The Arab World Geographer
Forum on The 2003 War on/in Iraq

The Illegitimate and Shameless War on the Iraqi Homeland and the Iraqi People

Yahya Farhan

Department of Geography, University of Jordan, Amman, Jordan

In the long annals of brute and brutal force throughout history, few wars have been as illegitimate, unethical, criminal, and dirty as the present Anglo-American war on Iraq. As an Arab geographer from a shattered region (given the name the “Middle East” by British imperialism on its march to the Orient), I cannot imagine how a hyper-power, historically still in its infancy, can engage in destroying a third-world Arab country, ravaged by a decade of sanctions, but with a truly ancient heritage of civilization.

The present war on Iraq is a casebook example of an emerging new geopolitics of unilateralism, under the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack, the flags of the present and former world-imperial powers. It exemplifies starkly the pathologies of power that have characterized the Bush Administration and the government of the callow British imperialist Tony Blair. Such a shameless war by the world hegemon on a subaltern population highlights an evident fact: The Arab homeland and its geopolitical and physical resources (mainly oil) are still dominated by British and American neo-imperialism. These resources are evidently the starting point for achieving global military and economic hegemony and domination, a kind of Roman Empire for the 21st century.

I regret beginning my remarks for this forum on a note of indignation—yes outrage. As a geographer based in Amman, I am sure that few scholars know Iraq, Baghdad, and the poor masses of Iraq as I have come to known them: a poor Iraqi professor, earning U.S.$10 a month; other urban, rural, and Bedouin friends. I know the Badiya, the wonderful flood plains of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the marvellous date-palm gardens of Baghdad, the countless splendid archaeological and holy sites—including “Ur” (the oldest city of the world), a site that marks the very beginnings of the urban revolution and human experience in urban life—and the monumental mountains of northern Iraq.

Four weeks ago, in a racist slur, a British journalist described Arabs as “rats”?! Yet many renowned British historians and politicians have seen Arabs in another and transforming light, as “the people who make history,” as active subjects on the historical stage, not those whom history makes. Others described the city of peace or Al-Rashed (Baghdad) as the world capital of history, civilization, and culture. The contemporary republic of Iraq has been termed the “republic of oil,” with oil reserves estimated at 120 billion barrels or even several times that amount.

Across the “Middle East” constructed by the British long ago and being reoccupied at this turbulent historic juncture, we see unarmed Palestinians struggling against the aggressive, Israeli mini-superpower in Palestine; the terrible brutality and mindless slaughter at the Jenin refugee camp stands almost as an emblem of their arrogance and colonial mentality—an emblem which presaged what we now see in Iraq. The Iraqi people, outnumbered, outgunned, fought the Anglo-American troops at Um Qasr and Al-Fao in southern Iraq with great heroism. As I write, they are still fighting the American hegemon, which promised to “shock and awe” the Iraqi people by dropping thousands of missiles and heavy bombs to terrorize the inhabitants of Baghdad and the entire Iraqi homeland. It is a strange geopolitical emblem for our time: the world’s technological most “advanced” power attacking a nation sited at the very beginnings of West-Asian and Western civilization.

This is a tale of bloodshed and cynical victimization. Thousands of inhabitants have been killed and injured in Baghdad alone. Bombing has ravaged nearly every Iraqi city and village, poor and wealthy residential neighbourhoods, busy shopping centres, markets, streets, exhibitions, government facilities, and even the Palestine Hotel, home-away-from-home for numerous Arab and foreign journalists. The coalition has little conscience: As of 13 April 2003, 12 journalists had been killed and several injured and two were still missing, by possibly deliberate American bombing and shelling. Their voice of truth is unwanted, a danger to the coalition’s manipulations and lies.

Baghdad and Iraq have had a pre-eminent role in the history of civilization. Professor Edward Said, commenting on an observer who had described Iraq, the home of Saddam Hussein, as a brittle land—desert, and frontier country—between Persia and Arabia, with little claim to culture and books and grand ideas, sprang to its defence:

Yet even school children know that Iraq was the seat of Abbasid civilization, the highest flowering of Arab culture between the ninth and twelfth centuries, which produced works of literature still read today as Shakespeare, Dante, and Dickens are still read, and that, as a capital city, Baghdad is also one of the great monuments of Islamic art. In addition, it is where, along with Cairo and Damascus, the nineteenth- and twentieth-century revival of Arab art and literature took place. Baghdad produced at least five of the greatest twentieth-century Arab poets and without any question most of its leading artists, architects, and sculptors. Even though Saddam was a Takrĭtī, to imply that Iraq and its citizens had no relation to books and ideas is to be amnesiac about Sumer, Babylon, Nineveh, Hammurabi, Assyria, and all the great monuments of ancient Mesopotamia (and world) civilization, whose cradle Iraq is. To say in so unqualified a way that Iraq was a “brittle” land, with the suggestion of overall aridity and emptiness, is also to show an ignorance that an elementary schoolchild would be embarrassed to reveal. What happened to the verdant valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates? What happened to the ancient truth that, of all the countries in the Middle East, Iraq has been by far the most fertile? (Said 1993, 297).

