WAR IN MESOPOTAMIA: TRANSFERRED TO PRIME MINISTER NUR-AL MILIKI
Abdur Rahman Chowdhury
After conducting the warfare in Iraq for nine years which took the lives of 4,500 U.S. soldiers and injured over 30,000 marines and cost one trillion dollars the U.S. government has now handed over the responsibility to Iraqi Prime Minister Nur-Al Maliki. The U.S. flag was pulled down at the military base in Baghdad on 15 December in presence of the Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The last batch of U.S. soldiers crossed the Iraq-Kuwait border on 23 December. Washington will however maintain its largest embassy in Baghdad with 16,000 personnel. This will include contractors, security personnel and about 1600 diplomats. There is no reliable statistics about the casualty from Iraqi side. The Washington Post refers to some sources estimating Iraqi casualty at 100,000. However, non-American sources put the casualty between 700,000 and 1,000,000 and five million displaced. Those Iraqi families who lost their near and dear ones and the families of fallen U.S. soldiers will never forget the tragedies unfolded on them. The families of dead and wounded American soldiers and their friends will continue to ask whether their sacrifice was worthwhile and what great objectives were achieved by this war. They will never get a true answer partly because those who led the nation into war are now out of the game. They feel no obligation to explain the rationale of the war nor will they admit the pack of lies they had told to mislead the people. The Iraq war was not the first time that the President of the United States lied to the people. In the past number of presidents had resorted to falsehood first to drag the nation into war and then to keep them engaged in the war. This happened in Vietnam, Korea and Granada. On the other side, the Iraqis will wonder why and how their leaders fell prey to foreign hatched designs and brought the country to the present stage. Why did Saddam Hussain invade Kuwait in 1990 and why did he defy the international community and refused to withdraw from Kuwait? They will most likely not get the answer either.
I was transferred to Iraq in mid 2011 as the Deputy Country Director of the United Nations World Food Program. My office was in Baghdad but I had the opportunity to travel all over the country during my two years stint in Iraq. The Iraqi officials or people would never get involved in a discussion on politics or on any subject that would have any link with the regime. In private some of my Iraqi colleagues would talk about the situation in the country though with lot of caution. In response to my usual query why Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait I heard different versions. The explanation I heard from more than one was that the Amir of Kuwait had provided significant financial support to Iraq during the Iran- Iraq war. After the war was over, in one of the bilateral meetings, a Minister from Kuwait reminded his Iraqi counterpart about the repayment of the debt. The Iraqi Minister replied that Iraq had defended all its neighbors including Kuwait against Iranian invasion; Iraq had repaid the debt in blood. The Kuwaiti Minister suggested apparently in humor that Iraq could consider handing over a few young ladies as part of debt repayment and Kuwait would close the chapter. This infuriated the Iraqi Minister who relayed the story to President Saddam Hussain. President got extremely annoyed and asked his Defense Minister to invade Kuwait. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this story but since I heard it from more than one person and having heard the erratic style of behavior of Saddam Hussain I tend to believe it. Prior to the invasion Saddam Hussain reportedly discussed the matter with the U.S. Ambassador in Baghdad who apparently made no objection to proposed intervention. Kuwait was a small country and the Iraqi army occupied the entire country in one day’s offensive.
The Kuwait invasion alarmed all the countries in the Arab world including Saudi Arabia and Egypt. They believed that, unless confronted, Saddam Hussain would try to occupy smaller countries in the Gulf and one day might appear on their borders. The Arab world got united in condemning Iraq for the invasion and asked her to immediately withdraw from Kuwait. The United States and the European countries became worried that the tension in the Middle East resulted from Kuwait invasion would disrupt the oil supply. They moved to the United Nations and got a resolution passed asking Iraq to withdraw its troops and respect the territorial integrity of Kuwait. King Hussain of Jordan could foresee the danger in the horizon and sent his Prime Minister to Baghdad to persuade Saddam Hussain to withdraw from Kuwait. But Saddam Hussain remained adamant.
In the summer 1990, the United States and her European allies jointly launched a massive military offensive against Iraqi troops stationed in Kuwait. The Iraqi military could hardly withstand the offensive and rolled back in great humiliation. Kuwait was liberated and turned into a bitter and long term enemy of Saddam Hussain. U.S. and her allies established “no fly zone” preventing Iraqi air force and civil aviation to use the air space. Earlier the United Nations had imposed sanction on the export of oil and gas from Iraq. The three northern governorates (provinces) home to three million Kurds was awarded full autonomy, granted 13 percent of national revenues and allowed to have their own para-military force to oversee law and order in the region. The Iraqi government ceased to have any authority over the three northern governorates. Deeply humiliated in the war Saddam Hussain became a prisoner at home with no friends even in the Arab world. In the language of the western press Saddam Hussain was put in a cage.
