The five-part BBC series Once Upon a Time in Iraq is interesting, and worth watching. And that is despite its peculiar omissions. Where is the struggle of the Kurds for freedom? Why no consideration of the fact that the state which benefited from the US war was, ironically, Iran?
Once Upon a Time is, instead, a story of the grandiose hubris of the US political elite, their political stupidity, their glib carelessness, their lack of concern for working-class Iraqis, and about the devastating impact of the disaster on the Iraqi people. Certainly, that is part of the truth.
Paul Bremer, George Bush’s Presidential Envoy to Iraq, got off a plane in May 2003 and declared that the US had no desire to be a colonial power. Obviously much of the far left, at the time, looking at the situation through their own dysfunctional lens, thought that was exactly what the US was doing.
Which is to misunderstand recent imperialist policy. The US’s New World Order depended on the power of the US banks and its economic power, backed (just in case) by the most powerful army the world had ever seen. Colonies were from a different phase of history, something the British and French did before World War Two…
Nevertheless, would the US be able to quickly walk away?
Bremer’s Order 1 banned the Ba’ath Party in a country where, as one participant observed, “everyone was a Ba’athist” simply in order to work, and be safe. Teachers, civil servants, doctors were slung out of work in enormous numbers for having a party card.
Bremer’s Order 2 disbanded the Iraqi army and put 400 000 troops out of work in conditions where there was chaos and a lot of easily available weapons.
A US colonel, wiping away the sweat from his forehead as he remembered the events, and shaking his head, commented, “The [way that de-Ba’athification was carried out] was a crippling blow to reconstruction. The teachers can’t teach, the hospitals are shutting down.” The Americans created the perfect conditions for the Sunni insurgency: Sunni Islamists and Ba’athists – political lines increasingly unclear - rose against the US and UK forces.
At the time the AWL backed the beleaguered new Iraqi unions. Much of the far left – most vociferously, and stupidly the SWP - backed the fascist Iraqi “resistance” and denounced the unions as collaborators.
Meanwhile the American leadership had forgotten lessons that they themselves had (belatedly) learned in 1991.
George W Bush’s father, George HW Bush, had been US President during the 1990-1 Kuwait-Iraq crisis and war. In August 1990 Saddam’s army had invaded Kuwait. A massive US-led war had driven Saddam out of Kuwait in January and February 1991. Bush then called upon the Iraqi peoples to rise up and oust Saddam. The Shia majority, in the South, followed the US’s call but were left to die as the US stepped back and allowed Saddam to kill tens of thousands.
Why did the first Bush not help the Shia he had encouraged to rebel? He was – concluding too late - frightened of the consequences of doing so and of Iraq falling apart into its component parts, amid sectarian civil war. The first Bush acted contemptibly, but his son, the grinning fool George W, claiming the war was to avenge the 9/11 attack and seize non-existent weapons of mass destruction, seemed to genuinely believe that democracy would blossom without a functioning state.
The final phase of Once Upon a Time deals with the eventual consequence of the Shia-Sunni sectarian nightmare: the rise of Daesh ("Islamic State"). The regime Daesh imposed on Mosul compares unfavourably with that in Berlin, or Rome, circa 1936. And the documentary deals with their crimes, including the massacre of 1500 Shia army recruits abandoned by their cowardly officers in the former US base of Camp Speicher.
A hero of the film, a Sunni woman, saved some 60 people from Daesh - Shias, Christians, Yezidis and Kurds - helped them to hide, forge documents and escape.
That’s a lesson for us: fight sectarianism and religious bigotry, always, implacably.