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

Editorial: Whose War?

 Ghazi-Walid Falah

Department of Geography and Planning, University of Akron, Akron, OH  44325-5005  U.S.A.

War is wrong. Whatever men take to be good is subject to destruction by war. Killing and maiming people are surely the greatest evils in human conduct. And since war is evidently unjustifiable, men have to justify waging war by appeal to exceptional circumstances and overriding principles. But the exception becomes the rule, and every party to all wars has indulged in a justification for its participation, usually that of self-defense (Robert Ginsberg 1969, xix).

This is the third forum The Arab World Geographer has published over the past three years. Scholars from various disciplines, residing on both sides of the Atlantic, in the Middle East, and as far away as Singapore were invited to contribute to this forum. As in the case of the previous two forums, on the al-Aqsa intifada (Vol. 3. no. 3, Fall 2000) and the tragic events of 11 September 2001 (Vol. 4. no. 2, Summer 2001), the editors of the AWG solicited potential contributors to comment on the event at hand from a scholarly perspective, both analytically and from the heart. This forum was not conceived as a foray into some sort of journalism, but rather as a reflective panel, providing personal assessment of the situation by noted scholars in the field. As Thomas Hardy once wrote, “If a way to the better there be, it lies in taking a full look at the worst” (quoted in Humankind Advancing 1991). Writing at a time of war is a daunting task, given the amount of information flowing from the battlefield, pumped and filtered through the media. This war was unusual in the scope and character of its round-the-clock reporting—a “spectacular war,” par excellence, in Dubord’s sense of the phrase (1995).

The nine contributors were assigned a maximum, two-week deadline, starting from day 10 to 12 of the war. By the time they had completed their essays, Baghdad (and Hussein’s regime) had fallen, swiftly if not unexpectedly. As a new geopolitical reality was imposed and evolving, the editors decided it would be illuminating to have some commentary on the war in the light of its conclusion and aftermath. I was very keen to solicit three new contributors (four-week deadline) to comment on the nine original essays that had been received.

Unlike for the previous two forums in AWG, where contacts with scholars asked to contribute were virtually simultaneous with the event, this forum was delayed until day 10 of the war, due to my own conviction that the conflict could be avoided. I thought it likely that Washington would not go to war, based in part on the growing anti-war movement in the U.S. and globally during the days and weeks prior to 19 March 2003. One reflection of that were the large, almost daily ads taken out in the New York Times, calling on the administration not to go to war. I strongly believed (and still do) that in democratic countries such as the U.S., political leaders must have a certain pragmatic flexibility of mind. Now, after all efforts to prevent the war on Iraq have come to failure, one can ask: What might have persuaded President Bush to avoid that war—or any future wars?

Looking in retrospect at the list of “war makers” around the president in the White House, it seems unlikely that any protest or reasoned argument could have changed his mind. John Agnew, in this forum, laments that U.S. foreign policy seems to be made by the neo-conservatives. This observation is consistent with a much more elaborated commentary elsewhere by Uri Avnery (2003), who provided detailed career information on the list of the “war makers,” describing them as “an alliance of ultra-conservative Christian fundamentalists and ultra right-wing Zionists.” Gerald Webster, here, goes even further, suggesting that the removal of Saddam Hussein can be viewed as “unfinished business”: “I believe the current President Bush viewed his legacy and that of his father as being tied to Iraq and Saddam Hussein.” Webster’s observation can be grounded philosophically in an earlier discussion by Ginsberg (1969) on the critique of war. Ginsberg claimed that “[i]n one manifestation or another, the basic cause of war is the irrationality of man. Armed with reason man ought to be able to master himself” (xvi). In listening to the “demonizing” discourse on Iraq in the months prior to the war, one might have been reminded of what Ernest Becker (1975) called “the need to ‘fetishize evil,’ to locate the threat to life in some special places where it can be placated and controlled,” where men in power may become “[p]reoccupied with evil even in the absence of any immediate danger; their lives become a meditation on evil and a planned venture for controlling it and forestalling it” (148).

Of course, many Americans and many Iraqis would put the principal blame for going to war on Saddam Hussein and his regime. Had Saddam Hussein accepted the president’s call and voluntarily removed himself from power, he would have saved many Iraqi civilian lives and spared countless soldiers. This same “friendly” call was made by Sheikh Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, prior to the war, and by Prince Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, during the war. All these appeals were dismissed. A call to resign seemed logical to many, but it is obvious that no leader of a sovereign state with a minimum degree of self-respect would agree to such a demand. Consider the following fanciful scenario: In 2050, say, China has become the sole superpower on the planet and asks the government in Washington to step down; otherwise the country will be invaded. Of course, no U.S. leadership would submit to such threats. Clearly, the war on Iraq and the rhetoric surrounding Saddam Hussein’s symbolic “decapitation” and removal from power were driven by an ideological agenda. The very words chosen to describe events and even the selection of commentators and “war experts” for the TV cameras are closely intertwined with the ideological mindset of those who choose—and perhaps with the thinking of the elites who control the mass media.

