At the start of 1979 Iraq was considered a sponsor of terrorists by Washington and the CIA was actively trying to undermine the government.
In 1984 Iraq was off the terrorism list and official Reagan Administration envoy Donald Rumsfeld
was part of a team that "pronounce themselves satisfied with relations between Iraq and the United States and suggest that normal diplomatic ties have been restored in all but name.”
How did we get from there to here
The answer to that question doesn't reside in Iraq or Washington. The answer is in Iran.
This is Part Nine of my epic on the history of Iraq. If you haven't already seen them you can find parts Eight
, and One
at the links listed.
(Click for larger image) Rouhollah Mousavi Khomeini
was born September 24, 1902. Like Gamal Abdel Nasser
before him, Khomeini was destined to redefine the entire Islamic world.
Starting in 1971, due to some minor territorial disputes, the destinies of Iran and Iraq became more and more intertwined, and more confrontational. The 2nd Kurdish-Iraq war led to heavy casualties for both Iraq and Iranian forces as both sides tried to encourage ethnic revolt in their neighboring nation.
For a brief moment the tensions lifted in 1978 when Iranian agents in Iraq discovered a pro-Soviet coup d'etat against the Iraqi government. When they informed Saddam Hussein (after executing dozens of people), he expelled Rouhollah Khomeini from Iraq as a favor to Iran. In one of history's subtle ironies, this favor turned out to be the downfall of both nations.
By being exiled in Paris, rather than Najaf, Khomeini was more accessible
rather than less accessible. Thus his involvement in the 1979 Iranian Revolution grew. On February 1, less than six months after his exile from Iraq, Khomeini returned to Iran in triumph. Within two weeks, the last remnants of the Shah's government had collapsed. By April 1 Iran had become an Islamic Republic.
Nothing in the Persian Gulf region was ever the same.
The Shia community has been politically isolated and impotent in the Iraqi region since the Ottomans decided to favor the Sunnis in the 16th Century. Traditionally they were exploited as sharecroppers and manual-laboring slum dwellers. It was only with the land reforms, starting under Qassim in 1959 and accelerated by the Baath, combined the the oil boom of the 1970's that saw the fortunes of the Shias begin to improve. Nevertheless, there was very little sectarian violence in Iraq's history. The only notable examples were the 1934-35 Shia tribal revolts - and both of those were caused by economic reasons rather than religious ones. The al-Wathbah Uprising of 1948 and the 1952 revolt were both political, not ethnic or religious.
This began to change in 1977. When the government, suspecting a bomb, closed Karbala at the height of the pilgrimage season, violent clashes with police took place and spread to Najaf. After the Iranian Revolution, Shia frustration found an organized, religious outlet. In July 1979 riots broke out in Najaf and Karbala after the government refused to allow a demonstration in support of Khomeini. This alarmed the paranoid Baath government. Still the Iraqi government tried to keep relations from collapsing. But when Iran's moderate Bazargan government fell in late 1979, and the rhetoric of "exporting Islamic revolution to the rest of the Middle East" began to be heard, Hussein began planning for war.
The Iranian government tried to portray themselves as "liberators of the Shiites" in Iraq. Hussein tried to portray himself as "liberator of Arabistan" (i.e. the oil-rich province of Iran with a large arab Sunni minority). Neither the targeted Sunni or Shia populations believed the rhetoric. So is it any surprise that the Iraqis didn't believe it when Bush said it?
Road to War
Things took a rapid turn for the worse in April 1980 when the Iranian-supported Ad Dawah attempted to assassinate Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz. Shortly after the failed grenade attack on Tariq Aziz, Ad Dawah was suspected of attempting to assassinate another Iraqi leader, Minister of Culture and Information Latif Nayyif Jasim. Saddam responded by deporting thousands of Iranians.
Then on April 30, the Iranian embassy in London was stormed
by a six-man terrorist team calling itself the "Democratic Revolutionary Movement for the Liberation of Arabistan" (DRMLA), sponsored by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The gunmen had been directly trained and armed by Iraq. 26 hostages were taken. The standoff went nowhere until the terrorists killed a hostage on May 5. Five of the six terrorists were killed in the SAS assualt, two of them outright executed on the spot. 19 hostages were saved.
