivation for these fighters. And the main motivation is for them to serve the people so that they will see the reward. 

I was telling the commander or the fighters: Well, look, you have to serve the people.

They say: Serve? They’re against us. They throw stones on us. They hate us. 

I tell them: Look because they believe you’re not working for them. Just change how you behave with them, try to serve them, let them believe — and be truthful — that you are protecting them. I mean, what is the use of liberating the land, while you are telling the people you are against your own people. It’s no use for the land without the people. 

So this has taken about a year and a half of huge work. It is not only speech, of course. You have to work on the ground. You have to choose commanders. You have to observe what they are doing and try to rectify it, try to punish the bad apples and try to progress the good apples, in that sense. And this was the major, in actual fact, the major test of the ability of the government to succeed.

And [knock on] wood, yes, within three years or less, we succeeded in turning the whole tide for us, instead of against us. People started to believe us. They started to say: Well, this government, this army, the security forces are really serving us. We should side with them against the terrorists. And when we have done that, the terrorists lost because they are not welcomed by people anymore.

MH: So I wanted to pivot a bit and ask about your perception of America’s role in Iraq over the years. Obviously, the U.S. had sanctions on Iraq for a long time during Saddam Hussein’s government. They invaded in 2003 and deposed Saddam. But in the context of this, they also carried out many crimes against Iraqis during that period. Looking back, how do we make sense of the legacy of American involvement in Iraq?

HA: [Laughs.] It was very difficult to describe, to be honest with you. I mean A) there were sanctions on Iraq, because of Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein was removed, and Iraq was occupied by the U.S., but not all sanctions were lifted. That, to me, is odd. The regime has gone and the country is under your control, why don’t you lift all the sanctions?

Number two: This proves that super powers, although they are super in terms of the power, but they are not super in terms of conscience, in terms of being just, in terms of using this power to serve others, not to oppress them. This is very unfortunate. Yes, it is a superpower, but they use the superpower to kill innocent Iraqis. They’re not being careful not to kill the Iraqis. I mean, for them, protecting one U.S. soldier, they can justify by killing many Iraqis to protect that U.S. soldier, which really shouldn’t be the case. I mean, the reason is because they’re not answerable to the Iraqi people. If the U.S. soldiers committed a mistake or a crime, it is not answerable in the country, and the judiciary of the country. Even their politician is not answerable to the Iraqi people; they are answerable to the American people.

And I think this is, to me, a major blunder by the U.S. administration in putting Iraq under occupation. They shouldn’t have done that. And I think they thought, maybe they thought they have the ideal army, who are like angels, and they relabeled the country, but they didn’t do that. I mean, their army was far from being disciplined. I, myself, was a minister, and a member of parliament; I myself was subjected to many mistreatment and threats by the U.S. military in the country. And many people did do that.

Yes, in the first few months, people welcome them. I know one old lady in my neighborhood [did] very much. Because in my neighborhood, in Karrada, the U.S. Army was like having a picnic. They were relaxed, people welcomed them, and they would even give them food back. But later on, it became the relationship very sour, because they misused the good treatment of the people by not discriminating between their enemy and their friend. They were hitting back at every Iraqi; every Iraqi is being seen like an enemy. 

And I don’t know whether the U.S. has one system or two. But to me, there was this official U.S. military controlling Iraq, and there may be a different religious – or something – [motivation] which is governed by a religious view that Iraq must be destroyed. Because, according to this narration of Torah, the Bible, that Babel is, again, to save Israel — I will say not present day Israel or Israelis, [but] historical Israelis, the Israelite, in that sense. And maybe there is this religious elite within the administration, within the whole apparatus of the U.S., who misguided the U.S. operation in Iraq to this end, by damaging and bringing down the country and disintegrating it in their belief that this will serve their aim to bring the Savior back, the Messiah back, to prepare the ground for the Messiah. And I think you’ll find a lot of thinking behind this. 

I’m not sure what was in the mind of the U.S. administration then, because so far, there is no unified story of why the U.S. went to invasion, why they behaved so badly, why they couldn’t rebuild the country, why they couldn’t pacify terrorists, why they couldn’t control the borders, why they couldn’t protect their civilians, why they didn’t protect the economy of the country. And they blundered the whole wealth of the country by misspending it.

