The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Behind the Dictatorship of Saddam Hussein Stood the Dictatorship of Imperialism

Apr 19, 2003

When the U.S. military machine began its assault on Iraq on March 19, U.S. officials claimed that they were liberating the country from the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party once and for all. For years, U.S. officials had characterized Saddam Hussein as a monster, which he is. But what they didn’t say was that he was their monster. It was the U.S. that had helped put Saddam Hussein in power. And it was the U.S. that gave him the means to stay in power—until George W. Bush decided he was expendable.

The U.S. government and Saddam Hussein go way back, four decades, at least. In fact, Saddam Hussein got his real start working hand-in-hand with the American CIA in the early 1960s. The Iraqi regime then in power had relatively broad support in the Iraqi population, having overthrown the much-hated Iraqi monarchy, which had been put in place by Britain after World War I. The new Iraqi government expressed a nationalist defiance toward the almost complete domination of the country by the big oil companies. This was too much for the U.S. government, which decided to crush Iraqi insolence and defiance. In 1963, the CIA engineered a military coup, one of its most important successes in a long history of overthrowing governments around the world. The new regime, which the CIA had helped to install, was led by generals connected to the Baath Party, the party of Saddam Hussein. The CIA worked closely with the new government to help to hunt down, torture and murder thousands of members and sympathizers of the Iraqi Communist Party and anyone else who opposed the new regime. Hussein was a leading Baath Party operative who worked closely with the CIA in this witch hunt. In fact, CIA operatives later said that Hussein was a frequent visitor and guest at CIA headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, months before the coup. This formed the beginnings of a partnership which would flower in later decades.

Using Iran against Iraq

Having helped install the Baath Party in power and solidify its hold over the country, the U.S. paid little attention to Iraq for the next decade and a half. What the U.S. needed was someone that could efficiently serve as a surrogate for the U.S. in the volatile Persian Gulf region. Iran, Iraq’s much larger neighbor, was that someone. Iran itself was ruled by a dictator, the Shah, who had been brought to power by the CIA in a military coup ten years earlier. By the 1960s, his hold on power was absolute. He had already crushed all opposition, using the most severe repression and terror. And he had one of the most ferocious and largest secret police, the infamous, U.S.- trained Savak.

The Shah was not only ready to play the role of U.S. cop; his regime, so absolutely in control over Iran, was able to reinforce the other dictatorships in the surrounding Middle Eastern states, ensuring, among other things, the flow of oil and oil profits for the big oil companies.

In exchange for his help, the U.S. supported Iran in its ongoing disputes and tensions with Iraq over their common border. This gave an opening to the Soviet Union, the U.S.’s super-power rival at the time, to gain a foothold in the area; it extended military aid to Iraq. Meanwhile France, the lesser imperial power, looking to expand its own presence in the Middle East wherever the U.S. left a bit of space, built up extensive trade and business ties with Iraq. Of course, many U.S. companies also expanded their own trade and investment in Iraq throughout the 1970s, when Iraq’s income from the export of oil rose steeply with the rise in oil prices.

This situation changed in 1979, when a popular uprising overthrew the Shah, the U.S.-backed dictator, bringing to power the Ayatollah Khomeini and the mullahs. This was a devastating loss for U.S. imperialism. Not only was the U.S.’s top cop in the region, the Shah, overthrown by a popular uprising. The toppling of the hated Shah set an example for peoples all over the region, who also lived under dictatorships. If a mass upsurge could overthrow the Shah with his huge and modern U.S.-supplied war machine, people in other countries could do the same thing.

The U.S. had to counter this impression; to do that, it had to make the people of Iran pay for overthrowing one of the U.S.’s most trusted dictators. But it wasn’t ready to throw its own army into a situation where the population was still so mobilized, especially since only a few years before the U.S. had been forced to withdraw from Viet Nam. The U.S. population was still infected with what the rulers had come to call the "Viet Nam syndrome," that is, they would not support a new war.

Using Iraq against Iran

The U.S. government turned to Saddam Hussein, the CIA’s old partner from the early 1960s. By 1979 he had become president of Iraq and had consolidated his hold over the entire country with massive waves of repression and blood-letting. With the fall of the Shah, Saddam himself saw the opportunity to redress long-standing grievances, such as old border disputes that Iraq had with Iran, its old rival. Saddam gambled that a victory over Iran would allow Iraq to emerge as the dominant power in the Persian Gulf region. He also gambled that the U.S. would be amenable to what he had in mind.

Through unofficial channels, the U.S. president at the time, "peace-loving" Jimmy Carter, let Hussein know that the U.S. favored such an attack. The U.S. began to send aid of all sorts to help Hussein build up the Iraqi military. U.S. puppets in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, offered the Iraqi regime loan credits to buy weapons to build up its military.

