By mid-April, well over two million Iraqis, mainly Kurds, had fled their homes and were struggling to survive in freezing conditions on the high mountain range that forms the frontier with Iran and Turkey. A thousand a day, mainly babies and small children, were estimated to be dying either directly from cold and starvation or from diseases they could normally have resisted. Thousands, probably tens of thousands, Arabs and Kurds alike, have been killed or wounded by artillery or helicopter fire from Saddam Hussein’s forces, thousands more rounded up and tortured or summarily executed, or both, in the aftermath of the fighting. All the cities of the south, including the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala, which are centers of veneration and pilgrimage for Shi’ite Muslims all over the world, have been laid waste by a bombardment far more indiscriminate than that of the allied air forces which took part in Desert Storm. Saddam Hussein is still in power in Baghdad, and has apparently regained control of most of the country.
One day, in the nature of things, Saddam will cease to rule Iraq. Some of his prisoners will probably be released alive. Some of the refugees may be able to return and rebuild their homes in relative safety. No doubt the cities and shrines will in due course be reconstructed. Some of those things may even have begun to happen by the time this article is published. But much of the damage done in Iraq since President Bush suspended hostilities on February 28 is by its nature irreparable. Could it have been avoided?
Argument about that question has tended to concentrate on two issues. Was Bush right to halt the fighting when he did? Should he have ordered his forces to shoot down Iraqi helicopters taking part in operations against the insurgents?
I believe he was right to halt the fighting. Not because of the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 678 which, by authorizing him to “restore international peace and security in the area,” gave him very wide discretion. But because the war had turned into a “turkey shoot” in which Iraqi conscripts, few of whom were even attempting any resistance, were being mowed down by the thousands; and because, by driving straight on to Baghdad, the US and its allies would have confirmed the widely held view in the region that their real objective was the destruction and domination of Iraq rather than the liberation of Kuwait. Any government that they installed in Baghdad would have been regarded as a puppet one, and Saddam would probably have become a regional martyr. The allies might all too easily have repeated the experience of so many external powers, including Israel and the US itself, which have intervened in Lebanon: initial welcome, attempt to restore the authority of a “legitimate” state, identification with one faction in a bitter internal dispute, growing resistance (“terrorism”), ignominious withdrawal.
The instinct voiced by Bush and by his British ally, Prime Minister John Major, was sound: Saddam should be got rid of by Iraqis, not by outsiders. The civil war which broke out immediately after the cease-fire was horrible but necessary. The world had to see that it was the Iraqi people, as much as or more than the Western powers, who wanted Saddam out. The trouble was, the wrong side won.
Once the civil war broke out, should the US have intervened to correct the drastic imbalance in weaponry between the two sides? I believe it should have. This imbalance manifestly had nothing to do with the degree of popular support enjoyed by each side. If anything it worked the other way: the fact that the revolt was so widespread in both north and south, in spite of the regime’s monopoly of heavy weapons, is evidence that anti-regime feeling was also very widespread, and very strong. The US did in fact intervene to the extent of interdicting the use of fixed-wing aircraft and of chemical weapons. But the former seems to have been more an incidental byproduct of the temporary cease-fire agreement than a deliberate intervention in the civil war, while the latter had to be dragged out of the administration by anxious journalists; it was not proffered spontaneously. At one point the President went further, warning the regime not to use helicopter gunships. But this warning was not only not acted on; it was publicly and explicitly rescinded by the White House spokesman—one of a number of actions which gave a strong impression that the administration actually favored a victory for the regime rather than the insurgents.
There were genuine difficulties about retaliating against helicopters:
General Schwarzkopf admitted that he had been “suckered” by his Iraqi interlocutors in the cease-fire talks into authorizing the use of helicopters for humanitarian or administrative purposes. This meant that helicopters, unlike fixed-wing aircraft, were not violating the agreement by the simple fact of taking off. Therefore they could not simply be shot down on sight.
There are technical problems about using air supremacy to destroy helicopters while airborne, without having any ground forces of one’s own in the region. Helicopters fly very close to the ground and are not that easily visible from above. They take off and land extremely quickly.
They can of course be destroyed on the ground, but Iraqi forces habitually landed them in the middle of villages or on school playgrounds, so that “collateral damage” of the most unpleasant sort would have been almost certain.
