On Jan. 16, 1991, jet bombers, aircraft carriers and almost a million troops from 17 nations began an all-out assault on Iraq under U.S. command.
This year is the 10th anniversary of the Gulf War, which provides an opportunity to put it in historical perspective.
As the son of George Bush prepares to sit in the White House with the same advisors and generals who conducted the 1991 assault on a small, developing nation in the Middle East, it’s important to evaluate what U.S. imperialism achieved–and what it did not.
U.S. imperialism used both massive, overwhelming military force and the harshest economic sanctions in history against Iraq. Yet it did not accomplish its aims.
The United States did not succeed in dismembering Iraq, although its murderous policy has killed over 1 million Iraqis.
Nor has Washington been able to reduce Iraq–a country that ranks second in the world in oil reserves–to a puppet regime.
The question of who owns and controls oil is vital to the handful of major corporations and banks that decide development on a global scale. After a decade of military, economic, financial, media and diplomatic warfare, the immense oil profits of Iraq are still not in the hands of U.S. corporations.
In fact, the sanctions are crumbling. Iraq is breaking out of its U.S.-imposed isolation.
Despite Washington’s fierce resistance, flights to Iraq are now almost a daily occurrence. Demonstrations across the world and many solidarity delegations show Iraq is not alone.
The struggle in the Middle East is on the rise again. The Palestinian struggle is in a sustained revolutionary mood. The U.S. government is more hated than ever.
U.S. Presence Sparks Outrage
Using the war against Iraq as a pretext, the Pentagon was finally able to permanently position U.S. troops in the Middle East and establish bases throughout the oil-rich Persian Gulf. This region holds two-thirds of the world’s oil reserves.
But the presence of U.S. troops and mass awareness of the enormous suffering in Iraq caused by U.S.-imposed sanctions has raised the level of anti-imperialist outrage throughout the Arab world.
U.S. soldiers are under orders to keep a low profile. Bases are almost hidden.
U.S. officials hardly dare to leave their embassies. U.S. consulates have closed throughout the region. Families have been sent home.
The huge U.S. aircraft carriers and destroyers must fuel offshore. Even offshore, these death machines are a target. Consider the fate of that most advanced high-tech destroyer, the USS Cole.
Bush Jr. can’t carry out his father’s program, even if he stocks his administration with all the same right-wing and militarist faces.
It has little to do with intelligence or skill. This is an altogether different epoch.
‘The New World Order’
In 1990 the growing crisis in the socialist camp gave enormous leverage to U.S. imperialism. The working-class movement and developing nations that had relied on aid, solidarity and protection from the Soviet Union were overwhelmed.
For decades, the developing nations and liberation struggles had had an alternative. Total isolation couldn’t be enforced as long as there was an alternative world system in conflict with the imperialist powers.
So the setbacks in the socialist camp were a serious blow.
With the 42 days of massive bombardment of Iraq, the Pentagon moved militarily against the Arab people in a way that had been impossible when the Soviet Union was strong. What the senior Bush termed the “New World Order” was really an aggressive effort to re-colonize the globe.
Today, in contrast, it’s a capitalist crisis that is looming.
The brutal impact of imperialist globalization has devastated many countries. Resistance to the dictates of the capitalist market is growing. The tide is turning against the U.S. ruling class’s effort at conquest.
Military strength doesn’t always reflect political strength. It’s increasingly clear that even with unopposed control, Wall Street’s system creates far more suffering than development.
International support and acquiescence to the sanctions are crumbling. Even the other members of the U.S.-engineered alliance of robbers and pirates, which were willing to join in the looting of Iraq 10 years ago, have grown increasingly restive as they realize they did not benefit from the war.
Why is this happening? Because Iraq has managed to organize and resist, and because the world movement has refused to be silent.
Millions have been mobilized in solidarity with the Iraqi people, especially as the murderous consequences of the sanctions have become clear.
Gulf War Syndrome and Balkan Syndrome
The U.S.-led war against Iraq was a testing ground and an advertisement for every new weapon. The media were awash in descriptions of U.S. high-tech military technology. This included laser-guided smart bombs, cruise missiles, Patriot missiles and a new generation of tanks equipped with depleted-uranium shells.
Despite endless wild descriptions of Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction,” Iraq had no weapons in its arsenal with which to defend itself against this high-tech barrage.
The Pentagon flew over 110,000 bombing sorties–one every 30 seconds for 42 days– with impunity. “Collateral damage” was a euphemism coined by the Pentagon to cover up its targeting of civilians.
