Iraq Geopolitics

Part III: A Poisonous Geopolitical Jungle

Henry C K Liu

First appeared in Asia Times Online on September 15, 2004

Other articles in this series:
Part I: Geopolitics in Iraq an Old Game
Part II: Geopolitical Weeds in the Cradle of Civilization

While post-World War II Iraq remained safely under British imperialist control, in neighboring Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh's democratically-elected nationalist government enacted an oil nationalization bill in 1951. Responding to a British legal challenge in the World Court against Iran and taking it up in the United Nations Security Council, Mossadegh traveled to New York to defend Iran's sovereign right, gaining much support from the world's nations.

US becomes entangled
Then he went to the Netherlands to defend Iran successfully at The Hague, which voted in favor of Iran in its international legal dispute with Britain. On his way home, Mossadegh also paid a visit to Egypt, where he was enthusiastically received as an anti-imperialism hero. Not surprisingly, Mossadegh was toppled a year later by a military coup engineered by the Central Intelligence Agency. The event signaled the emergence of the US as the leading external actor in the Middle East on behalf of neo-imperialism, in effect replacing Britain's traditional imperialist role in the region. Furthermore, the Shah of Iran was now indebted to the US for his throne.

In its January 1952 issue, Time Magazine, hardly a liberal publication and a leader of the anti-communist press, nominated Mohammed Mossadegh as Man of the Year. The Time essay read in part:
"There were millions inside and outside of Iran whom Mossadegh symbolized and spoke for, and whose fanatical state of mind he had helped to create. They would rather see their own nations fall apart than continue their present relations with the West. Communism encouraged this state of mind, and stood to profit hugely from it. But communism did not create it. The split between the West and the non-communist East was a peril all its own to world order, quite apart from communism. Through 1951, the communist threat to the world continued; but nothing new was added - and little subtracted. The news of 1951 was this other danger in the Near and Middle East. In the center of that spreading web of news was Mohammed Mossadegh. The West's military strength to resist communism grew in 1951. But Mossadegh's challenge could not be met by force. For all its power, the West in 1951 failed to cope with a weeping, fainting leader of a helpless country; the West had not yet developed the moral muscle to define its own goals and responsibilities in the Middle East. Until the West did develop that moral muscle, it had no chance with the millions represented by Mossadegh. In Iran, in Egypt, in a dozen other countries, when people asked: 'Who are you? What are you doing here?' The East would be in turmoil until the West achieved enough moral clarity to construct a just and fruitful policy toward the East."
As Time saw it, communism was producing a dual effect. It fanned anti-imperialism in the colonies while it created pressure in the West to placate Third World nationalism to keep it from going communist. On March 8, 1951, the day after Ali Razmara, Iran's pro-Western premier, was assassinated, Mossadegh submitted to the Iranian majlis (parliament) his proposal to nationalize Iran's oil. Within weeks, a popular wave of anti-imperialist sentiment swept him into the premiership. The British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Co had been paying Iran much less than it did the British government. Ayatollah Abol-Ghasem Kashani, a leading Shi'ite fundamentalist cleric who had been fighting the infidel British in Iraq and Iran, played a key role in the nationalization of oil in Iran. His followers had assassinated Razmara.

The Iranian crisis inspired Egypt, which followed with an announcement that it was abrogating its 1936 unequal treaty with Britain. The Egyptian government demanded the withdrawal of British troops from Egyptian soil and an end to British occupation of the Suez Canal. When Britain refused, Egypt exploded with anti-British riots, hoping that the US, which had opposed British use of force in Iran, would take the same line in Egypt. The Times essay reported that "the US, however, backed the British, and the troops stayed. But now they could only stay in Egypt as an armed occupation of enemy territory. Throughout the East, that kind of occupation may soon cost more than it is worth."

The Time essay went on:
"The word 'American' no longer has a good sound in that part of the world. To catch the Jewish vote in the US, president Harry S Truman in 1946 demanded that the British admit 100,000 Jewish refugees to Palestine, in violation of British promises to the Arabs. Since then, the Arab nations surrounding Israel have regarded that state as a US creation, and the US, therefore, as an enemy. The Israeli-Arab war created nearly a million Arab refugees, who have been huddled for three years in wretched camps. These refugees, for whom neither the US nor Israel would assume the slightest responsibility, keep alive the hatred of US perfidy. No enmity for the Arabs, no selfish national design motivated the clumsy US support of Israel. The American crime was not to help the Jews, but to help them at the expense of the Arabs. Today, the Arab world fears and expects a further Israeli expansion. The Arabs are well aware that Alben Barkley, vice president of the US, tours his country making speeches for the half-billion-dollar Israeli bond issue, the largest ever offered to the US public. Nobody, they note bitterly, is raising that kind of money for them."

As the Time essay warned, winning the hearts and minds of the Arabs away from communism was made hopelessly difficult by US policy on Israel. As a pro-Republican publication, the position taken by Time was not exactly bipartisan, as the Jewish vote at the time was predominantly Democratic. Still, the warning was prescient. In pro-West Iraq, both Shi'ites and Kurds sought political influence through the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) as well as the Ba'ath Socialist Party in its early stage as a dissident organization after World War II. Between 1949 and 1955, Kurds and Shi'ites comprised 31.3% and 46.9%, respectively, of the central committee membership in the ICP. This explained partly why the US was less than sympathetic to Shi'ite and Kurdish separatist aspirations all through the Cold War. US hostility toward Iraqi Shi'ites would escalate after the Shi'ite Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. Today, despite the claim of aiming to spread democracy in the Middle East, geopolitics will not permit US-occupied Iraq to accept the democratic principle of majority rule that will give political control to the Shi'ite majority.

