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

Baghdad’s New Mongols

Hilal Khashan

Political Science and Public Administration Department, American University of Beirut, P.O. Box 11-0236, Riad El Solh, Beirut    1107 2020    Lebanon

The salvoes of Tomahawk cruise missiles that fell on Baghdad in the early morning of 20 March 2003 set off the Third Gulf War, for which the U.S. military command found no better appellation than Operation Iraqi Freedom. Twenty days later, American “liberators” entered the Iraqi capital to a jubilant reception by hordes of looters who took over the streets of Baghdad in a grotesque revelation of portending Iraqi democracy.

The brute Mongol armies of Hulagu, grandson of Genghis Khan, sacked and burned Baghdad in 1258, including its famous library. More than eight centuries later the armies of democratic America delegated the gruesome task of pillaging the capital of Harun al-Rashid, including its famous museum, to Shi’ite mobsters in Saddam city, their gate of entry to Baghdad’s centre. Thanks to playing on the country’s visceral divisions, the U.S. is tipping Iraq into the throes of civil war by nurturing an environment of intense instability that pits Kurds against Arabs and Shi’ites against Sunnis. American occupation forces in northern Iraq, scrambling for Kirkuk, sufficed themselves with controlling the city’s oil fields and, as a measure of protection, the hills overlooking them. Their surrogate peshmerga scavengers took it upon themselves to prey on government buildings, business establishments, and private residences.

             The collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime serves as a stark reminder of the demise, in December 1989, of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania. The two regimes bear a striking resemblance to each other, except that Ceausescu’s leadership fell as a result of a domestic uprising, whereas Hussein’s crumbled as M1 Abram tanks, an icon of the U.S. formidable juggernaut, flooded across the Tigris into the streets of Baghdad. In the two instances, the regime became a glaring anachronism in an era of neo-liberal globalism.

The U.S. launched its latest war on Iraq to topple its government—devastated by two previous colossal wars and crippled by onerous sanctions1—against the will of the UN and despite massive opposition from nearly all states, whose publics’ vehement objection to Washington’s intentions manifested itself in unprecedented outrage. Time and again, uninspiring George W. Bush and Tony Blair, desperate to get their own people’s endorsement for this groundless war, spoke unconvincingly about the need to disarm Saddam Hussein, whose alleged weapons of mass destruction, they saw as a menace to their fine liberal democracies and to world peace. Hans Blix, chief UN weapons inspector, who submitted to UN Security Council several half-hearted and inconclusive reports on Iraq’s disarmament, spoke his mind only after the fall of Baghdad. In a revealing statement, cited by a Pakistani daily, he said that “the invasion of Iraq was planned well in advance, and that the United States and Britain are not primarily concerned with finding any banned weapons of mass destruction” (Daily Times April 10, 2003). When everything has been said about the real motives for the war against Iraq, they are bound to cling to the world’s collective consciousness as an act of banditry of the highest order and as a nauseating affirmation of the dictum that might makes right.

Unmistakably, the war against Iraq shows a crossing of interest of predatory capitalism, Protestant fundamentalism, and Washington’s powerful Zionist lobby. In the case of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, it reveals a conflict of interest, because of his membership on the Board of Advisors of the pro-Israeli Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a position that he expediently relinquished in appearance upon entry to government service in 2001. It is common knowledge that the administration of apocalyptic and born-again Christian George W. Bush seeks to achieve two primary objectives from its decision to invade Iraq and occupy it, even if they embellish the latter, as they will, in a fanciful democratic veneer. First, capturing Iraq’s important oil wealth offers a valuable prize for some of Bush’s political entourage. No matter how Bush sugarcoats his motives for invading Iraq, he cannot dispute the war’s boosting the shared oil interests that unite him with power-elite partners, namely Vice-President Dick Cheney.3 The overwhelming stench of oil permeates Bush’s wanton Iraqi policy and makes Lucifer’s day. Second, Bush’s eschatological mindset enabled agents of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to sway him into action against Iraq in the name of serving America’s national interests. The truth of the matter is that the Bush administration includes several staff members whose political behaviour elicits more commitment for Israel than for the U.S.

