Iraq: 10 Years After Gulf War
Written by Stephen Zunes, Middle East EditorForeign Policy In Focus
Editors: Tom Barry (IRC) and Martha Honey (IPS)
by Stephen Zunes
October 18, 2001
The U.S. effectively coddled Husseins dictatorial regime during the 1980s
with economic and military aid, likely emboldening the invasion of Kuwait.
The 1991 Gulf War forced the withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait and
led to an ongoing U.S. military presence in the region.
Certain provisions of the cease-fire agreement, severe economic sanctions
and ongoing military operations, have limited Iraqi sovereignty and have
created a severe humanitarian crisis.
Ten years after the Gulf War, U.S. policy toward Iraq continues to suffer
from an overreliance on military solutions, an abuse of the United Nations
and international law, and a disregard for the human suffering resulting
from sanctions. Furthermore, Washingtons actions have failed to dislodge
Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power.
The U.S. quietly supported Saddam Hussein during the 1980s through direct
economic aid, indirect military aid, and the transfer of technologies with
military applications. Washington rejected calls for sanctions when Iraq
invaded Iran in 1980 and when it used chemical weapons against Iranian
soldiers and Kurdish civilians. The U.S. Navy intervened in the Persian
Gulf against Iran in 1987, further bolstering the Iraqi war effort. The
Reagan and Bush administrations dismissed concerns about human rights
abuses by Saddams totalitarian regime. Such special treatment likely led
the Iraqi dictator to believe that appeasement would continue.
Saddam Husseins government had brought an impressive degree of prosperity
to the Iraqi people, ranking them near the top of third world countries in
terms of nutrition, education, health care, housing, and other basic
needs. Yet he ruled with a brutality and a cult of personality that ranked
his regime among the most totalitarian in the world.
Following a dispute with the government of Kuwait regarding debt repayment
and oil policy during the summer of 1990, Iraq invaded the sheikdom in
early August, soon annexing the country as its nineteenth province. The UN
Security Council condemned the takeover and demanded Iraqs immediate
withdrawal. Iraqi failure to comply led to comprehensive military and
economic sanctions. Arab mediation efforts were short-circuited when the
U.S. announced it was sending troops to Saudi Arabia to protect the
kingdom via Operation Desert Shield, supported by forces from a couple of
dozen other UN members. It soon became apparent that the U.S. was
preparing for an offensive military action to dislodge Iraqi occupation
forces, rejecting any negotiated settlement.
The Bush administration eventually won approval by the U.S. Congress and
the UN Security Council to authorize the use of force; in the latter case,
extraordinary pressure, including bribes and threats against other members
were necessary to eke out a majority. The United States, with support from
some allied governments, commenced a heavy bombing campaign in January
1991, inflicting severe damage on not only Iraqi military forces but much
of the countrys civilian infrastructure as well. The war, known as
Operation Desert Storm, ended six weeks later, after a ground offensive in
March liberated Kuwait from Iraqi control with minimal allied casualties
but over 100,000 Iraqi deaths.
The cease-fire agreement imposed on Iraq by the U.S. in the name of the UN
Security Council included unprecedented infringements on Iraqs
sovereignty, particularly regarding the dismantling of weapons of mass
destruction and related facilities, enforced through rigorous inspections
by international monitors under the UN Special Commission on Iraq
(UNSCOM). In addition, severe repression by Saddams regime against
rebellious Shiites in the south and Kurds in the north provided a pretext
for the United States and its allies to create so-called no-fly zones,
restricting Iraqs military movements within its own borders.
Alleging that Iraq has not fully complied with provisions of the
cease-fire agreement, particularly regarding cooperation with UNSCOM
inspectors, the U.S. has successfully prevented the UN from lifting its
sanctions more than ten years after they were first imposed. The result
has been a humanitarian catastrophe, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqi
civiliansprimarily childrendying from malnutrition and preventable
diseases resulting from the inability of Iraqis to get adequate food and
medicine or the materials necessary to rebuild the war-damaged civilian
In April 1993 and September 1996, the U.S. engaged in a series of
sustained air strikes against Iraq as punitive measures against alleged
Iraqi transgressions. UNSCOM inspections were restricted by Iraq in
December 1998, in part due to the use of the inspectors for espionage
purposes by the U.S., prompting their withdrawal and a heavy four-day U.S.
bombing campaign. Since early 1999, the U.S.with the support of Great
Britainhas engaged in unauthorized air strikes on an almost weekly basis.