In September 1980, 18 months after the Shah was overthrown, Saddam Hussein launched a series of offensives against Iran that took the Iraqi army deep into Iranian territory. These lightning strikes were supposed to allow Hussein to win a quick victory. But Hussein had overestimated the weakness of the Iranian military. He also had underestimated the reaction of the Iranian population to an Iraqi invasion. After Iran gave up a lot of ground in the early months of the war, its resistance stiffened, and it soon launched a counteroffensive. By the summer of 1982, the Iranian military had put the Iraqi military on the defensive, eventually taking the fight inside Iraq itself. Suddenly Iraq was in danger of losing the war.

To prevent an Iranian victory, the U.S. government moved quickly to reinforce the Iraqi military. In 1982, the Reagan administration issued National Security Directive 114. According to former U.S. officials, the directive committed the U.S. to do whatever was necessary to prevent Iraq from losing the war with Iran.

U.S. Provides Saddam with His "Weapons of Mass Destruction"

To slow down the Iranian offensive, Iraq began to use poison gas against Iranian troops on a daily basis. Its use had been outlawed by the Geneva Convention of 1925. But the international community, led by the U.S., did not seem to notice. On the contrary, it was in this period that the U.S. rapidly increased its aid to Saddam Hussein. Reagan sent a special U.S. envoy, by the name of Donald Rumsfeld, to Iraq to meet personally with Saddam Hussein. Several federal departments, including the Departments of Defense, Commerce, Energy, Trade and Agriculture, coordinated U.S. aid to Iraq on all levels: intelligence, weapons programs, etc. This aid came from the big U.S. weapons labs: Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos and Sandia. And 24 of the biggest U.S. companies became some of Saddam Hussein’s most important weapons contractors. Hewlett Packard provided computer equipment for the making of nuclear, rocket and conventional weapons systems. Eastman Kodak provided chemicals for rockets and chemical weapons. Dow Chemical and Union Carbide sent chemicals for the making of poison gas. Honeywell provided equipment for rockets and conventional weapons. Bell helicopters supplied military helicopters that were used to deliver poison gas. And American Type Culture Collection supplied equipment for making biological weapons. U.S. laboratories also sent over various strains of anthrax, to be used in biological warfare.

The U.S. claims to know so much about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. It should, and not because of pictures taken from satellites or U-2’s today, but because it gave him those weapons yesterday.

Not only did Saddam Hussein use such weapons in his war against Iran. In late 1987, the Iraqi air force began dropping chemical weapons on the Kurds in northern Iraq. The Kurds were an oppressed minority who had been fighting for independence for over half a century. And they had revolted once again, after Iraq became bogged down in its war on Iran. To break their resistance, the Iraqi military carried out a "scorched earth" strategy. It destroyed over 4,000 Kurdish villages and hamlets so totally, they could never be rebuilt. Over half a million Kurds were forced out of their villages and settled in "protective hamlets" like those the U.S. had employed in Viet Nam. At the same time, Hussein used poison gas against pockets of resistance to his war policies among Shiites in the south of the country. Not only did the U.S. not protest against the use of these weapons, it supplied Iraq with the means to continue to do the job. It wanted "order."

Throughout this period, relations between the U.S. and Iraq improved markedly. The Pentagon sent air force officers to secretly work with their Iraqi counterparts to improve the Iraqis’ accuracy in targeting and hitting Iran’s bridges, factories and power plants, as well as to help extend air strikes to the Iranian oil terminals in the Lower Gulf. All this aid was vital for Saddam Hussein’s war effort.

But the U.S. was not a dependable ally. Eventually Iraq began to gain the upper hand in this war, thanks to all the U.S. military aid and the weapons of mass destruction that it had provided. At that point, the U.S. began to funnel military aid to Saddam’s foe, the Iranian army. This enabled Iran to rain down destruction on Iraq, extending the war even longer.

Trusting neither side fully, the U.S. supported both sides in the Iran-Iraq War. Its purposes were best served by enabling Iran and Iraq to bleed and destroy each other. Their mutual decimation smoothed the way for the U.S. to extend its own domination over the region.

Finally in 1988, the Iran-Iraq war ended in a kind of draw. It was the longest conventional war in the 20th century. The populations of both sides paid a tremendous price. Between the two countries, over a million people were killed. Both economies were crippled. There was only one real winner in this massive bloodletting and destruction: the United States, which had provoked, encouraged and egged on the war for as long as possible.