Eight centuries ago Baghdad was ransacked and destroyed by the Mongols. Eyewitnesses testified that the Mongol soldiers were afterwards “so rich that the saddles of their horses were inlaid with stones, pearls, and gold” (Nutting 1964, 195). History would seem to repeat itself. I am sad to witness Iraq and its capital Baghdad being destroyed and burnt by the Anglo-American troops, in a brutal bid—in the name of a sham “democracy” and “liberation”—to control its oil and establish the foundation in West Asia of the prospective American global empire, what some have called the New World Order. I am sad to think that now Western construction firms, Western oil firms, Western business interests of all kinds are contemplating a bonanza in the “reconstruction” of Iraq, dreaming about how they can “make money” in the ruins of the country, thanks to the destruction wrought by the coalition. Some experts even think that Iraq’s “rebuilding” can “jump-start” the lagging world economy, filling the pockets of the wealthy corporations across the planet with more “pearls and gold.” This is the political economy of aggressive war and its aftermath of “reconstruction” by international capital in a “heartland” country, a kind of geopolitical “linchpin” in the new “Americanized” order that is envisaged.

The present sad state of much of the Arab world (including Iraq) can be explained with reference to the perceptions of Lawrence of Arabia. He discussed how British imperialism transferred the Arab homeland in bondage from the Ottomans to a plantation of indigenous dictatorships (Lawrence 1926, 28). This imperialism is reaching a dangerous new stage: Its aim, now as before, is to humiliate the Arab people and to protect the interests of the imperialist power(s) in the ex-colonies. Often, the pawns or vassals are told what to do by imperialist powers, the masters of the world. A comprador class, they are too unoriginal to know how to work for their own countries but are keen to labour and scheme for the vital interests of the metropolitan imperial powers. For over a half-century they have denigrated the idea of the modern state and the related institutions developed in the West. Throughout the postcolonial period the dictatorships have kept the Arab national states locked in as Dwal Mukhabarat (“Intelligence service states”), controlled by tribal politics and condemned to marginal development and even disdevelopment, thus preventing any real changes in Arab society. The creative spatial organization and centrality of Omayyed and Abbasid geography that characterized the Tigris and Euphrates, Belad Al-Sham, the Nile valley, the Maghreb, and Andalus, were marginalized under the boot of Ottoman, colonial, and postcolonial dictatorships. The upshot is that throughout the Arab world the people are unable to control their resources (such as oil) and unable to meet their needs for food and other basic necessities. We are a wounded civilization. This is why so many ordinary individuals across the Arab East feel special pain in seeing Iraq so humiliated. In their minds there are flashbacks to a long chain of triumphant invading armies that have conquered their lands and subjugated their people, from the time of the Mongols to the time of the Apache helicopters, raining terror today on Tikrit and Gaza.

These wounds have now been ripped open, deepened. Following the occupation of Iraq, and the fall of Saddam’s regime, Anglo-American troops took control of the Iraqi oil fields, the Ministry of Petroleum in Baghdad, and other institutions associated with oil extraction in northern and southern Iraq. The sham “liberation” of the Iraqi people and the claim of controlling Iraqi oil for sake of the Iraqi people are gigantic lies, invented to accompany and justify Anglo-American preparations to invade Iraq. What have they accomplished by this imperial, bloody, and sinister venture? The Anglo-American-Australian troops have desolated and fragmented the country, and at present they are destroying Iraqi society and creating serious suffering for the Iraqi people. In their mendacity, spokespersons for the coalition mouth absurdities, such as that the previous regime is to blame for the chaos that has now descended on the country in its civil despair. They don’t admit what is a fact: The catastrophe in the hospitals in Baghdad is the product of the regime of sanctions imposed on Iraq a decade ago, compounded by the chaos created by this invasion and its carnage. Fifteen years ago, Iraq boasted the best medical system in the Arab East.

All justifications put forward by the Anglo-American military aggressors to legitimize this unilateral war on Iraq were enormous fabrications, along the lines of “war is peace,” a kind of Newspeak straight out of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Both capitals, Washington and London, were doubtless preparing to occupy Iraq and topple an Arab government that dared to go down another path, contrary to the wishes of global corporate capitalism. They had probably harboured such designs from the time the Iraqi leadership nationalized the oil industry. They call subjugation, “liberation,” massive bombing, the “advent of freedom,” and claim that to lay waste to Iraq is part of an international “war on terrorism,” a “noble mission.” Who are the terrorists here? What country is a “rogue nation”? All these justifications have been proven wrong, even propagandistic. The U.N. inspectors who inspected Iraq, looking for so-called WMD, concluded they could find none. Significantly, the U.N. Security Council rejected the war on Iraq, denying its legitimacy. Across the world demonstrations continue, denouncing the coalition’s occupation and murder of countless Iraqis, civilian and military, as “war crimes.”