Both nations severed diplomatic relations in June 1980, and border clashes increased. Hussein saw opportunity. With Iran racked with revolution, alienated by the West, and most of the Shah's army disbanded, and Egypt politically isolated after their treaty with Israel, Hussein could see Iraq being the leading nation of the Islamic world (what wasn't known at the time was that Hussein re-established relations with Israel shortly before invading Iran). All it would take is a short, limited war against Iran that ended with victory. Hussein boasted he would be in Tehran in 3 days.
And so on September 18, 1980, Hussein rejected the 1975 Algiers Agreement and claimed the Shatt al-Arab waterway. Four days later he invaded Iran.
The Pity of War
"Violence can only be concealed by a lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence."
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
"Never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter."
- Sir Winston Churchill
I won't go into all the ebbs and flows of the First Gulf War
(renamed to "Iran-Iraq War" by Americans after 1991). It lasted from 1980 to 1988 and ended only after both governments were threatened with collapse from the sheer waste and exhaustion of this useless bloodbath.
To make a long story short, Iraq's 200,000 man army was supposed to roll over the Iranian army without too much trouble, but things started going wrong right from the start. Despite having the element of surprise, the Iraqi airforce failed to destroy the Iranian airforce. The Sunnis in Khuzestan (aka "Arabistan") failed to revolt against Iran, and instead came out in the tens of thousands to fight the Iraqi invaders. The Shah's old army, mostly disbanded before the war, volunteered to fight against the foreign invader.
The Iraqi war plan had failed. Iraq seized Khorramshahr but failed at Abadan, Ahvaz, and Dezful. The Iraqis failed even to capture both banks of the Shatt al-Arab in the extreme south along the border. The failure to advance into Khuzestan in the south and push the Iranians away from the border meant that Iraq would not be able to export oil through their Shatt al-Arab facilities as long as the war raged. Iran's army rallied to defend the nation from the invaders and even worse, the residents of Khuzestan failed to rise in revolt to solidify the Iraqi conquest.
From January 1981 to June 1982 the Iranians slowly pushed the invaders back to the border. A third of the invading Iraqi army was lost in the process. Iraqi shiites rioted in Baghdad. Iran could have declared victory at this point, but they smelled a larger victory. They smelled wrong. On July 13, 1982, Iran began the invasion of Iraq, which lasted to March 1987. All this was done with enormous losses of lives as Iran increasingly relied on "human wave" attacks. Iran substituted infantry for lack of armor, and the war began to look increasingly like the Western Front of WWI...with similar results.
This frontline stalemate led to the "War of the Cities". Basically Iraq's frustration on the battlefield led them to bombing civilians in Tehran. Iraq targeted civilian trains, aircraft, and elementary schools. Iran could only respond with sending Scud missles at Baghdad, since their airforce didn't have the same capability. The international community was completely silent on Iraq's war crimes in this case until after the war had ended.
Meanwhile the political situation of the world changed.
Cowboy Foreign Policy
(Click for larger image)
On March 26, 1982, Hussein pleaded with the Arab world for help: "... it is the time for real support. We really are fighting for all the Arabs now, and we are asking for real involvement in this war."
The rest of the arab world ignored his plea. But he found an allie in a very unlikely source - the White House.
President Ronald Reagan decided that the United States "could not afford to allow Iraq to lose the war to Iran". This was formalized in a National Security Decision Directive in June, 1982. The Reagan Administration then fought efforts by the Democratic
House to put Iraq back on the terrorist-sponsor list in 1985.
The United States was the sole country to vote against a 1986 Security Council statement condemning Iraq’s use of mustard gas against Iranian troops—an atrocity in which it now emerges the United States was directly implicated.
Although Iraq got most of its weapons from the Soviet Union during the war, the White House became increasingly responsible for Iraq's ability
to continue fighting.