By 1954, political instability continued in pro-West Iraq as the US tried to substitute fast-waning British dominance by creating the Baghdad Pact which was formed on February 4, 1955 as part of the US global collective security system to prevent Soviet expansion into the Middle East. Members of the pact included Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan, Shah-ruled Iran and Britain, with the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) participating. It was hoped that Syria and Jordan would also join to complete the anti-communist arc of pro-West countries in the region. A single voice of resistance came from Egypt. Rising Arab nationalism and popular opposition to imperialism in the entire region, ignited by regular passionate broadcasts of Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser, caused Syria to reject the Baghdad Pact. Even the young anglophile King Hussein of Jordan, who later would transform into a US puppet, had to bow to the will of his people when they took to the streets in large numbers to denounce the pact.

An Anti-Communist Pact is Born

The Baghdad Pact, known also as the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) or the Middle East Treaty Organization (METO), was one of the least effective Cold War security alliances created by the US. Modeled after NATO, CENTO aimed at containing Soviet expansion by creating a defensive line of anti-communist states along the southwestern frontier of the USSR. The Middle East and South and Southeast Asia were politically volatile regions during the 1960s with the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, the North-South Korea confrontation and the Indo-Pakistan wars. The US, with its main geopolitical aim of containing communist expansion, tried to befriend all warring parties in both regions to prevent any tilt toward the Soviet Union. Members of CENTO, an anti-communist treaty organization, saw no compelling purpose to get directly involved in either the Arab-Israel or the Indo-Pakistan dispute, where communist infiltration was not obvious. In 1965 and again in 1971, Pakistan tried unsuccessfully to get assistance through CENTO in its wars with India. The Baghdad Pact trapped the US into supporting corrupt, unpopular and undemocratic regimes in Iraq, Iran and Pakistan. US support for Israel was an insurmountable obstacle to the development of improved relations between the US and Arab nations, including members of CENTO. More importantly, the alliance did little to prevent the expansion of Soviet influence in the area. Non-member states in the Middle East, feeling threatened by CENTO, turned to the Soviets, especially Egypt and Syria, even though they remained hostile to communism domestically. The pact lasted nominally until the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

Egypt recognized the People's Republic of China in 1956, becoming the first Arab and African nation to establish official diplomatic relations with the communist country that the US had placed on the top of its forbidden list. Egypt's decision on China defied US policy of containment of new China through diplomatic isolation. As a penalty, the US withdrew on July 19, 1956, its loan offer to finance the Aswan High Dam, and Britain and the World Bank followed suit immediately. In response, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal on July 26, 1956. The Soviet Union then offered an aid program to Egypt, including a loan to finance the Aswan High Dam.

Crisis over the Suez

Anthony Eden, then British prime minister, characterized the Egyptian nationalization of the canal as "theft", and US secretary of state John Forster Dulles declared that Nasser would have to be made to "disgorge" it. The French and British depended critically on the canal for transporting oil, and they felt that Nasser had become a symbol of nationalist threat to their remaining interests in the Middle East and Africa. Eden wanted to launch a military response immediately, but the British military was not ready. Both France and Britain froze Egyptian assets within their jurisdictions and prepared for war in earnest. Egypt promised to compensate the stockholders of the Suez Canal Company and to guarantee right of canal access to all ships, making it difficult for France and Britain to rally international support to regain the canal by force. The Soviet Union, the East European bloc and non-aligned Third World countries generally supported Egypt's struggle with imperialism. President Dwight D Eisenhower distanced the US from British positions and stated that while the US opposed the nationalization of the canal, it was against any use of force. Britain, France and Israel then united secretly in what was to become known as the tripartite collusion. Israel opted to participate in the Anglo-French plans against Egypt to impress the imperialist West that the Jewish state could play a useful geopolitical role against Arab nationalism.

Secret arrangements were made for Israel to make the initial invasion of Egypt and overtake one side of the Suez Canal. The British and French attempted to follow the Israeli invasion with high-pressure diplomacy, but being unsuccessful, sent troops to occupy the canal. However, the action on the part of the tripartite collusion was not viewed with favor by the US or the USSR since military intervention to enhance isolated national interests challenged a world order of superpower geopolitical predominance in the region. Regional conflicts must not be allowed to conflict with the geopolitical pattern of superpower competition for the hearts and minds of the unaligned.

Responding to superpower pressure, the tripartite troops were withdrawn from the Canal Zone in December under the direction of the United Nations. A United Nations Emergency Force was then stationed in the Gaza Strip and at Sharm el-Sheikh and on the Sinai border in December 1956 and stayed for more that a decade until the Six-Day War of 1967. Egypt kept the canal and reparations were paid by Egypt under the supervision of the World Bank. Overall, the actions of the tripartite collusion were not considered beneficial to the campaign to spread democracy in the Cold War context because they pushed Nasser and Egypt further towards the USSR. The war over the canal also laid the groundwork for the Six-Day War in 1967 due to a lack of a peace settlement following the 1956 war, in which Egypt suffered a military defeat but scored a political victory.

Britain's disastrous behavior in the Suez crisis of 1956 exposed its thinly-disguised, last-gasp imperialist fixation disguised as anti-communism. Israel, led by David Ben-Gurion's hawkish faction with a pro-West, militant confrontational policy, with Golda Meir replacing the moderate Moshe Sharett as foreign minister, invaded Egypt on October 29, 1956. Sharett's policies with regard to neighboring Arab states were characterized by vision and pragmatism, but this form of diplomacy was never given a chance by the hardliners, who were mostly fixated in the belief that "Arabs respect only the language of force", as Winston Churchill had said about the Russians. Sharett, albeit an ardent Zionist, attempted to develop policies based on constructive engagement, rather than belligerence and dehumanization, with neighboring Arab states. Sharett believed that Israel could have a special role to play in the developing nations of the world, including the Arab countries. Sharett was among the few in the Middle East who recognized that terror and counter-terror between Palestinians and Israelis would lead to an endless cycle of violence, which if not controlled by enlightened political leadership, would become a way of life that would eventually destroy both peoples. His political and diplomatic wisdom was always portrayed by the Israeli mainstream as "weak and cowardly".

