excerpted from the book
How our covert wars have
across the Middle East and brought terror to America.
by Mark Zepezauer
Common Courage Press, 2003,
The United States went to war against Iraq in 1991 to reverse
Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. Iraqi forces left Kuwait
42 days later, but for the people of Iraq, the war continues.
Some 200,000 Iraqis died during the Gulf War; in the decade since,
more than a million have perished. The U.S. has bombed Iraq hundreds
of times and led international sanctions in hopes of toppling
Saddam's regime. Ironically, these efforts have served only to
strengthen him. Meanwhile Iraqi civilians are paying the price
for living within the same borders as the dictator Washington
built up in the first place. Today, as the U.S. asserts its right
to "take out" Saddam, it's worth recalling that the
old ghoul's path to power was paved by an earlier decision to
"take out" one of his predecessors.
Saddam Hussein first made a name for himself
in a CIA-backed assassination attempt against General Abdel Karim
Qassim, then in charge of Iraq. In 1958, Qassim had overthrown
and executed the unpopular British-backed monarch, King Faisal.
The CIA was taken by surprise, and U.S. Ieaders watched in dismay
as the Qassim regime pulled out of the pro-Western Baghdad pact,
founded the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)
and asserted Iraq's long-standing claim of sovereignty over Kuwait.
Soon the U.S. Iet it be known that it wouldn't mind if Gen. Qassim
went to an early grave as well. One of those who answered the
call was young Saddam, then a minor officer of the Ba'ath Party.
The assassination attempt was not successful,
and Saddam went into exile in Cairo, where he kept in contact
with the U.S. embassy. He returned in 1963, when the still-popular
Qassim was successfully liquidated in a Ba'athist coup. Saddam
and his colleagues quickly went to work on a bloody purge of 700
Iraqi leftists, using hit lists helpfully provided by, who else,
the CIA. Over the next dozen years, through a series of murders,
purges, and shifting alliances, Saddam worked his way up through
the ranks. He became head of security, then vice-president, and
finally, in 1979, supreme leader of Iraq.
Like many Middle Eastern leaders, Saddam
liked to do business with both the U.S. and the USSR. Generally
the superpowers felt that if you were friends with one, you were
the enemy of the other. But this was no big problem, since everybody
was more than happy to switch sides as events warranted. In 1975,
Iraq was friendly with the Soviets, from whom they received military
support. Consequently, the Kurdish minority in northern Iraq,
previously friendly with the Soviets, was then allied with the
Americans. At that time neighboring Iran was a U.S. client state,
involved in a border dispute with the Iraqis. The Shah of Iran
prevailed on Washington to arm the Iraqi Kurds as a way of putting
diplomatic pressure on Baghdad.
This worked out well for everyone except
the Kurds. Once Iran and Iraq came to terms over their border
dispute, the U.S. withdrew support for the Kurdish insurgency.
Double-crossed by Uncle Sam, the Kurds were mercilessly slaughtered
by Saddam Hussein's security forces. Asked to explain all this
before a congressional committee, Secretary ~ of State Henry Kissinger
offered the immortal words "covert action should not be confused
with missionary work." As if to prove Kissinger's point,
everybody switched sides again just a few years later.
When the Shah of Iran was overthrown by
an Islamic rebellion in 1980, it was time for the U.S. to make
friends with Saddam Hussein. The new Islamic revolution in Iran,
headed by the Ayatollah Khomeini, was making other U.S. allies
nervous-notably the Saudi royal family, who feared similar uprisings
in their own country. Saddam met with Saudi leaders and with CIA
agents in Amman, where King Hussein had long been on the Agency's
payroll. He got a "green light" for an invasion of Iran,
and was promised economic and military support from the oil-rich
Gulf sheikdoms. What resulted was a bloody eight-year war between
Iraq and Iran that would leave over a million dead.
