War in Iraq: Winners and Losers

A Reasonable Question

Why are so many Iraqis hesitant in supporting the war that will almost certainly be mounted by America and Britain against the unpopular regime in Baghdad? To Westerners this is an intriguing question. Naturally, no nation would wish to be attacked. When a virtually defenceless nation is threatened by a combination of vastly superior military powers then the expected response of that nation becomes even more obvious. However, invasion could rid Iraq of Saddam Hussein and instead usher in democracy and freedom. That was certainly the promise until recent weeks. But many Iraqis were not sold on that deal. Why?

As seen in the West, especially by the proponents of war, the situation in Iraq is obvious. Here is a country that has endured repression by a brutal regime for over three decades. During that time, the country was dragged into two major wars that were highly costly and totally fruitless. The bombing in the short but sharp Gulf war took what was an advanced country back to the lower ranks of the so-called Third World. The ensuing sanctions did the rest. Now Iraqis die from easily prevented and treated diseases, live shorter lives, many children do not live long enough to celebrate their fifth birthday, cancers caused by depleted uranium shells are rampant, people are penniless, and most of the population live on handouts from the government and on money sent by relatives living abroad. Surely, anything is better than that. But Iraqis are still unconvinced. Again, why?

Basically, the USA and its close allies are distrusted by the Iraqis

An initial look at the Gulf war and the sanctions that followed helps to explain the source of this deep mistrust. Iraqis were reduced to hunger, disease and poverty because that is what the US government seemed intent on achieving; to drag Iraq back to a pre-industrial age. The policy was spelt out by Secretary of State James Baker in unambiguous terms on 9 January 1991: “Iraq will be turned into a backward and weak state.” Rightly or wrongly, Iraqis are convinced the aim was to pave the way for a firmer American grip on the Gulf and the realisation of colonising ambitions held by fundamental Zionists in Israel and the USA. The first part of the aim has been in place for over a decade: American forces were able to move into Kuwait and Saudi Arabia as liberators rather than occupiers. The second part was spelt out by Bush as recently as the 26 February 2003 when he stated that the departure of Saddam would persuade the Palestinians to elect a ‘moderate’ authority prepared to ‘negotiate’ sensibly with Israel.

For whatever purpose, the process of exhaustion had started earlier when the regime in Baghdad was quietly encouraged to attack the fledgling Islamic revolutionary government in Iran. The American embassy in Tehran had been seized and fifty-eight hostages were taken in November 1979. But even before that crisis, president Carter on a visit to Egypt in March 1979 spent most of the time in discussions on how to ‘save’ Iran. Something had to be done. The Iranian army “had collapsed, direct American intervention was out of the question, the Turks would not get involved for fear of being seen as infidels, and the Gulf states were not in a position to help. That left Iraq as the only candidate.” (Heikal 1992: 67)

The war with Iran, from 1980 to 1988, left over 400,000 dead and cost $390 billion (Rihani 2002: 227). Naturally there were no victors. The affair was organised by the global and regional powers, and kept going for many years, with that aim in mind. Ultimately, no fewer than fifty countries participated in meeting the demand for weapons; twenty-eight, led by the permanent members of the Security Council, helpfully supplied both sides (Adams 1990: 128).

Rumsfeld, the present US Defense Secretary, was sent by president Reagan to Baghdad as a special envoy in December 1983 to offer help to Iraq in its long war against the latest in a long line of ‘threats to American security’. Nothing was too much trouble it seems. “…, the Reagan administration began allowing the Iraqis to buy a wide variety of ‘dual use’ equipment and materials from American suppliers. According to confidential Commerce Department export-control documents obtained by NEWSWEEK, the shopping list included…chemical-analysis equipment for the Iraq Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC), and, most unsettling, numerous shipments of “bacteria/fungi/protozoa” to the IAEC. (Newsweek 23 September 2002) Not surprisingly, the document demanded from Iraq by the UN Security Council on weapons of mass destruction had to ‘redrafted’ by US security officers to delete references to Western firms that originally supplied the technology and equipment for these weapons.

Involvement of the USA in the events that led to the occupation of Kuwait in 1990 was equally clear. There were several border disputes and grievances between Iraq and Kuwait at the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Again, something had to be done. Soundings were taken from the American authorities in Baghdad and Washington. Margaret Tutwiler, State Department spokeswoman, said in response to news of a possible Iraqi move against Kuwait that the United States “did not have any defence treaties with Kuwait, and there are no special defence or security commitments to Kuwait.” Just in case Saddam Hussein missed the ‘green light’, the American ambassador in Baghdad April Glaspie assured him that “our opinion is that you should have the opportunity to rebuild your country…we have no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts like your border disagreement with Kuwait.” (Simons 1998: 2) The regime in Iraq took these assurances as an open invitation to move into Kuwait.