By contrast, Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky's "Iron Wall" doctrine of Zionism that sought to expel the Arabs of Palestine by force has dominated the Israeli political scene to this day. Jabotinsky viewed Zionism as a colonial enterprise, in the same vein as British colonization of America or Australia, with Arabs as Native Americans or Australian Aborigines. Israel was to accomplish with militant Zionism what British imperialism, weakened by what Zionists viewed as the British disease of liberalism, failed to accomplish in the Middle East, which is to totally and permanently emasculate a once-proud Arab nation.

While the US opposed Anglo-French military intervention to undo Egyptian nationalization of the Suez Canal, US military strategy in the region was made explicit on January 5, 1957 by a presidential message to Congress known as the Eisenhower Doctrine, to provide military assistance to countries in the region, include the employment of US armed forces, to oppose international communism. Israel saw anti-communism in the Middle East as God's gift to the new Jewish nation on Arab land and became a fervent supporter of the Eisenhower Doctrine, with wholesale marginalization of the Israeli left and moderates in Israeli politics. Instead of moving in the direction of the Switzerland model, as a neutral oasis in a sea of rising Arabic nationalism against "divide and rule" imperialism, contributing to the development of the region for the benefit of all, Israel presented itself as an outpost of European imperialism and US neo-imperialism, setting itself up as a hostile garrison state in a region where Jews are outnumbered by 50 to one.

Unless Israeli policy changes with a new self image and political destiny, its continued existence as a hostile nation among Arabs is not sustainable any more than neo-imperialism is sustainable in the Third World. Throughout history, the Jews have contributed greatly to the prosperity of their various adopted countries. There is no reason why they cannot do so in the Middle East, their ancestral home, except for a short-sighted, more-than-clever-by-half posture of catering to Western imperialism by claiming to be the sole European democracy in the Middle East that deserves US support. If Israel wants to stay in the Middle East, there is no escaping the need to be a genuine Middle East nation, throwing its lot in with those of other Middle East nations, rather than setting itself apart as a European transplant.

King al-Shareif al-Hussein of Saudi Arabia lived for a tribal dream of ruling Syria. According to some historians, such as Avi Shlaim and Simha Falpan, the dream for a Hashmite-controlled Great Syria was an obsession for both father and son. When this dream proved elusive, his son, King Abdullah, sought alliance with the Zionist movement to achieve his father's dream. This tribal dream was exploited by the Zionist leadership to drive a wedge between the neighboring Arab states. Ironically, the Arab countries whose armies entered Palestine on May 15, 1948 did so partly to keep King Abdullah from gaining control of the Palestinian portion of Palestine, which had been allotted to Palestinian Arabs by UN General Assembly Resolution 181. According to historian Falpan, during a meeting with King Abdullah at Shunah, Jordan, which took place soon after Husni al-Zaim's coup in Syria, Moshe Sharett wrote in the spring of 1949 that the king told him that "the idea of Great Syria ... [is] one of the principles of the Arab revolt that I have been serving all my life."

Falpan also wrote that the tactic of misleading Abdullah with Syria was strongly endorsed by Yigal Yadin, the Israeli chief of staff. In a consultation between the Israeli Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defense on April 12, 1949, Yidin reported: "Abdullah is more interested in Great Syria than in Palestine. This is in his blood, this is his political and military outlook and he is ready to sell out all the Palestinians in this aim. We have to know how to play this card to achieve our aim ... We should not support the plan of Great Syria but we should divert Abdullah toward this plan." This kind of tactical geopolitical scheming cannot overcome the strategic geopolitical blunder of an Israel denying the need to come to terms with the realization that for Israel to survive, it needs to accept the reality that it must become a bona fide Middle East nation, not an extension of New York, and that its acceptance by Arabs rests on its developing a genuine posture of fraternal friendship, not hostile opportunistic geopolitical calculations.

Israel's Independence

On May 15, 1948, the Israel war of independence officially began with the declaration of Israel as a Jewish state simultaneously with British withdrawal from Palestine. But Israeli military action started a month earlier. As the British prepared to evacuate, the Israelis invaded and occupied most of the Arab cities in Palestine in the spring of 1948 to fill a military vacuum. Tiberias was occupied on April 19, Haifa on April 22, Jaffa on April 28, the Arab quarters in the New City of Jerusalem on April 30, Beisan on May 8, Safad on May 10 and Acre on May 14. Uri Milstein, the authoritative Israeli military historian of the 1948 war, admitted that every skirmish ended in a massacre of Arabs, a deliberate policy to induce Arabs to flee Palestine en mass. The massacre at Deir Yassin on April 9, committed by commandos of the Irgun headed by Menachem Begin, was part of that policy. Begin wrote: "Arabs throughout the country, induced to believe wild tales of 'Irgun butchery', were seized with limitless panic and started to flee for their lives. This mass flight soon developed into a maddened, uncontrollable stampede. The political and economic significance of this development can hardly be overestimated." The propaganda campaign of Deir Yassin to induce panic on Arabs was so effective that the incident became embarrassingly detrimental to Israel's international image; so much so that Israeli historians have since felt compelled to deny if not the facts, at least the policy intent, blaming the massacre on the nature of war.

