Global Policy Forum

How to Manage the Peace


Crimes and Lies in 'Liberated' Iraq

By Alain Gresh

Le Monde Diplomatique
May 2003

So the slogan is now to be "Rally around the conquerors". Voices that were previously inaudible because of the great roar of European public opinion opposed to the war on Iraq now demand that the peace camp admit that it was misguided, and admit also that it has been routed by the United States' military capture of Baghdad. France has been told that it risks isolation if it sticks to its position and that French businesses could miss out on reconstruction contracts, or even face boycotts in the US. Submission is the only honourable way out. It matters little that the war on Iraq was a flagrant violation of international law, embarked upon without the approval of the United Nations. Force has prevailed, so - back the victors.

Does the entry of US tanks into Baghdad really mean that we should modify the views that we held before 20 March 2003, when the war started? Did anyone ever doubt that the US would crush Iraq? The arms splurge of the US represents 45% of current global military spending; Iraq, exhausted by 12 years of embargo and disarmed by the UN, has a defence budget equal to two-thousandths of that of the US. The inequality of means is clear from the body counts: the US lost 125 soldiers and the United Kingdom 30. Most analysts put the numbers of Iraqi soldiers killed in the tens of thousands: 2,000 to 3,000 died in one day in Baghdad. The victory wasn't heroic. It was a turkey shoot.

Lieutenant-Colonel Woody Radcliff recalled that US soldiers confronted Iraqi fighters coming out of a factory in Najaf: "There were waves of people, with AK-47s, and they were killing everyone. The commander called and said 'This is not right. This is insane. Let's hit the factory with close air support and take them out at once'." A soldier said: "I feel almost guilty about the massacre. We wasted a lot of people. It makes you wonder how many were innocent. It takes away some of the pride. We won, but at what cost?"(1).

The war has seemed a return to that colonial era when the civilised world crushed the "barbarians". In 1898, at Omdurman in the Sudan, British troops with Egyptian auxiliaries confronted local insurgents against foreign rule: 11,000 Sudanese died, while the Anglo-Egyptian troops - no one would then have dared speak of a coalition - lost only 48 men. The British Empire certainly said it wanted to restore order, but it did not pretend to be exporting democracy; nor did it bother to suggest that Sudanese fighters posed a threat to London.

The war against Iraq was short, but it was far from joyful. It is still too early to produce a definitive civilian body count - 2,000 deaths have been registered - but how many more bodies are under the rubble? It is not just the use of depleted uranium weapons (whose effects will be felt for decades, just as defoliants such as Agent Orange, used by the US on the Vietnamese forests, are still claiming victims) or the release of cluster bombs on built up areas in Iraq. It is also the sneering face of "civilisation" evident in the way the US marines behaved.

On 7 April the third battalion of the fourth regiment of US marines arrived on the outskirts of Baghdad. This is how they behaved, according to Laurent Van der Stockt, an embedded Belgian journalist working for The New York Times: "A small blue van was moving towards the convoy. Three not-very-accurate warning shots were fired. The shots were supposed to make the van stop. The van kept on driving, did a U-turn, took shelter and then returned slowly. The marines opened fire. They were firing confusedly all over the place. Two men and a woman were riddled with bullets. So this was the enemy, the threat. A second vehicle drove up. The same scenario was repeated. Its passengers were killed on the spot. A grandfather was walking slowly with a cane on the sidewalk. They killed him, too." He concluded: "I saw about 15 civilians killed in two days. I've gone through enough wars to know that it's always dirty, that civilians are always the first victims. But the way it was happening here, it was absurd" (2). Absurd is not in fact the word. These killings were war crimes.

