National Sections of the L5I:

Lessons of the Gulf War

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

On 2 August 1990 Iraq launched a lightning attack on Kuwait. In a few hours the Emir’s vastly outnumbered armed forces had surrendered. Less than four weeks later, Saddam Hussein re-baptised Kuwait “Saddamiyat” and annexed it as the 19th Iraqi province.

On 15 January 1991, after months of diplomacy and war preparations, the USA led a coalition of forces to remove Hussein in a bloody and reactionary war. In the first 100 hours the Allies captured or destroyed 42 Iraqi divisions (12,000 troops each) and took 175,000 prisoners. 3,009 Iraqi tanks and 2,140 pieces of artillery—55% and 61% respectively of Saddam’s arsenal—were captured or destroyed.

A month later Iraq suffered a crushing defeat. Between 85,000 and 100,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed or wounded. Iraqi reports suggest that 20,000 Iraqi civilians were killed and 60,000 wounded. Iraq’s urban infrastructure was virtually destroyed. For over a month Baghdad was without water and electricity. Cholera and other lethal epidemics stalk the country.

And all for what? For what noble cause did Hussein subject his people and his country to this slaughter? Some on the left have suggested that Hussein stood in the tradition of courageous Arab nationalists prepared to take on imperialism and its Zionist agents in order to free the Middle East from the grip of multi-national domination, military threats and national oppression.

This is a reactionary fantasy, a cruel deception played upon the 100 million Arabs of the region who suffer under the odious burden of imperialism. Saddam was never a consistent anti-imperialist. For years he was imperialism’s trusted ally. He never had any legitimate claim to Kuwait. He conducted his war in a way that was guaranteed to bring defeat. He off-loaded the consequences of the war onto his poor suffering people and launched barbarous attacks upon them when they rose up in opposition.

Despite our support for Iraq faced with imperialism’s offensive, we must be clear about the limits and nature of Saddam Hussein’s policies. Iraq has become the first victim of US imperialism’s “new world order”; if it is to be the last then the exploited and oppressed of the “third world” must learn the lessons of the Gulf War.

A reactionary invasion

Hussein’s annexation was not an anti-imperialist action. It was a reactionary manoeuvre designed to prevent the impending bankruptcy of his dictatorship and the revolutionary situation that this would create. The eight year war with Iran left Iraq with a foreign debt of $85 billion. Half of this debt was owed to the Gulf states. In addition Iraq needed $60 billion for post-war reconstruction This is equal to Iraq’s gross domestic product over a five year period.1

Some 97% of Iraq’s export earnings came from oil and refined petroleum products. At the end of the 1980s the price of oil began to plummet; by June 1990 it was only $13.6 per barrel. The main reason for this slump was the massive over-production by the Gulf petro-monarchies, especially by Saudi Arabia, the world’s principal oil exporter, which increased its oil production to seven million barrels a day.2

The interests of the ruling classes of the petro-monarchies are now centred, not so much in oil production itself, as in the industrial production that uses oil as its major energy source and in finance investments. Their interests are no longer identical with those of the OPEC oil producers’ cartel.

In the first part of the 1980s the petro-monarchies gave around $40 billion dollars to Baghdad to support and arm it as a bulwark against Iranian shi’ite fundamentalist expansionism. After the war with Iran, Iraq claimed more money from its partners in order to finance reconstruction. In order to pay its massive accumulated war debt, Iraq needed higher oil prices. But the petro-monarchies, with their complex interests, were not willing to decrease their production and thus increase prices. Iraq was locked into a vicious circle of increasing debt and decreasing revenues. Hussein’s solution was to invade Kuwait and thus at a stroke enhance its revenues and liquidate its debt or part of it.

Hussein alone decided to invade Kuwait, annex it and give its capital his own name. He never consulted the wishes of the people who lived and worked in Kuwait. Yet Iraq could have won the support of the Arab, Kuwaiti and even the western masses if the invading forces had merely abolished the Emirate and called on the inhabitants of Kuwait to decide their own destiny.

Kuwait was a reactionary monarchy in which only 60,000 (3%) inhabitants out of more than two million could vote. Women, immigrant workers (60% of the population and 80% of the labour force) were excluded from full citizenship. Only those men who could claim to be from families which had lived in Kuwait for over seven decades could claim full citizenship. To have given them democratic rights, to have given them for the first time the ability to decide their own future, would in turn have given Iraq a huge authority amongst the Kuwaiti population and indeed all over the world. It would have demonstrated how utterly hollow were the “democratic” claims of the USA and the United Nations (UN) that they sought to restore the “legitimate Kuwaiti government” in a free and democratic way.

But Hussein did not want to do any of this. He did not want to give any kind of democracy, consultation or autonomy to his own people and the minorities like the Kurds. If he did that in Kuwait it would undermine his autocracy inside Iraq.

Saddam’s purpose was not liberation. It was larceny. The Iraqis stole everything they could, from machinery and buses to jewels and museum pieces. Captured Kuwait was not even administered by some Kuwaiti Quisling: Saddam put one of his most bloody henchmen in power. Repression, torture, rape and robbery became commonplace.

The initial Kuwaiti resistance was very weak. Some of the Kuwaiti inhabitants (like the Palestinians who made up 20% of the population) saw the overthrow of the Al Sabah parasites as something progressive. But the looting and pillage quickly alienated potential supporters.

