Iraq : reintegrating the pariah? / Peter Sluglett. - [Electronic ed.]. - Bonn, 1999. - 14 S. = 42 Kb, Text . - (FES-Analyse)
Electronic ed.: Bonn : FES Library, 2000

© Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung


  • After nine years under substantial United Nations sanctions the Iraqi population suffers by a catastrophic decline in living standards, hunger and a rise in infant mortality. But neither the Iraqi regime nor the outside Western forces seem overly concerned at it.
  • During the Iran-Iraq war, the United States and the Soviet Union found themselves in the curious position of being on the same side, supporting Iraq against Iran.
  • The decision to invade Kuwait had three principal roots: Saddam Husain’s pathological ambition; his enormous military machine after the war with Iran; no more reliance on the Soviet Union.
  • 29th of November 1990, the United Nations, under great pressure from the United States, issued Resolution 678.
  • The Gulf war didn’t stop on 27 February 1991 but it continued in southern Iraq and Kurdistan. Western policy towards Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf war was vacillating. The Kurdish and Shi'i risings were encouraged by the United States and its allies, but no effective assistance was forthcoming.
  • A presidential referendum in October 1995 gave Saddam Husain a not entirely unexpected 99.96% of the vote.
  • While the sanction regime continues, some major modifications have taken place. In 1996 Iraq eventually accepted UN Resolution 985 which allowed it to sell a limited amount of oil to pay for the import of food, medicine and pipe-line spare parts; the amount involved was almost trebled in February 1998.
  • Although high level defections are indications of increasing isolation, there is no hard evidence that the regime is crumbling. The greatest mistake of Desert Storm was that it stopped before any definite settlement had been reached.
  • All in all no progress can be made while Saddam Husain and his circle are in power.


Very much like the crises in Bosnia and Kosovo, the ongoing stalemate in Iraq is a significant testimony to the limitation of super-power freedom of manoeuvre, or perhaps to super-power capacity to dictate particular outcomes. Iraq has been under substantial United Nations sanctions for some nine years (admittedly with some major relaxations since 1996), but neither the Iraqi regime nor the outside forces responsible for maintaining the sanctions seem overly concerned either at the catastrophic decline in living standards or at the rise in infant mortality - however caused - from 56 per 1000 per year in 1984-89 to 130.6 per 1000 in 1994-99. Perhaps the main ‘achievement’ on the part of the outside world in the years since Desert Storm (early 1991) has been to maintain Iraq in a state of isolation, and to make sure that it either does not have available, or is not in a position to use, weapons of mass destruction. Another objective -- evidently one with a certain dogged currency among US policy makers -- has been to try to ensure that Iraq does not ‘disintegrate’ into less viable smaller fragments which might in some way be grabbed or absorbed by its neighbours. In other respects the ability of the United States and its allies to bring about substantial or lasting change has been minimal indeed. Perhaps, of course, the desire has been minimal as well.

Iraq is a dictatorship, a vast prison camp run, to all intents and purposes, by a single utterly ruthless individual and a small (and becoming increasingly smaller) circle of his trusted relatives, friends and advisors. Most of those Iraqis who have been able to scrape together the means to leave have done so, and there are many hundreds of thousands of them in exile in Jordan, Syria, Western Europe and the United States. In 1986 one US dollar was worth a third of an Iraqi dinar; in 1998, one US dollar was worth 2,200 dinars. The austere system of food rationing that existed in the early 1990’s has become even harsher in recent years, so that families often run out of food by the middle of the month. It is extremely difficult to obtain a clear picture of what is going on inside Iraq, although well-informed specialists occasionally have access to news of further devastations of the infrastructure, continuing atrocities, and failed coups d’etat.

This general picture, of a crushing totalitarian dictatorship, has been emblematic of the situation for at least two, some would say three, decades, but during the 1980’s, it suited both the Soviet Union and the United States that Saddam Husain should be free to act as the rest of the world’s policeman against the perceived threat from an entirely unknown quantity, the newly formed Islamic Republic of Iran. A blind eye was generally turned to the almost routine atrocities taking place in Iraq in order to give the regime a free hand in the war against Iran. Such incidents as the gassing of civilians at Halabja on 15 March 1988, which killed perhaps 7000 Iraqi Kurds, and the more long drawn out if admittedly less well-known campaign against the Kurds, known as the anfal, in which the regime killed some 150,000 Kurds in the course of that same year, received remarkably little attention, let alone criticism, from the Western media.

