Domination & Interference – the West in the Middle East

During World War I the western allies Britain & France saw a chance to expand their empires & their influence into the territories then belonging to the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The British sent military advisers such as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ backed by money and arms supplies to encourage the Arabs to rise up against Turkish rule. Suddenly the British were concerned that Arabs should not be ruled by Turks and promised the Arabs a unitary nation state if they succeeded in overthrowing the Turks.

Of course this stimulus to Arab nationalism was simply a cynical way of exploiting the Arabs as a weapon against the Turks with whom Britain & France were at war. At the same time as military envoys were promising to liberate the Arab nation, France and Britain were cutting secret deals to carve up the Arab Middle East. In 1916 the Sykes-Picot agreement broke the Arab nation up into numerous fragments to be shared out between France & Britain.

Here I shall particularly look at the history of Iraq due to its current central importance. The British were to invent a new state called Iraq, stitched together from the provinces of Basra & Baghdad of the Turkish Empire. The northern province of Mosul was given to France in 1916, because of historical tensions between Britain & Tsarist Russia over domination of Central Asia & India. The British diplomats thought France could be a buffer between British controlled regions and Russia.  Things changed in the following two years, firstly Tsarist Russia collapsed, then diplomats learnt that the Turkish Petroleum company had discovered potentially lucrative & strategically important oil deposits in the province of Mosul. The British then asked to have Mosul back to put into Iraq. Naively the French agreed to this proposal elaborately declaring their total contempt for the possession, they were more interested in the levantine territories to become Syria & Lebanon.

Thus in 1918 the British invented Iraq with no regard whatsoever to the indigenous populations of Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs & Kurdish peoples. Thus from the start Iraq was a political & ethnic time bomb.  In the interwar period at first Britain occupied Iraq militarily following the defeat of the Turkish army.  In 1920 there was a general revolt against British military occupation, especially by Shia Arabs. The British followed the Turkish practice of drawing military personnel from the Sunni-Arab minority who completely dominated the security forces as a community. The Shia traditionally disdained military service. This was later to have profound political consequences for the Iraqi state. Throughout the inter-war period the Kurds who resisted any attempt to expand central government, or ‘Arab’ control to their regions were spasmodically in conflict with British forces. One experiment in colonial policing by the new medium of air power saw Winston Churchill authorise the dropping of poison gas on troublesome Kurdish warriors. Apologists have tried to claim that the authorisation was never acted on, but eye witnesses including pilots who participated in the air raids have disproved this.

At this time the British and French ruled these manufactured fragment states with the authorisation of the “League of Nations”, at the time a relatively small club of major powers, many imperialist in character such as Britain, Holland, Belgium, Portugal & France.  Britain purchased its influence in these new protectorates by installing puppet kings, in particular they enthroned two brothers of the Hashemite dynasty, thought to carry credibility with Muslim peoples because of their hereditary links with the prophet. Kings Abdullah & Faisal were established as kings of Transjordan & Iraq respectively. These kings were paid a ‘subsidy’, in other words they were employed on a salary by the British government. By the early 1930s Britain granted Iraq nominal independence, but Iraq was tied into a system of military domination & dependence. Firstly the British retained permanent military bases on Iraqi soil such as the air base at Habaniyya. To ensure the inability of Iraq to fight against Britain the independent government of Iraq was forced by treaty to purchase all its weapons & military training from Britain only, all ammunition then had to be supplied by Britain. No doubt this proved lucrative for British factories while guaranteeing both a permanent military presence in the country and complete British penetration of the Iraqi military services. The king Faisal was always perceived by politically active elements in society as a British puppet. Despite some efforts to break free of British domination, he inevitably remained tainted.

