Socialist Worker

Revelations on the illegal occupation of Iraq

Charles Glass is an award-winning reporter on Middle Eastern affairs, who has covered the region for over three decades. He spoke to Matthew Cookson about the occupation of Iraq

Issue No. 1941

Who’s in charge? British soldier on patrol with the Iraqi police in Basra

Who’s in charge? British soldier on patrol with the Iraqi police in Basra

Revelations reported in the Guardian last week show that the war on Iraq was less legal than the government argued in March 2003. Where does that leave the arguments for war?

The first thing to say is that the war was always illegal. The second is that all the reasons they gave were untrue.

The decision had been taken by George Bush and Tony Blair in November 2001. In a conversation they had in Washington, Bush asked Blair if he would go with him into Iraq and Blair simply said, “Yes”.

Everything afterwards was just icing on the cake. Whether it was going to be weapons of mass destruction or “Saddam’s a terrorist”, it didn’t really matter. They had decided to get rid of him. They had decided to occupy the country and control its oil.

It is interesting that the attorney general’s advice should still be an official secret despite the freedom of information act. The attorney general’s more recent advice on something as trivial as the marriage of Charles to Camilla is public, although that was meant to be secret too.

You’ve been to Iraq recently. What kind of condition is it in almost two years after the invasion?

Iraq is in absolute chaos. It’s a disaster area. It’s not safe for anyone — Iraqi or foreigner. Everywhere south of the green line — the line between the self-governed Kurdish north and the rest of the country — life is untenable. Almost from the beginning it’s been a battleground between the US and the indigenous population. Even those who don’t fight the US clearly don’t want them there.

Public opinion polls have shown 92 percent in favour of immediate withdrawal. It’s not surprising. Iraq has a long history of being, if anything, the most belligerent of Arab countries. The reason for that is historical.

It is the eastern frontier of the Arab world. If the Persians, the Mongols or anybody else broke through the Iraqi line, then the rest of the Arab world was exposed.

So they’ve traditionally been the toughest of the Arabs by far. There’s no such thing as a bloodless coup in Baghdad. They’ve all been mini-civil wars to seize power. Throughout the 1960s, there were ferocious battles between Communists and Arab nationalists for power in Iraq. America should have known this when it went in. The Iraqis weren’t going to take this lying down or greet the US with rose water and rice.

If you want to see the difference between a part of Iraq that’s liberated itself and governed itself and a part that’s occupied it’s very interesting to go back and forth between the Kurdish north and the Arab south.

The Kurds liberated themselves in 1991 without any help from the US. The only help the Americans gave was to declare a no-fly zone over Iraq after the war over Kuwait. When that happened the Shiites also rebelled.

George Bush senior then sold them down the river by allowing Saddam’s planes to fly again.

Because Turkey didn’t want hundreds of thousands of refugees, the US had to reimpose the no-fly zone and allow the Kurds to come home. Once they returned they created their own self-governing institutions. Not a single American soldier was based in Kurdish Iraq.

They had an election and a civil war. It was a brutal three-year war that was very unfortunate, but unstoppable. It’s now over. Since then, northern Iraq is a model of what the Middle East could be like. It’s a model where there are no American soldiers.

South of that green line, the people were not allowed to liberate themselves. The US army had to do all the fighting. It did not even allow its Iraqi allies to take part in the fighting. The US occupied the country and treated the people the way they treated the South Vietnamese.

No one should be surprised at the brutality because the same thing happened in South Vietnam. The same prisons, the same torture. It is not new.

The lesson from Kurdistan should have been that Iraq could easily have liberated itself and created self-governing institutions. It might have had a civil war the way that the Kurds did, but it would have resolved itself.

Now, even when the Americans pull out, the place is going to be chaotic.

You have to ask whether this is accidental or whether it was allowed for in their planning. I suspect it was allowed for because it suits the interests of the US administration to have an Iraq that is weak, chaotic and at war with itself. It also benefits Israel.

Before they advised Bush, people such as Richard Perle and Douglas Feith were advising Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. They told him to press the US to invade Iraq in 1996. You cannot mention this Israeli angle in the American press.