It is important to emphasise such things, not simply from a sense of outrage, but because, the pattern is so familiar, especially in the context of the Cold War and the Third World. While regimes like that of Saddam Husain in Iraq, Siad Barre in Somalia, the various generals in Guatemala, and Pinochet in Chile may sometimes have arrived in power in some sense as a result of internal factors, they were subsequently helped to stay there because their particular Cold War posture was so convenient, however awful and repressive their regimes were and long continued to be. In addition, of course, as an oil producer, and in comparison with other Middle East states with much smaller populations, Iraq was a relatively substantial market for Western armaments and consumer and other goods. Not the least of the ironies of the current situation in Iraq is that the regime’s apparent indestructibility is a testimony to the quality and durability of the bunkers and other defence infrastructures provided by Western technology and Western construction companies.

Page Top Next Item

A brief survey of modern Iraqi history

Much of Iraq’s recent history has been tragic and violent, although this has had more to do with its experience of a series of dictatorial regimes bent on centralising power at almost any cost than with anything to do with ‘national character’. Created in 1920 as a British mandated territory under the post World War I peace settlement, Iraq consisted of three former Ottoman provinces, with a somewhat heterogeneous population of Sunni Arabs (perhaps 21%), nominally Sunni Kurds (about 20%) and Shi’i Arabs (about 55%), proportions which more or less hold good to this day. Although much is now made of the sectarian divisions in particular, their rise to the surface as a ‘major factor’ has been a relatively recent development and has much to do with the general absence of democracy and the rule of law. Much of the area that now forms the modern state had only been sporadically under the control of ‘government’ before the creation of the state, and the incorporation of the remoter areas, which was barely complete by the time that Iraq became nominally independent of Britain in 1932, was often only nominal or superficial. Little was done to create stable (or strongly-rooted) civil-political institutions, and the long hand of British indirect control was felt until the British-installed monarchy and its entourage was overthrown in a military coup in July 1958.

After World War II, Iraq became one of the largest oil producers in the Middle East, vying with Iran for third or fourth place after Kuwait and Saudi Arabia; its reserves are of a similar order of magnitude. Based on average production rates for the years 1972-1987, Iraq had 143 years of production remaining in 1988 (Saudi Arabia, 65, Iran, 69, Kuwait 154). As in many comparable countries, the population increased in leaps and bounds, from some six million in 1957 to twelve million in 1987 and about 22 million today. 40% of the population lived in the cities in 1957; by 1980, the figure had climbed to 69%, indicating massive rural to urban migration over a relatively brief period. Over the same 23 year period, annual oil revenues climbed from $237 million to $12,180 million, although the cost of imports rose enormously at the same time. While some efforts were made to industrialise, agricultural production declined, and Iraq became largely dependent on imported foodstuffs. Spending on armaments and internal security sky-rocketed; Iraq spent an average of 51% of GDP on defence expenditure between 1973 and 1985 (its closest regional rivals over the same period were Saudi Arabia, with 19%, Syria and North Yemen with 18%, and Israel with 17%).

For much of the period between the end of the mandate in 1932 and the revolution of 1958, the country was torn by major but largely unfocussed political and socio-economic tensions, partly due to the problems inherent in ‘nation building’ in a society so full of multi-faceted contradictions, and partly because of the relative autonomy of the state and the weakness of civil society. Needless to say, the two latter factors persist to this day. The tensions were exacerbated by the concentration of wealth, power and land-holding in a very few hands, the concentration of economic activity in the cities, and the desperate poverty of both rural share-croppers and urban slum-dwellers. Furthermore, the unrepresentative nature of the government, and the close association of many of its leading figures with Britain, meant that its policies were out of step with the aspirations of most politically conscious Iraqis. The opposition included liberal democrats, Arab nationalists, Kurdish nationalists and communists, the latter having emerged after World War II as the largest and most influential political force in the country.

