Iraq - Ten years of imperialist war against the population

Sep-Oct 2000

Ten years ago, imperialism embarked on the biggest concentration of its military might since the Korean war in the 1950s. This time the target was Iraq and more particularly, the regime of Saddam Hussein, which had launched an invasion of the tiny oil city-state of Kuwait on 2nd August 1990. The imperialist show of strength against Iraq was to result in the 1991 "Gulf War" and the virtual destruction, not only of the regime's military power (which was the official target of the so-called operation "Desert Storm"), but also of a large part of the country's social and economic infrastructure, not to mention the consequent tens of thousands of casualties.

By April 1991, the war was over. Saddam Hussein's troops had been forced out of Kuwait. This artificial statement, an arrogant and ostentatiously wealthy symbol of the region's domination by the Oil Majors was "free" again to serve as an outpost for imperialist interests in the Middle East.

But the war against Iraq did not stop there. Ever since, a hidden war has been going on in the Gulf: a military war, in the form of more or less regular bombings by the US and British air forces along with intermittent missile attacks; and an economic war, waged by means of United Nations sanctions whose stated aim is to strangle the regime into submission, but whose main victim is the Iraqi population and particularly its poorest layers.

An instrument of imperialism

Behind the policy of imperialism in the Gulf and its ten-year war against Iraq, lies the primary purpose of its international world order - that of protecting the profits of imperialist multinationals in general, and in the case of the Middle East, those of the Oil Majors in particular.

For a whole decade after the downfall of the Shah's pro-imperialist regime in Iran, in 1979, Saddam Hussein was a key component in the regional imperialist order. In the rivalry between Iraq and Iran for top slot in the region, as well as their border dispute over access to the Persian Gulf, Saddam Hussein allowed imperialism to use his regime as a counterweight against Khomeini.

When Saddam Hussein's troops entered Iran, in September 1980, after a series of confrontations over the control of the Shatt-al- Arab canal - the sole access for both countries to the Gulf sea - the remonstrations made by imperialist leaders were largely token. A war which pitted the two main Middle Eastern powers against each other, and therefore weakened both, suited imperialism's interests. However, in so far as the Iranian regime was the main thorn in imperialism's flesh at the time, Western leaders chose to provide Saddam Hussein with some form of military help. As for the other regional dictators, who saw the spread of Khomeini's particular brand of Islamic fundamentalism as a threat to their rule, they were prepared to back Saddam Hussein.

This eight-year war, which left one million dead (60% of these were Iranians), was above all an enormous bounty for many Western companies, particularly in the arms industry, especially from 1984, after the US leaders decided to allow arms sales to Iraq in order to prevent an Iranian victory. By 1990, US sales totalled over £600m. At the same time, Jordan and Saudi Arabia increased their armouries, buying US, British, German and French hardware (£9bn worth in the case of Saudi Arabia) with loans made available by their imperialist sponsors. But of course many of the imperialist countries sold arms and technology to both sides.

The Iran-Iraq war ended in a stalemate in 1988, though Iraq was seen to be the victor, having at least conceded no territory to Iran and suffered fewer losses. However, the Iraqi economy was in tatters. The war had destroyed a substantial amount of oil production facilities and left the Iraqi state itself bankrupt. In 1988, inflation was running at 40%. Foreign debt was £45bn, proportionately only slightly less than that of Mexico and Brazil. Iraq owed significant amounts not only to the imperialist banks but also to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. What is more, the issue of the Shatt-al-Arab canal was not only unresolved but the canal was now unnavigable, due to the rubble of war, and had to be rebuilt.

But now that the Iranian regime had been weakened by the war, imperialism had no longer any reason to help Saddam Hussein. On the contrary, western leaders had every reason to keep this ambitious instrument of their policy in check, just in case he might think of using his powerful military machine in a way which did not suit imperialism's plans for the region. So Saddam Hussein soon found that he was being left high and dry by the imperialist powers when the international financial institutions and imperialist banks refused to lend him more money.

