Nos. 33 & 34, December 2002
Western Imperialism and Iraq:
The Iran-Iraq war formally ended in 1990 with both participantspotentially prosperous and powerful countrieshaving suffered terrible losses. The war of the cities had targeted major population centres and industrial sites on both sides, particularly oil refineries. Iran, lacking the steady flow of sophisticated weapons and American help enjoyed by Iraq, had managed to fight back Iraqs attacks by mobilising great human waves of young volunteers, even teenage boys. While the tactic worked, the cost in lives was enormous. It was the apprehension of an internal uprising that led the Iranian leaders to come to terms with Iraq after the fall of the Fao peninsula in 1988.
Iraqs economy too badly needed re-building. Developmental programmes had been neglected for the previous decade. Exploration and development of the countrys fabulous oil resources had stagnated. To pay for the war, the country had accumulated an $80 billion foreign debt more than half of that owed to the Gulf states. Having nothing to show for the terrible price of the war, Iraqs rulers were desperate.
An opportunity for the US
The world situation was favourable to such a plan. The Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, and would be unable to prevent American intervention in the region. Nor would European, Japanese or Chinese reservations be of much consequence. The real hurdle was the opposition of the Arab masses to any such presence of American troopseven more to their permanent installation.
What was required, then, was a credible pretext for US intervention and continuing presence.
Shock to Iraq
Instead the opposite occurred. US client regimes such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates began hiking their production of oil, thus prolonging the collapse in oil prices that began in 1986. This had a devastating impact on war-torn Iraq. Oil constituted half Iraqs GDP and the bulk of government revenues, so a collapse in oil prices was catastrophic for the Iraqi economy. It would also curb Iraqs re-arming.
A further, remarkable development was Kuwaits theft of oil from Rumaila field. by slant-drilling (drilling at an angle, instead of straight down) near the border. (The Rumaila field lies almost entirely inside Iraq.) Given that Kuwait is itself oil-rich, the theft of Iraqs oil appears a deliberate provocation. It is worth keeping in mind that Iraq already had not only specific border disputes with Kuwait, but had from time to time advanced a claim to the whole of Kuwait.1 In this light it is difficult to imagine that small, lightly armed Kuwait would have carried out such provocative acts as slant-drilling the territory of well-armed Iraq without a go-ahead from the US.
This clearly indicated that while the US would show concern at any invasion, it would maintain a distance and treat the matter as a dispute between Arab states, to be resolved by negotiation. Thus Saddam badly misread Americas real intentions. His invasion of Kuwait, a sovereign state and a member of the UN, provided the US with the opportunity swiftly to mobilise the UN Security Council and form a worldwide coalition against Iraq. Crucially, his invasion of an Arab state created a situation where a number of Arab states, such as Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia could join the coalition.2
Peaceful withdrawal a nightmare scenario
A last-minute proposal was made by the French that Iraq withdraw if the US agreed to convene an international conference on peace in the region (this would include discussion of the continued illegal occupation by Israel of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights, the subject of the unenforced UN Security Council Resolution 242, as well as its occupation at the time of south Lebanon). However, this too was shot down by the US and Britain. In December 1990, the press tellingly quoted US officials saying that a peaceful Iraqi withdrawal was a nightmare scenario. (Why Another War? A Backgrounder on the Iraq Crisis, Sarah Graham-Brown and Chris Toensing, Middle East Research and Information Project, 2002; hereafter MERIP)
Fish in a barrel4
While war raged, the US military carefully managed press briefings in order to suggest that the bombing raids were surgical strikes against purely military targets, made possible by a new generation of precision-guided smart weapons. The reality was far different. Ninety-three per cent of munitions used by the allies consisted of unguided dumb bombs, dropped primarily by Vietnam-era B-52 carpet-bombers. About 70 per cent of bombs and missiles missed their targets, frequently destroying private homes and killing civilians. (John MacArthur, Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War, 1993, p. 161) The US also made devastating use of anti-personnel weapons, including fuel-air explosives and 15,000-lb. daisy-cutter bombs (conventional explosives capable of causing destruction equivalent to a nuclear attackalso used by the US in Afghanistan); the petroleum-based incendiary napalm (which was used to incinerate entrenched Iraqi soldiers); and 61,000 cluster bombs from which were strewn 20 million bomblets, which continue to kill Iraqis to this day. (US urged to ban cluster bombs, Boston Globe, 18/12/02)
