Reality Check: Iraq

Dispelling myths about the war in Iraq, including President Bush’s claim that the “terrorists will follow us home” if the United States withdraws.


As Congress debates the future of the United States’ involvement in Iraq over the coming weeks, it’s important to get a few facts straight. The Center for American Progress offers this rundown of misconceptions about the war and the reality of the threat the United States faces from global terrorist networks. After making a realistic assessment of the situation on the ground in Iraq and alternative courses of action, CAP experts contend that it’s time for a “strategic reset” of U.S. national security strategy—to move away from refereeing the civil war in Iraq and toward operations that will take down the terrorist networks that threaten the country’s security.

The terrorists who attacked the United States on 9/11 are responsible for the violence engulfing Iraq today.

  • The vast majority of the violence being perpetrated in Iraq right now is the product of homegrown insurgent groups—around 30 groups claim responsibility for attacks against U.S. troops.
  • Sectarian warfare between Shi’a, Sunni, and Kurds accounts for another large proportion of the violence. As January’s National Intelligence Estimate stated: “the term ‘civil war’ accurately describes key elements of the Iraqi conflict, including the hardening of ethno-sectarian identities, a sea change in the character of the violence, ethno-sectarian mobilization, and population displacements.” Colin Powell said last month, “We’re facing groups that are now fighting each other: Sunnis vs. Shi’a, Shi’a vs. Shi’a, Sunni vs. Al Qaeda. And it is a civil war.”
  • One of these militant groups calls itself Al Qaeda in Iraq. ABC News recently reported that a U.S. military intelligence report found that the group is not a chief organizer of the bloody attacks in Iraq, and is responsible for no more than 15 percent of the violence there.

Al Qaeda in Iraq was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

The Iraq war has weakened the terrorists that attacked the United States on 9/11.

  • The president has argued that Iraq is the central front in the “war on terror,” but the group is as strong now as it was six years ago. The title of the Presidential Daily Brief the president received on Aug. 6, 2001, was “Bin Laden Determined to Strike Inside the U.S.” The title of the NIE released earlier this month was “Al Qaeda Better Positioned to Strike the West.” It reported that Osama bin Laden and his senior deputies have acted to reestablish their leadership over the Al Qaeda network and that the group will “continue to enhance its capabilities” to attack the United States, including efforts to place operatives inside the country. All this puts the United States in a “heightened threat environment.”
  • The central hub of Al Qaeda’s terrorist network isn’t in Iraq, but rather in Afghanistan and Pakistan: the NIE reported that Al Qaeda has a “safe haven” in Pakistan from which it cooperates with more “regional terrorist groups.”

The Iraq war has made the United States safer.

  • Unfortunately, the opposite is true. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has made terror networks’ recruitment efforts easier. An intelligence assessment declassified last September described the Iraq war as a “cause celebre” for jihadists around the globe. According to the July NIE, Al Qaeda has been using the war to “energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources, and to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks.”
  • The Iraq war has also diverted U.S. government funding away from homeland security efforts (an estimated 9 percent of our fiscal year 2007 national security budget) and toward the war in Iraq (21 percent of the FY2007 budget).

The “surge” is working.

  • Sadly, no. The Pentagon delivered to Congress in June its “first comprehensive statistical overview of the new U.S. military strategy in Iraq.” The report cited “uneven cooperation” and little “concrete progress,” concluding that “reconciliation between Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni factions” remains “a serious unfulfilled objective.” The report also found that suicide bombings across Iraq have doubled since January, overall violence “has increased in most provinces,” and “civilian casualties rose slightly, to more than 100 a day.”
  • The most recent military intelligence assessment of Iraq showed that the overall level of violence in the country—measured by the number of “violent incidents” occurring—was at its highest level last month since the war began, with an average of 178 attacks a day.
  • There has been some progress: in Anbar Province, for example—previously one of the most dangerous areas in Iraq—attacks on civilians have declined significantly. But while violence has dropped in Anbar, it has risen dramatically in four other provinces: Baghdad, Salahaddin, Diyala, and Basra.

If we leave Iraq now, the terrorists will follow us home.

  • There is nothing preventing terrorists from attacking us now. As the 9/11 Commission reported in 2004, a year into the war in Iraq: “Al Qaeda is actively striving to attack the United States and inflict mass casualties.” Because Al Qaeda is not directly active in Iraq, U.S. troops’ efforts there are not hindering the operations of the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
  • Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network will continue to plot terrorist attacks on the United States regardless of what happens in Iraq. If Iraq were to experience a miraculous turnaround from the fragmentation and chaos it’s currently in, the threat the United States faces from global terrorist networks would not be lessened.
  • Redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq will open the door for a more effective U.S. global counterterrorism effort.  Today Iraq is a quagmire for the United States; redeploying U.S. troops makes Iraq a quagmire for Al Qaeda-linked groups, who are deeply unpopular with Iraqis. 

The president can no longer ignore the realities of the war in Iraq, and Congress and the country can no longer allow him to do so. The Center for American Progress’ national security experts have developed a comprehensive plan, “Strategic Reset,” that provides the policy framework needed to restore U.S. power and prestige in the Middle East and reset our national security priorities on the real terrorist threats to our country.

For more on this topic, please see:

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.