Iraq, Saddam and the Gulf War
January 17, 2001
10 YEARS SINCE THE START OF THE GULF WAR
It was 10 years ago yesterday that the U.S. unleashed the power of the Empire
against the country of Iraq after created the regional conditions that lead to
the Iraq-Iran and then the Iraq-Kuwait-Saudi wars. In that period of time somewhere
in the number of 1.5 million Iraqis have been killed, the history of the Middle
East altered, the future of the region more uncertain and dangerous than ever.
The "mother of all battles" is not over. Saddam remains in power now to face
another George Bush, Commander in Chief; this time with the former Chairman of
the Joint Chiefs of Staff wearing a suit as Secretary of State.
Saddam is no hero. And the Middle East is far more complicated than it is
usually portrayed. These two articles were published in The Independent yesterday.
A ROOM WITH A VIEW: BOMBING BAGHDAD
Ten years ago today, Patrick Cockburn was one
of just a handful of journalists to stay on at Baghdad's
al-Rashid hotel as the first allied planes flew in.
Here, he recalls the terrifying night the air war in
the Gulf began
[The Independent - 16 January 2001]
As the allied planes flew towards Iraq on the first day of the Gulf air war,
I sat waiting for them by the open window of my room on the fifth floor of Baghdad's
landmark al-Rashid hotel. The UN ultimatum to Saddam Hussein to pull his army
out of Kuwait had expired on 15 January - and now, down in the lobby, expectation
was turning to panic as people realised that after months of waiting the bombing
was finally about to begin. Some American TV crews, fearing Iraqi retaliations,
had decided to flee at the last minute to Jordan, and were hurriedly loading
their equipment on to trucks.
The al-Rashid, a tall, modern building used by the Iraqi government to house
official guests, had double-glazed bullet-proof windows. This was comforting
in a way, but as I waited for the bombs to fall, I worried that an explosion
close to the hotel would shatter the heavy glass, turning the shards into lethal
pieces of shrapnel. I decided to keep the window open that night, though it was
bitterly cold outside. Kneeling on the floor, wrapped in a blanket for warmth,
I gazed out over the silent city, gripped by a mixture of fear and exhilaration.
I got used to the whooping of the air-raid sirens in the coming weeks, but on
that first night they sounded peculiarly menacing. A few minutes after their
first warning note, at about 3am, anti-aircraft guns opened up across the city,
sending streams of yellow tracer into the night. Shells from other guns sparkled
like white daisy-chains as they exploded overhead. The Iraqis were clearly not
short of ammunition. Then, from behind the hotel, there began the staccato roar
of a battery of anti-aircraft guns perched on earth mounds above the river Tigris.
At first I mistook the Iraqi AA missiles exploding on the horizon for the first
US bombs or Tomahawk missiles. But then a huge pillar of flame seemed to erupt
from the top of a telecommunications building a mile or so away, on the other
side of the park that housed Baghdad zoo. More bombs and missiles followed, silhouetting
buildings against the explosions. My windows survived the attack, but a few seconds
after each blast I felt a gentle puff of air against my face.
I was in Baghdad covering the crisis for The Independent - and I recall worrying
that elsewhere in the al-Rashid, Peter Arnett of CNN was giving a blow-by-blow
account of the bombing to viewers around the world. This meant that whatever
I wrote might seem old hat to readers who had stayed up into the night when it
was published the following morning. And I was eager to find out more about the
damage, in case the Iraqis locked the remaining Western journalists in the hotel
or kicked us out of the country.
So, in the early dawn, with Baghdad still shrouded in a chill white mist, I set
off from the al-Rashid with Maggie O'Kane, then of the Irish Times, and headed
first for the telecommunications tower on the opposite side of the river from
the Mansour Melia hotel, where British hostages had been held after the invasion
of Kuwait the previous August. From a distance, the building looked undamaged,
but as we got closer we could see that its outline was more jagged than usual.
Laser-guided bombs had blown holes in the third and fifth floors and had melted
the satellite dishes on the roof.
Elsewhere in the city, the smart bombs and cruise missiles had hit ministries
and security headquarters. The building housing the ruling Baath Party had a
large bite taken out of its roof. The Ministry of Justice looked normal but a
missile had ripped apart its insides. There was smoke rising from Saddam Hussein's
presidential compound and the military intelligence headquarters looked as if
it too had been hit.
