The coming war with Iraq

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
20 February 2002

In the past few days there has been a marked increase in the rhetoric about destroying the Saddam Hussein regime. It is coming from sources close to the heart of the George W Bush administration and is beginning to reach a level where to do nothing would be seen as a failure.

One part of the context for this is that there is a general perception that the war in Afghanistan has been won, that the al-Qaida network is dispersed and the Taliban destroyed. Whatever the reality on the ground, this is feeding a belief that more substantial wars can be won, and that the Baghdad regime, having survived since 1991, can now be overthrown.

There are three separate issues here. The first relates to motives for attacking Iraq and the second concerns whether such a war can be won. Perhaps most important is the final question – whether there could have been an alternative to the aggressive containment of the past decade that has resulted in so many problems for ordinary Iraqis while leaving the Saddam Hussein regime firmly in power.

Why attack Iraq?

A oft-cited reason for going to war against Iraq is that this would be a key part of the “war on terror”, thus removing an autocratic and brutal regime that has been a consistent sponsor of terrorist actions against the United States. The trouble with this motive is that there is very little evidence that Iraq has done any such thing. The Saddam Hussein regime has certainly been consistently repressive towards its own dissidents, and has been ruthless in maintaining power, but a recent CIA report confirms that it has been careful to refrain from action against the United States or its facilities abroad.

The lack of evidence is certainly not for want of trying. There is a vigorous anti-Saddam mood in Washington with every effort made to find the smoking-gun – even the anthrax attacks last autumn were thought to have an Iraqi connection although the evidence now points to a domestic origin. Even so, the lack of a terror connection is not even remotely diminishing the determination to destroy the regime, so two other motives come into play.

The first, obviously, is the extraordinary importance of Persian Gulf oil to the United States, an issue analysed in an earlier article in this series. The Gulf region dominates the world oil scene and provides the basic reason for the heavy US military presence there. When the Iraqis invaded Kuwait in 1990, they briefly controlled a fifth of the world’s entire oil reserves. As was remarked at the time, if Kuwait produced carrots instead of oil, the Iraqis would not have invaded and the west would not have gone to war to get them out.

Saudi Arabia and the Emirates together hold half of all the remaining oil reserves in the world, and the presence of a regime in Iraq antagonistic to the United States is simply not acceptable to Washington.

The second, and more significant, motive is the determination of Iraq to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and ballistic missiles. From the Iraqi perceptive, this is an essential policy as it would provide a deterrent to US or Israeli intervention. There has consequently been a persistent process of maintaining a research, development and production capability right through the immediate aftermath of the 1991 war and the United Nations inspections in the early and mid-1990s.

The UN was pretty successful in dismantling most of the Iraqi nuclear programme and the more powerful ballistic missiles, and many tons of chemical weapons were destroyed. Some residual missile capabilities may still be intact, though, as well as supplies of some of the more advanced nerve agents such as VX. Far more significant is the status of the Iraqi biological weapons programme. This, together with chemical weapons and some delivery systems, has been an area of intense work in recent years, especially since the ending of the UN inspection process nearly four years ago.

The result is that there is an assured belief in Washington that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. This is, bluntly, unacceptable to the Bush administration in its current mood, so the Iraqi regime has to be destroyed.

From the perspective of Washington, this would remove an immediate threat to US security in the region, but it would have an additional longer-term benefit. Terminating a regime that is antagonistic to the US and has weapons of mass destruction would demonstrate unequivocally that the United States will not allow such a circumstance, and is prepared to use considerable force against any such state. In other words, destroying the Saddam Hussein regime is seen as a deterrent to any other state that is similarly minded.

Can a war be won?

The next issue is whether a war against Iraq can be won. Is it actually possible to bring the Saddam Hussein regime down by military action? The short answer is yes, but many Iraqis would be killed, the risk of escalation to weapons of mass destruction would be high, and the regional consequences could be immense. Even so, none of these seems likely to be sufficient to deter Washington in its present mood.

The Iraqi military are weakened compared with their power in 1990, and the United States has a massive military superiority. The extensive and persistent use of air attacks would eventually degrade the Iraqi armed forces, and might well lead to the capitulation of the regime. In the process, and remembering the US determination to minimise its own casualties, there would be heavy loss of life on the Iraqi side. Their armed forces would be subject to repeated area bombing, including the use of area-impact munitions such as cluster bombs and fuel-air explosives, but the manner in which they would have dispersed themselves into civilian areas would ensure substantial non-military casualties.

The current US ‘way of war’ is far less precise than we are given to believe, as shown by the mounting evidence of thousands of people having being killed in Afghanistan. The same would apply to Iraq, but this is a country which, in spite of the eleven years of sanctions, still has effective military forces. As a consequence, the levels of attack employed by the United States would be much greater and more sustained than in Afghanistan.

There may be a presumption that the effect of such sustained attacks would be to demoralise Saddam Hussein’s elite troops, ensuring that they turn against him and leading to the self-destruction of the regime. This might be so, but there is an alternative analysis that deserves consideration. Over the past ten years, the regime has survived sanctions and aggressive containment as a result of two factors. One is that it has gathered around itself substantial forces that have been doing rather well for themselves. Iraq, at present, has an elite of up to one million people, made up of the leadership and its supporters and the security and intelligence organisations, core elements of the armed forces and their families.

