The 2003 invasion of Iraq was a climax, not a turning point. An excursion into the deeper past helps explain why it happened and the terrible costs in both lives and treasure that resulted from such hubris. Seen from this long-term perspective, the war wasn’t a mere “mistake” or strategic blunder, a stubbed toe on the path to human flourishing under the aegis of American power. It was a catastrophe decades in the making.
The turning point was 1979. Saudi Arabia and Iran were at that time the twin pillars of Western oil production. To compensate for a growing trade deficit, US and European governments sold Riyadh and Tehran weapons systems and advanced technology. As Michael Klare writes in American Arms Supermarket (1984), the sale of firepower was pursued “with particular vigor after 1974, when the Opec nations imposed a fourfold increase in oil prices and America faced a mammoth deficit in its foreign trade accounts”. As a result of “aggressive marketing by US arms firms and large purchases by Iran and Saudi Arabia, the United States sold $49.8bn worth of munitions to foreign countries in fiscal [years] 1974-77”.
Shorn of its empire, the UK was a willing helpmeet and fellow armourer of foreign regimes. Statistics assembled by the now-defunct US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency estimated that Middle Eastern countries received $2.1bn-worth of weapons from the UK between 1975 and 1979, while the Americans delivered $13.7bn. Klare calculates that in the decade before the revolution in Iran, 28 per cent of all Pentagon-authorised arms sales had been to the Iranian government.
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After the downfall of the Pahlavi dynasty and the rise to power of Ruhollah Khomeini, that arsenal went from being wielded by a trusted ally, into the hands of an enemy Shia Islamist state. For Washington and London, secular, Sunni-led Iraq thus became a strategic asset aligned against Iran. Although Iraq had been a Soviet client, Saddam Hussein, the vicious leader of the Baath Party, was eager to deal with the West as well.
It was obvious from the beginning that Hussein was an incongruous accomplice for the US and UK. Long-standing allies Saudi Arabia and Israel both viewed Iraq as their primary regional antagonist. When the Iran-Iraq War broke out in the autumn of 1980, the American dilemma of which side to back was reputedly summed up by Henry Kissinger: “It’s a pity they both can’t lose.” But by 1982, after Iraq’s campaign had stalled, the West “tilted” to Baghdad and began to support Hussein more openly amid fears that Iran might win. That year, the US State Department dropped Iraq from the list of state sponsors of terror. Two years later, Iraqi-US diplomatic relations were formally restored. In the spring of 1988, according to a 2013 Foreign Policy report on declassified CIA files, “US intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq, fully aware that Hussein’s military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin, a lethal nerve agent.”
The Iran-Iraq conflict ended in August 1988 as the longest conventional war of the 20th century. The UK played both sides, but in 1987 the Conservative government expelled Iran’s Westminster-based military procurement organisation following the attack on the British oil tanker Gentle Breeze in the Persian Gulf. On balance, like the other major Western arms exporters, the bulk of Western materiel fed into that war went to Iraq.
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The UK was one node of what was a proliferating “Iraqi procurement network” – a vast array of international arms companies, military suppliers, banks, front companies and spy agencies. Rougher customers participating in these schemes included the Saudi arms trafficker Adnan Khashoggi and the Chilean dealer Carlos Cardoen; blue-chip manufacturers with links to Iraq included America’s DuPont and Japan’s Hamamatsu. Among the Europeans, West Germany sold chemical munitions, France contributed nuclear know-how and engineering, but perhaps the murkiest and most tawdry connection to Hussein’s regime were those British companies who worked with a man named Gerald Bull and a project called the “supergun”.
Bull, the youngest-ever PhD-holder at the University of Toronto aged 23 in 1951, turned to international arms dealing later in life. According to the British academic Mark Phythian in Arming Iraq: How the US and Britain Secretly Built Saddam’s War Machine (1997), Bull was initially interested “in using long-range guns as satellite launchers”, but graduated to arms dealing in the 1970s after the Canadian government lost interest in his work and the Pentagon became his sponsor. The journalist William Lowther reports further:
“The contract was meagre, but… Bull believed it might lead to a breakthrough, and for nearly two years he compiled volumes of complex calculations. The Pentagon became so intrigued and impressed with his findings that, to help him along, they afforded him access to some of the most restricted and secret weapons research in their arsenal. In mid-1972 senior officers in Washington realized that in allowing Bull access to defence secrets they had broken multiple security laws, because not only did he not have the needed clearance, he wasn’t even a US citizen. To cover their mistakes, they persuaded Senator Barry Goldwater, the conservative Republican from Arizona, to pass a private act of Congress in October 1972 granting Bull American citizenship. Three months later he took his citizenship oath in a private ceremony. The presiding federal judge was specially flown to Vermont from New York.”
