excerpted from the book


How our covert wars have created enemies
across the Middle East and brought terror to America.

by Mark Zepezauer

Common Courage Press, 2003, paper


The United States went to war against Iraq in 1991 to reverse Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. Iraqi forces left Kuwait 42 days later, but for the people of Iraq, the war continues. Some 200,000 Iraqis died during the Gulf War; in the decade since, more than a million have perished. The U.S. has bombed Iraq hundreds of times and led international sanctions in hopes of toppling Saddam's regime. Ironically, these efforts have served only to strengthen him. Meanwhile Iraqi civilians are paying the price for living within the same borders as the dictator Washington built up in the first place. Today, as the U.S. asserts its right to "take out" Saddam, it's worth recalling that the old ghoul's path to power was paved by an earlier decision to "take out" one of his predecessors.

Saddam Hussein first made a name for himself in a CIA-backed assassination attempt against General Abdel Karim Qassim, then in charge of Iraq. In 1958, Qassim had overthrown and executed the unpopular British-backed monarch, King Faisal. The CIA was taken by surprise, and U.S. Ieaders watched in dismay as the Qassim regime pulled out of the pro-Western Baghdad pact, founded the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and asserted Iraq's long-standing claim of sovereignty over Kuwait. Soon the U.S. Iet it be known that it wouldn't mind if Gen. Qassim went to an early grave as well. One of those who answered the call was young Saddam, then a minor officer of the Ba'ath Party.

The assassination attempt was not successful, and Saddam went into exile in Cairo, where he kept in contact with the U.S. embassy. He returned in 1963, when the still-popular Qassim was successfully liquidated in a Ba'athist coup. Saddam and his colleagues quickly went to work on a bloody purge of 700 Iraqi leftists, using hit lists helpfully provided by, who else, the CIA. Over the next dozen years, through a series of murders, purges, and shifting alliances, Saddam worked his way up through the ranks. He became head of security, then vice-president, and finally, in 1979, supreme leader of Iraq.

Like many Middle Eastern leaders, Saddam liked to do business with both the U.S. and the USSR. Generally the superpowers felt that if you were friends with one, you were the enemy of the other. But this was no big problem, since everybody was more than happy to switch sides as events warranted. In 1975, Iraq was friendly with the Soviets, from whom they received military support. Consequently, the Kurdish minority in northern Iraq, previously friendly with the Soviets, was then allied with the Americans. At that time neighboring Iran was a U.S. client state, involved in a border dispute with the Iraqis. The Shah of Iran prevailed on Washington to arm the Iraqi Kurds as a way of putting diplomatic pressure on Baghdad.

This worked out well for everyone except the Kurds. Once Iran and Iraq came to terms over their border dispute, the U.S. withdrew support for the Kurdish insurgency. Double-crossed by Uncle Sam, the Kurds were mercilessly slaughtered by Saddam Hussein's security forces. Asked to explain all this before a congressional committee, Secretary ~ of State Henry Kissinger offered the immortal words "covert action should not be confused with missionary work." As if to prove Kissinger's point, everybody switched sides again just a few years later.

When the Shah of Iran was overthrown by an Islamic rebellion in 1980, it was time for the U.S. to make friends with Saddam Hussein. The new Islamic revolution in Iran, headed by the Ayatollah Khomeini, was making other U.S. allies nervous-notably the Saudi royal family, who feared similar uprisings in their own country. Saddam met with Saudi leaders and with CIA agents in Amman, where King Hussein had long been on the Agency's payroll. He got a "green light" for an invasion of Iran, and was promised economic and military support from the oil-rich Gulf sheikdoms. What resulted was a bloody eight-year war between Iraq and Iran that would leave over a million dead.

A big part of the problem was that Washington was offering support to both sides. When Iranian militants seized hostages in the U.S. embassy, the Carter Administration hoped that war with Iraq would force Khomeini to come to terms with the U.S. in order to procure needed spare parts for the Shah's U.S.-built arsenal. But at the same time, Carter's Republican opponents were cozying up to Iran, hoping they would hold on to the hostages long enough to humiliate Carter, so he would be defeated in the upcoming election- which he was. The day Ronald Reagan took office, the U.S. hostages were released, and just a few weeks later, U.S.-approved arms shipments to Iran were underway.

When these were publicly revealed in late 1986, the resulting scandal became known as the Iran-Contra affair, since the Reagan Administration used profits from arms sales to Iran to finance the secret "contra" war against Nicaragua. But Reagan also aided Saddam Hussein, "bleeding" both sides in hopes of weakening any potential rivals to U.S. client states in the region. When Iran got the upper hand, U.S. warships were sent into the Persian Gulf to intervene on behalf of Saddam. Iranian ships were attacked in the name of "protecting oil shipments,' though the main threat to Gulf shipping came from Iraq. Even when Iraq attacked the USS Stark in 1987, killing 37 sailors, Washington shrugged it off, determined to keep pressure on Iran.

