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Ten years on, US officer's Iraq diary tells grim tale
by Staff Writers
New York (AFP) March 16, 2013

US spies learning lessons from Iraq WMD disaster
Washington (AFP) March 15, 2013 - US spy agencies still live under the shadow of disastrous intelligence failures that paved the way for the Iraq war, and now face a crucial test as they track Iran's nuclear program.

In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq 10 years ago, the CIA and other intelligence services confidently asserted that Saddam Hussein's regime had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.

Their findings backed up the White House's strongly-held conviction that Saddam was a menace who had to be toppled by force.

But it turned out the intelligence community was "dead wrong in almost all of its pre-war judgments about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction," according to an official inquiry, the Silberman-Robb report.

The spy services failed to collect solid information, botched their analysis and reached conclusions based on flawed assumptions instead of evidence, making it "one of the most public -- and most damaging -- intelligence failures in recent American history," the 2005 report said.

Despite a desperate search for Saddam's arsenal after the 2003 invasion, no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were found, puncturing the whole case for the US-led war and igniting global outrage.

"This thing has done us lasting damage," said Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation think tank.

"It really significantly erodes the credibility of US intelligence in these areas," said Jenkins, a former Green Beret who has advised the government on security.

Since that humiliating episode, the country's 16 spy services have sought to bolster intelligence-gathering efforts around the world and added vetting procedures to their analysis to avoid any repeat of the Iraq experience, former CIA officials and analysts said.

"Lessons have been learned," said Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA analyst who oversaw intelligence on the Middle East.

Soon after the debacle over Saddam's weapons programs, the CIA and other agencies took steps to improve the screening of informers and added measures "to hold even senior intelligence managers' feet to the fire with regard to vouching for the credibility of source material," Pillar told AFP.

Two separate inquiries, one commissioned by the White House and another by Congress, blasted the intelligence services for failing to dig up inside information about the regime's weapons and for failing to question an array of assumptions.

And in its own internal review, only recently declassified, the CIA found that it had badly misread Saddam's intentions.

But some former spies and lawmakers say the intelligence agencies only deserve a portion of the blame, arguing that former president George W. Bush's deputies had made up their minds to invade regardless of what the spy services reported.

"To say that the whole process was impervious to the political climate is just not credible," Pillar said.

The Bush administration was accused of selecting information that would support their case for war and ignoring intelligence reporting that did not fit their view.

Official inquiries found that intelligence reporting had not been politicized, but the issue remains the subject of bitter debate 10 years on.

-- Tracking Iran's nuclear program --

Now, American spies are tracking another suspected weapons program -- in Iran.

Unlike with Saddam, UN inspectors have found ample evidence of ambitious uranium enrichment work in Iran.

But the US intelligence community, which believes Tehran has not yet made a decision to build a nuclear weapon, faces a similar challenge in trying to discern the Iranian leadership's intentions.

US Lieutenant Timothy McLaughlin's Iraq diary is not an introspective journal, but 10 years after the invasion its terse, staccato account of a young man's war holds a powerful charge.

The telegraphic style of the entries, jotted in a small notebook embossed with the Marine Corps seal, leaves the reader with a lot of work to do, and a new exhibition in New York shows it is all the more powerful for that.

The death toll among the Iraqi fighters who confront the 25-year-old junior officer's unit is high, but the diary does not linger on the details.

"My position is good to cut off back door exit. kill dismounts in grove (3-7?) then 1 swimming across canal/2 just about in canal," he writes.

In another encounter his tank engages a car: "Vehicle slowed down, swerved left off road + hit tree. Civilian shot 5 times in back + legs. continued progress to Afaq."

The 36 pages of the diary meticulously record all aspects of McLaughlin's daily grind in the same dry style: lists, instructions, schedules, battles, a song, accounts of around 70 deaths, his thoughts about Iraqis.

For the exhibition the pages have been blown up as wall panels accompanied by photographs and explanatory texts to better site the story in the history of the conflict. It takes visitors into the heart of the war.

Mclaughlin's Marines were among the first US troops in Firdos Square in Baghdad in 2003 and their unit's flag was the one hoisted onto a statue of Saddam Hussein before it was symbolically toppled.

"Swamped by mass of reporters - could not move/peace protester +how many children have you killed today+," the diary reads.

Images from the square were seen by millions of television viewers around the world, and formed part of the intense international debate about the rights and wrongs of the war and US policy.

Politics was not what interested Mclaughlin when he wrote the diary, but now, even if he is not comfortable with all that the account says about him as a younger man, he thinks his unvarnished account can serve a purpose.

"For most people in the military, they detach themselves from political decisions that are being made, so I didn't think about the political question at all, my country said go, my job is to go," he told AFP.

He talks of the nightmares he still suffers, and of the errors that still haunt him, errors that he says cost the lives of a fellow Marine and many Iraqi civilians.

Officially, he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. But he sees things differently.

"It's not a disorder, it's a natural reaction to combat experiences," he says. "If you were not affected by it, that might be a disorder.

"To send young 18- and 25-year-olds to go kill people at war, to expect them to come home with no consequences, that's not what is natural."

McLaughlin agreed to share his diary on the tenth anniversary of a war that America seems keen to forget, in the hope that the population as a whole might better understand what he and his comrades experienced.

"There is a disconnect in my country between people who serve and everybody else, who only see those experiences through movies or politicians on the news," he said.

McLaughlin wants American civilians to "think a little bit more critically about the decision to go to war and what it means for the people in Iraq or the people in Bosnia, or wherever."

"It affects the people who live there, and it affects the young people who are sent to fight to wars," he argues.

The idea for the exhibit came from American journalist Peter Maass, to whom McLaughlin showed his worn-out, forgotten notebook kept in the trunk of an old car, grains of sand still stuck between the pages.

Maass, who worked for the New York Times Magazine, had met McLaughlin in Iraq and followed his marine battalion until its entry into Baghdad. The third author of the exhibition is British photographer Gary Knight.

112,000 civilians dead in a decade in Iraq: report
Baghdad (AFP) March 17, 2013 - At least 112,000 civilians were killed in the 10 years since the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq that ousted Saddam Hussein, a new report published on Sunday said.

Including combatants on all sides of the decade-long conflict, as well as yet undocumented civilian fatalities, the figure could rise as high as 174,000, according to the Britain-based Iraq Body Count (IBC) group.

"This conflict is not yet history," it said in its report, which put the number of civilian deaths since March 20, 2003 at between 112,017 and 122,438.

"It remains entrenched and pervasive, with a clear beginning but no foreseeable end, and very much a part of the present in Iraq."

IBC said that, over the years, Baghdad had been, and is still, the deadliest region in the country, accounting for 48 percent of all deaths, while the conflict was bloodiest between 2006 and 2008.

It noted that violence remains high, with annual civilian deaths of between four and five thousand roughly equivalent to the total number of coalition forces who died from 2003 up to the US military withdrawal in December 2011, at 4,804.

The most violent regions were, after Baghdad, the northern and western provinces, dominated by Iraq's Sunni Arab minority which controlled Iraq during Saddam's rule but which has since been replaced by the Shiite majority.


Related Links
Iraq: The first technology war of the 21st century

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