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After a brief stint in jail for exporting arms illegally to apartheid South Africa in the late 1970s, Bull found work as an artillery designer for Iraq and began work in 1988 on his life’s ambition for Saddam Hussein: Project Babylon. Iraqi officials later told UN investigators that the Babylon programme was to include two guns of 1,000-millimetre calibre, two of 350mm (with a barrel 30 metres long) and one of 350mm calibre (52.5m long). Countries supplying the various materials and parts included England, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and the Soviet Union. These weapons would be, if successfully constructed (they weren’t), the largest artillery cannons of all time.
The two British companies that “actually constructed” supergun barrels, Phythian writes – Walter Somers and Sheffield Forgemasters – later said that they believed they were building pipes for petrochemical plants. However, he claimed Sheffield Forgemasters also “tendered for the breech mechanism for the 1,000mm gun… Clearly there is no requirement for a breech in petrochemical piping.” And contends that “customs officers also suspected that Forgemasters and Somers knew what they were building”.
By early 1990, three years after the Iran-Iraq War, legal authorities considered all Anglo-Iraqi trade suspect. While British law technically banned most of the arm transactions that had been taking place between 1980 and 1988, UK enforcement and intelligence agencies had turned a blind eye. This was until Hussein began threatening to invade Kuwait. Financially ruined by the Iran-Iraq War, privately supported by the highest levels of George HW Bush’s administration, and given an implicit “green light”, in the words of the one-time independent presidential candidate Ross Perot, to proceed with an invasion by the then US ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie, Hussein turned to an Iraqi grievance dating back to the colonial era.
But before the Gulf War commenced in the late summer of 1990, there remained some loose ends. What of the procurement network, the illegal mechanism by which the West had armed Iraq?
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On 22 March 1990, Bull was murdered outside of his home in Brussels. On 10 April, British customs officials raided Teesport docks in north-east England and seized supergun parts. Eight days later, the trade and industry secretary Nicholas Ridley told the House of Commons he “recently became aware in general terms of an Iraqi project to develop a long-range gun”. Although the Israeli intelligence organisation Mossad was the primary culprit suspected by many of assassinating Bull, Phythian reports that:
“As far as [Bull’s] former colleagues are concerned, his murder was never seriously investigated, as to do so would have revealed much of the Belgian political involvement in arms sales to Iraq and the endemic corruption of Belgian political life, which has since been hinted at through the circumstances surrounding the July 1991 murder of former Belgian prime minister André Cools and the related cash-for-helicopters case of the ‘three Guys’, which has come back to haunt former Nato secretary-general Willy Claes and a number of his former Belgian cabinet colleagues.”
Bull, then, appeared to be just one player in a seamy world largely untouched by the law, a dark economic quadrant tapped by various governments during the lean years of the 1980s. Nato’s Claes, for example, was investigated, fined and prohibited for running from office for five years for, as the New York Times put it, his part in “a reported $1.7m ‘gift’ [the Italian defence company] Agusta made to the Flemish Socialist Party in 1989, after [Agusta] sold… helicopters to Belgium for $267m”. The British role in arming Hussein, however, would make far greater waves than other scandals of this period.
“The Iraqis are starting to throw their weight around,” wrote the junior Tory minister Alan Clark in his diary in early August 1990. “I wouldn’t have believed it possible, not on this scale. For nearly two years the [Foreign Office] section of Cabinet minutes was a long moan about how the Iraqi Army was on its last legs, and the Iranians were going to break through. Now it turns out there are more Soviet tanks there than in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia combined.”
Greased up with foreign armaments and protected by diplomatic silence, the Iraqi government had apparently turned on the free world and illegally invaded Kuwait. It was thus up to “free nations” around the world, led by the US, to kick them out. Saddam Hussein’s Soviet tanks were helpless against the Allied air forces, and the war’s limited objective to simply remove him from Kuwait, not from power, meant that Operation Desert Storm was wrapped up in the five weeks between January and February 1991.
