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A War Foretold: The Destruction of Iraq

John Cox
Date Published: 
July 14, 2002

The “war on terrorism” waged by the United States seems certain to target Iraq in the very near future. The Bush administration, with full bipartisan support, openly pursues its plans to effect a “regime change” in Baghdad and to install a more submissive government—albeit one headed by figures as unsavory as the current dictator, Saddam Hussein. This despite the inconvenient fact that Iraq had no connection to the September 11 attacks or to the anthrax hysteria that swept the United States last fall and winter. Not surprisingly, the mainstream news media provides little if any historical background to the present conflict between Washington and Baghdad. Iraq’s history—which extends back to the dawn of human civilization—only begins for the New York Times and CNN in 1990 when Hussein first incurred the wrath of the US government. Meanwhile, we are led to believe that either there is only one inhabitant of Iraq, Saddam, or that there are 22 million Saddams. As in Afghanistan, Somalia, the Philippines and other sites of the “anti-terror” crusade, a cursory glance at the history of US intervention in Iraq would prove embarrassing for its architects and defenders alike. This article will briefly discuss one of the most devastating acts of state terror in recent years—the US attack on Iraq in 1991—and the cynical and squalid intrigue that preceded that assault. Crime pays Saddam Hussein received considerable political and economic support from the United States during the first two decades of his rule, which he consolidated between 1968 and 1970. After all, he met most of the criteria for “most-favored dictator” status—he wasted little time in crushing the labor movement and wiping out any left-wing organizations (with help from the CIA-supplied lists). And Hussein’s decade-long war against Iran, launched in 1980, dovetailed nicely with official US interests. Such was Iraq’s support from Washington that Hussein’s government paid no penalty for an accidental missile attack on a US battleship, the USS Stark, that killed three dozen sailors in 1987. Saddam’s worst crimes against humanity—lmost notoriously, the 1988 murder by poison gas of over 5,000 Kurds at Halabja in northern Iraq—failed to attract any negative reaction from Washington. On the contrary, the US and its junior partner, Great Britain, strengthened their support for the mass murderer. British trade minister Tony Newton led an entourage of 20 officials who flew to Baghdad shortly after the Halabja massacre and offered Saddam $500 million worth of trade credit, more than double that of the previous year. As Noam Chomsky points out, the two “guardians of global order [the US and Britain] also expedited Saddam’s other atrocities, including his use of cyanide, nerve gas, and other barbarous weapons—with intelligence, technology, and supplies” until at least late 1989. Only four months prior to the August 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Hussein welcomed a delegation of US senators, headed by Robert Dole. They met in the Kurdish city of Mosul—the senators made clear their sympathy for Hussein and declined to upset their host with any nettlesome questions about his policy toward the Kurds. Wyoming senator Alan Simpson suggested to Hussein that he was “misunderstood” by the American public due to negative publicity and an unreasonable press. By the late 1980s, however, Hussein’s support in Washington was becoming shaky. He was not as pliable or as dependent on the United States as, for example, the Shah of Iran or various local monarchies had been, and his stubborn pursuit of his own interests was increasingly running counter to US political and economic aims in the region. Fall from favor The Iraqi government had several long-standing disputes with the Kuwaiti monarchy. Iraq accused Kuwait of waging economic warfare against it, for example by pumping large quantities of oil from the Rumaila field, which lies beneath the two countries, as well as by flooding the oil market in violation of OPEC quotas. This overproduction and the consequent depression of oil prices were particularly harmful to Iraq, which was attempting to recover from its devastating war with Iran. Iraq also had territorial claims against Kuwait, dating back to the carve-up of the area by European imperialism after World War I. These disputes came to a head during the first months of 1990. There were several factors that contributed to the decision to invade Kuwait, not the least of which were the inducements Saddam received from leading US politicians. He was told by US ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie one week before the invasion of Kuwait that she had “instructions from the president” that Washington would have “no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait.” She repeated this, noting that “Secretary [of State] James Baker has directed me to emphasize this instruction…that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America.” Saddam, believing that he had the green light from