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On the Edge of Armageddon: Notes on Another Iraq

Vijay Prashad
Date Published: 
February 14, 2003

Those who live between Mosul and Basra know what it is to suffer, and to struggle. When the yoke of the Ottoman sultans lifted from the lands of the Euphrates and Tigris, the people celebrated and declared independence. Iraqi officials in the Ottoman state formed al-’Ahd (The Covenant), disgruntled tribal sheikhs and clerics formed the Jam’iyya al-Nahda al-Islamiyya (the Society of Islamic Revival), and in May 1919, Sheikh Mahmud Barzinji followed popular opinion and declared an independent Kurdistan. In May 1920, mass rallies across the three provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra demanded the ouster of the British mandate. The British responded with an iron fist and in the next three years pounded hopes into ashes. In August 1924, the Royal Air Force sent the British parliament a report entitled, “Notes on the Method of Employment of the Air Arm in Iraq.” An intemperate section comes from Squadron Chief Arthur “Bomber” Harris: “Where the Arab and Kurd had just begun to realize that if they could stand a little noise, they could stand bombing. They now know what real bombing means, in casualties and damage; they know that within forty-five minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five machines which offer them no real target, no opportunity for glory as warriors, no effective means of escape.” In his memoirs, a young British officer, Lionel Charlton, says of his visit to a hospital in Diwaniya (in central Iraq), “This indiscriminate bombing of a populace with the liability of killing women and children was the nearest thing to wanton slaughter.” The Iraqis who now wait for another US onslaught are schooled in survival, having been survivors of eight decades of aerial bombardment. The bombing seems inevitable, led by an administration without a mandate, a government dominated by the extremists of Sugarland, Texas. For most Iraqis, the aftermath of the Ba’th, forced by the US military machine, will perhaps resemble the transition from the Ottoman to a British dispensation. The US will come, like the British before them, with talk of an end to the old feudal order, but will end up uninterested in democracy and more interested in “stability.” In the run-up to the Gulf War of 1991, the leftist expert on west Asia, Fred Halliday, came out strongly in support of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Making the argument that Hussein is a fascist, Halliday wrote that the US invasion might disrupt the consolidation of the right in Iraq and thereby open up space for the reinvigoration of progressive forces. Halliday shunned the argument for state sovereignty (sometimes a guise, he held, for domestic terror) and the argument against the expansion of US imperialism (a force that was not as one-dimensional, he argued, as the Atlantic Left described it). After the war, the US military dashed the hopes of Halliday: the US decided to maintain Hussein as the strongman of Iraq in lieu of democracy for at least two reasons: 1) Fear of Iranian Influence: In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq forged a tight alliance with the US to thwart the spread of the Iranian revolution. The Arab Shi’a in southern Iraq and in eastern Saudi Arabia held a long-standing brief against their Sunni and Wahhabi rulers. Excited by the overthrow of the Shah, they pinned their hopes on an Iranian-style overthrow of Hussein and of the Ibn Saud clan. In March 1980, Hussein condemned to death members of the three-decade-old al-Dawa (the Call) organization of the Shi’a, so much of the leadership fled to Iran. There they founded the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) in 1982, and created an armed wing, the Badr Brigade. Led by Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, the SCIRI argues for the creation of an Iraq in the mirror of Iranian clericalism (velayat-e faqih). These Shi’a remember the betrayal of US commanders when their brethren in faith rose across the southern expanse of Iraq without the promised back-up from the US in 1991—thousands of Badr Brigade fighters who went across the Iran-Iraq border fell to the well-trained Iraqi army. The US decided not to support them because it feared Iran’s influence over the world’s second largest oil fields, as well as Iran’s reach into Saudi Arabia. 2) Fear of Turkish discontent: In September 1996, the US government, according to the Associated Press, “gave Turkey a green light to send troops into northern Iraq to create a buffer zone against attacks on Turkish territory by Kurdish guerrillas.” The Turkish airforce, largely armed like most of Turkey’s forces with US weaponry and aid, bombed the positions of the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK) in coordination with the US bombardment (44 cruise missiles) of Iraqi positions in the south. Even as Turkey is now ruled by an Islamic party, the fifty-year history of Turkish servility to US military interests for its own economic gain (and a place in the European Union) will not be compromised by either party. With Turkey as a crucial ally in the US strategic plans for Central Asia and the Caucasus region, it is impossible to foresee US support for an independent Kurdistan on its borders. Currently the Kurds live in an autonomous zone, but pressure from the south and the north prevents any move on their part to consolidate a demand for a Kurdish republic that would stretch from Kars in the north to Kirmanshah in the south, and from Adana in the west to Mahabad in the east—taking land from Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran and Iraq. The two Iraqi parties of the Kurds have given up on independence and they have made accommodations with the Ba’th of Iraq, the Iranians, the US and even with the Turks to suit their own narrow attempts to hold power in their strongholds. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party vie for the affections of the Kurdish people in Iraq, but they are at the same time far from the heritage of Shaikh Mahmud Barzinji whose self-assurance in December 1918 earned him the rank of Governor of Lower Kurdistan from the British. The Halliday argument (now adopted by Christopher Hitchens, among others) holds no water. The US will not allow a genuine “regime change,” but as Voices of the Wilderness founder Milan Rai argues, it will go for a “leadership change”—another Sunni strongman who will maintain the Ba’th domination of the state, but be pliable to US interests in the region. On 25 March 2002, Newsweek reported, “At the CIA, State Department and among the uniformed military, specialists are trying to find the proverbial Man on a White Horse, a respected officer who can ride in, take control and unite Iraq’s fractious tribes and religious groups. The US will need some kind of military strongman to foment a coup, or head a rebel army that could work alongside US forces, or run the Iraqi military after Saddam is gone.” We, on the Left, oppose the fascism of Saddam Hussein, backed as it was for a decade by US arms and understanding. But we cannot countenance a US invasion of Iraq because all that suffering will only result in Saddam II. We should not, in toto, oppose the armed overthrow of Saddam, because that is perhaps the only way it will happen, but US guns will not be the agent of change here. On the day after the US bombardment, the Iraqi people will be visited by desolation, the mirror image of Hussein in power with US corporations on hand to further ensure the despoliation of their hopes.