Scenarios for Iraq After the Ba’th

From the White House, reports leak out about plans for an Iraq after the Ba’th. Three of the main scenario do not allow for the development of democracy in Iraq. Each of them is built on a racist assumption: that the Iraqis either need a military dictator or else a monarch–any form of democracy is impossible to imagine.

There are at least five scenarios, one of which is considered verboten for the American Empire (it’s #4):

(1) Iraq under the Army.

The White House occasionally makes noises about the Iraqi military’s overthrow of the Ba’th clique, led by Saddam Hussein. There are several formations of former Iraqi military officers who now live in exile. In July 2002, seventy of them met in northwest London under the sponsorship of the Iraqi National Accord who claimed to be in contact with scores of important military leaders within Iraq. The meeting included Brigadier General Najib al-Salhi, a former commander in the Iraqi Republican Guard, who heads the Free Officers Movement based in the United States. This organization emerged in 2001, was feted by the US State Department and by the London-based, US sponsored, Iraqi National Congress. Of the 2002 meeting, State Department spokesperson, Richard Boucher said it was a “useful tool.”

These army exiles have been called up repeatedly in the 1990s, most recently in a failed coup attempt in 1996. They don’t seem to have much leverage over the Iraqi top brass and even fewer ties to the lower ranks. Among them too there is a problem of credibility. General Nizar al-Khazraji, a former Chief of Army Staff, now lives in Denmark. A leader in the Iran-Iraq war who defected in 1995, al-Khazraji is under investigation in his new homeland for war crimes against the Kurds in 1988. Even as he is eager to join the military exile movement, they are wary of his entry, as they are of the exposure of their own roles in the chemical attacks on Iran and on the Kurdish people.

Iraq has a weak tradition of military rule. In 1958, Brigadier ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim and Colonel ‘Abd al-Salam ‘Arif overthrew the British-nominated monarchy, declared a republic and fashioned the state after the Egyptian Free Officers coup led by Nasser in 1952. Thinking that this was an opening for an end to the repressive rule of the elites, the emboldened Iraqi Communist Party set up centers of popular resistance (al-Muqawama al-Sha’biyya), but Qasim went after these organizations as his dictatorship incorporated, then smashed, workers’ and peasants’ unions. As the military felt more confident in its power, it dismantled its opposition. Saddam Hussein, then a twenty-two year old Ba’thist member, participated in a failed assassination attempt on Qasim in October 1959. As Qasim alienated himself from the organized forces in society, a section of the army (led by ‘Abd al-Salam Arif and the Ba’th) overthrew him in 1963 and set up the first Ba’th government (under the nominal leadership of the Nasserite Arif, and then after his death in a helicopter accident in 1966, his brother). The classic military dictatorship lasted, then, only from 1958 to 1963. What followed was rule by the Ba’th, by its civilian branch and by its Military Bureau (set up in 1962). The 1963 had the appearance of a lateral shift by members of the military against one of their own, when it was actually a take-over of the state by this Syrian born semi-fascist party. In 1968, the Ba’th, who had ruled behind the scenes since 1959, took power and the new president of Iraq was Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr (a military officer, but a Ba’thist first and foremost). Saddam Hussein took charge from him in July 1979 (when he executed his enemies in a famous convention of the Ba’th party). Saddam Hussein is not a military dictator, although he has at his disposal an immense apparatus of force to undermine dissent, to kill his opposition and to wage war.

The Iraqi military’s relationship with state power is fraught. What might motivate the second tier officers to conduct a coup against the Ba’th? Many of them remember quite clearly how the US 24th Infantry Division conducted the slaughter of the retreating Iraqi troops on 2 March 1991. After speaking to two hundred US military personnel for his article, journalist Seymour Hersh notes that the assault “was not so much a counterattack provoked by enemy fire as a systematic destruction of Iraqis who were generally fulfilling the requirements of the retreat.” Given this, why would the Iraqi military risk a coup that might open the door to US action anyway? What historical reasons do they have to trust the US government?

(2) Iraq under US Occupation.

