“For the poor throughout history who have suffered violence, death, hunger, sickness, and indignity at the hands of powerful oppressors who would not respect their humanity, and especially for the Iraqi, Arab, and other victims of the fire this time—with a call for action to end the scourge of war, economic exploitation, and poverty.”—Ramsey Clark
Dedication for The Fire This Time: U.S. War Crimes in the Gulf. Thunder’s Mouth Press, New York 1992.
The region of Mesopotamia—modern-day Iraq —has been a magnet for greedy conquerors for thousands of years. Time and again, thieving invaders coveting her rich natural resources and advanced society have pillaged “the land between two rivers.” Time and again, the invaders were defeated and expelled. The Americans led by “leaders” comprised of rich oil barons and neo-conservative Zionists are the latest in a long line of imperialists. If they had only read history, however, they could have predicted that they, too, would suffer great losses from an unwavering resistance. They could have predicted that they, too, will have to leave. In the words of Yogi Berra, they “made the wrong mistake.” But while imperialism in Western Asia is nothing new, our weaponry and war crimes may put Americans in the history books as Iraq ’s most barbaric invaders ever.
Throughout the last hundred years, Iraqis have experienced much social, political, and economic turmoil. The British occupied the region in the early 20th century, and installed a puppet monarchy to serve the interests of the Empire. King Faisal, with pro-British agents Nuri Al-Said and Saleh Jabr, traded Iraq ’s wealth and their own dignity for power and greed.[i] Many Iraqis identified them as traitors, as evidenced by demonstration slogans: “Nuri Al-Said, Al-Qundara; Saleh Jabr, Al-Qeetanheh” (“Al-Said is the shoe, Jabr is its shoelace.”) On July 14th, 1958 (marked as Iraq ’s first Independence Day), a coup lead by General Abdul Karim Qasim— Iraq ’s self-proclaimed “only leader”—resulted in the dissolution of the “Kingdom” of Iraq . The royal family was assassinated, and the “ Republic of Iraq ” was born—a development that took Western powers by surprise.
Iraqis had suffered greatly under the exploitation of the British and their Indian and Nepalese “Gurkha” militias. With the end of the Kingdom, they hoped conditions would improve, and for a brief time, they did. General Qasim, influenced by his allies in the Iraqi Communist Party, introduced sweeping socio-economic reforms to distribute the nation’s wealth more equitably. Also, in 1959, he withdrew Iraq from the U.S.-orchestrated Baghdad Pact, established to confront the Soviet Union . However, pan-Arab nationalists (including members of the Ba’ath Socialist Party) led by Qasim’s second-in-command, Abdul Salam Arif, wanted Iraq to move in a different direction. At the time, they sought to join Iraq with Egypt and Syria in the United Arab Republic (UAR). In October 1959 during a failed coup, there was an attempt on Qasim’s life by a group of militant Ba’athists, including one young Iraqi from the town of Tikrit named Saddam Hussein.[ii]
Qasim’s rule lasted only until 1963, when he was assassinated by his former deputy
Abdul Salam Arif. According to the late King Hussein of Jordan , the American CIA backed this coup and fed the rebels information on leftist intellectuals and communists, who were summarily executed by the rising Ba’athists.[iii] Arif’s rule, however, also was short-lived; he died in a plane crash in 1966 while visiting Basra . His brother, Abdul Rahman Arif, succeeded his rule, but yet another coup was simmering.
In 1968, former General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr and Saddam Hussein—leaders of Iraq ’s Ba’ath Party—toppled Arif to become President and Vice-President, respectively. The Ba’athists had gained popularity among Iraqis in the 1950’s for their strong opposition to British imperialists and their agents. In the early hours of July 17—Iraq’s second Independence Day—General Al-Bakr drove up to the barracks of the Republican Guard outside Abdul Rahman Arif’s palace. He was followed by a convoy of armed Ba’athists, including Saddam Hussein and his half-brother Barzan. Promised his life, Arif quickly surrendered, and the “White” Revolution was complete. Bloodshed would soon follow, however, as Al-Bakr and Hussein consolidated their power over the Republic. Any threat to their rule—from collaborators with imperial Europe to members of opposing political parties to challenges within their own party—was quickly eliminated.
While al-Bakr was the nominal leader, Hussein ran the Party, the National Guard, and the state’s security apparatus. He played major roles in establishing treaties with Kurdish parties in northern Iraq and nationalizing Iraq ’s oil (1972-1975),[iv] to profit Iraq instead of foreign companies. Though the regime remained politically oppressive until its fall in 2003, Iraqi society and the economy flourished once autonomy over oil sales was reclaimed from foreign hands. By the late 1970’s, the value of the Iraqi dinar was equivalent to over three American dollars. Education and literacy rates were on the rise, and the healthcare system was considered the “jewel of the Arab World.” (Thirty years later, however, gas-guzzling Americans and British shocked and awed their way back into the driver’s seat, resulting in the destruction of Iraq ’s infrastructure and civil society.)