Desecration of Iraq’s sovereignty and trampling on the pride of its people bespeak America’s heavy-handedness and obsession with violent solutions. The violation of Iraq also demonstrates the prevalence of lackeys, opportunists, and hypocrites in the subservient-to-Washington international system. The Anglo-American invaders acted as cold-blooded killers, by unnecessarily unleashing their technologically far superior arsenals of death against a Third World army decimated by 12 years of an appalling sanctions regime. The 2003 war on Iraq teaches us unforgettable lessons about a number of players who directly involved themselves in the Bush-Blair unholy crusade.

French president, Jacque Chirac, tried to take advantage of the global crisis precipitated by the U.S. over dismantling Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction to form a European coalition to counter American hegemony. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder ardently aligned himself with the French president and engaged in strident criticism of U.S. policy. In fact, he made it very clear in his bid for re-election that he had nothing to do with Washington’s plans for Iraq, which he emphatically criticized. Emboldened by French veto power, the two countries worked together to force the U.S. to withdraw the draft UN resolution on Iraqi disarmament tabled jointly with the U.K. and Spain. The U.S. did not heed the Franco-German rebellion against its supremacy and went ahead with the implementation of its war plans. Old Europe failed to effectively challenge the lone superpower, the custodian of European security for nearly six decades. In political failure, France and Germany shifted to cultural affinity with the U.S. and U.K., which they employed in their effort to mend fences with their Anglo-American strategic allies. In a bid to distance his country from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, President Chirac repeatedly stated, even before the beginning of the war, that France is not in the camp of the despots. Just after the fall of Baghdad to U.S. marines, French foreign secretary, Dominique de Villepin, addressed the British prime minister, “I would like to reiterate our support for many of the things that Tony Blair has been saying” (BBC 2003a). Similarly, French prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, instructed government officials to avoid criticizing the U.S.-led war on Iraq. During the war, German and French authorities continued to provide the U.S. military with access to their airspace and military facilities on their territories.

Russian behaviour throughout the Iraqi crisis did not deviate from the country’s stand on previous issues, thus perpetuating Moscow’s legacy of subservience to the U.S. Russian politicians and diplomats initially maintained a low profile on the crisis. Their public pronouncements, nevertheless, eventually became pronouncedly opposed to war, as a result of the strength of the Franco-German decision to challenge the U.S. in the Security Council. Moscow vowed to confront U.S. bellicosity. Yet its repeated threats to veto any draft resolution calling for war were mere rhetoric. While the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, seemed busy coordinating with Paris and Berlin in a bid to blunt U.S. war designs, he dispatched to Baghdad Yevgeny Primakov, a veteran Middle Eastern specialist from the Soviet era, in order to convince President Saddam Hussein to submit his resignation and leave Iraq to defuse the crisis. Russia is the inheritor of a fallen empire; it is no longer a superpower and it hardly qualifies as a regional power. Despite this, its leaders would like to pose as resolute politicians, who challenge U.S. supremacy only in front of TV cameras.

Kurdish demeanour during the Anglo-American war on Iraq has forcefully resurrected their reputation as the perpetual pawns of any state offering to use their guns, which they never fail to brandish for hire. Ever since the rise of Kurdish nationalism some 150 years ago, Kurds have allowed themselves to be manipulated by foreign powers. The British recruited them in their bid to further erode the Ottoman Empire, which, in turn, used them against Armenian nationalists. The Iranians found them useful against Turks and Iraqis, whereas the Syrians exploited them against their Ba’athist rivals in Baghdad. In every instance where a country used the Kurds against an enemy, it eventually abandoned them to face retribution. In 1988 a chemical attack in Halabja—ordered by Saddam Hussein as an unusual punishment for Iraqi Kurds’ alliance with Iran during the war between the two countries— killed about 8 000 Kurds. The proponents of Kurdish nationalism—essentially tribal people—suffer from a chronic political vision problem. They never miss an opportunity to alienate their neighbours and conspire against them at the behest of another power. In America’s war against Iraq, the Kurds put themselves fully at the disposal of the U.S. command, whose military plans for northern Iraq were disrupted by Turkey’s opposition to using its territory as a launching pad against Iraq. Kurdish peshmergas entered every city, town, and village vacated by withdrawing Iraqi troops withered by U.S. bombardment. In the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk the Kurds went on a major looting spree of Arab property and fought street battles with local defenders.

