Andrew Robinson - Theory Blog

Monday, November 15, 2004

Iraq, Saddam and "Regime Change" (pre-war article)

Written for peace movement use, prior to the Iraq invasion


If you've been following the mainstream media you'll probably have got the impression that Saddam Hussein is the west's great bogeyman and that America wants nothing more than to be rid of him. Perhaps this is so today, but it is not long since the west was helping him to stay in power.

Saddam's regime was never a popular regime. It was formed by a military coup against a previous military government, which itself had been installed by the U.S.A. to keep the reforming nationalist Qassem out of power. Before Saddam seized power, the biggest parties in Iraq were the Communist Party and an Islamic party. These groups are still in exile but (surprise, surprise) are not on the list of organisations America is trying to turn into an alternative to Saddam. The present regime has been based from the start on domination and fear rather than popular support, but it was supported from its creation through to the Gulf War by America and other western states. Highlights included: supplying technology used in "mass destruction" projects such as the Supergun; supplying arms and other aid during the Iran-Iraq War; and turning a blind eye to the gassing of Kurds at Halabja.

Even after the Gulf War, America has kept Saddam in power. The ceasefire in 1991 at the end of the Gulf War was a trigger for two separate uprisings, by the Kurds and the Shi'a Muslims, against Saddam's regime. Partly this was because Saddam is so unpopular, but the uprisings had been encouraged by the U.S.; President Bush senior had called for the overthrow of Saddam and pretty much promised aid to anyone who rose up against him. The Kurds are the majority in the northern parts of Iraq and had long been fighting for an independent homeland. The Shi'a, who by some estimates make up 80% of the population of Iraq, are at present excluded from power by a ruling elite drawn mainly from the Sunni branch of Islam. The uprising was boosted by deserters from the Iraqi army. This army is based on mass conscription, and American psychological warfare tactics led to mass desertion during the Gulf War. In fact, this is the only war to date where an army has lost more troops through desertion than in battle.

The Shi'a revolt, known locally as an "intifada", began in Nasiriyeh and spread to other Shi'a-majority towns and cities. Locals fought others loyal to the regime and assassinated the regime's officials. In the Kurdish areas, existing resistance groups (the nominally leftist K.D.P. and the right-wing, but secular, P.U.K.) expelled the regime from several cities and declared an autonomous area. There are undeclared reports of workers' councils being formed in some parts of Iraqi Kurdistan. Also, the Kurdish and Shi'a groups met to work out a post-war settlement. At the peak, the uprisings had spread to fourteen of the eighteen provinces of Iraq.

Surely this was the beginning of the "regime change" America wanted? Apparently not. America had been grooming dissenting members of the Iraqi regime to take over from Saddam, but the Shi'a uprising was influenced by political Islam and supported by Iranians (including in some reports Iranian troops), and the Kurds wanted their own state. The state of Iraq is an artificial entity made up of three former provinces of the Ottoman empire (one Arab and mainly Shi'ite, one mainly Sunni and one Kurdish), and left to their own devices the Iraqis might well go their separate ways. But the western powers are concerned that an independent Kurdish state could give courage to Kurds fighting for independence in neighbouring Turkey, which is a NATO member and close U.S. ally. Also, America wanted by 1991 to prevent the spread of political Islam (although it is unclear whether the Iranian variety of fundamentalism could have taken root in areas where religious observance is, according to the Slugletts, 'worn fairly lightly'). America's commitment to "regime change" in Iraq has little to do with democracy or self-determination, and America soon disowned the rebellion once it took a direction unconducive to U.S. control. Not only did the U.S. government declare the uprising to be an internal Iraqi affair, they halted attacks against Saddam's regime to allow it to regroup its troops to suppress the uprisings. A report a few years ago by John Pilger revealed evidence that American warplanes may actually have acted as Saddam's airforce, destroying insurgents' positions, while American facilities on the ground refused to give shelter to rebels fleeing the Iraqi army.

As a result, the rebellion was violently and brutally crushed. The number of people killed is debated. At the higher end, Marion and Peter Farouk-Sluglett, in the book "Iraq since 1958", estimate the death toll to be as high as 300,000 in the Shi'a areas alone. When the Iraqis advanced on the Kurdish city of Kirkuk, one-and-a-half million people fled the Kurdish area into the mountains. The resultant humanitarian crisis led to calls for America to protect the Kurds, as a result of which a no-fly zone was set up. (There was also a more limited no-fly zone in the south, but it protected the Shi'a less well). There has been a de facto independent Kurdish state in the north of the country since 1991, mainly ruled through patronage by the two established parties. In contrast to the rest of Iraq, the Kurdish area has become better-off economically since 1991, and Kurdish leaders have so far refused American warmongering because they fear that a new war could put their present status at risk.

Since the imposition of sanctions against Iraq, resistance to the current regime has been greatly reduced. According to an Iraqi exile, there are two main reasons for this: firstly, that people are now too preoccupied with survival to get involved in politics, and secondly, that, since the resources now available are coming through the oil-for-food programme, they are under regime control, allowing the regime to bribe and blackmail people into compliance. It is also possible that western aggression increases support for any indigenous regime, simply because it is indigenous (compare the effects of the blitz in Britain, and of September 11th in America). If westen policy was aimed at regime change, therefore, it was ill-thought-out and counterproductive. It is more likely that the west wanted Saddam kept "in his cage" (in Blair's phrase) but in power, to prevent other possible developments or maybe to keep the price of oil up. Also, the American state has used the ongoing Iraqi "threat" to periodically increase its military presence in the region.