In fairness, the regime had no reason to distrust the US government: Qassem, leader of the revolution that toppled the monarchy in 1958 was the target for activities by a CIA ‘health alterations committee’. Success was finally achieved in 1963 when a CIA-backed coup paved the way for the Ba’ath Party, and later Saddam Hussein, to assume supreme power in Iraq. On that occasion, a CIA member while giving testimony before a Senate committee quipped “The target suffered a terminal illness before a firing squad in Baghdad.” (Clark 1998: 4) By the time Saddam Hussein became president of Iraq and chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council on 16 July 1979, relations between Iraq and the USA were on the whole quite good. Relations turned positively cordial during the war with Iran as mentioned above.

Unknown to the regime in Iraq, planning for a war in the Gulf that would give the US a strong military presence in this strategic region, according to some authors, was well underway by the mid-1980s. War Plan 1002-90 was developed by US Central Command (CENTCOM) that envisaged a number of scenarios; one of which depended on an invasion of Kuwait by Iraq (Clark 1998: 6-7, Blackwell 1991: 80-87). The Gulf war, it seems, was a planned event waiting for a trigger. The regime in Iraq, wittingly or unwittingly, provided that trigger.

The harm done to Iraq during the brief Gulf war does not require elaboration. The country was bombed into the middle ages. Significantly, the elite of the Iraqi army were allowed to return unmolested with all their equipment, while ill-trained and ill-equipped conscripts were shot, in what was described as a turkey shoot. In some cases they were simply buried alive. Civilian facilities and infrastructure were, however, the main targets.

As added punishment for Iraq, the UN, under pressure from the USA and Britain, imposed sanctions that have bled the Iraqis virtually, and in some cases literally, to death. Hundreds of thousands of children have died directly as a result of the sanctions (referred to by some authors as genocide). In the meantime, and in line with the odd logic that seems to characterise US foreign policies, Saddam Hussein became one of the richest leaders in the world. His regime was left untouched by the sanctions.

The Gulf war and the sanctions were directly focused on ordinary Iraqis. They could have just about put up with the Ba’ath regime and its wayward ways, but they were completely broken by the US and its close allies. Yes, the Iraqis do not trust the US and its leaders. They have good reasons not to.

As seen by the Iraqis

In all probability the forthcoming occupation of Iraq will not change the fortunes of the people much. At best, the outcome is far from certain.

What sort of leaders will Iraq have next? There was a time when Bush and Blair spoke of democracy. In the last few weeks this notion has all but disappeared. Bush’s special envoy to the Iraqi opposition, Zalmay Khalilzad, met leaders of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) in Sulaymaniyah in US and British-protected northern Iraq in early February 2003 to inform them of American intention to install a US military governor in Baghdad for one or two years. According to the Observer (23 February 2003) the future US military ruler of Iraq has already been chosen: Jay Garner, a retired lieutenant-general. He will govern the country with the help of a ‘consultative council’ and a judicial committee. More to the point, only the top one or two Ba’ath officials in each ministry will be removed. The rest will stay on to run their departments, presumably as before. In addition, Turkish forces will be allowed to enter Kurdish areas in the north of Iraq as part of the overall war strategy. Will they ever leave? This is not certain either.

Not surprisingly, these latest pronouncements left leading INC members such as Ahmad Chalabi and Kanan Makiya (close allies of the US) seething with fury. Equally, the Kurds are unhappy at seeing their sworn enemies, the Turks, come into Iraq to stay for what might prove to be a long period, if not forever. Basically, some of the neighbouring countries were alarmed by the notion that there might be a democratic government in Iraq. Instead, the Iraqis could now look forward to a government controlled by army officers, Americans initially and Iraqis later; as is the case in Turkey and Pakistan say. Naturally, the Iraqis would ask “what is the difference between now and then?”

As the Iraqis see it, the war, estimated by the UN to result in about 500,000 direct and indirect casualties and several million refugees, might end with military rule by American occupiers. Many people still remember a similar system that was in operation for decades when Iraq was a British colony.

Will there be peace at least. Expectations are far from optimistic. Iraqis expect a period of several weeks when law and order might disappear resulting in looting and the settling of old scores. This could happen at a time when public services, following the model of the Gulf war, would have been obliterated by ‘smart’ bombs and missiles.

The above should give an outline of why most people are against the impending invasion. It is not concern for the regime; most of its members will survive and prosper, again taking the Gulf war as the model. Many people in Iraq are petrified by the prospect of war because they know they are going to the biggest losers in the short as well as the long term. They need only look at the outcome of the war, and the promises that preceded it, in Afghanistan.

Are there other losers?

Of course: ordinary people in the USA, Britain and other allied countries stand to lose a great deal. In fact they have already lost a lot. Democratic norms that were won over many centuries are being dismantled bit by bit in the name of the ‘war against terrorism’ and the fight against the latest ‘most serious threat since Hitler’. People are frightened, in some cases by cynical exaggerations coming from their own leaders (see Terrorism on this website). They are afraid to travel by air or to work or holiday abroad. These concerns will intensify once the likely backlash to the war emerges. Most damagingly, people have lost faith and trust in politicians. They have been told half-lies and outright lies on so many occasions they now do not believe anything they hear. This is possibly the biggest threat to democracy in these countries. A heavy price to pay, for what?