Among the factors which played a prominent role in strangling the Iraqi economy was the policy chosen by Kuwait. During the war with Iran, Iraq had subcontracted its oil exports to Kuwait, whose tankers were protected against Iranian aircraft by the British and US fleets anchored in the Gulf. This had allowed the oil majors operating from Kuwait (mainly Gulf Oil and BP) but also the Kuwaiti ruling family, to make a fortune. However, once the war was over, this did not stop the Kuwaiti regime from demanding that Iraq should immediately repay its £9bn wartime debt. Kuwait, which had control of the mouth of the Shatt-al-Arab canal, was also denying Iraq access, when this was vital to rebuild the canal. To add insult to injury, Kuwait (or, in fact BP, as the main oil contractor in Kuwait), was producing more oil than its quota, and selling it below the market price, thereby pushing oil prices down and reducing Iraq's revenue.

Faced with a situation which was becoming critical, and having failed to achieve anything through diplomacy, Saddam Hussein resolved to use intimidation. On 2nd August 1990, he ordered his troops into Kuwait, in the hope probably to impose in one fell swoop a resolution of his border conflict with Kuwait, of the Shatt-a-Arab canal issue as well as a settlement on the questions of debt repayment and oil prices.

The Gulf War

In and of itself, a military invasion like that of Kuwait, aimed at resolving conflicts between neighbouring countries, was not uncommon in the Middle East. Israel, Turkey and Syria, for instance, had casually invaded their neighbours' territories in the past without the so-called "international community" lifting a finger.

But this time, the situation was different. Kuwait was the trading post of the oil majors in the region. In Washington, London and Paris, it was estimated that Saddam Hussein had become too big for his boots and that this aspiring regional leader had to be cut down to size as a retribution for his infringement of the imperialist order. An example had to be made. Every regime in the Third World and every population had to be shown what price they would have to pay, should they risk defying their imperialist masters.

Suddenly, the imperialist governments turned into the great moral defenders of the "democratic rights" of the Kuwaiti population - without mentioning, of course, the fact that under the Kuwaiti royal family the population had never had any democratic rights whatsoever. Within four days of the invasion, an immediate embargo was placed on all trade in and out of Iraq by the United Nations. The combined might of the imperialist countries and their Third World satellites was summoned by the US under the auspices of the UN to force Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. The Iraqi regime was given an ultimatum to withdraw, or face war against an unprecedented imperialist coalition - 32 countries were involved in the military build-up which was to comprise a total of half-a- million troops within a few months.

Yet this huge build-up of military forces was certainly not needed to chase Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. Even with his recently acquired hardware from the West, and despite being accused by Western leaders of being a "massive military threat" to the world, Saddam Hussein's army was no match for even one single Western army, let alone half a dozen. In fact, Major Colin Powell, chief of the US armed forces at the time of the Gulf War, even claimed, long after the event, that he had been against a full scale war against Iraq. His argument had been that the embargo, which prevented Iraq from selling its oil and therefore from obtaining vital supplies, would be an effective means to bring Saddam to his knees provided it was given time to take effect. But then Powell knew something that the general public did not know - that Saddam had already agreed to withdraw from Kuwait provided the embargo was lifted.

But for the imperialist powers, this was not the real issue. For imperialism as a whole, this show of strength had a purpose which went far beyond Iraq itself. From the point of view of the US, it had the additional advantage of getting the other imperialisms, to share the cost of the intervention, while giving it some legitimacy in the eyes of the US public opinion by presenting it as a mobilisation of the "democratic world" against a ruthless dictator.

The various plans for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait, all agreed by Saddam Hussein, via a series of intermediaries (including former conservative PM, Edward Heath) during the five months following the invasion of Kuwait, turned out to be part of a deadly scam. The US never intended to consider any of them. On the 17 January 1991 the attack on Baghdad was launched.

