Lines in the Sand

Keith Kyle

  • Saddam’s War: The Origins of the Kuwait Conflict and the International Response by John Bulloch and Harvey Morris
    Faber, 194 pp, £13.99, January 1991, ISBN 0 571 16387 4
  • Unholy Babylon: The Secret History of Saddam’s War by Adel Darwish and Gregory Alexander
    Gollancz, 352 pp, £9.99, January 1991, ISBN 0 575 05054 3
  • Cambridge International Document Series: Vol. 1 The Kuwait Crisis edited by E. Lauterpacht, C.J. Greenwood, Mark Weller and Daniel Bethlehem
    Grotius Publication, 330 pp, £35.17, January 1991, ISBN 0 949009 86 5
  • Air Power and Colonial Control by David Omissi
    Manchester, 260 pp, £35.00, January 1990, ISBN 0 7190 2960 0

Of all the many guises in which Saddam Hussein has appeared before the Iraqi people and the world, the most surprising was that of the great white hope of Arab moderation. Formerly known as a rejectionist – a last-ditch opponent of a negotiated Palestine settlement – he emerged in 1987, under the strains of a war against Iran which he appeared to be losing, as a charter member of what the Jordanians were describing as ‘the great moderate centre’. The other members of this new alignment were Egypt, Jordan and the PLO; it was part of the shift in policy towards Israel which the Palestine National Council finally endorsed in November 1988.

‘The perception that Saddam was a reformed character overlooked the fundamental nature of his regime,’ observe the authors of Saddam’s War, and there were people who at the time who found the notion of a ‘moderate’ Saddam Hussein an implausible proposition. But in the Middle East one must pick one’s moderates where one can find them and many Westerners who had previously thought of post-1980 Iraq and Iran as two equally unpleasant regimes intent on doing the maximum of damage to each other began to see in the ‘mature’ Saddam Hussein the lineaments of a roughhewn statesman, who, having involved himself by miscalculation in a real war instead of a walk-over, could be relied on not to make impulsive mistakes again.

A great impersonator, Saddam Hussein has now thrown off the moderation and makes speeches in the fashion and often the actual vocabulary of his deadly rival, the Ayatollah Khomeini: speeches stuffed full of Islam, abuse of enemies and denunciation of the materialism of the Great Satan, the United States. A civilian, he is now a field-marshal; a brazen secularist, he is now to be a saint.

Saddam Hussein has retained power for so long, despite mistakes that would have felled anyone else, because he has developed an instinct and a system that enable him to kill potential rivals (or cause their helicopters to crash) before they can kill him. He differs from the other figures, mainly military, who have enjoyed the leadership of Iraq since 1958, when the Hashemite monarchy was drowned in blood, in that he has personally shared in the shooting of those of his close colleagues whom he has come to distrust. Both the authors of Unholy Babylon and those of Saddam’s War give examples of this. There was the occasion in 1979 just after Saddam Hussein had taken over the Presidency (he had been deputy leader for ten years), when he converted half the Revolutionary Command Council into a firing-squad to execute the other half. There was also the occasion in 1982, during one of Iraq’s worst moments in the war with Iran, when his Minister of Health seemed to favour his stepping down from office to enable peace to be made with Khomeini. A shot from Saddam’s pistol settled the problem of the Minister of Health. By contrast, at one point during the Suez invasion in 1956 Major Salah Salem thought that Gamal Abdul Nasser should give himself up personally to the British ‘because it is only you they want’: the Egyptian leader contented himself with sending the major into retirement with his life pension as a Free Officer intact.

Saddam Hussein rose from a routinely violent milieu in the bandit country round the small town of Takrit and it was as a terrorist and later torturer on behalf of the Ba’ath Party that he made his way up. The Ba’ath Party was an elaborately-structured ideological group organised in several Arab countries as a conspiracy against all existing governments, sometimes in alliance with the Communists but more usually in vicious opposition to them. Committed theoretically both to socialism and to the unity of the Arab Nation, the Party seized power during the Sixties in both Syria and Iraq. Since then (except for one very brief period), whatever the changes in alignment among the Arab states, the one absolute certainty has been that Syria and Iraq would find themselves on the opposite sides of any Arab fence. They are so now, even though this has involved Syria’s placing herself on the same side as the US, the protector of Israel.

Saddam’s War and Unholy Babylon have been put together with great speed. John Bulloch and Harvey Morris, the authors of the first book, and Adel Darwish, one of the authors of the second, all write for the Independent, and regular readers of that paper will not find in Saddam’s War much (except for the earlier history, whose presentation is not quite so clear as the rest of the book) that has not already been printed in it. Darwish and his pseudonymous colleague, who evidently contributed the detailed research into the international arms build-up in the Middle East which is one of Unholy Babylon’s distinctive features, are more ambitious and are on the whole to be preferred. As an Egyptian, Darwish has a natural preference for Egyptian sources and inclines, though not too obtrusively, to the view that Egypt’s judgment has all along been undervalued.

