Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Bush's toxic legacy in Iraq

By Peter Bergen
updated 11:37 AM EDT, Mon June 16, 2014
A Syrian Kurdish refugee child from the Kobani area holds laundry on a cold morning at a camp in Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border, on Monday, November 17. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. ISIS has been advancing in Iraq and Syria as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate in the region. A Syrian Kurdish refugee child from the Kobani area holds laundry on a cold morning at a camp in Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border, on Monday, November 17. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. ISIS has been advancing in Iraq and Syria as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate in the region.
HIDE CAPTION
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
Iraq under siege
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • When Bush administration attacked Iraq, it argued there was a Hussein-al Qaeda connection
  • Peter Bergen: Exhaustive research found absolutely no evidence of a connection
  • Ironically, the U.S. invasion provoked the creation of an al Qaeda arm in Iraq, Bergen says
  • Bergen: U.S. military fought back against al Qaeda in Iraq, but now U.S. has departed

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a director at the New America Foundation and the author of ""The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and Al-Qaeda," which this story draws upon.

(CNN) -- ISIS, the brutal insurgent/terrorist group formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq, has seized much of western and northern Iraq and even threatens towns not far from Baghdad.

From where did ISIS spring? One of George W. Bush's most toxic legacies is the introduction of al Qaeda into Iraq, which is the ISIS mother ship.

If this wasn't so tragic it would be supremely ironic, because before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, top Bush officials were insisting that there was an al Qaeda-Iraq axis of evil. Their claims that Saddam Hussein's men were training members of al Qaeda how to make weapons of mass destruction seemed to be one of the most compelling rationales for the impending war.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

After the fall of Hussein's regime, no documents were unearthed in Iraq proving the Hussein-al Qaeda axis despite the fact that, like other totalitarian regimes, Hussein's government kept massive and meticulous records.

The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency had by 2006 translated 34 million pages of documents from Hussein's Iraq and found there was nothing to substantiate a "partnership" between Hussein and al Qaeda.

Two years later the Pentagon's own internal think tank, the Institute for Defense Analyses, concluded after examining 600,000 Hussein-era documents and several thousand hours of his regime's audio- and videotapes that there was no "smoking gun (i.e. direct connection between Hussein's Iraq and al Qaeda.)"

Fareed's Take: Who lost Iraq?
How should the U.S. intervene in Iraq?
Is the U.S. Embassy safe in Iraq?
Expert: ISIS went for 'easy pickings'

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence concluded in 2008, as every other investigation had before, that there was no "cooperative relationship" between Hussein and al Qaeda. The committee also found that "most of the contacts cited between Iraq and al Qaeda before the war by the intelligence community and policy makers have been determined not to have occurred."

Instead of interrupting a budding relationship between Hussein and al Qaeda, the Iraq War precipitated the arrival of al Qaeda into Iraq. Although the Bush administration tended to gloss over the fact, al Qaeda only formally established itself in Iraq a year and a half after the U.S. invasion.

On October 17, 2004, its brutal leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi issued an online statement pledging allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Zarqawi's pledge was fulsome: "By God, O sheikh of the Mujahideen, if you bid us plunge into the ocean, we would follow you. If you ordered it so, we would obey."

Zarqawi's special demonic genius was to launch Iraq down the road to civil war. In early 2004, the U.S. military intercepted a letter from Zarqawi to bin Laden in which he proposed provoking a civil war between Sunnis and Shia.

Zarqawi's strategy was to hit the Shia so they would in turn strike the Sunnis, so precipitating a vicious circle of violence in which al Qaeda would be cast as the protector of the Sunnis against the wrath of the Shia. It was a strategy that worked all too well, provoking first sectarian conflict in Iraq and later civil war.

Al Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI, regularly attacked Shia religious processions, shrines and clerics. The tipping point in the slide toward full-blown civil war was al Qaeda's February 2006 attack on the Golden Mosque in Samarra, which is arguably the most important Shia shrine in the world.

Three years into the Iraq War, AQI seemed all but unstoppable. A classified Marine intelligence assessment dated August 17, 2006, found that AQI had become the de facto government of the western Iraqi province of Anbar, which is strategically important because it borders Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia and makes up about a third of the landmass of Iraq.

In addition, AQI controlled a good chunk of the exurban belts around Baghdad, the "Triangle of Death" to the south of the capital and many of the towns north of it, up the Tigris River to the Syrian border.

The Bush administration had presided over the rise of precisely what it had said was one of the key goals of the Iraq War to destroy: a safe haven for al Qaeda in the heart of the Arab world.
Peter Bergen

Thus AQI controlled territory larger than New England and maintained an iron grip on much of the Sunni population.

In other words, the Bush administration had presided over the rise of precisely what it had said was one of the key goals of the Iraq War to destroy: a safe haven for al Qaeda in the heart of the Arab world.

By 2007, al Qaeda's untrammeled violence and imposition of Taliban ideology on the Sunni population provoked a countrywide Sunni backlash against AQI that took the form of Sunni "Awakening" militias. Many of those militias were put on Uncle Sam's payroll in a program known as the "Sons of Iraq".

The combination of the Sunni militias' on-the-ground intelligence about their onetime AQI allies and American firepower proved devastating to al Qaeda's Iraqi franchise. And so, between 2006 and 2008, AQI shrank from an insurgent organization that controlled territory larger than the size of New England to a rump terrorist group.

But AQI did not disappear. It simply bided its time. The Syrian civil war provided a staging point over the past three years for its resurrection and transformation into the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria," or ISIS. And now ISIS has marched back into western and northern Iraq. Only this time there is no U.S. military to stop it.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:08 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
updated 12:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
updated 7:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
updated 7:46 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
updated 1:33 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT