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Iraq: twenty years since Desert Storm began the killing

This article is over 11 years, 11 months old
Twenty years ago next week the US used Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait to show its power. Martin Percival looks at the terrible effects imperialism has had on that country’s people
Issue 2212

Western imperialism has devastated Iraq. More than a million people have died since the US and British invasion of 2003, all because of lies claiming that Iraq was harbouring weapons of mass destruction.

But imperialist atrocities in the country have been going on far longer than this. The current intervention really began two decades ago when the US and Britain waged another bloody war against Iraq.

This also resulted in the deaths of over a million innocent people. It left the Iraqi people facing a crisis on a far greater scale than anything they had experienced under their dictator Saddam Hussein.

It is now 20 years since Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait – the event that sparked the 1991 Gulf War. Like today, this was a period shaped by Western interference in the region.

And like today, the case for the 1991 war was built on lies. The US and the British governments used Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait to organise a United Nations (UN) backed intervention to protect “democracy” and “freedom”.

This was not their real motive. Kuwait had been ruled by the Al Sabah family, a dictatorship capable of levels of atrocities similar to Saddam Hussein’s regime.

As soon as the war was over and the Al Sabah family was back into power, it unleashed a wave of persecution against Palestinians living in Kuwait.

The state executed or tortured hundreds – and hundreds of thousands fled the country in terror. Kuwait’s rulers excused this state-sponsored violence by saying the Palestinian leadership had supported Iraq during the war.

The US’s view of Iraq changed depending on wider geopolitical factors. So, behind the scenes, US diplomats had told Iraqi diplomats that they would not object to an invasion of Kuwait.

But the US saw an opportunity when its main competitor, the Soviet Union, collapsed. It wanted to make clear that it was now the only superpower.

The US waged war against Iraq to show that it could do whatever it wished in the crucial oil-rich Middle East.


George Bush senior, then US president, spoke of the “new world order” that was being created as the bombs began to fall. We are still living with the effects of that “new world order”.

He conveniently ignored the years when Iraq had been closely allied with the West following the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

That revolution overthrew the Shah – Iran’s Western-backed dictator. The new Islamic regime was a threat to US dominance in the region.

So Ronald Reagan’s administration looked for another friendly state to complement Israel, the US’s main ally, and settled upon Iraq.

Saddam Hussein launched a bloody war against Iran in 1980, which was to last eight bloody years. Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s government in Britain heavily funded and supplied Iraq with weapons.

They were not concerned with Saddam Hussein’s appalling human rights record. When he used Western-supplied chemical weapons to attack the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988, killing thousands, the US and British governments refused to even criticise him.

But when it became useful for the US to oppose Iraq, Saddam Hussein was suddenly labelled “the new Hitler”. The mainstream media repeated this ludicrous claim about the leader of a relatively weak Middle Eastern country.

The media, of course, failed to mention the West’s support for Saddam Hussein’s atrocities or its real motives for intervention.

Millions of people around the world saw through the lies and joined the anti-war movement. A 100,000-strong march took place in London on 12 January 1991.

To intervene “legally” in Iraq the US needed backing from the UN Security Council. This was a problem as it had poor relations with two permanent members – the Soviet Union and China.

The US achieved the support necessary by offering bribes and other incentives.

The Western-friendly Gulf states gave the heavily-indebted Soviet Union $3 billion. China was given loans and told it would be aided in regaining international credibility again after the outrage at its massacre of protesters in Tiananmen Square the previous year.

Smaller states that refused these incentives faced serious consequences.

Yemen had $70 million of aid cut as punishment for not supporting the war, meaning that the people of one of the poorest nations in the world were made to suffer.

The invasion of Iraq was a massacre. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed by the initial attack and over a million would die from the consequences of the war and the sanctions imposed afterwards. Fewer than 400 Western troops died.

The army and the media had claimed that new high tech weaponry would pin-point strategic targets, causing minimal civilian causalities. In fact, most of the attacks used old fashioned bombs and were extremely indiscriminate.

Hospitals, schools, and highly populated areas were hit, causing devastating effects.


Saddam Hussein’s regime surrendered after 42 days and a ceasefire was called. But US aircraft went on to attack Iraqi troops desperately trying to leave Kuwait along the Basra Road.

The victims didn’t stand a chance – US pilots would later say that it had been a “turkey shoot”.

The Americans massacred thousands as they pummelled the defeated troops for hours, using all the weapons at their disposal – including Napalm.

In another incident Western forces came across a large underground trench system.

Thousands of Iraqi soldiers tried to surrender as they approached. But the attackers overran the trenches with bulldozers, burying many of the defenceless soldiers alive.

Bush and then Tory prime minister John Major called on people in Iraq to rise up and overthrow the “evil dictator”. After the ceasefire, tens of thousands of oppressed Kurds in the north and Shia Muslims in the south took them at their word.

But the US and Britain did not want a popular revolution, which would destabilise their plans in the Middle East. Far from offering help to the rebels, Western forces allowed Saddam Hussein to crush both risings and so hold onto power.

The UN imposed heavy sanctions on Iraq and the US continued to have a stronghold over the country.

Some within the anti-war movement had argued for “sanctions, not war”, but the devastating effect they had on Iraqi people over the next 13 years showed this was a terrible position.


These sanctions resulted in a huge number of deaths, partly because medicine was prevented from entering the country – on the absurd grounds that it might be used as ingredients in weapons of mass destruction.

More than a million people died under the sanctions regime – many of them children with easily curable diseases.

And the vast amounts of deadly depleted uranium the US dropped on the country destroyed fertile lands and led to an increase in leukaemia.

The British and US governments were not concerned with the deaths of so many Iraqi people. When asked what she thought about the impact of the sanctions in 1998, Madeleine Albright, then US secretary of state, replied, “We think the price is worth it.”

Sanctions remained in place up until the invasion in 2003.

While Republicans and Tories began the policy, neither Democratic president Bill Clinton nor Tony Blair’s New Labour government did anything to end the devastation.

Peter Hain, a Labour foreign office minister, even described sanctions as a “humanitarian” policy.

By 2003 the younger George Bush’s administration believed that it could use the “war on terror” to finally remove Saddam Hussein. This would send a message to China, Russia and others that the US remained the sole superpower.

It would also give them full access to Iraq’s oil resources. Bush used the US’s military advantage to try and boost its economic power.

Saddam Hussein’s regime did fall – but in many ways the war has been a disaster for the US. Resistance within Iraq, and from the global anti-war movement, weakened the US and stopped it achieving all of its aims.

Imperialism has had a terrible effect on the lives of the peoples of the Middle East. There can only be peace and justice in the region when it has been finally thrown out.

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