During the Iran-Iraq war, the U.S. covertly supplied Saddam with weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological arms. "Agricultural" loans to Iraq were used as a cover for military aid. The U.S. branch of an Italian bank funneled $5 billion in questionable (taxpayer-backed) loans to Baghdad, and U.S. firms shipped toxic agents like Anthrax and Botulism, all with government approval. Saddam put these weapons to use, employing both chemical and biological weapons against Iranian troops, as well as Kurdish rebels. The Kurdish village of Halabja was attacked with nerve gas, killing 5000 and injuring 200,000 more, most of whom are suffering to this day from the effects. Despite protests by human rights groups, Washington looked the other way-though President Bush later cited the atrocity as one of the reasons to go to war against Iraq in 1991.

Once the Iran-Iraq war ended in stalemate in 1988, it began to seem to the U.S. and its allies that Iraq, in particular, had been insufficiently bled. Saddam now had the most powerful military in the Gulf region, with over a million battle-hardened men in uniform. Thus it was just about time for everybody to switch sides once again.

Henceforth, U.S. policy towards Baghdad employed both carrots and sticks. Covert military aid continued, but loan amounts dropped off, owing to investigations of the banking scandals. Washington suddenly began to take public notice of human rights abuses in Iraq. And the wealthy little kingdom of Kuwait began playing hardball with its powerful neighbor. Though Saddam had nearly gone broke protecting the Gulf sheikdoms from revolutionary Iran, the Kuwaitis demanded accelerated repayment of wartime loans. Worse still, the Kuwaitis had been "slant drilling" underneath the border into Iraq's valuable Rumaila oilfield, draining $14 billion in crude. A company owned by Brent Scowcroft, President Bush's national security advisor, had sold the special drilling equipment to the Emir of Kuwait. As an old crony of Henry Kissinger, Scowcroft was presumably not involved in "missionary work."

Under Ottoman rule, Kuwait had been a province of Iraq, but was broken off by Britain in order to prevent Baghdad's access to any usable seaports. Squeezed by the Emir, Saddam began to look at Kuwait's oil revenue as the answer to his problems. Those problems had grown even worse when Kuwait violated OPEC production quotas, sharply driving down the price of crude oil. With their extensive investments in the West, the Saudis and Kuwaitis could ride out lower oil prices, but Iraq's war-tom economy was hurt even further.

As tensions escalated, Washington continued its two-track policy. A well-connected Washington think tank encouraged Saddam to treat Kuwait more aggressively, while at the same time the director of the CIA was advising Kuwait to "take advantage of the deteriorating economic situation in Iraq." Publicly, U.S. officials gave mixed signals. After Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney said that America would come to Kuwait's defense if it were attacked, the White House backed away from the statement. State Department spokespersons announced more than once that no treaty would obligate the U.S. to assist Kuwait. When Congress sought to impose sanctions on Iraq for human rights violations, the White House opposed the measure. And U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie told Saddam that Washington had "no opinion" on his border disputes with Kuwait.

The Kuwaitis seemed unafraid of their more powerful neighbor. At an emergency Arab League summit, they responded to Iraq's negotiating offers with insulting replies. "If they don't like it, let them occupy our territory," one Kuwaiti told Jordan's King Hussein. "We are going to bring in the Americans." And so they did. After Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait, the Bush Administration began a buildup of U.S. military forces in the Persian Gulf, which continues to this day. Cheney traveled to Riyadh, carrying forged satellite photos, which showed an alarming buildup of Iraqi forces on the Kuwaiti-Saudi border. In actuality, no such buildup had occurred. But the Saudis, fearing that they, too would be invaded, invited U.S. troops onto their territory-much to the dismay of Islamic dissidents.

The U.S. resisted all attempts to mediate a peaceful resolution to the crisis. The president and his advisors regarded a negotiated Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait (being mediated by Soviet leader Gorbachev) as a "nightmare" scenario. "Don't you realize that if [Saddam] pulls out, it will be impossible for us to stay?" asked Scowcroft of General Colin Powell, who favored the peace initiative. In a recent interview, former Secretary of State James Baker admitted that his last-ditch negotiating session with Iraqi diplomats in January 1991 was strictly for show. "I'll tell you this," Baker told PBS, "the meeting with Tariq Aziz in Geneva permitted us to achieve congressional support for something that the President was determined to do in any event." Or as Baker's boss told his advisors, "We have to have a war." Administration insiders have identified Bush's main motivations as twofold: to wipe out Iraq's military capabilities and to wipe out the "Vietnam syndrome." This was Beltway jargon for the American public's irritating reluctance to support overseas military adventures. At the end of the Gulf War, Bush exulted, "By God, we've licked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!"

The Pentagon candidly spelled out the bottom line in a post-war evaluation: "In the Middle East and Southwest Asia, our overall objective is to remain the predominant outside power in the region and preserve U.S. and Western access to the region's oil." Pursuant to this, the U.S. had been planning war games scenarios against Iraq for 18 months before Saddam's invasion. A 1990 U.S. Army white paper had discussed Iraq as a prime candidate to replace the Warsaw Pact as a target for future military expenditures. In the end, estimates of Iraq's military capabilities proved to be wildly overinflated, though by that time they had served their purpose.

