Gulf War Without End: Iraq’s Forty Years of Conflict

The article originally appeared at and is reprinted with permission.

The recent offensive by forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), along with their allies, opens a new chapter in the conundrum of violence that has devastated Iraq throughout recent history. Without a doubt, the current state of the conflict is directly tied to events post-2003: the terribly misguided U.S.-led invasion, botched occupation, and civil war. All of the aforementioned actions increased sectarianism and dramatically shifted political authority away from the traditional Sunni elite to the longstanding Shia opposition of the former Ba’ath Party regime of Saddam Hussein in the form of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s al-Da’wa Party.

The Iraqi war of sectarian narratives continues to fester and the leader amongst its culprits is none other than the prime minister himself. As Toby Dodge observed, "Maliki is deploying a coded sectarian message. He is seeking to widen the guilt for the abuses committed in the [Ba’ath] party’s name to the whole of the Sunni section of society, using blame by association, for the myriad ills and abuses of past and present Iraq." Maliki’s crushing of the Anbar protest movement last year, the explosion of Fallujah and Ramadi into open fighting in December and January, and the heavy handed and sectarian reputation of the Iraqi Security Forces is directly tied to Maliki’s style of rule, rather than a perennial religious war burning for thirteen centuries.

The capture of Mosul and other areas recently subject to antigovernment advances is likewise symptomatic of policies of alienation and divisiveness. They are not a recent development. For "Surge" believers and others who feel that the United States snatched "defeat from the jaws of victory" in Iraq, they would be well served to recall even just one illustrative anecdote amongst countless examples. In September 2006, at the height of sectarian violence that dramatically changed the demographics of Baghdad to a Shiite majority city, Maliki adviser and confidant Mowaffak al-Rubaie testified before members of the Iraq Study Group. When questioned about the violence of Shiite militias (specifically that of then Maliki ally Moqtada al-Sadr) compared with Sunni militants, Rubaie responded, "Yes, but it’s different. The militias are different… Moqtada al-Sadr is using violence, but he’s using it to gain power within the government." The toleration for violence with a certain political-sectarian tint would continue. While journalist Shane Bauer is most remembered in the public consciousness for his 2009-2011 imprisonment in Iran after being detained while hiking along the Iraqi-Iranian border, one of his most important articles was the final piece he wrote in June 2009, an investigation of a U.S.-trained Iraqi special forces unit answering directly to Prime Minister al-Maliki’s office and accountable to no one.

In addition to the aforementioned more proximate factors, Iraq’s most recent conflagration also occurs in a wider sequence of political violence spanning more than four decades. In her recent study of the use of war as a form of governance in Iraq over more than a generation, Dina Khoury wrote that the result of war’s normalization has "been the militarization of Iraqi politics and society, the brutalization of public culture, and the creation of irreconcilable divisions within Iraq." At the same time and along with the environment of perpetual war, the original development and resurgence of militant forces on the march in Iraq today is drawn from deep historical continuities bearing a relation to the regime of Saddam Hussein itself. Given the increasing Iranian role in Iraqi affairs since 2003, the now regular occurrence of Revolutionary Guards al-Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani’s visits in Baghdad, and reports of Iranian troop deployments to Iraq, a brief discussion of Iraq’s modern history of conflict over the last four decades fittingly begins and ends with the inclusion of Iran and the United States.

Despite the fact that Iraq was formally occupied in 2003, the country has seen a long history of foreign powers meddling in its affairs since independence. Long predating the 1970s, however, events of this decade proved particularly fateful for the four to follow. In 1972, in an attempt to weaken the Arab alliance against Israel and isolate the Iraqi Ba’ath regime that had recently signed a treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union, the Nixon administration authorized covert support for Kurdish rebels in Northern Iraq. Working with the Shah’s Iranian military, the Central Intelligence Agency aided the Kurds in their longstanding fight for autonomy from Baghdad. In 1975, the rebellion collapsed after both the U.S. and Iran withdrew their support for the Kurds. According to the terms of the 1975 Algiers Agreement between Iraq and Iran, the Iraqi Ba’ath acquiesced to the Iranian claim in the dispute over the border demarcation. Iraqi Vice President Saddam Hussein would neither forget nor forgive this humiliation. As the regime’s internal records reveal, it was the Soviet Union’s suspension of arms that forced Iraq’s hand at the time, depriving the Iraqi military of needed ammunition. The first phase of Iraq’s forty years of war had ended, but the period of rearmament had begun.