Meanwhile, America is trying to construct an alliance among exile groups, but is becoming bogged down in infighting between the groups. They are mainly in contact with dissident members of Saddam's own cohort; one of those they are grooming as a possible future leader is the general who orchestrated the Halabja gas attack. There are also rumours that the U.S. military may set itself up inside Iraq as the power behind the throne.

While there is every reason to be sympathetic to the idea of overthrowing Saddam, who is a brutal and tyrannical despot, this is no reason to support a U.S.-led war. Any resulting regime may be as bad as Saddam's, even after the massive casualties and enormous damage caused by the war itself, and even assuming that the west is able to oust Saddam without provoking a nuclear war.

The inspections regime set up by the U.N. under U.S. pressure involves enormous impositions on the Iraqi regime and potentially on the local population. The inspectors have an official entitlement to declare "exclusion zones" within Iraq, effectively occupying sections of the company, and to capture individuals for "interview" and take them out of the country (to Guantanamo Bay, perhaps?). Any failure to comply would be taken as a "material breach" of the U.N. resolution on inspections and a reason for war. In addition, if the regime declared that it has any weapons of mass destruction, a war would probably start, but whenever it denies having them, it is accused of lying. Lying to inspectors is also a "material breach".

Although media attention has been focussed on Afghanistan and Iraq, American military action has spread throughout the world since September 11th. To take a few examples:

1) American troops have been sent into the Phillipines, a former American colony. They are supposedly there to help the Filipino army suppress a rebel group, Abu Sayyaf, which the U.S. government accuses of having links to al-Qaeda. Abu Sayyaf, initially set up by a corrupt Filipino government to help it rig elections in Moro province, is a tiny group of perhaps only a dozen people, which specialises in kidnapping foreigners for ransom. American troops are far more likely to end up fighting the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a secessionist group fighting for the independence of the mainly Muslim island of Moro from the mainly Christian Phillipines, in which people from Moro have historically suffered discrimination.

2) American special forces have entered the former Soviet republic of Georgia, apparently to attack bases used by Chechen rebels in the Pankisi Gorge area. America alleges that al-Qaeda troops are using the base. Links between al-Qaeda and Chechen rebels remain unproven - the "hundreds of Chechens" allegedly fighting in Afghanistan have failed to materialise - although there are fundamentalist factions fighting among the Chechen guerrillas resisting the Russian occupation of Chechnya. This brutal occupation has included mass killings, torture, rape and other atrocities by Russian forces. American involvement within the former Soviet empire has raised concerns in Moscow and is seen by some commentators as the main reason for Russian air raids on Georgia a few months ago. America has also declared plans to build an oil pipeline in the Caucasus region, which would undermine the Russian monopoly on the region's oil.

3) America has been giving substantial aid to the Colombian government since before September 11th, in an operation called "Plan Colombia". Billed as an effort to stamp out drug production, Plan Colombia has in fact turned into a major new war by the government against leftist guerrillas who control large parts of the country. In early December, it emerged that U.S. special troops have been sent into Colombia to aid government forces, raising the spectre of another Vietnam. American-backed Colombian forces have been involved in bombing and crop-spraying which has killed and displaced thousands of civilians. The new Colombian president, Uribe, is infamous within Colombia for his links to right-wing paramilitaries and drug gangs. Over 1,000 trade union activists were assassinated by the right-wing paramilitaries last year.

4) The U.S. government apparently considered intervention in Yemen after the end of the war in Afghanistan, but was put off by the compliant attitude of the present Yemeni government. Nevertheless, America has pursued its policies in Yemen by using this government as a proxy; for instance, there have been bans on celebratory gunfire and arrests of al-Qaeda suspects. Yemen is also allowing American use of its airspace to target suspects; a few months ago, a C.I.A. drone blew up a car containing six people near the Yemeni capital.

5) U.S. officials, especially F.B.I. agents, have been sent into Pakistan since September 11th, to "help" local forces capture al-Qaeda troops and leaders. American involvement has led directly to a number of shootouts between political Islamists and government forces, as the F.B.I. puts pressure on the regime to crack down.

Meanwhile, it was reported in December 2002 that al-Qaeda training camps have been re-established in areas of eastern Afghanistan the U.S. is unable to control.

WHAT IS IT?: W.H.I.S.C./School of the Americas

Located at Fort Benning, Georgia, the School of the Americas (S.O.A.) has been around for the last 56 years. Its main purpose is to train government forces and members of paramilitary groups in Central and South America. In January 2001, the school was re-named Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (W.H.I.S.C.) in an attempt to hide from its brutal past. Since 1946, S.O.A. has trained over 60,000 soldiers, police and paramilitaries, including many of Latin America's most notorious torturers, mass murderers, dictators and state-sponsored terrorists. S.O.A. training manuals released in 1996 include details of how to carry out torture, blackmail and execution. Pressure group SOA Watch have compiled hundreds of pages of documentation that groups trained at S.O.A. have destroyed much of Latin America in the interests of U.S. control of its political and economic systems. For instance, S.O.A. graduates ran Pinochet's secret police and concentration camps in Chile, another ran the the D-2 military intelligence agency in Guatemala which killed thousands of indigenous people, and two-thirds of those named by the U.N. Truth Commission as human rights violators in El Salvador had attended S.O.A.
Information adapted from SchNews:
Further information:; J. Feldman, Universities in the Business of Repression


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