A big part of the problem was that Washington
was offering support to both sides. When Iranian militants seized
hostages in the U.S. embassy, the Carter Administration hoped
that war with Iraq would force Khomeini to come to terms with
the U.S. in order to procure needed spare parts for the Shah's
U.S.-built arsenal. But at the same time, Carter's Republican
opponents were cozying up to Iran, hoping they would hold on to
the hostages long enough to humiliate Carter, so he would be defeated
in the upcoming election- which he was. The day Ronald Reagan
took office, the U.S. hostages were released, and just a few weeks
later, U.S.-approved arms shipments to Iran were underway.
When these were publicly revealed in late
1986, the resulting scandal became known as the Iran-Contra affair,
since the Reagan Administration used profits from arms sales to
Iran to finance the secret "contra" war against Nicaragua.
But Reagan also aided Saddam Hussein, "bleeding" both
sides in hopes of weakening any potential rivals to U.S. client
states in the region. When Iran got the upper hand, U.S. warships
were sent into the Persian Gulf to intervene on behalf of Saddam.
Iranian ships were attacked in the name of "protecting oil
shipments,' though the main threat to Gulf shipping came from
Iraq. Even when Iraq attacked the USS Stark in 1987, killing 37
sailors, Washington shrugged it off, determined to keep pressure
During the Iran-Iraq war, the U.S. covertly
supplied Saddam with weapons of mass destruction, including chemical
and biological arms. "Agricultural" loans to Iraq were
used as a cover for military aid. The U.S. branch of an Italian
bank funneled $5 billion in questionable (taxpayer-backed) loans
to Baghdad, and U.S. firms shipped toxic agents like Anthrax and
Botulism, all with government approval. Saddam put these weapons
to use, employing both chemical and biological weapons against
Iranian troops, as well as Kurdish rebels. The Kurdish village
of Halabja was attacked with nerve gas, killing 5000 and injuring
200,000 more, most of whom are suffering to this day from the
effects. Despite protests by human rights groups, Washington looked
the other way-though President Bush later cited the atrocity as
one of the reasons to go to war against Iraq in 1991.
Once the Iran-Iraq war ended in stalemate
in 1988, it began to seem to the U.S. and its allies that Iraq,
in particular, had been insufficiently bled. Saddam now had the
most powerful military in the Gulf region, with over a million
battle-hardened men in uniform. Thus it was just about time for
everybody to switch sides once again.
Henceforth, U.S. policy towards Baghdad
employed both carrots and sticks. Covert military aid continued,
but loan amounts dropped off, owing to investigations of the banking
scandals. Washington suddenly began to take public notice of human
rights abuses in Iraq. And the wealthy little kingdom of Kuwait
began playing hardball with its powerful neighbor. Though Saddam
had nearly gone broke protecting the Gulf sheikdoms from revolutionary
Iran, the Kuwaitis demanded accelerated repayment of wartime loans.
Worse still, the Kuwaitis had been "slant drilling"
underneath the border into Iraq's valuable Rumaila oilfield, draining
$14 billion in crude. A company owned by Brent Scowcroft, President
Bush's national security advisor, had sold the special drilling
equipment to the Emir of Kuwait. As an old crony of Henry Kissinger,
Scowcroft was presumably not involved in "missionary work."
Under Ottoman rule, Kuwait had been a
province of Iraq, but was broken off by Britain in order to prevent
Baghdad's access to any usable seaports. Squeezed by the Emir,
Saddam began to look at Kuwait's oil revenue as the answer to
his problems. Those problems had grown even worse when Kuwait
violated OPEC production quotas, sharply driving down the price
of crude oil. With their extensive investments in the West, the
Saudis and Kuwaitis could ride out lower oil prices, but Iraq's
war-tom economy was hurt even further.
As tensions escalated, Washington continued
its two-track policy. A well-connected Washington think tank encouraged
Saddam to treat Kuwait more aggressively, while at the same time
the director of the CIA was advising Kuwait to "take advantage
of the deteriorating economic situation in Iraq." Publicly,
U.S. officials gave mixed signals. After Secretary of Defense
Dick Cheney said that America would come to Kuwait's defense if
it were attacked, the White House backed away from the statement.