The war between Iraq and Kuwait lasted only a few hours. To the extent that it is possible in such a blitzkrieg, the proletariat should have taken a revolutionary defeatist attitude on both sides. The working class should have promoted revolutionary fraternisation between the Iraqi soldiers and the Kuwaiti people and troops, with the the aim of transforming the war between two bourgeois states into an international class war, uniting the workers of Iraq and Kuwait against their respective ruling classes.

Once Iraq had won the war and began to annex Kuwait, the revolutionary position was to fight for democratic consultation and free self-determination for all the inhabitants of Kuwait over 16 years of age, for the withdrawal of the occupying army and for the arming of the working masses.

But revolutionary tactics have to be modified when circumstances change. When the coalition of imperialist powers started to threaten Iraq and prepare for war, the international working class had to defend the oppressed semi-colonial country against imperialist aggressors and exploiters. Furthermore, had Iraq struck first to prevent the build up and invaded Saudi Arabia we would have supported Iraq.

The border disputes

Saddam Hussein’s claim that he was simply restoring a part of his own country stolen by imperialism was pure demagogy. Kuwait, Iraq and all the Middle East countries, were created artificially by the colonial powers. Kuwait was part of the Turkish province of Basra until it became independent from the Sultan in the last century. In 1899 Kuwait was declared a state under British protection, surrounded by the Ottoman Empire. It was never part of Iraq.

Iraq was only founded in 1922, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, on part of the territory of the British Mandate. During the war the British made a secret agreement with France—the notorious Sykes-Picot Treaty. Paris and London agreed to divide “Greater Syria” and put the south and the east (present-day Israel, Jordan and Iraq) under British administration and the north (present-day Syria and Lebanon) under French rule.

All this was unknown to Feisal, a pro-British Arab leader. Feisal took Damascus from the Turks. He then tried to hold power in what had already been designated a French colony. The British would have none of this and he was unceremoniously ejected from Syria. To assuage his outraged feelings the British offered him a new kingdom. Churchill suggested the creation of Iraq by fusing the hitherto unconnected Ottoman provinces of Mosul (majority Kurdish), Baghdad (majority sunni Arab) and Basra (majority shi’ite Arab). All the successor states of the Ottoman Empire share a lack of validity as “national” states, i.e. as states that come into existence as the expression of a pre-existing peoples wish for self-determination. All are the product of the imperialist powers’ Balkanisation of the region.

Saddam Hussein: a fake anti-imperialist

During the war both Hussein’s most bitter enemies and his closest supporters tried to present him as a sincere and fervent anti-imperialist. Nothing could be further from the truth. Hussein was a reactionary Bonapartist dictator who had repeatedly capitulated to imperialism both on the internal economic front and in regional and world politics.

The Ba’ath is a bourgeois nationalist party. Like many nationalist forces throughout the “third world” it was created under an anti-imperialist banner, but it was doomed to become a tool and servant of imperialism, This process has been seen repeatedly from Latin America (APRA, MNR, PRI, Peronism, etc) to China (Guomindang) and also in Africa with Nasser’s “socialist” Egypt, Nyerere’s “African socialism”etc.

Ba’athism sought to create an “anti-imperialist”, multi-class, pan-Arab state. It never challenged private property or the capitalism system. Quite the opposite: its aim was to create a national bourgeoisie. For this reason the powers of the imperialists, the archaic landowners and the reactionary religious hierarchy had to be limited. State capitalist measures aimed at protecting industrial development in the Arab countries were promoted in the hope of creating a modern national capitalist class.

Such nationalists are always willing to use the workers and peasants as an instrument of mass pressure against foreign enemies. They attempt to organise and mobilise the masses with anti-imperialist slogans. In a tight corner they may even give them weapons, but always on a regimented and strictly controlled basis. If and when the proletariat starts to act on its own behalf the nationalists will rush to block it, either by incorporating a privileged stratum of labour bureaucrats or by using other forces—the petit bourgeoisie or the peasantry—to crush workers’ struggles and independent class organisations The same bourgeois nationalist movement may use a combination or succession of these methods. But always and everywhere they seek a Bonapartist regime which can control and subordinate the proletariat to the interests of the “national bourgeoisie”.

They have no intention of making a decisive or fundamental break with the imperialists. They are simply trying to find a better place for their own capitalist economy within the framework of the imperialist world system. However radical these parties were in their youth, hurling down the most fiery and radical challenges to imperialism, their rise to power “matures” them with astonishing speed. Once they have to direct a modern state and economy they need the imperialists’ loans and investments to prop up both. The bourgeois nationalists also find that they need support from imperialism to discipline their own workers when the masses, perhaps taking the “socialist” slogans seriously, menace private property. Despite all the anti-imperialist and socialist rhetoric the nationalists always ends up with a reactionary, anti-communist and pro-imperialist programme in government.

Reality and the myth of Arab nationalism

In the 1950s and 1960s, pan-Arabism was a dominant feature of mass hostility to imperialism’s division and domination of the Middle East. Its power mobilised millions. Fearing for their interests, British and French imperialism launched their reactionary attack on Egypt following the nationalisation of the Suez Canal. These times are long gone. Nowadays pan-Arabist slogans are mainly used as a transparently cynical accompaniment to annexationist or interventionist adventures by military regimes, such as the Libyan incursion into Chad, the Yemeni and Lebanese civil wars, or Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait. The pan-Arabism of a Hussein or a Gaddaffi are a terribly degenerate reflection of the speeches of Nasser that electrified the whole Arab world in the days of the wars against Israel and Anglo-French imperialism. The current weakness of Arab nationalism is also show by the rise of “regional” nationalisms (Algerian, Egyptian, Palestinian, Syrian etc) and various sorts of Islamic “anti-imperialism”, all of which were used by Hussein during the war.