Throughout the war I watched the Abu Dhabi Arabic Channel and its courageous reporters from Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq. Occasionally, I turned to CNN, but I did not watch Fox news at all. The representations of the war and the language used by CNN and Abu Dhabi were worlds apart. I only wished at the time that more Americans could understand Arabic and could have access to the “insider” reportage and perspective of Arabic TV.

I watched many different moments in the war, including the removal of the statue of Hussein in Fardus Square. Much has been said about an American soldier who wrapped the American flag around the statue’s head, though it was almost immediately removed and replaced by Iraq’s old, pre-1991 flag. The “ceremonial dethronement” and literal “decapitation” did not end at this point: Another episode occurred but was not reported. Several weeks later, I heard an Iraqi eyewitness, speaking on Abu Dhabi TV (mid-May 2003), claim that an American solider had reached out and grabbed the head of Saddam’s statue as it fell to the ground, embracing it in a gesture of defiance, saying “You are the only one who said no to America.” If true, that is an episode that encapsulates a central political meaning for many Iraqis.

There is no need here to summarize common themes presented by the nine contributors. This has been elegantly done by Gerald Webster, Alexander Murphy, and John Agnew in their respective commentaries. What I would like to do in the following paragraphs is to outline several ways in which I believe this war is different from the earlier one in 1991. I will point to four aspects that seem salient.

First, the fall of Baghdad and end of the Saddam’s regime remain shrouded in bizarre mystery for many observers, including many throughout the Arab world, who still want to learn more about the truth of what actually happened. Some believe that there was a “deal” of some sort cut with Iraqi army leaders, either bribed by the coalition prior to the war or promised a safe haven for themselves and their families if they cooperated. This view was expressed by Saddam himself in a letter he reportedly sent to Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper (30 April 2003), saying, among other things, “[I]f it were not for betrayal they [the Americans] would not have prevailed over you [Iraqis].” Another report, on the Sify news Web site (16 April 2003), claimed that “Maher Sufyan, Commander of the Republican Guard division defending Baghdad, reached an agreement with American forces in which he ordered his forces to surrender in exchange for transfer via an American Apache helicopter to an undisclosed safe haven.”

Similar mystery envelops the behaviour of the American media, which opted not to focus on the disappearance of Saddam Hussein and almost 3 000 persons around him within a span of less than 24 hours after the fall of the Baghdad airport. It is true that in the two weeks that followed, the American army announced a list of 55 “most wanted” Iraqis, including Saddam and his two sons, but there was no offer of any reward for those who helped to disclose Saddam’s hideout. In its search for Bin Laden, the United States is offering a US$25 million reward for information leading to his capture (O’Malley and Saccoccio 2001). Has the failure to find Bin Laden taught the Bush administration a lesson, so that they will not to repeat the same mistake again? Is this why the search for Saddam Hussein has a low profile?

Taking the discussion a step further, one might wonder if the accusations of bribery of the army leadership have any truth, whether perhaps it makes sense that the Pentagon prefers to avoid talking about this type of warfare (greasing the palm of a totally outnumbered enemy). It could reflect negatively on the president and his political future if his forces were seen as gaining easy victory by geopolitical payola.

Second, the use of WMDs in modern warfare seems to be permissible for one party but not the other. Despite the fact that a major component of the “argument” for going to “preventive” war was to locate and neutralize Iraqi WMDs, recent reports indicate evidence exists that Baghdad and other Iraqi cities were shelled with chemical bombs. According to Tahsin (2003) “Baghdad was battered with chemical bombs and bombs carrying highly combustible depleted uranium. … Aside from these munitions, advanced cluster bombs carrying ethylene gas were also used. They are called MOABs, or massive ordnance airburst bombs, and they are essentially chemical bombs.” Indeed, the news services have reported that Iraq, like its “full-dress rehearsal stage,” Afghanistan, is apparently replete with depleted uranium, exposing children to radioactive contamination as they play in its dust—in bombed-out buildings, shattered tanks, everywhere. The war in Afghanistan featured similar airburst ordnance. The Tora Bora hunt for Osama bin Laden permitted the trial use of a new bomb that can suck the air out from caves:

[T]op Pentagon officials unveiled the laser-guided thermobaric bombs which contain an explosive that can penetrate deep into caves. … Each bomb contains two explosive devices and a highly flammable chemical fuel that sends a deadly shock wave through enclosed spaces such as caves and tunnels without collapsing them. … Experts say such bombs are more likely to kill or injure people hiding in caves and bunkers because they suck the air out of such places (The Strait Times 2001).