By 1980, Saddam Hussein had formally seized power and was staring down the post-revolution Islamic Republic of Iran. Faced with the political awakening and disquiet of the Iraqi Shia population, acrimonious relations with former Najaf resident and new Iranian ruler Ayatollah Khomeini, and escalating border clashes between Iraqi and Iranian forces, Saddam decided the time was right for reversing the humiliations of 1975. As he told his advisers in an audio recording captured in 2003, "If we had ammunition then [1975], we wouldn’t have showed him [the Shah] any flexibility nor would we have given him the Thalweg line in the Shatt al-Arab" [dispute over border demarcation]." During the preceding five years, Iraq had replenished its Soviet-made arsenal and diversified with the addition of French and Italian armaments. Saddam went on, "We should not be ashamed to say that even if the Iranian regime did not do all this and we had the capability to take everything back, we would take it back." The decision to go war was made in a meeting where no Shiite member of the regime’s leadership was present. Saddam made clear that the five-year cease-fire was over. The longest interstate war of the twentieth century and the next phase of Iraq’s forty years of war was soon underway.

The Great War of the Middle East

The eight years of the Iran-Iraq War devastated both countries and witnessed nearly all the iconic horrors of twentieth century conflict: trench warfare, human wave attacks, chemical weapons use, and the deliberate targeting of urban centers and civilians. Spilling over into the waters of the Persian Gulf and occasionally neighboring countries, on the international level the first Gulf War was the combination of a geopolitical struggle and a lucrative arms sale bonanza. Nearly half of the countries selling weapons provided them to both Iran and Iraq, including most infamously, the United States, despite its own primary policy of heavily "tilting" its support in favor of Baghdad to prevent an Iranian victory in the war. The course of the conflict resulted in a million casualties, saw the Anfal campaign against Iraq’s Kurdish population that reached a genocidal level, and devastated the economies and societies of both countries. The war finally came to a close in 1988, but Iraq’s respites from conflict were to grow shorter. As Amatzia Baram succinctly described the significance of the war’s end for Saddam and events soon to follow, "He emerged from the war with two big problems: massive debt and a huge military with nothing to do. In early 1990, he decided to use the latter to wipe out the former: he would invade his wealthy and defenseless neighbor Kuwait." The forty years of war resumed once again after only a two year hiatus.

The Mother of All Battles

The August 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the U.S.-led coalition expulsion of Iraqi forces the following year had major consequences both for the countries involved as well as the wider region. From the beginning, the invasion was like most other decisions of war and peace in Saddam’s Iraq – the Iraqi President relied most on consulting himself and his own believed abilities as a military leader. Sidestepping his own chain of command, Saddam acted solely through his Republican Guards. Army Chief of Staff General Nizar al-Khazraji remarked on the event, "Here happened something strange. Abd al-Jabar al-Shanshal was the Minister of Defense and I was the Chief of Staff and we were not approached from near or far about the subject of invading Kuwait." (Ghassan Charbel, Saddam marra man huna: al-‘Iraq man harb ila harb (Saddam was Here: Iraq From War to War) (Beirut, Lebanon: Riad el-Rayyes Books, 2010), 207). Both men only learned of the invasion after it had begun. For his own part, when Republican Guard General Ra’id Majid al-Hamdani was summoned to headquarters and told he would be leading the invasion, he responded with surprise, "Occupy Kuwait, a brother country?!"(Ra’ad Majid al-Hamdani, Qabla an yughadirana al-tarik (Before History Departs Us) (Beirut, Lebanon: Arab Scientific Publishers, 2007), 196). Thus, soon ended the suspension of hostilities and initiated the ensuing phases of four decades of conflict that have raged until the present day.