MH: Very quickly, you made an interesting point.You pointed out that after the U.S. invaded, they should not have occupied the country. What do you think would have been a better path after the deposition of Saddam Hussein happened to ensure a more stable Iraq?

HA: Number one, they should have lifted the sanctions immediately against the country, because that has crippled the country. 

Number two, they should bring their own expertise on how to rebuild the country, how to help Iraqis. And instead of occupying the country, and putting the country under their own mandate by occupation, as they’ve done – they went to the U.N. Security Council and they have done exactly that; that was against the will of Iraqis, against the will of the many politicians in the country.

They should have handed over the responsibility for interim government, and that government should be able to run the country, it should [be] run by Iraqis. But they have pushed very hard for their own agenda, whatever the agenda was, but definitely that agenda didn’t produce good results. It has led to many killings, to disintegrating the country, and has opened all previous wounds in the country.

Don’t forget this country was governed by a dictator, by a single party — very oppressive — and you have removed that lid without proper Iraqi authority. And I think, as decision makers, although they had planned very well for the occupation in Iraq, they achieved it within probably three weeks, and they pacified the country. But it wasn’t well planned, how to recover the country, how to rebuild the country, how to serve the people of the country, how to bring Iraq back from its awful past. It was not well thought — or, if we talk conspiracy theory, it was well thought to bring the country down. There may be different people, some people working in that sense, other people working in another direction.

MH: You know, one of the most notorious incidents of the U.S. occupation was a massacre of Iraqi civilians in the Nisour Square in Baghdad in 2007. Iraq sued Blackwater, the mercenary firm responsible for that massacre at the time. Can you tell us a bit about that lawsuit? And also your thoughts about the later dismissal and pardoning of the charges against the men responsible by the Trump administration?

HA: Yeah, that was really, to me — [sighs] it has, I mean, it made me very angry. But Iraqi lives, they do matter. It matters. Yes, I understand a soldier in a war has to protect himself. He may get killed and he can kill others because they are at war. And you cannot try soldiers in that regard. But you can try soldiers when they are killing innocent people outside the war.

It was brought to the attention in the media because there were witnesses — many people saw it! But I can assure you that there were many others where innocent people were killed but there were not enough witnesses. The media didn’t witness it. And, of course, it was not covered.

MH: So Iraq survived the U.S. invasion, it survived ISIS. But in doing so, a lot of political power and control over militias were actually delegated or obtained by a neighboring power — which, in this case, was Iran. 

A few years ago, The Intercept actually reported on the cache of secret documents from the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence that were about Iraq. And they showed a high level of infiltration of Iraqi institutions by pro-Iranian groups. Can you speak a little bit about the impact of Iranian influence on Iraq, in Iraq’s political independence?

HA: Well, to me, to be honest, I’m not surprised. Because don’t forget, for the history between the Persian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire was controlling Baghdad, and even before that, so there was a lot of hostility then, and a lot of competition. And Iraq was always in the middle of that.

So I’m not surprised that the Iranians will see Iraq in a sense of opportunity and, in another sense, as a threat. Because don’t forget, there was an Iran-Iraq war for eight years. That war was waged by Saddam Hussein against Iran. And it has crippled the country, caused a lot of damage, a lot of casualties, a lot of innocent people. So the Iranians are not going to forgive this. This is an Arab country, we’re neighboring countries. So they will see it as a threat if that country has drifted towards the other side against Iran.

At the same time, Iraq has, in the past, has had a good relationship with its neighbor in Iran. So it can become a friend, not an enemy. So there is now an opportunity for Iran to use Iraq as a friend. Don’t forget, the fight against terrorists, the Iranians — I mean, although the Iranians may not like me saying this, but I believe in this — the Iranians didn’t really only fight to help Iraqis. They fought Daesh because it’s a threat against Iran. 

Don’t forget: Daesh and Diyala reached almost the border of Iran. So imagine if Daesh on the border of Iran, from Iraq, it is a huge national security threat to Iran. So it is in the best interest of Iran to help Iraq in fighting Daesh, this will stop the threat to them. And that’s why I believe them. They were very sincere in helping Iraq to fight Daesh. Because it’s in the self-interest of the national security of Iran. I believe this.

So I agree with you, there will always be an Iranian interest in Iraq, as there is a Turkish interest in Iraq. So to me, these countries will always use Iraq for their own benefit. But what I’m saying, instead of telling them not to, us Iraqis should work together to serve our own countries, rather than serving the interests of other countries. Yes, we should live in peace with other countries — neighboring Iraq. We should have very good relationship with them. We should serve the common interests of our people together. But we should serve the interests of our country, not the interests of other countries. And this will prevent others from using us.

