Iraq Refugees: the prequel

The wheel of Fortune

Blog No. 62.

Iraq’s gondola on the Ferris wheel of fortune had seemingly reached its apogee in the 1970s. I just happened to be present when, with the advantage of hindsight, it could be said that, as the wheel of history continued to turn, Iraq’s gondola commenced its descent towards the bottom level of human misery that lay below.

Saddam rising: the happy 1970s.

In 1974, my wife and I had left university and had set up a new type of English language school in the centre of York, England. The clientele aimed for by Specialist Language Services Ltd. were diplomats and top level international businessmen. Tuition fees were approximately one thousand pounds sterling per day. Each student was allocated two highly experienced teachers of English as a foreign language, most of whom had post graduate degrees in applied linguistics and the sciences. Each student’s intended professional use of English was analysed and as one teacher taught, the other was researching and writing the next lesson. By concentrating on the specific language required, in the hands of what we claimed were language surgeons, rather than language nurses, students would make extraordinary progress and could become competent in their required fields in anything between two and four weeks.

Hassan was an Iraqi Christian, who arrived in York in late 1976 and requested a six week language course in his specialty, shipping Insurance. To our astonishment, for payment, he opened his brief-case and placed on my desk the full cost of the course in high denomination British bank notes. After the first week of tuition, his lead teacher came to me and said they were having difficulty on the course: it had become apparent that Hassan knew far less about shipping insurance than either of his teachers. I took Hassan out to lunch to discuss the problem. Reluctantly he came out with the truth.

At that time, Iraq was firmly allied to the Soviet Union and controlled by the Baath party (a Nasserite ideology originating in Syria, which combined socialism with Arab nationalism and hostility to Israel.) The then President of Iraq was Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr who had come to power in 1968. The still very secret (and in retrospect, disastrous) decision had been made by the Iraqi leadership to abandon the Soviets and seek accommodation with the western powers. Hassan had been charged with the mission of leading the negotiations.

Al-Bakr was not in good health and even by the early 1970’s, the actual seat of power within the government was passing into the hands of his Vice-President, Saddam Hussein. Saddam had responsibility for the security services and it was he, who, in 1972, had ordered the nationalisation of Iraq’s immense oil reserves. In the same year, Saddam had overseen the signing of a 15-year friendship and cooperation treaty with the Soviet Union. Though, to the gnashing of NATO teeth, Iraq had withdrawn from the Western instigated CENTO (Central Treaty Organisation, earlier known as the Baghdad Pact) on the overthrow of the monarchy, the 1972 friendship treaty had formalised Iraq’s entry into the Soviets’ Middle Eastern sphere of influence. In 1973 the CIA started its first hostile intervention in Iraq, collaborating with the Shah of Persia to create unrest in Iraq’s Kurdish areas.

baghdad pact
For CENTO: delete Iraq

Iraq had been an artificial entity created by the British at the end of WWI to secure their access to its oil. After the 1958 overthrow of the Hashemite King, who had been anointed by the British, it was to be the Baath party that finally provided the mechanism and the secular ideology, which was to bind the disparate religious sects, social classes and ethnicities together. It was on this basis that Saddam (who, despite his prior years of increasing de facto control, formally only took over from the ailing Al-Bakr in a bloodless 1979 coup) was to govern. His two methods of choice were to be brutal force and the deployment of the country’s vast oil wealth to greatly raise Iraqis’ standard of living.

I quote from the Wikipedia. “Within just a few years, Iraq was providing social services that were unprecedented among Middle Eastern countries. Saddam established and controlled the “National Campaign for the Eradication of Illiteracy” and the campaign for “Compulsory Free Education in Iraq,” and largely under his auspices, the government established universal free schooling up to the highest education levels; hundreds of thousands learned to read in the years following the initiation of the program. The government also supported families of soldiers, granted free hospitalization to everyone, and gave subsidies to farmers. Iraq created one of the most modernized public-health systems in the Middle East, earning Saddam an award from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

With the help of increasing oil revenues, Saddam diversified the largely oil-based Iraqi economy. Saddam implemented a national infrastructure campaign that made great progress in building roads, promoting mining, and developing other industries. The campaign helped Iraq’s energy industries. Electricity was brought to nearly every city in Iraq, and many outlying areas. Before the 1970s, most of Iraq’s people lived in the countryside and roughly two-thirds were peasants. This number would decrease quickly during the 1970s as global oil prices helped revenues to rise from less than a half billion dollars to tens of billions of dollars and the country invested into industrial expansion.”