The sanction brought the Iraqi economy to a standstill. Oil being the major resource to earn foreign currency falling under sanction Iraq could not import food grains and other essentials required for the population. The hospitals began closing down for lack of drugs and equipment, level of malnutrition rose, infrastructure collapsed, water and power supply broke down. The population experienced a sharp deterioration in the quality of life. Tareq Aziz, the Foreign Minister of Iraq, moved to the United Nations and made a passionate plea in the Security Council. He complained that the sanction had taken away the toys from the children and brought hardships to the population. He asked the sanctions to be relaxed if not, withdrawn. The United Nations passed a resolution called SCR 986 which allowed Iraq to export certain quantum of crude oil but the sales proceeds were to be remitted to Bank Paribas in France. In return, the Iraqi government was authorized to import food items, essential drugs and medical equipment, agricultural inputs, books and journals for educational institutions, housing and construction materials, equipment and materials required for infrastructure rehabilitation. All these were to be imported at the level periodically approved by the United Nations and utilized under the monitoring of the United Nations agencies. The scheme was popularly known as Oil for Food Program. It was carefully designed to allow Iraq to import essential items with the approval of the United Nations but kept the oil revenues out of reach of the Iraqi government. The Iraqi officials were indignant of the arrangement under which their own resources were utilized by the United Nations while they had no control over it. This was an infringement on the sovereignty of Iraq. The teams of inspectors assigned by the International Atomic and Energy Agency (IAEA) and United Nations Monitoring, Verifications and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) to look for the weapons of mass destruction were also funded by the Oil for Food Program.
Though the Iraqi government had no control over Oil for Food program but the scheme was able to meet the basic needs of the population. The government had adopted a country wide distribution mechanism under which 90,000 food agents were releasing food commodities to the households on monthly frequency. There was very little diversion or leakage in the program. During the period under sanction the country was moving forward though slowly in terms of rehabilitation of infrastructure, restoration of water and power supply, improvement of agriculture and resumption of trade and commerce. The wheat production in 2002 exceeded the previous records and the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in Baghdad made a recommendation to allow Oil for Food program to buy local grown wheat. There was marked improvement in diplomatic arena as well. Apart from North American countries, U.K, Spain and Italy, many countries in Europe, Asia and Africa restored diplomatic relation with Baghdad. Bangladesh also had its embassy functioning in Baghdad.
The period from 1995 till 2002 was relatively calm. There was no tension at the borders, the Kurds in the northern governorates were contended with the self rule and trade and commerce were going on well under and outside the Oil for Food program. The U.K. and U.S governments tried to harass Baghdad from time to time but the government was able to deal with it through diplomatic channels. This was a period when Saddam Hussain could have reached out to the Kurds leadership in the northern governorates and negotiated a settlement offering greater autonomy. Jalal Talebani, the current president of Iraq was the governor of Sulaimania, the largest governorate in the north. Talebani and his colleagues were in favor of living within the framework of united Iraq. They sought the help of Iran in order to protect them against Arabisation. It’s still matter of great mystery why Saddam Hussain and his advisors did not make a peace move with the Kurds leadership. It is now common knowledge that prior to the invasion the U.S. diplomats and army personnel were frequently visiting the Kurds area to plan the military offensive. Had the Kurds leadership been brought to a negotiated settlement the Americans could not have possibly set their foot on the soil of Iraq. Likewise Baghdad could have made a peace deal with Kuwait during this period. Kuwait was an ally when Iraq was at war with Iran. Kuwait provided huge financial and logistical support to the Iraqi defense force. Had Baghdad made friendly overture to its south-western neighbor and accepted legitimate demands of its own Kurds citizens Iraq would not have possibly gone into the era of destruction. Dictators suffer from arrogance and ignorance. Saddam Hussain like other despots refused to read the writings of the wall, consequently destroyed him and brought misery to the country.
The IAEA and the UNMOVIC both intensified search for chemical and biological weapons in Iraq from September 2002. But the governments of U.K. and U.S. continued to blame Baghdad for not extending cooperation to the weapon inspectors. At the same time they began military build- up and by the end of the year the number of U.S. troops reached to around 100,000 at Kuwait-Iraq border. It was sometime in the third week of December the Foreign Ministry arranged a meeting with the representatives of the United Nations agencies. Dr. Sayed Hassan Masawi, the Director General of the Foreign Ministry gave us a briefing on the progress of the inspection. He said that the Inspectors were given absolute freedom to move anywhere within the country to look for prohibited weapons. Dr. Masawi lamented that despite the highest level of cooperation extended by Baghdad the preparation for war was going on. He sought our good offices to convey to headquarters of our respective agencies that military intervention would bring about destruction to infrastructure and cause immense sufferings to the civilians. The Iraqi government was convinced that the weapons inspection would not satisfy the U.S. and the war was imminent. Dr. Masawi was only conveying his government’s deep concern. Subsequent events proved that Dr. Masawi was correct. A few weeks later Colin Powell, the Secretary of State made a stupid presentation at the Security Council claiming that Iraq still possessed nerve agents. UNMOVIC examined all the records, items and evidences referred in the presentation and concluded that it had found no convincing evidence of any prohibited activity in Iraq. Mohamed El-Baradei, the Director General of IAEA, also confirmed in the Security Council that his agency found no evidence of ongoing nuclear or nuclear related activities in Iraq. Colin Powell made a fool of himself.
