Blood For Oil: Ten Years After the Gulf War

By Michael O'Brien, Socialist View Spring 2001

THE TENTH anniversary of the beginning of the Gulf War has been marked by a promised escalation of bombings and tightening of sanctions by newly inaugurated US President, George W Bush; growing opposition around the world to the continuing of the sanctions and a serious split amongst the major world powers about how to deal with Saddam Hussein's regime.

The Gulf War was the first opportunity for US imperialism, then presided over by George Bush senior, to put into practise what he meant by the "new world order", This was in the context of the then-recent collapse of Stalinism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, which left the US as an unrivalled super power, free to brazenly intervene anywhere in the neo colonial world without fear of meeting any significant opposition. Indeed, the war received the unprecedented backing of all five permanent members of the UN Security Council as well as most of the other regimes in the Middle East. The intention was to reinforce this "new world order" ideology with unprecedented media access to the "smart" bombings and daily media briefings from leading/celebrity military personnel which would serve to impress the western viewer and warn anybody else of the futility of resistance.

While in no way diminishing the misery Saddam Hussein had heaped upon the peoples of Iraq as well as the ordinary working people of Kuwait the Socialist Party's predecessors in Militant and our sister organisations in the Committee for a Workers' International came out against this war.

In opposing the war, socialists at the time had to first point out the hypocrisy of the allies in claiming that this was a war to defend democracy. Hussein's grip on power in Iraq was owed in no small measure to the backing he had received from the US and Britain in particular in terms of arms supplies and military training. He was feted in western circles in the 1980s for the war against Iran, the then bogeyman of the region, in which over a million died. His pilots were trained in Britain and his elite Republican Guard were trained at the Sandhurst military academy. By the time of the invasion of Kuwait, Iraq could boast the fifth largest army in the world.

Such was the cosiness of the relationship between Saddam Hussein's regime and the West he didn't anticipate opposition to the annexation of Kuwait. This assumption was not entirely without reason. Only three months before the invasion he signalled his intent to the US ambassador in Baghdad. Her response was that "the US has no opinion on an Arab/Arab dispute like your border disagreement with Kuwait".

However the invasion gave him control of 20% of the world's oil supplies, which was too much for the US to bear. That, and the fact that the US military industry's two biggest clients, Saudi Arabia and Israel, began to feel threatened by Hussein's ambitions in the region was reason enough to exact retribution.

The West's hypocrisy

The claim that the West was upholding democracy and freedom was also hollow from the point of view that many of the regimes in the region backing the war effort were as oppressive as Iraq when it came to human rights, the use of the death penalty; public floggings and the oppression of women. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates were and still are absolute monarchies or oligarchies (run by more than one royal family) who use their countries natural resources to enrich themselves.

Kuwait's population was made up mostly of immigrant workers from Palestine, North Africa and the Asian subcontinent whose cheap labour serviced the local wealthy elite. The Emir of Kuwait was later restored when Iraqi troops were pushed back by the allies.

Likewise the treatment the Kurds received from the Iraqi regime was no different to what they endured in Turkey; a NATO member, without any objections from western leaders. In both cases, whole villages were razed and people massacred with nerve gas and other chemical weapons.

The argument that this war was not over upholding democracy but rather control of the world's oil supply was readily accepted by many workers and youth in the West. However, it begged the question of how the Iraqi regime was going to be overthrown.

An outright allied victory on the ground and Saddam Hussein's removal would have likely led to his replacement by sections of the military more pliant to US interests with no net benefit for the Iraqi poor. Furthermore it would serve as a warning to the masses throughout the neo-colonial world not to choose a path that diverged from US interests. Conversely a military defeat for imperialism would have weakened it and emboldened the masses around the world in the fight against neo-liberal policies throughout the 1990s.

From that point of view the Socialist Party and the Committee for a Workers' International called for critical support for Iraq militarily while calling for the overthrow of the regime. We identified the oppressed Iraqi workers and peasants, the Kurds in the north, the Marsh Arabs in the south and the Shia minority centred around the city of Basra as being the best placed to overthrow the regime (the ethnic minorities together actually make up a majority of the population).

Iraqi working class

In fact, the Iraqi working class, and especially the oil workers, have very militant traditions. In the 1940s there were massive strikes against the presence of British military bases in the country. In the late 1950s there was another upsurge that could have led to a social revolution. The Communist Party which had a mass base in the working class and among the Kurdish population betrayed this struggle thus opening the way for the bloody takeover of the Baath party which has ruled ever since.

For many who otherwise agreed with us, our position on the need for revolution in Iraq required a leap of imagination during the cut and thrust of the Gulf War. However, after six weeks of fighting in what turned out to be a rout for the Iraqi army a spontaneous insurrection against the regime by the ethnic minorities began. Bush senior had publicly paid lip service to the idea of ordinary Iraqis and Kurds rising up against the regime during the war, he could hardly do otherwise.

In practice the insurrection created a problem for the allies. They could force Iraqi troops out of Kuwait, they could bomb military and civilian targets from afar but physically removing Saddam Hussein and replacing him with a stooge would take the commitment of ground troops and heavy losses instead of the mere 300 killed. The "broad coalition" assembled by the US would have disintegrated and support at home would have evaporated. Already during the course of the war there were mass demonstrations in the Arab world, especially in Jordan, against their countries' participation.

At the same time the allies exercised no control over the insurgents. From the point of view of the allies, their victory could serve as an impetus for other oppressed peoples in the area, the" Kurds in Turkey in particular, to rise up in defence of their rights.