At the end of the war, the issue of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against the Kurds surfaced at the United Nations. But the Reagan administration soon bottled up any attempts to take the investigation very far. At the U.N., Secretary of State George Shultz claimed that there was no "conclusive" proof that Hussein was actually using chemical weapons. Shultz’s British counterpart, Sir Geoffrey Howe, came to the same conclusion. Both assured the U.N. that they would continue to look into the charges—and then buried the question.

The U.S. was not so much trying to spare Saddam Hussein as it was ensuring that its own role in these crimes against humanity would be covered up.

Bush Squeezes Saddam

Under Reagan’s successor, George Bush, Sr., relations between the U.S. and Iraq appeared amicable. In October 1989, the Bush administration issued another National Security Directive stating that "normal relations between the United States and Iraq would serve our longer-term interests and promote stability in both the Gulf and Middle East." In January 1990, the Bush administration signed a directive authorizing the Export-Import Bank to advance Iraq 200 million dollars in loan credits. These loan credits were supposed to go toward the purchase of food, but everyone knew what these loan credits would be used to buy.

But behind the scenes, the U.S. was beginning to exert considerable pressure on Iraq. The Iran-Iraq war had left Iraq’s infrastructure destroyed and its economy in shambles. Iraq needed breathing room to begin to rebuild the economy. Instead, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait began to demand that Iraq immediately repay the debt that it had incurred in carrying out the war, a debt estimated to be over 100 billion dollars. Iraq had been led to believe that most of the money supplied by these countries for its war against Iran was not a debt but a kind of grant, especially since Iraq had suffered the consequences and shouldered almost the entire costs for a war that had served the interests of the other regimes. Now, suddenly, these two U.S. surrogates threatened Iraq that if it didn’t repay the debts, they would cut Iraq off from further credit.

But that was not all. At the same time, Kuwait was flooding the oil markets, pushing down the price of what Iraq could get for its main export, oil. This deprived Iraq of the means to repay the loans, not to speak of begin to rebuild its economy. On top of that, Kuwait was stealing Iraqi oil by slant-drilling into Iraqi oil fields. Hussein offered to negotiate a settlement with Kuwait. But Kuwait refused. Hussein brought his grievances to the U.S. In a famous meeting, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, told Saddam Hussein that the U.S. would be neutral in any conflict between Iraq and Kuwait. Said Glaspie, "We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait. Secretary [of State James] Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction ... that Kuwait is not associated with America."

In fact, Kuwait never would have taken such an aggressive and provocative stance toward Hussein without the U.S. being behind it. But Hussein read Glaspie’s remarks as a go-ahead to take military action. In August 1990, the armies of Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied Kuwait, that tiny sheikdom in the pocket of the major oil companies.

U.S. Breaks with Saddam—But Still Uses Him

It was at this point that the U.S. government labeled Saddam Hussein, their old partner for three decades, a dangerous aggressor, a megalomaniac, a madman and war criminal. Charging him with all the crimes they themselves had been behind—from the use of chemical weapons to the torture and execution of opponents—the U.S. put together an enormous coalition of forces and launched a war that killed more than 100,000 Iraqis in a few weeks, while destroying most of the Iraqi infrastructure.

The issue was not Kuwait. The Bush administration was using the war to announce to the world that no government could make a move without U.S. approval, that the U.S., now the sole dominant superpower, was ready to crush any other country that overstepped its bounds. In fact, the U.S. had already made a move in this direction when it invaded Panama in 1989. But Iraq was a much more significant country—even if it had been worn down by its war with Iran.

Many officials and commentators have questioned Papa Bush’s decision not to carry out the Persian Gulf War "to the end"—that is, to completely crush Saddam Hussein, by taking Baghdad and expelling him from power. But, in fact, Bush #1 left Hussein in power and gave him back most of his army, along with its armor and combat helicopters, for a reason. With the defeat of Iraq, first the Shiites in the south of the country and then the Kurds in the north rose up. Bush might have hoped that Saddam Hussein would be overthrown in a military coup. But Bush could not accept that Saddam Hussein’s regime be overthrown by a revolt of the population, a revolt that might spread to other sectors of the Middle East, endangering other regimes that kept order for U.S. imperialism. Saddam Hussein’s regime was left in place, he was effectively given his army back so he could put down these revolts and restore law and order in the country.

Once Saddam Hussein had fulfilled this mission, the U.S. and the rest of the world governments squeezed Iraq with a suffocating economic embargo on the already crippled and pulverized economy. This embargo has resulted in the deaths of at least one million people, and most likely more, half of whom are children under the age of five. At the same time, the U.S. has not stopped bombing the country. That is, it has continued to punish the Iraqi people for what it says are the crimes of one man, Saddam Hussein. This has been a continual reminder of the power of U.S. imperialism.