But all this is really beside the point. In using helicopters to attack the rebels the regime was clearly doing something that the allies had neither foreseen nor intended when the temporary cease-fire was agreed on, and something quite different from what the Iraqi negotiators had put forward as a reason for exempting helicopters from the general ban on air activity. Had Bush wanted to use the cease-fire to protect Saddam’s Iraqi opponents he could certainly have insisted that it covered any offensive use of gunships, and if the regime ignored this he could have backed up his prohibition by ordering a resumption of air attacks on selected military targets, not necessarily the helicopters themselves. In doing so he would not have substantially risked American lives—one of his principal concerns.
A more serious argument is that the interdiction of helicopter attacks might not in itself have been enough to save the insurgents from slaughter. Saddam might still have been able to crush them with tanks and artillery. One could also argue that there was, or would have been, an element of dishonesty in using the temporary cease-fire agreement as a pretext for intervening in the civil war. The agreement was not intended by either side to affect the civil war, which in fact had barely started at the time when it was signed. It was intended to freeze the outcome of Operation Desert Storm as between Iraqi and allied forces. The civil war was a new development which called for new political decisions, not simply for the enforcement of the status quo. The US took a political decision, to declare neutrality. Given the disparity of weapons between the two sides, this amounted to a decision to allow Saddam to win.
That decision was paradoxical, to say the least. Many times since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on August 2 the President and other spokesmen of his administration had denounced Saddam Hussein not only as an aggressor but as a dictator, and had declared that their quarrel was not with the Iraqi people. At least once, on February 15, Bush personally and publicly had urged the Iraqi people and army “to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.” Even after the cease-fire, in his victory speech to Congress, Bush declared solemnly that Saddam and his associates would be held accountable for the crimes they had committed.
That he should hesitate to commit US forces to a full-scale conquest of Iraq for the purpose of overthrowing or apprehending Saddam was understandable. That he should refuse either to supply weapons to insurgents who were trying to do that, or, at least, to use his unchallenged command of the Iraqi skies to help them do it, is much harder to accept. I believe it was a tragic mistake, rooted in a profoundly wrong approach to Iraqi society and Iraqi politics going back far beyond August 2 of last year.
Behind this approach, common to all the main Western governments, lies a pessimistic view of Arab and Islamic culture, which tends to be seen as both static and inimical to freedom. Thus while dictatorship is regarded as abnormal and in the last resort unacceptable if applied to Europeans, it is assumed to be, for Arab and Muslim peoples, the only workable alternative to traditional monarchy or to direct colonial rule by external powers. Few members of Western governments seem to be aware that the Islamic world, and even the Arab world, comprises a wide diversity of societies and states, or that virtually all of them have undergone deep economic, social, and cultural changes in the forty or so years since the end of the colonial era. The fact that this period has indeed coincided for some of them with a period of increasingly harsh and unrepresentative government does not mean that they have remained static, or that they are permanently incapable of sustaining a government of any other type.
Iraq is in both respects an extreme case. Its government has been the harshest and least representative of all. But its economic, social, and cultural development has also been spectacular. In fact, as an expatriate Iraqi economist writing under the pseudonym Ridha Mohammed explained in the Financial Times on March 4,
The country is well endowed with natural and human resources. In addition to its 100 billion barrels of oil reserves—the world’s second biggest after Saudi Arabia—it is fertile, with the largest amount of agricultural land per capita of any Arab country apart from Sudan and Somalia, and the Arab world’s largest volume of water resources. It is endowed with beautiful scenery in the north and is well-known for its ancient archaelogical sites, both potential sources of income. It has an adult literacy rate of 90 per cent, and its educational enrolment rate at all levels is high by the standards of Arab and developing nations. By rights, Iraq should now have become a relatively advanced developing country with a sound agricultural and industrial base.
The writer goes on to attribute Iraq’s lack of such a base to “the politically-repressive and economically-misguided nature of the Saddam regime” and to argue that “building an economy with a strong non-oil base requires genuine political stability based on multi-party democracy, the safeguard of human rights and the rule of law.” A defender of the regime could reply that at least it did provide political stability, even if by means of ruthless repression, after the turbulent postrevolutionary decade of 1958–1968; that by nationalizing the oil industry it made the oil revenues available for Iraq’s own use; that the high literacy and educational enrollment rates are evidence that at least some of those revenues were put to good use; and that a considerable industrial base did exist until it was destroyed by allied bombing in January and February of this year.