But were the many victims just the price of Iraq's "liberation"? The Iraqis are relieved that the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, the bloodiest in the region, is over. The more so since, for them, 20 March marked a new phase in a war that has gone on since 1991: the permanent air strikes and sanctions that brought death, deprivation and despair(3) . Iraqis dreamed of the end to this nightmare, of re-entering the normal world. But the intensity of the bombing, which flattened their already-fragile infrastructures, and the behaviour of the invading troops provoked worries and questions. Uncertainty over US intentions, over the risk of chaos and threats of showdowns, means that the "liberators" were not given a triumphal welcome anywhere.

This is why the Pentagon had to organise that media coup: the destruction of the statue of Saddam Hussein in the heart of Baghdad on 9 April. The images were transmitted across the world, despite a minor glitch when the US flag was draped over the dictator's head, and had to be rapidly replaced by the Iraqi flag. The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was moved to declare that the scenes reminded him of the fall of the Berlin Wall. He forgot to mention that the de-plinthing of the statue had been done by US forces in the presence of only about a 100 Iraqis. The "crowd" was outnumbered by journalists. Not one television channel broadcast images of the immense square empty save for the tanks blocking its entrance.

The "spontaneous joy" of Iraqis was necessary to hide the collapse of the reasons for aggression declared by the US. For months, the US administration had made the search for weapons of mass destruction the centre of its campaign against Iraq. These hidden weapons were, it said, a direct threat to the heart of the US; and there was abundant proof of their existence. President George Bush explained, in his State of the Union address of 28 January, that Iraq had attempted to purchase 500 tonnes of uranium oxide, which could be used to make atomic weapons, from Niger. The Secretary of State, Colin Powell, submitted docu ments to the UN to back up these accusations.

On 7 March the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed El-Baradei, announced that the documents concerned contained gross falsifications. British intelligence services, engaged in disinformation campaigns about Iraq since 1997, were behind the untruths (4).What did it matter? The US media barely mentioned the untruths and more than 40% of Americans still believed, on the eve of conflict, that Baghdad had nuclear weapons.

The Iraqi army did not use chemical or biological weapons even when the regime was about to fall. US troops have so far found nothing to justify the war and its tens of thousands of victims. The US is opposing the UN inspectors' return to Iraq, although it is legally necessary for any lifting of sanctions. Bush must be counting again on Tony Blair to fabricate further proof.

Links between al-Qaida and the Iraqi regime were created to bring the campaign into line with "the war on terrorism". Even the CIA didn't believe the links. But 44% of Americans believed that some or most of the 11 September hijackers were Iraqi, and 45% thought that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the attacks (5). These polls show that, even in an open society, manipulation by mass media can fudge any debate and make democracy meaningless.

Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein do have something in common, though, which Iraqis have been aware of for a long time. Both were strategic allies of the US during the 1980s. Neither would have become so dangerous if they had not benefited from the political and material assistance of successive US governments. The support that the US gave to the Afghan mojahedin, to the Arab volunteers recruited to combat the Soviet occupation, and in particular to Bin Laden, is well-known (6). The links between Saddam and the US go back much further.

According to his biographers, Saddam's first contact with the CIA dated from the 1960s, when he was a young exile in Cairo. In February 1963 a coup in Iraq ended the progressive regime of Abdelkrim Kassem. Thousands of communists and democrats were eliminated. Hastily returning home, Saddam joined in, killing and torturing with his own hands. The CIA had provided lists of people to be arrested (as it did in 1965 in Indonesia, where anti-communist repression cost 500,000 lives). This gave rise to rumours in the Arab world that Saddam Hussein was a CIA agent. Conspiracy theories have always been popular there, quite understandably.

President Reagan's administration extended the US alliance with the Ba'athists in the 1980s. The man who inaugurated this process was Donald Rumsfeld, who travelled to Baghdad in December 1983 to shake Saddam's hand. Iraq was struck off the list of states supporting terrorism, diplomatic relations were re-established, and the US gave military assistance to Iraq in its struggle against the "Islamic revolution" in Iran. The US knew the Iraqi army was using chemical weapons against Iran in violation of international conventions. In 1988, when Iraq gassed Kurds, causing thousands of deaths at Halabja, the State Department sponsored a disinformation campaign to blame the massacre on Tehran (7).