In 1978 the Al-Bakr (read Saddam’s government) as foreseen in Hassan’s language course in York, purged the Iraqi communist party and moved further towards the western camp. With things so good in Iraq during the 1970s the Iraqi population was swollen by over two million guest workers, who flooded in to share the prosperity the regime had created.

With the Shia revolution in Iran, which overthrew the Shah’s of Iran’s American puppet regime in 1979, Middle Eastern politics underwent a sea-change.

Iraq’s woes commence: Saddam as darling of the West – the 1980s.

Most importantly, with Kurdish unrest smouldering in the north and a majority of the Iraqi population being of Shia, as opposed to Saddam’s government’s minority Sunni persuasion, Saddam’s paranoia in regard to the unity of Iraq was heightened. This manifested itself in the form of an oppressive personality cult and in the establishment of an ever more brutal dictatorial regime.

Neither of these manifestations dismayed the Western allies who, now that the Ayatollah Khamenei had established a virulently anti-American regime in Tehran, were eager to befriend any counterbalancing regime (and market) in Baghdad. Saddam saw an opportunity not only to enhance Iraq’s prestige and power through the seizure by force of adjacent areas of Iranian territory and the gaining of control over the Shatt al-Arab waterway. He was also able to present himself as the darling of the Western world in helping the Americans restore the Middle Eastern military dominance that they had occupied prior to the ayatollahs’ coup. As with Gaddafi who was to follow, Click: Gadhafi as he was too eagerly shaking the hand proffered by the West, Saddam failed to take account of the dagger held in the other.

Oh! What a lovely war!

In September 1980, Iraq invaded Iran, seized the oil-rich Iranian province land of Khuzestan, and declared it a new province of Iraq. In the words of the Wikipedia “With the support of the Arab states, the United States, and Europe, and heavily financed by the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, Saddam Hussein had become “the defender of the Arab world” against a revolutionary Iran…many viewed Iraq as “an agent of the civilized world”. The blatant disregard of international law and violations of international borders were ignored. Instead Iraq received economic and military support from its allies, who conveniently overlooked Saddam’s use of chemical warfare against the Kurds and the Iranians and Iraq’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons. 

With armaments, particularly from France, and funding pouring in from the Arab world together with active American encouragement in the form of intelligence sharing on Iranian dispositions and the sale of materials and technology essential to the manufacture of chemical weapons, Saddam must initially have thought that he was onto a winner. By 1982 it was apparent that instead of a quick victory, he had a tiger by the tail.

Kurds allergic to gas.

The brutal war continued until 1988. Throughout the nine years of hostilities, Israel, which was delighted to see both parties bleeding each other to death, became a major arms-supplier to Iran. By the time the war ended, there was something approaching a million dead Iranian combatants and 500,000 dead Iraqis – with civilian casualties and the seriously wounded more than doubling those figures. The Iranians, the Iraqi Kurds and Saddam’s other ethnic minorities suffering horrendous casualties from the nerve and mustard gases used by his forces. Iranian and Iraqi borders were virtually unchanged and the economies of both nations were in ruins.

(As an interesting aside, to top up the Iranian casualties, a month before the war ended, the USS Vincennes accidentally shot down an Iranian civilian Airbus full of pilgrims en route to Mecca for the hadj. The Vincennes’ captain and crew, in marked contrast to the USA demands for a UN special investigation into culpability for the downing of MH 17 over Ukraine, were awarded medals with a Legion of Honour for the captain as a reward for “distinguished service in the Arabian Gulf.” Click: Vincennes

Saddam’s new-found friends of convenience desert him. The disastrous 1990s.

Saddam, having borrowed extensively to finance his war, was in urgent need of a cash injection. One of his lenders had been Kuwait, which had lent him $30 billion. Saddam asked for the debt “which had been incurred by Iraq in saving Kuwait from an Iranian invasion” to be waived. The Emir of Kuwait refused. There were several other bones of contention about oil-pricing and OPEC policy. The fact is that Iraq has always regarded oil-rich Kuwait as part of its natural territory, which was unfairly alienated from it by the British colonial dispensations.

Saddam’s poisoned fruit as prize

Desperate for a profitable resolution to the crisis, Saddam approached his American ‘friends’ of the previous ten or so years, who had so firmly supported him during the war with Iran. He received a rather ambiguous reply that indicated that whereas the Bush Snr. Presidency did not want there to be an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, they could understand his reasons and would not take any counter-action should he feel forced to do so. The Americans deny that this was an interpretation that could be put upon their ambassador’s statements. Nevertheless, Saddam chose to interpret it as he wished to hear it and in August 1990 Iraqi forces duly invaded, occupied and looted Kuwait. Click: Glaspie Some observers interpret this as having been a conscious exercise by the USA’s Israeli lobby to entrap Saddam and end his unwelcome association with the West.