At least 3,000 of those tanks about which Clark was warned about were destroyed. Much of this destruction came in the 72 hours before victory was proclaimed on 28 February, while retreating Iraqi forces were pummelled along Highway 80 between Iraq and Kuwait, a bombing campaign so severe that the road is now known as the “highway of death”.
But despite total victory, Western governments remained concerned. How did Iraq acquire the arsenal with which it invaded Kuwait in the first place? Paul Henderson was a corporate director of Matrix Churchill, a British company described by the investigative journalist Paul Foot as “a Midlands machine tools firm whose bulldog name disguised the fact that it had actually been bought lock, stock and especially barrel by the Iraqi government” in 1987. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, “the CIA had known for more than a year that the firm supplied the Iraqi military. The agency had called the company’s attorneys the previous spring and had even monitored its subcontractors,” according to the reporter Peter Mantius in Shell Game (1995). In the case of Matrix Churchill, as well as other suppliers of Iraq, UK customs investigators found their efforts to examine the various arms deals stymied by the intelligence establishment.
Charges of illegal arms dealing that were brought against Henderson in 1990 were dropped in 1992. As Foot noted, “every important person” that Henderson said he spoke to “in the City, in the intelligence services and in government” told him to go ahead on the Iraq deals, including a transaction with the cluster-bomb magnate Carlos Cardoen. The acquittal of the “Matrix Three”, as those tried for arming the Baathist regime were known, led to the creation of the Scott Inquiry, whose interrogations by the QC Presiley Baxendale in 1993 led many in the press to speculate that somebody would have to take the fall for selling weapons to Hussein. Otherwise, what had the UK gone to war for?
In January 2004, a decade after the Scott Inquiry and ten months into the US-led invasion of Iraq, John Kampfner wrote in the New Statesman that while the history of Britain’s arms deals with Baghdad “presented a catalogue of deceit, secrecy, bullying and incompetence”, there was not a single resignation by those occupying the commanding heights of the British establishment. It was as if Whitehall was merely an addendum to the story of how firms sold huge and expensive industrial machines to Iraq, rather than the source of the operation. Thatcher, though subjected to a fierce grilling by Baxendale, denied misleading parliament in 1989 about whether export rules to Iraq had been secretly changed in 1984.
“This particular answer was given to what I believed to be correct,” Thatcher said in her testimony in December 1993. According to the New York Times, when “asked whether Parliament should have been informed of the change, Lady Thatcher, who frequently referred to her prime ministership in the present tense, replied, ‘I would not like to answer that question without considering it with my ministers.’”
While the UK (and to a lesser degree, the US) barely held anyone accountable for fattening Hussein’s arsenal, the Iraqi nation was eviscerated by one of the most devastating sanctions regimes ever levelled against an industrialised country. The post-Gulf War sanctions strengthened Hussein’s control over his population, making the country dependent on government-distributed aid. Iraqi infrastructure, including its electric grid, had been demolished by the Gulf War. Life expectancy plummeted, and staple commodities like sugar became prized treats.
Kneecapping and then executing the Iraqi state during the twilight years of carbon plenty precluded at least one Middle Eastern troublemaker from raising another 1970s-style Opec stink. It gave America’s primary clients in the region – Israel and Saudi Arabia – one less enemy to worry about. And crucially, in the months after 11 September 2001, Hussein’s regime provided a new enemy for a hegemon starved of glory since 1989, an antagonist more meaningful and overtly threatening to the free world than al-Qaeda fighters living in caves in Afghanistan. Saddam Hussein wasn’t directing Global Terrorism Inc, but for the initiators of the Global War on Terror – and their trigger-happy boosters in the media – he made a spectacular poster child.
“We eliminated the Arab world’s cruellest and most tyrannical ruler,” bragged the George W Bush administration officials David Frum and Richard Perle in An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror (2004), a book published a decade before Islamic State came to power in northern Iraq. “We liberated an entire nation, opening the way to a humane, decent civil society in Iraq – and to reform [sic] of the ideological and moral climate of the whole Middle East.” Indeed!
While America’s enemies no longer include Iraq, which has been reduced in geopolitical stature to a battlefield for and against Iranian influence, the diplomatic and military grand strategy of the US and its waning lickspittle across the Atlantic remains unchanged. What is different is that the perceived enemies of the West, whether in Moscow or Beijing, are much stronger than Saddam Hussein ever was.
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