The brutal Iraqi occupation and torching of Kuwait’s oil fields was met by the coalition’s destruction of Iraq’s civil infrastructure. The rout of the Iraqi army from Kuwait in Saddam’s declared "Mother of All Battles" was accompanied by the armed rebellion of aggrieved Kurdish and Shia populations, along with Sunni opposition to the Ba’ath. The eventual suppression of the 1991 Iraqi Intifada claimed tens of thousands more lives in the period of a few weeks and went a long way in creating the Pandora’s Box of sectarian grievances that the U.S. invasion and occupation opened in 2003. Outside of fueling a nascent al-Qaeda movement with the continued presence of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, the 1991 through 2003 phase was a period of peace without peace for the United States and Iraq, or a "phony war" that occasionally erupted into open fighting.

Gulf War Without End

The imposition and enforcement of no fly zones and sanctions against Iraq throughout the 1990s entailed regular military action and air strikes against the country. Making the Iraqi people "pay the price" through sanctions as then Deputy National Security Adviser Robert Gates called it, for the survival of Saddam’s regime exacted a deadly toll, claiming the lives of an estimated 500,000 Iraqi children, in a cost that Secretary of State Madeline Albright once infamously described as "worth it." At the same time, Saddam’s regime never missed an opportunity to use the plight of Iraqis for their own benefit, while building massive new palaces and ensuring their own luxurious standard of living. The 1990s saw sustained heavy fighting between Kurdish factions and Baghdad, along with unsuccessful CIA plots to topple the regime. Saddam’s playing hide and seek with UN weapons inspectors, a complex alternating game between secrecy and transparency, reached a fever-pitch as Operation Desert Fox rained down five days of strikes and the Iraq Liberation Act, brainchild of the rising neoconservatives, became U.S. law in 1998. The pursuit of regime change in Baghdad was enshrined as official U.S. policy and all that remained was the arrival of an administration with the agenda and opportunity to implement it.

The Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 quickly did away with a regime that had spent the previous decade much more concerned about fighting internal enemies than it did planning to fend off a U.S. invasion that it never believed would actually arrive in Baghdad. Accordingly, delaying tactics of destroying infrastructure to slow the American advance were never enacted. On the other hand, aircraft were buried in the sand to spare them from U.S. airstrikes, clearly indicating that Saddam expected to survive the war in power. As Americans laughed at the grandiose claims of Iraqi press secretary Muhammed Saeed al-Sahhaf (popularly known as "Baghdad Bob"), little did they or the rest of the world know that Saddam and the upper echelons of the regime believed his every word and were absolutely certain of their impending victory. The invasion phase quickly ended, but the occupation and insurgency phases were greatly aided by the disastrous decrees issued and policies pursued from the very beginning by Coalition Provisional Authority Head Paul Bremer and his advisers. Despite the passage of a decade, Iraqis are still reeling from the consequences of "year zero" in Baghdad.

In a highly revealing interview with Vanity Fair conducted in May 2003, Iraq War architect Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz discussed the Bush administration’s motivations for the invasion. Wolfowitz explained, "The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason." When questioned, the undersecretary confirmed that the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia serving as a rallying call for al-Qaeda featured prominently in his thinking. Despite not stating this directly, Wolfowitz’s comments seemed to indicate that a rationale for moving U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia to Iraq was to serve as a panacea for undercutting radical Islamists in the region. Both startling in terms of simplicity and striking in its lack of insight, Wolfowitz’s interpretation also highlighted how little he and his colleagues understood the changes in the regime they had worked so long to topple over the course of the past decade.