Egypt, Syria and Jordan, newly independent and still weak from century-long colonial oppression, formed an ill-equipped, ill-trained and ill-led coalition army of 20,000 to move into Palestine on the side of the Palestinians against Israel's 60,000 well-equipped, seasoned and well-led troops fresh from fighting under British command in World War II. The bloody war lasted a year until April 3, 1949 when Israel and the Arab states agreed to an armistice. Israel gained about 50% more territory than was originally allotted to it by the UN partition plan. The war created over 780,000 Palestinian refugees who were forcefully evicted from Jewish-held areas. Gaza fell under the jurisdiction of Egypt. The West Bank of Jordan was occupied by Jordan and later annexed, consistent with secret agreements made with the Zionist leadership prior to the initiation of hostilities.

Bloody End to Monarchy in Iraq

In post-World War II Iraq, Nuri Said, 14 times prime minister who always took orders dutifully from his masters in London, having come down hard on Iraqi nationalists, kept Iraq from active opposition to the creation of Israel and hitched Iraq to the 1955 Baghdad Pact, a US instigated anti-communist security agreement binding Iraq to Britain, Turkey, Shah-ruled Iran and Pakistan, finally signed his own political death warrant and that of the puppet monarchy he served by supporting the 1956 Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt. Reactionary pan-Arabism took a step forward under British guidance in 1958 when on February 12, a pro-West federation between Jordan and Iraq, called the Arab Union of Jordan and Iraq, was formed with a common premier. Within five months, on July 14, 1958, a successful military coup by the Free Officers led by General Abd al-Karim Qasim overthrew the Said government. The three main components in the Iraqi army, Nasirrites, communists and Ba'athists, united and dethroned the puppet king, executed all members of the royal family for treason and even denied them of Islamic burial rites for sins against the holy. Nuri Said himself was caught two days later, trying to escape from Baghdad dressed as a woman, by a mob which tore him apart with their bare hands and left his mutilated body to be flattened by passing vehicular traffic. Collaborators with the West were cut into pieces and "burnt like lambs". Public statues of the treasonous monarch were torn down in street demonstrations so large in numbers and so euphoric in passion that the new Revolutionary Council had to proclaim a curfew to keep order. Based on that history, neither the current US-installed President Ghazi al-Yawir, a Sunni Muslim tribal chief, nor his US-appointed prime minister, Iyad Allawi, a long-time US operative, nor other members of the US-appointed interim Iraqi government, has any reason to sleep well. Already, several ministers of the Allawi cabinet have failed to physically survive their interim political appointments.

The Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party of Iraq and the Communist Party of Iraq (CPI) were the two major political parties in post-World War II Iraq. The two parties initially shared some characteristics, but irreconcilable ideological rivalry soon developed due to contradiction between egalitarian communism and hierarchical tribal culture and the internationalist support to the CPI provided by a non-Arab foreign power in the form of the Soviet Union, within the context of USSR state interests. The state-to-state relationship between Ba'athist Iraq and the USSR based on geopolitics affected the domestic strategy of the CPI and vice versa. The growing ranks of the Ba'athists were upset by communist internationalist criticism of Arab nationalism, which prioritizes Arab unity and the power politics aspirations of the Arab nation over universal social justice.

A new government of Iraq was proclaimed by General Abd-al-Karim Qasim on July 15, 1958 and the pro-West Arab Union with Jordan was immediately declared dissolved. Iraq then worked for close relations with the United Arab Republic, which had been established by a union of Egypt and Syria earlier that year. As events developed, the Ba'ath Party in Syria was forced to dissolve in 1958. In 1959, Iraq formally withdrew from the Baghdad Pact. A year later, Iraq again made claims on Kuwait as an integral part of its Basra province, while Kuwait formally received its independence as a separate nation from Britain. On June 25, 1961, Qasim officially called for "the return of Kuwait to the Iraqi homeland". In September, Qasim rejected efforts to establish political autonomy for Kurds in northern Iraq and launched a major military campaign against Kurdish separatists. These issues of Kuwait recovery and Kurdish separatism predated the Saddam Hussein government by three decades, hardly credible pretexts for Bush's war for regime change in Iraq.

In time, a power struggle ensued between Iraqi communists and the US-backed Ba'athist faction under Qasim, who had bought Western support for his government by not interfering with the Western control of Iraq's oil production. Qasim had tolerated Iraqi communists as a force against the Ba'athists in his government. Soon, the Ba'athists began to receive backing from US anti-communist policy. To retain US support, Qasim turned on the Iraqi communists. During the turmoil, communist casualties suffered from the US-trained Iraqi government internal security forces numbered over 5,000. An attempted anti-communist coup against Qasim was nevertheless launched on March 8, 1959 by Ba'athist Colonel Abd al-Wahhab al-Shawwaf. Backed by conservative units of the army, Shawwaf alleged that the Qasim government was dominated by communists. The coup failed. In October 1959, the Ba'athists led by al-Shawwaf made an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Qasim. Saddam Hussein, who would become president in 1979, was a member of the assassination squad. After having been shot in the unsuccessful coup attempt, Saddam fled to Syria, then to Egypt, where he studied law at Cairo University. The Iraqi Ba'athists and the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) shared a common interest in getting rid of the Soviet-tilting Qasim.

On February 8, 1963, the Qasim government was overthrown, with the help of the CIA, by a group of young officers who were sympathizers though not members of the Ba'ath Party. Qasim himself was executed by firing squad the following day. Two days later, on February 11, the US recognized the new Ba'athist government on the basis of its anti-communism.

Author Said K Aburish (Saddam Hussein: The Politics of Revenge) who worked with Saddam in the 1970s, claimed that the CIA's role in the coup against Qasim was "substantial". CIA agents were in touch with army officers who helped in the coup, operated an electronic command center in Kuwait to guide the anti-Qasim forces, and supplied the conspirators with lists of people to be killed to paralyze the government. The coup plotters repaid the CIA with access to Soviet-made jets and tanks the US military was keen on acquiring.