The big problem for the Arab nationalists is that we are no longer in the revolutionary epoch of capitalism, but in its final and reactionary epoch. The unification of the Arab world could only be accomplished in opposition to the entire imperialist system. The imperialists will not tolerate for one moment the challenge that a unification of these dispersed semi-colonies would pose. With a bourgeois or petit bourgeois leadership it is impossible to unify the Middle East against imperialism. These classes are incapable of challenging the huge multi-national capitalist corporations and the states that serve them, the real owners of the world.

The project of an Arab national unification has proved and will continue to prove a utopia. Only the proletariat could unify the region, on the basis of a socialist programme. And the proletariat has no particular reason to limit this to merely Arab unity. The proletariat cannot become a nation builder without violating its international programme and at the same time its duty to defend all oppressed nations, nationalities ethnic minorities etc.

In the Middle East the fighting unity needed now must include Kurds, Turks and Iranians as well as the numerous smaller communities. The struggle will be shortened if it includes the Israeli Jewish proletariat, The slogan of Arab national unity holds no special appeal for any of these peoples. Indeed, it can create genuine fears, which, as the behaviour of Arab nationalists have demonstrated, are not groundless. The unity that the peoples of the Middle East, Arab and non-Arab, need can only be safeguarded in a socialist united states of the Middle East.

Towards the new world order

Although Hussein was an important prop for imperialism, the imperialists did have some reservations about him. He was never prepared to recognise the Israeli state and support the imperialists’ “peace” plans for the region. This prevented him from enjoying the complete confidence of the imperialists. But the qualitative break came when he violated the imperialist-drawn borders and invaded one of the most pro-western of all the Arab states. He had clearly become a rogue elephant that had to be shot.

Bush could almost certainly have avoided the war and obtained the withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait and the restoration of the Emir if he had permitted the Gulf states to make monetary or territorial concessions to Hussein, as they were ready and willing to do. At the end of October the Saudi Defense Minister, Prince Sultan Ibn Abdul Azis, declared, “We see no harm in any Arab country giving its Arab sister land, a site, or a position on the sea”.

But Bush rejected any concessions out of hand. His only offer was that some months after a withdrawal it might be possible to convene an international Middle East peace conference and that negotiations over the border disputes and other questions could then take place with the Emir. For Hussein to withdraw under these conditions would have been the height of humiliation.

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the US satellites and intelligence knew before 2 August that Hussein would invade Kuwait. The US ambassador in Iraq (April Gilespie) said to Hussein some days before the invasion that Washington was neutral in the border disputes with Kuwait.

The Kuwait invasion was an excellent pretext for the US administration to use to obtain some important political goals. For the first time in its history Washington led a coalition of all the great powers against a single nation. They tried to use the war to overcome domestic recession and they insured themselves against the cost of the war by soliciting contributions to cover a large part of the war expenditure.

For the first time the Soviet Union could be expected to veer between support and neutrality. The whole semi-colonial world would be more closely aligned with the USA and a few “rogues” such as Cuba, plunged into even deeper isolation. Last but not least the USA could demonstrate that economic strength alone, like that of its “allies” Japan or Germany, is not enough to direct the world economy in the interests of the imperialists and guarantee peace and cheap raw material prices; for that a world military superpower is necessary.

Bush wants to indicate that the days of “third world” anti-imperialist nationalism are over. Hussein tried to avoid paying his debts. He even mugged one of his moneylenders. And he paid the price. Be warned! Uncle Sam, the world policeman, will “kick ass” at the first sign of refusal to pay up.

The stabilisation of the Middle East is central to imperialism’s new world order. It was indispensable for the USA to end the conflicts inside Lebanon and Palestine. Diplomatic agreements between Israel and Egypt cut out the most important Arab base of support for the anti-Zionist fight. Imperialism wants to come down even harder on Palestinian radicalism and the intifada. With the crushing of Iraq the USA has smashed the mightiest Arab army that could have challenged Israel, and in doing so struck the Palestinians a mighty blow.

They also tried to break the radical muslim bloc. Lybia, Iran and Syria had a pro-imperialist, neutral or enemy position in this conflict. Syria participated in the military bloc against Iraq. The imperialists supported Syria when it repressed the Lebanese Christian leaders and now as the stabilising factor in Lebanon. Now they are trying to gradually force Syria (and with it all the Arab states) to recognise Israel. They are trying to show Iran and Syria that world politics are now changing, that the USSR will not defend “anti-imperialist” dictators and that the best way to develop is to make more concessions to imperialism.

US morale, US hypocrisy

For the White House there was also one piece of unfinished business that could be addressed by an attack on Iraq: to restore the “morale” on their home front and the authority and prestige of the ruling class within its own country; in short to put an end to the “Vietnam syndrome”. Since the Second World War USA had not won a really big war. In Korea they failed to win an outright victory. In Vietnam they were actually defeated and humiliated. The rescue operation for the American hostages in Iran turned into a ludicrous fiasco. They were forced to withdraw ignominiously from Lebanon, after more than 200 US marines were killed by a suicide bomber.

The only wars the USA had won in 45 years were pathetically small scale and in defense of their domination in the Caribbean. Even here they “lost” Cuba and were made fools of at the Bay of Pigs. Its ideologists have justified genocidal actions (Vietnam and the Gulf) whilst maintaining an injured tone of having acted in the purest self-defence. Reagan played on the “defeat psychosis” to win the 1980 election under the slogan “let’s make America great again”. He set out, step by step, to wipe out the Vietnam syndrome.