State Department spokespersons announced more than once that no
treaty would obligate the U.S. to assist Kuwait. When Congress
sought to impose sanctions on Iraq for human rights violations,
the White House opposed the measure. And U.S. Ambassador April
Glaspie told Saddam that Washington had "no opinion"
on his border disputes with Kuwait.
The Kuwaitis seemed unafraid of their
more powerful neighbor. At an emergency Arab League summit, they
responded to Iraq's negotiating offers with insulting replies.
"If they don't like it, let them occupy our territory,"
one Kuwaiti told Jordan's King Hussein. "We are going to
bring in the Americans." And so they did. After Iraqi troops
invaded Kuwait, the Bush Administration began a buildup of U.S.
military forces in the Persian Gulf, which continues to this day.
Cheney traveled to Riyadh, carrying forged satellite photos, which
showed an alarming buildup of Iraqi forces on the Kuwaiti-Saudi
border. In actuality, no such buildup had occurred. But the Saudis,
fearing that they, too would be invaded, invited U.S. troops onto
their territory-much to the dismay of Islamic dissidents.
The U.S. resisted all attempts to mediate
a peaceful resolution to the crisis. The president and his advisors
regarded a negotiated Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait (being mediated
by Soviet leader Gorbachev) as a "nightmare" scenario.
"Don't you realize that if [Saddam] pulls out, it will be
impossible for us to stay?" asked Scowcroft of General Colin
Powell, who favored the peace initiative. In a recent interview,
former Secretary of State James Baker admitted that his last-ditch
negotiating session with Iraqi diplomats in January 1991 was strictly
for show. "I'll tell you this," Baker told PBS, "the
meeting with Tariq Aziz in Geneva permitted us to achieve congressional
support for something that the President was determined to do
in any event." Or as Baker's boss told his advisors, "We
have to have a war." Administration insiders have identified
Bush's main motivations as twofold: to wipe out Iraq's military
capabilities and to wipe out the "Vietnam syndrome."
This was Beltway jargon for the American public's irritating reluctance
to support overseas military adventures. At the end of the Gulf
War, Bush exulted, "By God, we've licked the Vietnam syndrome
once and for all!"
The Pentagon candidly spelled out the
bottom line in a post-war evaluation: "In the Middle East
and Southwest Asia, our overall objective is to remain the predominant
outside power in the region and preserve U.S. and Western access
to the region's oil." Pursuant to this, the U.S. had been
planning war games scenarios against Iraq for 18 months before
Saddam's invasion. A 1990 U.S. Army white paper had discussed
Iraq as a prime candidate to replace the Warsaw Pact as a target
for future military expenditures. In the end, estimates of Iraq's
military capabilities proved to be wildly overinflated, though
by that time they had served their purpose.
By the time the U.S. began its ground
war against Iraq, Saddam had withdrawn his elite Republican Guard
units back to Baghdad, leaving the Kuwaiti front to be defended
by frightened young conscripts, many drawn from dissident Kurdish
and Shi'ite regions. Many of them were killed while trying to
surrender. Thousands were buried alive by U.S. bulldozers in the
middle of the night, or burned to a crisp while retreating from
Meanwhile, allied bombing had utterly
devastated the civilian infrastructure of Iraq, destroying power
plants, water facilities and hospitals. As this constitutes a
war crime under international law, U.S. authorities were careful
to note that such destruction was "accidental." Such
accidents took out 38 schools, 28 hospitals, 31 sewage facilities,
four of the seven major water pumping stations, and all 11 of
Iraq's major electrical power plants, along with 119 substations.
In fact, the possibility of "punitive raids" on such
targets had been widely discussed, both publicly and privately,
by U.S. war planners. "If there are political objectives
that the UN coalition has," one of them told the Washington
Post, "...it gives us long-term leverage."
Of course, attacking civilian targets
for the purpose of "leverage" for "political objectives"
is the very definition of terrorism.