The U.S. maintains a large-scale military presence in the region to this
day. American aircraft patrol Iraqi air space, and the U.S. Navy regularly
inspects shipping to enforce both the sanctions and the restrictions on
Iraqi military movements. U.S. policy has been defended as an effort to
effectively restrict any potential Iraqi aggression against its neighbors,
and as a means of creating internal political discontent. Critics charge
that there are serious legal and ethical questions regarding U.S. policy
and that it is actually strengthening the Iraqi dictators hold on power.
Problems with Current U.S. Policy
U.S.-led sanctions have resulted in massive human suffering among the
The U.S. bombing campaign and the enforcement of no-fly zones are
implemented without authorization from the United Nations.
U.S. policy does not contribute to the security of the region nor weaken
Husseins grip on power.
Iraq still has not recovered from the 1991 war, during which it was on the
receiving end of the heaviest bombing in world history. The U.S. has
insisted on maintaining strict sanctions against Iraq to force compliance
with demands to dismantle any capability of producing weapons of mass
destruction and to address other outstanding issues from the cease-fire
agreement. It is largely U.S. opposition that has prevented the UN from
lifting the sanctions.
The sanctions have brought great hardships on the Iraqi people, as food
prices are now 12,000 times what they were in 1990. It is Iraqs poor,
particularly the children, who have suffered the most. Estimates of the
total number of Iraqi deaths from malnutrition and preventable diseases as
a result of the sanctions have ranged from a quarter million to over one
million, the majority being children. UNICEF estimates that at least 4,500
Iraqi children are dying every month as a result of the sanctions. Indeed,
perhaps there has been no other occasion during peacetime when so many
people have been condemned to starvation and death from preventable
diseases due to political decisions made overseas. The unseen impact of
these sanctions on the social fabric of Iraq is perhaps even more severe.
The U.S. claims that such sanctions will lead to the downfall of Saddam
Husseins regime. However, Washingtons policy against Iraq has had the
ironic effect of strengthening Saddams rule. Since the Iraqi people are
now more dependent than ever on the government for their survival, they
are even less likely to risk open defiance. U.S. policies simply have not
harmed Iraqs ruling elites or weakened its repressive internal apparatus.
Unlike the reaction to sanctions imposed prior to the war, Iraqi popular
resentment lays the blame for the protracted suffering squarely on the
United States, not on the totalitarian regime, whose ill-fated conquest of
Kuwait prompted the events that led to the economic collapse of this
once-prosperous country. In addition, Iraqs middle class, which would have
most likely formed the political force capable of overthrowing Saddams
regime, has been reduced to penury; many have emigrated. It is not
surprising that virtually all of Iraqs opposition movements oppose the
U.S. policy of ongoing punitive sanctions and refuse to endorse the air
strikes. Even after Saddam leaves, U.S. policies are creating a whole
generation of Iraqis who will be stridently anti-American. Meanwhile, more
and more countries are violating aspects of the sanctions regime, further
undermining U.S. credibility.
U.S. officials have stated that sanctions would remain even if Iraq
complied with United Nations inspectors, indicating a lack of genuine U.S.
support for UN resolutions and giving the Iraqi regime virtually no
incentive to comply. Moreover, the failure of both the United States and
the United Nations to explicitly spell out what was needed in order for
sanctions to be lifted contributed to Iraqs decision to suspend its
cooperation with UN inspectors in December 1998.
Although Iraqs nuclear and chemical weapons capability has been
successfully dismantled, there are still concerns about Iraqs biological
weapons potential, though the U.S. has failed to make a credible case as
to how Iraq could successfully deliver such weapons or what might motivate
the regime to use them. And there is little evidence to suggest that U.S.
air strikes have eliminated or reduced the countrys biological weapons
capability, which would be based upon small-scale operations that are
difficult to find and eliminate through such military action.