But the destruction had less impact on the Iraqi government than appeared from
television pictures. This was not the first time Baghdad had been attacked in
recent history. The Iranians bombarded the city during the Iran-Iraq war in the
1980s, and ever since government institutions had alternative locations to which
they had already transferred.
I later asked an Iraqi intelligence officer in exile where Saddam and his key
officials had been during the bombing. "I can tell you where we weren't," he
replied. "We didn't hide in any underground command bunkers. We assumed the Americans
knew about them and had the bombs to penetrate through the reinforced concrete."
Saddam himself turned out to be living mainly in a middle-class suburb called
al-Tafiya, moving house every few days. He travelled in cheap, inconspicuous
cars, sometimes accompanied by only a single bodyguard - a colonel who himself
wore no insignia of rank.
But though the government had survived the first day of the bombing largely intact,
ordinary Iraqis were in a state of collective shock. Six months earlier, many
had favoured Saddam's invasion of Kuwait (on 2 August). But the last thing they
wanted was another war. Several hundred thousand Iraqis, from a population of
only 18 million, had died or been wounded fighting Iran. As the allied armies
assembled in Saudi Arabia, they knew they could not fight the whole world. "We
didn't expect a war," an Iraqi general sent to Kuwait later recalled. "We thought
it was all a political manoeuvre."
On the last day of peace I had toured Baghdad. There was an ill-attended protest
rally of school children outside the British embassy organised by the Baath party.
Horses were still being exercised by their trainers near the al-Mansur race-track.
The largest public gathering I could find turned out to be a meeting of pigeon
It was not that the Iraqis were ill-informed about what was happening There was
little on Iraqi television and radio but people spent hours listening to foreign
radios in Arabic, switching from the BBC to Radio Monte Carlo to Voice of America.
"Our main hobby is listening to the radio," said one.
But if people in Baghdad did have qualms about Saddam's refusal to pull out of
Kuwait, there was nothing they could say or do about it, apart from voting with
their feet. There was a pervasive fear that Saddam would fire a Scud missile,
armed with a biological or chemical warhead, at Israel - and that the Israelis
would respond with a nuclear strike on the Iraqi capital.
Among those who stayed in Baghdad, mostly too poor to leave, on the first day
of the war the mood was fatalistic. Some made formal declarations of defiance
towards the US, probably thinking this was the only safe course when talking
to a foreign journalist. But in a dilapidated cafe near Nasr Square, one old
man stopped drinking tea to relate a story about how divine intervention might
yet save good Muslims.
He repeated the old tale from the Koran of how the Abyssians once "brought elephants
to conquer Mecca. At first the Bedouin warriors were frightened by the beasts,
but God sent birds to Mecca who dropped stones on the elephants and killed them".
Saddam had recently told the same story, adding the significant fact that he
had recently learned that the elephant was the symbol of President Bush's Republican
But the way the old man told the story, with exaggerated gestures and to the
sound of giggles of others in cafe, it suggested a different, more dissident,
message: unless God could come up with magical birds, Iraq had no hope against
the allied elephants.
Over the next few weeks, the decline in the living conditions of our small band
of journalists in the al-Rashid reflected the collapse of civil life in Baghdad.
The previous year, the menu had boasted lobster cooked three different ways.
By the first week in February, breakfast consisted of a fried egg sitting in
a pool of jam.
But it seemed tasteless to complain, since everyone else in Iraq was so much
worse off. The hotel at least had a small generator, not powerful enough to work
the lifts, but it provided a flickering light on the stairs. In the rest of Baghdad,
after the first bombs fell on the morning of 17 January, there was no electricity
at all. Many wealthier Iraqis had prepared for war by stocking their deep freezes
But without power, the meat was rotting, producing a penetrating stench which
hung over entire districts.
In poorer districts, garbage collectors noticed a sinister change. Before the
war a third of all garbage consisted of food scraps. Now, thanks to the war and
sanctions, these had disappeared; food was too precious to throw away. Everything,
even melon skins, was being eaten.
This abrupt return to the living standards of the Middle Ages came about because
of an astonishing oversight by the Iraqi leadership. It should have been obvious
to them that their oil refineries would be high up on the allied target list.
Despite this - and the fact that Iraq was entirely dependent on motorised transport
- they had not stockpiled any petrol. In a few days the fuel started to run out.
