Iraq: current policy and historical context

Iraq: current policy and historical context
Judith Deutsch

Judging from Canadian history, from the government’s lack of transparency and its utter hypocrisy, it is hard to believe that “Canadian airstrikes will stick to Iraq” (p. A8, Toronto Star, Dec. 7, 2014). According to the article, Canada has several hundred personnel, six CF-18s, two CP-140 Aurora surveillance aircraft, and a C-150 Polaris involved in a bombing campaign against the Islamic State. Astonishingly, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird appears to rationalize and moralize Canadian involvement as if this is a proxy civil war: that 145 Canadians have joined Islamist extremist organizations “’compels us to accept our share of responsibility’ in working to defeat them.” While the Government threatens to collectively punish First Nations communities for lack of transparency, Ottawa refuses to release the costs of its military interventions.

Focusing on the tragedy of Iraq
This unending war against terrorism erases anything having to do with the actual people of Iraq or with their recent disastrous history. While the death of 2,977 people on 9/11/01 is acknowledged as a trauma evoking worldwide empathy and sympathy for the victims, there is no moral imperative to understand the death of at least 2 million people from the 1991 and 2003 Iraq wars perpetrated by “western civilization” against a civilian population, including the ½ million children who died because of the UN sanctions between 1991-2003. By the end of 2008 there were 5 million displaced Iraqi people, most of whom were taken in by nearby Muslim countries.

U.S. military ties with Iraq before 1991
The exclusive focus on Saddam Hussein and on Islamic terrorism obscures the West’s past and current war crimes and violations of international law in Iraq. . During WWI, Britain and France secretly negotiated the Sykes-Picot agreement dividing up the Ottoman Empire between them. Britain retained military bases and oil interests in Iraq after Iraq became independent in 1932. The CIA helped bring the Ba’ath Party to power in 1968 and then backed Saddam Hussein when he seized full power in 1979.

From the 1970s through the 1980s, the United States provided Saddam Hussein with “satellite targeting information for more precise use of chemical weapons, conventional arms and loan guarantees, and seed stock for biological weapons.” Hussein used chemical weapons against Kurds in Halbja, killing between 3,200 and 5000 people. During the Anfal, Hussein killed as many as 182,000 Kurds. Poison gas was also used against Iranian troops during the Iran-Iraq war. “None of this bothered the US government. When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, the US provided arms to both sides, hoping to maximize the loss of lives and economic cost to both countries, either of which could become a potential challenger to US regional autonomy.” (p. 67, Bennis). Between 1985-89, the US Commerce Department approved exports including sarin and mustard gas (Finestein). Chemical and biological weapons research, and research into nuclear weapons was actively supported by the US government as revealed in the 1994 Senate Banking Committee hearings. An 8000 page document which the US tried to conceal from the UN Security Council, listed 24 US corporations, 55 US subsidiaries of foreign corporations, and a number of US government agencies that provided parts, material, training, and other assistance to Iraq’s chemical, biological, missile, and nuclear weapons programs, with some continuing until the end of 1990. (p. 69, Bennis). The list includes Bechtel, the US Departments of Energy, Commerce, Defense, and Agriculture, and the federal laboratories involved in nuclear weapons at Sandia, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore. Rumsfeld and Kissinger were implicated in shady arms trade deals with Iraq.

Iraqi society just prior to the 1991 war
Before the 1991 Gulf War (“Desert Storm”), Iraq developed in a secular way under the Ba’ath government. Baghdad was cosmopolitan, with much intermarriage between Sunni and Shia. Iraq had one of the smallest gaps between wealth and poverty in the Arab world though Sunnis were disproportionately wealthy and Shia disproportionately poor. There was free secular education for both boys and girls, including university and advanced study abroad, and free health care in one of the most advanced medical systems in the Arab world. Phyllis Bennis notes that before the 1991 war, UNICEF was preparing to open an Iraqi office to donate funds to other countries.