Pillars of Faith

Saddam’s initiation of the "faith campaign" in the 1990s came in the wake of the defeat of Iraq militarily in the First Gulf War, failure of his party branches and Popular Army to handle the anti-regime uprising, and the collapse of the Ba’ath world view. The party slogans of "Unity, Freedom, Socialism" had been thoroughly shown to be mere rhetoric. Where was unity following the 1991 Intifada? Where was freedom in the brutal dictatorship centered on Saddam? And what of socialism, considering that even as far back as the 1980s, the regime had overseen a wave of privatization deemed highly favorable by private capital and even Western interests? (For examples, see ‘Isam al-Khafaji, "State Incubation of Iraqi Capitalism," MERIP Middle East Report, No. 142, (Sep.-Oct. 1986), 4-9+12, and Fred Schiff, "Why East and West are lining up beside Iraq," Businessweek, June 4, 1984, 46). The centrality of Islam offered a way forward from this impasse and was in tune with general trends in the region since the 1970s. As Joseph Sassoon explains the significance of Saddam and the Ba’ath’s new look, "These public displays of faith and religiosity were part of the effort to enlist support for the regime both in Iraq and in the Muslim world." And while adding "God is Great" to the Iraqi flag, building mosques, and writing a copy of the Quran in his own blood were all great publicity moves for the Iraqi leader rebranding himself and his regime in Islamist colors, they also revealed a deeper change. In conversations with his trusted inner circle, Saddam increasingly spoke of visits by the Prophet Muhammad in his dreams. The Iraqi dictator even went as far to write a letter to God, having an aide bury it with several hairs from his mustache in a wall at the mosque constructed to commemorate Iraq’s "victory" in the 1990-1991 Gulf War.

With these developments in mind, for all of the discussion of Saddam’s ties with terrorism and despite high profile propaganda gestures of giving money to Hamas and the families of suicide bombers, the Bush administration managed to invert the actual nature of the regime’s relationship with the region and Islam. Rather than export radical Islam or terrorism to the West, like the rest of the regime’s survival strategies during the interim period between the 1991 and 2003 phases of conflict, riding the rising Islamist tide was aimed mostly at Iraqi affairs. The regime’s own documents illustrate the high level of concern about Wahhabism and Saudi-sponsored radical Islam in general. As Sassoon uncovered, "two months before the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States, a secret and urgent order from Saddam Hussein was sent to heads of branches ordering that all imams in every mosque must announce that Wahhabism was an infidel movement." Saddam’s faith campaign was only big enough for himself. Although plans were drawn up to strike Western targets, Saddam did not want Iraqis to go attack America or fight his enemies abroad; he wanted Arabs and Muslims to come to Iraq to help fight his enemies at home.

Saddam and the Ba’ath had never really trusted their army. The army’s performance in the 1991 Gulf War and the participation of defectors from it in the subsequent anti-regime uprising further convinced them of the need for alternative forces. The Fedayeen Saddam militia, loyal directly to the person of Saddam Hussein through their command by his son Udaay, was an important part of the solution. As the Bush administration ceaselessly made the case for war against Iraq in 2002, the Secretariat Office of the Fedayeen Saddam was busy processing membership requests from Sudanese and Yemeni volunteers. On the brink of war in 2003, the Iraqi Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad al–Tai informed Vice President Taha Yasin Ramdan that his men were "welcoming and equipping Arab volunteers."(Conflict Records Research Center Document—/SH/PDWN/SH—PDWN—D—766). Many of them soon put up the stiffest resistance to invading American forces.

The men of the U.S. Marine Corps First Recon Battalion famously chronicled in Evan Wright’s Generation Kill encountered many of the Arab volunteers during the invasion of Iraq. In one instance, they found a wounded fighter carrying 500 Syrian pounds and a Syrian passport containing a visa with the handwritten word "Jihad" as the reason for his visit to Iraq. The First Marine Division’s intelligence officers later estimated that up to half of all enemy combatants in central Iraq were non-Iraqis, some of whom carried out the first suicide attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq. The men documented in the book interpreted this evidence as confirmation of the Bush administration’s claims of fighting terrorists in Iraq and in a way much like Paul Wolfowitz himself, mistook the motives of the regime and drastically misunderstood the implications of moving U.S. forces into Iraq. As a desperate strategy during the regime’s final days, the Ba’ath had created an ideological incubator for insurgency in Iraq, one that was filled by successive waves of increasingly radical militants as the Bush administration marched the U.S. military right into it and brought the highly sectarian Maliki regime to power on top of the volcano they unleashed. The ensuing eruption has yet to end.

