The Washington based Institute for Policy Studies published a report in June 2004 to chronicle the horrendous costs of the illegal 2003 war on Iraq. Dwelling on this latest episode, however, obscures the fact that the intentional and systematic ‘scourging of Iraq’, the title of a powerful book by Geoff Simons, began decades before. Iraqis cannot forgive or forget this process of wanton destruction in which their own leaders as well as external powers led by the USA were the main villains. Neither can they ignore the role played by the UN as willing tool and legitimising authority for the horrors heaped on their head. The current unrest is prompted by a great deal more than just resistance to occupation by foreign forces.
The Revolutionary Path to Oblivion
It is now hard to believe that Iraq was once calm and progressive. Governments were mildly corrupt, and excessively pro-British, but political debate and parliamentary opposition were in evidence. Minutes of cabinet meetings were recorded and budgets were published and routinely audited. The brightest students, males and females of all religious and ethnic backgrounds, were given state-funded scholarships to study abroad. Moreover, and partly as a result, health and other public services were the envy of neighbouring nations. Religion was kept in its proper place as a matter of personal belief. Above all else, citizens lived in relative security, and foreign visitors were welcomed with legendary generosity and respect.
Half a century or so later, Iraq is a different place altogether. Repressive leaders come and go under the watchful eye of the new hegemonic power. Religion has eclipsed political, social, and economic activities. The educated and outward-looking middle class has all but disappeared; its members having left the country in desperation or simply retreated behind locked doors in fear. Intolerance has become the new national creed. Nations normally progress quickly or slowly as the case may be, but hey rarely maintain a state of persistent regression for decades on end. What caused this drift into the abyss by Iraq and its citizens?
The start of the process was marked by an unnecessarily bloody coup d’etat. Meddling by the West in general and the USA in particular, principally in pursuit of cheap oil but also to gain strategic advantage, ignited a popular revolution in 1958 that did away with the monarchy and ushered in the era of ‘sole’ leaders. Overwhelming jubilation, which I enthusiastically shared, was short-lived when confronted by the realities of life under the harsh and volatiles regimes that followed. Idealism was the immediate casualty.
The first leader was Qassem, who promptly became the target of a CIA led ‘health alterations committee’. The Americans wanted their own man at the top. Efforts to alter Qassim’s health were finally rewarded when he was killed in another coup in 1963 in which Saddam made his debut as a future leader. Britain was replaced by the USA as the de facto power in Iraq and citizens became aware of the difference between subtle British manipulation and brash American blundering.
“Let Them Kill Each Other”
Saddam, virtual ruler of Iraq for several years, became ‘sole’ leader in 1979. Shortly thereafter, efforts were made by external power brokers to entice the Iraqis to attack Iran. It was hoped that the fledgling regime in Iran would crumble leading to the release of the 58 persons taken hostage in 1979 at the American embassy in Tehran. The broader aim was to weaken both sides to enable the USA to strengthen its strategic foothold in the region.
Saddam, as his later actions painfully demonstrated, was an easy prey for American subterfuge. He led Iraq into a bruising, and typically fruitless war that lasted eight long years. Between 400,000 and one million people perished (the exact figure is unknown). The war cost about $390 billion. As Heikal recorded in Illusions of Triumph, “whenever one side seemed in sight of victory Washington would begin secretly helping its opponent.” The intention was to “let them kill each other”; a remark attributed to Kissinger.
The war coincided with a slack period in arms sales. Hence, no less than fifty countries participated in meeting the demand for weapons. As documented by Adams in Trading in Death, twenty-eight countries, led by the permanent members of the UN Security Council, supplied both sides. Everyone was a winner except the combatant countries and their hapless populations.
Supply of military equipment to Iraq was maintained to the end of the war and beyond. The topic became a scandal for the Conservative government that was in power in Britain at the time. That led inevitably to the usual whitewash by an ‘independent’ inquiry (see The Sunday Times of 18 February 1996). Tony Blair and his spin-doctors, of Hatton and Armstrong inquiries fame, did not invent the genre. It is part and parcel of statecraft in modern democracies.
