Preventing Iraqi Self-Determination


carrot-and-stick strategy at first seemed ingenious or at least
crafty. In the days leading up to the U.S.-led war on Iraq, the
“stick” of looming invasion would pressure Iraqi military
or political officials into arresting or killing Saddam Hussein.
The “carrot,” or their incentive to oust Saddam and
his sons, would have been to prevent foreigners from overrunning
their country. White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer put it most
directly when he told Iraqis that “a single bullet”
would be less costly than a war. 

Yet in the vaunted 48-hour warning period that led up to the war,
the Bush administration pulled the rug out from under any potential
Iraqi coup. Ari Fleischer stated unequivocally that even if Saddam
was ousted or left the country voluntarily, the U.S.-British forces
would still invade Iraq in a “peaceful entry” to search
for “weapons of mass destruction.” 

The signal was unmistakable: it did not matter what Iraqis did
to topple their own tyrant, the Americans were going to rule their
country anyway. If any Republican Guard officer was ready to confront
Saddam to save his country, the pistol would have gone back in
his holster. Why bother? The “carrot” had been yanked
away. The potential self-liberation of Iraqis had turned into
a foreign war of conquest. The tragedy is that this final squashing
of Iraqi self-determination is fully consistent with U.S. policy
toward the Iraqi people. 

Iraqi people historically had a reputation of determining their
own destiny. In 1920, the Ottoman Turks left Iraq in defeat. In
1932, Iraqis overturned the British colonial mandate. In 1958,
they threw out the Hashemite monarchy and declared a republic.
These were a people who could overthrow dictators against overwhelming
odds. Why did they not similarly topple Hussein? Because at every
step along the way, the U.S. stepped in either to prop up Saddam
or to make sure that the U.S. would be the only alternative to
Hussein’s rule. 

Betraying Iraqi Rebels 


Hussein’s Ba’ath Party took power in 1968, the U.S. has exhibited
a schizophrenic policy toward the Arab nationalist government.
President Nixon backed a Kurdish revolt against Iraq, but sold
out the Kurds in 1975, after Baghdad signed a peace treaty with
his friend the Shah of Iran. Iraqi Kurds still remember this betrayal
with bitterness and mistrust. 

Five years later, after Iranians overthrew the Shah, the new Ba’ath
supreme leader Saddam Hussein invaded Iran’s oil fields with
U.S. blessing. President Reagan supplied Baghdad with intelligence
and U.S. naval protection for Iraq’s oil shipments and his
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warmly shook Saddam Hussein’s
hand in Baghdad. When both Iraq and Iran launched chemical attacks
in the Kurdish region along their border, U.S. officials pointed
fingers at Iran alone, and minimized or blocked UN condemnations
of Saddam until the war’s end in 1988. 

After Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, the first Bush administration
assembled a coalition to defend the self-determination of the
oil-rich monarchy, but grassroots Iraqi opponents of Saddam were
nowhere to be seen in the successful military strategy. Washington
instead encouraged the formation of an Iraqi exile opposition
(led by former Iraqi generals and the banker Ahmed Chalabi), which
became not only internally divided but unpop- ular within Iraq. 

Bush had encouraged Iraqis to rise up against Saddam, yet when
southern Iraqi Shi’ites liberated their own cities in March
1991, the U.S. troops within view of their positions were ordered
not to help. The Allies temporarily lifted the wartime No-Fly
Zone, allowing just enough time for Saddam’s helicopters
to strafe Shi’ite rebels before restoring the flight restrictions.
Saddam drained the region’s marshes to finish his slaughter. 

The reasons for the U.S. betrayal of the Shi’ites were threefold
and instructive for the present crisis in 2003. First, Washington
assumed that Iraqi Shi’ites would seek to emulate Iran’s
Shi’ite regime, even though they had fought as troops against
Iran in the 1980s. (Saddam’s Mukhabarat secret police promoted
this linkage by pos- tering Shi’ite rebel cities with pictures
of Iran’s Ayatollah Kho- meini.) 

Second, U.S. allies in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait feared the dangerous
example of a secular democratic republic across their borders,
at a time when domestic opposition was rising to their monarchies.
The Sunni princes and sheikhs had supported U.S. military bases
and oil interests and were more important than Iraqis’ self-determination. 

