The Iraq We Leave Behind

For years, a majority of Iraqis have just wanted the Americans to leave.

As of June 30, urban Iraqis will likely get their wish. But let’s step back for a moment and think about why some Iraqis, particularly in the Sunni areas, may be having second thoughts, and why others, their lives blistered over with varying degrees of dismal circumstances, are too depleted to engage in the hearty sendoff they’ve always dreamed of.

As many reports "from the ground" now reveal, the dirty little secret of American withdrawal from Iraq is that for many Iraqis, their world looks uncomfortably like the one the U.S. delivered them from in 2003, particularly in terms of corruption and greed – in the central government and police – and a substandard quality of life caused by unemployment and deteriorating infrastructure.

After more than six years of fighting and nearly a trillion dollars spent "to free the Iraqi people" – as exclaimed by invading President George W. Bush in 2003 – we find Iraqis in places like Anbar province fearing their new freedom could come at too high a cost.

"We feel many bad things are coming," said Kareem Arak, head of the North Ramadi city council, in a recent Associated Press report.

Raheem Kalaaf Mohammed, vice president of the council, shares his friend’s dire prediction. "We feel there will be disaster here."

Among other security concerns, such as the increasing suicide bomb attacks against security forces throughout Anbar, local business leaders in Ramadi fear a "wave of corruption" and charge the local police with stealing from their stores.

And that’s not all they’re accused of doing. The London Times produced a disturbing piece on April 24 indicating that Saddam-era tactics are alive and well throughout the Sunni and Shia-led police and security forces in the very cities slated for U.S. withdrawal in June.

"In this vast and largely unaccountable security apparatus, with almost a million people in uniform, corruption is rife," writer James Hider intones after telling this horrific story: "A young woman, evidently drugged, vomiting and occasionally calling for her mother, tries weakly to stop the grinning man in a white T-shirt and boxer shorts from pulling off her underwear."

She is raped. Her rapist and his accomplice, who shot the whole thing with the camera on his cell phone, are Ramadi police officers, according to the victim.

The accused rapist, being the nephew of a senior police officer, was held briefly before "mysteriously" freed, fleeing possibly to Syria. The girl’s fate, her family name now sullied by the rape, was much worse, as it was suggested to Hider by a government official that she was later the victim of a family honor killing.

No surprise, then, that when the group of businessmen in Ramadi was told by a U.S. officer that "very soon, there won’t be any Marines coming here," there were "murmurs of dismay" in response. Granted, these minority Sunnis have never been keen on the Americans leaving, but their reasons now are clear enough: two years ago, al-Qaeda bloodied the streets, targeting their local tribesmen who were standing in line to join the police. Now, al-Qaeda is largely gone, and it’s the police who are doing the terrorizing.

Fear and Loathing in Baghdad

Miles away in Baghdad, the corruption is blatant and somewhat more complicated, tied in with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-led government. Formally oppressed, these Shia knew well the cruel fist of Saddam’s Ba’athist henchmen. But the corruption today, alleged in emerging, scattered reports, looks eerily familiar – from men being yanked off the street, beaten, detained, and bribed for their last dime, to kidnappings, rape, and even assassinations. Now add the worst thing imaginable: the selling and exploitation of Iraqi children.

"MPs and American officials now believe that they [security forces] are often a law unto themselves," writes Hider, "admired when they defeat terrorists but also feared for their widespread abuse of power."

According to an April report in Time, corruption within the security forces "is enabling [sex] traffickers to operate with impunity," in that traffickers have established relationships with the local police. Girls and women are sold into prostitution by their families, and in some incredible cases, prostitutes who escape are returned right to their brothels – by police.

Meanwhile, children are being sold to adoptive parents, or worse, pedophiles, outside of Iraq – with the cover provided by corrupt government officials, reports allege.

The Guardian recently reported that scores of Iraqi children were being abducted from poor Iraqis and spirited off to foreign buyers by as many as 12 criminal gangs operating within the country. In this case, underpaid bureaucrats taking bribes and falsifying documents are making these unspeakable crimes happen.