I bought a bottle in what was known as "the thieves market" in a vast working
class slum on the far side of the Tigris. It turned out to have been laced with
water, so my car periodically ground to a halt. The petrol famine crippled Iraq
far more effectively than the allied destruction of roads and bridges.
It had been obvious from the start of the war that any journalist who stayed
in Baghdad was going to be portrayed as a catspaw of Iraqi propaganda. The White
House and the Pentagon believed they had lost in Vietnam because of a hostile
media - and they were not going to let it happen again. Peter Arnett was pilloried
for querying the official line that all bombs and missiles hit their targets.
The British journalists who stayed in Baghdad were less vulnerable. But the Iraqis
had introduced a lackadaisical censorship, whereby an official - often with an
uncertain grasp of English - would stand beside us as we dictated our copy over
a satellite telephone. Not unreasonably, italicised health warnings began to
appear at the bottom of articles, saying they had been censored by the Iraqis.
I did not quite realise that the US and its allies were presenting the air campaign
as an entirely new type of war in which only military and government targets
were being hit. It was true that the laser-guided bombs and cruise missiles were
very accurate, but videofilm showing them demolishing large buildings rather
missed the point. Accuracy only matters if you know your target. Armies and security
forces are good at hiding themselves. General Wafiq al-Samarrai, the former head
of Iraqi intelligence, now in exile, told me later that in the entire air war
"the Iraqi army didn't lose a single officer over the rank of brigadier".
On the ground in Baghdad, one could sense as the days went by that the allied
airforces were getting to the bottom of their target list. They hit the ruins
of the Baath party headquarters half a dozen times. Iraqi Information Ministry
officials took us to see the bombed-out remains of a factory. The Pentagon claimed
it was a biological warfare plant while the Iraqis said it produced baby milk.
It seemed likely the Iraqis were telling the truth. Drifts of milk powder were
heaped against the walls. In a desk in an office in the factory, I found detailed
letters from foreign consultants about the financial problems of producing powdered
The drama of the air war over Iraq masked a simple truth. The allied elephant,
as the old man in the Baghdad café had hinted, was always, barring divine intervention,
going to crush little Iraq. This would have happened even without the air campaign,
which destroyed much of what the Iraqis had built over the previous 50 years.
The only real surprise of this war was that Saddam Hussein survived his defeat.
Patrick Cockburn is the co-author with Andrew Cockburn of 'Out of the Ashes:
The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein', published by Verso (£17)
SADDAM HUSSEIN: THE LAST GREAT TYRANT
By Robert Fisk
[The Independent - 30 December 2000]
When the Egyptian journalist Mohamed Heikal visited Iraq during the early years
of Saddam's rule, he met the minister for industry. Heikal was impressed by the
intense, hard-working, intellectual man running Iraq's dynamic industrial output.
So on his next visit, Heikal asked to meet him again. Officials explained that
they had no information about the minister and all enquiries should be addressed
to His Excellency the President. So when at last Heikal turned up for his interview
with the dictator of Iraq, he asked about the minister for industry.
"He's gone," Saddam said. "Gone?", asked Heikal There was a pause. "We scissored
his neck - he was suspected of being a traitor." But was there any evidence of
this, the appalled Heikal asked. Was there any proof? "In Iraq, we don't need
proof," Saddam replied, "suspicion is enough." In Cairo, he went on, Egyptians
might have a white revolution. "In Iraq we have a red revolution." Heikal was
horrified. But should he have been surprised?
There is about Saddam Hussein a peculiar ruthlessness, an almost calculated cruelty,
perhaps even an interest in pain. It wasn't enough to order the murder of his
sons-in-law after their return from exile in Jordan. They had to be dragged away
with meat hooks through their eyes. It wasn't enough to order the hanging of
the Observer journalist Farzad Bazoft in 1990; Bazoft was to be left unaware
of his fate until a British embassy official turned up at the Abu Ghorraib prison
to say goodbye. At Abu Ghorraib, women prisoners are allowed a party the night
before one of them is to be hanged.
Women are dispatched on Thursdays. Families are asked to bring their own coffin
when a relative has been executed.
