The Destruction Of Iraq: Why?

The Destruction of Iraq: Why?

This article appeared as part of a series on the Gulf War in Ideas & Action #16 (1991). © Tom Wetzel.

Some months prior to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, Business Week published an optimistic assessment of Iraq's economic prospects. The grueling war with Iran was over and the American and European support for Iraq during the war seemed to presage an enhanced commercial position for the ancient land of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Having brutally wiped out the large Iraqi Communist Party, and purged the army of any "unreliable" officers, the ruling Baath Socialist Party had never been more secure in its hold on power. Its new turn towards the West was also reflected in a retreat from its state-centralist economic strategy as the Baath regime moved to privatize many formerly state-owned companies, Business Week reported, thus inviting an infusion of foreign private capital. At the same time, the Iraqi state-capitalist sector was poised to move away from being merely an exporter of oil to a refiner and marketer, with an emphasis on processed petrochemical products, such as agricultural pesticides.

During the l980s Iraq had been the world's second largest exporter of petroleum, surpassed only by Saudi Arabia. As a consequence of the previous nationalization of the country's oil industry, the profits from this oil production were under the control of the hierarchy of the absolutist Baath party/state regime. The expansionist, nationalist Baathi regime pumped much of this oil profit into not only the acquisition of arms but also machinery for a native arms industry. From 1983 to 1990, Iraq spent $30.4 billion on arms purchases, or about 10% of all "third world" arms deals during that period.(1)

Nonetheless, the oil profits were not spent only on war. A modern infrastructure of roads, telephone networks, power grids, sewage treatment plants, hospitals, schools, and so on were also built up. As the Business Week article pointed out, the country's internal investment and integration into the world market had also enhanced the material living standards and consumption of Iraqi working people as well. The Baath leadership's use of television as a means of mass manipulation during the Kuwait adventure attest to the spread of television ownership, for example.

The expansion of employment and the modern, secular orientation of the Baath Socialist Party had also tended to enhance the position of women, who were not as confined to a traditional domestic role as in neighboring Islamic countries.

In short, Iraq did not fit the stereotype of an "impoverished" third world country, only a step away from starvation.

The Destruction of Iraq...

All that has been changed by American bombs. The hopes of incremental improvement in material well-being have now been replaced by a grim struggle for mere survival, amid the threat of epidemic and mass starvation. The country's economic prospects now lie in ruins.

Throughout Iraq, and not just in the area near Kuwait in the south, the country's infrastructure has been largely destroyed -- roads, bridges, oil refineries, gasoline storage tanks, power plants, even village water tanks. The CIA has estimated the repair cost at $30 billion. The telephone system -- which was hit with special bombs that disperse metal fragments, causing countless short?circuits -- has been described as a "total loss." At the beginning of the summer, three months after the war's end, only 20% of Iraq's pre-war electrical generating capacity had been restored and daily blackouts were a fact of life. With the destruction of Iraq's power generating capacity, Iraq was no longer able to run its water-pumping stations and sewage treatment plants, depriving the Iraqi people of a hygienic source of water.

With the water system not functioning, people have no choice but to use untreated water from sources such as the Tigris River. "Without electricity, hospitals cannot function, perishable medicines spoil, water cannot be purified and raw sewage cannotbeprocessed,"reported a Harvard University fact-finding team. This team predicted a "public health catastrophe," with tens of thousands of war-related civilian deaths from diseases such as cholera, typhoid and gastroenteritis.(2)

The country's food supply network was also devastated by the war. According to a report by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), released in August, the country's 1991 grain harvest was estimated at only one third the previous year. Irrigation and drainage systems have been seriously damaged and half of the country's agricultural machinery is now unusable. Half of Iraq's livestock also has been lost and the country's poultry industry destroyed. The FAO report estimated that $500 milIion would be required to rebuild the country's shattered agricultural industry.(3)

As a measure of the country's inability to feed its population, there has been an extreme inflation in food prices -- to as much as 50 times previous price levels. At the same time, many people have become unemployed and increasing numbers of people are completely destitute. Malnutrition among children in Iraq has soared and the country is faced with the prospect of widespread starvation.

A more recent study by the Harvard University fact-finding team cited above has concluded that the infant mortality rate in Iraq has nearly quadrupled since the war -- from around 20 deaths per 1,000 to 80 per 1,000.(4) They cite "acute shortage of infant formula, powdered milk and essential medicines, as well as the rise in theprice of food" as the main causes.