1990-91 A turning point in history. The First Gulf War
The 1991 war came at a turning point in global history. December 8, 1991 saw the end of the Cold War as the U.S.S.R. ceased to exist. The Berlin Wall had come down in 1989. In February 1991 the UN Earth Summit began convening in order to address climate change. There was a brief window of global cooperation for nations to work on the elimination of nuclear weapons and fossil fuels. Instead, the U.S. launched a massive war against Iraq, NATO began to expand, and shortly after the initial environment meetings the UN climate body gave control of climate change financing to the World Bank.
Between August 1990 and January 1991, the U.S. under George H.W. Bush wavered in deciding whether to attack Iraq for invading Kuwait. There was recorded evidence that the U.S. ambassador, April Glaspie, directly told Saddam Hussein that the U.S. was neutral and did not intend to interfere in an Arab-Arab dispute: “we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.” Subsequently, the U.S. refused to accept any negotiations and launched a war of attrition in January 1991.
The war started with a massive, televised air assault on Baghdad. The coalition, including Canada, flew over 100,000 sorties, dropping 88,500 tons of bombs in one month, and committed numerous war crimes: the bombing of a civilian air raid shelter, killing more than 400 civilians; killing thousands of Iraqi soldiers fleeing Kuwait as they tried to surrender; plowing over and burying alive at least 457 soldiers; disproportionately killing between 20,000 and 26,000 Iraqi military personnel and an undisclosed number of civilians, with the U.S. losing 146 soldiers. From the Human Rights Watch report: “Like the issue of damage to civilian property, the issue of the number of Iraqi civilians killed by allied bombardment was carefully —and deliberately — side-stepped by U.S. military officials during the war. To date, neither the U.S. nor other allied forces have offered public estimates of the number of Iraqi civilian casualties during Operation Desert Storm.” At this time, the U.S. did not back up its statements about supporting Kurdish and Shiite uprisings against Hussein, leading to additional mass killing and displacement. There was also highly toxic environmental devastation: the U.S. dispersed depleted uranium over wide areas, and Iraq dumped 400m gallons of crude oil into the Persian Gulf and set fire to 700 oil wells in Kuwait.

The UN Sanctions Regime in Iraq: 1991-2003
The UN Sanctions regime in Iraq, the Oil-for-Food Programme, was a human catastrophe. Denis Halliday and his successor, Hans Von Sponeck, both resigned their positions as UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq rather than collude with the immense suffering imposed by the US, UK and the UN Security Council. Chomsky describes it as “cruel and unremitting interference …directed against the tortured population of Iraq”, and John Pilger calls the siege “one of the greatest acts of aggression.” Von Sponeck details the rigidity of UNSC policy, the imperviousness to human suffering and to pleas from humanitarian and religious organizations worldwide. No local products, including food, could be purchased under the programme, even though the source of funding was Iraqi oil revenue. The oil industry and private Iraqi industries were ravaged by war and neglect, yet not allowed to be rehabilitated. Iraq as a nation and Iraqi citizens were dependent upon the UNSC for survival. In total, each person was allowed 32 cents per day for food, medicine, agricultural inputs, electricity, water, sewerage and education. The UNSC did not permit procurement of locally produced food though the cost was significantly lower. “This would have freed funds for medicines, water supply and sanitation, education supplies, and other humanitarian needs” (p. 44). He wrote that the US and UK representatives refused to hear any reports of the actual conditions. He describes a managerial, bureaucratic mentality of disregard and insensitivity to human misery and suffering, including the response of Under Secretary General Louise Frechette from Canada.

The 2003 War and Subsequent Occupation
The sanctions left Iraq in catastrophic conditions, followed by the coalition attack in 2003 on the pretext that Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction. Pre-dating 9/11 were U.S. plans for destabilizing Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Iran, Syria, Sudan and Somalia. True to its history of scorched earth warfare since the U.S. Civil War, the US-led coalition destroyed essential infrastructure, massacred civilians, and trashed the artefacts and libraries of this ancient civilization. The coalition launched attacks from land, air, and sea. UNSC Resolution 1441 authorized weapons inspections but not the use of force.