For anyone who wishes to investigate the genesis of the conflict in the history of relations between Iraq and Kuwait and in the claim, by no means original to Saddam Hussein, that Kuwait historically belongs to Iraq, Cambridge University’s Research Centre for International Law is offering a volume in its International Documents series, which is to be followed shortly by a second on sanctions and their consequences. The first volume also carries extensive and commendably up-to-date documentation on the United Nations’ role in the present crisis – a clear case of academics being as quick off the mark as journalists.

Iraq’s claim depends on the proposition that Iraq is Turkey’s legal heir, and on the evidence, which exists but which is meagre, that in the 19th century the al-Sabah sheikhs of Kuwait acknowledged the suzerainty of the distant Ottomans. The crucial point is Kuwait’s relationship to the province of Basra, since it was that province which, after the First World War, was lumped in with Baghdad and Mosul to form the rather artificial state of Iraq. The key exhibit in Saddam Hussein’s historical repertoire is the acceptance by the sheikhs of Kuwait in the second half of the 19th century of the Turkish title of Qaimmagam. Since this means ‘sub-governor’ it carried the implication of subordination to the Governor of Basra, though there was little sign of that Governor’s effective rule. When Sheikh Mubarak came to power by murdering his brothers in 1896, he brought in British gunboats to support his rule; and Britain, thinking about possible railway terminals on the Gulf, signed a secret agreement with him in 1899 by which in return for Britain’s ‘good offices’ he undertook not to alienate any part of his territory without British permission. The trouble, as one British Foreign Secretary lamented, was that ‘no one knows where his possessions begin and end.’

What Mubarak particularly wanted was the two strategic islands of Warba and Bubiyan. He would have got them under a treaty signed but not ratified between Britain and Turkey in 1913 in which Britain would for the first time have recognised Kuwait as part of the Ottoman Empire. But in 1914 war broke out, Britain recognised Kuwait as ‘an independent government under British protection’ and after the war the unratified convention became the recognised boundary between Iraq and Kuwait. But the commissioners whom the convention envisaged were never appointed to spell out precisely where the border should run – a matter of moment once it was realised that a major oilfield lay under the area of uncertainty.

The new state of Iraq, not yet feeling any collective identity, was placed under a British League of Nations Mandate, and a major military effort was required to bring parts of it to heel, especially in the province of Mosul, where the Kurdish separatists took up arms. David Omissi has told the story in Air Power and Colonial Control of how the battle for the separate identity of the RAF was won on the bombing fields of Iraq, with Lord Trenchard, the top airman, joining forces with Winston Churchill to argue that there was no need to abandon Iraq on grounds of cost because the RAF could do the job on its own on a much lower budget than the Army. There is thus a special drama in the acting-out in Iraq of the supreme test of whether air power alone can succeed in enforcing the UN Resolutions on Kuwait.

In 1932 the British ended their mandate and Iraq acquired full sovereignty, but just before the official hand-over an exchange of letters was contrived between the Iraqi Premier and the Ruler of Kuwait confirming their existing border. This is said by the Iraqis not to count because the Mandate still had a few more weeks to run.

Although there is a mention of the oil in Kuwait as early as October 1913, the first spurt from Kuwaiti wells did not take place until 1938 and no Kuwaiti oil was actually sold until June 1946. Since then Kuwait has become one of the major producers. As it is a country with a small population, the majority of whom are not Kuwaitis, and since the contracts with the oil companies were negotiated with the Ruler rather than with the State, the Sabahs have become quite extraordinarily rich. Kuwait has been spectacularly developed, mostly for the benefit of the Kuwaiti minority, who enjoy what Bulloch and Morris term ‘the most complete welfare state in the world’: free housing, no income tax, and the prospect, before the Iraqis descended, of achieving ample prosperity without overmuch effort. Vast reserves were invested abroad, the income from them exceeding the revenue from oil.

In 1961 Kuwait asked and Britain agreed to bring the 1899 Agreement to an end. In consequence, General Qassem, the man who had overthrown the monarchy in Iraq, declared: ‘We shall extend Iraq’s borders to the south of Kuwait ... the era of sheikhdoms is over.’ British troops were rushed in, and suffered bitterly in the July heat until Nasser organised an Arab League force to take their place. When Qassem was in turn overthrown by the Ba’ath Party for its first, short spell of power, Iraq recognised the independence (though not the boundaries) of Kuwait and Kuwait was admitted to membership of the United Nations and the Arab League.

