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Atonement

David Hayes Caspar Henderson
8 April 2003

The aftermath may be protracted but this Iraqi war is coming to its end.

When did it begin? The simple answer is 19 March 2003. Others would say that 11 September 2001 is the truer date. But there is another answer: 3 March 1991, the date of the ceasefire in the ‘first’ Gulf war.

Iraqi forces had been ejected from Kuwait, but the ceasefire agreement left Saddam’s regime in power to use all the means at its disposal to suppress the mass popular uprising that took place in fourteen of the country’s eighteen provinces.

The suppression was relentless, vengeful and cruel. People were massacred in their tens of thousands. The Iraqi regime – the most tyrannical, degrading, systematically violent in the history of the Middle East – was given a further lease of life by the only power, then and now, strong enough to overthrow it: the United States.

America’s hands in Iraq – like those of Russia, France, Britain, and Germany – had not been clean for a generation. From the Ba’athist coup of 1963 to the sell-out of the Kurds in 1975 and the cynical support of Iraq in the 1980-88 war with Iran, Iraqis of all stripes were the victims of US Realpolitik.

But even this shameful history is overshadowed by the tacit support the US gave Saddam Hussein against the people in 1991. For this alone, the US governing class bears a huge moral responsibility. Whatever the future of Iraq now, beyond this period of acute danger and marginal hope, the legacy of 1991 can poison the relationship between the United States and the Iraqi people for decades ahead.

Unless.

There are moments in history which call for largeness of spirit and moral imagination. This is one. It is not enough even that the Iraqi people should be freed from this loathsome dictatorship, the precondition of all progress in the country though that undoubtedly is. As long as the past is not accounted for, the pain and humiliation that has led to this moment will fester.

The United States is a great nation and a great people that is also capable of great acts. The overthrow of the Iraqi fascist dictatorship is one. Its completion calls for another that matches the terrible seriousness of this moment: an expression of humility.

The US president, on behalf of his and previous administrations, should apologise to the Iraqi people for their past support for the Ba’athist regime, and in particular for the betrayal of the 1991 uprising. It is time for America to speak – to the countless Iraqi dead and tortured, and to the living – that all may find peace.

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