As one US official put it "it's easier to deal with a tame Saddam than an unknown quantity". So the allies connived to allow Saddam Hussein regain his grip on the situation by actively facilitating the movement of the Republican Guard through allied lines to Basra where they put down the Shia opposition and stifled the uprisings elsewhere. This double-dealing got a degree of exposure in the film Three Kings. Since then various pro-western Iraqi "opposition" groups in exile have been kept alive with lavish budgets and have had zero impact on the regime.

The war itself was a totally one sided affair which lasted 43 days and resulted in at least 250,000 Iraqi dead (civilian and military), the decimation of civilian infrastructure including water supply and hospitals, and 1.8 million being left homeless. The glorious finale was the horrendous "road to Basra" or "turkey shoot" as the US military described it.

This was a reference to the retreat from the war zone by immigrant workers from Kuwait, civilians, and conscripted soldiers, including Kurds, who had been deserted by their officers. It resulted in a defenceless traffic jam twenty vehicles wide, being bombed from the air and contributing to a large portion of the final death toll.

The use of depleted uranium during the war has meant that its legacy is not just felt in the region. An estimated 120,000 former allied combatants are suffering from "gulf war syndrome", a debilitating disease linked to heavy metals.

No to sanctions

Since the war, sanctions, "no fly zones", and weekly bombings have been posed as a method that will result in the eventual compliance with weapons' inspections and possibly even Saddam Hussein's overthrow. Instead, his grip on power is as firm as ever and the sanctions have resulted in the death of 1.4 million people including 500,000 children, from a combination of curable diseases, malnutrition and bad sanitary conditions. When asked, former US Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, said that this was a price worth paying if it led to Saddam Hussein's downfall. However Saddam and his cronies are still living in the lap of luxury thanks to a thriving black market.

The conditions faced by ordinary Iraqis has led to the high profIle resignations of UN personnel like Denis Halliday who was employed to oversee the "food for oil" programme whereby Iraq is permitted to sell oil on the world market if the proceeds are used to purchase food and medicine. In practice, there has been the withholding from import of all sorts of innocuous goods from pencils to kidney dialysis machines on the pretext that they could in some way be adapted for military use.

The alleged reason for the continued bombings is the non-cooperation with UN weapons inspection teams and the insistence that Hussein has the potential to build weapons of mass destruction. This is despite of the view given by a former American weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, who was expelled along with the others in 1999. In 1997 he said, "Iraq has been disarmed. Iraq no longer possessed any meaningful quantities of chemical or biological agent... the same was true of Iraq's nuclear and ballistic capability" (Observer 25 February 2001).

Beyond Iraq, Saddam has used the suffering of ordinary Iraqis and the overall situation in the Middle East to bolster his standing in the region. As one correspondent in the area put it: "The belief on the Arab street is that President Bush, has used the pretext of Iraq upgrading its air defence to punish Saddam for the vocal and material support he is providing to the Palestinian intifada. The Iraqi leader has repeatedly declared that only a 'jihad' [holy war] will lead to the liberation of Palestine" (Observer, 18 February 2001). By material support he is referring to food and medicine convoys as well as $10,000 cheques given by the Iraqi regime to the families of those killed by the Israeli state forces. These actions are not altruism on Hussein's part but rather are designed to have an effect on moving other Arab regimes to take a stand against the sanctions.

Anti-imperialist mood

An aspect of the recent demonstrations in the Arab world against Israel and against the bombing of Iraq has been the criticism of other regimes in the area for being pro-US. It should be pointed out that Saddam has in no way softened the nature of his regime in Iraq. Recently there have been reports I of mass shootings in the prisons as well as ethnic cleansing in some of the major cities.

The whole Gulf War experience and: its continuing legacy has demonstrated the limitations of world imperialism in this period. As was shown again during the NATO war against Serbia the major powers cannot bank on the support of the people back home for ground interventions that yield high casualties despite the best efforts of media propaganda. The prevailing mood amongst workers and youth in the West is to end the sanctions on Iraq. Even among right wing commentators there are grumblings that the strategy being pushed by the US is going nowhere.

The "new world order" of having all the major powers, East and West, speaking with one voice has proved short- lived. Divergent strategies have emerged in terms of how to deal with Iraq. On the one hand, the new US administration feels it can reassert its dominant role on the world stage if it can escalate the bombings and sanctions with a little help from their lap dog, Tony Blair. On the other side, Russia, China and the EU, especially France, all have an eye on the parlous state of the world oil industry and are seeking to develop a connection with Iraq and bring sanctions to an end. They have even used the suffering sanctions has caused to drum up support for this strategy as well as quoting chapter and verse of international law and UN resolutions as if to say that only when these rules are observed is it OK to bomb a country!

The Irish ruling class have a foot in both camps with people like Niall Andrews MEP clearly supporting the EU strategy but the Department of Foreign Affairs not wanting to offend US interests. Thus Brian Cowen declared his "understanding" for the reasons behind the latest escalation of the bombing. The differences between the various rulings classes got more exposure than ever after the recent spate of bombings and this is likely to be the music of the future given the impending economic crises and the struggle to protect and expand markets.

Socialists meanwhile should call for the immediate ending of sanctions and bombings. No support can be given to the so-called "opposition" groups in exile who want to create an Iraq in the image of the other US client states the region.

Instead the working class and oppressed nationalities of Iraq should take their cue from the Indonesian and Serbian masses and overthrow the regime. If the poverty; destruction and disease are to be overcome, however, it will take a socialist programme that can harness Iraq's vast natural resources to meet the needs of the ordinary people. A socialist Iraq would be a massive step towards a socialist federation of the Near East, the only solution to the horrible conflicts and poverty that plague this region.

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