Predictably, this style of warfare resulted in massive civilian casualties. In one well-remembered incident, as many as 400 men, women, and children were killed at one blow when, in apparent indifference to the Geneva Conventions, the US targeted a civilian air raid shelter in the Ameriyya district of western Baghdad. Thousands died in similar fashion due to daylight raids in heavily-populated residential areas and business districts throughout the country. (Needless Deaths in the Gulf War: Civilian Casualties During the Air Campaign and Violations of the Laws of War, Human Rights Watch 1991) According to a UN estimate, as many as 15,000 civilians died as a direct result of allied bombing. (Collateral Damage: The health and environmental costs of war on Iraq, MEDACT Report, November 2002; this conservative figure excludes the hundreds of thousands killed indirectly, though intentionally, by the strategic targeting of water plants and other civilian infrastructure. Reliable figures for death and damage may never be discovered, since both sides had reason to minimize their true extent.)
Meanwhile, between 100,000 and 200,000 Iraqi soldiers lost their lives in what can literally be described as massive overkill. (Collateral Damage; Washington Whispers, U.S. News & World Report, 1/4/91) The heaviest toll appears to have been inflicted by US carpet bombing of Iraqi positions near the Kuwait-Iraq border, where tens of thousands of ill-fed, ill-equipped conscripts were helplessly pinned down in trenches. Most were desperate to surrender as the ground war began, but advancing Allied forces had little use for prisoners. Thousands were buried alive as tanks equipped with plows and bulldozers smashed through earthwork defenses and rolled over foxholes. (Patrick Sloyan, Buried Alive, Newsday, 12/9/91)
Others were cut down ruthlessly as they tried to surrender or flee. Its like someone turned on the kitchen light on late at night, and the cockroaches started scurrying. We finally got them out where we can find them and kill them, remarked Air Force Colonel Dick Snake White. (Newsday report quoted in Douglas Kellner, The Persian Gulf TV War, 1992) According to John Balzar of the Los Angeles Times, infrared films of the US assault suggested sheep, flushed from a penIraqi infantry soldiers bewildered and terrified, jarred from sleep and fleeing their bunkers under a hellstorm of fire. One by one they were cut down by attackers they couldnt see or understand. Some were literally blown to bits by bursts of 30mm exploding cannon shells. (Quoted in William Boot, What We Saw; What We Learned, Columbia Journalism Review, May/June 1991)
Since resistance was futile and surrender potentially fatal, Iraqi soldiers deserted whenever possible. By February 26, Saddam acknowledged the inevitable and ordered his troops to withdraw from Kuwait. Surviving soldiers commandeered vehicles of every description and fled homeward.
Although an overwhelming victory already been achieved, US and British forces staged a merciless attack on the retreating and defenseless Iraqi troops. The resulting massacre, immediately dubbed the Turkey Shoot by US soldiers, took place along a 60-mile stretch of highway leading from Kuwait to Basra, where US planes cut off the long convoys at either end and proceeded to strafe and firebomb the trapped vehicles. Many thousands, including untold numbers of civilian refugees, were blown apart or incinerated. It was like shooting fish in a barrel, said one U.S. pilot. (Testimony of Joyce Chediak before the Commission of Inquiry for the International War Crimes Tribunal, May 11, 1991; Time, 18/3/91)
Rationale behind the systematic destruction of Iraq's
That the US was quite clear about the consequences of such a bombing campaign is evident from intelligence documents now being declassified. Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities, dated January 22, 1991 (a week after the war began) provides the rationale for the attack on Iraqs water supply treatment capabilities: Iraq depends on importing specialised equipment and some chemicals to purify its water supply... With no domestic sources of both water treatment replacement parts and some essential chemicals, Iraq will continue attempts to circumvent United Nations sanctions to import these vital commodities. Failing to secure supplies will result in a shortage of pure drinking water for much of the population. This could lead to increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease. Imports of chlorine, the document notes, had been placed under embargo and recent reports indicate that the chlorine supply is critically low. A loss of water treatment capability was already in evidence, and though there was no danger of a precipitous halt, it would probably take six months or more for the system to be fully degraded.