Let Us Kill Them More Efficiently
US strategists were not content with the damage caused by the Iraq-Iran war. There was a feeling that wars between neighbours were not necessary as a cover for the emasculation of Iraq. Plans to invade Iraq, including scenarios based on an invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi forces, were already on the drawing board (see Ramsey Clark, Challenge to Genocide). Saddam was goaded in various ways. He was also led to believe he had the green light to attack Kuwait. In any case, he never needed much convincing to flex his muscles. Prudently, the USA secured approval from the UN for its subsequent actions. The UN was implicated overtly from that point onwards in America’s machinations in the region.
The war, when it came in August 1990, was brief and highly effective. In less than six weeks about 88,000 tons of explosives, with the equivalent power of seven atomic bombs, were dropped on Iraq. The weapons of mass destruction deployed by the USA included depleted uranium projectiles, fuel-air asphyxiation bombs, and cluster bombs. Other barbaric methods were also adopted such as the use of earth moving equipment to bury Iraqi soldiers alive who were too afraid to leave their trenches. However, the main targets were the country’s economic, industrial, and social infrastructure.
Liberation of Kuwait was only part of the overall intention. Brzezinski and Scowcroft, security advisors to presidents Carter and Bush, asserted, “the United States is in the Persian Gulf to stay” (Foreign Affairs, May-June 1997). For long-term strategic control of Iraq, and its oil resources, the country had to be reduced to a shambles. The social, economic, political, and military willingness and capability to resist had to be destroyed. This suited Israel and its supporters just as well.
Finish Them Off With the Silent Deadly Remedy
Again, war was not deemed enough. Preparation for the next stage was meticulous. Propaganda, misinformation, and outright lies were used on a scale that dwarfs Britain’s infamous dossier and other mind-making efforts associated with the 2003 war. The tool chosen was sanctions; described by Woodrow Wilson as the ‘silent deadly remedy’. And so it proved to be for the majority of ordinary Iraqis. The ruling elite, by contrast, grew stronger and benefited hugely. The UN, under pressure from the US government, imposed a strict regime of sanction on Iraq that was maintained for thirteen years. The ensuing devastation was on a biblical scale.
The genocide inflicted by the sanctions on Iraqi people is well documented. The damage was clear as early as late-1991 when a Harvard team published their shocking report. However, the most disturbing accounts came from UN agencies and their staff in Iraq. Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, who resigned in disgust, are prime examples.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation reported in 1995 that “more than one million Iraqis have died- 567,000 of them children- as a direct result of the economic sanctions…” Madeleine Albright thought that price was acceptable. It seems astonishing, but some commentators still hold that viewpoint today (see Foreign Affairs, July-August 2004).
And the carnage mounted despite the sham of the oil-for-food programme introduced in 1996 and the ‘smart’ sanctions of 2000. A whole generation of children was blighted, hundreds of thousands perished, and highly qualified people left the country in droves. As promised by James Baker in 1991, Iraq regressed to the pre-industrial age. And remember, this is before one shot had been fired in the 2003 war.
The oil-for-food programme was in the main a propaganda ploy to deflect growing public disgust at the human cost of the sanctions. In practice any of the main actors could veto the importation of an item on the grounds that it might be used for the production of weapons. The list of such prohibited items, including cotton wool, is both chilling and illuminating. In any case, approval of all applications took an excessively long time. This might have been a means to frustrate the workings of the programme. The destruction of Iraq was the top priority. On the other hand, a more sinister incentive has emerged more recently. It would seem that corruption in the management of the programme was widespread. However, we will have to wait for the Volcker commission report to see the full picture, assuming that Volcker is more diligent than other chairmen of ‘independent’ inquiries.
An Iraqi Diaspora
Human rights abuses, lies, and misdemeanours committed in the 2003 war shrink into insignificance when put alongside the determined attack unleashed against Iraq’s society, culture, and identity over several decades. Successive wars and the UN supported sanctions, imposed in practice by the USA and its close allies, resulted in radical and catastrophic shift in Iraq’s demographic structure.