Nobody would have expected Iran to side with Iraq. The human and economic catastrophes that resulted from the two countries’ eight-year-long war in the 1980s continue to preoccupy the collective consciousness of their peoples. Iran pursued its possible options in Iraq in the manner of taqiyya (“dissimulation”), which pervades Shi’ite political thinking, much as it responded to the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan. As an Islamic republic, Iran could not ideologically afford to rally behind the U.S., which the late Ayatollah Khomeini categorized as the “Great Satan.” Still, Iranian relations with Taliban, who applied the austere Wahhabi doctrine in ruling Afghanistan, were characterized by outright animosity and unsalvageable ideological differences. The Iranian government condemned in public the war against the Taliban but, on the other hand, its military diligently chased and apprehended Al Qaeda members crossing into Iranian territory, whom it eventually surrendered to U.S. troops. Interestingly, as the war on Iraq drew to its end, Iranian officials stated that they would try, as war criminals, Iraqi officials seeking refuge in Iran.

From the onset of the Iraqi crisis, Iran stated that it would maintain a neutral posture in any ensuing conflict, which it did. However, it appears that Iran has no intention of allowing the revival of the city of Najaf in Iraq, the birthplace of Shi’ism, as pre-eminent centre of Shi’ite learning. The triumph of the Islamic revolution in Iran and the great attention it gave to the holy city of Qum, as well as Saddam Hussein’s excessive heavy-handedness against Shi’ite clerics’ opposition to his secular policies, undermined the religious significance of Najaf for Shi’ite religious activists. It is most unlikely that the leaders of Iran would allow Qum to lose the religious status it acquired in recent years to the historically important Najaf. Unfolding developments in Najaf attest to that. Ayatollah Abdul Majid al-Khu’i was recently assassinated in Najaf, in Imam Ali’s mosque, just a few days after his return to Iraq, purportedly by pro-Iranian Shi’ites. The same group issued, shortly afterwards, an ultimatum to Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who spent years under house arrest in Najaf, to curtail his activities or leave the city within two days. These examples lead us to expect Iran to play in the foreseeable future, a divisive role in Iraqi politics in general and in Shi’ite affairs in particular.

On 1 March 2003, the Turkish Parliament voted, in an unprecedented move, against allowing U.S. combat troops to be stationed on Turkish territory. Earlier, Turkish prime minister, Abdullah Gul, embarked on an Arab tour in an effort to enlist Arab support for a unified stand against U.S. designs to invade Iraq. In a fashion typical of Arab leaders’ incapacity to agree on consequential matters, let alone implement decisions on them and in a manifestation of perennial servitude to Washington, the leaders of Egypt and the Gulf states blunted Gul’s hopes. Turkey’s ruling party, the Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, took a valiant position and gave up billions of dollars of U.S. aid and held its ground against the dictates of George W. Bush, who displayed a great deal of impatience and disrespect in reacting to the democratic vote of the Turkish Parliament. In the end, however, after signs of an early U.S. victory became unmistakeable, Ankara acquiesced and allowed truckloads of American supplies to cross into northern Iraq from Turkey. The Turks took the stand, nevertheless, and in doing so, they unintentionally exposed those Arab regimes that colluded with the Bush administration.

            Well before the discovery of oil in the region, Britain, in the 19th century, during the white man’s onslaughts on Asia and Africa, created a number of colonial outposts on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf. Even though the status of these outposts developed in the early 1950s into that of mini-states, their essential colonial functions persisted virtually unscathed. This applies to Saudi Arabia, whose royals have always prided themselves on their country’s independence. The Kingdom, notwithstanding, has maintained strong colonial attachments to the West, ever since its conception as a tribal monarchy in the early 1930s. In 1945 King Abdul Aziz switched alliances from the British colonial patron to its American cousin. Consistently played down by Washington and Riyadh, U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia never made the news. The two parties agreed there was no need for publicity. Western colonialism, which shifted hands in the Persian Gulf from the British to the Americans, became possible after London announced in 1967 its decision to pull out from east of the Suez by 1971. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and U.S. resolve to punish Baghdad invigorated the U.S. military presence in the region and gave it the legitimacy it wanted. Gulf emirs and sheikhs may offer a convincing case—in the name of reinstating Kuwaiti independence— for inviting to their countries hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops in 1990. But their decision to allow U.S. and British forces to launch an unprovoked and illegitimate war against Iraq in 2003 cannot be plausibly defended. In fact, they do not. They find it sufficient to state, on the grounds that the U.S. is a superpower, that they cannot challenge Washington’s will. They are quite correct. This is how they were conceived from the onset.