As the war ended, many of Iraq's neighbors
were happy to have seen Saddam taken down a peg, but didn't want
to see him out of power. Though allied propaganda had encouraged
Shi'ites and Kurds to revolt against Baghdad, the war effort pointedly
stopped short of assisting them, and they were once again double-crossed
and left to Saddam's revenge. Civil war in Iraq-so the reasoning
went-might lead to rebellions in Kurdish areas of Turkey and Syria,
and the triumph of the Shiites in southern Iraq would only strengthen
Iran once again. So Saddam was left in power, with his military
might decimated and his economy in a shambles. The balance of
power in the Gulf now favored the monarchies, bolstered by new
U.S. military bases.
Iraq's oil revenue was used to pay reparations
to the Emir of Kuwait, who held hundreds of billions of dollars
in overseas investment, while the once-prosperous Iraqis suffered
and died under the sanctions, U.S. firms made fortunes in the
reconstruction of Kuwait. In his post-presidential 1993 "victory
tour" of Kuwait, George H. W. Bush brought along his sons
Marvin, Neil, and future president George W. Bush. The younger
Bushes worked to secure a contract for their friends at the Enron
Corporation in rebuilding a Kuwaiti power plant. Best of all,
the Gulf war essentially ratified Kuwait's de facto annexation
of the Rumaila oilfield, the very theft which had provoked Iraq
in the first place. This new territory had the effect of doubling
Kuwait's oil output for U.S. and British companies based there.
But for the people of Iraq, caught in
the middle of this power play, the worst was yet to come. Economic
sanctions prevented Baghdad from repairing water treatment plants
or importing needed medicines. Declassified Pentagon documents
show that even as the war was being pursued, it was recognized
that the destruction of Iraq's water supply "could lead to
increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease." Through
the 1990s, the U.S. and Britain kept a tight lid on Iraqi imports,
and cynically blamed Saddam for the resulting suffering. Iraq's
children were hardest hit, dying of malnutrition and easily preventable
diseases at the rate of 5000 a month-the equivalent of a 9/11
disaster every 30 days. After eleven years of sanctions, more
than 1.2 million Iraqi civilians have perished, more than half
under the age of 18.
In 1996, asked by reporter Leslie Stahl
about the death of "half a million children," then-UN
Ambassador Madeleine Albright did not dispute the figure. Instead
she offered, "I think this is a very hard choice, but the
price-we think the price is worth it." While this comment
made little impact in the U.S., it has been widely repeated throughout
the Muslim world.
Several UN officials in charge of overseeing
the sanctions program have resigned in protest, charging that
Washington and London have engaged in a program of deliberate
genocide against the people of Iraq. At the same time,
Scott Ritter, who was a member of UN teams
sent to verify Iraqi cooperation with disarmament resolutions,
stated that Iraq had been "essentially disarmed." UN
weapons inspectors departed in 1998 in anticipation of a major
new bombing campaign by the U.S. Saddam subsequently refused to
allow them to return, charging that the CIA was using the group
as a cover for espionage operations. Washington later admitted
that the charge was true, but bombing of Iraq continues on a routine
Saddam has been kept not too weak and
not too strong, in a cynical effort to preserve a balance of power
that favors U.S. interests by keeping Arab nations divided and
squabbling. Not surprisingly, U.S. policy against Iraq has stirred
up massive resentment in the Arab world. It seems exceedingly
unlikely that U.S. citizens would allow a foreign power to slowly
kill off a half a million innocent American children without doing
something to strike back.
In the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan,
persistent reports reveal Bush Administration plans to initiate
another full-scale war against Iraq as soon as possible. These
plans have been delayed due to the opposition of the entire Arab
League as well as most of our Western allies. But like his father,
the president is determined to have a war; U.S. policy is that
we are committed to "regime change" no matter how much
Saddam cooperates with the UN (which of course gives him little
incentive to do so). Press leaks (later debunked) have tried to
link Saddam to the al-Qaida network, though in fact they are sworn
enemies. But if history is any guide, the search for a pretext