Western elites have never cared for democracy in Iraq.
Speculation is growing about the shape of Iraq’s future government. But it is worth asking: why are America and Britain so interested in democracy in Iraq now? They never much cared for it in the past.
The Americans and British have been at war with Iraq for longer than most people imagine. Although Middle Eastern states had invaded other Middle Eastern states on a regular basis (both Syria and Israel invaded Lebanon, Turkey had invaded Cyprus), Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait was used as a pretext by America to intervene in the region with massive force.
The first Gulf War of 1991 left thousands of Iraqis dead, and unsurprisingly the Al-Sabah ruling clique returned to running Kuwait. Ironically, after the war, America and its allies realised that maintaining the territorial integrity of Iraq would help stabilise the region, so they chose to leave Saddam in power, and turned a blind eye as he crushed the Shia rebellion in the south.
The British and the Americans imposed two no-fly zones over Iraq after the Gulf War, with regular bombings of Iraqi targets. United Nations sanctions denied vital food and aid to Iraqis, and more than doubled the child infant mortality rate. According to one UN official, sanctions were responsible for the deaths of 500,000 children between 1990 and 1999.
The Gulf War of 1991 was preceded by the Iran-Iraq war (September 1980 to August 1988), which resulted in one million deaths. The Scott Inquiry that followed the Iran-Iraq war confirmed that Western powers had sold sophisticated military equipment to both sides, producing a stalemate, and stopping either side from becoming too powerful in the region.
The interests and needs of Western elites were the driving force behind the Iran-Iraq war. After the Shah of Iran was toppled in a coup and Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, Britain, France and America used Iraq as a buffer against the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. Saddam, who had received CIA help when the Ba’athists launched a failed coup in 1963, became a useful ally for the West. As later confirmed by King Hussein of Jordan, the CIA had supplied Saddam’s party with names and addresses of members of the Iraqi opposition, leading to about 5000 deaths (1).
The undemocratic hand of Western intervention in Iraq goes back further still. The Middle East took its current shape after the First World War, when European powers carved up the old Ottoman Empire. In the nineteenth century, Britain had kept the decaying Ottoman Empire intact, as a way of preventing the emergence of powerful states in the Middle East, in particular Egypt (see A History of The Middle East by Peter Mansfield).
After the First World War, the League of Nations made countries like Iraq mandates of Britain. When the Iraqis rebelled in 1920, the RAF was sent in to bomb them into submission, and Sir Percy Cox was installed as governor of Iraq.
After more than a century of direct intervention in the Middle East, some still haven’t learned the lesson that Western involvement makes things worse in the region. In early April 2003, an editorial in the Independent on Sunday pleaded for the UN to be involved in the postwar reconstruction of Iraq (2). By supporting the UN over the USA, the coalition’s critics are merely opting for a different type of messy intervention.
Currently, the future of Iraq is being decided in Washington as the State Department and the Pentagon battle it out, often in public, for control of the postwar administration. The Americans plan to install retired Lieutenant General Jay Garner as head of an Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance to oversee operations, and then hold elections 90 days after the war ends. But no Iraqi ever voted to have an American acting as a de facto ruler of Iraq.
Any new Iraqi administration, which Iraqis would vote, would have scores of American advisers in it, although nominally controlled by an Iraqi. According to one report, the Pentagon ‘intends to establish 23 ministries, each headed by an Iraqi but supported by American technical advisers, who would provide direction behind the scenes’ (3).
The Bush administration is also talking up Ahmed Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, as a possible leader of Iraq. This is a man who, until quite recently, had not been in Iraq since 1958. As the Independent on Sunday points out: ‘Many Middle East experts say such groups have no credibility whatsoever and would be seen as neo-colonialist American stooges.’ (4)
However the current situation resolves itself, the Iraqi people have paid a high price for their ‘liberation’. After more than 100 years of Western intervention, Iraqis are still being denied the right to run their own country.
spiked-issue: War on Iraq
(1) Saddam’s Iraq – Revolution or Reaction, page 32, Zed Books Ltd 1989
(2) Independent on Sunday, 6 April 2003
(3) Independent, 3 April 2003
(4) Independent on Sunday, 6 April 2003
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