And yet we loved him. In the days when Saddam clawed his way to power, personally
shot members of his own cabinet, or used gas for the first time on his recalcitrant
Kurds, we loved him. When he invaded Iran in 1980, we gave him Bailey bridges
and Mirage jets and radio sets and poison gas - the Mirages from France, the
poison gas, of course, from Germany - and US satellite reconnaissance pictures
of the Iranian front lines. I once met the Cologne arms dealer who personally
took the photos from Washington DC to Baghdad. The Russians poured in their new
T-72 tanks. Saddam's war against Iran - the greatest mass killing in modern Middle
Eastern history until the UN sanctions of the last decade - was designed to appeal
to both Arabs and the West. For the Arabs who tamely poured their millions into
his armoury, Kuwait among the most prominent, his Iraqi sons were wading through
anharr al-damm - literally "rivers of blood" - to defend the al-bawwabah al-sharqiyah,
the "Eastern Gateway" to the Arab world and Saudi Arabia. To the West, he was
fighting off Khomeini's Islamic hordes. Asked why the Iraqis used gas against
their enemies, one of his senior confidants replied: "When you weed the lawn,
you have to use weed-killer."
Blundering, ignorant of Western (though not Arab) history, largely uneducated,
an original Tikriti corner-boy whose first political act was an attempted assassination
and an escape, wounded, into the desert; how did he do it? How come the man who
defied George Bush senior is still there to defy George Bush junior? How come,
10 years after the "mother of all battles" - a phrase typical of Saddam - and
10 years after UN sanctions that have killed at least a million Iraqis, Saddam
is still enjoying his palaces and cigars?
The French are a clue. They idolised Saddam in the late Seventies. He was feted
on his arrival at Orly, dined out by the Mayor of Paris (a certain M Chirac),
swamped with champagne as he watched a bull-running circus in central France.
For the French, he was a kind of Jacobin, the reformer-turned-extremist whose
reign of terror had a power all its own. Saddam's "red revolution" was always
rubber-stamped by the democratic mockeries of Iraq - he asked the Kurds of a
northern Iraqi town if he should hang Bazoft and their cries of affirmation doomed
the correspondent - but somehow, in a crazed way, it was modern and progressive.
Iraq's hospitals and medical care were on a par with Europe, women's rights were
rigorously enforced, religious insurrection was suppressed in blood.
And he was - and is - a very intelligent man. When I first saw him, in 1978,
he was espousing the merits of nuclear power, of binary fission (technology courtesy
of his beloved France). Self-confident, quoting from Arab poets and writers,
replying to foreign journalists who snapped at him, with humour and history.
Asked, in view of his little speech, about the danger of nuclear weapons proliferation,
he replied: "Ah, you must not ask me about Israel's 250 warheads in the Negev
desert - you must ask the Israelis!" He always wore a massive wrap-around jacket
with too many buttons, but his shirts and shoes were always the latest in Paris
I visited his abandoned palace in Kurdistan in 1991, one of the series of massive,
fortified royal residences he continues to build across Iraq, evidence, according
to Madeleine Albright, that sanctions haven't yet brought him low and thus must
continue. In truth, they are evidence that sanctions clearly do not work - because
they don't touch Saddam - and thus should not continue. But what was so evident
about his northern palace was its tawdry nature, the poor quality of the concrete
round the swimming pool, the cracked pseudo-Grecian columns in the dining-room,
the under-weeded flower beds. In Baghdad, the palace lawns are better tended,
but the same sense of spent taste and vulgarity pervades the president's imagery.
Saddam on horseback, in Kurdish clothes, embracing babies and war heroes, riding
on a charger in medieval armour to confront the Persians at the Battle of Qaddasiyeh,
dressed as Nebuchadnezzar, he who conquered Syria and Palestine, sacked Ashkelon
and subdued all the tribes of the Arabs. Like the king of Babylonia, Saddam decided
to rebuild Babylon; and so the ancient city was ripped apart and reconstructed,
Disney-style, in the image of the great man.
