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Iraq: The Road Not Taken

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

Against such an argument, Mr. Mohammed points out that economic development was distorted by the regime’s obsession with military strength: “According to the United Nations Development Programme, the ratio of Iraq’s spending on the military to its spending on health and education is 711 percent, the highest in the world.” It could be added that after 1980, or at any rate after 1982, civilian investment was virtually stopped as all efforts were concentrated on the war with Iran, a war of Saddam’s choosing; and, of course, that the destruction of the industrial base could have been avoided if only he had not invaded Kuwait, or had had the sense to withdraw from it by January 15.

The ruthless totalitarianism of the Baath party was no more essential to Iraq’s development than was that of Stalin to the development of Russia. That statement is not incompatible with the view that social, economic, and cultural factors made it unlikely that either Russia in 1917 or Iraq in 1958 would experience a swift and smooth transition to “multi-party democracy, the safeguard of human rights and the rule of law.” Or even with the view that at least some, if by no means all, of the obstacles to such a transition have been removed or reduced by the development that has occurred since. In Russia the transition is still gravely impeded and now seems unlikely to succeed in the short term. But it is still clear that the Russians are far better educated, more sophisticated, less willing to resort to or tolerate violence, than they were in 1917. It is not implausible that the same would be true of Iraqis, once they succeeded in freeing themselves from the extreme violence of the Saddam regime.

Many of Iraq’s best educated people have in recent years either chosen or been forced to live outside Iraq. Some of them engaged openly in opposition activity but many more, fearing for themselves or their families, preferred to get on with their own business or professional careers, confining themselves to private complaint about the barbarity of Saddam’s regime and the willingness of the West to connive at it. The political activists tended to congregate in Teheran and Damascus, capitals of states bitterly opposed to the Iraqi regime for their own reasons, and therefore supportive of opposition to it. Those who got on with their own lives did so either in other Arab countries, where they had to be very careful because the governments were usually themselves very anxious to keep on the right side of Saddam Hussein, or in the West, and especially in Britain, a country with which many Iraqi families had links going back to the days when Iraq was under British occupation and mandate (1918–1932) or strong though informal British influence (1932–1958).

The circumstances were not ideal for forging a united and effective opposition movement, especially so long as the most likely effect of any internal upheaval in Iraq seemed to be the victory of Iran and the installment of an “Islamic” regime under Iranian control. It was only in March of 1989, a year and a half after Iraq’s victory over Iran, that personalities representing the different strands of Iraqi opposition to Saddam—Islamic, liberal, leftist, Kurdish, and Arab nationalist—got together in London and issued a manifesto calling for democracy and human rights. For the Islamic militants, especially, this was an important and difficult step: it required them to ally themselves with “atheistic” communists, and also to accept “democracy,” which Ayatollah Khomeini, for instance, had denounced as an alien, Western concept. They did so because they were brought to see that Iraq, whose population is more evenly split along both national (Arab-Kurdish) and sectarian (Shi’ite-Sunni) lines than Iran’s, could not be dragooned into an Islamic republic on the Iranian model, in which power is monopolized by the Shi’ite clergy.

The signers of the manifesto hoped that it would attract attention and sympathy from Western governments and from the Western press and television, at a time when there was already mounting tension between Iraq and the West. In fact the manifesto was ignored, partly because its authors were inexperienced and half-hearted in their attempts to publicize it or follow it up, but also because the West had by now settled for a stereotype of Iraq as represented by Saddam: a powerful and ruthless Arab nation. The regime’s use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in 1988 had been well publicized, but that was seen as an action by “Iraq.” The West was ill prepared for the idea of a different kind of Iraq, in which Kurds and Arabs would be full partners.

That pattern persisted even after the invasion of Kuwait. Again members of the opposition were the victims, partly of their own inexperience, partly of their dependence on Saddam’s regional enemies, who had divergent views and interests. While Syria invited the opposition to meet in Damascus, Iran dragged its feet, claiming there were no seats available on flights from Teheran. It was not until December 27 that a new agreement was announced at a press conference in Beirut. This time it was an agreement between organizations, rather than individuals. They set up a joint action committee representing seventeen different opposition groups, with a secretariat of five members: two from Islamic groups, one representing the Kurds, one communist, and one dissident Baathist. All these groups committed themselves to restore and respect human rights, to give full autonomy and a full share of central power to the Kurds (while confirming Kurdish as the second official language of the country), and to hold free and fair elections for a constituent assembly between one and two years after the overthrow of the Saddam regime.