Most of the Arab countries have provided a ready supply of highly qualified persons for the rest of the world. The same applies to Arabs who have inherited or acquired large fortunes that enabled them to enjoy a ready welcome from other countries. Some of the incentives to emigrate are obvious: turbulent environment, mercurial and despotic rulers, insecurity, lack of prospects, and so on. However, there are also distinct indications that certain external interests do not favour sustainable progress in the Arab world driven by a prosperous and educated middle class. They have applied over the years constant pressure to encourage outward migration of talent. In some instances this included outright assassination.
The reasons for this foreign antipathy to progress in the Arab world are easy to understand. Settled, truly democratic, and progressive nations are difficult to subdue. American global leadership depends to a large extent on control of the Middle East region. Contrary to its public utterances, progress, peace, democracy and all the other ingredients for independence and sovereignty are not favoured by the USA.
Israel has an identical objective in the Arab world. Military threat from its neighbours has never been a serious concern for Israel. By contrast, on going economic and human development by the Arab nations would pose a major inconvenience. They would acquire a voice on the world stage and would not be so easily dismissed and ignored as at present. In truth, American and Israeli objectives since the end of World War II have coincided for far more effective down to earth reasons than the altruistic religious and ethnic explanations advanced for public consumption.
Iraq has numerous advantages that would potentially enhance its chances of developing successfully on all fronts. It was, and is, seen as a credible threat to the above regional and global aims. In consequence, it became the target for ‘development retardation’ activities from an early stage. Scientists and other intellectuals were singled out for special attention.
The exodus of talent and wealth from Iraq gathered force during the UN sanctions years. However, it turned into a veritable flood since the start of the 2003 war. The writing was on the wall during the height of the battle when museums, universities, and hospitals were looted and destroyed. The aim to loot for profit was clearly in evidence. But where was the financial gain in destroying Iraq’s archives? The true dimensions of the enterprise became unmistakeable when professors and other intellectuals were harassed, and assassinated, for no apparent purpose.
And then the matter was put beyond any doubt when the systematic kidnapping of doctors and other professionals became a daily occurrence (see Violence Targets Iraqi Doctors, Washington Post Foreign ServiceSunday, 12 September 2004; Page A28). Again, the profit motive is all too obvious. However, some of the ransomed persons were advised by their kidnappers to leave Iraq with their families! Who would profit from that?
Mobile phones play a major role in the kidnap and ransom process. Interestingly, the American forces have consistently refused to give the fledgling Iraqi police force detectors that could locate the criminals and their hideouts. Who would benefit from this refusal? Much as one would wish to resist the easy explanation of a conspiracy, it is difficult to avoid drawing the obvious conclusions.
Iraq has now lost most of its middle-class. A once sophisticated and outward looking society has shrivelled into a shell of warring factions, religious extremists, and mindless criminals. It is not to be taken for granted that this awful transformation of Iraq’s society, whether achieved by stupidity or design, is not to the liking of at least some American and Israeli decision-makers.
It is usual for nations to look for scapegoats and excuses for their failures. To be sure, nations just as in the case of individuals are in the main the architects of their own fortunes. Iraqis cannot escape all the blame for what has befallen their society and their country.
However, it is also undeniable that powerful external forces have targeted Iraq and its people. The efforts involved, as described above, have been extensive, expensive, and sustained. With good reason Iraqis are embittered. They are unable to forgive or forget. But negative thoughts do not begin to address what needs to be done to put Iraq and its people back on track. At present the picture is bleak. The ‘emerging’ leaders are of the old mould. The alternative is a theocracy, which is just as unhelpful. Nonetheless, there is always hope of the unexpected. Nations have discovered ways to mend themselves, and enlightened leaders have come on the scene against great odds and just when all hope seems to have been lost. It is not impossible for the same to happen in Iraq, but it is asking a lot.