The Americans under Bush Snr. and British under Thatcher saw the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait as posing as a serious threat to their allies in Saudi Arabia and Israel – and to world oil prices. With the cooperation of Gorbachev’s Russia, a UN resolution was passed giving legitimacy to the formation of a western and Arab coalition of forces to expel Iraq from Kuwait. In Operation Desert Storm the allied forces routed the Iraqi army, inflicting massive casualties. Saddam was forced to sue for peace and a UN resolution imposed strict economic sanctions on Iraq until such time as it had verified that all chemical, nuclear and biological weapons had been destroyed and their means of production dismantled. Click: Sanctions

Saddam’s PR machine presented his defeat as a victory for Arab nationalism against the Western powers, in that he had managed to remain in power after it! To gain the sympathy of the Arab street, Saddam continued to emphasise his hostility to Israel and played up his religious adherence to Sunni Islam. At the same time, he set about the most brutal crushing of all the multiple ethnic, tribal and religious challenges to his power that had gained momentum as a result of his perceived defeat and weakness. These uprisings, were suppressed with increasing ruthlessness by an increasingly paranoid leader.

infant mortality
The UN’s score card

The American enforced, UN’s economic sanctions, imposed on a defeated and often starving population, resulted in the deaths of several hundred thousand Iraqi children under five years old. The Americans, after their alleged assassination attempts on his life had failed, Click: Assassination urged on no doubt by their Zionist lobby, clearly hoped that a popular revolt would depose Saddam. It would seem that they therefore did whatever they could to make life for the Iraqis living under his rule as intolerable as possible.

Iraqi Refugees.

The 1970s saw several millions of citizens of other Arab nations flooding into Iraq to seek work and welfare under Saddam’s and al-Bakr’s benign and prospering regime. In the 1980s, with the outbreak of war, that influx ceased. However, it was only towards the end of the Iraq-Iran war that Iraqis started to become refugees – and these were the Iraqi Kurds, who Saddam displaced as he attempted to Arabise the oil-producing regions of Northern Iraq. Click: al-Anfal

The Iraq refugee crisis grew rapidly in the 1990s after the First Gulf War. Having driven Saddam’s forces out of Kuwait, the USA failed to intervene to protect the Shia in the South of Iraq and the Kurds in the North. Both of these groups had taken the opportunity of the Desert Storm defeat of Saddam’s army, to rebel against his rule.

After having expelled his forces from Kuwait, the Bush administration dithered, while Saddam used helicopter gunships to displace around 450,000 Kurds from their homes and push them up against the Turkish border. Some of these were allowed entry into Iran, but the Turkish borders, on the other side of which lived their fellow Kurds, remained firmly closed to them. Ultimately a no-fly zone was established by the Western allies and thus protected from Saddam’s vengeance, the Kurds were allowed to settle in tented camps along the Turkish border.

Kurdish refugees
Kurds on the Turkish border 1992

The unfortunate Shia, living in the flat lands of southern Iraq, were far more exposed to Saddam’s ground forces. More than 500,000 of them fled to Iran as thousands more were killed by Saddam’s army. In addition 300,000 or so Palestinians, who having fled originally from the Israeli ethnic cleansing of the late 1940s, had found homes and work in Kuwait, were expelled after the Iraqi forces had been driven out. Yasser Arafat, had tarred them all with his ill-advised statements of support for Saddam, who was seen by the Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation as the sole remaining Arab champion of the Palestinian cause.

At the time of Cheney and Rumsfeld’s raising of the ‘shock and awe’ curtain to the USA and its Coalition of the Willing’s Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, there were no more than a million or so displaced Iraqis and only Iran had been seriously inconvenienced by the refugee influx. After the launch of Iraqi freedom the situation changed dramatically.

By the time the Americans had finally declared victory and left Iraq in 2011, from a country of around 33 million, more than four million Iraqis had been ‘liberated’ from their homes and probably up to another million or so from their lives on Earth. Of these refugees, two million were displaced within their own country and a further two million were refugees elsewhere in the Middle East. A further 200,000 or so had left the Middle East and settled in cities throughout the western world. In total, more than 40% of Iraq’s professional classes had left the country.

The next blog in the series, the sequel, will deal with the chaos of the American occupation and the chaos of the Islamic State, the ‘stay-behind’ surprise the departing Americans left in their wake.

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