The invasion of Panama on 20 December 1989 and the handling of Noriega show important parallels to the strategy in the Gulf. Once the evil dictator rebels against his boss, he is suddenly unmasked. All the crimes (drugs, human rights, etc) that were overlooked or hidden so long as he was “our son-of-a-bitch” are suddenly revealed in all their horror. Targeting an anti-communist and discredited dictator is much easier that fighting against “communist” guerrillas rooted in the people with high morale and with the support of the USSR. Most liberals and also some socialists, Marxists and even Trotskyists can be persuaded to join the imperialist propaganda machine on this basis. It worked on a small scale with Noriega. With Saddam the US ruling class tried it again and this time hit the jackpot.

With friends like these . . .

The USA’s ability to smash Iraq was a direct result of the fact that the “socialist bloc” permitted it to do so. The USSR, China and Cuba’s attitude was criminal. After the invasion of Kuwait all of them voted in favour of economic sanctions against their former ally, Iraq. These “communists” transformed themselves into champions of the restoration of one of the most reactionary monarchies on the planet. They hypocritically supported a “self-determination” for this tiny emirate whilst perpetrating the oppression and massacre of nations in Tibet, the Caucasus, the Baltic states etc. Although the Stalinist parties throughout the world participated in peace demonstrations they all called for an imperialist peace; this inevitably meant Iraq’s surrender and the re-establishment of the emirate.

The USSR supported the USA’s military attack because it desperately needs loans and economic support as well as a guarantee that the imperialists will turn a blind eye when they crush their own nationalities. China voted for, or abstained on, the various UN resolutions in return for promises of economic aid and the elimination of sanctions imposed when they smashed the student occupation of Tiananmen square. Moscow, Yugoslavia and Beijing took advantage of the opening of hostilities to settle a few scores with their domestic enemies (the Baltic governments, the Kossovo Albanians and the Tiananmen activists).

Cuba condemned the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, initially voted in favour of the economic boycott and thereafter failed to vote against the use of military force to enforce the Iraqi withdrawal. The Castroites sent Daniel Ortega and 200 medical personnel—they sought to simultaneously present themselves as friends of Baghdad and as endorsing the UN demands for Iraq to withdraw.

The US alliance was made up of thirty countries and actively supported by another 18 (including the USSR). Despite the risible nature of some of this “support” (a few hundred soldiers or less), the USA could thus appear as the champion of the whole world, supported by different types of regime—from absolutist kingdoms to “socialist states”—from the all five continents.

Iraq received no military support. All the “third world” nationalists showed how utterly hollow their “anti-imperialism” really was. Some of the most pro-imperialist regimes from the imperialised countries entered the alliance to flatter the US and beg for economic assistance.

Why was Iraq defeated?

Saddam Hussein knew that it was absolutely impossible to gain a military victory against the combined US-UN forces. He knew that he would have to leave Kuwait, but he was determined that the imperialists would pay dearly for this by transforming inevitable military defeat into a political victory.

Hussein wanted to come out of the war as an historic anti-imperialist, pan-Islamicist and pan-Arab leader. He wanted to be able to negotiate with Bush and the allies on an equal footing. The cost of defeat would be dealt with later, paid for out of the profits reaped from transforming Iraq into a regional power which had challenged the super-powers. Hussein was prepared to accept hundreds of thousands of casualties and massive destruction to achieve this.

However, the historical analogy with Nasser’s Egypt deceived Saddam. There was a world of difference between Egypt’s war against two declining imperialist powers and Iraq’s confrontation with the world imperialist super-power.

During the various wars between Egypt and Israel, Egypt had the backing of the USSR and the Eastern Bloc while the imperialist camp was divided. During the 1956 Suez war the USA opposed the Anglo-French intervention, hoping to supplant them as the most influential force in the region. In the current phase of world history we are passing from a period where two major forces confront each other on the global stage to one where there is only military power with a world wide intervention capability

Instead of supporting Iraq, the USSR and China supported the blockade and the imperialist attack. When Egypt challenged Israel it had the support of the whole Arab world. Iraq was able to win the support of millions of muslims, but the majority of Arab states—and a large part of the Arab masses—was on the other side of the barricades.

It was said that Iraq was a “third world” country with a first world arsenal. The truth, however, is that Iraq sought to fight with the methods of the First World War in the time of the Third World War.

Some leftists argued that Iraq would become another Vietnam. This was a ridiculous expectation The Ba’ath party is a bourgeois nationalist formation with a 25 year old dictatorship. It played a brazenly pro-imperialist role against the revolutionary Iranian masses, and was pleading for a deal with the imperialists. Its origins do not lie in the labour movement, nor is it supported by a Stalinist superpower. It has no history of popularly supported guerilla warfare, nor has it led a civil war against an imperialist puppet regime. Such a regime and such a leader stood no chance of generating a powerful world-wide anti-imperialist upsurge such as the Viet Cong did in the 1960s. Only wilful self deluders could have believed this was possible.

Hussein’s military strategy

Iraqi strategy was based on a series of factors.

• A war of attrition which would lead to high Allied casualties and consequent political difficulties for the imperialists. As Saddam said to the US ambassador to Iraq: “Yours is a society which cannot accept 10,000 dead in one battle. ”

• Economic chaos would be created by the destruction of the Gulf oil fields, leading to soaring oil prices and stock market crashes.