Partly because the opposition was not free to organise openly, the revolution of July 1958, although widely supported, took the form of a military coup, led by a small group of disaffected military officers who had no ties to any particular party, but were committed to national independence, non-alignment in the Cold War and a range of social, economic and political reforms. However, within a few weeks, differences began to surface between the communists, the Kurds, and the pan-Arab nationalists, both Nasserist and Ba’thist. Over the next decade and beyond, the main areas in dispute were the relative primacy of ‘socialism’ versus ‘Arab nationalism’ (in practical terms, whether or not to opt for wide-ranging political, social and economic reform), and the amount of independence or autonomy to be given to the Kurdish areas in the north and north east of Iraq.

The bitterness of these struggles was nourished by Iraq’s geostrategic location, its oil reserves and the vagaries of the Cold War. The Iraqi communists, who enjoyed a brief period of ascendancy in the years immediately after 1958 were feared for the spectre of their radicalism, and their potentially ‘destabilising’ effect within the region as a whole. As no general elections of any kind were ever held, it is difficult to estimate the support they actually enjoyed, although the large street demonstrations of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s gave some indication of their popularity. The government of ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim (1958-1963) seemed dangerously radical and leftist and became the object of intense suspicion on the part of most of its Arab neighbours, Iran, and the West. It was overthrown in February 1963 by another military coup engineered by Ba’thists and Arab nationalists -- almost certainly with CIA connivance and assistance -- which was followed by a period of intense repression directed against the left and its allies.

Coups and counter-coups followed, leading to the eventual seizure of power by a group of Ba’thist officers in 1968. In theory, the Ba’th Party has ruled Iraq ever since, although its pretensions to ideological inspiration have become hollower over the years. Ba’thism is best described as a form of national socialism, based on the premise that there is a single Arab nation, which has been artificially divided, first by the Ottomans and subsequently by European and American imperialism, and Zionism. Once the Arab nation is liberated and united, it is claimed, social conflicts between the various Arab states (or ‘regions of the Arab nation’) will subside. Ba’thism has three central themes: unity, freedom and socialism. Unity refers to the unity of the Arab nation, freedom to freedom from imperialism and Zionism, and socialism to a general aspiration towards state-directed economic development supported by a mixed economy. Such sloganeering can mean anything those in charge wish it to mean, as is evident from the existence of two competing Ba’thist regimes in Iraq and Syria, where the ideological purity of the one is defined at least partly in terms of the ideological impurity of the other. More menacing, in a rigidly totalitarian state, is that any questioning of the projects of the state, or of its leaders, or any aspirations towards pluralism, can be castigated as treason, a ‘crime against the Arab nation’, a form of apostasy punishable, and regularly punished, by death.

In the course of the 1970’s and 1980’s the Ba’th either neutralised or persecuted all real or potential opposition, and built itself up from a small base of about 800 supporters in 1968 to a mass party by the end of the 1970’s. By that time, a massive cult of personality had developed around Saddam Husain (born1936), who became vice-president in 1970 and president in 1979. His new ‘politics’ consisted almost entirely of the adulation of the persons and actions of the leader. No other form of political activity was permitted, thus engendering the atmosphere of apathy and terror so brilliantly evoked in Samir al-Khalil’s ‘The Republic of Fear’.

Previous Item Page Top Next Item

The War Between Iran and Iraq and its Aftermath

The Iranian revolution in 1978-79 seemed to present both a major danger to and a major opportunity for the Iraqi regime. Since 'Gulf security' was a matter of grave concern both to the West and to the Soviet Union, a certain commonality of interest brought all the parties together. During the war which followed Iraq's invasion of Iran in September 1980, the United States and the Soviet Union found themselves in the curious position of being on the same side, supporting Iraq against Iran. In fact, Iraq's defeat of Iran was very largely due to the United States and France (in particular) eventually throwing their weight decisively behind Iraq, including giving strategic air assistance and cooperating in reflagging shipping in the Gulf.

However, after 'winning' the war against Iran, which he always claimed to have fought on behalf of the 'Arab nation', Saddam Husain found himself in something of a cul-de-sac; his armed forces had increased enormously, from about 200,000 to one million men, and his sophisticated weaponry in the same proportion. This had not been without cost, both in terms of casualties and in damage to the physical infrastructure, and post-war economic recovery was precisely the sort of long, slow business that Saddam Husain did not have the cast of mind to attend to systematically. Demobilisation of the vast army was politically difficult because of the serious damage done to the economy. So it was time for Saddam Husain to assert himself once again, and to assume the 'leadership of the Arab nation' which he thought ought now to be his by right.

