Having failed to convince the British people that war is justified, Tony Blair is now invoking the suffering of the Iraqi people to justify bombing them. He tells us there will be innocent civilian casualties, but that more will die if he and Bush do not go to war. Which dossier is he reading from? The present Iraqi regime’s repressive practices have long been known, and its worst excesses took place 12 years ago, under the gaze of General Colin Powell’s troops; 15 years ago, when Saddam was an Anglo-American ally; and almost 30 years ago, when Henry Kissinger cynically used Kurdish nationalism to further US power in the region at the expense of both Kurdish and Iraqi democratic aspirations.
Killing and torture in Iraq is not random, but has long been directly linked to politics–and international politics at that. Some of the gravest political repression was in 1978-80, at the time of the Iranian revolution and Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. But the Iraqi people’s greatest suffering has been during periods of war and under the sanctions of the 1990s. There are political issues that require political solutions and a war under any pretext is not what Iraqis need or want.
In government comment about Iraq, the Iraqi people are treated as a collection of hapless victims without hope or dignity. At best, Iraqis are said to have parochial allegiances that render them incapable of political action without tutelage. This is utterly at variance with the history and reality of Iraq. Iraqis are proud of their diversity, the intricacies of their society and its deeply rooted urban culture.
Their turbulent recent history is not something that simply happened to Iraqis, but one in which they have been actors. Iraqis have a rich modern political tradition borne out of their struggle for independence from Britain and for political and social emancipation. A major explanation for the violence of recent Iraqi political history lies in the determination of people to challenge tyranny and bring about political change. Iraqis have not gone like lambs to the slaughter, but have fought political battles in which they suffered grievously. To assert that an American invasion is the only way to bring about political change in Iraq might suit Blair’s propaganda fightback, but it is ignorant and disingenuous.
It is now the vogue to talk down Iraqi politics under Saddam Hussain as nothing but the whim of a dictator. The fact is that leaders cannot kill politics in the minds of people, nor can they crush their aspirations. The massacres of leftists when the Ba’athists first came to power in 1963 did not prevent the emergence of a new mass movement in the mid-1960s. The second Ba’ath regime attempted to buy time from the Kurdish movement in 1970 only to trigger a united mobilisation of Kurdish nationalism. Saddam co-opted the Communist party in the early 1970s only to see that party’s organisation grow under a very narrow margin of legality before he moved against it. In the 1970s, the regime tried to control private economic activity by extending the state to every corner of the economy, only to face an explosion of small business activity.
The regime’s strict secularism produced a clerical opposition with a mass following. When the regime pressurised Iraqis to join the Ba’ath party, independent opinion emerged within that party and Saddam found it necessary to crush it and destroy the party in the process. In the 1980s, the army was beginning to emerge as a threat, and the 1991 uprising showed the extent of discontent. In the 1990s, Saddam fostered the religious leadership of Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, only to see the latter emerge as a focal point for opposition. Even within Saddam’s family and close circle, there has been opposition.
Of course Saddam Hussain crushed all these challenges, but in every case the regional and international environment has supported the dictator against the people of Iraq. It is cynical and deceitful of Tony Blair to pretend that he understands Iraqi politics and has a meaningful programme for the country. Iraq’s history is one of popular struggle and also of imperial greed, superpower rivalries and regional conflict. To reduce the whole of Iraqi politics and social life to the whims of Saddam Hussain is banal and insulting.
Over the past 12 years of vicious economic blockade, the US and Britain have ignored the political situation inside Iraq and concentrated on weapons as a justification for their policy of containment. UN resolution 688 of April 1991, calling for an end to repression and an open dialogue to ensure Iraqi human and political rights, was set aside or used only for propaganda and to justify the no-fly zones.
Instead of generating a real political dynamic backed by international strength and moral authority, Iraqis were prevented from reconstructing their devastated country. Generations of Iraqis will continue to pay the price of the policy of sanctions and containment, designed for an oil glut period in the international market.
Now that the US has a new policy, it intends to implement it rapidly and with all its military might. Despite what Blair claims, this has nothing to do with the interests and rights of the Iraqi people. The regime in Iraq is not invincible, but the objective of the US is to have regime change without the people of Iraq. The use of Iraqi auxiliaries is designed to minimise US and British casualties, and the result may be higher Iraqi casualties and prolonged conflict with predictably disastrous humanitarian consequences. The Bush administration has enlisted a number of Iraqi exiles to provide an excuse for invasion and a political cover for the control of Iraq. People like Ahmad Chalabi and Kanan Makiya have little credibility among Iraqis and they have a career interest in a US invasion. At the same time, the main forces of Kurdish nationalism, by disengaging from Iraqi politics and engaging in internecine conflict, have become highly dependent upon US protection and are not in a position to object to a US military onslaught. The US may enlist domestic and regional partners with varying degrees of pressure.
This in no way bestows legitimacy on its objectives and methods, and its policies are rejected by most Iraqis and others in the region. Indeed, the main historical opposition to the Ba’ath regime–including various strands of the left, the Arab nationalist parties, the Communist party, the Islamic Da’wa party, the Islamic party (the Muslim Brotherhood) and others–has rejected war and US patronage over Iraqi politics. The prevalent Iraqi opinion is that a US attack on Iraq would be a disaster, not a liberation, and Blair’s belated concern for Iraqis is unwelcome.
KAMIL MAHDI is an Iraqi political exile and lecturer in Middle East economics at the University of Exeter. The column originally appeared in the Guardian.