This was the first large scale demonstration of a "new" kind of war - one of "smart bombs", all the more chilling given the way the clinical targeting of lethal missiles was portrayed on television screens round the world as if these had nothing to do with killing people. For five and a half weeks, thousands of tons of bombs were dropped on Iraq. By the end of this period, probably as much as 40% of the Iraqi army had deserted, showing little faith in Saddam Hussein's anti-imperialist posturing. Then the ground war began - "Operation Desert Storm" - which put flight to the remaining Iraqi army, accompanied by civilians who had been living in Kuwait. Saddam Hussein announced his unconditional withdrawal. But this went unheeded. The Iraqi army was showered with cluster bombs while it staged a panicked retreat. The fifty mile stretch of highway out of Kuwait became known as the "highway of death" as soldiers and civilians, freight trucks and ambulances were burnt to a cinder.

The effect of the war on Iraq was devastating. One hundred and forty thousand tons of bombs and missiles had rained down on the country. An estimated 100,000 Iraqi soldiers had been killed along with tens of thousands of civilians. Roads, bridges, factories and oil facilities had been destroyed as well as electricity generation plants, communications and water and sewage plants.

By April 1991, Iraq had accepted the terms of a cease-fire - or, to be more accurate, the imperialist powers had finally allowed Saddam Hussein to sign one. The regime promised to pay Kuwait for damage done when its troops entered Kuwait and agreed to the destruction of all its biological and chemical weapons as well as all nuclear facilities (Iraq had nuclear power generating capacity but no official nuclear weapon plants).

Ten years under the threat of western bombs

Despite this cease-fire agreement, since April 1991, US and British bombings of Iraq have been going on without interruption, although most of the time it is now hardly reported by the Western media - with British governments, Tory and Labour alike, obediently following the US "great power" policy.

Various pretexts were used to justify this on-going war. At times they involved crude scaremongering, presenting Iraq's so-called "weapons of mass destruction" (initially they even talked about a "nuclear arsenal" but the lie became too obvious) as a threat to the rest of the world - as if Iraq's primitive missiles could have been a threat for Western countries!

At other times, Western leaders claimed to be waging a "democratic" crusade aimed at bringing down Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. Of course, the imperialist leaders probably would have liked to see Saddam Hussein's downfall. After all, this would have been the most convincing way of completing his "punishment" for challenging imperialist interests. But the Western powers did not want this to be done at just any cost. More specifically, not at the cost of weakening the control of the Iraqi state over its population.

For the imperialist leaders, there was never any question of risking political instability in the region. If Saddam's regime was to be toppled, its successor had to be another heavy-handed dictatorship, capable of keeping the lid on the country's social and national ferments at least as effectively as Saddam Hussein did. And since none of Saddam Hussein's rivals seemed to fit the bill, proving unable to win the support of a significant section of the army and police, Saddam Hussein was allowed to stay. Of course his military power was reduced but not to the point of rendering his repressive machine too weak to police the main political forces which could threaten the region's equilibrium - the Kurds in the North of Iraq and the Shiites in the South. Hence Saddam was allowed to crush rebellions in both these regions in the aftermath of the war. Only after he had restored order did the US and UK embark on a policy aimed, once again, at keeping the regime in check and exacting the highest possible price for its misdeeds.

What did this ten-year "endgame" entail from a military point of view? From late 1991 onwards, US, British and French planes began to patrol the so-called "no-fly zones" in northern and southern Iraq. By the end of the year the Iraqi regime had authorised UN inspection of its military centres. All its nuclear enriching facilities, chemical warheads and chemical weapon plants were destroyed. But in 1992 and 1993, several missile attacks were nonetheless unleashed on "military targets" and factories near Baghdad. In June 1993, 23 US cruise missiles were sent, allegedly, to blow up Iraqi Intelligence headquarters, resulting in 6 civilian casualties, including the Iraqi painter, Leila Attar. The reason given was that Saddam Hussein had been plotting to assassinate President Bush while he was visiting Kuwait - another CIA-fabrication, no doubt.

In 1994, when President Bill Clinton came to office, Iraq asked for a cease-fire, withdrawing all conditions on UN weapons inspectors. However, the US reply was to force the Iraqi regime to recognise a new border drawn by imperialism to the advantage of Kuwait. And to back up the US diktat in favour of Kuwait, reinforcements were sent to the Gulf from both Britain and the US.

