A friend of mine made the comment when told I was writing
about Saddam Hussein this week, "What? You mean I should be
worried about this guy again?" Sorry, Iraq is back in the
spotlight. The national news media may not say much, yet, but
we are going to have to confront Saddam once more before too
long. The U.N. Security Council recently passed a resolution
requiring that Saddam allow weapons inspectors back into Iraq,
but alas, he said "No." France, China, Russia and Malaysia
abstained from the vote. The other 11 members (including the
U.S. and Britain) voted "yes." We have no way of knowing
whether or not Saddam has been building weapons of mass
destruction for the past year while no inspectors have been on the
ground. It''s easy to surmise that he has and that can''t continue.
So I thought I''d spend a little time tracing the history of
Saddam''s rise to power and take the story up to the Gulf War.
You know the rest.
Saddam was born in 1937 and in 1959, just 22 years of age, he
was forced into exile for his part in an attempt to assassinate the
Iraqi prime minister. In 1963 he returned home and was
imprisoned in ''64. After his release, he played a prominent role in
the 1968 coup led by the Ba''ath (or Ba''th) Party. Up to this
point Iraq was governed by a coalition of civilian and military
The Ba''th (Resurrection) Party was founded in 1943. It''s appeal
was primarily to the educated class, created by the rapid increase
in education, and the members came from the less dominant
classes in society. The major objectives of the party were
socialism and Arab unity. It would become the leading party in
both Iraq and Syria.
In ''68 the Ba''thists replaced the existing government with a
Revolutionary Command Council (RCC). In 1979 Saddam
became the chairman.
Meanwhile, in 1979 the Iranian revolution was taking place. The
Shah fell, replaced by the clerics led by Ayatollah Khomeini and
the U.S. became embroiled in the hostage crisis. The new regime
in Iran appealed to Muslims everywhere to restore the authority
of Islam in society, and the Iraqi leadership feared that this would
have a special appeal to the Shiite Muslim majority in Iraq.
Saddam and Co. faced a double challenge, as a secular nationalist
government and as one dominated by Sunni Muslims (see my
"Hott Spotts" piece, "Islam Part I" for a discussion on the
differences between the two).
Saddam saw an opportunity to exploit the turmoil enveloping
Iran. Thus, in 1980 he decided to invade Iran. After some initial
successes, however, Iraq was not able to occupy any part of Iran
permanently and, after a time, Iran was able to take the offensive
and invade Iraq.
Iraq''s main objective had been the Shatt al Arab waterway (on
the border of the two countries), a channel formed by the
confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Fierce and bloody
fighting took place over this piece of territory. By 1982 the war
bogged down. It wasn''t until 1988 that the U.N. brokered a
truce. Neither side captured any land in the end. But also,
neither regime collapsed under the stress of the war, and the
Iranian revolution had not spread to Iraq or the Gulf.
And where were we during this time? The U.S. and most of
Saddam''s Arab neighbors "tilted" toward Iraq as a regional buffer
against Iran. Throughout the 1980s, in fact, it had been American
policy to overlook the brutal aspects of the Saddam Hussein
regime. The U.S. was following the old principle that the enemy
of my enemy is my friend - and Iran was an enemy. We continued
to support Saddam even though he had continually threatened
Israel with chemical weapons. In fact, we knew back then that
Saddam was developing chemical, biological and, perhaps,
nuclear weapons. He had used poison gas in the Iran-Iraq war
and in his suppression of the Kurdish minority in Iraq. But in the
game of global power politics, it was still believed that Iraq could
be a balance against a resurgent Iran and that the U.S. could
persuade Saddam to moderate the unattractive features of his
Saddam had other ideas. After the truce in the war back on
August 8, 1988, the very next day neighboring Kuwait raised its
production of oil contrary to agreements with OPEC. The
resultant drop in oil prices offended Saddam, deep in debt and
heavily dependent on oil (to the tune of about 98% of total
revenues). Complaining of "economic aggression" against Iraq,
he demanded that Kuwait reduce its production and, with Saudi
Arabia, cancel Iraqi debts. He also began to revive old boundary
disputes that had simmered since the post-WW I settlement that
had created the current map of the Gulf region. Saddam seemed
to harbor hopes of unifying the Arab lands and controlling all of
the oil resources.
But, again, the U.S. was ignoring the rising tension in the region.
A National Security Directive 26 in October 1989 said: "Normal
relations between the U.S. and Iraq would serve our longer-term
interests and promote stability both in the Gulf and the Middle
East. The U.S. should propose economic and political incentives
for Iraq to moderate its behavior and to increase our influence."
These incentives included massive food exports to Iraq on
favorable terms, a boon to American farmers, and the
encouragement of trade in high-tech but non-lethal items.
In mid-1990, Saddam claimed that Kuwait was draining oil from
an oil field on the border. He said the entire field rightfully
belonged to Iraq and indicated he might use force to take it. The
U.S. dispatched ambassador April Glaspie to meet with Saddam
in July. Glaspie failed to resolve the mounting crisis. She later
testified in Congress: "I told him orally we would defend our vital
interests, we would support our friends in the Gulf, we would
defend their sovereignty and integrity." The main American
mistake, she said, was not to "realize he was stupid."
[The controversy over Glaspie''s meeting with Saddam exists to
this day. Saddam insists that Glaspie gave the go ahead for his
Kuwaiti incursion. But, as awful as Saddam is, I bet the truth lies
somewhere in between. My reading of the meeting is that Glaspie
did NOT make it clear to Saddam that the U.S. would not take
kindly to a power grab.]
By late July, Iraqi armed forces began to move toward Kuwait.
While the U.S. intelligence community picked up the hostile
movement, there was no official word from Washington. On
August 2nd, we seemed surprised when Saddam made his move.
We shouldn''t have been.
Sources: "History of the Arab Peoples" by Albert Hourani
"America: A Narrative History," by George Brown
Tindall and David E. Shi
Note: The next article will be January 6.