The denials came fast after the press ran a story in early October 2002 that the White House contemplates the occupation of Iraq by US forces and the creation of an Occupation regime as in Japan post-1945. Close to a hundred thousand troops will enter Iraq, General Tommy Franks will take over as Supreme Commander of the occupied lands, the regime will arrest “war criminals” and try them, and “de-Ba’thize” Iraq. The US Special Envoy to Afghanistan, National Security Council’s expert on West Asia, and a point man on the aftermath scenarios, Zalmay Khalilzad conceded that “the costs will be significant” (at least $16 billion per year), but that the US will commit the necessary resources “and we would have the will to stay for as long as necessary to do the job.” When asked about the plans for occupation, Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “Should it come to that, and the president hopes that it does not come to that, but should it come that we would have an obligation to put in place a better regime,” the military will take charge. “We are obviously doing contingency planning, and there are lots of different models from history that one could look at: Japan, Germany.”

Japan is the example most often provided by those in the know. In Japan, the MacArthur-led Occupation dismantled sections of the fascist bureaucracy, but also dislocated the capacity for the socialists to rebuild their political bases. Trade unions came under the gun as MacArthur privileged the zaibatsu, the industrial cliques that continue to dominate Japanese society. In 1951, MacArthur laid out his basic, racist, theory for the Occupation: “Measured by the standards of modern civilization, [the Japanese] would be like a boy of twelve as compared with our development of forty-five years.” Because of the slow development of the misbegotten Japanese, MacArthur argued, the US Army could “implant basic concepts there,” such as a respect for authority and for institutional power (for an excellent primer on the Occupation, see the first few chapters in John Dower’s Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, 1999).

The parallel with Japan perhaps fluffs the glory of the Pentagon, but it is not fully accurate. The real comparison for the region is the period of Iraq’s rule by the British Mandate (1914-1932). In November 1914, British forces landed in Basra, occupied Baghdad and Mosul, and set up the new state of Iraq out of these three provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Afraid of the Shi’i mujtahids (clerics), the Kurdish brigands as well as the largely merchant communities of the region (drawn from among the Assyrians, the Jews, the Yazidi, Sabaean and others), the British turned to the old Ottoman elites for their allies. The sharifian came mainly from the Sunni notables who lived in the provinces around Baghdad. By 1920, the masses in Iraq revolted only to be crushed by British power (over six thousand Iraqis and only five hundred British and Indian soldiers died in the conflict). Eager to rule by proxy, the British invited Faisal to become King of Iraq. The son of the Hashemite Emir Hussein, keeper of the holy sites in Arabia and brother of the recently enthroned Abdullah of Jordan), Faisal ruled from 1921 till 1932 under the Mandate, before he inaugurated the autonomous Hashemite Monarchy from 1932 to 1958. While Faisal was King (but the British wore the Crown) the Royal Air Force cracked down on a Kurdish rebellion with brutal force (the first major aerial bombardment), and the British (with US assistance) divided Iraqi oil among the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (23.75 %), Royal Dutch Shell (23.75 %), Compagnie Francaise des Petroles (23.75 %), Standard Oil and Mobil (23.75 %) and the legendary middleman Cyrus Gulbenkian (5%). The Mandate created the framework both for the suppression of the Shi’i and the Kurds as well as for the oil concession.

The desire for a return to monarchy was played out for a few months in Afghanistan (with Zahir Shah), and then rejected in favor of the pliant Karzai. In Japan, despite questions about the retention of a monarchy steeped in fascism, MacArthur (advised by Ruth Benedict) opted to retain the Hirohito dynasty. Obviously the US does not plan to remain in Iraq indefinitely, but it would like to have a military base or two in the country, a steady hand on the oil and a friend in power. That friend may either be a puppet front like the Iraqi National Congress (the Hamid Karzai of Iraq) or another manufactured monarch.

(3) Iraq under the Hashemites.

At the July 2002 meeting, the former army officers invited Prince Hassan of Jordan, the uncle of the current monarch, Abdullah II. Perhaps he might be the next king of Iraq. Also in the wings is Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein whose family fled Iraq when he was only two, who grew up in Lebanon, then schooled in Britain (he studied economics), and who finally made much of an investment banking job in the City. Unlike the Jordanians, who are circumspect about the war and its outcome, al-Hussein is the pretender monarch with an eye to the reinstatement of the Hashemite dynasty.

But, the Hashemites have no natural right to Iraq, nor any lengthy history there, and certainly no right by conquest. They came to the throne on the backs of the British Mandate, and they took their posts as puppets of the oil-hungry Empire. When the Iraqi elite classes finally overthrew the Mandate, the Hashemites (Faisal till 1933, then Ghazi, 1933-39, finally Faisal II, 1939-1958) asserted their role through the expansion of a military loyal to them (from 12,000 in 1932 to 43,000 in 1941), by the select use of the oil revenues (about a third of the budget at the end of their reign), by the manipulation of one faction of the ruling clique against another, and by brutal repression of any form of rebellion or dissent.