In September 1996, two separate waves of missile attacks were again launched on Iraq, following the capture of the northern city of Arbil by the Iraqi army. Saddam Hussein, in retaliation, announced that the no-fly zones would no longer be respected, but retreated from this position almost immediately as a result of the increasing US military build-up.

In October 1997, when Iraq ordered all Americans on the UN weapons inspection team, UNSCOM, to leave the country, alleging they were spying (which, as it was revealed later, proved to be true), the threat of further missile attacks on Iraq, or worse, was averted only after a Russian diplomatic intervention. But UNSCOM did pull out of Iraq, to return at the end of November.

However, this problem with the weapons inspections continued due to UNSCOM's insistence that Saddam Hussein was hiding caches of chemical and biological weapons from them in his presidential palaces, where they were not permitted to go.

In January 1998, Scott Ritter, the main US representative on UNSCOM, was barred by Iraq. A huge media campaign was launched to make out that Saddam Hussein was still threatening the world with deadly bacterial and chemical weapons, produced perhaps somewhere in his vast palaces. This campaign took on a farcical slant in the British media, when newspapers focused on the threat of anthrax spores and special pilot-less planes being produced to spread them in the West. As a threat to the West, this was ridiculous, given that anthrax is adequately prevented by vaccines and cured easily by antibiotics. In fact, if anthrax was a threat somewhere, it was in Iraq itself where it was spreading rapidly at the time among sheep and other animals, along with foot and mouth, brucellosis and other diseases, for lack of adequate antibiotics!

Nevertheless "Saddam's latest intransigence" was to be punished. In mid-December 1998, without the agreement of the rest of the UN Security Council, Clinton, who was in the middle of scandal over his affair with Monica Lewinsky, and Blair, who was keen to demonstrate his commitment to the Anglo- American "special relationship", launched another campaign of missiles over Iraq. This was code-named operation "Desert Fox", no doubt as a reminder to Saddam Hussein that the risk of the 1991 "Desert Storm" being repeated should not be underestimated. Operation "Desert Fox" was clearly an act of great power terrorism. But it seemed so gratuitous, even from the point of view of imperialist interests, that one could only wonder to what extent it had been motivated by the US and British leaders' political preoccupations at home.

Since then the intermittent bombings have continued. According to the Russian ambassador to the UN, whose figures have not been disputed by the UN, since December 1998, the US and Britain invaded Iraqi airspace 20,000 times, "hitting food warehouses, oil pipeline stations, and last year killing 144 people and wounding 466 others". Today's on- going air strikes are justified on the grounds that the Iraqi artillery has fired on US or UK jets while they were busy "enforcing the no-fly zones". However, strangely enough, no US or UK planes have ever been shot down. But as was reported on 30th August just gone, US jets bombed a village in southern Iraq, this time injuring 3 people including a child. The US Air Force claimed to have hit a "defence site", thereby "degrading Iraq's ability to jeopardise coalition pilots enforcing the UN's mandates." But, ten years on, who do they expect will believe such lies?

A war against the Iraqi population

The other war waged by imperialism against Saddam Hussein has been an economic one, right from day one, through the policy of sanctions. But again, as with the on-going bombings, only more, it is the population that is footing the bill.

Sanctions started four days after the invasion of Kuwait. Ever since, they have been kept in place as a back-up for the most extravagant demands. Imperialism has constantly moved the goal- posts to keep these sanctions going, thereby imposing its control over Iraq's entire foreign trade for the past ten years.

In 1995, the UN passed "Resolution 986" which implemented the so-called "oil for food" programme (renewable on a six-monthly basis). Under this programme, the UN decided how much oil Iraq is allowed to sell abroad. The proceeds were then put in a special Bank of Paris account in New York. From this account payment was taken for a certain amount of food, the exact nature of which had to be vetted by the UN (it included flour, sugar, cooking oil but no vegetables or meat) as well as for emergency supplies of medicines which also had to be authorised. But 33% of the total oil revenue was set aside for "reparation payments" to Kuwait, pipeline transit fees to Turkey (Iraq is required to pipe at least 40% of its oil out this way) and to fund the entire UN operations against Iraq! So Iraq even paid for the UN-operated vice which strangled its population!