The Ba'athists, never having ruled any country, lacked experience in 1963 in managing the government apparatus left by British colonial rule. They focused their energy instead on eliminating communists in public office. Since many professionals and public administrators were leftists, the anti-communist campaign rendered the government inoperative. The Ba'athist government fell in November 1963 after only nine months in office, having been unable to end violent political feuding that spilled over onto the streets that in no small way was stirred up by CIA covert action, but not before another 3,000 leftists were killed, as reported in John K Cooley's The Shifting Sands of Arab Communism. Not a single word from Western human-rights groups about these mass killings, let alone the US State Department or the White House, which four decades later listed the Iraqi gas attack on Kurdish villagers among its list of pretexts to invade Iraq. The double standard was based entirely on geopolitics. The collapsed Ba'athist government was succeeded by a pro-West government of right-wing technocrats, with CIA help.

Abd al-Salam Arif, a colonel at the time of the 1958 coup, and a rival of Qasim, became the new president, and he took steps to exclude Ba'athists from his government and brought in Nasirrite nationalists, which immediately put him on the wrong side of the US. On April 13, 1966, Arif was killed in a helicopter crash of unknown causes, and was replaced by his brother, Abd al-Rahman Arif. Iraqi relations with Western powers worsened following the Six Day War which began on June 5, 1967. Iraq gave token assistance to the frontline Arab states in the Six-Day War with Israel. Believing as most in the Arab world did that the US provided direct military support to Israel during the Six-Day War, Iraq broke diplomatic relations with Washington in protest.

On July 17, 1968, a Ba'athist coup ousted Abd al-Rahman Arif. General Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr became president and Saddam Hussein was named vice president. By 1968, Saddam had moved up the Ba'ath Party ranks and wiped out the last pockets of communist resistance in the south and north. With the domestic threat from communists under control, Iraq improved relations with the Soviet Union as geopolitical leverage against the West. As a matter of policy throughout its history, the Communist Party of the USSR repeatedly sacrificed its sister parties in other countries to enhance the geopolitical interests of the USSR as a state, consistent with Josef Stalin's policy of socialism in one country. Global communism as an extremist movement directed from Moscow was mostly a figment of US paranoid imagination.

Ba'athist Ideology Takes Root

Since 1968, Iraqi politics has been a one-party system dominated by the Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party of Iraq. Ba'athist ideology combines elements of Arab nationalism, anti-imperialism and tribal socialism. Its slogan is "Unity, Freedom, Socialism" - unity among Arabs, freedom from Western imperialism and socialism with Arabic characteristics. Prior to 1958, Ba'athist parties in many Arab countries were dissident political organizations struggling for recognition and popular support. Members were imprisoned by many host governments and party organs were driven underground. The Iraqi Ba'ath Party operated clandestinely against the pro-West Iraqi government while it competed for followers with the Iraqi Communist Party. This background shaped the characteristic and culture of the party. Tariq Aziz, top ranking Ba'athist and vice president of Iraq in charge of foreign relations, wrote in 1980 on the party's clandestine revolutionary heritage: "The Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party is not a conventional political organization, but is composed of cells of valiant revolutionaries ... They are experts in secret organization. They are organizers of demonstrations, strikes and armed revolutions."

The decision by the US occupation authorities to marginalize the Ba'ath Party from Iraqi politics after the last year's invasion was a strategic as well as a tactical error, for not only was it strategically counterproductive to destroy the only secular political organization against Islamic fundamental extremism, it was also tactically foolish because the Ba'athist cells have been trained to go underground to easily survive official persecution to create insurmountable problems for the US-imposed governing authority.

The record of governance of the Iraqi Ba'ath government had been undeniably impressive. The secularization policies gave rise to an intellectual elite, including many female professionals in all fields. "Teaching the woman means teaching the family," was a battle cry. Literacy was increased dramatically with free universal education. Party slogans such as "Knowledge is light, ignorance darkness", and "The campaign for literary is a holy jihad", were promoted. The Iraqi Ba'ath Party was a political organization of clandestinity and ubiquity. Iraqi Ba'athists throughout its history might deviate from strict interpretation of Ba'athist ideology of Arab unity, freedom from foreign domination and tribal socialism, yet Ba'athist doctrine generally set guidelines for Iraqi policy formulation, such as geopolitical non-alignment, pan-Arabism and domestic accommodation with diverse religious and ethnic groups. Iraqi Ba'athist policies, as distinct from Ba'athism in the Arab world in general, were directed toward specific Iraqi needs and problems, keeping Iraq from extreme pan-Arabism.

In 1970, after decades of unrest, the Iraqi government, barely two years under Ba'ath leadership, agreed to form an autonomous Kurdish region, letting Kurds into the cabinet. In 1971, borders with Jordan were closed as a protest to Jordan's attempt to curb the Palestinian Liberation Organization. In 1972, Bakr nationalized Iraq's oil industry. US, British and Dutch oil corporations lost their holdings, including the 25% share of the Iraq Petroleum Company that had been owned by US-based Exxon and Mobil. The Soviet Union, and later France, provided technical aid and capital to Iraq's oil industry. In April 1972, in response to rising US hostility, Iraq signed a 15-year friendship pact with the Soviet Union and agreed to cooperate in political, economic and military affairs. The Soviets supplied Iraq with arms.