The second factor is that legal and illegal oil sales have been sufficient to bring in substantial resources, not least because some of the surrounding countries have done little to prevent smuggling. After all, why should countries such as Syria and Iran aid the United States in its war on Saddam when they could be, or even are, part of the “axis of evil”?

The result has been an acceptable lifestyle for the Iraqi elite, with the remaining twenty million Iraqi people experiencing constant hardship. The point is that this very elite has a huge vested interest in seeing the Saddam Hussein regime survive. It is therefore unwise to assume that they will turn on him, even under sustained attack from the United States.

There is a further issue that is particularly uncomfortable as the prospect of war looms. As discussed in the first article of this series, the Iraqis rapidly weaponised biological weapons at the time of the Gulf war, and were ready to use them had the regime been threatened directly with destruction.

While much of their nuclear and missile capability was destroyed during the 1990s under UN supervision, there is every indication that they have been working hard to develop effective biological and chemical weapons, and delivery systems. Any attempt to destroy the regime must be expected to result in the use of such weapons. If they were effective, either against US troops or targets in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or Israel, then a nuclear response would be likely. This is a harsh reality that must be faced in any analysis of the consequences of a war with Iraq.

What has to be appreciated is that the fundamental motivation on the Iraqi side is regime survival, and it will go to almost any lengths to ensure this. If the regime is threatened with destruction then anything goes. In respect of this it is worth recalling aspects of the 1991 war that are conveniently forgotten.

Once Iraq had made the historic miscalculation of expecting a successful and sustained occupation of Kuwait after the invasion, it faced the build-up of overwhelming coalition forces, evidently sufficient to evict it from Kuwait. One key response, not recognised until well after the war, was that the subsequent Iraqi war aim was not to hold on to Kuwait but to ensure the survival of the regime. Only two of the eight Republican Guard divisions were ever deployed near enough to the war zone to be engaged by the coalition forces. None of the Special Republican Guard forces appear to have been anywhere near the war.

These forces were kept well away from Kuwait and were available to protect Baghdad and the regime if the United States took the war into the heart of Iraq. What was an evident victory for the coalition forces in forcing Iraqi troops out of Kuwait, was also a victory of sorts for the regime, in that it not only survived, but was easily able to suppress the Kurdish and Shi’ite rebellions that followed the war.

There are further issues to be considered if a war with Iraq is planned. The Saudi regime will be hugely concerned with a domestic backlash as the US pours military forces into the region; and Turkey will be concerned that the destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime will lead to a fragmentation of Iraq, with the Kurds likely to unite with their fellow citizens in Turkey to create a genuine Kurdistan.

Moreover, the willingness of the Bush administration to back the policies of the Ariel Sharon government in Israel is seen from the Arab viewpoint as proof that repression of the Palestinians is a legitimate part of the self-declared war on terrorism. Whatever the validity of this view, it is a very strong perception in much of the Middle East. Indeed, we have to face the fact that an attack on Iraq would support the dominant view that that the US/Israeli axis is deeply antagonistic to Arabs.

The long-term effects of such an attitude are difficult to predict. But the US military presence in Saudi Arabia has already been one of the factors that has lent such support to the al-Qaida network. In due course, another war with Iraq, with all the deaths that would result, combined with support for Israel, would certainly provide a powerful motivation for the further development of paramilitary groups intent on taking action against the United States.

Is there an alternative?

The most difficult question to answer is whether there is an alternative to current policies towards Iraq. There is certainly a very strong argument that another approach should have been tried during the 1990s – one comprising three elements.

The first would have been a much more substantial programme of UN food aid to ordinary Iraqis, a development of the food-for-oil approach that has existed in a limited form for some years. This would greatly have eased the malnutrition and health problems that have had such a bad effect, especially on children.

The second element would have been a much more sustained process of sanctions aimed specifically at the elite, including regional cooperation to limit the smuggling of oil that has served the regime so well. Targeted sanctions would have had to have been strongly supported regionally as well as outside the middle east, and would have included tight control of financial transactions and a range of security-related imports. It would also have involved controls directly aimed at the elite themselves.

The problem is that this would have been impossible to achieve without much better relations with several key neighbours of Iraq, which in turn required (and this is the third element) a sustained commitment to a fair and just settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation. This has not been forthcoming, except for brief periods in the 1990s, and the end result is that any attempt to have adopted this overall approach had little or no chance of success.

In any case, although this kind of approach has been advocated by many people, including former UN diplomats with significant experience in Iraq, it has proved unacceptable to successive US administrations. The outcome is a repressive regime that appears to be firmly in control, but with the great majority of Iraqis experiencing persistent hardship. The regime is now considered an unacceptable threat and must therefore be terminated.

Any attempt to destroy the regime carries considerable risks of escalation and of dangerous regional instability. Furthermore, large numbers of people will be killed in such a war.

It therefore makes real sense to investigate the alternatives. They will be less easy to develop than five or ten years ago, and, for the moment, they will be dismissed in Washington is entirely unacceptable. This is no argument for not promoting them as an approach that contrasts markedly with the severe dangers and human costs implicit in a full-scale war.

European attitudes to “the war on terror” are already in marked contrast to those in the Bush administration, both in relation to Iraq and in terms of attitudes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is just possible that influence could be brought to bear in Washington that would make the United States hold back from going to war, even as the preparations get under way. It is a role that Europeans can and should embrace.

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