After G.W. Bush’s notorious “Mission Accomplished” speech in May, 2003, Iraqis mounted a guerrilla resistance against the Occupation and massive bloodshed has continued since. The U. S.-led coalition violated international law in Abu Ghraib, Haditha, Fallujah and elsewhere. Bennis notes that Resolution 1441 indicated that the war was illegal, but Resolution 1483 in effect legalized the occupation and recognized the US and Britain as the occupying powers and eliminated all UN monitoring of Iraq’s oil sales. It gave Iraq’s oil industry the kind of legal immunity that traditionally is available only to the UN and its agencies. It provided “functional, if not legal, authorization of the invasion and occupation of Iraq (p. 138). The Occupation, under Paul Bremer, led to the firing of virtually the entire civil service, the Iraqi military and police forces, and the privileging of Iraqi expatriates. The aim was to liberalize the Iraqi economy, especially the oil industry. The US supported the creation of a new set of political parties based largely on ethnic and/or religious identity, further fragmenting Iraqi national identity. Bremer kept in place 140,000 US troops, 20,000 non-US coalition troops, and tens of thousands of private military contractors. Bremer imposed 97 new laws and regulations as “binding instructions or directives to the Iraqi people….including capping taxes at 15%, guaranteeing the right to allow up to 100% foreign ownership of all Iraqi entities, corporate regulations designed to qualify Iraq for the WTO, and continued protection for companies such as Halliburton with oil-related contracts signed before the hand-over.” Order 39 privatized 200 Iraqi state companies and allowed repatriating 100% profits out of Iraq (see Bennis, Jamail). Under Bremer Order 17, Allied forces and military contractors were exempt under Iraqi law. There were an estimated 150,000 private contractors in Iraq. Most of the private military contractors were from the United States (Blackwater) but some were white South Africans who had served in the apartheid-era police or military, Chileans who served under Pinochet, some Serbians who were war criminals, British Aegis mercenaries (Bennis, p. 80 and Finestein p. 405-6).

Canada at war
Richard Sanders of Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade details Canadian covert participation in his publication “No means Yes.” He quotes Secretary of State Colin Powell: “there are 15 other nations, who, for one reason or another, do not wish to be publicly named but will be supporting the coalition.” Examples of Canadian participation: Canada provided “fleet support” in the Persian Gulf, stationing six multi-role patrol frigates that were integrated into “strike groups”; Canada captured and handed over Iraqis to U.S. Forces and some were sent to be tortured at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan; General Walt Natynczyk was Deputy Commanding General of the Multi-National Corps and led 35,000 U.S. troops in Iraq; Lt. Col. Martin Galvin said a “significant number” of Canadian troops were deployed with the 552nd Air Control Wing since the air campaign began; Canadian CP-140 “Aurora” spy planes gathered intelligence for the U.S. military in 2003

The People
Most important to know about is the lives of Iraqis through all of this. Dahr Jamail, an American social worker, chose to go to Iraq and to see and listen to the people themselves. His account of the suffering is heart-rending and is a manifesto to the indefensibility of war. He describes young frightened American soldiers and their random acts of extreme violence. There’s the ancient city of Samarra inhabited as long ago as 5500 B.C. and now with bullet-riddled buildings and a man exclaiming with his hands in the air: “If the Americans can shoot every child walking in the street, it means the end of this planet.” Jamail describes two sieges of Fallujah where 50,000 people were held captive while the media claimed that no civilians were in the city. In Operation Phantom Fury the coalition dropped cluster bombs and white phosphorus on the captive population, razed to the ground the Nazzal Emergency Hospital, attacked the Fallujah General Hospital, refused entry to the Iraqi Red Crescent. An elderly man named Abu Sabah said that when anyone touched the fires caused by white phosphorus “their body burned for hours.”

The British International Institute for Strategic Studies in London concluded that the Iraq war accelerated the recruitment for Al-Qaeda. “The current turmoil results not from the centuries-old feud between Sunnis and Shias but from a revolt against very specific governmental policies – most of which have their origins in the U.S. invasion and occupation” (Cousins). This is consistent with political scientist Robert Pape’s findings based on his analysis of every incident of suicide terrorism between 1980 and 2003. He found that the one common determinant was occupation by a democratic country. Ending occupations stopped suicide terrorist attacks.

