MESA Banner
The Iraq War at Year Twenty

Session VII-02, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 8:30 am

RoundTable Description
The 2022 MESA Annual meeting convenes on the twentieth anniversary of the political, diplomatic, and military preparations for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime. As a critical juncture in the modern history of Iraq, the war was decisive in shaping subsequent developments in Iraqi politics and society. This roundtable discussion brings together perspectives on both the path to war and the war itself. With respect to the former, one presentation will discuss the most prominent justification for the war: allegations of Iraq’s reconstituted weapons of mass destruction programs, along with the failure of George W. Bush administration officials and the U.S. intelligence community on this issue. Timely in view of growing interest in conspiracy theories and disinformation, another presentation will discuss one of the justifications of the war that sowed considerable confusion: claims of a relationship between Saddam’s regime and al-Qaeda under Osama Bin Laden. Belief in this “official conspiracy theory” continues among key members of the Bush administration and outside supporters of the war. Moving on to the two presentations dealing with the war’s consequences, both will place a particular emphasis on their impact on Iraqi society. The first presentation will examine shifts in popular and elite displays of major Shi‘i symbols between the pre and post-invasion periods. Focusing specifically on the Battle of Karbala, the presentation will compare and contrast the depictions employed by the Ba‘th Party and the Shi‘i Islamist opposition in the pre-2003 period, along those utilized by the latter once in power following the war. The second presentation will discuss the transformative effects of the war on Baghdad with a particular focus on the provision of public services. Whereas the process was centralized under the Ba‘th Party’s rule, the overthrow of Saddam’s regime and the collapse of the Iraqi state led to the devolution of public service provision to the local and even neighborhood level. When a wide range of new actors emerged vying for power and legitimacy, working sewage pipes and keeping the lights on became theaters in the battle for the “hearts and minds” of Iraqis. Collectively, the presentations of this roundtable aim to be the point of departure for a larger discussion of the 2003 Iraq War and on the eve of its twentieth anniversary.
  • Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction and U.S. Intelligence: A Collective Failure of Imagination? Between the 1991 and 2003 Gulf wars, lingering suspicions among Western intelligence officials loomed large over the continued state of conflict between Saddam Hussein’s regime and the U.S.-led effort to enforce the United Nations sanctions against Iraq. Iraq’s prior weapons of mass destruction programs and the U.N. inspections were at the center of these concerns. Between 1998 and 2002, when Saddam expelled the U.N inspectors from Iraq, Western officials, especially in the United States, interpreted Saddam’s behavior in view of prior instances in which Iraqi officials sought to impede inspections. By the time the U.N. inspectors were allowed back into Iraq in 2002, the administration of President George W. Bush had already settled on a policy of regime change. As central as Iraq’s presumably active weapons of mass destruction programs were to the administration’s justifications for the war, their striking absence following the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of the country was a devastating blow to the credibility of both the administration and the intelligence community. This presentation will discuss both how these events transpired and what has been written on the subject over the better part of the past two decades. Beginning with the initial post-invasion studies, the Iraq Survey Group Report and the Iraqi Perspectives Project, researchers emphasized Saddam’s “deterrence by doubt” strategy, which sought to maintain the appearance of active weapons of mass destruction programs to dissuade Iraq’s regional rivals. Subsequent research underscored the failure to understand the overlapping responsibilities of key regime security services on the part of U.N. inspectors and U.S. intelligence. Inspections of facilities deemed sensitive by the regime were perceived as a threat to the personal safety of Saddam. The mutual state of suspicion was exacerbated further since both Iraqi intelligence and the CIA had infiltrated the inspections mission. Other research has highlighted the structure of the inspections regime, the “cheater’s dilemma” where disclosures of past non-compliance only fueled current suspicions, along with the contradictory aims of the inspections mission and U.S. policy that was trying to overthrow Saddam. This presentation will address the field of scholarship and what can only be described as a collective failure of imagination with respect to not seriously considering a scenario where Saddam had not reconstituted his weapons of mass destruction programs.