This is not to say that the U.S. has not tried, in the meantime, to pressure the Iraqi military to remove Hussein. In 1998, President Clinton manufactured and provoked a crisis around weapons inspections as an excuse to carry out a massive bombing of the country to do just that. But Hussein remained in power—that is, until the U.S., along with a smaller British force, launched its invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003.

To Impose Saddam’s Regime—Without Saddam

With this invasion, the U.S. finally dumped the long-time dictator that it had helped create, put in power and used for all these years—only to immediately begin the process of installing an equally repressive regime.

To run the country, the U.S. government has turned to corrupt former monarchists, religious fundamentalists and recycled leftovers of the old regime of Saddam Hussein.

At the head of this rogues gallery is the purported favorite of the Pentagon to run Iraq, Ahmed Chalabi. Described by the U.S. as an eminent banker and economist, Chalabi comes from a family of wealthy monarchists, who were forced to flee Iraq in 1958 when the monarchy was overthrown. In the late 1970s, Chalabi seemed to have struck gold after opening a bank in Jordan that ballooned from the influx of oil dollars to become the third largest bank in the country. Ten years later, the Jordanian central bank seized Chalabi’s bank, charging him with embezzlement, corruption and bribery. So Chalabi fled the country, and was later convicted in abstentia in two separate cases involving the embezzlement of over 60 million dollars. Not a problem for Chalabi and his U.S. sponsors. With fresh cash in hand from this embezzlement, Chalabi then morphed from banker to freedom fighter and the head of the U.S.-sponsored "opposition" to Saddam Hussein, a position granted him by the CIA. Since Chalabi was a wealthy businessman, the CIA found him to be both a valuable front man and conduit of bribes and payoffs.

After taking Baghdad, the Pentagon flew Chalabi, its candidate for president of Iraq, directly into Iraq with a retinue of several other "freedom fighters," and set him up in Baghdad’s comfortable Hunting Club, once the domain of the Baath Party leadership and of Saddam’s brutal first son Uday. Obviously, a Chalabi at the head of Iraq would be little different than the usual run of banana or oil republic dictators that the U.S. has historically favored—that is, if the U.S. gets its way completely, which, given the explosiveness of the situation, is far from certain.

Then of course, there are the regional satraps that the U.S. and British have already tried to install. In Basra, for example, the British first tried to put in a so-called "tribal chief"—a former governor of the city under Saddam Hussein. When oppositionists took to the streets in protest, the British replaced him with the wealthiest businessman in the city, named Ghalib Kubber—who also happened to have longstanding ties to Saddam Hussein. In Mosul, the center of the oil region in the north of the country, the U.S. tried to install Mishan al-Jabouri, who, when he was in Syria, had been charged with corruption and theft. When oppositionists began to demonstrate against him, U.S. troops responded with their automatic weapons, leaving over a dozen people killed in two days of rioting. In the city of Najaf, the U.S. flew in Sheik Abdel Majid al-Koel, a Shiite cleric, to run the city, where he was almost immediately killed by members of a rival Shiite group.

Of course, no matter which of the officials appointed by the U.S. and Britain are able to stick it out, they will only be the face of the regime. Below them will be most of Saddam Hussein’s same old police and military forces, including former generals and other officers, to maintain control over the population. Already, 3,000 former police in Baghdad have taken up their old positions and so have several hundred in Basra.

None of this should surprise anyone. Months before the invasion, U.S. officials had already spelled out what this new regime would be made of. A New York Times article based on documents the Bush administration leaked explained: "Only key senior officials of the Hussein government would need to be removed and called to account."

Today, the U.S. government has given out 55 playing cards to its troops in Iraq, with the names and pictures of the most wanted officials from the old regime. But the core of Saddam’s regime—the hundreds of thousands of henchmen, gangsters, thugs, executioners, torturers, jailers, the ones who used chemical weapons and bombed people—will remain in place.

The people who kept order under Saddam will remain to continue to do that job—a continuation of Saddam Hussein’s old regime without Saddam Hussein

This regime that is now taking shape will rule over a population and a country that has been devastated by almost a quarter century of unremitting war and blockade—at one time among the more economically developed countries of the region, with a relatively well-functioning infrastructure, system of medical care and education—has been so destroyed and pummeled that the most basic services are non-existent. The country’s economic development has been bombed back to the last century, with the death toll sure to mount with the outbreak of new epidemics.

Saddam Hussein, the monster, may be gone from Iraq. But the U.S. imperial overlord that created the monster continues to tighten its grip over the country’s people and resources, a control that can be lifted only by the fight of the working class and the poor to destroy imperialism once and for all.