In the years following formal independence senior Sunni Arab military officers built up strong power bases within the Iraqi state. Politically they were radically nationalist and wished Iraq to break away from the British sphere of domination.  With the outbreak of World War II some of these leading officers sought to use Nazi Germany as a counter weight to Britain to secure genuine independence. Anti-British activity was willfully misrepresented as Nazi influence and used as a pretext for the invasion of Iraq with the rapid crushing of the Iraqi army. In truth the British had their own reasons for invading Iraq, one was to deny Iraqi oil to Nazi Germany the other was to secure land lines of communication to supply the USSR in its conflict with Germany. In the summer of 1941 British forces carried out the complete invasion of the Middle East, Lebanon & Syria were invaded on the pretext that they belonged to “Vichy France” and were thus enemy states, Iraq was invaded on the pretext that it was being taken over by Nazi agents working with Iraqi army officers, then Iraq was used as a springboard for the invasion of Iran on the same pretext as Iraq.  The hypocrisy of the British crushing independent states with military force, whilst claiming that the reason for the war with Germany was its lack of respect for the sovereignty of small states like Austria, Czechslovakia & Poland was not missed by people in the Middle East. It smelt of racist double standards.

Following the war Britain’s protégé King Faisal was kept on as King while Iraq nominally independent was again at the centre of a British military alliance system called the “Baghdad Pact”. The new explanation for a permanent British military presence in the country was now to be protecting the Middle East from Soviet ’expansionist designs’ during the cold war.  Again the hypocrisy of accusing other powers of expansionism whilst maintaining a massive global empire was not lost on many.  In fact Iraq’s central position in the region gave it a strategic value for British military power projection throughout the whole oil rich region. In 1958 there was a violent revolt against King Faisal viewed by many as a hated British puppet. This was led by a military coup which set a new pattern for Iraqi politics, in which political power & control of the state was to be periodically seized by cliques of Sunni military officers through coups d’etat. From this time Iraqi politics took a particularly violent turn.

The collapse of the British led Baghdad Pact led to new systems for western military domination of the region. During the 1950s British domination of Iran was replaced by US influence. Britain had opposed the populist Iranian Prime Minister Mossadeq who was anti-British and nationalised BP’s assets which dominated the Iranian oil industry.  Attempts to destabilise Iran by economic warfare, namely blocking Iranian oil exports had only damaged the Iranian economy without bringing about the overthrow of Mossadeq. In the end Britain had to call on the help of the US CIA to overthrow his Iranian government and establish a more autocratic system under the Shah Reza Pahlavi.

The price for this help was that Britain’s traditional oil monopoly in Iran had to be opened up to a new consortium of western companies including US oil companies. Reza Shah Pahlavi had originally been installed by the British following the invasion of August 1941 when they overthrew his father, before this he had been a young playboy frittering away a fortune in Paris. Like King Faisal of Iraq he was always politically tainted by his relationship with Britain.

The US now built its own military system for the region called CENTO, the “Central Treaty Organisation”. This was centred on Turkey, a NATO member, and Iran.  Infrastructure was developed to enable NATO to bring heavy military forces into the Middle East via Turkey into Iran as and when needed.  Again the pretext was to protect the Middle East from Soviet aggression. Iraq had now ostensibly become a Soviet aligned enemy in the cold war.

The massive rise in the price of oil in 1973-74 had an important impact on politics in the region. The Shah of Iran had apparently defied the west economically in his aggressive push for the highest possible oil prices, though politically he helped to undermine the Arab boycott of countries sympathetic to Israel. This was because under the Shah, Iran did not identify with the Arab peoples as fellow muslims, on the contrary his regime emphasised the distinct nature of pre-Islamic “Persian – Aryan” culture & race.

In fact the new high oil prices were not necessarily unpopular in powerful circles in Washington. They created new markets for exports of all kinds of goods & services, especially arms. The Shah began a massive military build up with the eager support of the US government which now cultivated him as the “Policeman of the Gulf”.  Despite the enormous success of the Shah’s regime in economically developing Iran, the Shah’s political ineptitude turned all elements in society against him, even his closest supporters despised him in the end.  In 1978 to 79 the revolution erupted and he fled the country leaving the way open for a regime based on an Islamic constitution which appealed to the day to day cultural values of the majority of ordinary Iranians.

The collapse of the Shah as the ‘policeman of the gulf’ brought the collapse of CENTO, and all of America’s plans for military control of the region folded.  At this time the US military were going through a dramatic transformation. The conscript army of Vietnam had descended during the 1970s into a malaise of low morale & indiscipline.  The military sought to re-invigorate themselves with a smaller but higher quality professional army. These changes began under President Carter, but really took off under Reagan.

