March 19th, 2013
09:42 AM ET

U.S. has self to blame for Iraq failures

By Kenneth Roth, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch. You can follow him @KenRoth. The views expressed are his own.

What is there to show for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq 10 years ago? Many are quick to insist that Iraq is better off than it was under Saddam, but that is a low bar, given Saddam’s genocide against the Kurds, mass slaughter of Shia who rose up against him, and unspeakable brutality against anyone perceived to challenge his rule.

Sadly, one cannot say a lot more. Despite the massive military and financial commitment, and the sacrifice of thousands of Iraqi and American lives, the United States left Iraq a weak foundation for democracy.

It is not as if no effort was made. The U.S. government helped to draft legislation and a new Constitution, trained judges and lawyers, and supported civil society and independent media. But that enormous effort could not overcome the negative precedents set during the U.S. military deployment. From the brutality of Abu Ghraib and other detention centers, to the repeated use of excessive force to protect American troops and contractors, to the creation of Iraqi security units that allegedly tortured and abused with impunity, the U.S. military left the impression that achieving its goals took precedence over such niceties as respect for international rights standards.

Nor did the United States do any better on departure. Washington withdrew U.S. forces in their entirety rather than acquiesce to Baghdad’s insistence on subjecting them to Iraqi prosecutorial oversight. The Iraqi government had good reason to distrust U.S. self-policing, given how little the United States has done to bring to justice its own perpetrators of abuse.

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The United States also left much to be desired in its political decisions in Iraq. Its overbroad deBaathification process – firing people because of their association with the ruling party rather than any particular crime or misconduct – set a precedent of revenge in lieu of justice, and left a sea of angry men who were easy picking for armed insurgent groups. The U.S. military also dissolved the Iraqi security forces and filled the void with a rapidly created substitute that was prone – and often encouraged – to abuse.

The rights record of the Iraqi government that emerged from these uninspiring examples is deeply troubling. Arrests occur routinely without warrants. Thousands of people are held without charge with no end in sight, sometimes in unofficial detention facilities. Torture during interrogation is common. People brought to trial are often convicted through coerced confessions and secret informant testimony. Corruption is reportedly rife in the Interior Ministry, and collusion between officials and judges is said to be common. Judges typically close their eyes to evidence of torture, and due process at trial is rare. Executions are skyrocketing – 129 in 2012 compared with 62 the prior year – with few details available about the identity of those condemned or the charges against them.

The government justifies many arrests in the name of fighting “terrorism,” but the common denominator among those caught up in this system of injustice is perceived opposition to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Rather than build a broad political coalition, al-Maliki has used repression to address political threats.

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Even semi-autonomous Kurdistan, the brightest spot in Iraq, is beset by assaults on free expression, with government opponents and critical journalists under attack. Many of the problems seen in Baghdad have their parallel in the Kurdish north, if on a less severe scale.

Iraq’s parliament recently adopted legislation that would prevent al-Maliki from serving a third term after his current one ends in 2014. But he is challenging that law before the Supreme Judicial Council, whose head is a close ally. Meanwhile, al-Maliki’s narrow political base – built on a seeming combination of loyalty to Maliki and fear of the alternative – is fueling sectarian tensions and aggravating regional differences.

A strengthening of clan-based structures is making life worse for women, who ironically under Saddam’s brutal rule enjoyed some of the highest levels of equality and social participation in the region. Today’s revival of local customs has meant more tolerance of domestic violence and “honor” crimes. In a government where jockeying for power seems to take precedence over all else, Baghdad shows no interest in standing up to abusive clan leaders whose support it might need.

The government says it is open to reform. Following mass protests in majority Sunni areas in December after the arrest of the finance minister’s bodyguards, the government formed several committees to respond to protester demands. But there is little to suggest they will address systematic problems in the justice and political systems, or that illegal arrests, abusive interrogations, coerced confessions, and unfair trials are being curbed.

Can anything be done to reverse this disturbing course? It’s not easy to rectify past mistakes that are so fundamental. One way to start would be at least to acknowledge them and openly seek improvements. Yet the U.S. ambassador seems to refrain from even discussing al-Maliki’s deep flaws, as if they are too painful a reminder of an episode of U.S. military adventurism gone awry that is best forgotten.

Worse, the CIA is reportedly building up its assistance to an elite anti-terrorism unit that reports directly to al-Maliki’s office and has been synonymous with the torture, abuse and “disappearance” of detainees. Nothing the United States could say to encourage greater respect for human rights is likely to counter such a direct manifestation of indifference. After 10 years, Washington should have learned that it cannot improve a government’s human rights conduct when it joins that government in demonstrating indifference to basic rights. At minimum, continuing security assistance should be conditioned on respect for these rights that are so lacking in today’s Iraq.

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Topics: Iraq

soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Marine5484

    Quite wrong, Mr. Roth. We failed there simply because the Iraqi people never wanted us there in the first place despite all these right-wing claims to the contrary. As Abraham Lincoln once said, "you can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time"! Just when are the right-wing thugs in Washington planning to quit fooling the American public? So far, they have been only too successful!

    March 19, 2013 at 1:33 pm | Reply
  2. sand

    justice needs to be served and soon it will when china nuke ireland dublin and then drops a nuke on ghana then after that the chinese will start to nuke city after city and removing all the western evil ilk of the earth.

    March 19, 2013 at 3:45 pm | Reply
  3. Not Sand

    I could see you saying that the infrastructure was never brought back to pre-war operations. As for the rest, the Iraqi's are in control of their own destiny. As long as Shia and Sunni can't see eye to eye and behave there will be chaos and that holds true throughout the middle east. They cut of their own noses despite their face. People shouldn't have to live in fear everyday and the religious leaders are the ones who keep fanning the flames of hatred. Every life is precious and until they get that, well it could mean another 1300 years of bloodshed.

    Peace Duh

    March 19, 2013 at 11:50 pm | Reply
  4. Karen Johnson

    I just watched your discussion with Paul Wolfowitz. I can't believe you let him set there and cover his rear as he did. He is so wrong about having to go to war with Iraq. Our reason for going was because George Bush wanted to do . Paul Andrews said that, and got fired for it. Ask him about it and see what he says.

    March 20, 2013 at 12:32 am | Reply
    • Quigley

      We went to war with Iraq in 2003 simply to steal their oil and little else, Karen. Why can't the American public see that or don't they want to? Unfortunately, most Americans want to believe what the government tells them, no matter how idiotic it may be!

      March 20, 2013 at 11:07 am | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    The Shia prime minister Nouri al-Maliki harbours dictatorial ambitions and is not much different from Saddam Hussein. His opponents insist there can be no solution to the current crisis while he's still in power. He is at odds with the Kurds, who have their own autonomous region in the north. Sunni areas in the west of the country are rising up against his government. The best solution will be to have Iraq divided along the ethnic-sectarian faultlines.

    March 20, 2013 at 8:18 am | Reply
  6. Victor Conopuma Genebroso

    The people at the end are victims of abuse, genocide and crimes against humanity by the authorities of the day the armies commit many crimes in these wars that do not respect human rights where the big economic interests promoting these wars

    July 26, 2013 at 7:53 pm | Reply
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