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the situation was different, although when the southerners and the Kurds rose up against the regime in February and March 1991, the US army abandoned them to be crushed, for the US had wanted the fall of Saddam and not of his regime. Colin Powell, then chairman of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff, justified this in 1992: "There is a romantic notion that if Saddam Hussein got hit by a bus tomorrow, some Jeffersonian democrat is waiting in the wings to hold popular elections. And the American people . . . would have been outraged if we had gone on to Baghdad and found ourselves in Baghdad with American soldiers patrolling the streets two years later still looking for Jefferson" (8). The Iraqis remember this betrayal, especially the Shi'ites who suffered harsh repression. Their doubts, faced with the democratic proclamations of the new masters, are understandable.

These fears have been worsened by the behaviour of US troops during the recent conflict, and by some powerful images - the oil ministry guarded by marines while 30 other ministries were pillaged and systematically burnt; lootings, of hospitals in particular, under the indifferent gaze of US soldiers; the ransacking of the National Museum and of Mosul, the National Archives and the Koranic Library on fire - treasures of both Iraqi and world culture. Professor Shakir Aziz summed up a widely shared feeling: "I saw for myself how the US troops goaded Iraqis to loot and burn the University of Technology. What crazed geopolitical ambitions, what culture of hatred of all things Arab and Muslim, what greed for oil and for rich reconstruction contracts, has fuelled this American orgy of destruction?" (9). A few tanks, barely as many as it took to close off that square for the toppling of Saddam's statue, would have been enough to protect these valuable possessions that belong to the inheritance of all humanity.

The Iraqis fear chaos and suspect the US of encouraging it to justify their presence, take control of Iraqi oil and install US military bases. Iraqis know that their society has been damaged since the invasion of Kuwait, not least because of sanctions - which successive US administrations defended, despite proof of their terrible effects on Iraqis. Survival, to the detriment of any sense of statehood, became the greatest need of Iraqis. Tribalism, which the government encouraged, strengthened. The education system collapsed. Archaic traditions were re-established, particularly those that hurt women. The distribution of weapons to tribes during the 1990s, and the recovery of arms abandoned by the Iraqi army in 2003, has armed all Iraqis, no doubt for the worse. Many people fear that disorder, not democracy, will triumph.

The first tensions are already emerging. In Mosul there have been clashes between communities, while Kurds, themselves exiles under Saddam Hussein, have expelled Arab families from Kirkuk. Radical religious forces are being established among the Shi'ite community. Anglo-American attempts to reinstate Ba'ath party officials and local police officers are causing discord. The Iraqis were quick to reject a US protectorate (see States in protective custody). The war was not even over when 20,000 people demonstrated in Nassariya against the opposition meeting called by the US proconsul for Iraq, retired general Jay Garner, a staunch defender of Ariel Sharon's policies. "Yes to liberty! Yes to Islam! No to America, no to Saddam!" they chanted. Many marches since then have used the same slogans. Will these demonstrations have any effect on General Garner, a hawk among hawks and friend of Rumsfeld? His analysis of Vietnam was that "we should have taken the war north instead of waiting in the south. Just like here. If Bush had been president, we would have won" (10). Unlikely. The US is determined to impose its administration directly, with the help of a few collaborators, such as Ahmad Chalabi, sentenced to 22 years in prison for embezzlement by a Jordanian court.

Reconstruction contracts have been handed out to US companies with direct links to the current administration (the forthcoming presidential election campaign has to be financed). The Halliburton oil firm, until 2000 headed by Richard Cheney, the US vice-president, has been put in charge of fighting oil well fires. The Bechtel group, the largest US public works company and close to the Bush administration, has a contract whose value should total $680m (11). The European Union has decided to open an inquiry into whether such a contract is in line with World Trade Organisation rules.