There was now talk of a “Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force”, originally advertised as a light combined arms force which could travel rapidly to any trouble spot in the world to restore ‘peace’ and ‘stability’.  In time it emerged unsurprisingly, that the real aim of the RDF was to provide the US with the military power projection capability to invade the Middle East. Unbeknownst to most US taxpayers at the start of the 1980s their government was spending countless billions of dollars on building port facilities in Egypt & the horn of Africa, airfields in the Arabian Peninsula and huge dumps of arms & spare parts on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. The ‘light forces’ turned out to be heavy armoured divisions, and by 1983 the force was revealed to be controlled by CENTCOM, central command, the US military command responsible for the Middle East, and to have a third of a million troops at its disposal. Even some of those heavy divisions ear marked as essential reinforcements for NATO in the event of a Soviet invasion of Europe appeared double tasked to protecting the Middle East. Apparently the US thought that the need to invade the Middle East was a more likely prospect than the need to defend Europe.

However the US military had no base in the Middle East from which to use these massive forces, they had to stay at home in America commanded from their HQ in Florida, training intensively for the day they would go to war in the Middle East. The US government continually pressed their closest ally Saudi Arabia for military bases, but the Saudis refused, fearing the internal political consequences which might destabilise their hold on power, a view which must have prevailed in Washington at that time.

Meantime Iraq had become a stable & prosperous country. A series of unstable military regimes had finally culminated in the rule of the Arab Ba’ath party, or ‘Arab Renaissance‘.  Rising to the top of this regime was a ruthless hard man Sadam Hussain who used political techniques inspired by Stalin’s regime and military force to suppress political opposition and ethnic conflict.  The huge increases in oil revenues following the oil price rises of 1973 to 74 were distributed well by the state through the fully nationalised oil industry. The result was highly developed infrastructure, a well educated & trained population, & widespread well developed public services.

Following the Iranian revolution the American trained & armed military in the country largely collapsed. The officer corps was purged of many of its most able & experienced men because of suspicions they were pro-American. US boycotts meant the military could not get ammunition or spare parts for armoured vehicles & aircraft. The Iranian air force almost ceased to function. The weakness of Iran proved too much temptation for Sadam Hussain, who in September 1980 set about seizing the oil-rich province of Khuzestan under the pretext that it was really an Arab populated province. If successful Saddam could have doubled his government’s oil revenues.

However the Iraqi staff officers proved incompetent and the Iraqi advance ground to a halt due to logistical failings long before Iranian resistance had grown up to meet it.  Over the next two years the Iranian regular army steadily drove the Iraqis off Iranian soil. In the end Saddam withdrew most of his troops.

From 1982 Saddam sued for peace, but then the war entered a perverse and wasteful period where the Iranians both refused to accept a peace, exhorting their forces to conquer Iraq, whilst at the same time withholding the regular army which had brought them their successes. Lightly armed religiously inspired militias now took the lead in attacking Iraq. Often extremely young fighters lost their lives in suicidal missions. Despite at times showing dramatic successes, these militias were never able to fight effectively against Iraq’s armoured divisions.

By the summer of 1988 the Iranians gave up and agreed to a ceasefire which developed into a hostile peace.  Relations between the two countries were not normalised. During the six years of the war from 1982 – 1988 Iraq received enormous outside help. Countries like Saudi Arabia & Kuwait provided massive funds for Iraq’s war, the USSR & France shipped huge quantities of arms which built Iraq into a massive military power.  At the same time countries like Germany, Britain & the US supplied many dual use technologies which could be employed in Iraq’s rapidly expanding military industries, including the production of chemical weapons which were frequently used against the Iranians. From 1983 the US which opposed Iranian expansion & influence in the region helped Iraq with satellite intelligence and other advice & technology.  At that time there was an international consensus to back Iraq against Iran. The end result was that Iraq emerged in 1988 as a massive military power.

From the time that Iraq ceased to be useful to the US and Britain as a means of bleeding Iran, the west turned against Saddam Hussain. More & more mass media reports were heard about the sinister nature of his regime, reports about attempts to develop nuclear weapons and delivery systems such as ballistic missiles & ‘superguns’ were never off television news bulletins. It was clear that there was tension being deliberately built between western governments & Iraq.