There are all sorts of interests behind this policy. In the early years, of these sanctions, some commentators argued, probably correctly, that by restricting Iraq's oil sales on the world market, Washington was seeking to keep oil prices artificially high. Not only did this boost the profits of Western oil majors, it also made it easier for Saudi Arabia to pay back its share of the cost of the Gulf War, which it owed to the US. Today, however, at a time when oil prices are at their highest for many years, Iraq's production is now allowed to reach a point close to its maximum capacity. But what is not allowed is for Iraq to use its income from oil in the way that it wants, let alone to meet the needs of the population. So it is Iraq's population which is taken hostage. And at what cost?

This "oil for food" scheme was presented as a "humanitarian" gesture, meant to alleviate the worst effects of the sanctions among the population. However, it prevented Iraq from importing the equipment necessary to rebuild the infrastructure destroyed in 1991 and after, under the pretext that Saddam had to be prevented from rebuilding his war machine. However, while water purification and sewerage plants have been regular targets for "smart" British and US bombs, the sanctions even prevented Iraq from obtaining chlorination equipment to sterilise its water supplies. This in a country which is mainly desert and where water is scarce enough as it is and where saline contamination is a huge problem. Since last year the situation has been aggravated by a severe drought. We can therefore believe it if the UN itself tells us that "...malnutrition problems seem to stem from the massive deterioration in basic infrastructure, in particular the water-supply and waste disposal systems... access to potable water is currently 50% of the 1990 level in urban areas and only 33% in rural areas." Indeed it is diarrhoea which is the main killer of under-fives - diarrhoea acquired from drinking dirty water.

Besides a drastic shortage of medical supplies and equipment which have led to a huge increase in deaths from curable and preventable diseases, such as tuberculosis, there are the long term effects on health due to the after-effects of the war itself. An unusual increase in all kinds of birth defects and cancers has been observed. This is accounted for by, among other things, the use of depleted uranium shell tips on the bombs which were and are still dropped over the region. Depleted uranium, apart from its low grade radioactivity, also happens to be an extremely toxic heavy metal, as bad, if not worse than lead.

Dire poverty, chronic disease and severe protein malnutrition have re-emerged in a country which previously could boast of one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the region. During the past ten years, one million people have died directly and indirectly as a result of the imperialist power game. At least half of these victims are children under five years old. Today, the combination of war and sanctions has pushed Iraq back to where it was many decades ago, with an estimated GDP below £320 per head of population, putting Iraq close to Haiti and the poorest countries in the world.

Denis Halliday, a UN veteran of 35 years, who was appointed as UN "humanitarian co-ordinator" in September 1997, resigned in protest of sanctions in Autumn 1998. In March this year, Hans von Sponeck also resigned in protest against the effect of the sanctions and the regular bombings on the population. Both were part of the UN team which was meant to ensure that the food and medicines allowed into Iraq reached the population and were not (as has been claimed by among others, Labour minister Claire Short) hijacked by Saddam Hussein's entourage. Both these men asserted that all these supplies got to where they were meant to go. The problem was that they were often delayed by the UN's own "holds" on certain items, as well as lack of transport and refrigeration difficulties. Above all, they said, these supplies were woefully inadequate.

In December 1999, eventually, the UN Security Council passed a new resolution (1284) which eased import restrictions on some essential items. It removed the ceiling on oil exports but increased the number of items banned from sale to Iraq.

However this latest Resolution has not been fully implemented, because it requires the admission to Iraq of a new kind of weapons inspection team to replace UNSCOM - called UNMOVIC - whose head would have the final say on whether Iraq was complying to conditions or not. After this it would take another year before sanctions would be lifted, with Iraq "on probation", but even then the sanctions would only be lifted for 120-day renewable periods. Iraq has not agreed to this so far. In the meantime the sanctions continue.

A scramble for Iraq?

If, in 1998, the US chose to give up the fig leaf of the UN to cover its operation "Desert Fox", it was partly because it never intended this operation to be a major one, and therefore did not need to share its political and financial cost with others. But it was also due to the fact that a growing number of its imperialist allies were dragging their feet. This was not out of belated humanitarian scruples, nor even because they really disagreed with the objectives pursued by the US. These imperialist powers simply felt that it was time to call off the power game against Iraq, because it was increasingly difficult to justify in front of their respective public opinions, while being an obstacle to the resumption of their lucrative business with the Middle-East in general and Iraq in particular.

