Iraq: the path of war

The persistence of violence in Iraq reopens the question of the impulse of the war unleashed by Washington in 2003 on the Saddam Hussein regime.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
18 December 2009

Most analysts agree that the security situation across Iraq as a whole has improved in 2008-09. The lower incidence of violence owes something to the consolidated sectarian geography of Baghdad and its environs as a result of the ferocious conflict of the mid-2000s. In any event the decline is relative rather than absolute, for Iraq continues to be a perilous place for many of its citizens.

In conjunction with the opening of the official inquiry in Britain into the circumstances of the then prime minister Tony Blair’s decision to join the United States-led military campaign against Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, the persistent violence in Iraq reopens the question of the impulse of the war and whether other decisions with better outcomes could have been taken.

A political target

The everyday dangers in Iraq are illustrated by car-bombings in Mosul (against Christian churches) and Baghdad (near Iraq’s foreign and immigration ministries, and the Iranian embassy) on 15 December 2009; eight people were killed and over fifty injured in the blasts. These are not isolated incidents but part of a pattern of attacks that has evolved throughout 2009. 

In the early part of the year, most of the attacks were directed at the Shi’a community’s mosques or crowded markets. In its second half, there has been a shift towards systematic bombings of government ministries that have often reached their targets despite high levels of security:

▪ on 19 August 2009, ninety-five people were killed and two ministries wrecked in central Baghdad 

▪ on 25 October 2009, 155 people were killed in further attacks outside government buildings in Iraq’s capital

▪ on 8 December 2009, at least 127 people were killed in car-bombings; many of those who lost their lives were civil servants.

It is clear that this is a specific campaign to undermine the Nouri al-Maliki government in the run-up to the elections in spring 2010.

The ease with which insurgents can penetrate highly secure areas is of particular concern to the authorities. Indeed, there is a widespread belief that the insurgents have access to inside information to prepare their operations.

A grave intention

These assaults are part of an ongoing if now less intense war that is approaching the start of its eighth year. The issue that dominated its launch, Saddam Hussein’s possession or otherwise of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), has been in effect forgotten. Tony Blair himself stated in a television interview broadcast on 13 December that he would have supported the regime’s overthrow whether WMD existed or not, a point that has raised once more the broader arguments for military action – not least that Saddam had used chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds in the town of Halabja during the Iraq-Iran war of 1980-88.

This specific case against Saddam Hussein is dubious, even though the chemical attack on Halabja on 16-17 March 1988 did indeed take place; it killed over 3,000 people and injured twice that number. But it is often forgotten that leading western powers chose to overlook the event, since Iraq was widely seen at the time as a de facto ally against revolutionary Iran.  Within a month, the United States navy was targeting and sinking the warships of its Iranian counterpart, in actions that did much to persuade the Iranians to agree a negotiated end to the war in August 1988.

But the search for a pretext to effect regime-change in Iraq is in many ways less important than the fact that a firm intention to do so had existed long before the 9/11 attacks.  Nick Ritchie documents with great precision the determination of neo-conservatives and other Republicans to pursue this strategy from as early as 1997 (see The Political Road to War with Iraq: Bush, 9/11 and the Drive to Overthrow Saddam [Routledge 2006]).

The extensive lobbying from the Republican right for regime termination in the late 1990s was related less to Iraq’s own oil power than to its location in the world’s key oil-bearing region. In particular, a little-noticed event in December 1998 intensified the neocon belief that the United States had to act against Saddam Hussein.

A bleak arousal

The background was that the pro-war faction in Washington was becoming concerned that 20% of the world’s oil was owned by two unfriendly states: Iran and Iraq. At the same time, there was at least some reassurance that Saudi Arabia, which controlled another 25% of global oil reserves, was sufficiently close to Washington and would prove trustworthy in a crisis.

But the House of Saud itself was increasingly worried by domestic anti-American radicalisation, a feeling that was heightened by the United States air-force’s four-day assault on Iraq in December 1998.  A key stated aim of Operation Desert Fox was to damage Iraqi air defences, command-and-control systems and armaments-factories; though there were indications that the real purpose was to support of an attempted internal coup against the regime.

The US air-force crew involved had undertaken training for this kind of operation; some of its key units operated the advanced F-15E Strike Eagle bombers from bases within Saudi Arabia. But as the momentum built, the Saudi authorities caused consternation in the Pentagon by refusing to allow these bases to be used for direct combat-operations – and even to allow the planes to be transferred to other bases in the region. The kingdom’s leaders in all probability feared that permission to “crusader” forces to attack another Arab country would incite further internal radicalisation.

The Saudi decision, which meant that Desert Fox had to be undertaken with less competent forces, was a considerable shock to the Pentagon, to the Bill Clinton administration, and even more to the neo-conservatives. Those who had already been calling for regime-termination in Iraq now saw that the Saudi royal house too could not be relied on to support American actions.  The calculations turned bleak: almost half of the world’s oil was in three countries of which two were bitter opponents and the other at best unreliable. Something had to be done.

A war ordained

The calls for regime-termination in Iraq became more strident from the end of 1998. They rose to a crescendo after 9/11. Six weeks after the assaults on New York and Washington, an early column in this series argued that:

“A powerful group in Iraq sees as essential an Iraq offensive, combining extensive air strikes with, in due course, military occupation of Iraq’s southern oilfields, support for Kurdish rebels in the north and Shi’a forces in the south” (see “From Afghanistan to Iraq?”, 21 October 2001).

Before the end of 2001, well over a year before the war was launched, signs that its planning was underway were discussed in another column:

“One indicator of possible action is the establishment of a US army headquarter in Kuwait, the HQ concerned being a key component of the army’s commitment to US Central Command, the unified military command that covers the middle east and southwest Asia, including both Afghanistan and Iraq. There are further reports that elements of five different army divisions are preparing for possible deployment to the Gulf early in 2002, including units that have recently undergone extensive desert-warfare training” (see “America’s theatre is the world, 24 December 2001).

These developments, all within the first year of the George W Bush administration’s term, were to be reinforced by a British prime minister armed with an implicit belief in the need to support the United States and in the utterly evil nature of the Iraqi regime. The hardening position towards Iraq had intensified after Bush’s inauguration in January 2001; it is now clear that Tony Blair had bought into it with a greater degree of commitment than most people (even those in his party and government) then appreciated.

Before Operation Desert Fox, the likelihood of war with Iraq was already there.  After the Saudi action and George W Bush’s subsequent election it became almost certain. It may even be that 9/11 and the “diversion” into Afghanistan delayed its onset. The result of the decision was a war of terrible consequences that approaches the end of its seventh year with no end in sight.

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