The Gulf War slaughter

January 15, 2016

"It is not a war they are starting, it's a slaughter. It will be a catastrophe." That's how Vincent Hubin, director of Premiere Urgence, the largest foreign aid agency operating in Iraq, described the Bush administration's drive for war in Iraq that would culminate in the March 2003 invasion. But he could have been speaking a decade earlier about the first Gulf War, launched by George Bush Sr., which began 25 years ago on January 16.

Anthony Arnove is editor of the book Iraq Under Siege: The Deadly Impact of Sanctions and War and co-author with Howard Zinn of Voices of a People's History of the United States. With the second Gulf War threatening at the end of 2002, he described the impact of the first onslaught and the decade of U.S. warfare, military and economic, on the Iraqi people that followed. To mark the anniversary, we are reprinting his article, which was first published in the December 13, 2002, issue of Socialist Worker.

It was a one-sided slaughter

The 1991 Gulf War against Iraq wasn't really a war at all. It was a one-sided slaughter in a country that was no match for the massive armed might of the U.S. military and its many allies.

During the month-and-a-half-long war, the U.S. military dropped 88,500 tons of bombs on Iraq and Kuwait--the most concentrated aerial bombardment in the history of warfare. Despite all the hype about "smart bombs," 70 percent of all U.S. bombs missed their targets. In fact, "[p]recision-guided bombs, the icon of Pentagon briefings and the military's preferred image of the Persian Gulf War, made up barely 7 percent of the U.S. tonnage dropped on Iraqi targets," the Washington Post later reported.

Tens of thousands of civilians died in the air war. More than 300 civilians were killed in one attack alone--when two Cruise missiles hit the Amiriya bomb shelter on February 13, 1991. Many of the people in the shelter were killed from the direct impact of the missile. But others burned to death by a combination of fire and scalding water from burst pipes. To this day, the Pentagon claims that the shelter was a "legitimate military target."

Wreckage left behind on "highway of death" in Iraq
Wreckage left behind on "highway of death" in Iraq

U.S. bombs also destroyed essential Iraqi infrastructure to provide for civilian needs, particularly safe water and electricity--not as an accident, but as part of an explicit strategy. "Amid mounting evidence of Iraq's ruined infrastructure and the painful consequences for ordinary Iraqis, Pentagon officials more readily acknowledge the severe impact of the 43-day air bombardment on Iraq's economic future and civilian population," Barton Gellman of the Washington Post wrote a few months after the war.

"Though many details remain classified, interviews with those involved in the targeting disclose three main contrasts with the administration's earlier portrayal of a campaign aimed solely at Iraq's armed forces and their lines of supply and command. Some targets, especially late in the war, were bombed primarily to create postwar leverage over Iraq, not to influence the course of the conflict itself. Planners now say their intent was to destroy or damage valuable facilities that Baghdad could not repair without foreign assistance...Because of these goals, damage to civilian structures and interests, invariably described by briefers during the war as 'collateral' and unintended, was sometimes neither."

No one knows how many retreating Iraqis were slaughtered on the infamous "Highway of Death." U.S. forces openly boasted about a "turkey shoot" as they repeatedly strafed the line of people and vehicles traveling along the highway from Kuwait into Iraq.

"From the ground, I witnessed the savage results of American air superiority: tanks and troop carriers turned upside down and ripped inside out; rotten, burned, half-buried bodies littering the desert like the detritus of years--not weeks--of combat," one U.S. Gulf War veteran recently wrote of the aftermath of the attack. "The tails of unexploded bombs, buried halfway or deeper in the earth, served as makeshift headstones and chilling reminders that at any moment, the whole place could blow."

The media briefly showed the horrific images from the slaughter. But the reports were buried under pressure from U.S. officials.

The corporate media have also ignored the story of how more than 1 million rounds of depleted uranium (DU) shells were used by the U.S. in Iraq and Kuwait. The Pentagon uses these outrageous munitions because they can pierce tanks and other thick surfaces--but the shells leave behind a toxic disaster. "Today, nearly 12 years after the use of the super-tough weapons," the Settle Post-Intelligencer recently reported, "the battlefield remains a radioactive toxic wasteland."

"Iraqi physicians say depleted uranium is responsible for a significant increase in cancer and birth defects in the region. Many researchers outside Iraq, and several U.S. veterans' organizations agree; they also suspect depleted uranium of playing a role in Gulf War Syndrome, the still-unexplained malady that has plagued hundreds of thousands of veterans."