What happened next is disputable, Saddam accused Kuwait of stealing Iraqi oil by drilling under the border, some journalists such as Philip Knightley claim there is evidence that Kuwait deliberately provoked Iraq. Given his previous form however, and given that he owed Kuwait a lot of money, it seems most likely that Saddam was tempted to solve his post-war financial problems by adding Kuwait’s oil production to his own, canceling his debts with them at the same time.

Either way Saddam made a serious miscalculation which seems out of character, it was well understood in the region that the tiny and weak oil rich sheikhdoms only existed because the western powers USA & Britain were guarantors of their sovereignty. Saddam should have known that an attack on Kuwait would precipitate US military intervention. What is clear is that multiple agencies of the US government acted to mislead Saddam into thinking it would not protect Kuwait.

Firstly the US ambassador April Glaspie had a meeting with Saddam in which she told him the US was neutral in the dispute between Kuwait & Iraq over the oil drilling accusations. More importantly she told him that the US regarded its relationship with Iraq as more important than its relationship with Kuwait, essentially giving him a green light to invade Kuwait. Later the US state department disowned her comments, but it is hard to believe that knowing of these comments they would not have acted to counteract her mistakes vigorously unless it suited them for Saddam Hussain to misinterpret America’s position.

It was clear to me personally some two weeks before the invasion of Kuwait that Iraq had such an intension, the military build up of about 200,000 troops was sufficient to do the job. During this period the US took no action of any kind to warn or deter Iraq from an attack on Kuwait. This was totally out of the normal. The US maintained permanent marine forces in the Persian Gulf and could have acted to place token numbers of forces on Kuwaiti soil to indicate an attack on Kuwait was an attack on America. Even if the Kuwaitis were too scared to allow this, America could have made some public comment to warn or deter Iraq from the attack which was obviously coming.

The US military have tried unconvincingly to pretend that they did not know Iraq was about to invade Kuwait because although the build up was massive they claim there was no evidence of command and control facilities being in place, hence they thought Saddam was bluffing. In fact there is clear evidence that the US military & the government knew Iraq was about to invade Kuwait and deliberately avoided doing any thing which might deter it.

Firstly in mid-July 1990 several weeks before the invasion, General Norman Schwartzkopf was appointed commander of CENTCOM. His job was to urgently re-orient CENTCOM from training for a war against Iran as had been the case since the beginning of the 1980s, and to prepare for a war against Iraq. This partly took place through a training exercise called INTERNAL LOOK.

Secondly it is in the public domain that some 24 hours before the invasion the President had a meeting with Schwartzkopf in which he told the President the invasion was about to happen. It is totally inexplicable that a discipline of complete silence was maintained at that point with no public warnings or statements to deter Iraq.

In fact it is clear that Saddam tested the water extensively for at least two or three weeks before invading Kuwait to see America’s reaction to his overt threats, there was none so he invaded. Remarkably even after the invasion had started and Iraqi tanks were half way across Kuwait, President Bush gave a television interview in which he clearly stated the United States government was not contemplating any military action against Iraq.

Soon after the world learned of a plan called operation DESERT SHIELD to move a quarter of a million US troops into the Persian Gulf, what the public did not generally realise was the plans had been lying on the shelf since the early 1980s, and that they had required years of infrastructure development of ports & airfields and billions of dollars of investment.

The next deception was aimed at the public in America & other allied nations. In order to safely retake Kuwait with minimal allied casualties the military would need roughly three times the number of troops as Saddam had in Kuwait, in other words about 600,000 ground forces. The 250,000 sent under ‘Desert Shield’ were more than enough to deter an Iraqi advance into Saudi Arabia, but were not enough to safely liberate Kuwait with minimal allied casualties.

At this time the US government was still telling the public they had no intension of taking Kuwait by force, they only wanted to protect the Gulf from further Iraqi aggression. This position was totally unbelievable to me personally. Now the number of Iraqi troops inside Kuwait according to US military intelligence mysteriously expanded from the original approximately 200,000 to over 500,000 about the size of the entire Iraqi armed forces. Thus began the mystery of the missing 300,000 Iraqis.

