Iraq: the biggest lie

IssueMarch 2013
Feature by Milan Rai

As we mark the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, there is a general understanding, perhaps even a global consensus, that lies were told to justify the war. The most important of these lies, however, is rarely discussed, or even noticed.

On 25 February, former British prime minister Tony Blair made a last throw at justifying the war: ‘If we hadn’t removed Saddam from power just think, for example, what would be happening if these Arab revolutions were continuing now and Saddam, who’s probably 20 times as bad as Assad in Syria, was trying to suppress an uprising in Iraq. Think of the consequences of leaving that regime in power.’

It was nonviolent popular protest that forced many restored Ba’athists from power

So far as I know, no commentator in the British media challenged Blair’s claim that a central war aim was ‘regime change’ in Iraq. But the truth is that the US and Britain were both desperate to maintain the regime – they wanted only to change the leadership.

Just three men

In a sense, this was stated openly on 17 March 2003 by the then US president George W Bush, who issued this ultimatum: ‘Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours. Their refusal to do so will result in military conflict commenced at a time of our choosing.’ The problem was identified as the Iraqi president and his inner circle. Not the fascist police-judicial-prison-intelligence-bureaucratic-military-industrial complex that Saddam had built up over the decades, based on the Ba’ath party. Just three men.

The war aim of ‘regime stabilisation, leadership change’ was also evident in the first actions of the invaders towards the state apparatus. Down south, in the area controlled by the UK, the Daily Telegraph reported on 18 April, ‘British anger Basrans by bringing back Ba’athists’:

‘British forces struggling to assemble an interim authority in Iraq’s second city, Basra, are facing criticism for reappointing officials from Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party. At an inaugural city council meeting, half of the dozen members on show were said to have held prominent places in the fallen regime. One of them, Ghalib Cubba, a rich businessman known in Basra as ‘Saddam’s banker’, once held soirees at which the leader known as Chemical Ali was a regular guest....

‘Last week, the selection of a former Iraqi brigadier, Sheikh Muzahim Mustafa Kanan al-Tamimi, to head an interim civil administration in Basra provoked angry street protests and threats of violence. Sheikh al-Tamimi has since been quietly dropped from the line-up, and the make-up of the Basra interim advisory council has been carefully withheld from the public.’

Promoting Ba’athists

In the capital, the US reformed the civil service by dismissing the top two Iraqi officials in each department and promoting the third-highest-ranking official to the top job. Dr Ali Shenan al-Janabi (who refused to renounce his Ba’athist beliefs) became health minister by this process, leading to white-coated demonstrations by doctors in the streets of Baghdad. In the culture ministry, Saddam’s favourite poet, Louai Haki, was asked to resume work as director-general of Iraqi cinema and theatre. The US appointed Thamir Abbas Ghadhban to head the oil ministry (promoting him from head of the ministry’s directorate of studies and planning). The deputy head of the industry ministry, Ahmed Rashid Gailini, became the head of the department.

The first two chiefs of police appointed in Baghdad had to resign in May 2003, perhaps because they had previously been the deputy chief of police and the former chief of police, under Saddam.

Down south, in the British zone, the Daily Telegraph reported on 16 May 2003 that the police were using ‘old-style techniques’ to beat confessions out of suspects: ‘Disgruntlement among troops across the south over the choice of new police officers, many of them former Ba’athists, is rife. “They’re all murdering bastards,” said one [British] lieutenant at a police station in Basra, where MPs [British military police] pulled out yesterday.’

The Financial Times, in a 24 June 2003 article entitled ‘Saddam’s poachers become America’s gamekeepers’, observed: ‘Despite an order issued on May 16, banning the Ba’ath party, and another from May 22, dissolving the Iraqi military, US forces increasingly seem to be relying on selected strongmen like [former Republican Guard general al-Juboori] to run cities and provinces under their control’.

It was nonviolent popular protest that forced many restored Ba’athists from power (including the new health minister and the first two chiefs of police in Baghdad).

Spies R US

Saddam’s intelligence services were reconstituted fairly rapidly. Stories appeared in the New York Times (‘U.S. Said to Seek Help of Ex-Iraqi Spies on Iran’, 22 July 2003), the Washington Post (‘U.S. Recruiting Hussein’s Spies: Occupation Forces Hope Covert Campaign Will Help Identify Resistance’, 24 August 2003), and finally in a British paper, the Sunday Times (‘CIA recruits Iraq’s feared secret police,’ 21 September 2003).

The Sunday Times interviewed Mohammed Abdullah, a colonel with 10 years’ experience in the fearsome Mukhabarat, and eight in military intelligence: ‘We are under strict instructions not to publicise our work with the Americans, but dozens of former Mukhabarat officers have already been recruited.’ Colonel Abdullah seems to have been re-hired as a secret policeman in May 2003, around the time of the de-Ba’athification decree.


It is clear from the record that not only was Iraq in many ways re-nazified by the US and Britain (a process resisted and reversed on occasion by the local population), but that it was all along the plan to retain ‘Saddamism without Saddam’. This strategy was summarised by Richard Norton-Taylor of the Guardian in January 2003: ‘Our diplomats and military commanders are clinging to the hope that pressure on Iraq from the build-up of American military force in the Gulf will lead to an “implosion” of Saddam Hussein’s regime without a war. They want the organs of the Iraqi state, including the Republican Guard, to remain in place, to maintain law and order with the help of American and British forces and prevent the oil-rich nation’s disintegration’.

The Telegraph, on 21 February 2003, reported: ‘The British assessment is that a coup is unlikely before a war, but it is possible once hostilities begin.’ The same paper summarised the view of a ‘senior British officer’ in Kuwait on 15 March: ‘The Allied planning appears heavily weighted towards an incremental strategy that applies mounting pressure and allows time for Saddam’s henchmen to decide their self-interest lies in risking a move against him. “This is all about getting someone to tip him over,” said the source.’

Tony Blair, who now claims the partial regime change in Iraq as a justification of the war, was not interested in real regime change in 2002 and 2003, as is shown by his restoration of Ba’athist thugs in the areas under his control.

If you look back, you cannot find a commitment by Blair to holding free national elections in a post-Saddam Iraq. He had no interest in real democracy in Iraq, and conceded the idea of a directly-elected parliament only after massive popular pressure in Iraq.

When, in November 2002, the then prime minister summoned six of Britain’s top Iraq experts to Downing Street, ‘the first thing Blair said to the academics was: “What do we do after the coup?” They were dumbfounded.’ (Sunday Times, 11 January 2004)

Topics: Iraq