The decision to invade Kuwait was a clear indication that a major shift in Iraq policy, or more accurately in Saddam Husain's thinking, had taken place. The decision probably had three principal roots;

first, Saddam Husain's almost pathological ambition, and his desire to carve out a major leadership role for himself within the Arab world which the rather humdrum realities of the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war were preventing;

second, the fact that he had created an enormous military machine which could not easily be run down in the aftermath of the war with Iran, and

third, the sense that the great changes taking place in Eastern Europe would mean that neither he nor 'the Arab masses' could continue to rely upon the Soviet Union.

In general the decision to invade Kuwait was almost certainly based on a false set of premises, and an extremely limited understanding of what the world outside Iraq and the world outside the Middle East would and would not tolerate.

It had long been clear, well before Gorbachev's assumption of power in 1985, that the Soviet Union was far too concerned about its relations with the West to throw its weight wholeheartedly behind any Arab policy or manoeuvres which might crucially threaten Israel. Nevertheless, since no Arab state or combination of Arab states had seriously entertained such ideas since 1973, this particular constraint had become less important, since Soviet assistance was still crucial in a variety of other ways. It was not until 1986, for example, that the United States and the West felt it prudent to make the high technology weaponry available to Iraq which eventually enabled it to defeat Iran in 1988 and to invade Kuwait in 1990. Until then, and indeed long afterwards, almost all Iraq's basic weaponry came from the Soviet Union, and as long the old guard remained in power in Moscow, Iraq could always count on deliveries of Soviet military materiel. To put things in perspective, between 1985 and 1989, Iraq spent nearly $12 billion on arms, of which nearly $7 billion went to the Soviet Union; France, Iraq's second major supplier, received just over $2 billion over the same period.

Hence, however welcome it was elsewhere, the new atmosphere of glasnost and perestroika of the latter 1980's, culminating in the collapse of the regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, was highly unsettling to Saddam Husain. At the same time, there were other ominous developments. Since the latter part of the 1980's, and indeed, covertly from much earlier, Iraq had enjoyed quite close relations with the United States and other western states, partly because of its value as a market both for armaments and for more conventional consumer goods, and partly because of the Ba'th's stance first against communism and then against Iran. In addition, there had been spectacular increases in Iraq's exports of oil to the United States over the 1980's. In 1984, 1.2% of Iraq’s oil, 10.1 million b/d, went to the US; in the first 7 months of 1990 alone (the invasion of Kuwait took place on 2 August) the proportion was 32.2%, or 514.5 million b/d. Thus, when a report on Iraq early in 1990 by the Washington-based Human Rights Watch was the subject of questions in Congress, followed closely by the British discovery that a ‘supergun’ was being manufactured, Saddam Husain seems to have understood that the close relationship which had been forged between him and the West over the previous few years was coming to an end.

With his extraordinary ability to swim abreast of the changing political currents in the region to his own advantage - including his theatrical espousal of ‘Islam’ in the 1980's when that seemed to serve his purpose - Saddam Husain made use of the widespread and by no means unjustified unease felt among the 'broad left' in the Arab world that the end of the Soviet Union might well lead to unchallenged Western and particularly United States dominance in the region. He launched a virulent campaign against the United States, presenting himself as the only steadfast Arab leader capable of defending the Arab nation against the West and its allies in the region. A logical extension of this policy, when he had talked himself into a corner, was the invasion of Kuwait.

Previous Item Page Top Next Item

The Invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf War

Reaction to the invasion, at the beginning of August 1990, was swift. In broad terms, no Arab state supported Iraq, but some, notably Jordan and Yemen, and for especially opportunistic reasons, Arafat and the PLO, hesitated to condemn the action outright. The United Nations Security Council quickly passed a number of resolutions condemning Iraq; Iraqi foreign assets were frozen and the pipelines across Turkey and Saudi Arabia were closed. On 8 August Iraq proclaimed that Kuwait was an integral part of Iraq (it was declared Iraq's 19th province on 28 August). Arab and Asian workers began to pour out of Kuwait across Iraq towards the Jordanian border, where they were crossing at the rate of 10-15,000 a day during August and September. Within a few days it became clear that Western contract workers and visitors to Iraq were not going to be allowed to leave; Saddam Husain announced this explicitly on 18 August. Western embassies in Kuwait were closed and their staff sent to Baghdad.

