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Iraq and Its Future

In the circumstances created by the war in the Gulf, it is not enough to concentrate only on postwar security arrangements and the control of arms sales to Iraq, as desirable as these goals are. For unless the victors in the Gulf War pursue some kind of constructive vision regarding the political future of Iraq, Kuwaiti sovereignty may very well have been restored at the cost of Iraqi sovereignty and still more loss of life.

A gradual slide into anarchy, civil war, and possible defacto fragmentation is already being threatened by the revolts in Basra, Nasiriya, Erbil, and other southern and northern cities. The suppression of these uprisings by Saddam Hussein’s regime is going to be a very bloody business indeed. The bloodletting now going on in Iraq is still in its infancy. Mustard gas may already have been used in Basra, according to the London Daily Telegraph of March 7. The wild Baathi rhetoric about security forces creating “rivers of blood” may well become a reality. But the principal victims, as always, will be the long-suffering people of Iraq.

For the Iraqi people, the cost of enforcing the will of the United Nations has been grotesque. We shall never know exactly how many Iraqis died. Speaking of what the Allied forces found in the bunkers and trenches along the Saudi-Kuwaiti border, General Schwarzkopf was refreshingly frank: “There were a very, very large number of dead in these units, a very, very large number indeed.”1 The estimate of the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Les Aspin, that at least 65,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed2 is supported by Israeli sources who speak of one to two hundred thousand Iraqi casualties. Most of the killing, moreover, took place during the ground war. Fleeing soldiers were bombed with a neat device known as a “fuel-air explosive,” which creates a fireball effect that incinerates or asphyxiates everything around it. As Michael Kinsley reported in The New Republic,3 during the period before the war broke out this was called the “poor man’s nuclear weapon,” and its horrific effects were described at length. But as things turned out Iraq was unable to make effective use of the weapon; only the United States did so.

Did so many Iraqis who did not want to fight have to die? And did an entire country have to be left “brain-dead,” as Richard Reid of the United Nations Children’s Fund described it following a mission to survey damage to the city’s water supply? Baghdad, he said, where some four million people live, is a city “essentially unmarked, a body with its skin basically intact, with every main bone broken and with its joints and tendons cut…. The health system is collapsing. There are no phones and no electricity and no petrol and only a people reduced to daily improvisations and scroungings.”4 Why was Baghdad being bombed so intensively while the Iraqi army was in full rout? Iraqis like myself who opposed the Baathist regime for years and welcomed the formation of a coalition against it have to ask: Does an entire country have to be crippled to enforce a principle?

There are two moral questions here: the wanton quality of the violence over and above what was required to dislodge the Iraqi army from Kuwait; and second, the disproportion between the amount of violence used and the values supposedly being upheld. Whatever the answers may be—and it is up to Americans to come up with them—such violence as was inflicted upon Iraq carries with it a responsibility toward those who have been its victims.

The bombing of Dresden and the use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not by themselves change the course of German and Japanese politics. It took a commitment by the allies to the future of Germany and Japan to do that. The contrast with the humiliations of the settlement following World War I could not have been more striking. So far as precedents for the present situation are concerned, we have little more to go on than these two models from the past, with all that they imply. Which one will the victors in the Gulf War choose? The early signs are not good. It is true that on March 13 (as this issue of The New York Review went to press) the Bush administration warned Iraq not to use helicopter gunships against the insurrections. But for the most part the Bush administration is turning a blind eye to the members of the Iraqi opposition on the grounds that any kind of support for them would be tantamount to interference in the internal affairs of another country. This is a mockery of language, of thought, and of the common sense of Americans.

The terrible facts of this war could make for a pyrrhic victory indeed, one likely to be accompanied in the long run by structural instability throughout the countries known as the fertile crescent. In the weeks, months, and years to come, the bloodletting by the Baath regime may yet combine with the scale of the destruction wreaked by the Gulf War, to result in a human catastrophe of genocidal proportions. Add to this the likelihood that little or no progress will be made on the Palestinian question, and you have a volatile combination of ingredients that can reinforce the worst kind of politics in the region, a politics that feeds on despair, hopelessness, and millenarian solutions to appalling problems. The long-term consequences of leaving a broken Iraq to fester and die are too awful to contemplate.