Bush and Blair claim that the recent Iraqi election has brought democracy.

I think it is instructive that the US used to stage elections in South Vietnam as well, with quite high turnouts.

It didn’t amount to anything, as there was a war going on. If you had an election in Vichy France people would have elected Petain, but it wouldn’t have meant that the French wanted to be occupied by Nazi Germany.

Many of the people who voted in Iraq said they were voting for parties that were going to get the Americans out. They believe that the United Iraqi Alliance will do this. I don’t think it will.

The United Iraqi Alliance will be so dependent on US arms because every time they try to create an Iraqi police force or army it deserts. It’s just like when US president Nixon’s “Vietnamisation” programme tried to create a South Vietnamese army.

Once the Americans left, it was only a matter of time before this army collapsed. When the Shia Muslims come into office, they’re not coming to power. The US still holds power.

Once they realise they cannot exercise power they’re going to be terribly frustrated and its going to be harder to control the reaction of the Shia population against what’s going on.

Do you think the resistance to the occupation will grow?

I suspect it will, because the conditions of the occupation haven’t changed. The US plans for permanent bases haven’t changed. The American rake-off to the huge corporations hasn’t changed.

Time magazine has reported recently that the US has either directly or indirectly been talking to the resistance.

What the resistance really wants is complete American withdrawal. That is something that the Americans are not prepared to give, so I suspect the fighting will continue.

Do you think things have got worse for the Iraqi people?

Things have always been so bad for the Iraqis that it’s hard to tell. They’ve never done well out of the West. The British imposed dictators on them from 1920 when they put King Faisal on the throne and staged the first referendum in the Arab world.

We all laugh about Arab referenda, when they produce a 100 percent turnout and 99.99 percent in favour of whatever the leader wants.

The first referendum in the Arab world was staged by the British high commissioner in Iraq, Sir Percy Cox. The question was, did the Iraqis want a monarchy under Feisal.

He admitted he rigged the whole thing. He got a 96 percent vote in favour. Then there was an insurrection in which the British killed 10,000 people.

After this there were rebellions by the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Shia, until 1958 when they got rid of the king.

Then there was an era of coups and counter-coups. Then Saddam took over and brought in a period of brutality, which the US supported. When he went too far and took Kuwait they stopped supporting him and made the people’s lives miserable with sanctions.

Why do you think the US is taking an aggressive stance towards Iran and Syria?

This stance has been in place since Bush came into office. They made it pretty clear that they wanted to get rid of the regimes in Damascus and Tehran.

The programme is already under way. Syria is already being destabilised by the US through Lebanese proxies, mainly Christian Maronites, and through Kurdish proxies in the north where there have been riots.

These have apparently been inspired or instigated by Kurds from Iraq. There have been car bombs and shootings in the capital Damascus. It sounds like standard CIA methods.

In Iraq, the US has co-opted an organisation called the Mujahideen-e-Khalq. They lost out in the Iranian revolution, settled in Iraq and became mercenaries for Saddam Hussein. They killed a lot of Kurds for Saddam. They have bombed cinemas in Tehran.

They are at a base in Iraq now, watched over by the US to be used for reconnaissance and sabotage missions in Iran.

Do you think all of this is part of the wider US plan to redraw the map of the Middle East?

I kind of wish someone would redraw the map of the Middle East. But they’re going to leave the map pretty much as it is, which has always been unacceptable to the people ever since the British and the French drew it up in 1919.

So far the only alteration the Bush administration has allowed is its recognition that illegal Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank should be part of Israel.

Their plan is to put regimes more friendly to themselves and Israel into power. I don’t think they’ll succeed.

There’s a fundamental contradiction between what America says about wanting democracy in the Arab world and what it really wants.

It does not want democracy in the Arab world because if the Arab worldcould have democracy, the people would want different types of state from what they’ve got.

They would also want to get rid of Israel, or certainly to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

For more from Charles Glass go to

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Sat 5 Mar 2005, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1941
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