In some parts of the Arab world, especially Jordan and the Occupied Territories and the towns of North Africa, there was great popular ferment, and widespread support for Saddam Husain, presumably because of what was perceived as brave defiance of the West and its local clients (among whom, it should be underlined, Saddam Husain had very recently been prominently numbered). In general, there was little love lost between the Palestinians and the Arab Gulf states. Anti-American and anti-Western feeling rose to new heights; ever alert to new currents which he might turn to his advantage, Saddam Husain called for jihad or holy war against the enemies of Islam. The aged Ayatullah 'Abd al-Qasim al-Khu'i issued a fatwa on 17 August, condemning any alliance of Muslims with unbelievers against other Muslims. Saddam Husain continued to appeal to Islamic sentiment over the next few months, rather quaintly castigating the stationing of non-Muslim troops on the sacred soil of Arabia. Since the non-Muslim troops were several hundred miles from Mecca and Medina, this was rather a broad interpretation of the notion of 'sacred soil'. However ill the notion of Saddam Husain fighting a holy war of ‘Islam against unbelief' suited the facts, his defiance of the United States certainly gained him support in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

One of the major unanswered questions of this whole episode must be why Saddam Husain persisted in a course of action which he could not conceivably have won. Nasser's seizure of the Suez Canal was often mentioned, but Nasser was taking over a waterway which ran through his own country, in which he was extremely popular, and his cause was widely regarded as just. In contrast, Saddam Husain had not only invaded the territory of a small and defenceless neighbour which had spent much of the previous decade paying his debts, but his forces also killed and imprisoned many of its inhabitants, laid the country waste and took its portable assets off to Baghdad. This aside, there also was no sense in which Kuwait was engraved on every Iraqi's heart; in addition, most Iraqis were heartily sick of military adventures and had little enthusiasm for fighting after eight years of war with Iran. Again, although the Kuwaitis had certainly been grumbling at the prospect of being asked to pay for Iraqi rearmament for the foreseeable future, there was no reasonable sense in which they could have ‘threatened’ Iraq. For their part, Iraq’s Western creditors were content to ask for the country’s debts to be rescheduled, well aware of the extent of its oil reserves. Finally, while the question of over-production of oil (and hence the lowering of prices) in the Gulf had been a live issue since the beginning of 1990, an agreement greatly in Iraq’s favour had been reached at an OPEC meeting at Geneva at the end of July, a week before the invasion of Kuwait.

At the end of November 1990, the United Nations, under great pressure from the United States, issued Resolution 678, the most crucial so far. This authorised member states to use all means necessary to force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait if it had not done so by 15 January 1991. Over the next few weeks various mediation efforts were made, but Saddam Husain remained adamant. On 17 January 1991, the United States and its allies began to bomb various 'strategic' targets, causing countless civilian deaths and considerable damage to the country's infrastructure. Iraq retaliated by launching Scud missiles at targets in Israel and Saudi Arabia. About fifteen Israelis died in Tel Aviv from causes attributable to the missile attacks; Israel did not retaliate. After some five weeks of bombing, a 'ground offensive' was launched on 23 February, which ended with the rout and destruction of much of the regular Iraqi Army on 27 February, when a cease fire was declared.

Previous Item Page Top Next Item

The Aftermath of the Gulf War

According to one observer, the invasion and the war (that is, the period between 2 August 1990 and 27 February 1991) resulted in at least 100,000 deaths among both the military and the civilian population and some 300,000 wounded. As many as 2.5 million people were displaced (in the sense of being forced to leave, or leaving, their homes and places of work); over $170 billion in property and infrastructural damage was caused in Iraq, perhaps $60 billion worth in Kuwait, excluding the environmental effects of the firing of the Kuwaiti oil wells. 200,000 Palestinians and 150,000 Egyptians were forced to leave Kuwait, as well as 600,000 Asians from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. A further 350,000 Egyptians left Iraq when Egypt joined the coalition against Iraq.