By the time the U.S. began its ground war against Iraq, Saddam had withdrawn his elite Republican Guard units back to Baghdad, leaving the Kuwaiti front to be defended by frightened young conscripts, many drawn from dissident Kurdish and Shi'ite regions. Many of them were killed while trying to surrender. Thousands were buried alive by U.S. bulldozers in the middle of the night, or burned to a crisp while retreating from Kuwait City.

Meanwhile, allied bombing had utterly devastated the civilian infrastructure of Iraq, destroying power plants, water facilities and hospitals. As this constitutes a war crime under international law, U.S. authorities were careful to note that such destruction was "accidental." Such accidents took out 38 schools, 28 hospitals, 31 sewage facilities, four of the seven major water pumping stations, and all 11 of Iraq's major electrical power plants, along with 119 substations. In fact, the possibility of "punitive raids" on such targets had been widely discussed, both publicly and privately, by U.S. war planners. "If there are political objectives that the UN coalition has," one of them told the Washington Post, " gives us long-term leverage."

Of course, attacking civilian targets for the purpose of "leverage" for "political objectives" is the very definition of terrorism.

As the war ended, many of Iraq's neighbors were happy to have seen Saddam taken down a peg, but didn't want to see him out of power. Though allied propaganda had encouraged Shi'ites and Kurds to revolt against Baghdad, the war effort pointedly stopped short of assisting them, and they were once again double-crossed and left to Saddam's revenge. Civil war in Iraq-so the reasoning went-might lead to rebellions in Kurdish areas of Turkey and Syria, and the triumph of the Shiites in southern Iraq would only strengthen Iran once again. So Saddam was left in power, with his military might decimated and his economy in a shambles. The balance of power in the Gulf now favored the monarchies, bolstered by new U.S. military bases.

Iraq's oil revenue was used to pay reparations to the Emir of Kuwait, who held hundreds of billions of dollars in overseas investment, while the once-prosperous Iraqis suffered and died under the sanctions, U.S. firms made fortunes in the reconstruction of Kuwait. In his post-presidential 1993 "victory tour" of Kuwait, George H. W. Bush brought along his sons Marvin, Neil, and future president George W. Bush. The younger Bushes worked to secure a contract for their friends at the Enron Corporation in rebuilding a Kuwaiti power plant. Best of all, the Gulf war essentially ratified Kuwait's de facto annexation of the Rumaila oilfield, the very theft which had provoked Iraq in the first place. This new territory had the effect of doubling Kuwait's oil output for U.S. and British companies based there.

But for the people of Iraq, caught in the middle of this power play, the worst was yet to come. Economic sanctions prevented Baghdad from repairing water treatment plants or importing needed medicines. Declassified Pentagon documents show that even as the war was being pursued, it was recognized that the destruction of Iraq's water supply "could lead to increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease." Through the 1990s, the U.S. and Britain kept a tight lid on Iraqi imports, and cynically blamed Saddam for the resulting suffering. Iraq's children were hardest hit, dying of malnutrition and easily preventable diseases at the rate of 5000 a month-the equivalent of a 9/11 disaster every 30 days. After eleven years of sanctions, more than 1.2 million Iraqi civilians have perished, more than half under the age of 18.

In 1996, asked by reporter Leslie Stahl about the death of "half a million children," then-UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright did not dispute the figure. Instead she offered, "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price-we think the price is worth it." While this comment made little impact in the U.S., it has been widely repeated throughout the Muslim world.

Several UN officials in charge of overseeing the sanctions program have resigned in protest, charging that Washington and London have engaged in a program of deliberate genocide against the people of Iraq. At the same time,

Scott Ritter, who was a member of UN teams sent to verify Iraqi cooperation with disarmament resolutions, stated that Iraq had been "essentially disarmed." UN weapons inspectors departed in 1998 in anticipation of a major new bombing campaign by the U.S. Saddam subsequently refused to allow them to return, charging that the CIA was using the group as a cover for espionage operations. Washington later admitted that the charge was true, but bombing of Iraq continues on a routine basis.

Saddam has been kept not too weak and not too strong, in a cynical effort to preserve a balance of power that favors U.S. interests by keeping Arab nations divided and squabbling. Not surprisingly, U.S. policy against Iraq has stirred up massive resentment in the Arab world. It seems exceedingly unlikely that U.S. citizens would allow a foreign power to slowly kill off a half a million innocent American children without doing something to strike back.

In the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan, persistent reports reveal Bush Administration plans to initiate another full-scale war against Iraq as soon as possible. These plans have been delayed due to the opposition of the entire Arab League as well as most of our Western allies. But like his father, the president is determined to have a war; U.S. policy is that we are committed to "regime change" no matter how much Saddam cooperates with the UN (which of course gives him little incentive to do so). Press leaks (later debunked) have tried to link Saddam to the al-Qaida network, though in fact they are sworn enemies. But if history is any guide, the search for a pretext will continue...


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