Washington, invaded Kuwait August 2. In retrospect, it seems clear that Hussein walked right into a trap. The United States immediately began to mobilize a military response to Hussein’s action, patching together a coalition and manipulating the UN for political cover. Was the goal of the United States really to “liberate Kuwait” or to defend the concept of national sovereignty—or perhaps to “restore democracy” to a land in which it had never existed? There is nothing in the history of US foreign policy to suggest that any of these stated motivations could have been genuine. As the antiwar slogan of the time, “No Blood for Oil,” indicated, the US rulers were concerned with the region’s oil and other resources, not with any lofty principles. But their concern was not primarily with ensuring the supply of cheap oil for American consumers—then as now, a small part of the oil consumed in the United States comes from the Middle East—but with political and economic control of the region and its oil. “Iraq violated a fundamental principle of world affairs—that the energy reserves of the Middle East have to be firmly in the hands of US energy corporations and trusted US clients like Saudi Arabia’s elites,” Chomsky pointed out in a 1991 article. A war against Iraq would have several potential benefits, including the removal or weakening of the unpredictable Iraqi dictator, who, like Panama’s Manuel Noriega, deposed by a US invasion a few months earlier, could not always be counted upon to quietly take orders. So soon after the collapse of most of the eastern European Stalinist states, and with the Soviet Union barely staying afloat, the US government also sought to assert, in the strongest way possible, its “right” to military aggression in the post-Cold War world that was dawning. And in the search for new “enemies” to justify a worldwide military presence, Saddam’s Iraq topped the list. As John Pilger reported, “In May 1990 the president’s most senior advisory body, the National Security Council, submitted to Bush a White Paper in which Iraq and Saddam Hussein are described as ‘the optimum contenders to replace the Warsaw Pact’ as the rationale for continued Cold War military spending.” A war foretold Over the coming months, the principal aim of US diplomacy would be to diffuse the threat of the “outbreak of peace.” US News and World Report described in a 1991 article how Secretary of State James Baker “cajoled, bullied, and horse-traded his way” to line up support and to get UN Resolution 678, authorizing a US-led attack on Iraq, passed on November 30, 1990. For its full cooperation, Turkey received over $8 billion worth of military gifts from Uncle Sam, as well as a 50% increase in its textile export quota to the United States; Baker offered to forgive $14 billion of Egypt’s massive debt in return for its compliance; the U.S. government gave Syrian president Assad permission to wipe out all opposition to Syrian control in Lebanon, also sending him a billion dollars’ worth of military aid. For Iran’s support, Washington dropped its opposition to World Bank loans, and, indeed, the Bank soon approved a $250 million loan. Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev was among the easiest to buy off, accepting a $1 billion bribe from the Saudi foreign minister. China demonstrated no greater allegiance to “proletarian internationalism”—for its vote, President Bush welcomed Beijing back into the “international community” by holding a high-profile meeting with the Chinese foreign minister, the first such meeting since the Tianamen Square massacre a year-and-a-half earlier. $114 million dollars from the World Bank was deposited in a Beijing government account a few days later. Cuba, holding a temporary seat on the UN Security Council, offered the only strong and consistent opposition to the plans for military action. In a major speech to the UN in October, Cuban representative Isadoro Malmierca spoke of the “chronicle of a war foretold,” exposing and denouncing the US war plans and the complicity of the UN. Yemen also voted against the war resolution—a senior US diplomat said afterward to the Yemeni ambassador, “That was the most expensive ‘no’ vote you ever cast.” Sure enough, within three days, a U.S. aid program to the desperately poor country was stopped. The IMF and the World Bank also took a dim view of Yemen’s disregard for Washington’s efforts to create a “new world order,” and rescinded loans that had been approved. Elsewhere in the region, Sudan, in the midst of a severe famine, was denied a promised shipment of food aid by the U.S. after its leaders voiced their support for Iraq. Meanwhile, any momentum toward a negotiated settlement was effectively scuttled by U.S. pressure. At the beginning of January, Bush dismissed out of hand an Iraqi offer to withdraw from Kuwait, tied to the removal of foreign troops from the region and the banning of all weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. Similarly, a French initiative on January 14 was rejected by the United States, and therefore by the UN. “The greatest moral crusade since World War II,” as President Bush Sr. described it, was