Steven Cook recently wrote that the notorious leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq Abu Musab Zarqawi was the "first iteration of ISIS," but the real origins of the trans-national insurgency threatening parts of Iraq and Syria today traces further back to the regime of Saddam Hussein in its final months. The flow of foreign fighters to Iraq, their networks through Syria, and their heavy involvement in confronting American forces during the first days of battle in 2003, including the use of suicide attacks, presaged events of the following decade. Many of the same men who fought American troops in Iraq then fought against the Assad regime following the militarization of the Syrian Revolution in 2011 and 2012, later returning to Iraq to confront the Iraqi Security Forces in recent weeks and months.

Recognizing the "Islamization" of the Ba’ath before its demise is additionally essential for discussing the role of at least some of its remnants active in Iraq today. A New York Times article described former Vice Chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council and current Ba’ath leader Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri as a "mysterious figure" in an "uneasy alliance" with Islamists, also mentioning his believed role in previously working with Syrian Intelligence to coordinate the insurgency against American troops in Iraq. However, examined more closely, Izzat, always one of the more observant Muslims in Saddam’s inner circle, openly clashed with Marxist hardliners like Ali Salah al-Sa’idi early in the history of the party. Fittingly, he assumed a more prominent role as the Iraqi Ba’ath re-branded themselves as an Islamist regime during the 1990s. Jihad Karam remembered him as teaching other party members about the Quran and seeing the "faith campaign" as validation that "religious practice did not contradict party faith, but rather that one helped the other." (Jihad Karam, Ba’thiun man al-‘Iraq: kma a’rftuhum (The Ba’athists from Iraq: As I knew Them) (Beirut, Lebanon: Arab Scientific Publishers, 2010), 139-141). Hardly a secularist nationalist, Izzat is likely more at home with present Islamist allies than he was with many of his former leftist comrades. In considering recent developments on the ground in Iraq, it is important to note that events and forces shaping them are not completely removed from the former Ba’ath regime and its history, regardless that its demise occurred more than a decade ago.


In conclusion, the United States’ invasion of Iraq brought with it or empowered the Shiite opposition, like al-Da’wa, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and the Sadrists. Despite sectarian identity hardly being a uniform or all-explanatory concept in Iraq, at face value and in light of Iraq’s long marginalized Shiite majority away from political power, it is not at all surprising that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani gave an important endorsement of the country’s new electoral system. An alliance of Shiite and Kurdish factions supported by Iran and the United States would undoubtedly make a formidable force, both due to demographics and their persecution by the former regime, but the boycott of the 2005 elections by Sunni Arabs resulted in the miscarriage of Iraq’s "democracy," sidelining significant segments of Iraqi society from political participation and influence. It subsequently fueled an insurgency led in part by elements discussed previously, the 2006-2007 civil war, gave rise to a Maliki regime with authoritarian predilections, and created a political system where the entrenchment of sectarian grievances and their exploitation by political factions wielding such narratives for their own benefit has sadly dominated Iraq ever since.

In the end, despite not working hand-in-hand in Iraq as they did during the early 1970s, the United States and Iran once again find themselves begrudgingly on the same side of the divide in supporting the Iraqi Security Forces and Nuri al-Maliki’s government. Thanks almost entirely to the U.S. invasion in 2003, Iran has made deeper inroads into Iraq in the decade since than eight years of war ever brought during the 1980s. If the Iraqi Security Forces continue to falter and Maliki’s opponents continue their advance, one of the great ironies of modern history will likely be the reliance on Iranian forces to defend Baghdad, the same city that their organizational predecessors spent the majority of the 1980s trying to reach. Many of the usual advocates of armed intervention have unsurprisingly been at the forefront of pushing for airstrikes in Iraq, although the ten divisions of Iranian troops massed on the Iran-Iraq border constitute the real insurance of Maliki’s regime. In the final measure, throughout Iraq’s forty years of war and political violence, whether initiated from Baghdad against its neighbors or brought into the country by outside powers, the same party in Iraq that has primarily suffered the consequences, paid the price, and will continue to do both, is none other than ordinary Iraqis.

Michael Brill will be a student in the Master of Arts in Arab Studies program at Georgetown University starting this fall. He spent the last year in the Middle East studying Arabic in the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) program, having also spent previous summers studying in Jordan and Oman.