Indeed, the united front between imperialist powers had been built on the need to punish Saddam Hussein for threatening the oil majors' profits. But with time, cracks were bound to appear in this front, as the rivalries between the different imperialisms and the need for them to defend the interests of their respective multinationals, came back to the fore.

Indeed there is plenty at stake for Western multinationals in Iraq. First there are the enormous potential contracts for the rebuilding of the country's infrastructure, for a total estimated value of well over £60bn over the next decade. The Iraqi army's hardware needs to be entirely renewed, and the odds are that the imperialist leaders who have been most vocal in denouncing Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction" will also be at the forefront of the bitter fight for military contracts with Iraq on behalf of their national arms manufacturers.

Above all, there is Iraq's oil. Already, despite its depleted facilities, Iraq is producing 2.9 million barrels per day, that is 83% of its pre-Gulf War production. The oil majors which will gain control of this production will already have secured a significant source of income. But there is a lot more to come. As the US government's own "Energy Information Service" points out, in a report on Iraq published in December 1999: "Iraq holds more than 112 billion barrels of oil - the world's second largest reserves. Iraq also contains 110 trillion cubic feet of gas..." And as this report goes on to say, that Iraq's true resource potential may be understated, as deeper oil-bearing formations located mainly in the Western desert region could yield additional resources, but have not been explored to date.

It is little wonder, therefore, that with such potential profits in the pipeline there should be the beginning of a scramble for Iraq's resources and contracts and an increasing restlessness among the imperialist partners who are impatient to get down to real business - i.e. profitable business.

Blair's choice to plod on behind the US is also based on similar preoccupations despite his grandiose statements about "defending democracy". But as opposed to the leaders of other secondary imperialisms, Blair plays the Anglo-American "special relationship" card in the hope that Britain will be sitting at the top end of the negotiating table, next to the US, when the time for a settlement with Saddam Hussein comes. It is expected that, thanks to the US's goodwill, British companies will then be allowed substantial crumbs from the large piece of the Iraqi cake that the US will cut for itself. These will be in the form of reconstruction and oil contracts, as well as long term positions in the region's oil business. Besides, large British companies such as BP-Amoco or BAe will be able to bid for their own share of the bounty through their allies among US big business.

Other minor imperialist powers, such as France and Germany in particular, which had been Iraq's main trading partners before the invasion of Kuwait, are in a more dodgy situation. They know very well that they will face a fiercely competitive struggle to regain their foothold in the country once sanctions are lifted. So they have to ensure that, by the time a settlement is reached, they already have a foot in the door before the US giants flood the place.

Hence the distance taken by Germany and France in the last few years with respect to the air strikes and sanctions renewal. And the frantic activity displayed by companies from both countries to prepare their bids for profitable contracts together with other minor players from Russia, for instance, or China.

As early as January 1997, for instance, the Iraqi oil minister announced that two large oil fields - Nahr Oman and Majnoun, both in southern Iraq - representing a daily production of over one million barrels had been "reserved" for the two French oil companies Elf and Total (now merged into the giant Totalfina). The contract was to take effect immediately after the lifting of UN sanctions. Obviously these promises are double-edged swords. When the Security Council threatened Iraq with a suspension of the "oil for food" programme in December 1999, Iraq in turn threatened the French oil companies with the loss of their contracts, if France backed the Security Council's resolution.

Likewise, in 1997, Russian companies such as Lukoil and two Chinese companies reached provisional agreements for future oil contracts with Iraq which will come into effect once sanctions are lifted. As a result, both Russia and China have supported the lifting of sanctions in the UN Security Council. Other companies such as the Malaysian state company Petronas, Italy's Agip, and Indian and Turkish companies have reached similar provisional agreements.