Over 100,000 Iraqis were killed in the bombing. U.S. deaths numbered a mere 148, and more than half of these U.S. casualties were from friendly fire.
Ten years later, the impact of the war–particularly the consequences of the radioactive DU weapons first used against Iraq–is finally coming back to haunt the U.S. government.
Conventional weapons made with depleted uranium made every weapon in Iraq’s arsenal obsolete. Because of the material’s density, U.S. tanks could shoot twice as far. Their range was two miles. The Pentagon seemed invincible.
Rank-and-file U.S. soldiers had no idea what the consequences would be.
In the years since, over 120,000 of the 697,000 U.S. troops who were stationed in the Gulf region have become chronically ill with undiagnosed diseases labeled the Gulf War Syndrome. Many experts, soldiers and activists connect the extremely high rates of illness in healthy young people to radioactive and toxic poisoning from the depleted-uranium weapons in the U.S. arsenal.
In Iraq the impact is still greater. Cancer rates have increased five-fold and 10-fold, as have immune diseases and deformities in children.
U.S. Army documents prove that the generals and military contractors understood the danger of using depleted uranium during the Gulf War.
Now the issue has exploded in Europe. The political storm has reached a level that threatens relations in the imperialist NATO alliance.
It has even brought into question the continued participation of some European nations in the occupation of Kosovo.
Governments across Europe are outraged by the number of cancer deaths of soldiers stationed in Bosnia and Kosovo. The U.S./NATO bombardment of Bosnia in 1995-1996, and of Yugoslavia in 1999, with tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition made with depleted uranium is linked to what is being called the Balkan Syndrome.
Sanctions: A Weapon of Mass Destruction
From the Vietnam War, the Pentagon had already learned the limits of its weapons against a people determined to free themselves from colonial occupation.
Carpet-bombing, napalm, strategic hamlets, concentration camps and a half-million well-armed U.S. soldiers could not sustain the occupation of Vietnam in the face of a people’s war.
In Iraq the brass were determined not to repeat their past miscalculation. U.S. troops did not march on and occupy Baghdad, even though the Iraqis had no weapon to resist them.
The generals were afraid that they could not hold the country in the face of an aroused anti-imperialist movement. And they feared that any U.S. casualties would awaken mass opposition at home.
Instead they expected that comprehensive and complete economic sanctions leveled against every sector of Iraq’s economy would grind the country down. They expected sanctions to bring about a total government collapse and the rise of a puppet regime willing to follow Washington’s dictates.
To that end, U.S. bombing systematically targeted Iraq’s infrastructure. Every industry connected to food production, water purification and irrigation was targeted for destruction.
A baby formula plant, pharmaceutical plants, fertilizer plants, pesticide plants, food warehouses, storage, refrigeration, every grain silo in the country, electrical generation and communication plants–all were destroyed in order to intensify the sanctions’ impact.
Iraq’s government was demonized and isolated. Air travel, phone calls, the Internet, satellite communications–all these were denied to Iraq.
Billions of dollars of Iraqi oil revenues were frozen in banks around the world. All imports and exports were banned.
Iraq was a country cut off from the rest of the world.
The sanctions aren’t just paper resolutions. The U.S. Navy has stopped and boarded over 12,000 ships in the Gulf in an effort to stop all forms of trade.
Today one-fifth of the total Pentagon budget is dedicated to the military occupation of the Gulf.
In December 1998, in an effort to further intensify the impact of sanctions, the United States and Britain began a campaign of continual low-level bombing of Iraq’s infrastructure. In the past two years they have flown over 20,000 combat sorties.
Incredibly, Iraq has survived and is breaking out of its absolute isolation.
Baghdad has re-established relations with Syria and Iran. Since the visit by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in September, Iraq has again been involved in international conferences. It is once again a force in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
On this 10th anniversary of the Gulf War, the Iraqi people and the movement in solidarity with them have many reasons for optimism. But the sanctions and the war have not ended. The U.S. government–whether led by Republicans or Democrats–is firmly committed to overturning the Iraqi government and seizing control of the country’s resources.
The sanctions won’t fall by themselves. It will take the continued determination and renewed commitment of the world movement to resist this ongoing imperialist crime.
The writer is an organizer of the fourth Iraq Sanctions Challenge, which is in Iraq now with 50 delegates and two tons of medical aid for Iraq .