Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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September 16, 2002

Momentum Moving to Support US Action Against Iraq, on Washington’s Timetable

Analysis. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS. There is a growing consensus that the US-led plan to invade Iraq will now go ahead with a broad, if reluctant, coalition of states supporting the move, and that the event will occur on the US timetable rather than at a time chosen by Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein. The current United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) session in New York has proven to be the final turning point in favor of US Pres. George W. Bush’s proposal, although the meetings earlier in September 2002 between Pres. Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair in Crawford, Texas, made the process inevitable.

A number of strong statements against unilateral action by the US against Iraq are still expected to emerge from the UNGA following Pres. Bush’s address there on September 12, 2002, but now the tenor of the opposition by all major players — including the People’s Republic of China (PRC) — has been to merely oppose unilateral US action, tacitly offering support to UN-approved action. This preserves the sense that the UN, and not the US, regulates world police action, and Pres. Bush’s UNGA speech played directly to that.

However, despite the fact that the preponderance of options have gradually moved in the US’ favor, a number of factors exist which vitally impact the conflict. These include:

1. A Muslim versus Non-Muslim War: Iraq still retains the option, and clear intention, to ensure that any new US-led war against his forces is immediately broadened to become an Arab-Israeli war in which the US, the UK and others would appear to be involved on the side of Israel, therefore strengthening Arab/Muslim support for Iraq. This position, however, has lost some strength since late August 2002, as many Arab states see that the preponderance of power has begun moving in favor of the US position, leaving the supporters of Saddam Hussein increasingly isolated. Nonetheless, the attempt by Pres. Saddam to make the conflict a broader one remains his best option. The US strategy to avoid this would be to find answers to a variety of concerns by Muslim states, and particularly those of Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

[See also: Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, August 30, 2002: Observations on the Persistence of the Present Unpleasantness in the Middle East.]

2. No Viable Alternative Has Been Found to Control Iraq Post-Saddam: The lack of a strong and clear single candidate to replace Pres. Saddam Hussein as the Iraqi leader continues to be a major problem, given the knowledge that the Afghan operation to overthrow the Taliban did so with a leadership option which was not overwhelmingly acceptable to all Afghanis. This has meant that a strong international military presence in Afghanistan was likely to be necessary for some time to ensure that Afghan Pres. Hamid Karzai’s Administration could remain in office. While there were few other options available, this nonetheless meant that the Afghan situation would continue to be a major drain on international peacekeeping resources for some time. A similar situation could occur in Iraq, but the reality is that even the proposed leaders have major challenges:

(i) Iraqi National Congress (INC) spokesman Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein, head of the Constitutional Monarchy Movement, has — despite being a sharif (descendant of the Prophet) and the Hashemite heir to the Iraqi throne (essentially created by Britain after World War I) — only a minority power base inside Iraq, and represents a threat to Saudi Arabia (at least in the minds of Saudi leaders). The Saudi leadership in 1919-1925 seized the Hejaz area (now in Saudi Arabia) from the Hashemites, thereby seizing control of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, and the Guardianship of those cities, which had since the time of the Prophet Mohammed been under the official stewardship of the Hashemite sharifs. Saudi officials fear that a restored Hashemite monarchy in Iraq, coupled with the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan, would pose a threat to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

(ii) Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi, while having built a broad base of opposition in Iraq to Saddam, is a Shi’ite Muslim, and it is believed that Shi’ite control of Iraq would not be widely acceptable to the majority of Iraqis, which include the Sunni Kurds and the Sunni population outside the Kurdish areas. A strong Shi’ite powerbase in Iraq would suit Iran’s clerical (Shi’ite) leaders, but would, again, be seen as providing a stronger threat to the Sunni (Wahabbi) powerbase of the House of Sa‘ud in Saudi Arabia. A combination of a Hashemite (Sunni) Constitutional Monarchy under a King Ali bin al-Hussein and a Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi might conceivably hold inside Iraq, but would nonetheless continue to make Saudi Arabia uncomfortable.

3. Almost Any Action is Potentially Destabilizing to Saudi Arabia. Although Saudi leaders will not admit it publicly, almost any dynamic action in the region could trigger problems inside Saudi Arabia. As noted earlier by GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily reports, Saudi Arabia is undergoing major changes and the House of Sa’ud is essentially fighting to survive. Per capita annual income has dropped from US$19,000 in 1981 to $7,300 in 1997, with the population rising from less than 7-million in the early 1970s to more than 22-million today, with 43 percent of the population now under 14 years of age. National income has declined from US$227-billion in 1981 to an average of less than $60-billion today. [It is believed, in fact, that per capita annual income is now more realistically an average of some $3,500.] Unemployment and radicalization is challenging the Sa’ud family. At the same time, Saudi Arabia is becoming less critical to the US. In 1991, 24 percent of US oil imports came from Saudi; today that figure is less than 15 percent, about the same amount as Nigeria. The Saudi leadership has been, for some time, been forced to adopt the radicalism of popular protest inside the Kingdom in order to deflect blame to external sources, principally Israel and the US, but has not taken steps to build other instruments over the years to deflect and absorb criticism in such a way that the continuity of the monarchy is preserved. By making the Crown absolute — and resisting all pressure to transform to a constitutional monarchy — the Crown (and the House of Sa‘ud) has remained unprotected by other buffering institutions. Will popular Saudi discontent turn against the Crown in the event that a US-led coalition successfully removes Saddam Hussein and Israel survives the Iraqi plans to initiate a new Arab-Israeli war? Will Saudi Arabia be able to remain intact under such circumstances?