The U.S. is not alone in using this type of MDW against its enemies. The Russians have used similar, highly destructive hardware in their war in Chechnya, drawing on earlier experience in the field: During their occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Soviet army attacked mujahedeen caves with “fuel-air explosives designed to suck the oxygen out of the tunnels” (O’Malley and Saccoccio 2001). There should be no illusion that a more “civilized” nation will be more humane in its choice of weaponry. When I first heard about these bombs that suck the air out of caves, in remarks by Donald Rumsfeld in a briefing on Afghanistan, I immediately asked myself: What is difference between “suck the air from the cave” and “poison the air in the cave”? In both cases, you induce suffocation.

Third, there seems to be a complete denial of the existence of any of the elements of a state in Iraq—indeed, a geography of emptiness, in which, in the eyes of the American occupiers of the country, the break with the legacy of Saddam’s regime requires moving back some 200 years in history. This, despite talk about “de-Ba’athization.” It is almost as if there had never really been any political institutions in Iraq, and now the Americans have come to construct a new model state for the Iraqi people. This notion was expressed clearly by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, speaking on 27 May 2003 at the Council on Foreign Relations. He spoke about the challenges involved in a transition from tyranny to a free and civil society in Iraq, describing the current situation in Iraq as resembling the conditions in postcolonial America in 1783. After delineating a set of six problems in today’s post-Saddam Iraq, he pointed to the “chaos” in America after the War of Independence:

 [T]hose early years of our young republic were characterized by chaos and confusion. There was crime and looting and a lack of an organized police force. The issue of competing paper currencies by the various states led to uncontrolled inflation and popular discontent. There were uprisings such as Shays’ Rebellion, with mobs attacking courthouses and government buildings. There were regional tensions between mercantile New England and the agrarian south. There were Crown loyalists to deal with, many of whom had fought against the Continental Army. Our first effort at a governing charter—the Articles of Confederation—failed miserably, and it took eight years of contentious debate before we finally adopted our Constitution and inaugurated our first President. And, unlike the people of Iraq, we did not face the added challenge of recovering from the trauma of decades of denial and brutal rule by a dictator like Saddam Hussein (Brennan 2003).

So, in this weighted reading of the nation’s birth, “chaos” is as early American as apple pie, brought to Iraq courtesy of the Pentagon. This also hints that American troops will not leave Iraq in the near future and perhaps will stay there for decades. After all, after this “erasure,” the country has to be re-built politically “from scratch.” Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, one of the architects of this war, was quoted as saying, “[W]hile it is our intention to withdraw relatively rapidly from Iraq political life and day-to-day decisions, we will remain in Iraq as an essential security force for as long as it takes” (NewsMax Wires 2003). He also noted that “there is no legitimate Iraqi political process” to draw on and that it “will take between six months and a year for the Iraqis to write a new constitution” (NewsMax Wires 2003).

Clearly, Iraqis must view current political realities and the disorder of massive state rupture differently. As Ruddy (2003) pointed out “While Americans see images of Iraqis cheering on American and coalition forces, Europeans see a story of anger and defiance.” He quotes from Agence France-Presse (AFP):

Many Iraqis fear US plans for the future of Iraq and popular anger has been mounting over the widespread anarchy and chaos since Saddam was toppled last Wednesday. That anger was visible in Nasiriyah as the crowd marched through the street chanting “Yes to freedom … Yes to Islam … No to America, No to Saddam.” Such anger was also visible in the northern city of Mosul, when a firefight broke out as the newly appointed governor was making a speech which listeners deemed was too pro-US, witnesses said.

These scenes and episodes of terrible carnage continue. Jay Garner’s brief tenure as chief administrator of Iraq under the stars and stripes was an apparent near-total debacle, and “[t]he widespread impression is that U.S. administrators are out of touch with what is happening …” (Hammer and Soloway 2003).

Fourth, are the Americans actually preparing the ground for “SYRAQIAN”? In 1991, in the wake of the Gulf War, Peter Taylor (1993) invited me to contribute to his volume Political Geography of the Twentieth Century: A Global Analysis. My essay suggested that by 2025 or so, the Middle East could well be divided into two major alignments: one that might be called SYRAQIAN and the other, AMERABIA. The first alignment would spring from some sort of political alliance among Syria, Iraq, and Iran. In these three countries Islamist and Arab nationalist forces would unite together to form an alignment to counter AMERABIA, basically the Arabian Peninsula (excluding Yemen and Oman), plus a massive American presence.