In fact, even British oil companies are trying to get a foothold in Iraq, probably because they are not so sure that Blair will be in such a good position after all to win the contracts they want. Thus, in February 1999 it was reported that Shell was involved in advanced talks with the Iraqi government over a 20-year contract for the development and exploitation of the Ratawi field, in southern Iraq (but then Shell is a small player in the region where its arch-rival BP is all-powerful, and no doubt Shell would love to steal a march on BP in Iraq).

In September 1999, an oil and gas technology exhibition was held in Baghdad, with the participation of 50 foreign companies from Canada, the UK, France and Italy. It was the first such meeting since the invasion of Kuwait. By November 1999, the number of multi-billion dollar deals signed with foreign companies for the rehabilitation of destroyed oil fields or the development and exploitation of new ones, had increased considerably, not to mention deals for the supply of oil-drilling and engineering equipment, spare parts and six gas-fired power plants sold by China. By this time, even a US company like Conoco was reported to have been involved in such "discussions".

Towards the end of the war in Iraq?

Ten years on, US imperialism could certainly afford to call off its war against Iraq. After all, as a "punishment" of Saddam Hussein's unruly behaviour, it has gone as far as it could go, short of bringing the regime down - but this, as was said earlier, does not need to be an issue for imperialism. After all the imperialist leaders used Saddam Hussein before and he proved willing to abide by the rules they had set. After ten years of bombings and sanctions, in which the regime and the Iraqi bourgeoisie was deprived of its main source of wealth, Saddam Hussein can be expected to toe the imperialist line quietly and agree to serve again as a loyal auxiliary in the near future. From the point of view of imperialism this may seem to be the safest solution since, at least, Saddam Hussein has proved himself capable of crushing any threat of unrest among Iraq's population.

Besides, the present scramble for Iraqi resources and contracts is stirring discomfort among US big business. And there are many indications that the US government is under pressure from US companies to reach a settlement fast enough for them to take the lion's share of the loot, before rivals have filled the vacuum and it becomes a lot more difficult.

However, US policy towards Iraq was never determined just by its problems with the Iraqi regime. It is part and parcel of a regional policy covering the whole of the Middle-East. And at present, there are not one but two process of "normalisation" which need to be completed. One concerns Iraq and the other Iran, where a section of the fundamentalist regime is trying to bring the country out of its political and economic isolation from the imperialist world, with the support of the Iranian bourgeoisie and against the will of the more backward layers of the bourgeoisie and clerics who have been the pillars of the Islamic republic since 1979. And although the Iranian president Khatami, who is leading this shift, has been over-cautious to try and avoid unleashing social forces which have been suppressed for so long among the population, there is always the possibility that these forces - those of the large Iranian working class and urban poor - see in the very limited liberalisation process an opportunity to raise their voices and demands.

There is, therefore, a potential risk of social explosion in Iran which, if it happened, might have unpredictable consequences among the neighbouring Iraqi population, with its many social and national powder kegs, especially after all these years of suppression both by Saddam Hussein and by imperialism.

In fact one may think that US imperialism has been preparing for such developments. In particular, thanks to the Gulf War, it has now achieved something which would have been unthinkable before - the development of a huge permanent military presence in the Gulf, with military bases in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the smaller neighbouring states (in addition to those it had already in Turkey), and with the VIth US fleet now stationed permanently in the Gulf sea. The US forces which are thus on standby in the Gulf and the rest of the Middle-East would probably have the resources to head off limited waves of unrest, and at least to protect imperialist oil compounds in the Gulf states.

In any case it is unlikely that the US leaders will move fast to ease their pressure on the Iraqi population. As the latest UN resolution shows, they may even lift all ceilings on Iraqi oil sales, for instance in exchange for Saddam Hussein allowing the oil majors to operate freely in the country, without stopping their bombings in the no-fly zones and without allowing Iraq to buy the vital imports which the population needs so desperately.

But even if the sanctions are eventually lifted and the bombings brought to an end, the lethal threat of imperialism will remain over the heads of the region's population, hanging like the Sword of Damocles, closer than it has ever been before. In the end, this ten-year war will have only served to tighten the stranglehold of imperialism over the whole region and bolster the profits of the oil majors.

18 September 2000