In Iraq, most of the fighters became radicalized by the war itself and were not former militants. There were no foreign terrorists in Iraq before the US invasion. Under the Occupation, Iraq’s border guards were demobilized, making its borders permeable. ISIS includes many secular Ba’athist military officers who provide strategic knowledge, and there is millions of dollars of U.S. military equipment left behind by the U.S. and Iraqi armies. Ady Cousins’ article cites a number of sources: “The U.S. intervention in Iraq is effectively shoring up a brutal, sectarian regime that has driven a section of its own population into the arms of IS.” Nir Rosen noted that Bremer pitted minorities against each other: “citizens were forced to declare a sect on all state-issued documents. Sectarian identity formed the basis of political organization: Each sect was allocated a quota in the governing council…. Politicians vying for political power pitted Iraq’s ethnic and religious groups against one another, carrying this precedent into the new government.” Al-Gharbi also writes of the effect of the Arab Spring, with widespread protests against the U.S. puppet government under Maliki. A Human Rights Watch report documented “unspeakable abuses by forces loyal to the Maliki government: indiscriminate air strikes that killed hundreds or even thousands of civilians in Sunni areas; torture and extrajudicial killings in prisons and the incorporation of Shia militia into the government’s security forces….” Amnesty International reports that “in recent months, Shia militias have been abducting and killing Sunni civilian men in Baghdad and around the country. These militias, often armed and backed by the government of Iraq, continue to operate with varying degrees of cooperation from government forces – ranging from tacit consent to coordinated, or even joint, operations.” The initial Sunni uprising was not synonymous with ISIS. “From the outset there have been a range of different forces involved with tensions between them.” John Negroponte was the U.S. ambassador to Iraq at this time. Previously he had served in Honduras and was accused or widespread human rights violations connected with the CIA-trained Honduras death squads. Further, James Steele was at the time adviser to the training of Iraqi security forces and was formerly the military adviser in El Salvador and smuggled weapons to the Contras. Steele and General Petraeus took charge of the “ Salvadorization of Iraq”. U.S. Special Forces advised, supported, and trained Iraqi death squads which were “hand-picked from the Kurdish Peshmerga, Shi’ite Mehdi Army, and Badr Army militias, to target Sunni resistance leaders and those who supported them” (p. 244-245, Jamail, and p. 165 Scahill). Jamail quotes from a letter written by Dennis Kucinich to then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, predicting that creation of this paramilitary unit would “lead to a wave of extrajudicial killings, not only of armed rebels but of nationalists, other opponents of the U.S. occupation and thousands of civilian Baathists.” (p. 247).
The sectarian wars are rooted in the instability, chaos and violence caused by the U.S. invasion, by US support for corrupt dictatorships across the Middle East, and for support of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. “The US troops left behind a devastated, tortured Iraq. What they didn’t leave behind is one dollar for reparations or compensation….compensation and reparations are only a start. Our real obligation, to the people of Iraq and the region and the rest of the world, is to transform our government and our country so that these resource-driven wars, shaped by lies and fought for power and for empire, whether in Iran or somewhere else, can never be waged again.”(Bennis, The Nation, March 19, 2013).

The Cost
Joseph Stiglitz estimated that the war cost $3tn, yet it is deceptive to speak of the “cost” of wars. How do you “cost” essential services for which society is responsible, like water infrastructure or healthcare that now suffer because money is siphoned off to the military or to tax havens? How can you “cost” priceless human life and destroyed environments? What is quantifiable are the profits that go to war profiteers like the financial institutions and the military/industrial complex and their facilitating governments, their bureaucracies, shareholders, mercenaries. In Aharon Shabtai’s poem J’Accuse, the sniper does not act alone: “the tree doesn’t go green when a single leaf unfurls, many wrinkled brows leaned over the plans.”

• Greenhouse Gas Emissions: “On the evening of March 19, 2003, 1,700 aircraft (bombers, fighters, and other warships) flew roughly 1,400 strike sorties on critical targets, and fired 504 cruise missiles, directly into the heart of Baghdad” (Sanders, p 40). The military is the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases and is exempt under the Kyoto Protocol. For example, the F-16 Fighter Jet uses 28 gal/minute, or 1680 gal/hour.
• Refugees: Canada commits to taking in 200 government-sponsored Syrian refugees. Reports of the actual numbers admitted to Canada vary from “under 500”(Toronto Star, 09/12/14) to zero. Lebanon, often denigrated as a non-democratic sectarian state has taken in over 1.2 million Syrian refugees – about ¼ of its overall population.
• Health effects of Depleted Uranium. Unavailable are medical studies of the effects of depleted uranium in Fallujah and elsewhere in Iraq. The World Health Organization agreed to consult the pro-business International Atomic Energy Agency before issuing statements in which the IAEA might have an interest. Subsequently, WHO has released no critical statements about ionizing radiation since the agreement was signed in 1959” (Dewar, p. 21).
• Canada and Weaponization of Space: Earlier Liberal governments kept secret Canada’s involvement with the weaponization of space …taking us one step closer to nuclear war. In August, 2014, General Natynczyk was appointed head of the Canadian Space Agency. The website states that the Agency fights cancer and “benefits all humanity.” General Natynczyk was the first of three Canadian generals to serve as Deputy Commander of the Multi-National Corps-Iraq.
• International Law: Richard Falk, past UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, states that Israel’s attack on Gaza “is an unspeakable departure from what had been anticipated as the baseline of legitimate uses of force for purposes of security and self-defense and needs to be defined as other than warfare. The illegality is compounded because there is no option for civilians to escape, either by crossing borders or by becoming internally displaced into safer enclaves.” This is equally true of the sieges of Fallujah.