• Allied forces would be divided. The aim was to transform a war between “the rest of the world and Iraq” into a war between the Arabs and Israel and its godfathers.

• Morale in the imperialist heartlands would be shaken by a wave of terrorist attacks.

None of these aims was fulfilled. The Allies were able to replace a war of attrition by a war of position. Allied casualties amounted less than 200 dead. Only 45 Allied planes were lost and a handful of land vehicles. The great mass of casualties was on Iraq’s side. The Al Hussein (“Scud”) missiles inflicted no significant damage on any oil field or refinery. The allies had massive air superiority.

The war did not produce economic chaos, except in Baghdad. At the beginning of the blockade, world oil prices passed $26 per barrel, rising to $32 on the eve of the expiry of the US deadline. If the imperialist invasion had been delayed any longer, prices might have soared higher. When the attack began, prices slumped by $11, and on the following day decreased by another $2. The allies produced more oil or sold off their reserves to make up for the shortfall and reduce prices. At the beginning of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait all the major stock exchanges took a dive. But the imperialist demonstration of power, followed by the invasion, did much to restore confidence and prices.

Iraq’s attempt to provoke Israel by Scud attacks, however newsworthy, came to nothing. For showing “patience” the imperialists rewarded the Israelis with more economic and military aid. The Zionists also increased their international prestige and laid the basis for a future understanding with the moderate Arab regimes. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria all declared that their position in the war would not change even if Israel were to retaliate and attack Iraq. Syria went so far as to allow Israeli planes to overfly Syrian territory on their way to attack Iraq, so long as they returned by another route!

Because of massive repression, the Palestinians proved unable to open a second front inside Israel and the Occupied Territories. Jordan and Iran did not join the war on Iraq’s side. King Hussein was obliged to play on the pro-Iraqi sentiments of his population (most of whom are Palestinians), whilst maintaining a position of non-intervention in the war. Iran gained a series of major concessions from Iraq by appearing to search for peace and reconciliation. Saddam Hussein’s relations with Syria were very changeable. He pushed for Syria to fight Israel, claiming that he sought to reconquer the Golan Heights. He did not directly attack Syria, nor did he launch an offensive in Lebanon against the Syrian-backed forces.

Terrorist attacks did take place in various places throughout the world. Most of them were local initiatives, without any co-ordination from Baghdad. Many of them did not even raise solidarity with Iraq. None had any significant consequences. Far more important than these isolated actions were the millions in the streets opposing the war. But Saddam Hussein played little heed to this.

As for denting the morale of the US armed forces, this was never likely. The US Army had learned the lessons of its defeat in Vietnam. Professional volunteers, not conscripts, went to the Gulf; the possibility of demoralisation and desertion was reduced even though many were “obliged” to enlist for economic reasons. A significant proportion of the US army in the Gulf was composed of blacks and latinos. Afro-Americians—13% of the total US population—made up 25% of the troops in the Gulf. These sectors of US society face the highest levels of unemployment and the lowest living standards. Wages for soldiers in the Gulf were 300% higher than those for soldiers in Vietnam. US soldiers were highly qualified—most of them with a high school diploma—and they were well trained in military theory and strategy.

Saddam Hussein’s defensive tactics

Iraq could not hope to compete with the west in sophisticated war weaponry. The Allies were easily able to impose their domination over the sea and, decisively, in the air. Iraq had virtually no logistical support for its troops. Iraq’s best arms were to be found in its ground arsenal: the modified Soviet-made Scud ground-to-ground missiles (although these lacked both precision and a substantial payload capacity), artillery, tanks and biochemical weapons.

Iraq was in a defensive position. It had more soldiers at the front than all the Allied armies put together. Troops, aircraft and weapons were dug into the sand or concealed in specially constructed bunkers. From the very first day of the conflict the Allies gained air superiority. Iraq was subject to weeks of punishing bombardments and air raids. After the first 24 hours of combat, all the imperialist media claimed an easy victory. They said that 50%, 70% or even 80% of Iraqi military installations and aircraft had been destroyed. In fact, what the Allies had been destroying were lures—paper or plastic life-size mock-ups. Iraq only lost 20% of its aircraft in the war.

But there was a major flaw at the heart of Saddam’s strategy. It required a massive and bloody land war, but the logistical infrastructure necessary for sustaining a drawn-out conflict was entirely absent: Iraq could not wage a prolonged war. Spare parts were virtually completely lacking and allied aircraft were slowly but surely destroying Iraqi cities and military installations. The lines of communication with the Kuwait theatre of war were being cut.

Saddam badly needed to draw the allies into a precipitate land war. He could not compete in an air war, which would only lead to more bombings, death and destruction. For this reason he undertook a series of provocative manoeuvres—the Scud attacks against Israel and Saudi Arabia, the poisoning of the Gulf waters with a massive oil slick and the lightning occupation of Khafji, a Saudi Gulf city near Kuwait.

None of these tactics was successful. The occupation of Khafji had only a limited propaganda value. The repeated Scud attacks against Israel and Saudi Arabia showed that the Iraqi war machine was intact, despite the massive allied bombing, but did not succeed in provoking the imperialist or Israeli forces. The continual threat of a chemical attack created a certain psychosis in the heart of the enemy—both in the population and in the regimes, but the allied commanders were not forced to change their strategy and attack before they were ready.

