• Wednesday 21st April 2021

The Road To Tahrir Square Ran Through Baghdad, By Kanan Makiya, Part One

To see a connection between the overthrow of Saddam and the overthrow of Mubarak one must look backwards, to the fact that the 2003 war has a history that begins on August 2, 1990, the day that the Ba’athist regime in Baghdad marched into Kuwait.

There is a close connection between the downfall of Saddam Hussein and the toppling of a succession of other Arab dictators during 2011. This link has been overlooked, in part due to the understandable hostility that the 2003 Iraq war engendered in Western and Arab—especially non-Iraqi—eyes, a hostility that was for the most part absent at the time of the military action in 2003.

A consequence of this hostility is the fact that none of the young activists on the ground during the Arab Spring—in Tunisia, Egypt or Syria—see a connection, or have been willing to even admit the possibility that one may exist. Wael Ghonim, for instance, emphatically denied any connection between what he did and events in Iraq. Arab activists like him vigorously deny that their own demands for reform or revolution, which are organic and homegrown, had anything to do with an international war they saw as illegitimate, or even imperialistic, in nature. As the Arab Spring progressed, such denials became less vociferous, and even disappeared among Libyans and Syrians calling for the very intervention they had so fiercely opposed back in 1991 and 2003.

To see a connection between the overthrow of Saddam and the overthrow of Mubarak one must look backwards, to the fact that the 2003 war has a history that begins on August 2, 1990, the day that the Ba’athist regime in Baghdad marched into Kuwait.

What was this first Gulf war against Iraq in 1991 about? Remarkably, given where we are today, it was about a restoration of the Arab state system—a system we all know was created for the most part by the Western powers after World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. This system had been grossly violated from within for the first time in 80 years by Saddam Hussein, when he invaded, occupied, annexed and systematically raped the state of Kuwait for nine months, starting on August 2, 1990. Nothing like this had ever happened in Arab politics before. To be sure, Egypt had intervened in Yemen in the 1960s, and Hafez Al-Assad had constantly manipulated events and conducted assassinations and forays into Lebanon during its civil war (as had Israel), but nothing remotely like the total erasure from the map and brutal sacking of a fellow member of the Arab League had happened before.

The 1990–1991 Gulf war enjoyed the support of the Arab regimes in whose name it was waged, but not of its peoples. (Palestinians and the PLO were in fact jubilant at Saddam’s takeover of Kuwait, a sign of Arab strength as they saw it—Israel was next, they thought—a position that cost Palestinians in Kuwait dearly, and took years and the Oslo process to rectify.) Even Hafez Al-Assad’s Syria joined in the effort to oust its fellow Ba’athists from Kuwait.

Iraqis, and Kuwaitis under Iraqi occupation, were the exceptions back in 1990, but exceptions that became the Arab norm with the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011. Millions of Iraqis south and north of the country rose up against their regime following the Iraq war of 1991, and did the unthinkable: they called upon the very states that had been bombing them for weeks to help rid them of their own dictator. However tyrannical a regime may be, people will tend to rally around its leadership at times of external attack (the Soviet Union under attack by Hitler is a case in point).

The people of Iraq broke that rule. They put the issue of their own dictatorship front and center of their actions. The 1991 uprising, or “intifada,” as Iraqis like to call it, cost around 200,000 lives by the end of 1991. The dead were overwhelmingly Shi’ites from the south of the country, who, unlike the Kurds to the north, were trapped by geography and the hostility of the region and cut to pieces.

For the first time, the rhetoric used by the ‘secular nationalist’ regime of Saddam Hussein to crush the rebellion turned explicitly sectarian, another forerunner to what we are looking at in Syria today. “No more Shi’ites after today,” went the slogan painted on the tanks that rolled over Najaf and fired into protestors in cities all across the south.

The numbers of Iraqi dead in 1991 are worth keeping in mind in light of the Syrian experience. (Syrian dead are thus far in the 70–90,000 range, according to UN estimates, and are expected to rise to Iraqi levels by the fall of this year.) In 1991, Western and Arab armies that had come to liberate Kuwait stood by and watched, even negotiating the use of helicopters with Saddam’s generals as the insurgents pleaded for weapons and support, as they were cut down in their tens of thousands. The overthrow of Saddam, one expert after another opined in the media, was simply not part of the UN mandate for the war. And so ordinary Iraqis died in droves as the Arab state system, led by its formidable array of dictators, was restored to its previous inglorious status by the force of Western arms. In retrospect, we can say those Iraqi deaths were a dress rehearsal for what is going on in other parts of the Middle East today.

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