Pro-Western liberals were missing from this new front, but there was little they could object to in the program, and in the following weeks most of them were brought in. In the third week of January, just after the beginning of the air war, the Kurdish member of the new secretariat and the younger brother of the main Islamic leader were both received, although separately, at the British foreign office. They were followed by other opposition leaders, and later a broadly representative delegation met a British government minister, Mr. Douglas Hogg. Britain’s official attitude was supportive of the opposition’s proclaimed objective—democracy for the whole of Iraq, rather than fragmentation of the country—but skeptical whether it could be achieved. Although opposition leaders spoke of a popular insurrection, a military coup seemed a much more plausible scenario for Saddam’s removal. The Kurdish parties were accepted as being probably representative of Kurdish feeling inside the country. The state of Iraqi Arab opinion was regarded as much more an unknown quantity.

The US administration, which shared these not unreasonable doubts, was unwilling to go even as far as the British in opening a dialogue with the opposition. Its attitude has not been officially explained, but various motives have been suggested:

  1. A key element in the opposition consisted of Islamic groups associated with Iran. Distrust of Iran, and fear that it would take advantage of Iraq’s defeat to become once more a dominant or threatening power in the region, remained very strong in Washington. Those who advocated a different approach to Iran—one which the emergence of a pragmatic leadership under Rafsanjani might have been thought to favor—were discredited by the memory of Irangate and the illusory hopes placed in Iranian “moderates” at that time.

  2. It was believed that Turkey would strongly oppose any contact with Kurdish parties, out of fear that Kurdish autonomy in Iraq would act as a stimulus to Kurdish separatism in Turkey. From January on, however, there were signs that Turkish President Turgut Özal was modifying his attitude to the Kurdish question. In early March, just as the Iraqi civil war was beginning in earnest, two leaders from the main Kurdish parties in Iraq were received at the foreign ministry in Ankara and told that Özal favored any democratic solution of the Kurdish problem within Iraq, provided that it did not lead to an independent Kurdish state. Yet even then the US doggedly refused to follow suit.

  3. More generally, the US feared Iraq’s disintegration. US officials were apparently unwilling to consider, or even listen to, any suggestion that Iraq’s unity could better be preserved by welcoming and encouraging the determination of the different opposition groups to work together within the frame of a single, if possibly federal, state, than by implying that national unity was synonymous with continued rule by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

  4. It was suggested that only the army could get rid of Saddam, and that it would not do so until the rebellions were defeated. This view was stated explicitly by Dr. Phebe Marr, an Iraq expert on the faculty of the National Defense University (which is under the direct control of the Pentagon), in an interview with the International Herald Tribune. Dr. Marr did not spell out the thinking behind this view in her quoted comment, but it probably has to do with the sectarian composition of the Iraqi officer corps, which is drawn disproportionately from the Sunni Arab minority. To suppose that this minority is uniformly enthusiastic about Saddam Hussein’s government would be quite unfair; but it is true that many of its members would be apprehensive about the success of a revolution leading to majority rule in Iraq. They know that the Shi’a, traditionally the underdogs in Iraq as in other Arab countries, form the majority of the Iraqi population, and they fear that if the Shi’a achieved power they might behave vindictively.

  5. This fear of the Shi’a is shared by the Saudi government, which derives its legitimacy from a particularly rigid version of Sunni orthodoxy, and treats the Shi’ite population in its own eastern province with great suspicion. Some sources have asserted that King Fahd sent dire warnings to Washington of the danger of a pro-Iranian Shi’ite regime in Iraq, suggesting that even the survival of Saddam Hussein would be preferable. That may be true; but on the record the Saudis have been supportive of the Iraqi opposition, while trying to strengthen the pro-Western elements within it as well as some Sunni army officers who have defected from the Baath regime.

The Sunni-Shi’a problem in Iraq is a real one, whose origins go back to the founding of the state in 1920–1921. After defeating a mainly Shi’ite uprising in 1920, Great Britain gave the throne to a Sunni Arab, King Faisal I, who came from Arabia. He was identified with the rising force of Arab nationalism, and founded his power on the army officers and bureaucrats, themselves mainly Sunni Arabs, who had served the Ottoman empire. The tradition of recruiting army officers mainly from the Sunni Arabs who inhabit the central region of the country was maintained even after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958. Like all the subsequent coups, up to and including the one which brought the Baath party to power in 1968, this was carried out by a group of Sunni officers. Although individual Shi’ites have from time to time been promoted to important positions—the new Prime Minister Saadoun Hammadi being a classic example—the reins of real power have been kept firmly in the hands of Sunni Arabs. All Iraqi regimes have in practice been military ones controlled by this minority, although formally the regime before 1958 was a constitutional monarchy and the one since 1968 has been a secular party dictatorship.

Us policy was evidently swayed by expert advisers, and perhaps by regional allies, who believe that this formula of minority rule through military force is the only possible one, or the only safe one, for Iraq. Yet it is precisely this recipe that has brought Iraq to its present, pitiful state. It is a recipe for insecure governments, which assume that disloyalty and conspiracy are at the root of all their problems at home and abroad, and which turn instinctively to violence and intimidation as the first instruments of their policy.

