Juan Cole: Top 10 myths about Iraq 2007

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Cole is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. His website is http://www.juancole.com.]

10. Myth: The US public no longer sees Iraq as a central issue in the 2008 presidential campaign.

Fact: In a recent ABC News/ Washington Post poll, Iraq and the economy were virtually tied among voters nationally, with nearly a quarter of voters in each case saying it was their number one issue. The economy had become more important to them than in previous months (in November only 14% said it was their most pressing concern), but Iraq still rivals it as an issue!

9. Myth: There have been steps toward religious and political reconciliation in Iraq in 2007.

Fact: The government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has for the moment lost the support of the Sunni Arabs in parliament. The Sunnis in his cabinet have resigned. Even some Shiite parties have abandoned the government. Sunni Arabs, who are aware that under his government Sunnis have largely been ethnically cleansed from Baghdad, see al-Maliki as a sectarian politician uninterested in the welfare of Sunnis.

8. Myth: The US troop surge stopped the civil war that had been raging between Sunni Arabs and Shiites in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

Fact: The civil war in Baghdad escalated during the US troop escalation. Between January, 2007, and July, 2007, Baghdad went from 65% Shiite to 75% Shiite. UN polling among Iraqi refugees in Syria suggests that 78% are from Baghdad and that nearly a million refugees relocated to Syria from Iraq in 2007 alone. This data suggests that over 700,000 residents of Baghdad have fled this city of 6 million during the US 'surge,' or more than 10 percent of the capital's population. Among the primary effects of the 'surge' has been to turn Baghdad into an overwhelmingly Shiite city and to displace hundreds of thousands of Iraqis from the capital.

7. Myth: Iran was supplying explosively formed projectiles (a deadly form of roadside bomb) to Salafi Jihadi (radical Sunni) guerrilla groups in Iraq.

Fact: Iran has not been proved to have sent weapons to any Iraqi guerrillas at all. It certainly would not send weapons to those who have a raging hostility toward Shiites. (Iran may have supplied war materiel to its client, the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq (ISCI), which was then sold off from warehouses because of graft, going on the arms market and being bought by guerrillas and militiamen.

6. Myth: The US overthrow of the Baath regime and military occupation of Iraq has helped liberate Iraqi women.

Fact: Iraqi women have suffered significant reversals of status, ability to circulate freely, and economic situation under the Bush administration.

5. Myth: Some progress has been made by the Iraqi government in meeting the"benchmarks" worked out with the Bush administration.

Fact: in the words of Democratic Senator Carl Levin,"Those legislative benchmarks include approving a hydrocarbon law, approving a debaathification law, completing the work of a constitutional review committee, and holding provincial elections. Those commitments, made 1 1/2 years ago, which were to have been completed by January of 2007, have not yet been kept by the Iraqi political leaders despite the breathing space the surge has provided."

4. Myth: The Sunni Arab"Awakening Councils," who are on the US payroll, are reconciling with the Shiite government of PM Nuri al-Maliki even as they take on al-Qaeda remnants.

Fact: In interviews with the Western press, Awakening Council tribesmen often speak of attacking the Shiites after they have polished off al-Qaeda. A major pollster working in Iraq observed,

' Most of the recent survey results he has seen about political reconciliation, Warshaw said, are "more about [Iraqis] reconciling with the United States within their own particular territory, like in Anbar. . . . But it doesn't say anything about how Sunni groups feel about Shiite groups in Baghdad." Warshaw added: "In Iraq, I just don't hear statements that come from any of the Sunni, Shiite or Kurdish groups that say 'We recognize that we need to share power with the others, that we can't truly dominate.' " ' '

The polling shows that"the Iraqi government has still made no significant progress toward its fundamental goal of national reconciliation."

3. Myth: The Iraqi north is relatively quiet and a site of economic growth.

Fact: The subterranean battle among Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs for control of the oil-rich Kirkuk province makes the Iraqi north a political mine field. Kurdistan now also hosts the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas that sneak over the border and kill Turkish troops. The north is so unstable that the Iraqi north is now undergoing regular bombing raids from Turkey.

2. Myth: Iraq has been" calm" in fall of 2007 and the Iraqi public, despite some grumbling, is not eager for the US to depart.

Fact: in the past 6 weeks, there have been an average of 600 attacks a month, or 20 a day, which has held steady since the beginning of November. About 600 civilians are being killed in direct political violence per month, but that number excludes deaths of soldiers and police. Across the board, Iraqis believe that their conflicts are mainly caused by the US military presence and they are eager for it to end.

