To mark the tenth anniversary of the 1991 Gulf War, a jaunty-looking, cigar-puffing, rifle-firing Saddam Hussein presided over a six-hour military parade in Baghdad. The beaming Iraqi strongman proclaimed himself victor of the Mother of All Battles.
Saddam has a point. Its hard to discern winners from losers in the black comedy and tragic-farce of the 1991 oil war and its aftermath. Iraq, a smallish nation of only 22 million with a World War I quality army, provoked the fury of the US and Britain by invading their protectorate, Kuwait, yet managed to survive the biggest military assault since World War II. More important, at least for Saddam, he managed to take on the worlds great powers, survive, and cling to power to this day in spite of umpteen plots to overthrow or kill him by his enemies, whose number is legion. By not losing, in a sense he won the war.
Iraqs invasion of Kuwait was not part of a nefarious plot to seize Mideast oil, as President George Bush Sr. claimed, but a typical Arab tribal raid provoked by an intolerable insult to honor. Arguing over repayment of money Kuwait had loaned Iraq to fight Iran, Kuwaits boorish Crown Prince reportedly told Saddam to “kiss my ass.” Worse, the prince then offered to cancel the debt if Saddam sent Iraqi war widows to Kuwaits harems.
An enraged Saddam ordered his army to invade Kuwait and loot it. Just previously, the US Ambassador to Iraq had advised Saddam the US would “take no position” in squabble with Kuwait. Saddam saw this as a green light from Washington to punish Kuwait. After all, Saddam had been a close American ally in the long war against Iran.
President George Bush Sr. seized on the invasion as an ideal way to cut Iraq down to size and eradicate its primitive but still dangerous nuclear/chemical/biowar weapons programs. It should be noted most of these biowarfare programs were supplied by the west and run by British and
European technical advisors. Just before the war began, this writer discovered in Baghdad the principal British scientific team that had been seconded to Iraq by Her Majestys Government to produce anthrax germs for the Iraq armed forces to use against Iran. So long as Muslims were being killed or maimed by Iraqs gas and germ weapons, that was fine with the west. The United States supplied numerous other biowarfare agents to Saddam.
Some Mideast specialists believe the US actually lured Saddam into war. Whatever the case, Saddam could not pull out of Kuwait under US pressure without losing his grip on power. Hitler faced the same dilemma at Stalingrad. So he hunkered down, wrongly believing Russia would prevent the US-led coalition from attacking Iraq.
Bush Sr.s US $85 billion crusade against Saddam Hussein bombed Iraq, then the Arab Worlds most modern nation, with a living standard equal to Greece, back to the 17th century. Subsequent US-British air attacks, which continue to this day, made the rubble bounce.
Kuwait was liberated and made safe for its disco-dancing oil sheiks. But the Saudis and Gulf emirates were forced to accept permanent US military bases and garrisons, and to nearly bankrupt themselves buying US and British arms they couldnt use.
The Americans and British didnt overthrow Saddam in 1991 because they needed him to keep running Iraq, an artificial, unstable, eternally rebellious nation created to serve Britains colonial interests. If Saddam fell, Iraq, with the Mideasts second largest oil reserves, would splinter into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish regions, then be carved up by neighboring Iran, and Turkey.
Better Saddam, the Arab Stalin, running Iraq than some unknown general…or worse, the wild Iranians with their subversive ideas that the regions vast oil wealth should serve all its people, not just a tiny oligarchy of western-backed oil sheiks and generals. Shias and Kurds, who were urged to rebel against Baghdad by Bush Sr. and promised American support, were quickly abandoned to Saddams vengeance.
Iraqs people have suffered horribly from US-British sanctions, and from Saddams stubborn refusal to allow Washington to control Iraq through so-called UN arms inspectors, who turned out to be a front for US and Israeli intelligence. Comically inept attempts by the US to stage coups against Saddam were mercilessly crushed by his secret police.
According to the UN, 500,000 Iraqi children have died as a direct result of decade-long sanctions. When asked about this, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright memorably replied “it is a price worth paying.”
Sanctions against Iraq are crumbling as the world begin normalizing relations with oil-rich Iraq. Intense efforts by the US, Britain, and Israel to keep Iraq isolated are faltering. Though Arab leaders and Iran detest Saddam, and despite his brutality and blunders, he remains a hero across the Mideast because of his defiance of Americas Mideast oil Raj.
Americas ferocious punishment of Iraq which went as far as denying Iraqi schools lead pencils has brought hatred of the US in the Muslim world and provoked attacks against US interests. Thanks to the Gulf oil war, and the Clinton Administrations total policy alignment with Israel, the US is increasingly seen by many of the worlds 1.2 billion Muslims as an determined enemy.
Meanwhile, Saddam keeps thumbing his nose at the US and now faces the son of Bush, who, in turn, may end up facing the sons of Saddam. No matter who rules in Baghdad, Iraq will remain, to paraphrase Churchills assessment of Germany, “either at your feet or at your throat.” So long as nuclear-armed Israel and populous Iran are enemies, Iraq will strive for weapons of mass destruction and dominance in the Gulf. But Iraq, however aggressive, will also remain the stopper that keeps Iran bottled up.
The Clinton Administration used data gleaned by UN “arms inspectors” to attempt to assassinate Saddam with missile strikes. Then, in frustration, it even resorted to dropping concrete-filled bombs on Iraq. Washington couldnt decide whether to kill or keep Saddam. The ongoing US war against Iraq costs some $27 billion a year…and for what? Meanwhile, Iraq has become Americas sixth largest source of imported oil.
In 1942, Hitler observed that once he conquered the Soviet Union, he would put Stalin “the only man who knows how to deal with Russians” back into power. Saddam, the Arab Stalin, no doubt knows this story and thats why hes smiling in Baghdads winter sunshine.
Eric Margolis is foreign correspondent for the Toronto Sun.