When Qasim overthrew the monarchy, he did so in a clandestine coup without mass support. However, when he called upon the people to take to the streets to support the Free Officers, the major political parties responded, as did untold numbers of unorganized people. The al-Hizb al-Watani al-Dimuqrati (National Democratic Party), the Ba’th (Renaissance) Party, and the Iraqi Communist Party (with its twenty thousand plus members) filled the streets of Baghdad and elsewhere to celebrate the demise of the monarchy. The show of force stilled the hand of any who wanted to effect a restoration of the Hashemites. That memory continues. To think that the people of Iraq will welcome a monarch after Saddam Hussein is to entertain racist notions of the capacity of those who are not Euro-American.

(4) Balkanized Iraq.

The Balkanization of Iraq is a nightmare scenario for the White House. In the past decade, when the US diplomats arrive in the darker parts of the globe, and when they say “democracy,” they have frequently meant Balkanization. If Balkanization was a bad word until the 1990s, in that decade Madeline Albright and other State Department intellectuals adjudged it to be a worthwhile strategy in the Balkans itself. From Kosovo to Kashmir, we heard the dreaded word “partition” once again. But not in Iraq.

In Iraq, the National Security Council’s Khalilzad notes, “In the short term, we will reunify Iraq, because at present Iraq is not united, and maintain its territorial integrity.” What this means is that the Kurdish autonomous regions in the north and the Shi’i zones in the south (the “no-fly zones”) will now be integrated into the fractured state. Why must this happen?

The Kurds in the north cannot be allowed their independence, because this will anger the Turkish government–eager as they are to deny the right of the Kurds within Turkey to live as human beings. With Turkey as a crucial ally in the US strategic plans for Central Asia and the Caucasus region, it is impossible to foresee US support for an independent Kurdistan on its borders. The two parties of the Kurds within Iraq recognize this, they have made various accommodations with the Ba’th, with the Iranians, with the Americans and even with the Turks to suit their own narrow attempts to hold power in their strongholds. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party vie for the affections of the Kurdish people in Iraq, but they are at the same time far from the heritage of Shaikh Mahmud Barzinji whose self-assurance in December 1918 earned him the rank of Governor of Lower Kurdistan from the British. Even though the two parties of the Kurds can amass almost eighty thousand fighters for strategic reasons, they cannot be the Northern Alliance of Iraq.

The Shi’i in the south are equally impossible as an ally for a future state. While most of the Shi’i are not members of any political organization, the two most important formations are the al-Da’wa (the Call) and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Al-Da’wa, formed in the 1950s, did not come into prominence until the 1970s, when it began to demand that the state be reconfigured along Islamic lines. In 1970, the exiled Iranian Ayatollah Khomeni gave a series of lectures in Najaf, appealed to the young Shi’i, who pushed al-Da’wa to fervent political action. The 1979 Iranian revolution opened up new doors to the organization. In March 1980, membership in al-Da’wa was a death sentence from the Ba’th regime. As al-Da’wa activists fled to Iran they founded the SCIRI in Teheran in 1982 and created an armed wing, the Badr Brigade. Led by Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, the SCIRI argues for the creation of an Iraq in the mirror of Iranian clericalism (velayat-e faqih). Not only do they oppose a US invasion, they remember the betrayal of US commanders when the southern Shi’i rose without the promised back-up from the US in 1991–thousands of Badr Brigade fighters who went across the Iran-Iraq border fell to the well-trained Iraqi army.

The US will not allow the Balkanization of Iraq, nor will it allow the Shi’i to exert control of the entire state of which they are a demographic majority. Unlikely, therefore, that the Shi’i and the Kurdish forces will allow themselves to be used for a future that seems as bleak as the present.

(5) The Arab Karzai.