During the late 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, a rapprochement between the Iraqi communists and the Ba'athists came about from the Iraqi government's increasing reliance on the USSR in the face of domestic and foreign pressures. With US urging, the Shah of Iran claimed the Shatt al-Arab waterway in 1969 and seized three strategic islands in the Arabian Gulf in 1971, reducing Iraq to a landlocked position. Kurdish guerrilla and terrorist activities in northern Iraq were sponsored by Iran and the US. British/US hostility over Iraqi nationalization of the Iraqi Petroleum Company in 1972 and to Iraq's role in the 1973 Arab War with Israel forced Iraq to tilt further towards the USSR. Clashes between government forces and Kurdish separatist groups began in March 1974 only after the Kurds received military aid from the US through Shah-ruled Iran. In 1975, a settlement of border disputes was reached with Iran to stop inciting and aiding Kurdish separatists.

Central to Saddam's vision had always been to unite the Arab world. When Egyptian president Anwar Sadat broke ranks with Arab solidarity by signing the 1978 treaty with Israel, Saddam saw it as an opportunity for Iraq to play a leading role in pan-Arab affairs. He was instrumental in convening an Arab summit in Baghdad that denounced Sadat's betrayal of Arab solidarity through a separate political reconciliation with Israel. The summit imposed economic sanctions on Egypt that lacked effectiveness due to Arab disunity. On June 16, 1979, Bakr was stripped of all positions and put under house arrest. Saddam became the new president, followed by a massive purge within the Ba'ath Party.

While outsiders were not privy to the real causes of Iraqi political developments, one factor was a split over a proposed union with Syria, where Regional Ba'athists predominated. Saddam gained control of the Iraqi Ba'ath Party with an adherence to pan-Arabism. National elections were held on June 20, 1980. An analysis by Amazia Baram, "The June 1980 Elections to the National Assembly in Iraq: An Experiment in Controlled Democracy", in Orient (September 1981) shows that 75% of those elected were Ba'athists, 7% women, over 50% with higher education, 40% Shi'ites and 12% Kurds. Democracy had come to Iraq two decades before the 2002 Iraqi War to spread democracy in the Middle East.

Revolution in Iran, a Hostage Crisis and a War

Early in 1979, the Islamic revolution in Iran took place that was to have serious geopolitical consequences for Iraq. Strong Shi'ite fundamentalist opposition against the Shah in Iran accelerated in the late 1970s as the country came close to civil war. The opposition was lead by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who lived in exile in Iraq and later in France. On January 16, 1979, the unpopular Shah was forced to flee Iran. Shapour Bakhtiar, a liberal, as new prime minister with the help of the Supreme Army Council, could not control the agitated country overflowing with theocratic activism. Khomeini returned to an Iran engulfed with religious passion on the first day of February in 1979. Ten days later, Bakhtiar went into hiding, eventually to find exile in Paris. On April 1, after a landslide victory in a national referendum on an Islamic Republic for Iran, Khomeini declared an Islamic republic with a new constitution reflecting the ideals of Islamic government. To the chagrin of US propagandists, democracy reflective of the will of the people again turned anti-US. Khomeini became supreme spiritual leader (valy-e-faqih) of Iran.

On November 4, 1979, Islamic students stormed the US Embassy, taking 66 people, the majority US citizens, as hostages. It was an event that dealt a fatal blow to the re-election efforts of president Jimmy Carter and contributed to the election of Ronald Reagan, with historic consequences to US domestic politics and foreign policy, turning the US decidedly to the extreme right. For Saddam, the Iranian revolution made him an instant darling of Washington.

Unrest among Kurds in northern Iraq intensified, inspired by unrest following the events in Iran, taking advantage of the Iraqi government's preoccupation with renewed religious animosities between Shi'ites and Sunnis in southern Iraq linked to the rise of Shi'ite fundamentalism in Iran. Relations between the two neighboring countries, never good, deteriorated rapidly. On September 17, 1980, the agreement on Iraqi/Iranian borders from 1975 was declared null and void by Iraq, which claimed the whole Shatt el-Arab, a small, but important and rich area. Iraq claimed territories inhabited by Arabs (the southwestern oil-producing province of Iran called Khouzestan), as well as Iraq's right over Shatt el-Arab, which the Iranians call Arvandroud.

When Iranian students took the hostages at the US Embassy, it was at first not at all clear whom they represented or what they hoped to achieve. In fact, a similar mob had briefly done the same thing nine months earlier, holding the US ambassador hostage for a few hours before Khomeini ordered him released. But this time Khomeini, in response to persistent US hostility, saw political utility in this potent symbol, and issued a statement in support of the action against the US "den of spies". The students vowed not to release the hostages until the US returned the Shah to Iran for trial, along with the billions he had stolen from the Iranian people and kept in overseas banks.

Taking on the safe return of the hostages as his personal responsibility, Carter, a committed born-again Christian, tried to pursue a peaceful resolution by gradually building pressure on Iran through economic sanctions. He ordered an embargo on Iranian oil export on November 11. Rejecting the option of immediate military action recommended by his hawkish national security advisor Zbigniew Brezezinski, as too risky to the lives of the hostages, Carter escalated tensions by freezing Iranian assets in the US. While secretary of state Cyrus Vance led official diplomatic efforts, Hamilton Jordan, Carter's chief of staff, spent thousands of hours working secret channels at the disposal of the office of the president to end the crisis. For the first few months, the US public rallied around Carter, who had clearly made freeing the hostages his top priority. As fall turned into winter and then spring, and negotiations failed to produce a deal or even any visible signs of resolution, frustrated US public opinion demanded stronger action. Time was turning against Carter's non-military approach.

Finally, with the Iranians showing no signs of ever releasing all the hostages, Carter, desperate, approved a high-risk rescue operation on April 11, 1980 designated as "Desert One" that had been under contingency planning for months. Despite the fact that the odds against its success were forbiddingly high, Carter ordered the mission and was disappointed when he received reports that the rescue mission by Delta Force, code named Eagle Claw, had had to be aborted in midstream due to three of the six deployed helicopters malfunctioning under desert conditions. During the withdrawal, another helicopter crashed into a C-130 transport plane while taking off, killing eight elite commando servicemen and wounding three more, without ever engaging Iranian opposition fire.