"It is becoming increasingly clear that George Bush Sr., operating largely behind the scenes throughout the 1980's, initiated and supported much of the financing, intelligence, and military help that built Saddam's Iraq into [an aggressive power]" And “Reagan/Bush administrations permitted — and frequently encouraged — the flow of money, agricultural credits, dual-use technology, chemicals, and weapons to Iraq.”
- Ted Koppel on Nightline, June 9, 1992
A U.S. Senate inquiry in 1995 accidentally revealed that during the Iran-Iraq war the United States had sent Iraq samples of all the strains of germs used by the latter to make biological weapons.
Iran, on the other hand, was hamstrung by the international embargo. What's more, Iran could not get international loans like Iraq could. Therefore, the only way Iran could fund their war was through oil sales (Iraq had signed an oil pipeline deal with Jodan in 1984). For Iran, selling oil at high prices was vital. If the price of oil was to ever drop, Iran would be unable to continue the war with Iraq. It had also inherited an American-made military and now couldn't buy ammunition or parts for it. Fortunately for Iran, the Reagan Administration wanted to fund a terrorist war in Nicaragua, and began selling Iran weapons and parts in violation of American laws.
Bob Woodward reported in the Washington Post, December 15, 1986, that the CIA began giving Iraq information in 1984 on how to calibrate their mustard gas attacks on Iranian troops. Helicoptors that America sold Iraq were being used in chemical attacks.
In February and March of 1986 Iran launched yet another enormous assualt on Iraqi positions and managed to gain the Al Faw peninsula. At the same time Iran made major gains in Iraq's Kurdistan. Iraq was on its heels and another major hammer blow on the central front may have made it sue for peace.
But the hammer blow never fell. Why? Because oil prices around the world were crashing, and that meant that Iran could simply not afford another major offensive. Iran's economy was on the verge of collapsing. It took many months before Iraq realized the condition that Iran was in. By that time the situation in Kurdistan had changed.
In the meantime Kuwait rushed to Iraq's aid and agreed to ship Iraq oil to market, giving them much needed economic aid at a critical time. Iran responded by an outright war against Kuwaiti oil tankers.
The Tanker War
had been going on at some level since 1981. Each side tried to prevent the other side from bringing their oil to market, thus depriving them of needed economic resources. Over 200 tankers had been damaged between 1984 and 1987. When Iran began making it impossible for Kuwaiti oil tankers, both America and the USSR agreed to reflag Kuwaiti tankers in March 1987. Thus if Iran attacked the tanker they were attacking an American ship.
Ironically, it was an Iraqi fighter that attacked the American fleet. On May 17, 1987, an Iraqi fighter sent two Exocet missle into the USS Stark
without warning or provocation. 37 American seamen lost their lives. Captain Brindel of the Stark was made the fall guy and was forced to retire.
"We will not be intimidated," said Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. "We will not be driven from the gulf."
Amazingly the White House took Hussein's apology at face value while getting even more
hostile to Iran. "The use of the vital sea lanes of the Persian Gulf will not be dictated by the Iranians," said President Reagan during a press conference.
The Kurdish Genocide
In the 2nd Kurdish-Iraq War (1974-75), the Iranians supplied the Kurds with weapons until they had served their purpose. Then they were abandoned to be slaughtered by the Iraqi army. 600 villages were torched.
Kurdish politics had gotten more complicated in the meantime. The KDP allied its peshmerga with Iran's ayatollah. The PUK, on the other hand, with its left-wing ideology could not bring itself to do that. Once the war broke out the KDP peshmerga, True to their alliance, began assaulting the anti-government Iranian Kurdish Democratic Party (KDPI). Talabani and the PUK, believing conflict among Kurds was detrimental to the overall cause, opposed Barzani and the KDP both politically and militarily. The PUK was supplied by Syria, while the KDP was supplied by Iran.
In August 1979 Khomeini declared Jihad against the rebellious Kurds of north-western Iran
. It took until September 1982 before the Iranian army finally broke the back of the Kurdish revolt. 10,000 Kurds died in the process. At which time a new war front was opened up, and Iran began supplying arms to the Iraqi Kurds. Shortly afterwards the Iraqi Kurds began their 8th rebellion for independence since just 1919.