In an anti-imperialist war we have to evaluate military tactics from the point of view of our overall strategy of winning mass support for the progressive side or at least undermining support for the reactionaries. The Scud attacks tended to alienate the Israeli Jewish working class from the anti-imperialist camp rather than winning them to an anti-war position. At the same time they were totally ineffective as a means of destabilising the imperialist led alliance. In Israel the targets of the Scud missiles were civilian Jewish suburbs. Hussein wanted to provoke the Israeli people into pressing the Zionist government to launch an attack against Iraq, thus breaking the anti-Hussein coalition.

A revolutionary strategy would have started from a different standpoint. Instead of trying to provoke a massive Israeli attack on Jordan and Iraq, such a strategy would have concentrated on arming the Palestinian and Jordanian workers against the treacherous King Hussein, overthrowing his government and aiding the intifada. The Iraqi army could have played a crucial role in aiding this revolution. Israel would undoubtedly have attacked if Jordan had collapsed.

But the chance of a regional revolutionary upsurge would have been much greater. Revolutionaries within Israel and the occupied territories would take up the fight to split the Israeli population along class lines and to pit the workers against the capitalists. Of course to do this would have meant making it clear that liberation from oppression for the Palestinians would not mean annihilation for the Israeli workers but their coming to power alongside their Arab sisters and brothers. Saddam Hussein, a bourgeois nationalist dictator, had not the slightest interest in seeing the unity of the Israeli and Palestinian workers. His aim was to unite all Arabs under the sway of the Iraqi ruling class.

Why did the Allies not march on Baghdad?

Nearly four weeks after the beginning of the war Saddam offered the imperialists a deal: he would withdraw from Kuwait if the war were to end. He had entered an endgame. The Ba’athist regime’s resistance was finished. The imperialists argued:

“If he pulls out now, he can probably stay in power, save a good part of his army and even emerge an Arab hero for having held out so long against the battering of a superpower and its allies. If he can negotiate some terms to soften the sting—a Middle East Peace Conference, for example, that would enable him to claim he had forced the west to do something about the Palestinian problem—so much the better. If he tries to hold out even another month, however, he might well lose everything.” 3

For this reason the USA would not go along with Hussein’s game. Every time Saddam promised more concessions, the imperialists upped the stakes. When Iraq finally accepted the Soviet plan which involved unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait, the USA put forward new objections.

They wanted a total capitulation and they did not want the USSR to be able to appear as a responsible major world power. Furthermore, having initiated the peace process, the USSR would have been able to demand a say in post-war negotiations. The Allies took full advantage of Hussein’s vacillations. At the very moment the Ba’ath regime was accepting the Soviet peace plan, the ground war was launched.

The Iraqi soldiers were unable to resist the imperialist offensive. Their morale was shattered due to lack of food and daily bombardments. Why should they fight to defend Kuwait when the government was on the point of unconditionally withdrawing? The courageous Iraqi soldiers no longer had any reason to fight; they felt abandoned, used and betrayed by their leaders. More than 100,000 soldiers surrendered in a matter of days. The Iraqi high command army defeated itself, through a chaotic policy which Napoleon described as “order, countermand, counter-countermand, disorder”.

There was another factor which led to the collapse of the Iraqi defences. Although a type of “Maginot line” was constructed between Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, hundreds of kilometres of the frontier between Iraq and Saudi Arabia were completely unfortified and poorly defended. The allies made an initial feint in the form of an attack on the south of Kuwait. Undetected, they rapidly transferred thousands of French and US troops to the west, outflanking the main Iraqi defences, penetrating into Iraq and surrounding the bulk of Saddam’s forces

Saddam wanted a bloody war of position. The Allies gave him a war of movement. It was bloody enough, but only on the Iraqi side. With a combination of warplanes and troop-carrying helicopters, the Allies protected the tank advances and drove massive corridors through the desert, sweeping them clean of Iraqi troops. These Allied forces rapidly captured 20% of Iraq’s territory and decisively engaged and defeated Iraq’s army.

General Schwartzkopf was lying when he said the Allied troops could easily have gone on to take Baghdad. If the USA had been so rash as to try, allied casualty figures would have soared and the Arab world would have erupted in flames. The USA would not have been able to present itself as the force which had destroyed the world’s fourth largest army and “liberated” Kuwait with virtually no casualties. Furthermore, it would have been apparent to all that the USA’s real aim was to reassert its domination over Iraq.

The USA accepted the ceasefire from a position of strength. Kuwait had been “liberated” and a military wedge had been established inside Iraq, near Basra. Most of Iraq’s military machine and infrastructure had been destroyed; around one third of Iraq’s frontline troops had been captured. Allied forces were effectively untouched.

A continuation of the war would have implied marching on Basra, Baghdad and the other major cities of Iraq. There would have been direct street confrontations with the population, as well as fierce battles with the elite sections of the armed forces. The soldiers who surrendered to the Allies were conscripts; they were not the core of the Iraqi army, the 100,000 strong Republican Guard. Well paid, well trained, experienced in tank and poison gas warfare, the Guard is utterly loyal to Saddam Hussein and is considered to contain some of “the most formidable fighting men in the ‘third world’”.4 Hussein kept them away from the front line, deploying them in the area between Kuwait and Basra to act as a barrier against any attempts by the Allies to cross into the Mesopotamian valley. Throughout the war, no significant battle took place between the Allied troops and the cream of Saddam’s army. As such a conflict became more likely, the war ended.