Dismissing the compelling evidences provided by the technical agencies that Iraq was not in possession of chemical or biological weapons and ignoring the world public opinion United States backed by U.K., Spain and Italy invaded Iraq on 20 March 2003. Two days prior to invasion my colleagues and I were evacuated to Larnaca, Cyprus. We set up office at the Hotel Flamingo, stayed in Larnaca, Cyprus for nearly three months and worked in preparing post war action plan for humanitarian activities. I returned to Baghdad in the last week of May 2003. I found myself in a changed environment. As I was travelling from the airport by office vehicle my mind moved back to September 2001 when I first came to Baghdad. It was a long ten hour’s drive from Amman to Baghdad as at that time, due to enforcement of no fly zone, we could only travel by road. The city was calm but lively. Now I could see lot of chaos, houses damaged and shops looted. The driver blamed the Kuwaitis for the looting.
Tents were set up in the office premises for the accommodation. Each tent had ten beds, one bed was reserved for me. I however decided to sleep in my own office which had an attached bath room. I arranged a mattress, bed sheet and pillows and turned my work place into office cum bed room. Cafeteria, located at the first floor, was operating from morning till mid night and I became a regular customer.
Two days after my return to Baghdad I met Dr. Fakhrudin Rashan who was the Director General of the Ministry of Trade in the previous regime. He was our principal counterpart in the government. Dr.Rashan was a decent, competent and well respected official and I was able to cultivate an excellent relation with him. I was pleasantly surprised to meet him in my office. In the past we could see him with prior appointments and in his office. I was very happy to see him well. He told me the chaos he had witnessed after the U.S. military moved in. He decided to come forward and work with the invaders in order to prevent the situation from sliding down. Once the normalcy was partly restored and offices resumed functioning Dr. Rashan was made the Deputy Director General while one of his subordinates was installed as the Director General of the Ministry of Trade. In the meantime Paul Bramer became the Administrator of Iraq with a dozen Advisors, each responsible for a particular ministry. Debathification began with all seriousness paving the way for the insurgency to grow. In the middle of June our office in Mosul came under attack in broad day light. A few days later a WHO vehicle was attacked by a gun man on its way to Karbala. The vehicle was damaged but luckily the driver and the passengers were unhurt. Meanwhile our expatriate staff began to return in large numbers though the security situation was getting worry some. We were allowed to relocate to guest houses and hotels but our movements came under severe restrictions. We were advised not to venture out after sun set. We could feel the pressure being built around us and on 22 August a bomb exploded near the exterior wall of the United Nations compound. It was a three storied building, one part of the building collapsed and 23 officials including the Special Representative of the Secretary General died. The U.S. military could never comprehend that within such a short time the insurgency would gain so much capability to strike a target at the heart of the city. The growth of insurgency, their attacks on the coalition army and the counter insurgency response would require another article to be dedicated. Hardly a family would be found in Iraq who hasn’t lost or got seriously wounded a near and dear one in the war. Now the U.S. led war is over but the death and destruction left behind will remind the people in the world how a brutal warfare was conducted by a super power on false pretext. The widows (reportedly 100,000), orphans and maimed in Iraq can hardly expect for better days to come. They have the right to demand justice. Can their government seek trials of George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell in the International Court of Justice on charges of crime against humanity? If Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karajid, Charles Taylor could be brought to trial “the gang of five”, who had committed much bigger crime, must also stand trial.
Iraq had one of the strongest army in the Middle East. It came to the help of Syria during the 1974 Arab- Israel war. It became weak after the war with Iran but had the potential to rebound. The U.S. military would ensure that Iraqi army is not strengthened to a level capable of posing a threat to their long time ally Israel. The U.S. policy makers thought that by neutralizing Iraq they would remove an enemy of Israel for good. This might happen. However, given half of Iraqi population following same faith as that of the people of Iran and most of Iraq’s present leadership having had enjoyed Iranian hospitality during their exile, it would be natural to expect that Baghdad would pursue a friendly relation with its southern neighbor. The people of Iran are emotionally attached to the holy places of Najaf and Karbala. Millions of Iranian visit these places on pilgrimage every year. Iraq has a long border with Iran and both would gain from trade and commerce with each other. The majority of the population in Gulf countries is shiaite Muslim and they have already accepted the de-facto regional leadership of Iran. The cultural, social and political influence of Persia will now spread from the Shaatil Arab to the Gulf of Aqaba and beyond. Persia and Mesopotamia both have rich culture, literature and tradition to draw inspiration for moving forward. If they could forge unity and guard against falling prey to foreign intrigues, they would be well placed to lead the new Middle East.
*The author is a former official of the United Nations