Even the giant egg-shell monument to the Iraqi war dead of 1980-88 is a personal
museum to Saddam's family. Visit the crypt and beside the names of half a million
dead you find a photograph of the young, revolutionary Saddam, on the run from
the royal family, of Saddam studying in Cairo (his hero was not Hitler but Stalin),
of Saddam with his first wife. Now there is a second wife - the feuding between
the wives' two families is one of the causes of the ferocious bloodletting within
the family. His son Oday, partly crippled in an assassination attempt while on
his way to a nightclub, murdered a bodyguard at a party. "My son must be tried
like any other Iraqi," Saddam announced. Then the family of the dead man - surprise,
surprise - forgave Oday. Unpunished, he continued to run the highest security
apparatus of the state, all the while enjoying the title of head of the Iraqi
Greatness, for Saddam, is a simple affair. Victorious in war, the people love
you. Strength is all. In an Arab world that sadly admires power more than compassion,
he was a hero for millions of Egyptians, Saudis, Kuwaitis, Lebanese, even Syrians.
"He may be ruthless," a Lebanese journalist remarked to me in 1990, "but you
have to admit he's strong. He stands up to people." In reality, Saddam walks
tall when his enemies are beaten. He dreams like a sleepwalker. I recall huddling
with Iraqi commandos in a shell-smashed city in southern Iran in 1980 when an
officer announced a personal message from Saddam to all his fighting forces.
They were participating, he announced, in "the lightning war". There was even
a song that played continuously on Iraqi television: "The Lightning War". Like
the "Mother of All Battles", it was a mockery of the truth.
There were other hints in his war with Iran, had we but known it, of Saddam's
behaviour in Kuwait. In 1983, after proclaiming the Iraqi-occupied Iranian city
of Khorramshahr a bastion to be defended to the last man - Saddam's personal
Stalingrad - he simply ordered his thousands of troops to abandon the fortress
and march back to Iraq, just as he ordered his men to abandon Kuwait the moment
the Western armies broke into Iraq in 1991. If his behaviour seems irrational,
it is certainly consistent. He believed that a strong Iraq must be self-sufficient.
It must make its own weapons, its own tanks, its own bullets.
A year to the day after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, I was prowling through the
wreckage of the Iraqi army along the Basra highway when I came upon an upturned
ammunition truck whose cargo of battalion and brigade notebooks had been scattered
across the desert, partly buried in sand. "Message from the Supreme Commander,"
it said in one. And there, page after page, was the text of a secret Saddam speech
to his high command. Iraq, he said, must abandon its traditional confidence in
other nations; it must set up its own arms factories, invent its own secret weapons.
There it all was, in blue Biro, the authentic voice of Saddam speaking from beneath
the very floor of the desert.
It is not so difficult to struggle into the mind of Saddam when you read this.
He had invaded Iran and the West loved him. Why should they object - or fight
him - when, threatened by Kuwaiti demands for the billions of dollars in "loans"
used to pay off the Iran war and with the Kuwaitis apparently "stealing" Iraqi
oil from beneath the Rumailah field, he invaded Kuwait? Only four months earlier,
just after Bazoft's hanging, a group of American senators visited Saddam in Baghdad
and assured him that "democracy is a very confusing issue - I believe that your
problems lie with the Western media and not with the US government" (this from
Senator Alan Simpson). Senator Howard Metzenbaum, announcing himself "a Jew and
a staunch supporter of Israel", went on to tell Saddam that "I have been sitting
here and listening to you for about an hour, and I am now aware that you are
a strong and intelligent man and that you want peace."
So what had Saddam to fear from the US? In that last fateful interview with US
ambassador April Glaspie, less than a month before the invasion of Kuwait, Saddam
told Ms Glaspie that Kuwait's borders were drawn in colonial days. Saddam had
always been an anti-colonialist. "We studied history at school," the luckless
Glaspie replies. "They taught us to say freedom or death. I think you know well
that we... have our experience with the colonialists. We have no opinion on the
Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait." In a post-war
press interview, as the writer Christopher Hitchens has pointed out, Glaspie
gave the game away. "We never expected they would take all of Kuwait," she said.
The Americans were going to let Saddam bite a chunk out of the Kuwaiti border.
Saddam thought he had permission to gobble up all of Kuwait. And so we went to
war with the Hitler of the Euphrates. And so he lives on in his palaces and bunkers
while his people die for lack of clean water and medicines under the UN sanctions
that are supposed to harm Saddam. We still bomb him every day - our war with
Saddam has lasted 10 years now - and slowly, the Arabs, dismayed by the bloodshed
in the Palestine-Israel war, are warming once more to the man who never gave
in. Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia - almost
all of them America's allies in 1991 - are now breaking the air embargo by flying
into Baghdad. Saddam lives.