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After the winter bombs

By Eqbal Ahmad, December 1998

AS deadly missiles rain down on Baghdad, six verities ought to be re-stated.

First, the target of the Anglo-American bombing campaign is not Iraq's arsenal of mass destruction. Chemical and biological weapons are nearly impossible to destroy from the air. The job UNSCOM inspectors could not do bombs will not finish. The intent behind the bombing is murder - of Saddam Hussein, his family and staff-- and the destruction of his security services.

Among the targets hit on day one of the missile strikes were his daughter's home, the presidential palace, the Directorate of Military Intelligence Services, and the headquarters of the Republican Guards, an elite force that serves as Saddam Hussein's personal security force.

Second, the Vatican of which the sentiment is normally pro-American, has told the truth in plain words. "This is aggression", said a statement issued from the Holy See. The American president and British prime minister invoked UN resolutions on Iraq to justify their violation of international laws and the UN Charter. The big lie nearly always accompanies aggression. The UN secretary general spoke thus: "It's a sad day for the United Nations and for the world. It is also a very very sad day for me personally."

In a rebuke rare from any secretary general, Kofi Anan said "My thoughts tonight are with the people of Iraq and with the 370 UN humanitarian workers who remain in Iraq." In February 1991, Saddam Hussein committed aggression when he invaded Kuwait. For that crime, the Iraqi people were severely punished. Clinton and Blair have now equalled the score. No retributions await them except of history.

Third, denials notwithstanding the bombings are linked with Bill Clinton's personal predicament. The surprise aggression occurred days before the House of Representatives was to vote on his impeachment. The bombs on Baghdad deflected attention from it, brought a reprieve of sorts by a few days, and possibly raised the already high public rating of the president. Whether he likes it or not, in the eyes of the world Saddam Hussein and Monica Lewinsky hold hands with Bill Clinton. It is not a linkage the chief executive of the superpower should relish.

Fourth, the American proclivity to excessive violence is again on display. The phenomenon finds bipartisan expressions. Two administrations - one Democratic and the other Republican - dropped more bombs in Indo-China than was used in World War II killing an estimated four million peasants. In 1991, under Republican president George Bush 2,600 American warplanes dropped 88,500 tons of bomb on Iraq. In 1998, a Democrat is emulating him without hopefully matching the earlier levels of mass destruction.

Five, at the end of 1998 it is clear that even without the legitimizing framework of the cold war American interventionism is alive and thriving. With the exception of Britain's symbolic participation, the United States has committed this aggression alone, as it did when Clinton ordered the missiles attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan. Therein lies a great danger to world peace and sovereignty of nations. Moral rhetoric cannot hide the fact that caprice and self-interest, rather than concern for international law or justice informs American policy and interventions.

Israel's occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and South Lebanon, violate UN resolutions, its annexation of Jerusalem and the Golan violate the UN charter, and its colonization activities in the occupied territories violate the Geneva Conventions. Far from intervening to prevent its client from committing these unlawful acts, Washington aids and abets Israel. It is known also that Israel has stockpiled weapons of mass murder, including nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Yet, not a word from Washington.

What will the US and Britain gain from this assault? Britain's gain is obvious and already made. It has earned American goodwill; the 'cousinship' is affirmed yet again. On the American balance sheet there appear to be many losses and no gain. The primary US objective in the Middle East is to maintain its hegemony there. That requires a measure of legitimacy for American power in the region, and an environment relatively free of instability and popular discontent. The missiles of December will surely add to anti-American sentiments and political instability in the Middle East.

In the unlikely event that Saddam Hussein is killed, an American obsession will have been satisfied. Captain Ahab will get the great White Whale. But fulfilling an obsession is not a viable policy objective. In fact, President Hussein is the likely winner, live or die. If he survives, he will be a hero to the Arab masses. Dead, he will be a martyr. Not that people are pathologically inclined. Rather, American double standards anger them. Moreover, they sense the great danger of living in the shadow of Israel's nuclear weapons. In a PR initiative just before the assault on Baghdad, Bill Clinton turned up in Gaza and spoke sympathetically of the Palestinians. Later his war statement mentioned the holy month of Ramadan and his concern with Muslim sensibilities as a justification for hitting Baghdad now. Such palliatives cannot work while Jerusalem continues to be 'Judaized' (an Israeli term), Jewish settlements expand onto Arab lands, and Israeli weapons of mass destruction hang over the Arabs.

Dictators rarely leave behind them an alternative leadership or a viable mechanism for succession. Saddam Hussein is not an exception. Disarray and confusion shall certainly ensue if Saddam Hussein is eliminated. Iraq is a greatly divided country with the rebellious Kurds dominant in the north and Shi'as in the South. With the one linked to the Kurds in Turkey and the other to Shiite Iran, their ambitions in post-Saddam Iraq can cause upheavals in the entire region. It is not clear that the United States has either the will or the resources to undertake the remaking of Iraq. If it does not, the scramble over Iraq may ignite protracted warfare involving Turkey, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Kurd, Arab, Shia, Sunni and, in one form or another, the United States.

The fundamentalist brand of Islamism may thrive in such an environment. Islamism will find at least two major sponsors in the struggle for Iraq. Iran borders on southern Iraq which is home to the most sacred shrines of Shia' Islam and is populated largely by Shia Muslims. Iran's influence may easily fill the post-Saddam vacuum, a development Saudi Arabia, the Sheikhdoms of the Gulf, and the US shall find intolerable. Since none of America's conservative Arab allies like Arab nationalism (it favours secular government and Arab unity) they may counter Iran by promoting Sunni fundamentalism. Sectarian groups thrive in this brand of Islamism. Like Afghanistan today, Iraq may turn into a battle ground of war parties backed by several states.

During and after the Gulf War 1, I had argued that Islamic movements are likely to find fresh opportunities in the post-war Middle Eastern environment. The argument was that the political culture of the Middle East is message oriented. In the region where three great religions were born, the success and failure of dynasties, leaders and movements have been defined often by their links to a legitimizing ideology. For many centuries, the struggles for power revolved around differing interpretations of Islam. In the 19th and 20th centuries, secular nationalism gained hegemony. Secular nationalist movements led the founding of most nation states and until the Iranian revolution in 1979 dominated every state except Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikhdoms.

In the 1950s, the United States was alarmed by the assumption of power by nationalists like Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran, Abdul Nasser in Egypt, and the Baath Socialist parties in Syria and Iraq. Their rhetoric of non-alignment and anti-imperialism, and nationalization of such multi-national enterprises as Iranian oil and the Suez Canal were viewed as harmful to American and western interests. Thence began the effort to undermine them. With the overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953, and defeat of Abdul Nasser in 1967, the influence of nationalism began to wane first in Iran and then in the Arab world. As the pro-western alternative, like the Shah's dictatorship, was unattractive to much of the populace, Islamism began its gradual rise.

One high point of the Islamic movement came when Iran's popular revolution, led by Ayatollah Khomeini's clerical followers, founded the Islamic Republic. Another historic watershed occurred when the United States and Saudi Arabia sponsored from Pakistan an international jihad against the evil empire. A third moment of opportunity may occur when the Iraqi dictator departs, the secular Baath regime collapses, and the struggle for Iraq begins.


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