4. The Unresolved Issues of Libya, Syria and Iran. US action totally focused against Iraq at this time distorts or ignores major strategic issues or challenges with regard to Libya, Syria and Iran, each of which presents major challenges and opportunities to the US, the West and the “war on terror”:

(i) Libya: The British Government has, in essence, said to the US Bush Administration: “You take Iraq, and we will support you on that, but give us Libya.” There are elements within the US Government — particularly in the State Department, but also in some parts of the White House — which have tacitly acknowledged this approach, but it is far from resolved, particularly given the fact that the recent British deals with Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi ignore the fact that Qadhafi is dying, and that there is a growing and now virulent movement within all sectors of Libyan society that Qadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, would not be acceptable as an heir to Qadhafi. That means that the Qadhafi era is coming to an end (given Qadhafi’s own health problems) within the very foreseeable future, and that a UK-supported Qadhafi Administration would be unlikely to last for long. Significantly, GIS has had direct, top-level contact with a very wide range of Libyan officials and power groups in recent months — but particularly in the first half of September 2002 — and there is now an unequivocal support across all essential areas for the restoration of the Sanusi leadership to Libya. The leadership of the Sanusiyyah, Prince Idris al-Senussi, is — with many other Sanusi leaders — currently in Washington, DC. Significantly, the Saudi Government has opposed Prince Idris in the past because the Sanusiyyah is the diametric opposite to the Wahabbi movement which the basis for the legitimacy of the House of Sa‘ud: the Sanusi movement is moderate, tolerant, pro-Western/modernization, and non-xenophobic/proselytizing.

Libyan Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Mohammad Saeed al-Qashat said on September 5, 2002, that Saudi Arabia was mediating between Libya and the US to resume diplomatic relations. The day before, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that both Iraq and North Korea (DPRK) were continuing to help Libya develop “powerful weapons”, and that “Libya is becoming perhaps a more dangerous country”, despite the UK Blair Government’s assertion that the Qadhafi Administration had turned away from radicalism and terrorism. Mr Sharon said that “Libya may be the first [Arab] country with weapons of mass destruction”, which had been confirmed by US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director George Tenet in a report to the US Congress. 

Significantly, GIS reports indicate that there were now some 10,000 Iraqi specialists working in Libya, largely on weapons development and security matters.

(ii) Syria: Syria is locked in to supporting Iran, Iraq and, de facto, Saudi Arabia and Egypt on broadening any war against Iraq into an Arab-Israeli war. Essentially, in the short-term Syria is not a factor of overwhelming concern to the US, other than the fact that it would probably be engaged against Israel should the conflict broaden, as Saddam anticipates, into an Arab-Israeli war. It is possible that the Syrian leadership’s readiness to engage in such a conflict may diminish as the momentum of support — however grudging it may seem at present — for the US-led campaign against Saddam grows. Nonetheless, a post-war situation may see the Syrian leadership of Pres. Bashar al-Asad isolated and challenged.

(iv) Iran: Iran now poses the most significant strategic variable challenging the West, apart from the longer-term variable of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) which, in fact, has an increasing commonality of purpose with the West. The Iranian clerics have, since the US Carter Administration facilitated their rise to power in 1979, been the principal sponsors of anti-Western terrorism, and essentially created the new Islamist terrorist movement which has blended elements of Wahabbism/Sunni beliefs, Shi’ism and newly-created pseudo-Islamic doctrine to create a mass political movement. Significantly, however, the Iranian clerics have been unsuccessful in selling this doctrine to Iranians, who are likely to move to their mass “tipping point” against the clerics within the near future. The momentum of anti-clerical rallies, riots and protests has been rising for two years; the instruments which the clerics have created to suppress the Armed Forces, Gendarmerie and population — the new intelligence organs, the Pasdaran (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps: IRGC) and the Basij forces — have gradually turned against their clerical sponsors. The latest forces cobbled together by the clerics to attack and assassinate opponents of the clerical leadership (or even seem to be potentially capable of opposing the clerics) now include Palestinian and Afghani mercenaries. Nonetheless, the myth persists in the West that Iranian Pres. Ali Mohammad Khatami-Ardakani is a “moderate” and a “reformist” who has widespread popular support. Despite this, the unequivocal position by US Pres. George W. Bush in his February 2002 State of the Union address including Iran in the so-called “axis of evil” boosted the feeling within many Iranian opposition movements that the US would not again temporize with the clerics, but would welcome a change of government, restoring moderate leadership to the country. Significantly, the US is evaluating several Iranian opposition movements, including the Azadegan nationalist movement of Dr Assad Homayoun and the constitutional monarchy movement under Shah Reza Pahlavi. The variable which cannot yet be determined is to what extent the US-led war against Iraq will destabilize or cement the position of the clerics in Iran.