The effect on the economies of the Middle East and South Asia was catastrophic; Jordan lost about $400 million per annum in remittances, Egypt about $500 million. Bangladeshis in Kuwait lost some $1.4 billion worth of deposits and assets. In addition, Jordan lost its transit fees for Iraqi goods, its cheap oil from Iraq, and about $500 million in grants from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and its export market in Saudi Arabia, because of its support for Iraq. Some 700,000 Yemenis were expelled from Saudi Arabia between September and December 1990. Extended curfews in the West Bank and Gaza meant that most of the workers who commuted daily to Israel were unable to get to their jobs, thus losing income estimated at around $2 million daily.

A few days after the end of the ground war, risings against the regime broke out in southern Iraq and in Kurdistan; by 4 March 1991 Kurdish forces had taken Sulaimaniyya, and by 24 March were in control of most of Kurdistan, including the towns of Arbil and Kirkuk. Although the 'rebels' gained control of large areas between the end of February and the beginning of March, units of the Republican Guard responded with exceptional brutality, and were able to gain the upper hand fairly quickly in Basra, Najaf and Karbala. In the southern cities, the insurgents had captured and killed local Ba'thist officials, members of the security services and their families, venting their hatred for the regime upon them. When the Republican Guard regained control of the southern cities they carried out indiscriminate mass executions of the population. Many tanks were painted with the slogan 'No Shi'is [will survive] after today' and there was widespread destruction of Shi'i shrines and other mosques in the Holy Cities. After the end of February 1991 the devastation of the south was almost entirely the work of the regime itself.

In the last week in March, Iraqi helicopters and troops launched raids on Kirkuk and other Kurdish cities. Kirkuk was recaptured after a massive bombardment on 28 March, and Sulaimaniyya on 3 April. A mass exodus of Kurds to the Iraqi/Turkish and Iraqi/Iranian borders began; by the end of April there were about 2.5 million refugees, both Kurds and southerners. Figures for casualties in the uprisings are difficult to estimate, and several thousands more died of exhaustion and exposure on the borders of Iran and Turkey. In April 1991 'safe havens', (essentially a military exclusion zone north of latitude 36 N) were set up in the Kurdish areas, enforced by Britain and the United States. In time, although the area was subjected to a fairly rigorous economic blockade from the south, this arrangement has permitted the emergence of a de facto Iraqi Kurdish autonomous area.

In general, western policy towards Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf war was vacillating and confused. The Kurdish and Shi'i risings were encouraged by the United States and its allies, but no effective assistance was forthcoming. At the same time Saudi Arabia and Turkey evidently expressed unease over any covert or overt American support which might strengthen the Shi'is (and, behind them, as was widely canvassed at the time, Iran) or the Kurds. The view of the US administration in the period since the war seems to have been that, reprehensible as Saddam Husain's government may be, it is probably 'safer' to accept its continuing existence than to throw itself wholeheartedly behind any one or more of the various opposition groups (although there are indications that there was a failed US-sponsored assassination attempt in 1997). By now such action is probably impractical at best. The Iraqi regime's capacity to flout the various directives and resolutions of the United Nations has seemed almost infinite - especially in the matter of the disclosure to United Nations inspectors of the whereabouts of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and their safe disposal.

A presidential referendum in October 1995 gave Saddam Husain a not entirely unexpected 99.96% of the vote. It is extremely difficult to obtain a clear picture of the realities of the internal situation; coup attempts, each generally followed by massive reprisals, were reported in January, February and June 1992, in September and November 1993, March, May and June 1995, and June and December 1996. There were reports of mutinies in the Republican Guard, especially in units from the Jubburi and Dulaymi tribes, in the spring and summer of 1995, as well as a number of high level defections. Perhaps most spectacularly, two of Saddam Husain's daughters defected to Jordan with their husbands in July 1995. One of the sons-in-law, General Husain Kamil Majid, a distant cousin of Saddam Husain, was formerly Minister of Defence and thus able to give his debriefers in Amman an accurate picture of the regime's military capacity. In an act of quite extraordinary folly, the two sons-in-law returned to Iraq in February 1996, where they were immediately shot, presumably at the instigation of their father-in-law. One consequence of this - in spite of his having been seriously wounded in an assassination attempt in December 1996 - has been the rise in importance and responsibilities of Saddam Husain's eldest son 'Udayy, whose reputation is almost as unsavoury as his father's.