The coalition victory, followed by the mass uprisings at both ends of the country, offered a chance to break that vicious circle. There must be many Sunni officers who, in that moment of defeat and utter confusion, were ready to switch sides, had they seen that the US and its allies were backing the insurgents. If the US had been willing to associate itself with the opposition in a call for democracy and the rule of law, combined with a pledge to maintain Iraq’s territorial integrity and prevent Iranian interference, Egypt could surely have been persuaded to co-sponsor the statement, and the Saudis, while they would probably not have been willing to pronounce the word “democracy,” would have gone along with the general direction of such an appeal. The Sunni officers, instead of feeling threatened by a chaotic sectarian revolution opening the gates to Iran, would have seen the chance of an orderly transfer of power to a moderate government, backed by powers well-disposed toward them and anxious to maintain Iraq as a factor in the regional balance of power.

Is it too late now? Yes, inasmuch as those uprisings have been drowned in blood and Saddam has begun to reconstitute his apparatus of terror and control. The moment when “the Iraqi people” could indeed have overthrown the regime, with appropriate outside help, has probably passed. But the threat to “international peace and security” from Saddam’s regime has not been removed. On the contrary, the mass exodus of the Kurds has given it new shape, as the UN Security Council admitted when it passed Resolution 688 on April 5—a resolution that made legal history by involving the UN directly in a conflict between the government and the citizens of a member state.

Neither Turkey nor Iran can cope with the number of refugees that are pouring through their frontiers. The Turkish president quickly reacted by calling for the refugees to be given safe haven on the Iraqi side of the border, and offering to send Turkish troops into Iraq as part of a UN force for this purpose. Himself of partly Kurdish origin (he boasts of a grandmother who spoke no Turkish), Özal now clearly has pretentions to be the savior or protector of the Iraqi Kurds, notwithstanding his government’s record of discrimination against Turkish Kurds. He is no doubt aware of the precedent set by India in 1971, when it reacted to the arrival of ten million refugees from East Pakistan by launching a full-scale invasion and bringing Bangladesh into the world. He is certainly aware of the precedent set by Turkey itself in 1974 when it invaded Cyprus to “rescue” the Turkish Cypriots, and allowed them to regroup in the northern part of the island under Turkish military protection.

Shall we see a Kurdish or Turkish-Kurdish “Republic of Northern Iraq,” corresponding to that very vilayet of Mosul which Turkey so reluctantly relinquished to the kingdom of Iraq (under British mandate) in 1924–1925, and which contains most of Iraq’s oilfields? It was perhaps partly to forestall such a development that John Major, on April 8, persuaded his European partners to take up the idea of a “safe haven” in northern Iraq. Better it should be done, if at all, under UN auspices than as a unilateral Turkish invasion.

Iran promptly and predictably demanded a “haven” for Shi’ites in the south as well as for Kurds in the north. Meanwhile Brent Scowcroft, President Bush’s national security adviser, was promising that 40,000 Iraqis in the US-occupied southern zone would not be “abandoned” when US forces withdrew. Apparently they would be put in camps in the UN-controlled DMZ along the Kuwaiti border—though how safe they would be there, given the small size of the UN force and the fact that Iraq was to assume responsibility for public order in the part of the DMZ on its territory, remained an all-too-open question.

By April 16 the reaction of American public opinion had forced President Bush to adopt a version of the European proposal. He ordered US troops into northern Iraq to construct and protect refugee camps, insisting that this was a temporary “humanitarian” initiative, not intended to lead to the creation of a Kurdish state. Yet it seemed inevitable that if these camps were secured effectively from Iraqi government interference, they would be policed and administered by Kurdish political groups, and would become political, if not military, bases for continued Kurdish resistance in the government-controlled area. In other words, the US was moving toward the partition of Iraq—precisely what its previous policy had been designed to avoid.

In the grip of the Vietnam syndrome—or perhaps the Lebanon syndrome—Bush wants to solve the “humanitarian” Kurdish problem without involving US troops in the Iraqi civil war. The trouble is that Saddam’s regime is in itself one monstrous humanitarian problem, and there is no humanitarian solution to it other than Saddam’s removal.

Even his removal by a military coup will not solve that problem unless those who carry out the coup declare an immediate cease-fire and amnesty and embark on negotiations with the opposition, based on the opposition’s program of human rights, rule of law, and democracy. Failing such a coup, external military action to end the regime may be the only way out. If the US wishes to avoid a regional free-for-all, with Turkey, Iran, and possibly other states each rushing to the support of its Iraqi protégés, it may have to take the lead in a further UN-authorized intervention.

April 18, 1991

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