The next morning, gleeful Iranians broadcast to the whole world live footages of the smoking remains of the failed US rescue mission on Iraqi soil, a stark symbol of superpower impotence, if not incompetence. Having opposed Desert One from the start, Vance, who had been kept out of the rescue loop, resigned in protest out of principle.

Finally, in September, with the Iran-Iraq war in full steam in favor of Iraq, Khomeini's government decided it was time to end the hostage matter. Despite rumors that Carter might pull an "October Surprise", a term coined by Republican vice presidential candidate George H W Bush, to get the hostages home before election day, negotiations dragged on for months, even after Reagan's landslide victory on the first Tuesday of November.

The rumored "October Surprise" might have been the US hope that Saddam would act as a US proxy to punish Iran and topple Khomeini with a quick victory before the US election. Believing Iran to be too weak both politically and militarily to resist, and emboldened by the certainty that US weapon systems afforded to the Shah of Iran had been drastically degraded under Khomeini, Iraq launched a full-scale invasion of Iran on September 22, 1980 with quiet encouragement from the US less than two month before the US presidential election, in which Carter's failure to bring the crisis of US hostages held by Iran to a satisfactory close had become a key election issue. Iraq won some initial battles, but a supposedly weak Iranian military managed to achieve surprising defensive successes and halted Iraqi advance by October, despite US help to Iraq in providing classified information on US weapon systems delivered to Iran during the Shah era. While the start of the Iran-Iraq War did not rescue Carter from election defeat, it did force Iran to start negotiating to end the hostage crisis.

An extraordinary story was filed a decade later in the April 15, 1991 New York Times by Gary Sick, Carter's national security council staff responsible for Iran, detailing a three-way bidding contest for the release of the hostages between Iran and a clueless Carter administration, and the Reagan campaign headed by William Casey (who was to become Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director later under Reagan) through arms dealer/CIA operative Jamshid Hashemi, who had close contacts in Iranian revolutionary circles. The Reagan campaign was dealing with Iranian operatives to ensure that no deal would be reached before the US election, lest Carter should gain political advantage from a pre-election hostage release. The Reagan people were topping escalating offers made to Iran by the Carter people to induce the Iranians to hold off any deal with Carter. After long negotiations in which Reagan forces agreed to unfreeze Iranian assets, transfer money, as well as military equipment to Iran for the release of US hostages, should their man win the election, the hostages in the US Embassy were released on the inauguration of a victorious Reagan on January 20, 1981. The Reagan victory was partly paid for by the US hostages having their freedom delayed for months. The principle of "the foreign enemy of my domestic opponent is my ally" entered US politics.

The Iran-Iraq War would go on for most of the decade for its own geopolitical reasons, with the US tilting quietly towards Iraq. Still, the Reagan administration secretly sold arms to a hostile Iran all through its bloody war with Iraq from 1980 to 1988, and diverted the proceeds to the Contra rebels fighting to overthrow the democratically-elected leftist Sandinista government of Nicaragua. The arms sales had a dual goal: appeasing a hostile Iran, which had influence with militant groups that were holding several US hostages in Lebanon, and funding an anti-communist guerrilla war in democratic Nicaragua. Both actions were in direct violation of specific acts of Congress which prohibited the sale of weapons to Iran, as well as in violation of United Nations sanctions against Iran. The rule of law and the spread of democracy fell victim to US geopolitical exceptionalism.

Israel's Preemptive Strike in Iraq

On June 7, 1981, during a period in which US-Iraq relations was at an all-time high, and US and European companies were carrying on highly lucrative trade deals with an Iraq flushed with Saudi money to finance the drawn-out Iraq-Iran war, Israeli F-15 bombers and F-16 fighters bombed and destroyed the French-built Osirak reactor 18 miles south of Baghdad, on orders from Menachem Begin, who said he believed the reactor was designed to make nuclear weapons to destroy Israel. It was the world's first air strike against a nuclear plant. The billion-dollar 70-megawatt uranium-powered reactor, paid for with Saudi funds, was near completion, but had not been stocked with nuclear fuel so there was no danger of radiation leak, according to the French contractor which sold the reaction to Iraq under an international non-proliferation regime. The French also maintained that the Osirak reactor was not capable of producing plutonium for bombs. IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) safeguards promised independent regular inspections and French technicians were required to be present for five to 10 years following initial operation. It would not have been possible for Iraq to make an undetected fuel conversion or to misuse the fuel supplied. General Yehoshua Saguy, head of the intelligence division of the Israel Defense Force prior to the air strike, argued for continuing to try to find a non-military solution to the threat within the five to 10 years he felt Israel still had before Iraq would have its first nuclear weapons. (Ilan Peleg, Begin's Foreign Policy, 1977-1983, Israel's Move To The Right - New York: Greenwood Press, 1987. p 187.) Begin ordered the Osirak reactor bombed because he feared that his party would lose the next election, and he did not believe the opposition party would have the toughness to preempt production of the first Iraqi nuclear bomb. Begin told a close political advisor, "I know there is an election coming. If they [Labor] win, I will lose my chance to save the Jewish people." (p 365.) The Israeli fear of nuclear attack from neighboring Arab countries is strategically unjustified. A nuclear attack on Israel would also kill Arabs on a massive scale in the area. Five decades of Cold War superpower nuclear deterrence has established firmly the effectiveness of the principle of mutual massive destruction (MAD). The best insurance against an Arab nuclear attack on Israel is to stop the forced evacuation of Palestinian Arabs from Israel. The Arabs want the land occupied by Israel back to enjoy, not destroy it with radiation.