Third, a truly democratic revolution led by the Iraqi people would
insist on taking full control of their oil fields and keeping
the profits from oil development. When Iran’s popular Mossadegh
government in Iran nationalized U.S. and British oil interests
in 1953, the CIA overthrew that government. Washington viewed
Saddam as a preferable and predictable factor for Sunni rule and
regional “stability” and his reign of terror continued. 

Weakening the Opposition 


final blow to the self-determination of the Iraqi people came
from the Clinton admin- istration in the 1990s, as U.S. led economic
sanctions sapped any potential strength left in the populace to
oppose Saddam Hussein. The sanctions were supposed to pressure
Iraqis to overthrow him. Instead, Saddam successfully diverted
blame for economic hardships to the U.S., and not without evidence.
Educated Iraqis and working people spent their waking hours scrambling
to get enough basic goods for their families to survive. They
grew too weak, distracted, and frightened to organize against
the regime and grew to resent the U.S. for targeting them instead
of Saddam.

stage was set for the second Gulf War. Without a viable civilian
or military opposition to Saddam, President George W. Bush could
portray a U.S.-British invasion as “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
In the key 48-hour period when a few military officers or Ba’ath
officials had the option to head off an invasion by taking out
Saddam Hussein, Ari Fleischer took away the option. 

Either the U.S. would oust Hussein, or nobody would. The goal
became not to eliminate a dictator or his alleged bio-chemical
weapons (so far unused), but conquering and ruling Iraq. “Liberating”
Iraq becomes a prime opportunity not only to secure control over
Iraqi oil fields, but also, more importantly, to extend a new
U.S. “sphere of influence.” 

Every U.S. intervention since 1990 (in the Gulf, Balkans, and
Central Asia) has left behind clusters of new, permanent military
bases in the strategic “middle ground” between emerging
economic competitors in the EU and East Asia. It is little wonder
that Germany, France, Russia, and China were the main opponents
of this war. Iraq and Iran have been the only obstacles blocking
U.S. domination of the region between Hungary and Pakistan, as
the lynchpin of a new military-economic “empire.” 

The inhabitants of this U.S. “sphere of influence” are
not allowed to overthrow their own dictators. The antiwar movement
has understandably focused on the prospect of mass casualties
in Gulf War II and the humanitarian crisis that has already begun.
But the real crime has been Washington’s denial of self-determination
to the Iraqi people over the past three decades, up to and including
Gulf War II. 

Welcoming the Troops? 


would not be unusual for some weary and scared Iraqi troops or
civilians to initially welcome the invading troops (whatever the
U.S. motives for the invasion) as a human reaction to the toppling
of Saddam’s nightmarish rule. But so what? Some Saudis welcomed
U.S. troops in 1990, until they overstayed their welcome in the
Islamic holy land after the Gulf War I victory. Somalis similarly
welcomed U.S. forces when they landed in Mogadishu in 1992, until
the U.S. started taking sides in the clan- based civil war and
paid the consequences in the infamous Black Hawk Down battle. 

By conquering Iraq, the U.S. military is stepping into a country
that is far more ethnically and religiously divided than Somalia,
rivaling Bosnia and Afghanistan in that respect. In the intricantly
complex country, the U.S. will soon start its pattern of defining
“good guys” and “bad guys,” and taking sides
in internal conflicts. 

their history of self-determination, Iraqis will not be content
to be ruled by an American military commander or appointee. They
will not acquiesce to a Karzai-style Iraqi puppet such as Chalabi,
who has set up headquarters in northern Iraq. Nor will Kurds accept
Turkish troops in northern Iraq, even as a quid pro quo for U.S.
overflights over Turkey. 

Shi’ites in the south may greet Americans who free them from
the Sunni dictator Hussein, but will certainly resent American
rulers who prevent them from taking their rightful place as the
majority Iraqi population and improving their second-class economic
status. Urban, educated Iraqis, and anti-Saddam leftist parties,
will similarly not be content to “meet the new boss, same
as the old boss.” 

Winning is the easy part. President Bush may easily win Gulf War
II, but lose the peace. 

Grossman is an assistant pro- fessor of geography at the University
of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and a longtime peace, environmental, and
anti-racist organizer. His peace writings can be seen at