The use of U.S. air strikes against Iraq subsequent to the weapons
inspectors departure has garnered very little support from the
international community, including Iraqs neighbors, who would presumably
be most threatened by an Iraqi biological weapons capability. The U.S. has
been unable to make a credible case to clarify whom its policies are
defending. The United States itself is certainly safe from Iraqi attacks,
and most of Iraqs neighbors have strong armed forces of their own that are
more than adequate to deter Iraqs severely crippled military.
In light of Washingtons toleranceand even quiet supportof Iraqs powerful
military machine in the 1980s, the exaggerated claims in recent years of
an imminent Iraqi military threat, after Iraqs military infrastructure was
largely destroyed in the Gulf War, simply lack credibility. Indeed, the
U.S. provided the seed stock for the very biological weapons that
Washington claims the Iraqis may be developing. Though experts disagree
about Iraqs ongoing potential for aggression, few actually believe current
U.S. policy is making the region safer.
Only the UN Security Council has the prerogative to authorize military
responses to violations of its resolutions; no single member state can do
so unilaterally without explicit authorization. Were that the case, for
example, Russia could bomb Israel for that governments ongoing violations
of UN Security Council resolutions. The U.S. bombing campaigns, therefore,
are illegal. In addition, the no-fly zones and other restrictions against
Iraqs military activity within its borders were unilaterally imposed by
the United States and Great Britain and are not based on any credible
U.S. policy toward Iraq seems to be a kind of foreign policy by catharsis,
where air strikes and other punitive actions are imposed as feel good
measures against an obstinate dictator. This may at times be politically
popular, but it has little strategic value. Saddam Hussein and his inner
circle remain safe in their bunkers as the bombs fall; civilians and
unwilling conscripts continue to be the primary casualties.
Finally, U.S. double standards have greatly harmed American credibility in
the region. Most Arabs and many other people around the world question why
Washington insists that it is considered acceptable for Israel to have
weapons of mass destruction and for the U.S. to bring weapons of mass
destruction into the Middle East. This is particularly true since UN
Security Council Resolution 687, which the U.S. claims to be enforcing
through the sanctions and bombing, calls for establishing in the Middle
East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction and all missiles for
Toward a New Foreign Policy
The U.S. must lift the sanctions against Iraqs civilian population. As a
first step, Washington should offer to lift the sanctions in return for
Iraqi cooperation with UN mandates.
To maintain credibility in curbing Iraqi threats to peace and stability,
the U.S. must support arms control and UN Security Council resolutions
throughout the region rather than singling out Iraq.
The U.S. should become more sensitive to the internal dynamics of Iraqi
politics and must recognize that democratic opposition movements will more
likely emerge if outside intervention is kept at a minimum.
The ongoing U.S. air strikes against Iraq are illegal and
counterproductive and must end. Washington should continue to support an
arms embargo on Iraq, but the U.S. should join the growing number of
countries in the Middle East and around the world calling for a lifting of
the economic sanctions that have brought so much suffering to Iraqi
The first step should be a U.S. promise to lift the economic sanctions
once the UN secretary-general recognizes that Baghdad is in effective
compliance with Security Council resolutions. Indeed, for sanctions to
work, one needs a carrot as well as a stick, something Washington has
failed to recognize. The United States, in consultation with other members
of the Security Council, needs to clarify the positive responses that Iraq
can expect in return for specific improvements in its behavior.
In addition, Washington must pledge to enforce other outstanding UN
Security Council resolutions and not simply single out Iraq. As long as
the United States allows allied regimes like Turkey, Morocco, and Israel
to flaunt UN Security Council resolutions, any sanctimonious calls for
strict compliance by the Iraqi government will simply be dismissed as
hypocritical and mean-spirited, whatever the merit of the actual
complaints. This is particularly important given that recent Iraqi
violations have been largely of a technical nature and that the resolution
itself is unprecedented in its level of interference in areas
traditionally considered the sovereign rights of individual countries.