As in Anbar, there is an acute tension in Baghdad, in part over fears that when the Americans eventually pull out, this perfect storm of bureaucratic corruption, police brutality, and the growing cancer of mistrust between the ruling Shia and the Sunni Awakening Councils that helped to sideline al-Qaeda will tear asunder any remaining hope for healing this scarred city.

Maliki’s government has promised to absorb into the government many of the former Sunni insurgents (also known as the "Sons of Iraq") now securing walled Sunni neighborhoods and communities beyond Baghdad. After months of red tape, some 90,000 fighters were given a paycheck in April. Tensions had already reached a critical pitch when the Iraqi army arrested Adel Mashadani, the Awakening Council leader in Baghdad’s Sunni Fadhil district, on March 28.

U.S. forces aided in his arrest and the detention of several other Awakening members in Fadhil. A statement was issued afterward insisting that Mashadani had been targeted for committing crimes – like involvement in sectarian violence and extorting more than $160,000 from neighborhood residents – not for his status as an Awakening Council leader. But Maliki’s mistrust of the Awakening Council movement is well known, and many fear this was just the opening salvo in an effort to bring about its ultimate demise.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s interior minister, Jawad al-Bolani, recently claimed in an American press op-ed, "We’ve tackled corruption by firing 62,000 employees and begun to dismantle sectarianism by prohibiting all political activity by police officers and creating a force made up of all Iraqis — Shia, Sunni, and Kurd."

What to believe? As of March, when Bolani’s op-ed was published, only 5,000 Sons of Iraq had been hired by Maliki’s government, according to reports, and the tales of corruption continue to confuse Bolani’s hopeful spin.

Who’s to Blame?

That the police have become so corrupt is no surprise to people who saw how they were trained and managed from the beginning. Details of the initial dismantling of the Ba’athist police after the fall of Saddam in 2003 and the unsuccessful scramble to replace them have been well documented. Considering the whole of the post-invasion catastrophe, it is no surprise that the blame has been largely placed on poor planning and execution by American policymakers.

While former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik was parachuted into the country as interim interior minister and police trainer in 2003, Shia militias began taking over the fledgling police force to become, as researcher Robert Perito described it as recently as 2007, "a patchwork organization of commando-style, counter-insurgency units [that] harbors sectarian death squads."

Kerik, who told the New York Times in 2006 that he was so unprepared he watched A&E Network documentaries beforehand to learn about Saddam Hussein, was a "waste of time and effort," charged retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, in a 2008 interview.

The loss of time putting a minor celebrity – Kerik had been celebrated for his police work following the 9/11 attacks in New York – into the role of creating an entire police force out of whole cloth cost the country dearly. Even today, people complain that Maliki has merely reduced the number of militias operating within the system down to one – his own. Meanwhile, in places like Ramadi, former Sunni militiamen-turned-police have seemingly picked up where their Ba’athist predecessors left off. As Perito wrote, the police under Saddam were "poorly trained and equipped, badly led, and underpaid … notorious for brutality and corruption." How much has changed?

As always, U.S. military officials must convey a sense of evolution in these matters so that their long years in Iraq won’t seem so futile. "[T]hey’re trying. They’re trying to move forward," said Maj. Joseph A. Musacchia, chief of security forces, commander of the 81st Security Forces Squadron, in a teleconference with bloggers on April 17 [.pdf].

"They’re trying to get to that point to where they can make up a gap of almost 100 years of police evolving. You know, they can’t go from Barney Fife to CHIPS overnight," he told listeners.

Why not – didn’t President Bush promise as much for the Iraqi people when he invaded?

The dream of such a turnaround has become a daily nightmare for many Iraqis, particularly city residents who anticipate the fresh vulnerabilities when U.S. forces finally decamp.

As Baghdad-born director Ghaith Abdul-Ahad asked in his dark and striking 2008-09 video series, Baghdad: City of Walls, "What will be left for the next generation when the Americans leave?" Hopefully, not just a mirror to the past.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.