Canadian Imperialism and colonialism.
The current escalation of war in Iraq is but one aggression in which Canada plays a part. There is “non-military” aid to Ukraine including six CF-18 fighter jets (!), militarization of the Arctic, $14b arms sales to Saudi Arabia, nuclear trade with India in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the militarization of “peacekeeping” in Haiti, unwavering support for Israel including opposition to the recent UN resolution criticizing Israel for not signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty, blocking a UN climate agreement, blocking UN conventions on racism and on arms control, and Government of Canada and provincial governments’ facilitation of innumerable ruinous extraction sites worldwide and within Canada itself.

The war against the younger generation.
Wars are also about generational differences, with young soldiers used by the old and powerful as human shields, cannon fodder, phallic symbols. Displacing aggression to “others” sidesteps this inter-generational tension and derails the societal task of establishing good enough life conditions for the younger generation. Young men learn to kill but not how to have relationships, and now more soldiers who serve in Iraq die from suicide than from war.

The political task: stopping war.
Recommendations of Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute (Amsterdam):
The bombing should stop immediately, and be replaced with a U.S. policy based on:
• Supporting an intensive new UN-based diplomatic initiative involving all parties in the region
• Opening direct talks with Iran and Russia based on shared opposition to ISIS – with Iran to jointly push for ending anti-Sunni sectarianism in the Iraqi government, and with Russia to work towards ending the multi-party civil war in Syria
• Pressuring U.S. allies in the region to stop their governments and people from arming and facilitating the movement of ISIS fighters
• Shifting the war funds to a massive increase in humanitarian assistance

Phyllis Bennis admonishes anti-war activism for limiting their work to what’s possible, not to what’s necessary. Sanders goes on to say that “most disheartening is that among those conned were many well-meaning people who should have known better than to accept empty government promises. The peace movement’s failure to see through the government’s elaborate hoax ensured that there have been no significant protests against Canada’s very real complicity in the Iraq war.”

What is essential is to stop war altogether. For this it is necessary for the diverse causes to be informed about every aspect of what is going on in the world and to actually work hard and persistently together. This includes groups working on peace, war resisters, climate change and climate justice, mining, nuclear weapons and the nuclear industry, conventional weapons, indigenous rights, refugees, open borders, prisons, policing, surveillance, social and economic justice, institutional change from the local to international levels. There’s much knowledge and fine investigative work – it’s necessary to use it.

Selected bibliography
Bennis, Phyllis (2009). Ending the Iraq War: A primer. Olive Branch Press. Also see many articles at Institute for Policy Studies and on Democracy Now.
Cousins, Ady “However much Obama bombs Ira, his sectarian allies will not defeat Islamic State. Oct 21, 2014.
Finestein, Andrew (2011). The Shadow World: Inside the global arms trade. Penguin.
Jamail, Dahr (2007). Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an unembedded journalist in Occupied Iraq. Haymarket Books.
Sanders, Barry(2009). TheGreen Zone: The environmental costs of militarism. AK Press.
Sanders, Richard (December 2010). Operation Silent Partner: Canada’s quite complicity in the Iraq war.
Scahill, Jeremy (2013). Dirty Wars: The world is a battlefield. Nation Books.
Von Sponeck, H.C. (2006). A Different Kind of War: The UN sanctions regime in Iraq. Berghahn


  1. Laurie Adams

    Bravo… finally understanding of the truth…

    I enjoy your blogs… these are stepping stones to a more harmonious future

    Empress of Qu


  2. Philip Antonacci

    Regarding Canada’s present involvement in Iraq – the Canadian corporate media has not covered the war at all – we know that the Harper government is trying to hide the facts of the war – that is obvious – but reporters have not tried to cover it or their stories have been supressed – as an example – this is the first war that Canada has been involved in were there has been no media coverage AT ALL – there has been no images of the ground damage,causualties, targets etc. of the war zone – before we used to discuss if the war coverage in Iraq was biased, or limitted or etc. – now there is no war coverage to even discuss! And their is no on in Canada pointing out this fact in the regular media – its as if the present war with Iraq does not even exist – at least here in Canada – in my entirie lifetime (63) from Vietnam to today, I have never seen a war that has been as little covered by the media until now. This scares me more than the war itself – it is another step into a totalitarian society.

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