The new America global strategy for the 21st century in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington is to press ahead to achieve global military and economic domination: a new global imperialism under the aegis of the hegemon America. To realize this aim of domination for years to come, the brain trusts running American foreign policy decided a first step was to gain control of Iraq’s huge oil reserves and to build a strategic military base in Iraq, resembling those of post-war Germany and Japan, within a pro-American and pro-Zionist “Middle East,” “reconfigured” by military might and brute force.

Colonial Israel, the strategic ally number one for the United States in a new Middle East under Washington’s domination, believes it must be protected from Iraq, regarded in geopolitical myth in Israel as the only real threat to Israel since its own violent colonial foundation in 1948. Therefore, Israel strategically is the only state that can benefit from the destruction of Iraq. American bombs are ensuring its “security” as an occupying power in Palestine, thus facilitating the liquidation of the Palestinian Intifada and the entire Palestinian question. Every Arab asks: Why don’t the American “liberators” free the people under the most brutal regime of oppression almost anywhere in the world—the Palestinians? The double standards in imperial geopolitics boggle the mind. Finally, and very significantly, the illegitimate war on Iraq has undermined the major role of the United Nations, as well as the remnants of the Arab League, and poses a central threat to Arab national security. Which country is next on the list? Syria has been repeatedly “warned” by the Bush administration. It too dares to “defy” American hegemonic power. What is this new international lawlessness where might makes right? Are we at a geopolitical, world-historical juncture of some sort?

The Anglo-American occupation of Iraq and the fall of the Iraqi regime were declared officially by the American administration (10 April 2003), thus marking the beginning of a new phase in the history not only of Iraq but of the Middle East and of the world. The Anglo-American troops took control of Iraqi oil fields, letting loose a whirlwind of destruction and lawlessness, leaving Baghdad and the whole country burning, unstable, insecure for both the Iraqi people and the invaders. All public properties, hospitals, universities, schools, and the Iraqi archæological museum, housing exhibits, some artefacts 5 000 years old, of the magnificent civilization of Mesopotamia, have been ransacked and destroyed by mobs prepared, indeed unleashed, by the action of the occupying troops and by their studied indifference. The invading forces have been the very architects of a destructive chaos. They have stood idly by as angry mobs only added to the destruction wrought by their bullets and bombs, as if to increase ruin were a kind of secret agenda—more destruction, more scope for profitable “reconstruction.”

Ordinary Arabs have been given a harrowing lesson in “democracy and development,” and the furtherance of “humanitarian” aims. This is the Pax Americana for the Arabs and Moslems, a boon to the West, a disaster for Iraqis, a sinister ploy designed carefully with intent to undermine and destroy Arab and Moslem identity.

The American dollar will not replace the old Iraqi dinar, introduced 14 centuries ago, and I believe a liberation movement will rise up in the near future to liberate Baghdad and Iraq from the Anglo-American “liberators,” who have turned Iraq into a new kind of Palestine, writ large by the geography of domination. That struggle against the shameful political and military actions of Washington and London will gain momentum and extend to the entire Arab region, endangering numerous Arab dictatorships and auguring future catastrophe, as Arab national security and continuity are seriously threatened. We can expect an upsurge in resistance and an earthquake of popular indignation that will rattle the Americans, sending tremors through their interests in the region. Destabilization will be the major fruit of this senseless geopolitical escapade. Even “Old Europe” has begun to defend itself against global American military-economic domination.

I am deeply saddened as I witness the only global hyper-power bent on writing a triumphalist geography as planetary policeman, all in the name of national security, the spread of “democracy” by unlimited firepower, and the protection of American corporate interests. Rather than by choosing the path of vile and illegitimate military actions, it is possible to become a global force through creating more justice, technological advancement in a world where all share its fruits more equitably, and genuine world peace, a peace in dignity and self-reliance. That is the Pax Americana that would allow all peoples to determine their own future, a pax humana.


Lawrence, T. E. 1926. The seven pillars of wisdom: A triumph. Rpt. New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1935.

Nutting, A.1964. The Arabs. London: Mentor Books.

Said, E. 1993. Culture and imperialism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

(Submitted 14 April 2003)
© The Arab World Geographer

Editorial: Falah 

Contributions: Dalby / Dijkink / Lustick / Hixson / Farhan / Shuraydi / Khashan / Reuber / Sidaway

Commentaries: Wesbter / Murphy / Agnew

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