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Iraq and America: a long, strange trip

The story of how the United States found itself virtually alone among the nations of the world pressing for military action against Iraq is a tale replete with irony, betrayals, courageous decisions and titanic mistakes. Analysis by Michael Moran.
Donald Rumsfeld, shown in December 1983 shaking hands with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, was then an aide to President Reagan.
Donald Rumsfeld, shown in December 1983 shaking hands with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, was then an aide to President Reagan.

The story of how the United States found itself virtually alone among the nations of the world pressing for military action against Iraq is a tale replete with irony, betrayals, courageous decisions and titanic mistakes. Like many foreign policy issues, the basic dilemma in American policy toward Iraq has remained fairly constant even as occupants of the Oval Office have come and gone.

FOR AT LEAST 11 years, the dilemma, put simply, has read something like this: How can the United States remove or neutralize Saddam Hussein without killing tens of thousands of those unlucky enough to live in his tyrannical state, thereby inflaming the Arab world and alienating the broader international community?

Since the 1990-91 Gulf War, American policy has ranged from allowing Saddam to crush domestic opposition in the immediate aftermath of the war to today’s outright and frank goal of removing him from power, dead or alive. In between, Tomahawk missile strikes, attempts to sponsor coups, efforts to isolate him economically and diplomatically and American aid to groups promising to foment an anti-Saddam uprising all have failed to dislodge him. How did America get here?


Iraq, a former British colony that until recently was run by a branch of the Hashemite monarchy that still rules Jordan, fell into the hands of Saddam Hussein after a series of coups and purges that left Saddam’s mentor, Ahmed Hassan Bakr, as president in the late 1960s. By the time Bakr died in 1979, Saddam had cemented his role as successor. He quickly set about murdering all those he viewed as rivals for power. So began one of the bloodiest dictatorships of the 20th century.

As far back as the Carter administration in 1979, American intelligence and foreign policy officials had identified Iraq’s potential to be a major source of destabilization in the world’s most important energy-producing region. Israel, fearing (correctly, as it happens) that Iraq was attempting to build a nuclear weapon, launched a pre-emptive strike in 1981 on the nuclear breeder reactor in Tuwaitha, Iraq. The International Atomic Energy Agency later determined that Iraqi teams salvaged bomb-grade uranium from the wreckage.


Despite all this, for a variety of reasons - some related to oil, some related to the Cold War, others still difficult to fathom - the Reagan administration in 1982 decided that it needed Iraq’s dictatorial regime as an ally. Saddam, while brutal and possibly maniacal in Washington’s calculations, at least had not allied himself with the Soviet Union. More importantly, he was engaged in a bloody slugfest with neighboring Iran, a former American ally whose own dictatorial ruler, the shah, had been overthrown just three years earlier by an Islamic revolution which - like the Bolshevik one earlier in the century - had pledged to spread its ideology through violent upheavals throughout the world. Alarmed, the United States backed Iraq in its war with Iran, providing intelligence help and diplomatic support. Washington even turned the other cheek in 1987 when an Iraqi attack plane targeting Iranian oil tankers instead sent an Exocet missile slamming into an American destroyer, USS Stark, killing 37 American sailors.

At the same time, the Reagan administration, seeking to avoid the kind of oil shocks that rocked the American economy in the 1970s, was cementing its ties to Saudi Arabia, controversially selling the kingdom AWACs early-warning aircraft and F-15 warplanes. These two pillars of new American policy in the Persian Gulf region would soon come crashing down when Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990.


InsertArt(1913629)Iraq cited colonial-era maps showing Kuwait as part of its territory as an excuse for invading, though this position won few allies in the world at large. The United States, furious at what it saw as a betrayal, mobilized an international coalition that won U.N. blessing to forcibly remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Last-minute efforts to win an Iraqi withdrawal failed, and on Jan. 17, 1991, the American bombardment began. Within hours, Iraqi Scud missiles fell on Israel. The United States, fearing Israeli retaliation would destroy Arab support for the multinational coalition, successfully persuaded the Israelis to stay out of the war.

The ground campaign would not begin until Feb. 24, but within four days Iraqi forces had been routed from Kuwait, and within Iraq itself minority Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south rose against Saddam’s regime.

