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chapter 4

Imperialism and the Gulf war 1990-91

The Iran-Iraq war and the invasion of Kuwait

The war between Iran and Iraq

IN SEPTEMBER 1980, Saddam unilaterally tore up the 1975 Algiers agreement, which had settled long-standing Iran-Iraq disputes over their borders, particularly over the Shatt al-Arab waterway, which gives access to the Gulf.

The 1975 agreement, backed by the United States and Britain, and signed by Iraq under pressure of a Kurdish revolt supported by Iran, was a long-standing grievance for the Iraqi regime. The invasion of Iran, therefore, was aimed at the reversal of the settlement, but went beyond that. Saddam no doubt hoped that through military victory he could bring about a collapse of Khomeini's regime, opening up the prospect of the annexation of the predominantly Arab province of Khuzestan (Arabistan), and establishing Iraq as the region's dominant power.

This war between two semi-colonial countries, whose regimes pursued their regional ambitions at the expense of their peoples, turned out to be the longest, most destructive war since the second world war. Both sides had been heavily armed by the Western powers, and hurled their technological weaponry at each other. The eight-year conflict was mainly a bloody war of attrition. Its see-saw advances and retreats recalled the barbarity of the trenches in the first world war.

In the first period of the war, US imperialism (with Britain following suit) was content to stand aside, waiting for both sides to exhaust themselves in mutual destruction. The US wanted to see the Islamic republic worn down, but had no particular desire to strengthen Iraq. However, as the war dragged on and Iran threatened to close the Gulf in response to Iraqi air attacks on their oil terminals, the US began to fear that the vital flow of oil would be cut off. The US began to give more and more support to Iraq. In 1987, Kuwait (whose tankers were being attacked by the Iranians) asked the US to intervene. The US navy, together with British and French warships, were sent to the Gulf - in reality giving support to Iraq against Iran. This was legitimised by UN resolution 598, which the US allowed to go through after seven years of war. While the Iranian economy was being strangled by the Western oil embargo, Iraq's war economy was bolstered by the almost unlimited availability of Western loans. Representatives of American imperialism justified support for Saddam's regime on the grounds that he had now abandoned radical policies and had turned towards agreement with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (who were financing his war effort). Now Saddam was also ready to open talks with Egypt and Jordan, previously ostracised because of the Camp David talks which opened up the door to Egyptian recognition of Israel. Washington also welcomed Saddam's decision to privatise large sections of the state sector and state farms. The United States, along with Britain, France, West Germany and other Western countries, began to pour in the most advanced weaponry into Iraq. Washington turned a blind eye to the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds. They even ignored the accidental missile attack by an Iraqi warplane on the US warship Stark. Saddam could do no wrong while he was serving the immediate interests of American imperialism in the region.

The US blunders into war

NOT ONLY DID the US and other Western powers build up Iraq's massive military machine, but Washington subsequently appeared to give the green light to Saddam's own regional ambitions. It was only when Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990 that the leaders of US imperialism took full account of the fundamental military threat being posed to their power and prestige. US imperialism blundered into war.

Early in 1990, senior US State Department (foreign office) officials responsible for Middle Eastern policy warned Bush that Saddam was preparing for a possible military strike against Israel or conflict with Kuwait, or possibly both. However, April Glaspie, the US ambassador in Baghdad, was still under the impression that "there was still a desire to see if in some way we could improve relations".

On 2 April 1990, Saddam made the speech in which he threatened to "burn half of Israel". The State Department then proposed sanctions against Iraq, including cutting off US export-import bank credits and credit for Iraqi purchases of US grain. However, many grain-state Congressmen, together with the Department of Commerce, "complained that curtailing Ex-In credits would hurt US businesses. Officials also argued that ending commodity credits would harm US rice growers." (Wall Street Journal, 2 October 1990) The capitalists' greed for quick profits clouded the thinking of their political representatives. As late as June, (said a Washington diplomat), "many US officials saw Iraq mainly as a strong market for American products - and one of the few remaining nations in which US technology is preferred to Japanese". (Wall Street Journal) Half-hearted sanctions were not implemented until 27 July.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, Glaspie had a meeting with Saddam Hussein. According to the Wall Street Journal, which quotes a summary of the interview, Glaspie told Hussein that "the President personally wants to expand and deepen the relationship with Iraq". Concerning the dispute with Kuwait, she said: "We don't have much to say about your Arab-Arab differences, like your border differences with Kuwait." In mid-July, the Central Intelligence Agency warned the White House that Iraqi troops were being mobilised on mass along the border with Kuwait and that an invasion looked imminent, probably within a week. Nevertheless, on 31 July, a senior State Department official (Kelly) told a House Foreign Affairs sub-committee that "we have historically avoided taking a position on border disputes". Two days later, Saddam invaded Kuwait. The occupation concentrated the minds of the leaders of US imperialism. A local Arab-Arab dispute on which they had 'not much to say' became a challenge to the power and prestige of US imperialism. A minor problem, of too little importance to require a clear and consistent policy from Washington, triggered the biggest mobilisation of armed forces since 1945.

Thatcher, shortly before she was removed as prime minister, played a part in pushing Bush into a major mobilisation. Meeting with Bush at the time of her lecture at Aspen, Colorado, Thatcher urged Bush to forget the idea of negotiations and launch an immediate war to destroy Saddam's regime.

Iraq and Kuwait

ACCORDING TO BUSH, the war against Iraq is justified by the need to uphold international law and punish aggression. This, as we have shown, is completely hypocritical. The real motive is the defence of power and profit. The Labour leaders have helped to conceal imperialism's real war aims behind the smokescreen of the United Nations. There are nevertheless many workers who will ask: "Are not the US and Britain doing the Arab workers a favour by removing a dangerous oppressor?" There is no support among workers in Britain or the US for Saddam's totalitarian state, and there is horror at the prospect of Saddam using chemical and biological weapons. Many workers sympathise with the idea that the removal of Saddam is the task of the Iraqi workers. But at the moment, they say, there appears to be no prospect of the regime being toppled by a movement within Iraq.

Some voices on the other hand - a tiny minority, it is true - argue that Saddam should be supported. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, they argue, is a progressive step, because it meant the overthrow of the reactionary al-Sabah regime and is a step towards the unification of the Arab peoples. Some have even claimed that Saddam's Iraq is a socialist state, and therefore worthy of support.