With all the talk of war and an attack on Iraq apparently imminent, there has been an endless stream of reports and media debates over the justification and necessity of this offensive. This has increasingly led to speculation and conjecture, often with no grounding in fact or an appreciation for the circumstances of the current situation. At a time like this, it is important to depart from a lot of the ‘hype’ and revisit the facts and historical background to the case, in order to adequately form one’s own individual opinion.
Iraq has a glorious but bloody past. As the ancient land of what the Greeks called Mesopotamia (the land between the rivers), it was the cradle of human civilization. In this fertile valley between the Tigris and the Euphrates, agriculture, irrigation, writing, law, the wheel, mathematics and book-keeping all had their birth. It is also the birthplace of religion in more ways than one. (The prophet Abraham – grandfather of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – is believed to have been born in the ancient city of Ur on the Euphrates). Over the centuries the empires came and went – Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians and others – almost invariably achieving their ascendance through bloody wars and the annihilation of their rivals.
The modern nation-state of Iraq was born after the First World War, but it is only a half-truth to say (as many articles do) that it is an artificial British invention. The land of ‘Al-Iraq’ and the city of Baghdad have been well-recognized since early Islam. During the golden age of the Abbasid caliphate (750 – 1258), Baghdad served as the capital of an empire spanning from Spain to China. At a time when much of Europe was in the Dark Ages, the city was a centre of learning – boasting over a million inhabitants, a university, public libraries, and a scientific research facility with observatory. It also pioneered the basic elements of modern city life of today – with street lighting, a plumbing system, a police service, a fire brigade, and hospitals.
This glory came to an abrupt end in 1258 with the Mongol invasion led by one of Genghis Khan’s grandsons. 800,000 inhabitants were put to the sword, and the rivers were said to have run first red with blood and then black with ink, as all the ancient libraries were ransacked and their books destroyed. Not until the late twentieth century did the population surpass a million again, but Iraq continued to be fought over by the great empires of Persia and the Ottomans. British occupation after the First World War brought a nation-wide revolt in 1920 that was brutally crushed. (Incidentally, this was the first time the Kurdish peoples of the north suffered a chemical attack – mustard gas ordered by then British Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill). A monarchy was later established with British support, and full independence granted a decade later. Iraq survived as a kingdom for almost forty years, but in 1958 a bloody coup extinguished the old order, as army officers gunned down the entire royal family, dragged the Prime Minister’s body through the streets, and declared a republic. The next ten years saw coup after coup, with violence and plotting seemingly the only form of political expression, and a series of military dictators taking the helm.
In the late sixties Iraq witnessed the rise of Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party to power, on a platform of secular Arab nationalism and anti-communism (and with US support). The next decade was a period of relative progress, but this short-lived stability came to an end in the Iraq-Iran war from 1980-88, which cost millions of lives and created debts of tens of billions of dollars. During this war, the US and other western powers actively supported Iraq diplomatically and in its defense build-up – the US even going so far as to attack Iranian ships and oil platforms in 1987 and 1988 (interestingly, Donald Rumsfeld in 1983 served as President Reagan’s envoy, expressing support to Baghdad).
This policy was driven by the desire to combat and contain the Islamic ‘fundamentalist’ threat posed by Iran (one of the reasons it is proving difficult to find a link today between Saddam and Al-Qaeda – Islamic fundamentalism has always been his enemy).
The Situation Today
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 led to another war, including an aerial bombardment of a country on a scale not seen since World War Two. The ensuing sanctions regime has had devastating consequences – according to UNICEF infant mortality in the country’s population centers has doubled, and the World Health Organization has reported half a million children dead as a result of shortages created by sanctions. The biggest loss has been the collapse of economic society and the disappearance of a professional and educated middle class – doctors, lawyers, and engineers take home the equivalent of $5 a month, and basic foodstuffs have become a luxury. (The Iraqi dinar used to be worth around $3, but today $1 will buy several thousand dinars).There is now virtual unanimity that the sanctions approach has failed.
The weapons inspections have caused even more debate. After seven years of inspections and no end in sight, Iraq expelled the UN inspectors in 1998, causing a US and British retaliation (the US and the UK still patrol the skies of northern and southern Iraq in self-declared ‘no-fly’ zones, taking out Iraqi targets that are deemed a threat). Iraq’s rapprochement with its neighbors has led to the issue being side-lined, that is until the attacks of 9/11 and the US ‘War on Terrorism’. The subsequent focus on ‘rogue states’ and weapons of mass destruction has led to a growing momentum for an all-out war on Iraq – despite little evidence of Iraq’s reconstituted arsenal or links to Al-Qaeda, the Bush Doctrine advocates a pre-emptive strategy of military attack.
Any war with Iraq will have high stakes and consequences regionally and internationally. Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq has modern infrastructure and a modern army (though both are in much worse shape than a decade ago). It also has a lot more potential as a nation – with proven oil reserves in hundreds of billions of barrels – placing it second in the world after Saudi Arabia (despite only a quarter as many wells drilled so far).
With the fertility of the soil, it could be self-sufficient for food; it also has huge potential for tourism. The country, strategically located between the other regional powers of Iran, Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia, has never seen Islamic fundamentalism take root. All these factors, and the diverse groups across Iraq (Kurds in the north, Arab shias in the south, and Arab sunnis in the middle) will mean that regional and international governments will all have a stake in the outcome of any war.
The rights and wrongs of attacking Iraq have been debated ad infinitum but it is vitally important to ask the right questions: What is the threat? Where is the evidence? What is the planned response? What will the costs and long-term consequences be? The US risks alienating many of its allies in the Middle East and in Europe, and any action must not be taken to achieve a short-term objective, or for political expediency. There is more at stake than just the fate of one nation – the stability of the entire Middle East, and indeed the definition of the international order in the early 21st century, will likely be decided in coming weeks and months.