1. Myth: The reduction in violence in Iraq is mostly because of the escalation in the number of US troops, or"surge."

Fact: Although violence has been reduced in Iraq, much of the reduction did not take place because of US troop activity. Guerrilla attacks in al-Anbar Province were reduced from 400 a week to 100 a week between July, 2006 and July, 2007. But there was no significant US troop escalation in al-Anbar. Likewise, attacks on British troops in Basra have declined precipitously since they were moved out to the airport away from population centers. But this change had nothing to do with US troops.

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Bryan Mullinax - 1/2/2008

Weeping, Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth as it is important to "prove" that what we are witnessing (improvement in the Iraq situation) doesn't meet with the demanded liberal outcome--defeat and disgrace for America.

This seems to present the idea that nothing which is happening is related to the President's insistence that we not turn tail and run from Iraq. American and Iraqi military deaths down, violence levels down, economic activity resurgent - all of this is simply some coincidence?

And if we had done what the Democrat Congress has been trying to insist on for a year (leave and the hell with the consequences) what would the consequences have been? Thankfully we don't have to witness that outcome today.

J. Feuerbach - 1/1/2008

I don't think average Americans should read a hundred books to develop their own independent expertise in political, military and legal issues. It has nothing to do with quantity but with quality: (a) what we read, listen to or watch and (b) how we process it. Critical thinking is not just a plus; it's a must. Americans should simply:

(1) Diversify their sources of information (TV and radio vs. newspapers and magazines vs. Internet and blogs, etc.)
(2) Make sure they read, listen to or watch shows of people who embrace diverse ideologies.
3) Follow a simple rule while absorbing the diversified information: "Nothing is more than 80% true."

We could all start by answering the following poll on US foreign policy:


My hunch is that Lorraine is behind this... :)

Andrew D. Todd - 1/1/2008

To Bill Heuisler:

Look at some current polling data. In a NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll, conducted December 14-17, 2007, 56% of Americans say that "Victory in Iraq Is Not Still Possible." 14% say that "Recent Increase in Troop Levels in Iraq Are Hurting The Situation There," and 44% say that the increases are 'Not Making a Difference," a total of 58%. 57% say that "The most responsible thing we can do is find a way to withdraw most of our troops from Iraq by the beginning of 2009." 68% "Oppose the War." 59% think that "Neither Side" is winning, and an additional 11% think the insurgents are winning. 30% want to withdraw some troops, and 39% want to withdraw all troops. And the paraphrases of the questions go on and on.


There are vastly more cab drivers, store clerks, etc., than there are Green Berets, or LURPS, or Rangers, or SEALS, or anything like that. In a democracy, with the principle of one person, one vote, that matters. I would be amazed if my cab driver did not have cousins in the service-- it goes with being in Appalachia. I don't think that people here have an especially high level of martial ardor per se-- it's just that going into the service is how a young person makes his or her way in the world, and gets away from a little town in the mountains. Take Jessica Lynch-- she was from a little hill town above Parkersburg, West Virginia, she wanted to be a teacher, she was in the Army to get her tuition money, and they were training her to be a truck driver/mechanic besides. Now, West Virginia University (Morgantown) has a real dream of a teacher education program for someone with money. The students don't get bogged down in textbook education courses-- instead they take liberal arts, and practice-teach nearly every term for five years before getting a master's degree, and becoming qualified-- and pay tuition for doing so. There's the rub, of course, together with the high proportion of comparatively wealthy out-of-state students, who can make someone from a hill town feel poor. However, the royal road to teaching children does not lead through the Army. What this means is that there is a kind of economic snobbery in your position. You look down your nose at people who enlist for the wrong reasons because they can't afford to do things for the right reasons. Obviously, at a certain level, if one has abundant economic resources, one should not enlist without the intention to go airborne or the equivalent, because that is what the Army is all about.


I don't know whether the cab driver has any elite commando-type relatives. People have done demographic studies, and found that those kind of troops come from secure economic backgrounds, have their college money already provided for, and could have been officers if they wanted, if they had been willing to put up with college coursework. I've known a certain number of "university brats" who went into the service to get out from under their inferiority complexes-- the same principle applies to doctors' and lawyers' sons, and of course they tend to gravitate to something esoteric, something which is obviously not an inferior version of what their parents do.

Your argument about success in Iraq is basically beside the point. Even if Iraq is as thoroughly pacified as you claim, it still isn't much of a country, compared to Mexico, and Mexico is a lot closer. I've noticed that you have been strangely silent about the whole Mexican immigration issue, I don't know why. Given where you live, your previous background, etc., I would think that is something you might know something about.

To J. Feuerbach:

As I recall, there was a lot of nonsense being talked in official circles about "Revolution in Military Affairs" (RMA), about how new technology was going make war easy and painless, to the point that traditional counsels of caution were no longer relevant. The problem, of course, is that the enemy generally gets his hands on the new technology as well, and the weapons cancel each other out. The man on the street simply didn't know enough military history to be able to critique this sort of thing-- and he was not about to sit down and read a hundred books to develop his own independent expertise. I don't have any easy answers for the general problem of public policy made on the basis of profound ignorance.