...Was Not Required For Victory

Unlocking Saddam's grip on Kuwait was the legal rationale that the U.S. used to justify the unleashing of vast destructive violence against Iraq. In fact, the destruction visited upon Iraq was far greater than required to achieve that goal. Granted that the nominal technological capacity of the Iraqi army was formidable in terms of conventional land warfare,(5) the land war phase of the conflict displayed a conscript army largely dispirited and inept.

As 15,000-pound "slurry bombs," fuel?air explosives (far more powerful and deadly than the napalm of the Vietnam War) and massive quantities of cluster bombs rained death down on the trenches in the sands of Kuwait, the spirit of the Iraqi army was broken and the remnants began a desperate retreat north to Iraq. In a scenario taken from the worst pages in the history of Nazi military viciousness during World War II, retreating convoys of routed Iraqis were trapped and slaughtered on the road -- "1ike a turkey shoot," as one U.S. military spokesperson put it.

Ecological Disaster

At no time during the confrontation with Iraq did the Bush administration allow the possibility of a negotiated solution to the crisis, such as acknowledging Iraq's historic claims to territory taken from Iraq for Kuwait by the British in the '20s. From the dispatching of a massive army of U.S. troops in August of l990 through to the final ceasefire in February of this year, the Bush administration stuck to its ultimatums, making it dear that a withdrawal of Iraqi forces could only occur on terms of total U.S. victory. The "scorched earth" policy adopted by the Iraqi forces in retreating from Kuwait were a direct consequence of this uncompromising U.S. posture.

The result was over 700 oil well fires, only recently extinguished, and vast "lakes" of oil covering the ground in various areas of Kuwait, equal to many Exxon Valdez spills in size. The "black rain" that has resulted from the many months of raging oil well fires has had a very adverse affect on agriculture and water quality not only in Iraq but in neighboring Iran as well. Greenpeace has reported that this oily "black rain" has fallen on as much as two?thirds of Iran.

On top of this ecological disaster, the huge, widely publicized, oil spill in the Persian Gulf during the war in January is now estimated by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at 6 to 8 million barrels -- from 24 to 32 times as large as the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. The Persian Gulf was already the most petroleum-poisoned body of water in the world-with oil spills averaging one million barrels a year in the '80s. The fragile marine ecology of this shallow, largely enclosed body of water has been brought to the edge of extinction.

The Empire Fears Democracy

The government's propaganda blitz during the war portrayed Saddam in starkly evil terms as another Hitler and hinted that the war's devastation was justified in order to remove this vicious gangster from power and facilitate the emergence of "democracy" in Iraq.

Of course, the Baath Socialist Party regime in Iraq is vicious and repressive -- as shown by its murderous campaigns against the Kurds, its destruction of unions, its executions of Communists, and suppression of opposition. Saddam rose to power in this party/state machine through his career as head of the party's vicious secret police. This did not stop the U.S. from aiding this regime during the war with Iran, however. The actual conduct of the U.S. at war's end, moreover, showed that U.S. talk of "democracy" was mere propaganda.

As the war reached its climax at the end of February, three divisions of the elite Republican Guard -- backbone of the Baath police state -- were being surrounded by U.S. forces near Basra. The U.S. generals measured their imminent triumph in terms of the anticipated destruction of 4,500 tanks. With the destruction of these armored forces, the remaining Iraqi army would be "an infantry army... which means it [won't be] an offensive army....There [won't be] armor left for Saddam] to be a regional threat," commented General Schwartzkopf on February 27th.(6)

But Schwartzkopf spoke too soon. Within three hours, Bush nixed the general's plan and ordered an immediate ceasefire, which permitted at least 700 tanks-mostly top-of-the-Iine Soviet T-72s-to escape capture. The reason for this decision soon became clear, in the use of these Republican Guard forces to crush the spreading popular revolts against the repressive Baathi regime, in the Shiite south around Basra and in the Kurdish north.

The aim of the U.S. Ieadership was not to overthrow Iraqi authoritarianism or foster self-determination of the Iraqi people, but to force a change in the policy of Iraq's leadership, to bring it more in line with the interests of Western capital and the foreign policy strategy of the U.S. government.

Democracy could only be created in Iraq by the people themselves, taking over their towns and regions, destroying the Baath party/state regime. But confronted with the actual uprising of the populace in Mosul and Basra provinces, U.S. Ieaders began to worry about the democratic nature of this revolt and the possible weakening of the Iraqi garrison-state.

The American press portrayed the revolt in Mosul as largely inspired by the Kurdish nationalists and the revolt in Basra province as mainly led by Shiite fundamentalism, with the likely support of the Shiite theocracy in neighboring Iran.