One might argue that the agenda of this “preventive war” has, indeed, been partly to prevent the emergence of SYRAQIAN and reconfigure AMERABIA, in an increasingly unipolar geopolitical restructuring of the Middle East, under a more blunt American political, military, and economic hegemony. Part of the deconstructing of Iraq in geopolitical terms is the repeated stress in Western media and U.S. pronouncements on Iraq’s being a socially and ethnically fragmented state, divided into Shi’a Muslim, Kurds, and Sunni Muslims. A sort of de-Iraqization of the Iraqi people is being invented. This distorted view of the Iraqi nation was probably cultivated “externally” during the past decade, when Iraqi opposition groups formed in exile and insisted on including, in their organizations, representation from various factions. Iraq was portrayed as an ethnically fragmented country, its centrifugal forces overriding its centripetal ones. Such a representation is, of course, reflective of an external, exilic reading of desired Iraqi realities.

I would reject it, suggesting, rather, that Iraqi nationalism has been a strong force for decades and will fiercely oppose any territorial fragmentation of the country. A country with 26 million inhabitants and huge human and material resources will resist permanent occupation by foreign invaders. The U.S. administration may envision an “Americanization” of Iraq as a geopolitical recipe for “sustainable stability” in the region—a bid, from my perspective, to forestall SYRAQIAN. Yet complex forces have been released that even the United States may not be able to bend and control, with numerous wild cards in the geopolitical deck. If my projected scenario of a decade ago still has some core validity, relations among a post-Saddam Iraq, Syria, and Iran may well improve and be consolidated in mutual respect and a vision of a similar destiny. Indeed, that could be the emerging dialectic of counterforce and popular response—particularly, if Washington and Britain are perceived to be imposing some sort of neo-colonial rule on the Tigris. With divisions in the Saudi Kingdom, AMERABIA has already begun to show massive fissures and is surely in a process of internal, tectonic shift, with an alternative “core” implanted in Qatar.

Washington’s threatening both Iran and Syria is now on the rhetorical agenda. World public opinion must remain especially watchful, to help forestall any new “preventive” strike against the governments in Iran and Syria. Such a strike might fulfil the wilder dreams of the Israeli right but should not be a policy goal for a democratic America—conceived in an ethos of justice and equity in 1783, not “chaos,” as Secretary Rumsfeld well knows.

This is a time of “spectacular” geopolitical revamping on a grand scale. Yet it may be that among its misguided architects, Bush Junior will share the fate Bush Senior, ending his political career as his father before him: winning the war against Saddam but losing the White House. Although some 70 % of Americans supported the President’s decision to go to war, I am doubtful that the public is really behind what has transpired, in all its murkiness, fury, and disastrous aftermath. Once the dust settles, the American electorate will likely return to a focus on issues closer to home. Geographers should continue to speak out about the dangers of a Pax Americana, driven by a new and seemingly unbridled unilateralism. This is doubtless in the American people’s best interests—and those of a multipolar world, where individuals and nations need less violence and more autonomy.


Al-Quds Al-Arabi (daily newspaper). 2003. April 30. Accessed 30 April 2003 from on the World Wide Web.

Avnery, U. 2003. The alliance of extremist Christians will not stop in Iraq. Spotlight, April 10. Accessed 10 April 2003 from on the World Wide Web.

Becker, E. 1975. Escape from evil. New York: Free Press.

Brennan, P. 2003. The media’s new quagmire., May 28. Accessed 31 May 2003 from on the World Wide Web.

Dubord, G. 1995. The society of the spectacle. New York: Zone Books.

Falah, G. 1993. Demography and division: A view from the Middle East. In Political geography of the twentieth century: A global analysis, ed. P. Taylor, 245–51. London: Belhaven Press.

Ginsberg, R. T. 1969. Introduction: Philosophy vs. war. In The critique of war, ed. R. Ginsberg, ix–xxiv. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company.

Hammer, J., and Soloway, C. 2003. Who’s in charge here? Newsweek, May 28.

Humankind Advancing. 1991. Editorial. Human advancing, 2(1). Accessed 5 June 2003 from on the World Wide Web.

NewsMax Wires. 2003.DoD: U.S. troops will remain in Iraq., May 23. Accessed 31 May 2003 from on the World Wide Web.

O’Malley, M. and Saccoccio, S. 2001.The caves of Afghanistan. CBC News Online, November. Accessed 31 May 2003 from on the World Wide Web.

Ruddy, C. 2003. World press sees different war., April 17. Accessed 31 May 2003 from on the World Wide Web.

Sify News Desk. 2003. Why did Baghdad fall? The real story. Sify News, 16 April. Accessed 16 April 2003 from on the World Wide Web.

Straits Times, The. 2001. New Us bomb can suck the air out of caves. The Straits Times, 23 December 2001. Accessed 31 May 2003 from,1870,92586-1009058400,00.html on the World Wide Web.

Tahsin, H. 2003. Baghdad battered by US gas bombs. Arab News Opinion, April 14. Accessed 31 May from on the World Wide Web.

(Submitted 31 May 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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