The US fully expected that its troops would be warmly welcomed by the Iraqi people, and that in the warm glow of liberation it would be relatively easy to establish a successor state friendly to the US; a state that would permit a large US military base on its territory, so that the US could dominate the region and threaten Iran and Syria; a state that would, like Venezuela before Chavez, sabotage OPEC and drive down the price of oil.
It was never obvious that this could be achieved. Iraq is a wholly artificial state carved out of the Ottoman Empire by British imperialism 80 years ago. It is not obvious that it can be kept together except by authoritarian rule from the centre, as Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime did for the past 25 years. Yet keeping it together is said to an immutable policy objective.
At the end of the first Gulf war, a leading member of the US administration set out the difficulties of establishing a successor regime to Saddam Hussein in a interview in the New York Times on 13 April 1991:
“If you're going to go in and try to topple Saddam Hussein, you have to go to Baghdad. Once you've got Baghdad, it's not clear what you will do with it.
“It's not clear what kind of government you would put in place of the one that's currently there now. Is it going to be a Shia regime, a Sunni regime or a Kurdish regime? Or one that tilts toward the Ba'athists, or one that tilts toward the Islamic fundamentalists.
Administration spokesmen at every level, including Garner himself, keep on saying that the US wants to end its occupation of Iraq as soon as possible, and to hand over the government of Iraq to the Iraqi people. That has been said so often that it is difficult to see how there could be a reversal of policy, with the erstwhile army of “liberation” becoming an army of indefinite occupation. It is unlikely for another reason: indefinite occupation would eventually be met with armed resistance and American blood would be spilt.
The US may not or may not be able to determine events on the ground in Iraq if it remains in occupation, but it certainly won’t be able to do so if it leaves. Therein lies a contradiction, which is daily evident: on the one hand US spokesman say they want to leave, but on the other hand they say certain things will not happen.
The same Jay Garner who keeps saying that US occupation will be of strictly limited duration also said the other day:
“It concerns me the role I heard Iran is playing. I will be candid. I do not think the coalition will accept out-of-region influence.” (Guardian, 25 April 2003)
Except from the US/UK. Likewise his boss, Donald Rumsfeld, said:
“If you’re [asking] how would we feel about an Iranian-type government with a few clerics running everything in the country, the answer is: that isn’t going to happen.” [ibid]
But, how can the US prevent it if its forces are no longer on the ground? In any case, isn’t it up to the Iraqis themselves to decide these things now that Operation Iraqi Freedom has succeeded?
Will the US be able to put together an interim government? That is an open question. It is certainly possible that representative Arab figures will refuse to co-operate with Garner in setting up an interim administration. It may become too dangerous for them to do so even if they have a mind to. The Kurdish leadership will co-operate, but that is of no consequence.
It should be said that Garner is not the ideal American to win Arab co-operation. On 12 October 2000, just after the outbreak of the second intifada in Palestine, along with 42 retired senior US military men, he visited Israel under the auspices of the Washington-based Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), of which Richard Perle is a prominent member. And along with his 42 colleagues he put his name to a JINSA statement praising the restraint of the Israeli Defense Forces. It began:
“We, the undersigned, believe that during the current upheavals in Israel, the Israel Defense Forces have exercised remarkable restraint in the face of lethal violence orchestrated by the leadership of a Palestinian Authority that deliberately pushes civilians and young people to the front lines. …
“The behavior of those Palestinians, who use civilians as soldiers in a war, is a perversion of military ethics.”
It won’t be long before these words are thrown in his face in Iraq. And it may not be long before the US occupying forces in Iraq meet with similar problems as the Israeli occupying forces in Palestine – and exercise similar restraint.
If the US were concerned only with handing over power to the Iraqi people, and withdrawing its forces, then it should obviously look to the UN to put together, and give its blessing to, an interim Iraqi administration, and gradually allow its troops to be replaced by UN troops. An international body, with substantial Arab representation, would be much better placed to do the job than the US with its history of backing Israel’s occupation of Arab lands. That looks a very remote possibility at the moment. US spokesmen constantly repeat the mantra that they are going to hand Iraq over to the Iraqi people, and not to the UN which refused to endorse their “liberation”. However, there may come a time when the US looks for international help to extricate itself. Time will tell.