It's not clear, however, that this is really what was going on. According to a report by Iraqi revolutionary exiles in Britain, Basra ls "one of the most secular areas in the Middle East. Almost no one goes to the mosques. . ."(7) Iraq had one of the largest Communist movements in the Middle East prior to its suppresion at the hands of the Baath "national socialist" regime in the late '60s. And Basra had been one of their strongholds. It seems that this communist-influenced working class took advantage of the vacuum of power created by Saddam's military defeat to rise up in revolt, using arms supplied by mass desertion from the army.(7)

The revolt in Kurdish Mosul province was not initially inspired by the nationalist parties (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Kurdish Democratic Party) or their "peshmergas" (guerrillas). As in Basra, popular anger at the regime resulted in killings of Baath officials, destruction of the secret police files, the storming of prisons, and similar events. Communist influence has also been strong in the Kurdish area around Suleiman, and communist groups played a visible role in the revolt there. The reputation of the Kurdish nationalist guerrillas had been seriously tarnished by a number of factors, including:

  • allegations that they had used force to prevent people from fleeing from Halaba during the now-infamous poison gas attack in 1988.
  • allegations of lootmg and rape.
  • their repeated deals and compromises with the Baath regime which have won nothing in the end.

No doubt Shiite and Kurdish nationalist leaders wanted to gain control of the revolt to further their own agendas. Whether the working class, socialist tendencies or the nationalist and Shiite tendencies would ultimately dominate in the revolt, the outcome would, in either case, not be to the liking of U.S. leaders.

The U.S. government wanted to preserve the Iraqi military state as a counterweight in the region to Iran and Syria, which both have very large military forces. The scenario that U.S. leaders hoped for was a "palace coup" by disaffected military of ficers.

The U.S. government had no prob lems with the authoritarianism and suppression of labor that were characteristic of the Baath regime; they just wanted a government that would be more respectful of Westem interests.

The hopes for an army coup were unrealistic, however. The Iraqi Baath party regime had gone through an internal struggle years before over the issue of army subordination to the party. The Arab nationalist Baath party had come to power in both Iraq and Syria in part through support of officers who had hoped to use the party as a vehicle for enhancing their own power. In Iraq, however, the political wing of the party had gained the upper hand in abrutal power struggle with the military officer corps which had been purged of unreliable elements.

Indeed, this was the origin of the bitter falling out with the Syrian Baath party, where the officers had won out in this bitter power struggle and rendered the Baath party there completely subordinate to the military. To ensure the army's continuing subordination to the party in Iraq, the Iraq Baath party followed the practice of Stalinist and Nazi regimes, setting up party cells in all military units to keep tabs on the officers and ranks.

Why Did the U.S. Destroy Iraq?

Why, then, did the U.S set out to destroy Iraq? I believe there are several motives that converge here:

  • This was one event in multinational capital's ongoing struggle with third world nationalism, a powerful lesson to nation-states that do not obey the rules of the game laid down by the major capitalist power centers.
  • Because of the sparse population and autocratic family regimes of the desert sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf, megabillions in profits generated by the local oil industry have gone to investments in Europe and America, enlarging the available capital pool. The U.S. government's ability to finance its massive structural deficits depends upon foreign borrowing. This would be undermined by a possible re-direction of Kuwait's huge petro-profit into local investment in Iraq.(8)
  • Faced with the collapse of the Soviet empire, American militarism was in need of a serious boost in morale, a new popular mandate for continued military spending.

Next: Part 2 The Rise and Decline of the American Empire


(1) According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, cited in "U.S. Is Top Arrns Dealer to 3rd World,'' San Francisco Chronicle, Aug. 12, 1991.

(2) The team's findings were reported in a tendentiously titled article, "lraq Devastation Worse than Allies Intended", San Francisco Chronicle, June 3, 1991. If U.S. military leaders order air sortees to bomb every available power plant and bridge, for example, surely they know that the result will be destroyed bridges and power plants. The idea that these results were "unintended" cannot be taken seriously.

(3) The FAO findings were reported in a front-page article in the San Francisco Chronicle on August 3, 1991.

(4) "Child Mortality Rate in Iraq Soaring, San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 22,1991.

(5) As described in my previous article, "Just say No to Mideat Intervention," ideas & action #14.

(6) Quoted in "Bush Overrode Plan To Crush Iraqi Armor," San Francisco Chronicle, June 24,1991.

(7) "Ten Days That Shook Iraq," available from: BM Cat, London WC1N 3XX, U.K.

(8) The issue was not really the"control of oil", per se. What could Iraq have done with Kuwait's oil other than sell it to the industrialized countries for revenue?