These exaggerated estimates were to provide justification for the much more massive military build up needed to retake Kuwait while we the great democratic public were being assured that no such thought had entered anyone’s mind. At the end of the war of course, we were led to believe by the allied military the 300,000 Iraqis had deserted, while other observers feared they may have been exterminated in carpet bombing. Eventually some time after the war the pentagon claimed they miscounted!

The end of the war in Kuwait was even more cynical and despicable than its avoidable start.  Seeking to weaken Iraq as much as possible President Bush encouraged the Iraqi Shia Arabs to rise up in civil war against the Ba’ath Regime, he promised them help and protection. But what the public did not realise was that these opposition political groups were politically supported and physically armed by Iran. If the Shia overthrew Saddam a pro-Iranian regime would replace him, this would be the very opposite of US political goals in the region. So instead, just as the US army was about to congratulate itself on encircling and completely destroying the only divisions in the Iraqi army that were of any importance, the so-called ’Republican Guards Divisions’, the President himself ordered the army to halt so that Saddam could extract these divisions safely and rescue himself by putting down the Shia uprising while the US military nearby watched without helping them.

The army commanders were hopping mad that all their plans had been completely sabotaged at the last minute. The disingenuous explanation given to the public was that photographs of the massacres of retreating Iraqi troops had horrified public opinion at home and the President was responding to public alarm. Of course these photographs showed the effects of air attacks on defenceless retreating convoys on the road leading from Kuwait city to Iraq and had nothing to do with the battle to destroy the best armed and trained Iraqi armoured divisions out in the desert.

The result of these convolutions of foreign policy was that Iraq had been cut down to size, Saddam’s huge arsenal had been mainly destroyed and his regime weakened. The main benefit to the US military was they now had permanent bases in the Persian Gulf from which future operations could be launched. US ships patrolled the Persian Gulf, US planes operating out of Saudi Arabia over flew Iraq, and Kuwait beholden to the US would play host permanently to scaled down ground forces. Thus the US now became “policeman of the Gulf” itself, no need for proxies.

A further shameful feature of this episode was that following the liberation of Kuwait there was much business available for the reconstruction. Only companies from the leading western nations which had helped the Amir of Kuwait, namely the USA, Britain & France would be allowed to bid for contracts, countries which avoided military commitment like Germany & Japan would be excluded. It’s an ill wind which blows nobody any good.

The rebuilding of Iraq’s military power, and consequently its economy & infrastructure would now be prevented by economic sanctions all but banning oil sales, the main basis of Iraq’s wealth.  The mass of Iraqis suffered as the country was economically strangulated.  American combat flights would patrol Iraqi airspace, safe regions would be upheld for the Kurds. From time to time air attacks would stoke up the diplomatic war of nerves. US policy had painted itself and Iraq into a hopeless corner. The US feared the fall of Saddam would lead to a Shia dominated pro-Iran regime, but if Saddam held on to power, sanctions could not be lifted. How to move forwards then? To remove sanctions as a growing number of nations wanted, could have led to Saddam rebuilding his military strength.

Back in January 1991 during the rapid ground advance it looks as if the USA had toyed with the idea of overthrowing Saddam a course which would have avoided the dilemma. However at that time the USSR was still an important regional player and would not have accepted such a policy gracefully. The collapse of Soviet power in August 1991 came too late to open this door for the US military in Iraq. During the Clinton years foreign policy hawks and the military became engrossed in destabilising & dismantling the last communist empire in Europe, Yugoslavia. So Iraq was largely neglected for over a decade.

By the time Bush junior was elected in 2000, the Middle East was back at the heart of the foreign policy agenda.  Now the communists Milosevic & his wife were out of power, policy experts sought the rapid extrication of US military forces from Kosovo & Bosnia so they could be turned on the Middle East. It is quite clear that Bush, with his father’s cronies Dick Cheney & Donald Rumsfeld doing the thinking for him, came into the Whitehouse with the predetermined intention of invading Iraq. This time there would be no Soviet presence to deter such a course of action.  A single monopolistic superpower was going to test the limits of unilateral action, others would have to choose their sides as America took the initiative again.

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