Saddam Hussein was never the Arab Karzai, but he was a close ally of the White House when it suited the strategic interests of global corporations and the Pentagon. Ever since the “Seven Sisters” (the major global oil conglomerates) got involved in West Asia, the region entered US strategic plans. In 1958, the US went so far as to make an alliance with the Saudis, to treat Arabia as an extension of the United States. The US-backed and engineered coup against Mossadeq in Iran (1953) sought to preserve its role as the US gendarme in the region. Of the 1963 Ba’th coup, its Secretary General noted, “We came to power on an American train,” meaning the Ba’th enjoyed US government funds (alongside Kuwaiti money) and the support of CIA-run radio stations that broadcast from Kuwait. With Israel’s stunning victory in the 1967 war against the Arab armies, it took over the role of US subsidiary in west Asia: Israel provided the muscle, while the oil Sheikhs provided the diplomatic finesse against the other Arab states. Iraq’s relationship with the US formally ended with the 1967 war in protest against the new US arrangement with that state. With the revolution in Iran in 1979, and with Saddam Hussein only recently in power, the US turned eagerly to Iraq for an alliance. In 1983, President Reagan’s people opened channels with a December meeting between Saddam Hussein and Donald Rumsfeld. On 24 March 1984, Rumsfeld met with Foreign Minister (now Deputy Prime Minister) Tariq Aziz, the very same day that the UN released a report on Iraq’s use of chemical weapons in its war on Iran. The Pentagon was there when Saddam released his gas, and it cheered him along from the sidelines (this is the context for Saddam Hussein when he felt he had the “green light” from US Ambassador April Glaspie to invade Kuwait for its lateral oil drilling in the Rumaila fields in 1990).

The US backed its new ally with arms and expertise. “US” did not only include the military and the government, but also corporations. In 1975, Pfaulder Corporation of Rochester, New York, according to Said Aburish, “supplied the Iraqis with a blue print which enabled them to build their first chemical warfare plant.” In 1983, Aburish claims, the US merchants and the Iraqi regime did a deal for Harpoon missiles and other such treats to use in the war against Iran, in the repression against the Kurds and in the invasion of Kuwait. As William Rivers Pitt puts it, Saddam Hussein “is as much an American creation as Coca-Cola and the Oldsmobile.” He was the “factor of stability” until he over-extended his hand in 1990.

Is there a Saddam-like replacement in the wings? Is there a real Arab Karzai? The closest candidate is Ahmad Chalabi, an academic who comes from a wealthy Iraqi family. In 1992, in Vienna, a host of Iraqi exiles came together to form the Iraqi National Congress (INC). Later in the year, in Salahuddin (in the Kurdish “safe haven”), the INC elected Chalabi to lead them. At the time, the largest constituents of the INC came from the PUK and the KDP, and the INC troops, with US backing, began to engage the Iraqi army in 1995. The next year, however, the KDP cut a deal with Saddam Hussein, allowed the Iraqi army into their territory and sat back as they demolished the INC in the region.

In 1998, the US Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act to fund this moribund organization. Said Aburish argued, in 1997, that the INC’s program “is utterly unrealistic,” but “it still functions and issues press releases to maintain the anti-Saddam mood of Western governments and the Western press.” The INC, he argues, contains many former associates of Saddam Hussein and members of the Ba’th who conducted violent crimes in the war against Iran and against the Kurds. “Because they are members of a pro-Western organization,” he notes, “their crimes are overlooked” (this is from A Brutal Friendship: The West and the Arab Elite, 1997).

Even as they have no credibility, the INC has begun to talk to the French and the Russian oil merchants about access to Iraqi oil. In September 2002, Chalabi told the Washington Post, “American companies will have a big shot at Iraqi oil.” In mid-October 2002, the INC said that “it would open the oil sector to all companies, including US majors, and give particular attention to contracts made with Russia and France.” This was a patently obvious way of winning support in the Security Council not only for a war on Iraq, but also for the INC to find favor in the post-Ba’th future.

All indications point to the US army’s Occupation regime for the short term, then either a return to the monarchy, the creation of a military dictatorship or else the formation of a “democratic” regime under someone like Chalabi. Whoever rules will have to work under the US dispensation, being the protectors of the second largest proven oil reserves in the world (115 billion barrels) as well as the main political-military force to counteract Iran and Saudi fundamentalism. The war aim is not to create a democratic Iraq, but to ensure US military dominance over the area, and therefore to enable the free enterprise of global corporations. Freedom for the Iraqis is not in the offing, only free transit for the fat cats.

VIJAY PRASHAD is an Associate Professor and Director of the International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT. His latest book is: Fat Cats and Running Dogs: The Enron Stage of Capitalism. Prashad can be reached at: Vijay.Prashad@trincoll.edu


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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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