Return Iraq to Iraqis by removing Saddam

February 21, 2003

The drive towards war on Iraq appears unstoppable, but it's not too late to pause to reflect on the justice of the fight - a king once halted a war so his leading thinkers could consider the very questions we face today, says Richard Sorabji. What's more, argues Bill Durodié, soldiers need conviction to be fit to fight; although Peter Sluglett says the case is clear: Iraqis need to be freed of a despotic leader

Twenty-four years ago, with a number of concerned Iraqi and British friends, I was one of the founders of the Campaign against Repression and for Democratic Rights in Iraq. We were profoundly opposed to the Ba'ath regime in Baghdad and to the West's relations with it, and we sought to give greater publicity to its systematic abuses. Eight years later, Marion Farouk-Sluglett and I published Iraq since 1958: From Revolution to Dictatorship - last updated in 2001 - which was rather unpopular because of its criticisms of the Iraqi regime, to which the UK and US governments were then very close. I well remember a conference on Iraq at Chatham House in April 1990 at which the general tone was "let's not go on and on about Iraq's human-rights record".

In 1990-91, and now again in 2003, I was and still am of the opinion that invasion and occupation are the only means of ridding Iraq of the present regime. Understandably, most Iraqis do not want their country invaded and occupied. On the other hand, it is safe to say that a great majority want regime change, which they know they cannot bring about themselves. Alas, it is not quite clear how the second be achieved without the first.

Some 12 years after the end of the Gulf war, Iraq is in much the same position as it was before it invaded Kuwait. A despotic, beleaguered ruler continues to run a state that he has impoverished to the utmost degree with the assistance of a few longtime associates and close family members, tacitly (if perhaps not very enthusiastically) supported for much of the period by some of his neighbours. Since the Ba'ath Party has been in power since 1968, with Saddam Hussein in charge since 1979, no effective alternative authority that would have any instant recognition or appeal has been able to build up outside, let alone inside, the country. There is no exiled Lenin, no imprisoned Mandela waiting to take over the leadership.

For many exiled Iraqis in 1990-91, the invasion of Kuwait was a time of great excitement and anticipation: at last, they thought, the tyrant had overreached himself and would get his comeuppance. Such views were dismissed as treason by Arab nationalists. With a blithe disregard for their hero's more than ambiguous past, and his cordial relations with successive US administrations throughout the 1980s, they saw Saddam's defiant posturing as a major step towards the realisation of the Arab nation, or the liberation of Palestine, or whatever fantasy appealed to them most. Iraqis, of course, knew better, having lived under the Ba'ath for 22 years.

To our amazement and anger, our hopes were dashed in 1991. There are two more or less plausible official or quasi-official explanations for the failure to dislodge Saddam. First, the US did not want to involve itself in a "quagmire" in Iraq. Second, the CIA and the Pentagon were listening too uncritically to some of their own "experts" as well as to the Turks and the Saudis, who were predicting the "break-up of Iraq" that would surely follow the removal of the Ba'ath regime. It would not have happened, and it will not happen. True, the Kurds are not going to give up the de facto autonomy that they have enjoyed over the past 12 years, which means that some federal structure will have to be put in place. However, the Shiites (who are are not likely to join hands with their Iranian co-religionists across the border. The vast majority of Iraqi Shiites are secular in orientation, and even for the more religious, after nearly 25 years of suffering under the Ba'ath, the attractions of an Islamic republic must seem dim.

So now we are geared up for another invasion of Iraq. Of course, however altruistically it may be dressed up, the US agenda is not especially noble. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the anti-climax of Afghanistan, the US administration believes that it must make an effective demonstration of the fact (largely for the benefit of its citizens) that it is a superpower that can impose its will - although the "bar of expectation" in the "war against terror" has always been set unrealistically high. On the other hand, Iraq is a menace; the regime is truly appalling, and its behaviour is frequently unpredictable. It has chemical and biological weapons, and perhaps is close to developing nuclear weapons, though probably not the means to send them very far.

On the other hand, "the oil argument" is a curious explanation for a US invasion. Along with other maverick Middle Eastern regimes, Iraq has not poured its oil into the sand, refused to produce it or sold it only to poor states at cut rates. And how could the US take over Iraqi oil? Similarly, I have little doubt that Saddam has no very substantial links with Al Qaida, beyond the fact that both are now passionately anti-American - the profound irony being that neither would exist now had it not been for US support in the past. It is also true that there are glaring problems in the Middle East that the US shows little desire to address (or at least without partiality), and that its continued failings in this respect means that its standing in the region is at an all-time low.

As far as Iraq is concerned, however, it is Saddam, not US president George W. Bush, who has all the keys to the situation. Not to accept this is reminiscent of the argument about sanctions. It is undeniable that the imposition of the sanctions caused great suffering in Iraq. It is equally undeniable that they would have been lifted the moment Saddam showed the inspectors the materials they were looking for. In the words of my colleague Pierre-Jean Luizard: "The regime used the embargo to move western politicians and intellectuals as if it were not itself responsible for the tragic situation of the Iraqi population, and as if the embargo was not linked to its remaining in power."

The fact is that the regime neither produced the evidence nor resigned, preferring instead to declaim "the violation of Iraq sovereignty" as if Saddam had been Iraq's elected ruler. This is why it took five years to get the oil-for-food programme up and running, and why, 12 years after the end of the Gulf war, the US is again poised to invade Iraq.

Let us hope that it does the job properly this time. Afghanistan may not give much ground for optimism; but Bosnia, Kosovo and, much longer ago, Germany and Japan show that fruitful and enduring "reconstruction" has not always proved elusive.

Peter Sluglett is a visiting fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, and professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City.

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