The Gulf Wars Revisited

Who exactly benefitted from American removal of Saddam’s Sunnis in Iraq?

Exactly 30 years ago, Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and created a set of consequences that are with us today, including sectarianism, terrorism, and Iranian militancy. The Bush presidencies made a number of historical mistakes in dealing with Iraq and Iran. Iran, as a result, reaped the rewards of Saddam Hussein’s cruelty and greed, and American errors. The George H. W. Bush administration, for its part, was given a mandate by the United Nations to undo Saddam’s aggression in Kuwait. It should have been used to eliminate Saddam Hussein alone. At the same time, the collapse of the Soviet Union gave the George H. W. Bush administration an opportunity to deal with the radical Iranian regime, following the bloody eight years of war with Saddam’s Iraq. It was one of the Ayatollahs regime weakest periods. The George W. Bush administrations March, 2003 Second Gulf War, which was meant to disarm Saddam of his weapons of mass destruction, eliminated the Sunni-led Iraqi army. It enabled the Shiites to take over Iraq politically, thus opening the door for the Islamic Republic of Iran to virtually control Iraq. With the Sunni-led Iraqi army disbanded, many of its officers became involved in sectarianism that led to the rise of ISIS, and a wave of terror still rocking Iraq. Shiite Iran was able to capitalize on America handing over Iraq to Shiite rule. The U.S. destroying the Sunni-led Iraqi army led to a fundamental destabilization of the regional balance of power, and it freed the Iranians to pursue their expansionist dreams.

There was never a question about the necessity to topple Saddam Hussein, who was responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi-Sunni’s, Shiites, and Kurds, as well as thousands of Kuwaitis. This maniacal dictator accused Kuwait on July 18, 1990 of stealing oil from Iraq and encroaching on Iraqi territory. He demanded $2.4 billion from Kuwait. Then, Tariq Aziz, Saddam’s foreign minister, accused Kuwait of stealing Iraqi petroleum over a decade. On August 1, 1990, the Arab League and Saudi Arabia suspended their mediation, and the next day, Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait with 100,000 soldiers and 300 tanks. On August 8, 1990, Iraq announced Kuwait’s “total and irreversible” incorporation into Iraq. Earlier, on August 6, 1990, the UN Security Council imposed an embargo on Saddam’s Iraq. Later in August, 1990, Saddam formally annexed Kuwait as Iraq’s 19th province. There were fears at this point that Saddam might order his forces into Saudi Arabia, and President George H. W. Bush then sent U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia.

When diplomatic efforts to oust Saddam’s army out of Kuwait failed, the U.S. launched Operation Desert Storm on January 17, 1991. It was followed by intense aerial bombardment of Iraq. One hundred hours later, a ground assault by U.S. and coalition forces liberated Kuwait. In his attempt to draw the Arab world to his side, and break the Arab-Western coalition, Saddam fired 39 scud missiles into Israel, causing the death of 74 Israeli citizens. Two died from a direct hit, four from suffocation in gas masks, and the rest from heart attacks. The Israeli air force was ready to retaliate, but Prime Minister Shamir was persuaded by President Bush to stay put. The U.S. rushed Patriot Missiles to Israel and U.S. special forces knocked out the scud launching vehicles in western Iraq.

The George W. Bush administration did “Throw the baby out with the bath water.” This expression fits with the administration’s actions in taking out Saddam Hussein and his entire Sunni-led military establishment. As evil and destructive as Saddam was, his regime nevertheless kept the Iran at bay. When Saddam’s regime was removed in 2003, Iran became the dominant regional force. Once Saddam and the Sunnis were out of the picture, Iran managed to assert its control over Iraq through loyal Shiite militias’ and politicians. Iran was ensuring that Iraq could never again pose a threat as it did under Saddam.

Another serious error by the Bush (George W.) administration and the Obama administration that followed it, was to insist on keeping Iraq as a unitary state rather than split it into three independent states. Clearly the Kurds in the north deserved an independent state. Being a distinct ethnic group (and non-Arab and Sunni-Muslim) Kurds have been abused by all the surrounding regimes, and Saddam butchered them in the thousands by gassing and cluster bombs. The Sunni-Arabs in western Iraq have more in common with their tribal cousins on the other (eastern) side of the Euphrates River in Syria than with the Shiites. They are unlikely to reconcile themselves to live under Shiite rule. The current situation simply invites more terror and instability.  It is therefore logical to set them apart. The Shiite Arabs in southern Iraq would be far more secure in their own independent territory, which includes the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf. The capital of Iraq, Baghdad, has been largely emptied out of its Sunni residents, and might have to be split between the Sunnis and Shiites. A similar condominium might have to occur in the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk in the north, between Kurds and Sunni-Arabs.

The value of having these three independent entities is first and foremost to undo the arbitrary and artificial creation of Iraq by the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement (Britain and France). More importantly, it will serve as a barrier against Iran, preventing it from materializing its vaunted Shiite Crescent, and imperial expansionism. A Kurdish and Sunni-Arab state would form just such a barrier. Iran is surrounded by largely secular Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Sunni majority states of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey. Across the Persian Gulf are the Arab-Sunni led states of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Oman (Ibadi Islam). Armenia, northwest of Iran, is Christian.   

Saddam was not the only cruel Arab dictator in the region. Libya had Muammar Ghaddafi, Yemen had Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Syria endured the Assads, both the late Hafez, and his son Bashar, the current butcher of Damascus. All of them managed to generate chaos, civil wars, and have caused the death of millions. The Ayatollahs regime in Iran is similarly oppressive and cruel, and far more dangerous to the world than the abovementioned dictators. The Ayatollahs, unlike the secular dictators, add religious fanaticism to their quest for regional, if not world power. Moreover, while Saddam, Ghaddafi, and Assad Jr. sought but never quite acquired nuclear power, the Islamic Republic of Iran is cheating its way toward a nuclear bomb. It is also sowing instability and terror throughout the region and beyond, which makes it a global menace. Saddam, in the 1980’s, was largely oriented toward the West and served as a bulwark against Iran, but his invasion of Kuwait made him an international pariah. Iran’s ayatollahs regime, however, was always a global menace. It was never punished for invading the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, and for keeping American diplomats as hostages for 444 days. The U.S. has an unfinished score to settle with Iran.

The clearest lessons from the Gulf Wars are that eliminating Saddam Hussein and his closest clique didn’t necessitate destroying the established order in Iraq. Additionally, Iran, not Iraq, should have been targeted by the U.S. for regime change.

* * *

Photo credit: USAF VIRIN: 120319-D-LN615-001.JPG