accompanied by bribery, coercion, and the most cynical and dishonest diplomacy; while the UN, whose supposed mission is to promote world peace, was used (not for the first or last time) as an agency of warfare. War or massacre? The United States, with its figleaf of a coalition, began the bombing of Iraq on January 16, 1991, initially concentrating on the civilian infrastructure of Baghdad and other major cities, in addition to Iraqi military encampments in southern Iraq and Kuwait. The war culminated in a brief ground invasion at the end of February. The reality of what transpired strongly contradicts the myth of the “clean war,” presumably waged with computer-directed precision and “smart bombs.” This myth was promoted by the major news media, which, with rare exception, happily acquiesced to Pentagon restrictions, confining themselves to peddling U.S. Department of Defense videos. Actually, “smart bombs” constituted a small minority–according to some sources, about seven percent–of the 88,500 tons of bombs (the equivalent of seven Hiroshimas) dropped on Iraq during the six-week campaign; it is estimated that seventy percent of the bombs missed their targets entirely. In December 1991 the Medical Educational Trust in London published a comprehensive study of casualties. The study concluded that about 250,000 men, women, and children died as a direct result of the U.S.-led attack and its immediate aftermath. Major relief agencies reported that 1.8 million Iraqis were made homeless, and that the country’s electricity, water, sewage, communications, health, agriculture, and industrial infrastructure had been “substantially destroyed,” producing “conditions for famine and epidemics.” U.S. losses during the war were in the double digits. The list of war crimes and atrocities committed during the six-week campaign is too lengthy to catalogue here. U.S. and British bombers dropped cluster bombs and Napalm B, which sticks to the skin while continuing to burn. They also dropped at least 350 tons of depleted uranium, which has contributed to a dramatic increase since 1991 in cancer among Iraqi children, one of the many devastating long-term effects of the war. On February 14 the U.S. bombed the Ameriyah bomb shelter in Baghdad, killing 1,500 Iraqi civilians. Shortly after the conclusion of the Gulf War, New York Newsday reported that three brigades of the 1st Mechanized Infantry Division “used snowplows mounted on tanks and combat earth movers to bury thousands of Iraqi soldiers–some still alive–in more than 70 miles of trenches.” U.S. fighter pilot Richard White described his sorties over Iraq as a “turkey shoot.” Expressing the racism that has permeated the 12-year U.S. aggression against Iraq, White said, “It’s almost like you flipped on the light in the kitchen at night and the cockroaches start scurrying, and we’re killing them.” The most horrific slaughter of the war commenced on February 26, when U.S. and allied attack helicopters, fighter-bombers, and B-52s rained explosives on tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians who were retreating in the direction of the southern Iraqi city of Basra. The death toll is unknown, as many of the victims were incinerated, while others ended up in mass graves near the Iraq-Kuwait border. The epilogue to the Gulf War massacre should be no more heartening to those who believe in the “civilizing mission” of the United States and Europe. Its humanitarian pretensions and oft-stated empathy for Saddam’s victims notwithstanding, the U.S. stood aside while Hussein bloodily suppressed rebellions of Kurds in the north and Shi’a in the south in early March 1991. These rebellions had largely been instigated by clandestine CIA radio, which broadcast Bush’s call for the oppressed people to rise up against Hussein, promising support. But Bush didn’t have these types of uprisings in mind; he and his partners favored their own creation, the “Free Iraqi Council,” to any indigenous and popular forces. Better to allow a weakened Saddam to remain in power than to support the Kurds and Shi’a under their own leadership. The Uruguayan writer and social critic Eduardo Galeano noted that “Iraq’s tragedy may be a model for global bullying and global impunity in coming times.” While the Gulf War of 1991 provides many lessons about the nature and motives of U.S. foreign policy, it also provided a memorable example of resistance to imperialism. Within days of the invasion of Kuwait and the beginning of the saber rattling, a strong antiwar movement, based largely on college campuses, began to coalesce in the United States. Two huge demonstrations against the war were held in Washington in January 1991, and February 21–the anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination–was chosen for a successful day of coordinated, nation-wide campus protests. The potential exists today to build an even stronger movement to challenge the ability of Washington and its accomplices to wage their boundless “war on terrorism.” About the Author John Cox is a long-time political activist and a graduate student in History at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.