  • SADDAM TRUTHERS. Saddam “Truthers” are political figures, journalists, and analysts who hold a deep conviction that the former leader of Ba’thist Iraq had a working relationship with Usama Bin Laden and is in some way responsible for a myriad of terrorist attacks on American soil including the 1993 World Center and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings. Notable Saddam Truthers include Laurie Mylroie, Paul Wolfowitz, Judith Miller, Stephen Hayes, James Woolsey, and Scooter Libby, among many others. While such views were considered by most analysts as fringe even after the events of September 11th, 2001, they nevertheless represent an extreme tendency in the ideational climate of the inner circle of the George W. Bush war cabinet. Though some Saddam Truthers have attempted to atone for their misguided beliefs, others such as Paul Wolfowitz and Laurie Mylroie continue to insist on Saddam Hussein’s involvement in domestic terrorism in the United States. Using written work and interviews from the late 1980s into contemporary times, the presentation will trace the contours of Saddam Trutherism and its variations across time and try to assess the impact of such views on the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. I will then attempt to address the more critical question of why do some Saddam Truthers continue to believe in the face of overwhelming evidence that they are wrong? One possible explanation is that a fanatical commitment to an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory is in some part a compensation on the part of Truthers for their uncritical support of Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1980s. The presentation therefore speaks to broader questions about the public trust in expertise in unsettled times.
  • “'Show Me the People': Neighborhood Leadership and Legitimacy during the US Occupation of Baghdad" The overthrow of the Ba’th Party regime in 2003 was accompanied by severe disruptions in the day-to-day functioning of the Iraqi state. These disruptions were especially visible in the collapse of public services that resulted in electricity outages, contaminated water, and piles of uncollected garbage. In the capital city of Baghdad, problems with infrastructure and public services presented political challenges to the US occupation overseen by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in 2003-2004. However, these same issues with public services presented new political opportunities to aspiring power brokers and politicians in Iraq. Who could get the sewage pipes working and the lights on, and who would receive credit for it, became a crucial test for local legitimacy and political influence. In Saddam’s time, the municipal office (Amanat Baghdad) oversaw the provision of all these public services in the capital. After the US occupation, the responsibility for providing essential services became more localized. Within each neighborhood, competition ensued between different actors who each aspired to prove their effectiveness as a local authority. Tribal shaykhs, militia leaders, nascent political parties, and US-created neighborhood councils were all competing for the ‘hearts and minds’ of Iraqis by way of their sewage pipes. In Baghdad’s important Sadr City neighborhood, these conflicts sometimes broke into the open as Muqtada al-Sadr’s outreach bureau clashed with the US-created council in the district over their competing roles in providing public services. This paper connects to key themes in the scholarship about governance in late-Ba’thist Iraq and under American occupation: changes to state-society relations under Saddam and after his overthrow, the rise of sectarianism, failed efforts in democratization and decentralization, corruption, and political dysfunction. One major contribution of this talk is to shift the analysis of state-society relations from the powerful national and provincial levels of politics to the neighborhood level. By doing so it reveals how power brokers in post-2003 Iraq first attempted to build their patronage systems by acting as personalized problem solvers in response to the capital’s failing public services and infrastructure.
  • Remembering Karbala: Approaching a Social History of Iraqi Shi‘ism Symbolic depictions and interpretations of the Battle of Karbala (680 CE) have been used by Shi‘is around the world to express a wide range of political, ethical, and cultural values. While previous scholarship has shown that tracing patterns of continuity and change in Karbala symbolism is an excellent means of casting light on broader societal transformations, popular and elite expressions of Shi‘i symbolism in Iraq have received limited scholarly attention. My research aims to fill this gap by examining deployments of Shi‘i symbolism and iconography during the Ba‘thist and post-2003 era to shed further light on the beliefs and positions of the Iraqi Shi‘i community. I will begin by detailing how both the Iraqi Ba‘th party and the Iraqi Shi‘i opposition movement in exile utilized Karbala symbols to express and legitimize their respective visions for Iraqi society. Thereafter, I will elaborate on how the formerly exiled Iraqi Shi‘i opposition movement modified their symbolic messaging following their rise to power, and conclude with a comparison between elite and popular expressions of Shi‘i symbolism in the post-2003 era. In doing so, this presentation will cast new light on broader historical transformations in the aspirations, frustrations, and self-presentation of Iraqi Shi‘is, both internally and vis-à-vis other communities within Iraq.