The backlash is not going to be as honest as admitting a mistake, or rather, admitting the consequences of ignorance. It will take the form of insisting that the public was lied to, that 9-11 was actually an inside job, etc. You know, like Mark Lane and the JFK conspiracy theory, along the lines that the CIA supposedly killed JFK in order to be able to lead the country into Vietnam, that kind of thing. See if you can obtain a copy of the film Weekend War (1988), to get some sense of what the earlier backlash looked like.


The New York Times review, written back in the 1980's, really doesn't do the film justice.

Lorraine Paul - 12/31/2007

Bill, how can one human being extrapolate killing into making the world a safer place, when the fact of him/her being in Iraq has made it a lot more dangerous place?

If this 'American soldier and his family...' are '...proud representatives' of the US why is it that the rest of the world, and the Iraqi people themselves, are less than enamoured with their 'help'?

Further, Bill, the 'thousands of radical Muslim terrorists', must be cleverly disguising themselves as peaceful civilians, mainly women and children, as they seem to be bearing the brunt of the 'surge'!

Further again, Bill, are you certain that your 'American soldier' isn't a soldier of fortune as this mob appear to be the ones doing most of the fighting and killing re Blackwater. Let us all finally debunk the myth that this is a 'war' against evil-doers fought by brave, patriotic and chisel-chinned Americans. It is a filthy illegal appropriation of the wealth of a country for the benefit of the invader!

I, for one, heartily applaud the people of the United States who want to get out of this vile situation which brings no honour to anyone involved. Thankfully, Australian troops will soon be coming home to defend Australia, not lickspittle to the ruling elite of a foreign country.

Randll Reese Besch - 12/31/2007

The intricacies of the invasion worked but it was the occupation that wasn't planned. The fact that it is an ongoing war crime trumps all others and should be said first,foremost and always. Juan Cole is right. The problem is that myths,that others wish to believe, are far more powerful than a truth that isn't.
By the way if you look back to the times of Saddam Hussien women had the same rights as women in the USA. A 'western' style country. Since the invasion women dress more like in Saudi Arabia,another USA allie.

Bill Heuisler - 12/31/2007

Mr. Todd,
Before you attempt to tell us what the American people think, you should interview an American soldier and his family. These proud representatives of our country volunteered to fight, and die if necessary, for the freedom of other people. Our soldiers and Marines believe they are making a difference - making Iraq safer for the new more Democratic government and for the Iraqi people. They also believe they are making the world and the US safer by killing thousands of radical Muslim terrorists. Taxi drivers and eye doctors apparently lack the perspective of those who've actually risked their lives for a cause greater than a tank of gas.

The troops are succeeding. Just ask them if you want facts. Juan Cole didn't bother.
Bill Heuisler

J. Feuerbach - 12/31/2007

The commitment to a decision based on principles shouldn’t dramatically waver as a result of changes or shifts encountered in one’s life. This applies to individuals and to countries. Major decisions require major consideration. The invasion of Iraq fits into this category and the assumption is that the US government and people thoroughly and carefully reviewed this decision from a political, military and legal perspective and then moved forward in its implementation.

So how can the shifts in US public opinion be explained? Why did most Americans --based on outcomes of two national elections and current polls-- support the war in 2004, then changed their mind in 2006, and now have decided to put the Iraq war on the back burner?

There are only two explanations:

(1) We didn’t think this invasion through. It was a rushed decision. Both the US government AND the US people didn’t give too much thought to the political, military and legal implications of invading a sovereign country.

(2) We don’t care about principles, just outcomes. "If things are going ok, the war is ok. If things start going south, we want out.” Maybe this is why we look at the war in Afghanistan differently. Why? Because apparently things are going better on that front.

So now we have decided we want out? Well, tough luck. You just don’t decide to invade a country and then change your mind because you are losing the war, your soldiers are getting killed and the whole thing is costing us a shitload of money.

There’s only one think more amoral that invading Iraq: Pulling our troops out and stop investing money in Iraq. Next time, let’s think things through before stepping on the gas. Let's do the quintessential American thing and take full responsibility for the consequences of this military adventure.

Andrew D. Todd - 12/31/2007

The American people think that Iraq is not worth the life of a single American soldier. It's that simple. No one is interested in emigrating to Iraq. Ultimately, the question Lawrence Brooks Hughes is going to be faced with is the traditional question that the more foolish kind of eighteen-year-old student communists used to be asked: "if you think the USSR (Iraq) is so great, why don't you give up your American citizenship and move there?"