At first the Kurdish revolt went somewhat smoothly because all the Iraqi forces were tied down while battling the enormous Iranian offenses that commonly numbered in the hundreds of thousands of troops. The only exception was Turkey's repeated invasions of Iraqi Kurdistan in 1983 (they had their own Kurdish problem at the time). The PUK negotiated a ceasefire with the Iraqi government in early 1984 that was similar to the 1970 accord. It was short-lived. After Iraq's defeats in early 1986 Hussein started a draft that attempted to conscript Kurds. Thousands of Kurds deserted the Iraqi army and joined the peshmerga, including an entire 400-man battallion - weapons and all. The PUK and KDP put aside their differences and joined together to fight for independence from Iraq (with Iranian support). In Sulaymaniya in April 1987, 2,000 peshmerga held the city prior to the arrival of the Iranian main force. Iraq launched what was called the Al-Anfal Campaign
(Click for larger image)
There is some doubt concerning exactly how many Kurds died in this offensive. Estimates range from 50,000 to 182,000 fighters and civilians perished (the higher figure seems more likely). About 2,000 Kurdish villages were burned to the ground. The large Kurdish town of Qala Dizeh (population 70,000) was completely destroyed. The offensive wasn't limited to just ground troops. It also included aerial bombing, mass deportation, concentration camps, and of course, chemical warfare.
The most infamous part of the Al-Anfal Campaign was the Halabja poison gas attack
of March 16, 1988. Estimates on the number of victims range from several hundred to several thousand. Either way it broke the back of the Kurdish rebellion and sent waves of panic throughout the Kurdish region. Some claim that it was the Iranians that actually launched the attack, but most evidence says it was Iraqi. The saddest thing about the attack was the almost complete lack of outrage from the international community. It wasn't until years later, when America was building up for a war against Iraq, that this gas attack became an issue with the beltway politicians.
Rather than condemn the massacres of Kurds, the United States escalated its support for Iraq. It joined in Iraq’s attacks on Iranian facilities, blowing up two Iranian oil rigs and destroying an Iranian frigate a month after the Halabja attack. Within two months, senior U.S. officials were encouraging corporate coordination through an Iraqi state-sponsored forum. The United States administration opposed, and eventually blocked, a U.S. Senate bill that cut off loans to Iraq. The United States approved exports to Iraq of items with dual civilian and military use at double the rate in the aftermath of Halabja as it did before 1988.
Despite the crushing defeat the Kurds had suffered they continued their resistence to Iraq right up to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
The final act of this tragedy
On July 20, 1987, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 598, urging Iraq and Iran to accept a cease-fire, withdraw their forces to internationally recognized boundaries, and settle their frontier disputes by negotiations held under the auspices of the United Nations. Iraq agreed if Iran would agree. Iran, however, refused. It was the last of many mistakes that Iran's government would make.
On May 25, 1988, Iraqi began offensive operations near the Persian Gulf. The inability of Iran to launch any significant attacks since 1986 had allowed Iraq to rebuild its military. It could now match Iran in sheer numbers for the first time since the war started. By July 12 the Iraqi army was rolling. Four days later Ayatollah Khomeini finally admitted the obvious - that his military was spent. However, Saddam now sensed weakness and pushed ahead. By July 26 Iraqi forces were battling 65 km inside of Iranian territory. At this point Iranian troops rallied and stopped the advance. On August 6, 1988, Saddam Hussein agreed to end the war.
Around 300,000 Iraqis died in the First Gulf War. About twice as many Iranians died. Some of the POW's weren't repatriated until 2003. And what was gained? After two years of negotiation both Iran and Iraq agreed to a common border that was agreed upon in the 1975 Algiers Agreement. In other words, absolutely nothing was gained from this slaughter.
On top of the enormous human cost, Iran had suffered severe infrastructure damage. Iraq's infrastructure hadn't suffered as much, but they were now $80 Billion further in debt, most of it to Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait. The amount owned was far out of proportion to what they could actually afford to repay. The huge debt was a bomb just waiting to explode.