But the reply is: "This is US money". Actually it isn't. Of the $2.4bn voted by Congress to help with the reconstruction of Iraq, $1.7bn comes from Iraqi funds blocked since 1990 and confiscated by the US on 20 March. The US has confidence in the neoliberal formula. Its plans revolve around the privatisation of all state enterprises within 18 months and the creation of an independ ent central bank - an institution that exists in no other country in the region (12). It seems that the US vision is of a "state-free" Iraq.

Those who dream of a new Middle East ask, isn't democracy worth a war? The region has seen many conflicts since 1948, from the first Israeli-Arab clash through the two intifadas and the first Gulf war. Each of these ended in humiliations and a polarisation of public opinion, and strengthened existing regimes. None ended in greater openness or democracy. How can this war be expected to buck the trend?

It has been waged against Arab and Muslim opinion. The Arab League unanimously condemned the attack, though half a dozen of its members offered facilities to the US military. Opposition forces and the media defended Saddam's barbaric regime in the name of resistance to US imperialism. And, amid this powerlessness and humiliation, the crushing of the Palestinians has continued while the US remains indifferent to it. None of this can create the conditions for a political and cultural change. Instead it provides a fertile terrain for any force providing an identity - and that force, that identity, is terrorism.

For Baghdad is at the heart of the Arab imagination, a symbol of lost grandeur. It was the capital of the largest Muslim empire, the Abbasid caliphate, between the 8th and 13th centuries; and the centre of the 20th century's attempts at an Arab renaissance, with the expulsion of the British Empire and its agents in 1958 and the nationalisation of the Iraq Petroleum Company in 1972. The Mongol invasion of the Abbasid caliphate captured Baghdad in 1258, burning its libraries and throwing books into the Tigris (its water was said to have run black with the ashes, or with the ink): this was the beginning of the decline of the Arab-Muslim world.

Perhaps in a decade from now an Arab chronicler might describe the 2003 fall of Baghdad as did the great 13th-century historian Ibn al-Athir: "For some years I continued averse from mentioning this event, deeming it so horrible that I shrank from recording it and ever withdrawing one foot as I advanced the other. To whom can it be easy to write the announcement of the death blow to Islam and the Muslims?" (13).

(1) Quoted by Infopal, "War in Iraq: a Reason for Shame", 18 April 2003

(2) Le Monde, 13-14 April 2003, reproduced in Counterpunch, Petrolia, California, 16 April 2003. This account was confirmed in The New York Times Magazine, 20 April 2003, by one ofVan der Stockt's colleagues.

(3) Blair invoked the deaths of these children, caused by a policy that he had applied, to justify the war. According to Blair, maintaining the sanctions was impossible because it would have meant "leaving Iraq in this state: with 130 deaths per 1,000 children under the age of five and 60% of the population on food aid." Financial Times, London, 13 February 2003.

(4) Seymour Hersh, "Who lied to whom?" The New Yorker, 31 March 2003.

(5) "Polls Suggest Media Failure in Pre-War Coverage",, 28 March 2003.

(6) See John Cooley, Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International terrorism, Pluto Press, London, 2002, and "Al-Qaida's elusive money men", Le Monde Diplomatique, English language edition, November 2002.

(7) See Joost Hiltermann, "Americans didn't seem to mind poison gas", International Herald Tribune, Paris, 17 January 2003.

(8) Quoted in Middle East Report Online, March 2003.

(9) Quoted by Patrick Seale, The Daily Star, Beirut, 18 April 2003.

(10) International Herald Tribune, Paris, 15 April 2003.

(11) Since insurance companies have refused to cover the risks, George Bush has signed a decree providing for eventual indemnities to be covered by the US treasury - the taxpayer. See Le Monde, 20-21 April 2003.

(12) "The US masterplan", Middle East Economic Digest, London, 14 March 2003.

(13) See Edward Browne's A Literary History of Persia, Cambridge University Press, 1902; Ibex, Bethesda, Maryland, 1997.

Translated by Gulliver Cragg

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.