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Book Review: The Unravelling, High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq – Emma Sky

The Unravelling, High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq – Emma Sky

Atlantic Books, London, 2015

This is a remarkable book, by a remarkable woman. Anyone interested in international affairs at the beginning of the 21st century should read it.

Emma Sky joined the civilian administration of Iraq after the 2003 invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s government, she was not a diplomat, but worked for the British Council before going to Iraq. She told the Chilcot Inquiry that she went to Iraq with no written briefing, no terms of reference, no instructions, just a phone call during which she was told to got to RAF Brize Norton and fly to Basra. Even when she got to Basra there was no one there to help her, so she went to Baghdad and within a week she was sent to Erbil and then to Kirkuk. She thought that she would in Iraq for three months, and stayed until August 2010, with short breaks.

Although Emma had been against the invasion of Iraq in Kirkuk she began working with Colonel Mayville and his colleagues in the US Army, a relationship that developed until she became the political advisor (POLAD) to US General R T Odierno in 2007, a relationship that lasted until General Odierno finally left Iraq.

As a result, she dealt with the senior Iraqi and US officials involved in the administration of Iraq during the critical period 2007-2010, when the hopes of peace were dashed, and the country broke down into sectarianism. She is very critical of Nuri al-Maliki, when Prime Minster and his crushing of Iraqiya and attempts to portray moderate Sunnis as terrorists or “Baathists”. The failure of the Shiites to support reconciliation and their attempt, supported by Iran, to dominate the Sunni tribes, doomed Iraq to failure after 2009, the rise of extremist groups like Da’ash, had an inevitability, although the actual course of events was never predestined. Emma is also very critical of the role of Christopher Hill, who was US Ambassador in Baghdad from 2009 to August 2010. She says, “It was frightening how a person could so poison a place. Hill brought with him a small cabal who were new to Iraq and marginalized all those with experience in the country.” Emma added, “in his staff meetings Hill made clear how much he disliked Iraq and Iraqis.” She also holds Hill in part responsible for the continuation in power of Prime Minister Maliki even after the opposition won more seats than his party in the March 2010 national elections; she notes that, “General O [Odierno] was incredulous that the embassy did not want to do anything to help the Iraqis form a government.” In May 2010 she noted that, “After meeting with Chris Hill, General O strode down the embassy corridor looking visibly upset. ‘He told me that Iraq is not ready for democracy, that Iraq needs a Shia strongman. And Makili us our man.” General O had objected that this was not what the Iraqis wanted.”

Hill was supported by the US administration, and Vice-President Biden, “told Maliki that the US would support him remaining as prime minister.” Emma notes that even after Christopher Hill left in August 2010 it was too late to save the situation, “By coming out in support of Maliki, the US had lost its ability to broker an agreement among Iraq’s leaders.”

As she and General Odierno prepared to leave Iraq in August 2010, she said that she was “sad, angry and very afraid for Iraq’s future. Washington had reneged on the promises it had made to Iraqis to protect the political process and it had betrayed the very principles the US military believed it was fighting to behold. Instead, it had reverted to supporting the status quo rather than reform. But this was a status quo which was not tenable.”

Emma Sky makes it clear that the removal of Saddam Hussein did not inevitably lead to the creation of Da’ash (ISIS) and that US failures to support emergent Iraqi democracy and the attempts of Nuri al-Maliki to retain his hold on power, with Iranian support, have resulted in the present fragmentation of Iraq.

As I said, this is an important book, and should be read by anyone with an interest in the Middle East and the exercise of power in the 21st century.

© Andrew Palmer, 2015 (not to be reproduced without permission)

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