2nd Oct 2023


2003: Iraq: 'We're French! It's not our fucking war!'

  • US occupation: You could 'feel the hatred' on the streets, former CIA operative Robert Baer said (Photo:

"We're French! It's not our fucking war!", Robert Baer yelled out in Arabic, as a group of armed and "very hostile" Sunni-Muslim tribesmen confronted him and his wife, Dayna, in their jeep on the outskirts of Tikrit, some 180km north of Baghdad, on 11 April 2003.

"That stopped them, and we got through," he said, recalling the incident 17 years later.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • Robert Baer (l) served in the CIA until 1997, before becoming a writer on security affairs (Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy)

He did have a French driver's licence, but, in fact, both he and his wife were American and both were former CIA operatives.

They had sneaked into Iraq from Jordan to cover events as freelancers for American TV broadcaster ABC, in a war which had just split Western allies, and which would go on to cost millions of lives, destabilise the Middle East, and delegitimise US power.

The US army, backed by the UK, had launched airstrikes on Baghdad on 19 March, followed by a ground incursion one day later.

But France, and most of the other Nato and EU nations had stayed out.

And even though Baer had lied about being French, it really wasn't his war, because he, and all the other Middle East specialists still in the CIA, thought the then US president George W. Bush had made a sickening mistake.

"For one, I knew there wasn't the intelligence to support an invasion," Baer said, referring to US and British claims that the late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

"It was pure Trumpian fakery," Baer said, referring to the current and outgoing US president Donald Trump, who is known for lying.

"The feeling in the CIA was you couldn't destroy the Iraqi army, because that would let in the Iranians and cause a bloodbath," he added.

"But the White House was full of idiots ... they had no filter between fact and belief," Baer said.

"They thought they'd bring down Saddam and then there'd be this domino-effect of good triumphing over evil in the region," Baer added.

"It was very religious: 'God is on our side. We beat the evil Soviet Union and now we're going to beat evil in the Middle East'," he said.

And a domino-effect did happen - but not the one the White House imagined.

US president George W. Bush (Photo: Marion Doss)

Dominoes fall

In the first brick to fall, Iraq's Shia-Muslim majority allied with Shia-Muslim Iran and unleashed a civil war against Iraq's pro-Hussein Sunni minority.

In the next brick, the Sunni majority in Syria revolted against its Shia dictator, Bashar al-Assad, inspired, in part, by Hussein's fall in Iraq.

Hussein's disbanded Sunni army then joined Sunni jihadists in Iraq and Syria to fight for survival, in a force that would later morph into the Islamic State.

And in a final domino, US violence helped cause many Muslims of all sects to hate the West, making Iraq everybody's war.

The reason why the Sunni tribesmen were so hostile toward Baer and his wife that day in April 2003, for instance, was because a US airstrike on Ramadi, near Tikrit, had just flattened a three-storey building, killing 21 civilians, including children.

"Desperation and resentment turn to conspiracy theories and radicalism ... and now we have Paris and Vienna," Baer said, referring to two jihadist attacks in the EU in late 2020.

By the time Baer and his wife arrived in Baghdad, on 12 April, Hussein's army had been all-but defeated and US soldiers were already guarding the oil ministry.

"It was eerie, because the electricity was off and the city was burning - and that's what lit up our bedroom in the hotel," he said.

US jets were still bombing pockets of resistance in northern Baghdad.

Narrow alleys were littered with Iraqi tanks with holes blown in their tops by armour-penetrating missiles.

And you could feel the "hate and fear" between the Shia and the Sunnis on the streets, Baer said.

"I knew that nobody was going to put this back together," he said.

Islamic State attack in Nice, France, in 2016 killed 86 people (Photo: Reuters)

Everybody's war

Meanwhile, looking back at Bush's diplomacy, Baer said White House-handling of its European allies compounded their strategic differences.

"No one [from the US] went to Paris and said: 'Hey. This is what we're doing, but how do you think it's going to go?', because they thought no one in Europe knew how the world works," Baer said.

"They went to Paris and said: 'Why are you being such girls about this?'," he said.

"It was pure arrogance and France's only role would have been to come in as a US handmaiden," Baer added.

And looking at the Middle East today, he said Western allies there were now less safe than they were before 2003.

Israel is dealing with "a much more threatening Hezbollah", Baer noted, referring to an Iran-allied Shia militia in Lebanon, which has gained war-fighting experience and weaponry on the battlefields of Syria.

And "the Iranians could be in Riyadh in a couple of days, if it wasn't for US protection", because Hussein's Iraq used to be Saudi Arabia's "shield", Baer added.

But geopolitics aside, for the ex-CIA man, the events also left a moral stain that will stay in the history books for good.

"My friends in Doctors Without Borders [a French NGO] say that between 1990 [the first US invasion of Iraq] and today, you can attribute 10 million deaths to these wars, not to mention US casualties," Baer said.

"Saddam was clearly a brutal man, but how can you trade one life for 10 million?", he added.

"It was an utter catastrophe," Baer said.

"And there's not even a sense of memory, of failure, in the US ... the Americans feel they got their pound of flesh, but how do you put a price on all those deaths?" he concluded.

Iraq president Saddam Hussein on trial in 2004, prior to his execution (Photo:
This article first appeared in EUobserver's latest magazine, 20 years of European journalism & history, which you can now read in full online.
EU counts humanitarian cost of Iraq crisis

Up to half a million people have fled the new front line between rebels and government forces in Iraq, but EU sources say there is little extra aid in the pot.


2018: Juncker: Far-right 'never had a chance' against the EU

The far-right rose in power over the span of 2017 and 2018. But for former EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, they never posed a real threat. "They are not right because their basic societal analysis is wrong," he said.


2020: EU solidarity tested in face of Covid-19 pandemic

When decisive, coordinated action from EU institutions and member states was most needed to respond to the first coronavirus outbreaks, the bloc struggled to find a common and timely response. What lessons have been learned?

20 years of EUobserver

Our special anniversary magazine gives an overview of the major events of these past 20 years - and, for every event, we talked to one of the key players. It makes this magazine a document of recent EU history.

Latest News

  1. Slovak's 'illiberal' Fico victory boosts Orban, but faces checks
  2. European Political Community and key media vote This WEEK
  3. Is the ECB sabotaging Europe's Green Deal?
  4. The realists vs idealists Brussels battle on Ukraine's EU accession
  5. EU women promised new dawn under anti-violence pact
  6. Three steps EU can take to halt Azerbaijan's mafia-style bullying
  7. Punish Belarus too for aiding Putin's Ukraine war
  8. Added-value for Russia diamond ban, as G7 and EU prepare sanctions

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  2. International Medical Devices Regulators Forum (IMDRF)Join regulators, industry & healthcare experts at the 24th IMDRF session, September 25-26, Berlin. Register by 20 Sept to join in person or online.
  3. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  4. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA
  5. International Medical Devices Regulators Forum (IMDRF)Join regulators & industry experts at the 24th IMDRF session- Berlin September 25-26. Register early for discounted hotel rates
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersGlobal interest in the new Nordic Nutrition Recommendations – here are the speakers for the launch

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of Ministers20 June: Launch of the new Nordic Nutrition Recommendations
  2. International Sustainable Finance CentreJoin CEE Sustainable Finance Summit, 15 – 19 May 2023, high-level event for finance & business
  3. ICLEISeven actionable measures to make food procurement in Europe more sustainable
  4. World BankWorld Bank Report Highlights Role of Human Development for a Successful Green Transition in Europe
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic summit to step up the fight against food loss and waste
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersThink-tank: Strengthen co-operation around tech giants’ influence in the Nordics

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us