Nevertheless, although such high level defections are indications of its increasing isolation, there is no hard evidence that the regime is crumbling. Saddam Husain has dug himself in to the extent that he is almost impregnable. It goes without saying that it is extremely difficult for any opposition to organise within Iraq, and, given the longevity of regime, for alternative voices to have any resonance within the country. The effectiveness of the main opposition umbrella organisation, the Iraqi National Council, has been greatly reduced by the long-standing divisions and mistrust within Kurdish ranks - leading to bitter inter-factional fighting in 1994 and 1995.

Reviewing the sequence of events since 1991, it is clear that the 'chicken' scenario which reached new heights late in 1998, when Iraq expelled the UNSCOM team charged with monitoring strategic sites, has been re-run several times. Also, the solidarity of the alliance against Iraq has begun to crumble with the passage of time, the most notable 'defectors' being France and the CIS, the former Soviet Union, making the six-monthly renewal of the sanctions regime an increasingly uphill struggle. The reasons for this are not particularly noble or exalted, and centre largely on the fact that both countries would like to resume the close and lucrative commercial linkages with Iraq that they maintained in the past. Nevertheless, while the sanction regime continues, some major modifications have taken place. In 1996 Iraq eventually accepted UN Resolution 985 which allowed it to sell a limited amount of oil to pay for the import of food, medicine and pipe-line spare parts; the amount involved was almost trebled (to $10.5 billion per annum) in February 1998.

Previous Item Page Top


In conclusion, it may be worth making a few fairly practical points. First, there is little doubt that a change of regime would be almost universally welcomed within Iraq. The greatest mistake of Desert Storm was that it stopped before any definite settlement had been reached. Given the US’ past record of intervention it is difficult to accept the pious handwringings of US officials to the effect that the administration would somehow have exceeded its brief if General Schwarzkopf had been allowed to press on to Baghdad. This should not be taken as encouragement of Washington’s recent rather low key efforts to arm or train the opposition, which are almost bound to fail given the gap between what is on offer and what is required. It is most unlikely that the regime could be overthrown other than by an internally organised military coup, funded, perhaps, by the US; arming the opposition, on the other hand, is almost certainly going to be unproductive.

Secondly, it is unconvincing to reiterate the nostrum that Iraq might somehow disintegrate after the fall of Saddam Husain. The possibility that Turkey might grab Iraqi Kurdistan and/or that Iran might grab the Shi'i south is almost too bizarre to need further comment, given the economic and political situation in both countries. The latter notion presupposes the existence of an Iraqi Shi'i movement anxious to join hands with an Islamic movement in Iran which would in its turn welcome it with open arms, which seems pure fantasy. In addition, the notion of an 'Iranian bogey' seems increasingly unconvincing, the idea (if it ever had any value) that the continuing presence of Saddam Husain functions as a vital check on any regional adventurism on the part of the Iranians. Given the poverty of Iran and the clear indications that growing numbers of Iranian powerholders are seeking some sort of accommodation with the United States, it is difficult to imagine that such a view has any reality outside the minds of defence strategists in the Pentagon. The introduction of democratic accountability and the rule of law in an Iraq without Saddam Husain would act as powerful factors for national integration, and the longer this is delayed the harder the achievement of that integration will be.

After seven years of fractious and uneasy independence, it is certainly unlikely that the Kurdish autonomous government would consent to return to the control of Baghdad. However, given that the idea of a 'Grand Kurdistan' encompassing the Iranian, Iraqi and Turkish Kurdish areas has no feasibility, a federal structure for post-Ba'thist Iraq does not seem an unthinkable, still less unattractive, option. In general, arrangements for decentralisation and regional autonomy seem sensible solutions to many of the problems besetting Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

Finally, it is difficult to imagine that Iraq after the Ba'th will continue to pose a threat to the security of the rest of the region. However it is effected, the ending of the present regime in Baghdad is an essential ingredient for peace and stability in the Middle East. Although there are obviously many obstacles to be overcome, it is important not to pretend that any progress can be made while Saddam Husain and his circle are in power, or that the regime's continuation in power serves anyone's interests but its own.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | September 2000