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March 21, 2003

After the War on Saddam

A War on Iraqi Dissidents?


The carrot-and--stick strategy at first seemed ingenious, or at least crafty. In the days leading up to the U.S.-led war on Iraq, the "stick" of looming invasion would pressure Iraqi military or political officials into arresting or killing Saddam Hussein. The "carrot," or their incentive to oust Saddam and his sons, would have been to prevent foreigners from overrunning their country. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer put it most directly when he told Iraqis that "a single bullet" would be less costly than a war

Yet in the vaunted 48-hour warning period that led up to the war, the Bush Administration pulled the rug out from under any potential Iraqi coup. Ari Fleischer (or at least it appeared to be Fleischer and not a body double) stated unequivocally that even if Saddam was ousted, or left the country voluntarily, the U.S.-British forces would still invade Iraq in a "peaceful entry" to search for "weapons of mass destruction."

The signal was unmistakable: it did not matter what Iraqis did to topple their own tyrant, the Americans were going to rule their country anyways. If any Republican Guard officer was ready to confront Saddam to save his country, the pistol would have gone back in his holster. Why bother? The "carrot" had been yanked away. The potential self-liberation of Iraqis had turned into a foreign war of conquest. The tragedy is that this final squashing of Iraqi self-determination is fully consistent with U.S. historic policy toward the Iraqi people.

The Iraqi people historically had a reputation of determining their own destiny. In 1920, the Ottoman Turks left Iraq in defeat. In 1932, Iraqis overturned the British colonial mandate. In 1958, they threw out the Hashemite monarchy and declared a republic. These were a people who could overthrow dictators against overwhelming odds. Why did they not similarly topple Saddam? Because at every step along the way, the U.S. has stepped in either to prop up Saddam, or to make sure that it would be the only alternative to his rule.

Betraying Iraqi Rebels

Since Saddam's Ba'ath Party took power in 1968, the U.S. has exhibited a schizophrenic policy toward the Arab nationalist government. President Nixon backed a Kurdish revolt against Iraq, but sold out the Kurds in 1975 after Baghdad signed a peace treaty with his friend the Shah of Iran. Iraqi Kurds still remember this betrayal with bitterness and mistrust.

Five years later, after Iranians overthrew the Shah, the new Ba'ath supreme leader Saddam Hussein invaded Iran's oil fields with U.S. blessing. President Reagan supplied Baghdad with intelligence and U.S. naval protection for Iraq's oil shipments, and his Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warmly shook Saddam's hand in Baghdad. When both Iraq and Iran launched chemical attacks in the Kurdish region along their border, U.S. officials pointed fingers at Iran alone, and minimized or blocked UN condemnations of Saddam until the war's end in 1988.

After Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, the first Bush Administration assembled a Coalition to defend the self-determination of the oil-rich monarchy, but grassroots Iraqi opponents of Saddam were nowhere to be seen in the successful military strategy. Washington instead encouraged the formation of an Iraqi exile opposition (led by former Iraqi generals and the banker Ahmed Chalabi) which became not only internally divided but unpopular within Iraq.

Bush had encouraged Iraqis to rise up against Saddam, yet when southern Iraqi Shi'ites liberated their own cities in March 1991, the U.S. troops within view of their positions were ordered not to help. The Allies temporarily lifted the wartime No-Fly Zone, allowing just enough time for Saddam's helicopters to strafe Shi'ite rebels before restoring the flight restrictions. Saddam drained the region's marshes to finish his slaughter.

The reasons for the U.S. betrayal of the Shi'ites was threefold, and instructive for the present crisis in 2003. First, Washington assumed that Iraqi Shi'ites would seek to emulate Iran's Shi'ite regime, even though they had fought as troops against Iran in the 1980s. (Saddam's Mukhabarat secret police promoted this linkage by postering Shi'ite rebel cities with poster of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini.)

Second, U.S. allies in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait feared the dangerous example of a secular democratic republic across their borders, at a time when domestic opposition was rising to their monarchies. The Sunni princes and sheikhs had supported U.S. military bases and oil interests, and were more important than Iraqis' self-determination.

Third, a truly democratic revolution led by the Iraqi people would insist on taking full control of their oil fields, and keeping the profits from oil development. When Iran's popular Mossadegh government in Iran nationalized U.S. and British oil interests in 1953, the CIA overthrew that government. Washington viewed Saddam as a preferable and predictable factor for Sunni rule and regional "stability," and his reign of terror continued.