Even more explicitly, the US Defence Intelligence Agency wrote a month later that Conditions are favourable for communicable disease outbreaks, particularly in major urban areas affected by coalition bombing... Current public health problems are attributable to the reduction of normal preventive medicine, waste disposal, water purification/distribution, electricity, and decreased ability to control disease outbreaks. Any urban area in Iraq that has received infrastructure damage will have similar problems. (S. Muralidharan, Frontline, 12/10/01; Thomas J. Nagy, The Secret Behind the Sanctions, The Progressive, September 2001 [the online version of this article provides links to the original documents.])
In the south of Iraq, the US fired more than one million rounds (more than 340 tonnes in all) of munitions tipped with radioactive uranium. This later resulted in a major increase in health problems such as cancer and deformities. While the US has not admitted any linkage between its use of depleted uranium (DU) shells and such health problems, European governments, investigating complaints from their veterans in the NATO attack on Yugoslavia, have confirmed widespread radiation contamination in Kosovo as a result of the use of DU shells there.
Manipulation to justify partial occupation
While George Bush senior, then President, instigated a rebellion in southern Iraq with his calls to the people to take matters into their own hands, when the rising actually took place, the massive US occupying force still stationed in the region remained a mute spectator to its suppression. Similarly, when Iraqi forces chased Kurdish rebels in the north to the Turkish border, Turkey prevented their entry.
American complicity in these two developments was designed so that these developments could be cynically manipulated by the US to justify a permanent infringement of Iraqs sovereignty. The UN Security Council Resolution 688 of April 1991 demanded Iraq cease this repression of its minorities, but did not call for its enforcement by military action. The US and UK nevertheless used UNSC 688 to justify the enforcement of what it called no-fly zones, whereby Iraqi planes are not allowed to fly over the north and south of the country (north of the 36th parallel, and south of the 32nd parallel). These zones are enforced by US-UK patrols and almost daily bombings. After the withdrawal of UN weapons inspectors in 1998, the average monthly release of bombs rose dramatically from .025 tonnes to five tonnes. US and UK planes could now target any part of what the US considered the Iraqi air defence system. (MERIP, p. 6) Between 1991 and 2000 US and UK fighter planes flew more than 280,000 sorties. UN officials have documented that these bombings have routinely hit civilians and essential civilian infrastructure, as well as livestock. (Anthony Arnove, Iraq Under Siege: Ten Years On, Monthly Review, December 2000)
The result has been catastrophicthe greatest among the catastrophes of that decade of great economic catastrophes worldwide. By 1993, the Iraqi economy under the crunch of sanctions shrank to one-fifth of its size in 1979, and shrank further in 1994. Rations lasted only about one third to half a month. (MERIP p. 7)
Although humanitarian goods were excluded from the embargo, the embargo had not clearly defined such goods, which had to be cleared by the UN sanctions committee. Later, in order to deflect growing criticism of the sanctions and in order to pre-empt French and Russian counter-proposals, the UK and US introduced UNSC 986. By this Resolution proceeds from Iraqs oil sales would go into a UN-controlled account; and Iraq could place orders for humanitarian goodsto be scrutinised by the UN Security Council.