Saddam Hussein remained the behind-the-scenes de facto ruler until July 16, 1979, when al-Bakr retired and gave the presidential seat to his second-in-command. Soon thereafter, the lives of Iraqis would return to suffering. In 1980, tensions were rising between Iraq and Iran . Although the 1975 Algiers Accord between the two nations established a diplomatic resolution to their long-standing territorial disputes, neither country abided by its terms. In addition, Iran ’s new leader, Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, sought to extend theocratic rule to secular Iraq and the Gulf monarchies. As tensions rose, each side accused the other of encouraging internal uprisings. In September 1980, with the tacit approval of the United States , Saudi Arabia , and the rest of the Gulf States whose leaders feared Khomeini’s aspirations of regional hegemony, Hussein launched a massive military assault. The Iran-Iraq War officially began.
The United States appeared to side with Iraq by supplying the Iraqi army with conventional, biological and chemical weapons as well as intelligence. In secrecy, however, the Reagan Administration also sold arms to Iran without Congressional approval, and used the funds to support the U.S.-backed Contra insurgency against the Sandinista Government in Nicaragua . This criminal activity is remembered as the Iran-Contra scandal, for which no one has been brought to justice. In fact, many of its culprits remain top U.S. government officials, including members of the recent Iraq Study Group, such as the new Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Before a cease-fire was declared between Iraq and Iran on April 20, 1988, over a million lives were lost.
In 1988, Saddam Hussein’s regime was developing a $40 billion plan for post-war reconstruction. Kuwait , however, was selling oil in quantities exceeding those mandated by OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) agreements. This inexplicable violation of OPEC-established limits dropped the price of oil per barrel, which drastically reduced Iraq ’s export earnings. Kuwait ’s Al-Sabah monarchy was also demanding repayment of the 10 billion dollar financial support given to Iraq to defend against the Ayatollah’s regime that would depose them. Furthermore, the Kuwaitis were stealing oil from the Rumaila field in southern Iraq by “slant-drilling” under the border. As diplomatic efforts to resolve these and the long-standing border disputes between the two countries were dismissed by the Al-Sabah sheikhs, Saddam Hussein threatened military action to end Kuwait ’s intransigence. On August 2, 1990—once again with tacit approval from the United States —Iraqi troops crossed the border of one of its neighbors.
Since then, punishment for the Iraqi government’s actions has been carried out against the country’s civilian population, in violation of the basic standards of international law. U.N. sanctions imposed on Iraq ’s economy on August 6, 1990, lasted until the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime after the American invasion of 2003. It is estimated that between 1.2 and 1.8 million Iraqis died during those years, due to starvation, destruction of electrical and sewage treatment plants during the Gulf War, daily bombing by US and British warplanes, and denial of basic medical supplies and equipment. But today, Iraqis see those as their “better days”—a testimonial to the grave human suffering under the brutal, illegal American-British occupation.
Every Iraqi knows of Al-Hajaj bin Yusef Al-Thaqafi, a ruler from a thousand years ago reputed to have led the most brutal and repressive regime in Iraq’s long history. The name “Al-Hajaj” is invoked in casual conversation to describe times when conditions have hit rock bottom. Ironically, Saddam Hussein admired the rule of that brutal leader. Some Iraqis thought the now assassinated president would replace Al-Hajaj in the colloquial lexicon—that is, until the 2003 arrival of “Al-Dijaj” (in Arabic, “the chicken”): George W. Bush and his chicken hawk administration. Those rich politicians in Washington , who send poor Americans to kill and be killed in the name of stealing control of Iraq ’s oil, evaded their own opportunities for military service. And just as the British used King Faisal as a puppet ruler in the 1920’s, the Americans have their own stooges today, including Ahmed Chalabi, Iyad Allawi, Ibrahim Jafaari, and Nuri Al-Maliki. Al-Dijaj and the rest of the chicken coop know nothing of combat, poverty, or human suffering either at home or abroad.
Since 1958, Iraqis have hoped that each regime change might bring a better life. Have they hit rock bottom now?
[i] Ali, Tariq. Bush in Babylon : The Recolonisation of Iraq . Chapter 3. Verso, London . 2003.
[ii] Ali, Tariq. Bush in Babylon : The Recolonisation of Iraq . Chapter 4. Verso, London . 2003.
[iv] Munier, Gilles. Iraq: An Illustrated History and Guide. Interlink Publishing Group, Inc., Northampton. 2004.