I had an interesting conversation with a cab driver a couple of days ago, a good indication of the extent to which the common man is becoming radicalized, and angry. The cab driver was talking about energy independence, about how energy independence would mean good jobs for ordinary working guys, instead of having to work at some place like Wal-Mart, where they boss people around for the fun of bossing people around. The cab driver is starting to assemble a whole system of political ideas. He did not actually say that when he hears about "the strength of the Iraqi dinar," he reaches for his deer rifle, but that was "the sense of the meeting."

A couple of months ago, I went and had my eyes checked, and the optometrist wanted to talk about energy independence. This was on a rather more sophisticated, and less emotional level than the cab driver, as one would expect, with an emphasis on ways and means, wanting to ask the expert whether energy independence was feasible (desirability being self-evident), and being happy to be told that it would be no big problem. I doubt the optometrist even owns a rifle.

The American people do not want to know anything about Iraq. They just want out.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 12/31/2007

Iraq is much more stable than it was 13 months ago, and looks like it will be more stable yet 13 months hence. If so, that is victory, and achieved with less than seven percent the carnage of either the Vietnam or Korean Wars.

The Iraqi dinar is strong, refugees are returning, and prosperity is breaking out. Democrats in Congress who listened to Cole are backpeddling furiously now because they foolishly opposed U.S. forces in time of war. If there is one thing the electorate hates more than war, it is a losing war. Petraeus will probably return to a tickertape parade.

While Shia and Sunni could hate and murder each other forever, the same might be said about Serbs and Kosovars, and many other tribes in many other countries. In Iraq there is much intermarriage and more than a little hope that many will settle down.

Neither Juan Cole nor anyone else can gainsay the U.S. has changed conditions forever in Iraq as part of a shake-up extending throughout the Middle East, and that this region needed such a shake-up very badly. Sixty years of paying bribes to everybody had gotten us only child suicide bombers, more barbarism, and $100 oil. The status quo was not an option, and right now it looks like the future will be better than the past. We and the Iraqis have decided to cope with all the horrors Cole predicts when we come to them.

Lisa Kazmier - 12/31/2007

So, you think this administration is incapable of propaganda? Guess what: NONE of his information is wrong. If any of it is, let's see your sources.

Kevin DeVita - 12/31/2007

When I read an article like this, I am reminded of Shakespeare's quote that "the devil can site Scripture for his purpose." The 'facts' stated here are not altogether absolute truths but only 'point of view' truths. Unfortunately this is a propaganda piece. The title piqued my interest, but after reading it I can't help but feel disappointed. Do they not teach historiography anymore? The author's sources are weak or misrepresented. He is apparently seeking and finding evidence for views he already holds to be true. For example, take myth 6: The Bloomberg article doesn't fit the myth he is writing about. The Bloomberg article is about civil war conditions and its effect on women. While the 'myth' might be false, that article proves nothing except that life is horrid during a civil war. Another example is Myth 9. How does the explanation prove that no steps toward religious reconciliation have been make. All I can gather from that paragraph is that there are still problems. This does not mean that no steps have been taken. I've already wasted enough time on this article. Does HNN even examine this stuff before posting it? I guess it is up to us. Keep reading with a healthy skepticism. It will keep you from being brainwashed by this garbage.

J. Feuerbach - 12/30/2007

I think Mr. Cole is underestimating the power of myths. Myths don't need to be truthful to be powerful. His myth # 1 states, "The reduction in violence in Iraq is mostly because of the escalation in the number of US troops, or 'surge.'" Clean and easy causation: A (the surge)->B (reduction of violence in Iraq). Mr. Cole might describe that as a myth but apparently Americans are falling for it.

As a consequence of the apparent success of General Petraeus’ surge, the Iraq war has stopped captivating Americans’ minds and hearts. It’s all but impossible to find coverage of this story even on the back pages of most newspapers. Unlike the Congressional elections of 2006, the Iraq war is quickly turning into a non-issue in the next presidential elections.

What does this say about the American public? Public opinion in America is basically following the ebbs and flows of the war, a type of yo-yo mentality. Most Americans are (1) looking at the Iraq war from the outcomes perspective –neglecting the principles perspective and (2) focusing almost exclusively on the role and responsibility of the US government –overlooking their own. In sum, Americans aren't exercising critical thinking when assessing their government’s foreign policy or their own role in responding to its design and execution. A double shift is urgently needed. On the one hand, Americans should start reading the Iraq war in the light of principles --the forgotten perspective--, not just outcomes. On the other hand, the American people should engage in some serious soul searching and healthy self-criticism, reclaim their role in molding the future of the nation, and stop passing the buck to their elected leaders when it comes to blunders the latter commit.