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How Did Iraq and the United States Become Enemies?

While relations with Iraq have virtually dominated American foreign policy considerations for the past decade, and serve as the current casus belli of the Bush administration, the United States has a much longer history of involvement with that nation, a background which provides essential perspective on today’s crisis and Washington’s role in Iraqi politics over the past half-century.

America’s interest in the Middle East grew exponentially after World War II because of oil. The Middle East was serving as a pipeline for British and French empires prior to the war, but the U.S. quickly came to dominate the petroleum resources of the region; by 1944 American corporations controlled over 40 percent of Middle East oil reserves, and by 1955 U.S. companies were producing over 50 percent of oil from the region, and providing Europe with over 90 percent of its oil imports.

Of course, such economic interests would require political hegemony as well, and the United States acted forcefully in the postwar era to consolidate control over Middle Eastern states. In 1953, the CIA organized a successful coup against Iran’s nationalist leader, Mohammed Mossadegh, who was planning to nationalize oil resources, and in 1955, the U.S. facilitated the establishment of the Baghdad Pact, an alliance between Iraq and other Middle Eastern states to contain the Soviet Union and Arab nationalism, as well as to coordinate military, political and economic affairs in the region.

At this time, Iraq, under the leadership of King Faisal, was a reliable U.S. ally, but the specter of Arab nationalism, represented by Egypt’s President Gamel Abdel Nasser, would cause dramatic changes in Baghdad. In July 1958, a nationalist coup led by General Abdel Karim Kassim ousted Faisal and the new government maintained friendly relations with Nasser. Later that year, however, President Dwight Eisenhower sent 14,000 troops into Lebanon to “restore order” and Kassim got the message, assuring the U.S. that its interests in Iraq were safe and distancing his regime from Egypt, but also removing Iraq from, and thus ending, the Baghdad Pact.

Kassim began a repression of the Iraqi Left and many officers, including Saddam Hussein, fled to Egypt and elsewhere in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But Kassim himself was ousted and assassinated in a 1963 coup led by officers of the Ba’ath Party [The Arab Socialist Renaissance Party], who, however, lost their upper hand to more radical officers and could not hold on to power. Reportedly, American intelligence operatives began to cooperate with Ba’ath officers, providing them with names of alleged communists and other radicals, who were murdered en masse. Then, five years later, Ba’athists successfully took control of government with Saddam Hussein as a minor figure in the government. Through political maneuvering, imprisonment, and murder of his rivals, however, Saddam soon led the regime.

The U.S., though initially supportive of Ba’athist Iraq, turned quickly and began to support separatist Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq in the early 1970s. In 1975, however, the U.S. reached an agreement to seal the border between Iraq and Turkey, the site of Kurdish resistance, and Saddam immediately slaughtered thousands of Kurds, prompting Henry Kissinger’s famous explanation that “covert operations should not be confused with missionary work.”

Just a few years later, Iraqi-American relations reached their high point. As Ayotallah Khomenei’s Islamic Revolution took hold in Iran, the United States saw Teheran as its main adversary in the Middle East, as did Iraq. Consequently, with huge levels of American support–over $40 billion in weapons and technology through the 1980s, with many transactions “off book”–Iraq fought against Iran for nearly a decade. In the latter stages of battle, eventually won by Iraq, U.S. officers provided intelligence and tactical advice to the Iraqis, all the while Baghdad was using chemical and biological weapons on the battlefield to suppress the Iranians. Once the war ended, Saddam killed many thousands of his own Kurdish population with chemical weapons. Meanwhile, U.S. economic aid to Iraq increased.

The war against Iran, however, left Iraq with huge debts, which they could only pay through oil exports. The world oil market was in a relative state of over-supply, however, and the neighboring state of Kuwait was pumping large amounts of oil, and he suspected the Kuwaitis of using new technologies to take oil from Iraqi fields. Moreover, Iraq still considered Kuwait part of its own kingdom–the two areas had been artificially separated by British imperial officials in 1922–and wanted easy access to the sea for trade.

In July 1990 Saddam’s diplomats met with the U.S. Ambassador April Glasbie, who told them that Washington would take no position with regard to regional border disputes, a view that Baghdad reasonably assumed was a green light to enter Kuwait, which it did in August 1990. After initial vacillation, President George Bush, bolstered by hawkish advice from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who exhorted him not “to go wobbly,” declared “this will not stand,” and imposed sanctions and bought an international coalition to oppose Iraq. By November 1990, over a half-million American forces had been deployed to Saudi Arabia and the U.N. Security Council had ordered Iraq to evacuate Kuwait by 15 January 1991 or face attack.

Between November and January, the Bush administration prepared for war, rebuffing calls for negotiations at home and abroad and rebuffing Iraqi overtures for diplomacy. Finally, on 16 January, Bush commenced “Operation Desert Storm” which, in short order, devastated Iraq, mostly with a spectacular air war that destroyed Iraqi infrastructure and morale. In late February, Bush unleashed the ground war, which forced a massive Iraqi retreat from Kuwait and ended the war in just 100 hours.

The destruction of January and February 1991 would pale, however, with the devastation of the next decade. Because Saddam Hussein remained in power at the end of the Gulf War, the U.S. and U.N. placed harsh sanctions on Iraq to force the regime to disarm. In the past decade, many Iraqis have died -- with some human-rights groups putting the number close to a million -- because of intolerable health conditions caused by the war and embargoes on basic medical resources. Saddam, despite continuous wrangling with arms inspectors and intensified repression of his own people, has been contained, and poses no threat to outside states.

The American obsession with Saddam remains unabated, though. Most recently, in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Bush administration has been trying to build a consensus on attacking Iraq, offering various rationales for the need to invade Baghdad. Saddam, Bush insists, has been exporting terrorism in conjunction with Al-Queda, has been developing nuclear weapons, and represses his own people. For the first two charges, no evidence exists, while Saddam’s repression against his own, especially the Kurds, has been known for years and tolerated by the U.S.

When observed in historical perspective, current American saber rattling against Iraq has even less justification. The United States has developed relations with Iraq to suit its own purposes, supporting regimes which harm their own citizens, encouraging and funding wars against neighboring states, providing technology for weapons-building, and using Saddam as a justification for war and sanctions. Despite this, Saddam Hussein remains in power, the people of Iraq suffer brutal hardships on a daily basis, and the United States offers no solution except more destruction and chaos.