Among Arab sheikhdoms Kuwait earned the reputation of a progressive state. A large and lively press reflected every shade of Arab opinion. Kuwait was willing to open relations with the Soviet Union and China well ahead of neighbouring states. And in the National Assembly there were the sometimes vituperative beginnings of parliamentary democracy. This sat somewhat uneasily with an executive still dominated by the ruling family. Even now, the Government-in-Exile contains a prime minister (who is also the heir apparent) and foreign, defence and interior ministers who are al-Sabah family members. In 1938 there had been a six-month experiment with a constitution and an assembly, which ended in tears with the assembly dissolved, one of the opposition leaders crucified, the others in prison. But when, in 1962, the former President of the Legislative Assembly had himself become the Ruler, it was re-introduced and continued till its suppression in 1985. Elections were free but there were not many voters. Of a population of 1.7 million, after deduction of all women and children, all non-Kuwaitis and several classes of Kuwaiti, one is left with an electorate of 62,000 – considerably smaller than one British constituency. In 1985, following an attempt to assassinate him, the Amir dismissed the Assembly and suspended indefinitely those articles in the Constitution which required the election of another. A provisional assembly to investigate how a new system might work, with two-thirds of the members elected and the rest nominated, had just been constituted when the Iraqi invasion struck.

Given the outspokenness of Kuwaiti political debate, the dissatisfaction with the Amir’s repression of political institutions, the lack of popular appeal of the morose, withdrawn and generally uninspiring figure of the current Amir, and a past history of oppositions flirting with union with Iraq, what was really remarkable about the crisis of 2 August, and what must have been most disconcerting to Saddam Hussein, was that not a single civilian opposition figure presented himself for inclusion in a revolutionary government of Kuwait. The democratic opposition show signs of wanting to have it out with the al-Sabahs once the crisis is over, but for the duration they are committing themselves to the battle against Iraq.

There were three distinctive types of claim that Iraq with mounting intemperance filed against Kuwait: the first two were negotiable, the third was not. There were territorial claims for the leasing of the two islands and a correction of the boundary through the Rumeileh oilfield; economic claims for the cancellation of war debts and for Kuwait to stop cheating aver her OPEC production quota and thereby helping to drive the price of oil down, to Iraq’s disadvantage; and then there was the claim for the whole of Kuwait – for the branch to rejoin the tree. So long as Saddam Hussein used his bullying methods to get progress on the first two points he stood a good chance of achieving results. It is still a mystery, for example, why the Kuwaitis cheated. It is true that other people did, notably the United Arab Emirates; there is also something in the argument that Kuwait with all its downstream investments has a different relationship to the oil industry from other producers. For Kuwait, lower prices made economic sense. But it is rather astonishing that, placed as it was and with its record of political accommodation, Kuwait should have put purely economic arguments before an understanding that it had a particularly dangerous neighbour.

At any rate, these were matters on which ‘Arab solutions’ were possible and, not surprisingly, these were the matters that occupied the numerous mediators. For all the arguments that the aggressor could not be rewarded, it could have been made very embarrassing for the coalition, or parts of it, to seem to prefer war to a chance of this kind of appeasement. Many people thought that, despite the announcement of the annexation, Saddam Hussein was in his rough way merely making the Kuwaitis see that he was not a man to be trifled with, and that when he had got what he wanted he would withdraw from some if not all of Kuwaiti territory. What made a confrontation with him inevitable – and infinitely simpler for those who had concluded that he needed to be stopped – was that in the end he convinced nearly everyone that he really meant to extinguish the independence of Kuwait. On this point no negotiation was possible. What is even more extraordinary is that he made no serious attempt to exploit Pan-Arab ideals about uniting sections of the Arab Nation. So far from doing all he could to welcome Kuwaitis into the Iraqi bosom, he has, like the ruffian he is, crudely pillaged the conspicuous wealth that gave rise to so much envy.

One other point should be made. Economic sanctions are the preferred method of coercion short of war which is open to the international community. It will not bode well for the ‘new world order’ if it is only to be offered a choice, when conciliation fails, between using force and doing nothing. When this crisis started, Iraq was described as the ideal country – given her import pattern and her almost complete reliance for external payments on the sale of oil – against whom to impose sanctions. They are not a soft option. They are directed primarily against the civilian population and its standard of living, including, notably, its food supplies. The aim would have had to be a general collapse of morale sufficient to bring down a man like Saddam Hussein. This could not have been expected to happen easily or swiftly. It would have required grim resolution on the part of the coalition powers over a prolonged period. It seemed logical that sanctions, to carry credibility, should be backed by the visible presence in the region of a force that would be used ‘as a last resort’. But the mere massing of such a force in the Saudi sand – and still more the decision in November to double it – meant that in practice the pressure to reach a judgment on whether or not sanctions had ‘failed’ became irreversible. The determining factor was the length of time the astonishingly broad coalition and its varied public opinions could be expected to hold together, rather than any realistic calculations of when sanctions might be expected to break Saddam Hussein.