Syria took an altogether different stand on the Iraqi situation, in part because Syrians see themselves as genuinely independent, and also because they consider their state as the hotbed of Arab nationalism. There are other, more compelling reasons for Syria to sympathize with Iraq’s doomed political order. The two countries represent competing factions of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, which the U.S. administration derides as a cumbersome ideological leftover from the Cold War years. George W. Bush’s rightist, pro-Zionist aides view the Syrian regime as the other face of the same Iraqi coin. They consider both countries as potentially threatening to Israel’s long-term security, hence the need for taming them through de-ideologization. In essence, this leaves Zionism unthreatened by other ideologies, namely the Ba’athist version of Arab nationalism. The presidency of Bashshar al-Asad has not solidified yet and essentially survives by maintaining, unchanged, Syria’s internal environment. The Iraqi upheaval is bound to alter Syria’s precarious domestic environment. Fully aware of Syria’s predicament, U.S. officials have already begun to target Syria, even before declaring their victory in Iraq. Even the dovish secretary of state, Colin Powell, alluding to Syria, said that “there [was] a new situation in the Middle East following the removal of Saddam Hussein, and he hoped all nations in the region would review their past behaviour” (BBC 2003b). Blunt Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sent a direct warning to Syria about allegedly testing chemical weapons.

Ecstatic over a cheap victory on Iraq, the Bush administration believes its plans to set up a liberal and plural political system in Iraq will vindicate their democratic domino theory of the Middle East. This naïve thinking illustrates the U.S. policy of crushing its enemies into submission, which, in their opinion, paves the way for instilling democratic values into their political culture. This logic won the U.S. worldwide enmity after World War II. Iraq does not lend itself to this oversimplified, black-and-white view of the world. The British tried to democratize Iraq during the interwar period; this resulted in six military coups, the last of which occurred in 1941 and had strong Nazi German leanings. To tell the truth, during their one-sided war against Iraq, which they insisted on calling a unique victory, the U.S. military did—in the course of frequent friendly fire accidents—more to damage the British armed forces than to promote of Iraqi democracy.

It is most unfortunate that the West will not allow Arabs to develop their political systems on their own. No argument can convince Arabs, even those inattentive to politics, that the U.S.-led war on Iraq aimed primarily at dismantling Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and introducing Western, liberal democratic values. Involvement with Arabs for the past two centuries shows, without a shadow of doubt, a determined Western desire to abort Arab development. European defeat of the Egyptian army in the 1840 war, their stultification of the Arab nationalist dream after the World War I, their collusion in creating a Jewish state in Palestine, their destruction of Arab secularism in the 1960s, in part by unleashing Israel against its Arab neighbours in 1967, all have entered into Arab collective consciousness as bitter memories. Once Arabs begin to reflect on the staggering implications of the recent war on Iraq, they are bound to conclude that the burning of Baghdad, the wanton destruction of Iraq’s rare cultural heritage, the stripping of hospitals of medical equipment, the exacerbation of the country’s sectarian and ethnic divisions are all the work of the new Mongols. The blood of thousands of Arab volunteers who fought and died in Iraq has blended with the blood of countless Iraqis to nourish the seeds of a new Arab political consciousness.


1     For an excellent account of the devastating impact of the sanctions on Iraq and of U.S. rationale for keeping them in place, see Simons. 2002.

2     Bush presided over Harken Energy Corporation and Cheney served as the chairman and executive of Halliburton, an oil services company. Both of them developed important oil contacts with Arab oil-producing countries in the Persian Gulf. It is interesting to note that Cheney’s public remarks since the beginning of the war have dealt only with Iraq’s need for foreign assistance to re-launch its oil industry.


BBC World News. 2003a. April 10.

————. 2003b. April 15.

2003. Daily Times April 10. Accessed from on the World Wide Web.

Simons, Geoff. 2002. Targeting Iraq: Sanctions and bombing in U.S. policy. London, UK: Saqi.

(Submitted 15 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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