Chapter 5 of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction’s “Hard Lessons” report on the American effort to rebuild Iraq highlights the first turning point in the war. The previous chapters went through the uncoordinated planning and faulty thinking that occurred in Washington before the invasion. Chapter 5 covers the U.S. invasion and its immediate consequences. The chaos that ensued would ensure a long-term U.S. occupation of Iraq.
On March 17, 2003 President George Bush issued an ultimatum for Saddam Hussein and his two sons Uday and Qusay to leave Iraq within 48 hours. On March 20 the bombing began, and the next day Coalition ground forces crossed the border into Iraq. Most of the Iraqi military disappeared, but Saddam’s Fedayeen militia began attacks in the south. U.S. General John Abizaid, deputy commander of the Central Command (CENTCOM), looked at reports on how the war was going and predicted in April that the U.S. would end up fighting an insurgency in the country. American forces were concentrated on getting to Baghdad as quick as possible to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction. That meant large cities, and northern and western Iraq were left to themselves for weeks, a situation which would have a negative impact on security later on.
Pre-war planning had been split between military and civilian authorities with little to no coordination. That continued during and immediately after the invasion. Members of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and military engineers moved behind combat forces to assess the situation in Iraq independent of each other. The first place the USAID teams went to was the port of Umm Qasr in Basra on March 27. They found the facilities in poor condition, but were still able to have a British ship dock there the next day to delivery humanitarian supplies. The engineers found the power system and infrastructure falling apart across Iraq. In Baghdad for example, the communication and water system were knocked out shortly after the bombing began, and on April 4, the power died in most of the city. Before the war, planners in Washington believed that after the invasion, the country would still be running, and that reconstruction costs would be minimal, and mostly paid for by Iraqi oil revenues. The assessments of the USAID and engineering teams found that it might cost up to $35 billion to rebuild Iraq. USAID and Retired General Jay Garner, the head of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs (ORHA), had raised this concern before, but were met with deaf ears by administration officials.
Problems with unity of command even occurred within the ORHA itself. Faced with the dire state of Iraq’s infrastructure, Garner ordered the USAID to begin working on services instead of humanitarian issues. USAID refused, which led to a bureaucratic battle that reached all the way up to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell over who the USAID should answer to. Eventually Garner had to call Powell himself to get the agency to follow his orders.
Garner faced problems even getting into Iraq himself. General Tommy Franks, head of CENTCOM, was following the military’s plan for Iraq. That saw the U.S. overthrowing the government, securing any WMD, and then turning over Iraq to a civilian authority in six to eight weeks, at which time rebuilding would begin. Garner wanted access to Iraq immediately. Garner flew to Qatar to meet with General Franks where he argued that there was a power vacuum in Iraq that needed to be filled by the ORHA. General Franks reluctantly gave in.
The first place Garner’s staff went to was Basra. There they didn’t have a communication system at first, lacked security because there were too few Coalition troops in the city, and reported the first cases of looting on April 2. The chaos that was being unleashed would setback the work on Basra’s Umm Qasr port for weeks, and lead to skyrocketing costs, a foreshadowing of the overall reconstruction effort in Iraq.
The looting and chaos would quickly spread to the rest of the country. On April 7 looting began in Baghdad. Gunfire, robberies, and murders were reported across the city. All of Iraq’s ministries were stripped, and then burned. The exception was the Oil Ministry, which was protected by U.S. troops. That was because the Defense Department had been tasked with running the oil industry in pre-war planning, and issued orders to protect the building during the invasion. Some ministries even continued to be attacked when the U.S. occupied them. The Health Ministry’s offices for example were burned two or three more times after the Americans re-opened it. Iraq’s three main banks, Rafidain, Rasheed, and the Central Bank had their money and safety deposit boxes taken. Iraqis also began going after the petroleum industry, which lasted for ten weeks from March to May 2003, and caused $943 million in damages. Organized gangs and insurgents would eventually take over the robbing and killing. Some neighborhoods in Baghdad, especially Shiite ones, set up militias for protection. This spread to other areas like Amarah in Maysan where Shiite militias took over the city in the absence of Iraqi administrators and Coalition troops. The U.S. ground forces commander General David McKiernan said there weren’t enough troops to maintain security. He was also constrained by the fact that the invasion plan called for soldiers to continue to push north looking for MWD, leaving Baghdad, and much of southern and western Iraq with no Coalition presence. The result was more instability.
This had four major effects upon the U.S. and Iraq. First, it raised the costs of reconstruction by billions. On April 16, Congress appropriated $2.475 billion for rebuilding Iraq. The U.S. would end up spending $50 billion. Second, the lack of security meant Iraqi weapon depots were looted, which helped arm the insurgency and Shiite militias who would go on to destabilize the country after the invasion. Third, the collapse of the Iraqi government and the poor state of Iraq’s infrastructure after decades of war and sanctions meant that the Americans could not get services up and running, which cost them public support. Finally, the situation on the ground in Iraq would eventually mean the White House would give up its strategy of a quick departure.
Despite these setbacks, the U.S. military and leadership acted as if everything was going according to plan. On April 16 General Franks gave his “Freedom Message” saying that the U.S. would only be in Iraq temporarily, and that an American civilian authority known as the Coalition Provisional Authority would soon take over from the military. On April 21, Rumsfeld, taking the advice of General Franks, cancelled the deployment of 50,000 additional troops to Iraq, and began thinking of withdrawal. General McKiernan and Garner were shocked as they both wanted more troops to handle security.
At the same time, Garner was carrying on with his own policies as well. On April 15 he and Presidential Envoy to the Iraqi opposition Zalmay Khalilzad put together a meeting of over 100 indigenous Iraqi leaders in Nassiriya to discuss forming an interim Iraqi government that would take over from the Americans. On April 22, Garner flew to Kurdistan to consult with the Kurdish leaders on this plan as well, while Secretary Powell sent Khalizad and Ambassador Ryan Crocker to meet with Iraqis in the south. This culminated in a meeting on April 28 in Baghdad that included 250 domestic and exile leaders. They agreed to form an Iraqi government over the next four weeks.
All of the ORHA’s work ended in May. Faced with the instability in Iraq, the White House gave up on Garner. National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld both believed that ORHA had lost control of the situation in Iraq. On May 6, President Bush named Paul Bremer as his Presidential Envoy to Iraq to head a new organization, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Bremer had been contacted by the Defense Department and Vice President Dick Cheney’s office at the beginning of April. Garner had been told when he first got his job that he would eventually be replaced, but he didn’t expect it to happen so soon.
The Bush administration’s planning for Iraq had always been haphazard and disconnected. At any one time before the invasion there were at least two different organizations working on a strategy for post-war Iraq, with little to no knowledge of each other. The White House also often interfered with the effort causing more problems. When the invasion started the U.S. military and the civilian OHRA both thought they would be in charge of post-war Iraq. They worked independently, which didn’t help when the country fell into chaos. That instability led the administration to panic, and abandon its early plan to withdraw from Iraq quickly in favor of a long-term occupation under the CPA. The effects of that decision are still being felt today.
Packer, George, Assassins’ Gate, 2005
PBS Frontline, “INTERVIEWS Elisabeth Bumiller,” Bush’s War, 3/24/08
Ricks, Tom, Fiasco, 2006
Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, “Hard Lessons,” 1/22/09
Woodward, Bob, State of Denial, 2006
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