Harvard nuclear physics professor Richard Wilson, who visited the reactor after the attack, argued that preemption is a dangerous game. The world faces unprecedented threats from terrorism. If they involve weapons of mass destruction, many people argue that we cannot wait until there is a specific threat, but must consider preemptive strikes. But we must be careful. Non-technical commentators often start with technically incorrect premises, and build up a case for preemptive strikes that is as dangerous as it is incorrect. Wilson visited the nuclear research reactor in Iraq on December 29, 1982 and visually inspected the reactor (which had been only partially damaged) and its surrounding equipment. To collect enough plutonium using Osirak would have taken decades, not years. French nuclear reactor engineer Yves Girard was aware of the carelessness of the Canadians in supplying a heavy water reactor to India, and the French in selling the Dimona reactor to Israel without insisting on any international safeguards to prevent military application. In 1975, Girard refused to help to supply a heavy water moderated reactor to Iraq. Instead, the Osirak reactor was moderated by light water, and therefore deliberately unsuited to making plutonium for bombs. The day after the bombing, Begin incorrectly described Osirak with misleading specifications of the Israeli Dimona reactor.

The chairman of the Board of Governors of the IAEA, Bertrand Goldschmidt, was reportedly livid about the Israeli bombing, as were many other experts. While as a French Jew who had worked on the Manhattan project, he had especial sympathy for Israel, he was concerned that Israel had damaged attempts by the international community, with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to control the nuclear genie which had been let out of the bottle in 1945 by the US.

The Israeli bombing of the Osirak reactor infuriated the Iraqis. They had followed international rules openly and accepted international inspections, and yet were bombed by a country which allowed no inspections of its own nuclear plants. Wilson reported that Iraqi fast-track for bomb development began in July 1981, after the Israeli bombing. The preemptive strike seemed to have had the opposite effect to that intended. Worse still, Israeli and US intelligence deluded themselves into thinking that once bombed, the threat of Iraqi bomb-making was over. The Iraqi bomb program became generally known in 1991, and a number of experts wrote about it in the Israeli journal New Outlook. The general consensus was that the Israel had no justification in bombing Osirak.

Iraq, the rogue regime, swallowed the attack stoically. Yet the incident radicalized Iraqi politics. One shudders to think what the US would have done if one of its nuclear power plants operating under NPT rules had been attacked. Yet this precedent of bombing an Iraqi nuclear power plant built under an operative international non-proliferation regime by a Western power had been set in the name of proliferation preemption, giving justification and impetus to secret nuclear programs that are much more difficult to monitor.

With the widespread acknowledgement by many experts that the components for assembling a nuclear device can easily be purchased in the open market for around $2 million, or a fully-assembled device for $20 million, the claim of US Vice President Dick Cheney in his acceptance speech in the Republican Convention in New York in late August this year that the illicit global nuclear proliferation network had been effectively shut down by Bush's "war on terrorism" sounded like a pitch to sell the Brooklyn Bridge to a gullible public. An iron rule of terrorism is what goes around, comes around from geopolitical blowback. One cannot exterminate terrorism any more than mosquitoes, except by reordering the ecosystem. Until the inequities of the socio-political ecosystem are eliminated, terrorism will continue to exist.

On the state level, one glaring lesson from the second Iraq War is that non-possession of nuclear weapons has become an open invitation to enemy invasion. Every government now will realize it is its sovereign responsibility to avail itself of nuclear capability for the defense of the nation, because the absence of nuclear capability has been turned into negative proof of intent to acquire such capability, which in turn provides the justification of reckless preemptive attack, undeterred by nuclear retaliation on the attacker. Nuclear proliferation will continue until all nuclear powers pledge themselves to the doctrine of no-first-use and the doctrine of no military force against non-nuclear nations.

An Iranian counter-offensive in 1982, aided by fresh US arms from the Iran-Contra deal, reclaimed much of the territory lost to Iraq during the early phase of the war. On November 26, 1983, Reagan signed a secret order instructing the US government to do "whatever was necessary and legal" to ensure that Iraq was not defeated in its war with Iran. At this time, the Reagan administration openly acknowledged its awareness that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction and that chemical weapons were used almost daily against Iranian forces (Washington Post December 30, 2002), but for geopolitical reasons chose to avoid making an issue out of these intelligence reports. In December 1983, Donald Rumsfeld, as secretary of defense, was sent by Reagan to Iraq to meet with Saddam to offer whatever assistance might be required. In November 1984, Reagan restored full diplomatic status to Iraq after meeting in Washington with Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz.

The New York Times reported on August 29, 2002 that from 1982 to 1988, the US Defense Intelligence Agency provided detailed information to Iraq on Iranian deployments, tactical planning for battles, plans for air strikes and bomb damage assessments.

In March 1986, the US and Britain blocked all UN Security Council resolutions condemning Iraq's use of chemical weapons, and on March 21 the US was the only country refusing to sign a Security Council statement condemning Iraq's use of these weapons. The US Department of Commerce licensed 70 biological exports to Iraq between May of 1985 and 1989, including at least 21 batches of lethal strains of anthrax. In May 1986, the US approved shipment of weapons-grade botulin poison to Iraq. In late 1987, Iraq began using chemical agents against Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq.

Four major battles were fought in the Iran-Iraq war from April to August 1988, in which the Iraqis effectively used chemical weapons to defeat the Iranians. Nerve gas and blister agents such as mustard gas were used, in violation of the Geneva Accords of 1925. By this time, the US Defense Intelligence Agency was heavily involved with Saddam's military in battle-plan assistance, intelligence gathering and post-battle debriefing. In the last major battle of the war, 65,000 Iranians were killed, many with poison gas.

Next: The Burden of being a Superpower