The US tried to limit the definition of humanitarian goods to food and medicine alone, preventing the import of items needed to restore water supply, sanitation, electrical power, even medical facilities. Among the items kept out by American veto, on the grounds that they might have a military application, were chemicals, laboratory equipment, generators, communications equipment, ambulances (on the pretext that they contain communications equipment), chlorinators, and even pencils (on the pretext that they contain graphite, which has military uses). (Arnove, p. 17) The US and Britain placed holds on $5.3 billion worth of goods in early 2002 alone. (MERIP, p. 8) Even this does not tell the full impact, since the item held back often renders imports of other parts useless.
The Economist (London), although an eager supporter of American policies towards Iraq, described conditions in the besieged country by the year 2000:
During the first three years of the oil-for-food regime, the annual ceiling placed by the UN was just $170 per Iraqi. Out of this meagre sum a further $51 was deducted and diverted to the UN Compensation Commission, which any government, organisation or individual who claimed to have suffered as a result of Iraqs attack on Kuwait could approach for compensation. (Within the remaining sum, a disproportionate amount is diverted under US direction to the Kurdish northwith 13 per cent of the population but 20 per cent of the fundsbecause this region is no longer ruled by Baghdad. The cynical intention is to point to improved conditions in this favoured region as proof that it is not the sanctions but Saddam that is responsible for the Iraqi suffering.) Later, the UN removed the ceiling on Iraqs oil earningsbut prevented the rehabilitation of the Iraqi oil industry, thus ensuring that in effect the ceiling remained.
In 1998, the UN carried out a nationwide survey of health and nutrition. It found that mortality rates among children under five in central and southern Iraq had doubled from the previous decade. That would suggest 500,000 excess deaths of children by 1998. Excess deaths of children continue at the rate of 5,000 a month. UNICEF estimated in 2002 that 70 per cent of child deaths in Iraq result from diarrhoea and acute respiratory infections. This is the resultas foretold accurately by US intelligence in 1991of the breakdown of systems to provide clean water, sanitation, and electrical power. Adults too, particularly the elderly and other vulnerable sections, have succumbed. The overall toll, of all ages, was put at 1.2 million in a 1997 UNICEF report.
The evidence of the effect of the sanctions came from the most authoritative sources. Denis Halliday, UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq from 1997 to 1998, resigned in protest against the operation of the sanctions, which he termed deliberate genocide. He was replaced by Hans von Sponeck, who resigned in 2000, on the same grounds. Jutta Burghardt, director of the UN World Food Programme operation in Iraq, also resigned, saying that I fully support what Mr von Sponeck was saying.
There is no room for doubt that genocide was conscious US policy. On May 12 1996, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked by Lesley Stahl of CBS television: We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, thats more than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it? Albright replied: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think the price is worth it.
2. The US used falsified satellite photographs to convince the Saudis that Iraqi troops were massed at the Saudi border and about to attack their country as well; this helped overcome Saudi worries about the stationing of non-Muslim troops in the land of Mecca and Medina. (back)
3. The US secured passage of Resolution 678 via an exceptionally ruthless campaign of bribery and threats. Every impoverished country on the Security Council, including Zaire, Ethiopia and Colombia, was offered low-cost oil and the resumption of military aid suspended as a result of human rights violations. After Yemen cast one of two votes in opposition to the Resolution (Cuba was the other), an open microphone captured the US ambassador telling the Yemeni representative: That was the most expensive vote you ever cast. Three days later, the US cut its entire $70 million dollar aid budget to Yemen. Phyllis Bennis, Before and After: U.S. Foreign Policy and the September 11th Crisis (2002). (back)
4. The following account of US massacres during the 1991 war has been contributed by Jacob Levich. (back)
5. On January 24, only one week after the air assault began, Gen. Colin Powell declared that the US had achieved air superioritytypically defined as that degree of dominance in the air that permits friendly land, sea, and air force to operate at a given time and place without prohibitive interference by opposing forceand that Iraqs nuclear program had been destroyed. (Dan Balz and Rick Atkinson, Powell Vows to Isolate Iraqi Army and Kill It, Washington Post, 24/1/91.) Yet bombing raids continued for an additional five weeks. The intent can only have been punitive. (back)
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