MH: So, as many of our listeners have probably seen, Iraq is currently mired in a very serious political crisis between supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, another famous Iraqi cleric and a coalition of opposition parties, some of whom are quite close to Iran. 

Can you explain to our listeners what’s at stake in this crisis, and whatever your own experience has been, in the past few months?

HA: See, we are again at the threshold of a crisis. I’ll tell you something: During the years of Al Qaeda, when there were many massacres committed by Al Qaeda, which turned the country into a civil war between Shia and Sunni then, many countries in the world, the region of Iraq, said that Iraq would never come out of this healthy. But I think Iraq has defeated the bad analysis and they’ve proved themselves, and they’ve risen up again.

Then what happened later on with Daesh, which occupied a large swath of the Iraqi territory, and they brought almost the country down. And they thought Iraq was under fire, this is the end of Iraq, like they said at the time. But Iraqis came out of that even stronger. 

So I think Iraq, as I wrote in the book, will surprise you. But it needs a will. It doesn’t happen by itself. It needs a will, it needs a vision, and it needs sacrifices to come out of this.

This is, I think, a general issue now. This is not an external threat. This is an internal threat between two political parties within the same community — a shared community. Each one probably wants to control the country. And they think this is the time to do this. 

I know it’s not possible for one group to control the whole country. They should — to be honest with you — work together to serve the people. Now, this is the test. And this is the challenge. Will they go the extra mile of infighting? And at the end of the day, they have to negotiate. They have to sit down. And they have to find another route, or will they discover this now without going to infighting, and move forward?

MH: Dr. Abadi, last question I want to ask you. We’re having this conversation. It’s been one year since the U.S.’s departure from Afghanistan, and a more general pullback of U.S. forces and political interests from the Middle East. How do you see the region changing in light of the scaled-back U.S. presence, which also may now be accelerated by the signing, again, of the Iran nuclear deal?

HA: Well, if we talk about the hands-off policy of the U.S., I think it’s a good thing. But I think they have done it wrongly. I think you cannot go from extreme to extreme. You cannot go to bring down a regime and establish a new regime, and make changes by occupational force — and, all of a sudden, you shift to a different policy, a hands-off policy. I think this was a very sudden, swift, [indistinct phrase] which has harmed the region and harmed even the U.S. 

But we are here. I wish the U.S. will stick to a policy, which is read by others, understood by others, and they will understand that this is in their interest. And of course, here in Iraq, we have to save our interests as well. Now, why should we, in this regard, accept, like the presence of some U.S. forces? Although, to me, they have spent that time. They have spent their purpose. Because we crushed the terrorists.

Yes, we need certain expertise in terms of intelligence, in terms of training, in terms of certain operations. But we don’t need to go beyond that. Not like when Daesh was controlling large territory of Iraq, and now even Daesh in Syria is much weaker than before. There are other threats in the region, which we have [to confront] as Iraqis.

To me, [in] Afghanistan, there was a fear a year ago that this would enable other terrorists in the region to become bolder in their things. But after a year, there was no proof of that. I mean, things didn’t get out of control, although I’m very sorry for the poor situation in Afghanistan, how they treat women. And, very surely, to see that Afghanistan, after what was achieved over 20 years, is going back — it is wiping out the whole 20 years.

And this shows: Why then, did the U.S. [go] to Afghanistan? Only to punish Al Qaeda for hitting Washington and New York? Is that the only purpose why they stay 20 years, if they lost it in a minute? If they lost it in an instance?

I think, to me, it’s as if the lives of the people are meaningless. It doesn’t count in policymaking. That is very unfortunate. I mean, what messages are we going to send to the new population, the new generation? Well: We don’t care about human lives. We don’t care about values. 

To me, this is completely wrong.

MH: Thank you so much Dr. al-Abadi, for speaking with us today.

HA: Thank you.

[End credits music.]

MH: And that’s it for this episode of Intercepted. Follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast.

Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. José Olivares is lead producer. Supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Roger Hodge is editor in chief of The Intercept. And Will Stanton mixed our show. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.

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Thanks so much.

Until next time, I’m Murtaza Hussain.

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