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To mark the tenth anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq, and to give wider public access to some of our reporting and analysis, GSN unlocked the archive of its newsletters published in 2003. Registered users of the GSN website can access the full PDFs of these issues for free.
GSN followed Iraq closely, in the newsletter and in a series of special supplements. The invasion was hardly a surprise; US determination to depose Saddam Hussein had been clear for months, but too little thought went into its repercussions. Few of those behind the invasion saw the potential for the turbulence it unleashed, in which the Iraqi political arena was remade, with Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki as its new strong man (GSN 939/1, 939/3).
A reading of pre-2003 GSN shows just how inevitable conflict was. ‘Global terrorism’ was high on the agenda as the George W Bush administration came to power. Although 2001 started with a “Bush team caught between interventionist temptations and isolationist urges” (GSN 652/3), it was soon apparent that an attempt to remove Saddam would not be avoided, whatever the opinion of allies. (“USA gears up for Iraq conflict without regional support”, GSN 682/3).
Throughout the first half of 2002, GSN ran a series of ‘smoking gun’ articles – for example GSN 682/4 (“Smoking Gun III” – Al-Qaeda connection?) and GSN 683/7 (“Smoking Gun IV” – missing US pilot might be alive in Iraq) – which reported on, and usually debunked, various claims that might be used as a pretext to act against the Iraqi Baathist regime. In a series of Middle East Insider supplements, GSN went into detail about oil-for-food and military configurations.
In early 2003, popular protests at the prospect of a US-led invasion, and opposition from players including “Chirac of Iraq” (GSN 705/3), took place against a military build-up and diplomatic efforts to find a casus belli that dragged in even sceptical politicians like US secretary of state Colin Powell and many of Tony Blair’s colleagues in the UK New Labour cabinet. By early March, GSN was asking whether impending war in Iraq would stall efforts at reform in Saudi Arabia and rally recruits for a growing domestic jihadist movement (GSN 706/10 & 706/11).
As the invasion unfolded, leaked US documents suggested plans had been put in place for post-war reconstruction and to stabilise oil exports (GSN 706/7). But even before this ideologically driven war began, there were doubts about the planning for its aftermath. As the assault on Baghdad was launched on 20 March, GSN offered analysis under the headline “Between a virtuous outcome and catastrophe: three scenarios for an uncertain future” (GSN 706/3). GSN’s best case was the Bush/Blair view of a short war, with the Baathists obliterated and a government of national unity taking over. GSN’s worst case saw Baghdad as an ‘Arab Stalingrad’, with oil prices hitting $50/bbl – only a decade ago a nightmare scenario for markets – and “around the periphery bush wars flare”.
It was the “Base case: ‘Baghdad spring’, fractious summer” that came closer to the truth. Trouble would mount on the ground as disillusion set in, at US inability to disengage from making political and economic decisions in Iraq, while failing to commit adequate troops and resources. This was well before L Paul Bremer III set foot in Baghdad as pro-consul and embarked on his strategy of scrapping all Baathist institutions (GSN 722/3).
The pattern for the conflict was set during 2003, and much that happened that year will have resonance for our readers today. Saudi Arabia was rife with succession speculation, while Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Abdelaziz pushed a reform agenda. Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani’s audacious dash for gas was starting to pay off in Qatar (GSN 714/16). Kuwaitis were wrangling over the Al-Sabah pecking order and parliamentary prerogatives (GSN 714/6). Sheikha Fatima Bint Mubarak’s sons were making the running in Abu Dhabi (GSN 724/1). The Bahraini opposition was reorganising to accommodate the ‘new politics’ promised by King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa (GSN 702/11). Iran faced problems developing its hydrocarbons resources as the US exerted pressure over its nuclear programme (Middle East Energy, GSN 715/16).
Iraq’s future was far from resolved as 2003 closed, and there were questions about the wider region’s stability. GSN opened 2004 by declaring: “Saudi tensions to draw regional and global focus in 2004” (GSN 725/1). This posited that, while Iraq would remain the focus of global attention, “it is developments in Saudi Arabia that will define the direction of regional politics in 2004”.