The victorious armies, when they finally enter Baghdad, will be greeted with flowers and flags. Of that there is absolutely no doubt. However, over the months the picture will change radically. These forces, and the local rulers they install, will be seen progressively as the occupying enemy. Then the specter of terrorism will rear its ugly head in earnest.

In addition to fear, loss of democratic norms, and an increase in terrorist attacks at home and abroad, the economy in the richer countries will also be a major loser. It is already in a parlous state. Contrary to popular misconception, war will not be a help here. Once the war is out of the way and the headlines have shifted elsewhere, the attention of electors will return to the real issues of concern; pensions, pay, health, etc., etc. The politicians cannot conjure up a new major war every year. The current leaders will disappear to live a life of luxury. The next bunch will have to pick up the pieces.

This last point is most important. The popular opposition to the war against Iraq has been on such a scale that people who see profit in everlasting conflict and wars will have a very high mountain to climb. Whatever happens in Iraq, future leaders in the US and Britain will not be in a hurry to start another campaign, irrespective of the justification. Bush and Bair have tied the hands of those who will follow them into the White House and Downing Street.

Surely there will be winners as well

Of course: Judged by previous encounters, especially the Gulf war, the hawks now clamouring for war stand to gain the lion’s share. They will have done so through legitimate means that could not be questioned in strict legal terms.

The Independent published on 16 September 2002 an article under the title ‘Fortunes of war await Bush’s circle after attacks on Iraq’ . The paper reported that the last time the United States went to war against Iraq, Dick Cheney did very nicely from it: “Having served as Defence Secretary, and basked in the reflected glory of the US military’s surprisingly rapid advance across the desert sands to end the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, he then managed to reap benefits of a very different kind once the war was over and he left government to become chief executive of Halliburton, the Texas-based oil services company.” It seems that Halliburton “cleaned up on the contract to repair war damage and get Saddam Hussein’s oil pipes flowing at full capacity again.”

Bush and his cabal are closely associated with two prominent industries; weapons and oil. Both industries spend millions of dollars in funding appropriate political candidates at all levels of government. As the Independent mentioned “Mr Rumsfeld’s oldest friend, Frank Carlucci, a former defence secretary himself, now heads the Carlyle Group, an investment consortium which has a big interest in the contracting firm United Defense. Carlyle’s board includes George Bush Sr and James Baker, the former secretary of state…Carlyle’s European chairman is John Major, …” None of these activities are illegal, but they help to illustrate the type of benefits that await the hawks on both sides of the Atlantic.

Clearly, the arms industry will come out as a big winner. The Gulf war was justly called the biggest arms marketing show in history. Sales of weapons mushroomed, and US sales in general, and those to the Middle East in particular, registered the greatest increase (Kapstein 1994: 16). Restocking of arms and equipment expended in the conflict itself is a huge boost to the industry. Then the Iraqi army will have to be rearmed and retrained. Yes, they will do just that!

However, the ability to test new weapons under reasonably safe conditions is an additional substantial benefit. The Gulf war was useful in this context. Bombs that exploded high above ground level and sucked the oxygen out of the air to kill large numbers of people without causing much damage to buildings received their first trials under combat conditions at that time. Reports suggest that new weapons that have been developed since the Gulf war will be similarly tested in the forthcoming war.

There are of course other winners closer to Iraq; some have already received their rewards for looking the other way (as happened in the Gulf war) and others are waiting eagerly in the wings.

In time, new Iraqi rulers will emerge and democracy will be forgotten. Sadly, this is the dominant model in many Arab countries and there does not seem to be a local or international will to adopt a new, healthier model. The people themselves would prefer a rapid move towards democratisation. They have had enough of ‘sole leaders’, ‘chiefs’ and ‘fathers of the nation’ in the last fifty years. The declaration published in February 2003 by a number of independent and influential Iraqis living abroad leaves no doubt about the real aspirations in this respect. However, the movers and shakers are against such a move. Basically, the wishes of ordinary Iraqis might not count for much. And yet nothing, absolutely nothing, will be gained without a positive move towards democracy. Iraqis can only live in the hope that this aim will be achieved sooner rather than later.


  • Blackwell, J. (1991) Thunder in the Desert New York: Bantam Books. (James Blackwell is a retired US army major)
  • Clark, R. (1998) Challenge Genocide New York: International Action Center
  • Heikal, M. (1992) Illusions of Triumph London: HarperCollins
  • Kapstein, E. B. (1994) America’s Arms-trade Monopoly’ Foreign Affairs, vol.73, no. 3, May-June
  • Rihani, S. (2002) Complex Systems Theory and Development Practice London: Zed Books
  • Simons, G. (1998) The Scourging of Iraq London: Macmillan