Ending Saddam’s Regime
When U.S. President Bill Clinton ordered strategic strikes throughout Iraq in the 1998 Operation Desert Fox, American and British planes limited their attacks to hostile targets within Iraq's northern and southern no-fly zones. After the tragedy of September 11, Washington once again turned up the heat on Saddam, with President George W. Bush naming Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as the Axis of Evil. After President Bush and other U.S. officials convinced the United Nations to pass a new resolution concerned with Iraq's reported weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Baghdad's Ba'thists were once again in America's crosshairs.
Failing to obtain U.N. support for a pre-emptive strike on Iraq, the United States, Great Britain, and several other countries decided to deal with Saddam themselves. On March 19, 2003, the first of many powerful bombs rocked the Iraqi capital as Operation Iraqi Freedom got under way. Following another night of intense bombing, American and British troops camped in Kuwait moved into southern Iraq, bound for Baghdad. Over the next three weeks, some of the most powerful non-nuclear bombs known to man were guided to specific targets in a “shock and awe” air campaign. At the same time, ground troops battled their way toward Baghdad from the south, while others secured positions in western and northern Iraq.
In order to help coalition troops recognize important Ba'th Party officials, the U.S. Department of Defense issued the “Iraqi Most Wanted” set of playing cards. This dual-use deck pictured the fifty-five most important Ba'thist leaders, including Saddam Hussein as the ace of spades, his son Uday Hussein as the ace of hearts, and his other son Qusay Hussein as the ace of clubs.
Looting and Liberty
By April 14, coalition forces had gained control of Baghdad and Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, sending the toppled regime into hiding. Because most experts expected a long and bloody fight in the streets of Baghdad, no one was prepared when the government gave up the city after a matter of days. The resulting security vacuum gave the city's impoverished people the opportunity to take back what Saddam had stolen from them. Though looting was initially limited to Ba'th Party offices, it soon spread to warehouses, banks, and even museums.
After coalition forces made the transition from the role of warrior to policeman, relative order was eventually restored, but not before millions of dollars in cash, property, and artifacts were taken. Less than two weeks after Saddam's government collapsed, widespread rioting erupted as outspoken ethnic and religious leaders rallied their people, calling on foreign troops to leave their liberated lands as soon as possible. This development shocked many, but given Iraq's previous experiences with British occupation, their discomfort may be understandable. At the same time, with Saddam on the run, possible WMDs floating around, and the country devastated, coalition forces believed their continued presence was a necessity.
As American and British troops hunted for Hussein and company, many high-ranking Ba'thist officials were captured or killed, including Saddam's sons Uday and Qusay, who were slain in the northern city of Mosul (ancient Nineveh). Despite these successes, coalition forces experienced repeated attacks from suicide bombers, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and snipers. Though some of these attacks were the work of Saddam loyalists, many were made by individuals of varied political, ethnic, and religious backgrounds who wanted to repel another round of foreign occupation.
Quagmire of the Conquerors
On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush announced the end of major battle operations in Iraq. But for coalition forces, the battlefield was still hot. Though no WMDs were found, Saddam's regime was toppled. Even though the Iraqi army was no longer functioning, the “fida'yin Saddam” and other guerrillas continued sporadic attacks. With heavily armed young adults forced to police the streets of a foreign land, mortal mistakes were made. At times, troops took the lives of innocent Iraqis suspected of hostile intent, while at other times soldiers and marines lost their own lives by giving attackers the benefit of the doubt.
With Iraqi civilians dying at the hands of confused coalition forces, and citizens concerned that their liberators were now occupiers, protests increased in frequency and intensity. Soon after the fall of the Ba'thists, tribal and religious leaders gathered with American representatives to discuss Iraq's post-Saddam government, but the average Iraqi did not see the fruits of these talks until the summer of 2003.
On July 13 that year, a twenty-five-member interim administration known as the Governing Council met for its first official meeting. Because U.S. officials chose this temporary governing body, it was quickly criticized, but for the first time in Iraqi history the nation's administration was representative of the ethnically and religiously diverse populace. The twenty-two male and three female cabinet members constituted the following:
13 Shi'ite Muslims
5 ethnic Kurds
5 Sunni Muslims
1 ethnic Turkoman
1 Assyrian Christian
Though July saw the formation of Iraq's first indigenous representative government, August 2003 was the bloodiest month since Saddam Hussein was ejected from power. On August 7, a car bomb exploded at the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, killing ten. The following week, oil, water, and electrical lines were sabotaged, and on August 19, a large truck bomb ripped through U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, killing the chief U.N. envoy to Iraq and seventeen others, while injuring 100 more. To round out the month of terror, a massive car bomb rocked Friday prayers at the Imam Àli Mosque in An Najaf (home of the tomb of Àli, spiritual founder of Shi'ite Islam). In this attack, the Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim (spiritual leader of Iraq's Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution) was killed along with 124 other worshipers, while another 142 were wounded.
Were these attacks the organized efforts of a lingering underground government or the work of frustrated Iraqis who wanted to avoid foreign occupation? There were colorful arguments on both sides, but it seemed to be a combination of the two. Though no WMDs were ever found, Iraqis began experiencing freedoms they hadn't seen for decades.
With little or no restrictions on morality, pornographic videos and sex theaters grew more commonplace. In response, religious leaders used their new liberty to criticize these evils and the Western “occupation” forces believed to be importing them. Many Iraqis also used their increased wages to buy satellite dishes, which were forbidden under Saddam's strict media controls. In addition, Iraqis became free to tear down the numerous pictures of Saddam Hussein that had peppered the nation for decades. They did so gladly.
As for Saddam, on December 13, 2003, American soldiers captured him hiding under a trap door at a farm in Tikrit and turned him over to Iraqi authorities. An Iraqi Special Tribunal found him guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to death. He was hanged on December 30, 2006. Saddam Hussein's execution and the removal of his regime gave the average Iraqi freedom to buy, sell, watch satellite dishes and videos, and do many new things. More importantly, it helped dissolve the glue of fear from this troubled and diverse nation. But problems remained.
In the years since Hussein's removal, Iraqis have struggled to create a form of national government that will bring together the country's diverse political, ethnic, and religious groups and genders—and that will function in a secure environment. Their efforts have not always gone smoothly.
Iraq has been a forerunner in the Middle East in providing opportunities for women to participate in government. In 2005, the Iraqi constitution set aside one-quarter of legislative seats for females. Of 325 lawmakers elected in March, 82 were women, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. They began to gain power in 1959 with the passage of a progressive civil liberties law and the appointment of the first female minister in the Arab world.
Foreign troops have begun their withdrawal from the country and Iraqis have participated in elections to choose a Prime Minister and other officials. The officials, in turn, have created a National Council for Strategic Policies, filled cabinet posts, and increased oil production. However, thorny issues remain to be resolved.
For example, does the National Council for Strategic Policies have any real power? How much of a role does each separate political or religious group play in the government? If conservative religious factions gain significant political power, will the influence and participation of women in government be diminished? There are no immediate answers to such questions, and they will not be easy to resolve. The one certainty is this: The future of Iraq now lies in the hearts and hands of the Iraqi people, who are striving mightily to create a country that will be a model for unity and prosperity in the Middle East.