At the same time, paradoxically, the very scale of the Iraqi defeat brings with it a great opportunity. The opportunity is to establish in Iraq a demilitarized, genuinely secular, federated republic founded on working democratic institutions. This opportunity, however, is only possible if the victors in the recent war work with the members of the Iraqi opposition on a lasting basis and with such a vision in mind. The Iraqi opposition groups are unable to achieve this vision by themselves. They need help. The only credible source for that help is, ironically, the powers that have crippled their country and, until now, have left it to rot and die, still under the rule of the Baath. The legacy of hate and bitterness toward the West is already mounting in Iraq. The only way for Americans to staunch the terrible wounds of war is for them to reach out to Iraqis who want a different government and make it clear that what happens in Iraq now seriously matters to them.

The US and its allies should be actively helping and entering into negotiations with members of the Iraqi opposition. In their public statements and actions they should distinguish between the people of Iraq and the illegitimate government apparatus that is waging war on its own population. They should insist that Iraqis fleeing possible persecution should be allowed to cross into Kuwait. They should put Saddam Hussein’s government on notice more strongly than they have so far that its acts of repression are being observed and could be subject to a military response. They should make it clear that help with reconstruction will be forthcoming if a new, democratic regime replaces that of Saddam Hussein.

They should also consider deploying a temporary army of occupation to keep the peace and restore basic services pending the formation of a transitional Iraqi government and the organization of a new Iraqi internal security force drawn from the existing units of the army. Such an army of occupation should not leave Iraq until an overall settlement regarding postwar security arrangements for the region has been arrived at, including guarantees of the territorial integrity of Iraq.

What kind of new regime might emerge? If I say that a secular, demilitarized, and federated republic in Iraq is now feasible, I expect people in the US and Europe to be instantly and deeply skeptical. With good reason. Please remember, however, that if before August 2, 1990, I had said that Baathi Iraq represented a grave threat to the security of the entire region, many politically sophisticated Americans would have been just as skeptical. Iraq is a country of great imaginative extremes. Often hidden in the folds of one wild extreme is the possibility of another.

Both the dangers and the opportunities arise from the same source. They arise from the very specific nature of the polity built up during the last twenty-two years. They arise from the deformed yet still quintessentially modern experience that the Baathist experiment imposed on Iraq. The key factor that remains little understood is the nature of the society that has existed in Iraq, a society that has now been shaken to its very foundations by two things: first, the sheer scale of the devastation and destruction inflicted on Iraq by American firepower; and, second, the magnitude of the allied victory brought about by the destruction. The grounds for both despair and hope are to be found in these momentous facts. In my view the outcome in the weeks and months ahead will depend almost entirely on the policies followed by the victors in this war. For even if the insurrections that have been taking place in Basra, Erbil, and other cities were able to achieve their goal of toppling the regime, they would by themselves be incapable of reversing the trend toward the disintegration of Iraq. On the contrary, the insurrections going on today, with which of course I strongly sympathize, are themselves confirmation of the disintegration that now afflicts Iraq.

I will try to show here why the opportunity to create a new republic is based on Iraqi realities, not on fantasy, and to argue that Iraqis have no alternative to adopting such a program. Or to put it differently, the only alternative that the Iraqis have to adopting such a goal—and, in spite of everything, asking the help of the victors in the recent war in order to achieve it—is collective suicide.

In 1933, on the eve of his death, Iraq’s first and wisest ruler of modern times, King Faisal I, wrote the following words in a confidential memorandum:

There is still—and I say this with sorrow—no Iraqi people but unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatever. Out of these masses we want to fashion a people which we would train, educate, and refine…. The circumstances being what they are, the immenseness of the efforts needed for this can be imagined.5

King Faisal and Saddam Hussein, the first and the last rulers of modern Iraq, are the antipodes of Iraqi politics. One could not imagine a more striking contrast in personality and style of government. The cruelty and megalomania of Saddam Hussein’s political temperament have already entered the canons of folklore. Faisal by contrast was wise, tolerant, worldly, a patient negotiator who was prepared to cajole, admonish, tease, and even to deceive his subjects into becoming modern citizens. In short he was prepared to do virtually anything in the effort to encourage them to change themselves and then society, except to use force.

  1. 1

    The New York Times, February 27, 1991, p. A7.

  2. 2

    The New York Times, March 1, 1991, p. A11.

  3. 3

    March 18, 1991.

  4. 4

    Quoted by Murray Kempton in New York Newsday, March 3, 1991; see also the report issued by UN headquarters in New York “WHO/UNICEF Special Mission to Iraq, February 1991.”

  5. 5

    See Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (Princeton University Press, 1978), pp. 25–26.

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