Such violations pale in comparison to those of the aforementioned U.S.
allies, whose ongoing military occupations of neighboring countries
represent a direct contravention of the UN Charter.
In a similar vein, the United States must support a comprehensive arms
control regime for the region, including the establishment of a zone in
the Middle East where all weapons of mass destruction are banned. Such an
agreement would halt the U.S. practice of bringing nuclear weapons into
the region on its planes and ships and would force Israel to dismantle its
sizable nuclear arsenal. This more holistic approach to nonproliferation
might include, for example, a five-year program affecting not just Iraqi
missiles but phasing out Syrian, Israeli, and other missiles as well.
As with its highly selective insistence on the enforcement of UN Security
Council resolutions, the double standards in U.S. policy make even the
most legitimate concerns about Iraqi weapons development virtually
impossible to successfully pursue. If Iraq is truly a threat to regional
security, there must be a comprehensive regional security regime worked
out between the eight littoral states of the Persian Gulf. The U.S. should
support such efforts and not allow its quest for arms sales and oil
resources to unnecessarily exacerbate regional tensions.
The United States remains one of the few governments in the world that
rejects any linkage between Persian Gulf security issues and
Israeli-Palestinian issues. Few people familiar with the region, however,
fail to recognize the importance of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict (which would establish a viable Palestinian state with a shared
Jerusalem) in order to weaken the appeal and power of demagogues like
Saddam Hussein. There is little question of the pivotal role the U.S.
plays in the peace process. Washingtons failure to force Israeli
compromise is the major reason for the current violence and the impasse in
negotiations with the Palestinians.
International guarantees protecting the oppressed Kurds of northern Iraq
are also necessary. However, they should not be used as an excuse for
ongoing punitive air strikes; the Kurds should not yet again be used as
pawns in an international rivalry. Comprehensive initiatives for a just
settlement of the Kurdish questionincluding the oppressed Kurdish minority
in Turkey and other countriesshould be pursued by the international
Finally, there needs to be a greater understanding by U.S. policymakers of
Iraqi politics and society, which Washington is not only sorely lacking
but appears to have done little to improve upon. The reality is that
Saddam Hussein will likely remain in power until the Iraqi people are able
to overthrow him themselves. An appreciation for how this might best be
done could be greatly improved if the United States would be more open to
greater dialogue with Iraqs exiled opposition. In recent years, however,
Washington has tended to dismiss input from the Iraqi opposition when
crafting U.S. policy toward Iraq.
Although there is nothing inherently wrong with the United States or other
countries supporting democratic opposition movements against autocratic
regimes, the U.S. has so thoroughly destroyed its credibility that little
good can result from actively supporting an Iraqi opposition movement,
particularly given its weakness and internal divisions. In particular,
support for any kind of military resistance is not only futile but would
give the Iraqi regime an excuse to crack down even harder against the
countrys already-pummeled people. There is little question that, with the
lifting of economic sanctions and an end to the bombing, some kind of
organized opposition will emerge. However, to be successful, it must be
seen as a genuinely indigenous force, not the creation of yet another
ill-fated intervention by Western powers.
Stephen Zunes email@example.com is an associate professor of politics and
chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San
Recent International Issues Articles
Biotech Bullies: Business as Usual
November 9, 2001
Zimbabwe Angers Europe over Election Monitoring
November 8, 2001
GMO Sneak Attack Fizzles-USA and Europe
November 7, 2001
Assassination of Digna Ochoa
November 7, 2001
Mexico Solidarity Network
Other Agbiotech Aggressions
November 6, 2001
Tortilla Prices Rise
November 3, 2001
Mexico Solidarity Network
World Bank Says Recession Will Hit Mexico
November 2, 2001
Mexico Solidarity Network
Iraq: 10 Years After Gulf War
October 18, 2001
Yugoslavia: Off The Wall
October 18, 2001
James T. Phillips
Read International Issues Articles by Year:
2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003 2002 2001 2000