Of course, one of the central objectives of US policy—the overthrow of Saddam Hussein—was not achieved. The imperialists wanted to encourage a coup from within the regime; they did not want to kill Saddam during the war. They did not want to create a martyr. They wanted Hussein personally to accept the humiliating ceasefire, thus destroying the possibility of him appearing later as the man who opposed the “betrayal” of concessions to imperialism.

Proletarian policy in the war

During the war the task of revolutionaries was to side with semi-colonial Iraq. But this did not mean giving the slightest political confidence to the Ba’athist regime. It did not mean ceasing the struggle to overthrow the dictatorship. Rather it meant approaching this objective from another direction, one which for the duration of the war recognised the imperialists as the main immediate enemy and Hussein as unable and unwilling to mount an effective and victorious struggle against them.

The task of working class revolutionaries was to outline a strategy that could utilise the situation to develop a mass anti-imperialist revolutionary struggle in the region. Subordinate and related to this, it was their duty to show how the war could be transformed into a really consistent anti-imperialist and revolutionary war.

Of course, Saddam’s view was completely different. Despite he and his party’s claim to be socialist, anti-imperialist, even secular and democratic, there was no question of waging war on a democratic, anti-imperialist or socialist platform. Instead this secularist and self-proclaimed liberator of women called for a muslim holy war.

With this strategy he embraced the most reactionary forces in Arab society: the anti-woman, anti-socialist, theocratic and anti-democratic fundamentalist mullahs. Hussein’s pan-Islamic rhetoric rebuffed all the forces fighting for progressive goals in the region and blocked any possibility of winning mass support for Iraq inside the labour movement in the west, in Israel or in the world as a whole. Worse still, it gave the priests and the rabbis the opportunity to reinforce their influence amongst the masses in the countries fighting against Iraq.

The war could have had a completely different outcome if it had been waged under a consistently revolutionary programme. The starting point of the most basic democratic and anti-imperialist struggle would have been: overthrow the oil kings, sultans, and sheikhs!

The raising of democratic slogans against these reactionary monarchies would have exposed and ideologically disarmed the “democratic” imperialist camp and won mass support for Iraq throughout the world. The neo-liberal propaganda offensive was denouncing the Stalinist dictatorships as “dinosaurs”; for the champions of freedom and democracy to wage war to defend semi-feudal dinosaurs would have put them into an explosive contradiction.

But Saddam Hussein dared not call for the overthrow of the Arab monarchies. On the contrary he tried to reinforce his alliance with King Hussein of Jordan. He even went so far as to use ludicrous propaganda claiming that he was descended from the Jordanian royal house and thus from the Prophet!

Had Iraq supported and indeed introduced democratic rights and freedom in Kuwait at the time of the invasion, there would have been the real possibility of winning the support of the great majority of the population. A central slogan would have been the call for a constituent assembly elected by all who lived and worked in Kuwait. Giving the vote to women and to the workers of Kuwait would at a stroke have converted the population into enthusiastic opponents of the Emir and the imperialists. The imperialists’ talk of “liberating” Kuwait would have deceived no one.

In a democratic sovereign constituent assembly, based on the armed masses, the representatives of the Kuwaiti masses could have exposed the full facts about the royal family’s $100 billion overseas assets. They would have fought for the return of these stolen riches to the people, to improve social conditions and to develop the region. Whilst the Arab working masses live in poverty and backwardness, a minuscule stratum of parasitic rentiers wallow in billions derived from their multinational financial affairs. Together with the development of large scale plans of public works, education, health provision etc, this would have laid the basis for links between the Kuwaiti workers and workers throughout the multinationals in which the Al Sabah have huge shareholdings (Daimler-Benz, BP, Midland Bank, Hoescht, etc).

With such an approach, many of the Kuwaitis who celebrated their “liberation” from the Iraqi “Attila” would have been marching to oppose US invasion threats. They would have been burning the Stars and Stripes, not waving it.

Kuwait is only one of six petro-monarchies. All of them are the private fiefs of feudal families turned capitalist rentiers. Six families own nearly half OPEC’s oil production. In each country it is the same story: a large part or a clear majority of the working class are not allowed to be citizens. No democratic rights of any kind exist. Women and minorities are third class citizens.

In Saudi Arabia there is not a single elected official, not one legal political party and religious minorities (Christians and shi’ites) are persecuted, are unable to worship freely and have been the victims of brutal massacres. In Qatar slavery still exists: “In 1986 the slave market in the Baraimi oasis was still selling 70,000 slaves every year. Anyone can buy a slave for $800-900.” 5

All these regimes are politically extremely weak. By focussing on the call for their destruction, Iraq would have gained a weapon of extraordinary mobilising power. The key slogans would have been: for the overthrow of the monarchic regimes; democratic rights for citizens and workers; equal status for women and national and religious minorities; eradication of all traces of slavery or feudal remnants.

Such a programme would have enabled the Iraqi masses to win the support of the oppressed and exploited throughout the world and show that the imperialist “freedom fighters” were in fact fighting to preserve the privileges of the decadent petro-monarchies.

In all the oil monarchies the christians and other non-sunni are repressed. Christmas and churches are forbidden in Saudi Arabia. Hussein did not want to fight for the defence of those minorities trying to win the support of other christians in the world. He also repressed Jews and christian-Assyrians inside his own country.

But Hussein would not and could not follow such a policy. In Iraq, he oppressed the Kurds and discriminated against the Shi’ites and other religious and national minorities. He could not fight for democratic rights elsewhere when he held Iraq in a brutal autocratic grip. He could not gain the support of the workers of the Middle East and beyond whilst he murdered and imprisoned the leaders of the Iraqi workers.