InsertArt(1913631)On Feb. 28, despite opposition from some in Washington, the United States agreed to a cease-fire, leaving Saddam in power and his best military units largely unscathed. Those units, divisions of the Republican Guard, quickly turned on the Kurds and Shiites, who had been encouraged by U.S. wartime propaganda to rise against Saddam. The United States refused to step in, arguing that an Iraq that splintered into warring ethnic fiefdoms would be even more dangerous than one led by a chastised and contained Saddam.


The cease-fire accords led to a series of U.N. resolutions in 1991 that called on Iraq to, among other things, respect its neighbors’ borders, limit its production of missiles and other long-range weapons and allow U.N.-led inspections of sites suspected of producing nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. U.N. economic sanctions would remain in effect until the United Nations certified Iraq in full compliance with these terms.

Iraq, however, resisted cooperation with weapons inspectors from the start and engaged in what one U.N. report called “a complex effort to conceal banned weaponry.”

The situation for Iraqi minorities continued to deteriorate, too. In August 1992, under international pressure, the United States, France and Britain agreed to enforce a no-fly zone over northern and southern Iraq (the French would eventually drop out) to prevent Saddam’s helicopters and fighters from being used to repress dissent.

InsertArt(1913632)This zone remains in place to this day, though by the time it took effect Iraqi units had smashed any organized opposition.


The first Bush administration continued to hope Saddam might be overthrown by discontent elements of his military. Those hopes faded quickly, and by 1993, when the Clinton administration had taken office, it had become clear that Saddam had quickly rebuilt his power base. U.N. weapons inspectors continued to meet with resistance, and economic sanctions against Iraq - the international community’s main leverage for achieving its goals - were causing enormous suffering among Iraqi civilians while doing little to hurt the Iraqi leader.

Meanwhile, British and American jets routinely bombed, strafed or shot missiles at air-defense targets in the no-fly zone. Every few years, however, larger crises led to a series of sustained Anglo-American air attacks on the country:

In June 1993, U.S. Tomahawk missiles were launched on Baghdad in retaliation for an alleged assassination attempt on the life of ex-president Bush organized by Iraqi intelligence operatives.

In August 1996, Saddam’s forces pushed into the Kurdish-held north and smashed what was later revealed to be an effort by the CIA to foment a rebellion against him. The United States again failed to defend Kurdish forces, though the no-fly zone was extended to the 33rd parallel as punishment.

In October 1998, Iraq declared it would no longer cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors, setting up a showdown that would end in a week of Anglo-American air strikes, from Dec. 16-19, against alleged weapons factories in Iraq.

In February 2001, American and British jets conducted bombing raids in an effort to disrupt Iraq’s air-defense system, which was being carefully rebuilt - despite sanctions - with Chinese assistance.


The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, initially diverted attention from Iraq, though some in Washington and a small minority in the Bush administration saw evidence that Saddam might have aided or even hatched the plots. The war launched in Afghanistan against al-Qaida and its Taliban allies routed much of their forces quickly, however, and by January 2002 attention in this second Bush administration began again to focus on Iraq. In his State of the Union speech that month, President George W. Bush cited Iraq as a part of an “axis of evil” that also included Iran and North Korea. These states, he said, were now considered clear and present dangers to the United States, and as such, might be subject to pre-emptive attacks.

This new tack quickly drew fire from abroad and badly splintered the coalition backing Bush’s “war on terrorism” in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The impression emerged of a U.S. government that would attack Iraq, or perhaps other states, at will and without consulting the United Nations or even its allies. Throughout the summer of 2002, as war plans and scenarios leaked into the American press, the United States became further isolated on the issue. At one point, the administration asserted that, based on the Gulf War cease-fire accords, a new war on Iraq could be waged without further consultation with the United Nations or the U.S. Congress.

By late August, that position had shifted again. On Sept. 12, having already pledged to consult Congress before any such move, Bush delivered aspeech to the U.N. General Assembly challenging the body to enforce the resolutions it had passed with regard to Iraq’s disarmament. The speech was well received and within 24 hours it appeared a new resolution that would threaten eventual military action might be passed by the Security Council.

Iraq, however, had yet to be heard. Baghdad responded with a letter to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan offering to allow the U.N. inspection teams back into the country with no preconditions.

The offer halted momentum toward a new resolution and seemed to catch the Bush administration off-guard. The current politicking both with the U.S. Congress and with Russia, France and other Security Council members appears designed to get the effort back on track. Britain released a “dossier” of allegations against Iraq and its weapons programs on Sept. 24 that bolstered the American case. But for the time being, the Iraqi leader again appears to have outmaneuvered his nemesis.