5. Building Muslim Support for the Anti-Saddam Campaign. One of the most difficult challenges facing the US in the build-up to military operations against Iraq — quite apart from the military operations themselves — is to build a base of support within Muslim governments and, if possible, within Muslim societies for the removal of Saddam Hussein. Pres. Saddam has focused his efforts on wrapping himself in the flag of Arab and Muslim unity, and painting the US in the colors of anti-Islam and pro-Israel. Despite this, a significant proportion of the leadership of Muslim states have been concerned — despite populist rhetoric to the contrary — over the destabilizing nature of such radicals as Saddam Hussein, Libya’s Col. Qadhafi, the Iranian clerical leaders, Osama bin Laden, Pan-Islamic Movement leader Dr Hassad al-Turabi, and others. The question all  such moderate Muslim leaders ask, however, is what risk do they run by declaring their support for the US and the war against Saddam? The risks to be considered include the possibility that the US will not be able to sustain them in office in the face of popular opposition at home, should they support Washington, or that the US will not succeed in removing Saddam, stopping short of a full solution as it was perceived to do in 1991. Nonetheless, there is a growing tendency among Middle Eastern states to either support the US-led coalition or to refrain from opposing it, sensing the “inevitability” of the war and Saddam’s removal.

6. Waiting for Turkey. The growing momentum which the Bush Administration has generated for the war against Saddam has, in essence, removed the necessity of taking unilateral military action before the November US Congressional elections. If this situation was to prevail, it would mean that Pres. Saddam had failed in his bid to see a unilateral and precipitate — and therefore incomplete — US military action. In other words, Saddam appears to have failed to set the timing of the engagement. This also removes some of the pressure to have to deal with the Turkish political situation before the Turkish general elections of November 3, 2002. The post-election situation in Turkey remains unclear, but had the US been forced to commence engagement against Iraq before the Turkish elections and before the US Congressional elections, then it would have triggered a significant distortion of Turkish politics, and the Turkish position vis-à-vis the Cyprus problem (with significant ramifications regarding the European Union: EU), with the Turkish entry into the EU, and for US-EU relations (because of Turkey’s demand that the US put pressure on the EU to admit Turkey into the Union as part of the deal for US use of Turkish bases in the war against Iraq). Turkey has already been temporizing on the question of Cyprus — meetings held in September between the UN and the leaders of Cyprus and the Turkish Cyprus community were stalled and without positive movement, with more talks scheduled for October 2002 — in the hope that the Iraq situation would somehow save the position of Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Dentas and Turkish Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit. A full war situation involving Turkey with the US-led coalition against Iraq could have entailed the invocation by the Turkish Government of a constitutional clause to allow it to remain in office for a further year, delaying the elections which will almost certainly remove Mr Ecevit from power.


A. US domestic political support for US Pres. George W. Bush and his Administration has remained strong, and generally in favor of action against Iraq, in the run-up to the US Congressional elections of November 2002. This, coupled with the slowly-building momentum internationally in support of the US position on Iraq, has begun to remove the necessity, and likelihood, of US military action against Iraq before the end of 2002. This gives the US time to undertake more detailed planning for military operations, with greater prospect that it will undertake a comprehensive campaign to remove the Saddam Administration from Iraq.

B. The growing US momentum, and more protracted timescale for military operations against Iraq, starts to diminish the distorting pressure of the war on Turkish politics, and therefore on the Turkish-EU, Turkish-US and Turkish-Cypriot situations. This may help ensure a resolution of the Cypriot situation before the end of 2002, with the prospect that Turkish Cypriot leader Denktas and Turkish Prime Minister Ecevit will attempt to achieve some kind of modus vivendi to preserve at least part of their position on Cyprus before the November 3, 2002, Turkish elections. This would be expected to fall short of EU and Cypriot demands, but could be expected to be a compromise on the present hard-line position which has included the suggestion of Turkish annexation of the Turkish-occupied north of Cyprus.

C. All scenarios point to medium-term instability for Saudi Arabia, unless the Saudi Government itself takes unilateral action of a type designed to give it renewed control of the country. Given the paralysis of Saudi decisionmaking in this regard for several decades, such action seems unlikely.

D. The total US focus on Iraq has removed focus from the growing problems in Iraq and Libya, in particular, but the political situation in both countries could develop to the point of change within the timeframe of the US-led operations against Iraq.

E. There will be tentative and growing support among some Muslim governments for the US campaign against Iraq, but the Saudi leadership will need to distance itself as much as possible from the process.