Weakening the Internal Opposition

The final blow to the self-determination of the Iraqi people came from the Clinton Administration in the 1990s, as U.S.-led economic sanctions sapped any potential strength left in the populace to oppose Saddam. The sanctions were supposed to pressure Iraqis to overthrow Saddam. Instead, Saddam successfully diverted blame for economic hardships to the U.S., and not without evidence. Educated Iraqis and working people spent all their waking hours scrambling to get enough basic goods for their families to survive. They grew too weak, distracted and frightened to organize against the regime, and grew to resent the U.S. for targeting them instead of Saddam.

The stage was set for the second Gulf War of 2003. Without a viable civilian or military opposition to Saddam, President George W. Bush could portray a U.S.-British invasion as "Operation Iraqi Freedom." In just the key 48-hour period when a few military officers or Ba'ath officials had the option to head off an invasion by taking out Saddam, Ari Fleischer took away the option.

Either Americans would oust Saddam, or nobody would. The goal became not to eliminate a dictator or his alleged bio-chemical weapons (so far unused) but conquering and ruling Iraq. Liberating Iraq becomes a prime opportunity not only to secure control over Iraqi oil fields, but more importantly to extend new U.S. "sphere of influence."

Every U.S. intervention since 1990 (in the Gulf, Balkans, and Central Asia) has left behind clusters of new, permanent military bases in the strategic "middle ground" between emerging economic competitors in the EU and East Asia. It is little wonder that Germany, France, Russia and China were the main opponents of this war. Iraq and Iran have been the only obstacles blocking U.S. domination of the region between Hungary and Pakistan, as the lynchpin of a new military-economic "empire."

The inhabitants of this U.S. "sphere of influence" are simply not allowed to overthrow their own dictators. The antiwar movement has understandably focused on the prospect of mass casualties in Gulf War II, and the humanitarian crisis that has already begun. But the real crime has been Washington's denial of self-determination to the Iraqi people over the past three decades, up to and including Gulf War II, even if relatively few Iraqis die.

Welcoming the Troops?

It would not be unusual for some weary and scared Iraqi troops or civilians to initially welcome the invading troops (whatever the U.S. motives for the invasion), as a human reaction to the toppling of Saddam's nightmarish rule. But so what? Some Saudis welcomed U.S. troops in 1990, until they overstayed their welcome in the Islamic holy land after the Gulf War I victory. Somalis similarly welcomed U.S. forces when they landed in Mogadishu in 1992, until the U.S. started taking sides in the clan-based civil war and paid the consequences in the infamous "Black Hawk Down" battle.

By conquering Iraq, the U.S. military is stepping into a country that is far more far more ethnically and religiously divided than Somalia, and rivaling Bosnia and Afghanistan. In the intricantly complex country, the U.S. will soon start its pattern of defining "good guys" and "bad guys," and taking sides in internal conflicts. Iraqis could be throwing flowers at American troops in 2003, but grenades in 2004.

With their proud history of self-determination, Iraqis will not be content to be ruled by an American military commander or appointee. They will not simply acquiesce to a Karzai-style Iraqi puppet such as Chalabi, who has set up headquarters in northern Iraq. Nor will Kurds accept Turkish troops in northern Iraq, even as a quid pro quo for U.S. overflights over Turkey to attack Saddam.

Shi'ites in the south may greet Americans who free them from the Sunni dictator Saddam, but will certainly resent American rulers who prevent them from taking their rightful place as the majority Iraqi population, and improving their second-class economic status. Urban, educated Iraqis, and anti-Saddam leftist parties, will similarly not be content to "meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

Winning is the easy part. President Bush may easily win Gulf War II, but lose the peace. The hard nut to crack will not be resistance from Saddam's followers, but resistance from his opponents. Like in the Philippines a century ago, the U.S. has arrived to "liberate" a people from tyrannical rule, but may ultimately find itself as an imperial power fighting the democratic rebels it had come to support.

Zoltan Grossman is an Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire, and a longtime peace, environmental, and anti-racist organizer. His peace writings can be seen at www.uwec.edu/grossmzc/peace.html and he can be reached at zoltan@igc.org

Yesterday's Features

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I Was a Soldier Once

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