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The Anti-War Movement's Work Has Just Begun--But it Needs Historical Context

by Bill Weinberg

"Beware of those who speak of the spiral of history," wrote Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man, "they are preparing a boomerang. Keep a steel helmet handy."

Actually, those who are preparing boomerangs don't usually tip their hands, however. While the US media portray an Iraq liberated from dictatorship, press commentators in the Arab world see a replay of the aftermath of World War I, when European powers divided the Middle East, granting themselves easy access to oil resources. In the official climate of self-congratulation, we urgently need to raise questions about how Saddam Hussein came to be in the first place.

In 1916, with the First World War still raging, Britain and France signed the secret Sykes-Picot agreement to divide the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which then controlled most of the Middle East. Under the deal, Iraq fell within the British sphere, and the following year it was in British hands. When the borders were formalized with League of Nations approval in 1920, Britain came close to threatening war with France to keep oil-rich Iraq under its control. The Brits stayed long enough to install a compliant government--brutally putting down Arab and Kurdish uprisings in the process. Ironically, use of poison gas against the Kurds was first pioneered by Winston Churchill, then the United Kingdom's colonial secretary.

The British-installed King Faisal Ibn Hussein was of the same Hashemite dynasty that still rules Jordan--a tribe from the Arabian desert which Britain groomed for power. Under Faisal's reign, the Iraq Petroleum Company had a sweet deal, paying pennies for each barrel. The company was a joint Anglo-American venture, whose major partners were British Petroleum, Standard Oil of New Jersey (today Exxon) and Shell. Bechtel of San Francisco was called in to build the oilfields in the 1950s.

This was the beginning of US interest in Iraq. But when the country became a pawn in Washington's Cold War chess games, things began to spin out of control.

In 1958, the Egypt of Arab nationalist strongman Gamal Nasser joined with Syria to declare a United Arab Republic--seen as a challenge to Israel and the West. The US pressured the conservative Hashemite regimes in Iraq and Jordan to reply by forming their own pro-West "Arab Union." But the move only sparked a coup d'etat and simultaneous popular uprising which toppled the Iraqi monarchy. Bechtel executive George Cooley Jr. was beaten to death by an angry mob in streets of Baghdad. The left-nationalist Abd al-Karim Qasim took power.

With the monarchists now discredited, the US began cultivating a rival--and bitterly anti-communist--Arab nationalist group, the Baath Party, in a bid to destabilize Qasim. In 1959, the young Saddam Hussein was part of a CIA-backed Baathist hit squad that attempted to assassinate Qasim.

In February 1963, the Baathists took power in a bloody coup, and unleashed a reign of terror on Iraq's left, as well as the long-suffering Kurds in the north. The CIA, which had been monitoring the Iraqi left, provided the names of who to round up--as it would later do in Indonesia and Chile. The CIA director at the time was John McCone, a longtime Bechtel executive.

The carnage didn't last long. A November counter-coup brought a Nasserist regime to power. But the Baathists returned to power in a 1968 counter-counter coup.

Once entrenched in power, the Baathists proved less conciliatory to Western interests. In 1972, they nationalized the oil industry, sending BP, Exxon and Shell packing. That same year they signed an aid pact with the USSR. The romance between Baghdad and Washington was only rekindled in 1979 when Saddam Hussein instrumented his own coup within the Baathist regime, declaring himself "supreme ruler" after killing his rivals.

The coup came at a propitious time for the ambitious autocrat. That same year, the Shah of Iran, a US ally, was toppled by Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution. The US and its allies Saudi Arabia and Kuwait agreed that Khomeini's Iran needed to be humbled. Saddam, nurturing visions of himself as savior of the Arab world, was itching to sacrifice his conscripts. US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski gave a "green light" to Saddam's invasion of Iran in a 1980 meeting with the dictator and Saudi Arabia's King Fahd in Kuwait.

The US "tilted" to Iraq in the grueling war with Iran, arming Saddam's regime-as did the Soviets and French. In 1983, the US removed Iraq from the list of terrorist nations and re-established diplomatic relations, with White House envoy Donald Rumsfeld finessing the overtures to Saddam. The corporations were also eager to get back in. In 1988, when Saddam gassed the Kurdish city of Halabja, instantly killing 5,000 civilians, the US-Iraq Business Forum--including Exxon, Mobil, Lockheed, Westinghouse and Xerox--advocated against economic sanctions. A bill to impose sanctions never made it out of Congress.

Saddam's 1991 invasion of Kuwait had roots in Baghdad's accusations that Kuwait had not followed through on promised war reconstruction aid after Iraq had fought Iran for eight brutal years. But the move proved a disaster for his country, resulting in yet further war damage followed by a decade of harsh sanctions--a definite end to the romance with Uncle Sam.

Now Saddam is gone, but Iraq is devastated and occupied by foreign troops. Former Shell executive Philip J. Carroll is the top candidate to oversee Iraqi oil production under Pentagon auspices. Bechtel has won the contract to rebuild the oil fields. Retired Gen. Jay Garner, appointed to oversee the civil administration of occupied Iraq, made a small fortune in the arms industry. Ahmed Chalabi, reportedly the Pentagon's favorite as leader of post-Saddam Iraq, is the scion of a banking family that underwrote Iraq's Hashemite monarchy. He pledges that if he comes to power he will give US oil companies preferential treatment and cancel Saddam's oil deals with the French and Russians. Pentagon advisor Richard Perle, meanwhile, is said to favor an actual Hashemite restoration in Iraq.

In other words, we appear to be back to 1917. Only this time the US is top dog in the Anglo-American alliance, and there is no cover of legality from the UN, successor to the League of Nations.

The anti-war movement which brought out millions around the globe on Feb. 15 has suffered a grave propaganda defeat in the TV footage of Saddam's statue falling to a cheering crowd. Equivocation by some activists on the horrific realities of Saddam's regime has not served the movement well. Throughout the years of opposing sanctions and war moves, the movement's criticism of Saddam has generally been lukewarm at best. Sanctions-resisters and "human shields" traveled to Iraq with nary a peep of protest against the dictatorship. Worse still, anti-war activists allowed self-appointed "leaders" such as Ramsey Clark --who routinely dismissed human rights allegations against Saddam as "propaganda"--to speak on our behalf. These are errors we are now paying for.

Claims that the statue incident was "staged" miss the point and smack of sore-loserism. Even if it was staged, it wasn't the only Saddam statue or poster to come down. And is unrealistic to deny that many--probably most--Iraqis are celebrating the fall of Saddam, even at the hands of a foreign invader.

But Arabs celebrated the fall of the Ottomans in 1917 too--and that victory is exactly what brought us the unpopular British occupation of Iraq, the oil cartel-friendly monarchy, the ugly backlash, Saddam Hussein and, finally, the current situation. In the anti-US protests which have now emerged in Baghdad, the most frequent banner slogan is "No to Saddam, No to America."

Those of us who marched on Feb. 15 need to rethink and remobilize. We need to oppose the occupation, as well as expansion of the war to Syria or Iran. We need to find pro-democracy, anti-occupation forces in Iraq, or in exile, to work with and support--forces which oppose imperialist designs on their homeland and imposition of a foreign-backed technocratic elite, but also oppose establishment of an Islamic state. After generations of harsh dictatorship, these forces are likely to be fairly marginal. It is our job to help amplify their voices. Our most difficult and important job is to challenge the official triumphalism and raise the hard questions about where this neo-colonial venture is taking us--to serve as a metaphorical steel helmet against Bush's historical boomerang.

April 28, 2002

Bill Weinberg is editor of the on-line weekly World War 3 Report (

Reprinting permissible with attribution.