Title to oil
The establishment of an Iraqi government with some claim to legitimacy is important, especially for the sale of oil, which was owned by the state under the old regime. This begs the questions: who has legal title to it now that the old regime has gone and no successor regime is in place; can oil be sold without legal title?
The Fourth Geneva Convention (on the protection of civilians in time of war) requires the occupying power to protect civilian lives and to see that they are fed and have access to medical care, amongst other things. But under the Convention the theft of property by the occupying power is forbidden, and for the US to sell state owned Iraqi oil would be theft. Of course, there is no power in this world that can stop the US doing what it likes with Iraqi oil. But if they do, it can hardly fail to increase the antagonism against US forces on the ground in Iraq.
Until there is an Iraqi government in place which has the blessing of the UN, any sale of Iraqi oil or other state assets should be under the control of the UN, not of the occupying power.
Around 60% of Iraqis have to rely for food on the Oil-for-Food programme, which is the only legal form of international trade Iraq is allowed to engage in. Under it, the Iraqi state sold oil and the proceeds were put in a UN bank account, out of which the Iraqi state bought food and other goods approved of by the Security Council (in practice, by the US). (The proceeds were also used to pay reparations for the first Gulf War, and to pay for weapons inspections). The food was distributed by the Iraqi state through a network of 45,000 centres in a manner that the UN regarded as both fair and effective. A separate procurement and distribution system exists in Kurdish areas, but it was paid for out of the same oil revenue.
Obviously, this procurement and distribution system has largely disappeared along with the Iraqi state. Also, although food and other goods are in the pipeline, oil will have to be sold if the scheme is to continue. The scheme was modified by Security Council resolution 1472 on 28 March 2003 to give the UN Secretary General the temporary power to try to re-establish a distribution system in Iraq and to purchase food using existing oil money, but that is only a temporary expedient. Since the UN can act in a humanitarian role anywhere in the world without specific Security Council mandate, it has the power to provide food and other aid paid for from other sources as well, and it has set up a separate fund for Iraq to which it is asking states to contribute.
As this is written, it is reported that the US is to propose to the Security Council that economic sanctions against Iraq be ended, and Iraq be allowed to trade freely. Of itself, this will do nothing in the short run for the people who now rely on the Oil-for-Food programme, since they had no money to buy food before Iraq was invaded, and they have even less now that economic activity has been severely reduced. So there is going to have to be an Oil-for-Food programme or an equivalent for some time to come.
In any case, there is a complication about abolishing the Oil-for-Food programme: oil proceeds are not only used for food they are also used to pay reparations arising from Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. And the outstanding claims for reparations before the UN Compensation Commission are enormous.
The Commission has received a total of $320 billion in claims since it was set up in 1991. These are from individuals, companies, governments, and international organisations. To date, only individual and family claims have been settled – claims totaling $148 billion were made, and the Commission awarded about 30% of this, that is, about $43 billion. Of that amount, $16 billion has already been paid, leaving $27 billion theoretically owed by Iraq. In addition, government, corporate and other claims amounting to $172 billion have yet to be dealt with, which if proceeded with might require another $50 billion to settle.
The question arises: is the post-Saddam Iraq going to be lumbered with these claims for compensation against the old regime?
The same question arises with regard to the outstanding debts of the old regime, which amount to well around $130 billion. At the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq owed around $100 billion, and interest has accumulated on that since. $30 billion of this was paid by the Gulf states to assist with the war against Iran. Iraq has always regarded these as grants, not loans, since it was paying in blood to resist the Islamic revolution in Iran, which threatened not just Iraq but all the regimes in the Gulf, including Kuwait
To put these enormous figures in perspective, Iraqi oil exports in 2001 amounted to only $12.7 billion, according to OPEC figures. Oil production would be expected to increase over time as production facilities are refurbished. But oil revenue will not increase in proportion unless there is effective OPEC system to control production, and keep prices up. Nevertheless, if Iraq were required to pay off all this, it would be a heavy burden on the Iraqi economy for decades to come.