For Iraq to win the support of the masses of the imperialised world it would have been necessary to refuse to pay the external debt and to call for the cancellation of all debts to imperialism, for the expropriation without compensation and under workers’ control of all the imperialist multinationals, and for a worldwide struggle to expel imperialist occupying forces from Panama, the Malvinas etc. But Hussein made not the slightest move to expropriate the imperialist holdings in Iraq or Kuwait. Instead he allowed Iraq’s foreign assets to be seized without reply.

Proletarian politics in Iraq after the war

As soon as the imperialist war was over Iraq was convulsed by civil war. All the principle cities saw uprisings against Hussein and the Ba’athist regime. The shi’ites (55% of the population) took control of Basra and Karbala, two important cities in the south. The Kurds (20-30% of the population) took control of Irbil, Suleymaniyah and other cities in the north. There were also clashes in Mosul and Kirkuk, two major oil towns in the north of Iraq, and in Baghdad itself.

These two movements challenged the rule of Hussein and his Sunni elite. The sunni Arabs are at most 20% of the Iraqi population, but have dominated most Iraqi governments since the 1958 republican revolution. The rebels benefitted from the fact that Hussein had armed sections of the civilian population, and because many officials and troops deserted in order to support them. The shi’ites received arms from Iran, the Kurds from their already-existing guerilla armies.

Yet this revolutionary situation was the last thing that the US administration had really been seeking. Instead of a palace coup to oust Hussein, it looked as though defeat would lead to disintegration, with Iraq splitting into three different states: a Kurdish state in the north, a shi’ite Arab state in the south, and a sunni Arab state in the centre. Despite their crocodile tears for the Kurds, the imperialists clearly decided that they preferred Iraq intact with Hussein at its head to seeing the armed masses decide their own future. Knowing full well the consequences of their action, the US high command allowed Hussein’s murderous Republican Guard to pass through its ranks in order to drown the uprisings in blood.

For the moment “order reigns in Baghdad”. Business is as usual in the secret police headquarters and the torture chambers. Iraqi industry may have been brought to its knees, but Hussein’s portrait still stares out from a thousand walls, dressed in a hundred absurd uniforms. The imperialists have won a double victory: they have crushed Iraq’s military might and political pretensions and they have temporarily cowed the insurgent masses. Hussein’s head rests far from easy on his shoulders, however.

The national, religious and class tensions which produced the civil war remain. Revolutionaries must take advantage of the crisis in order to increase the strength, independence and material conditions of the proletariat and to fight for workers’ power and a workers’ state. As always, the key question is that of leadership.

The rebellious masses must be warned that the religious and nationalist leaders are also their enemies. The Islamic fundamentalists want to replace Hussein with a theocratic dictatorship that would attack women’s rights and those of national and religious minorities, Islamicise and then destroy all workers’ organisations and would introduce an anti-working class autocratic regime.

The Kurdish nationalist leaders do not want to destroy capitalism or defeat imperialism. Their aim is to establish a Kurdish autonomous region or state ruled by big landowners and capitalists. In the past the Kurdish tribal and nationalist leaders have organised pogroms against the Armenians, Assyrians, Turcomans and other minorities. Some of the “socialists” involved in the civil war sought to establish a new kind of Ba’athist dictatorship without Saddam Hussein, linked with Syria, Libya or another Arab state. The Stalinists want to create a bourgeois democratic or “national unity” government.

The proletariat should have no trust in any of the leaderships that are opposed to Hussein. Workers must regain their class independence and create autonomous militias and councils. Military united fronts against Saddam Hussein are permissible. But if the USA intervened militarily on the side of one of the anti-Hussein factions, we would be obliged to make an anti-imperialist military united front with the Ba’athists once again.

The proletariat should oppose any kind of bourgeois government, be it Ba’athist, “national unity”, Islamic or democratic bourgeois. The only government we fight for is a workers’ and peasants’ government, that is, for the proletarian dictatorship, allied to the poor peasants. The key task is the creation of a revolutionary workers’ party committed to the fight for workers’ power in Iraq.

In order to destroy the Ba’athist dictatorship and to arm the masses against illusions in the imperialists or the nationalist or religious leaders, the workers and poor peasants will have to be mobilised around a set of interlinked transitional demands:

• Withdrawal of the coalition forces from Iraq and for the expulsion of the imperialist armies from the region
• The immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners and for full democratic freedoms. of speech the press assembly, etc
• The trial of all the torturers and secret police including Saddam and his clique by popular tribunals made up of workers and peasants
• Full rights and social equality for women
• The recognition of the right to self-determination up to and including complete separation for the Kurds, Turcomans, Assyrians and other nationalities
• Support for the Kurdish struggle in all the states which partition Kurdistan. Support for its unification if the Kurdish people so desire it
• For a revolutionary democratic and sovereign constituent assembly elected by all adults over the age of 16, based on the armed organisations of the masses
• Complete separation of the state, education and all aspects of private life from the jurisdiction of the mosque or the church
• For the creation of workers’ and peasants’ militias and councils. All power to the workers’ and peasants’ councils
• For the cancellation of the whole of Iraq’s $85 billion foreign debt
• Nationalisation without compensation of all imperialist and large scale Iraqi capitalist companies
• Land to the those who work on it. Expropriate the remaining large landowners. For the creation of agricultural co-operatives to manage the land
• Workers’ control in every enterprise
• For a revolutionary workers’ and peasants’ government
• For a workers’ Iraq in a socialist federation of the Middle East