Iraq's Thirty Years War, And Counting
Since 1979, Iraqis have known only war and conflict, both from outside and within. With Islamist radicals advancing toward Baghdad, the future looks as grim as ever.
PARIS — Who “lost” Iraq? In Britain and the United States, everybody is looking for culprits. Or rather, they are settling scores. Left and right-wingers, interventionists and pragmatists, neocons and realpolitik enthusiasts are at each others' throats.
The jihadist capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, has stirred up epic rhetorical battles, on both sides of the Atlantic.
But the debate over who is responsible for the disintegration of what used to be one of modern Middle East’s strongest states masks a brutal truth: In the past 34 years, Iraq has known nothing else but war — internal, external, religious, civil, provoked, endured … Each of these conflicts weakened an already wavering sense of national identity.
Today’s Iraq is divided in three parts: Kurdistan, in the northeast, an autonomous and mostly peaceful haven; from Baghdad southwards, the country of Shia Muslims; in the west and northwestern parts, that of the Sunni Arabs. As the French political specialist Pierre-Jean Luizard says of the state created by the British from the rubble of the Ottoman Empire in 1921, it was “built against its society,” 55% Shia, 25% Kurdish and 16% Sunni.
Coup after coup, political life in Baghdad was never as calm as the waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates. But the country’s descent into hell really started in 1979.
Having been the regime’s number two figure since 1970, Saddam Hussein rose to the top of the Ba’ath party and became the state’s leader. A hybrid between militant Arab nationalism and secular progressivism, his regime was a mix of ruthless political dictatorship and social and economic success. Oil revenues financed what was one of the best health and education systems in the Arab world, as well as massive purchases of weaponry. The mostly Sunni Ba’ath party applied a sectarian sort of nationalism by marginalizing the Shia majority and martyrizing the Kurds.
That same year, an Islamic revolution — a first in the region — installed Ayatollah Khomeini in power in Tehran. The young Islamic Republic of Iran was eager to export its revolution. It voiced its contempt towards the “corrupted” Gulf monarchies and the “atheist” Ba’athists in Baghdad, prolonging the ancestral rivalry between Persians and Arabs, and raising new fears among the latter.
Not a word
The Arab world unanimously pushed Saddam Hussein into war, hoping to undermine a threatening revolution. Meanwhile, the U.S., Europe and Soviet Union, all of whom also feared Khomeini — in particular because of oil security — backed Saddam as well. A terrible mistake from all sides. By attacking Iran, the Iraqi leader plunged his people into darkness.
The country never recovered from an eight-year war against Tehran that killed hundreds of thousands of people. Worse, this conflict was the crucible of the tragedies to come. Without a single word of protest from his Western supporters, Saddam used massive quantities of gas against Iran, which then decided to relaunch the former regime’s nuclear project. The two countries reached a peace agreement in 1988.
Ruined, Saddam called upon the Gulf monarchies for help. Ungrateful, they refused. On Aug. 2, 1990, he took revenge and invaded Kuwait.
It was another huge miscalculation, which provoked a massive American intervention in January and February 1991 to chase Iraqis out of the emirate. Tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians were killed in this first “Gulf War.” But to Washington’s great displeasure, Saddam's defeat did not force him out of power. Instead, he drowned a CIA-backed Shia and Kurdish rebellion in blood.
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Destroyed Iraqi tanks during during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 — Photo: DoD
The country was on its knees, but the United Nations subjected it to a draconian embargo. Iraqis were forced into poverty as the regime turned into a ferocious dictatorship that plundered the country’s last resources.
Under this double affliction — the embargo and the Ba’ath party’s degeneration — secular Arab nationalism died. Militant Islamism rose in the void left behind. Jihadism marked its entrance into the 21st century with the 9/11 attacks in the United States. After waging war on the Taliban in Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda was hiding, George W. Bush turned to Iraq in early 2003.
The arguments for the attack were false: There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Saddam had nothing to do with al-Qaeda — on the contrary — and even less with 9/11. The truth is that an American President under neoconservative influence and willing to prove that he could do better than his father wished to reshape the Middle East, starting with the establishment of democracy in Baghdad.
A disastrous occupation did away with what was left of the Iraqi state apparatus, ensured the rebirth of al-Qaeda and installed the most sectarian Shia leaders in power, to the satisfaction of their Iranian godfathers.
For the U.S., it was a strategic catastrophe. They left a barely pacified country in 2011 because neither the Sunnis nor the Shias wished to see them stay. For the Iraqis, the nightmare continues now in the shape of a growing showdown between a tyrannical Shia power and the Sunnis. The collapse of the central state paved the way for the exacerbation of religions divisions, in a scenario similar to that currently at play in Syria.
Iraq’s future is war. Again.