There's no reason to believe that Bush's new war on Iraq wouldn't produce similar atrocities. In December 1998, when the U.S. military was once again bombing Iraq, the Air Force dropped millions of propaganda pamphlets. One showed a picture of the "Highway of Death"--littered with burned vehicles and dead bodies--and warned: "If you threaten Kuwait, the coalition forces will destroy you again."

The war that never ended

The Gulf War left Iraq shattered. But that didn't stop the U.S. from maintaining a strict economic embargo that had been imposed by the United Nations (UN) following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

"The recent conflict has wrought near-apocalyptic results upon the economic infrastructure of what had been, until January 1991, a rather highly urbanized and mechanized society," officials of the UN mission to Iraq wrote. "Now, most means of modern life support have been destroyed or rendered tenuous. Iraq has, for some time to come, been relegated to a pre-industrial age, but with all the disabilities of post-industrial dependency on an intensive use of energy and technology."

The truth is that the war on Iraq never ended. Twelve years later, the country is still suffering from the devastating sanctions. According to the United Nations Children's Fund, between 1990 and 1998, under-5 child mortality rates doubled in Iraq--leading to half a million "excess" deaths.

Many more died from easily preventable waterborne diseases and lack of adequate medical supplies. The sanctions have kept out chlorinators, fertilizers, vaccines, ambulances and other vital civilian goods--under the pretext that they could have a military "dual use."

And the bombing never stopped. U.S. and British planes taking off from Turkey and Kuwait have regularly bombed Iraq in a war that the corporate media have deliberately chosen to ignore. While the U.S. claims it is "enforcing UN resolutions," no resolution ever authorized the so-called no-fly zones.

Still today, the U.S. claims that all the suffering in Iraq is caused by Saddam Hussein, not the bombing or the sanctions. That's nonsense. As Tun Myat, administrator of the UN oil-for-food program in Iraq, told the New York Times, "People have become so poor in some cases that they can't even afford to eat the food that they are given free, because for many of them the food ration represents the major part of their income."

The embargo has created massive inflation in Iraq, wiping out the savings and earnings of the overwhelming majority of Iraqis. Unemployment has skyrocketed, and children now beg--or sell themselves for sex--in order to help feed their families.

Meanwhile, more than one-fourth of Iraq's limited oil revenue is diverted to pay reparations to the Kuwaiti government and multinational oil companies, and to finance the UN's operations in Iraq. To use what little is left, Iraq has to apply to the UN--where the U.S. uses its veto on the sanctions committee to routinely block requests for imports.

The lies they tell to justify war

The U.S. government never says that it's going to war for oil, profit or power. No, it only goes to war for "democracy," to "liberate" countries, to "defend human rights" or to "oppose aggression."

When Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, Washington's reaction was outrage. "A line has been drawn in the sand," George Bush Sr. declared. "If history teaches us anything, it is that we must resist aggression or it will destroy us." British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Bush's main ally, added, "If we let Iraq succeed, no small country can ever feel safe again. The law of the jungle takes over."

But Bush and Thatcher took a different view of Iraq's aggression prior to August 2. Both countries armed and backed Iraq and supported Saddam Hussein when he was a faithful ally and served their strategic interests in the oil-rich Middle East.

The U.S. supported Iraq during its brutal war with Iran in the 1980s--at the cost of 1 million lives. Washington increased its aid to Iraq after the government used poison gas against Iranian troops--and then against the minority Kurdish population inside Iraq--killing thousands.

When U.S. ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie met Saddam in Baghdad on July 25, 1990, just one week before the invasion, "she said President Bush wanted better relations with Saddam and that the United States had no opinion on Saddam's dispute over borders with Kuwait," the Washington Post reported.

Whether or not this was meant as a trap, it's clear that the Iraqi president felt emboldened by support from Washington and thought he could get away with an attack on Kuwait. After all, the U.S. itself has just invaded Panama and engineered a "regime change," taking out its former ally Manuel Noriega and killing thousands of Panamanians--with no outcry about "the law of the jungle" or "resisting aggression."

It was also sheer hypocrisy for U.S. officials to talk about protecting the border with Kuwait--which was an artificial creation of British imperialists who carved up the two countries in the 1920s to better control the region's oil. Kuwait was--and is--a fiefdom for a tiny privileged elite allied with the West. But Bush proudly called the country a "friend."

Then he and his cronies--many of whom are back on the scene in new roles in the Bush Jr. administration--launched a relentless PR campaign to force a war with Iraq. The Pentagon announced in September 1990 that Iraq was massing hundreds of thousands of troops of its border with Saudi Arabia. But when the St. Petersburg Times in Florida decided to look for the evidence and bought commercial satellite images of the area, they found nothing. "That [Iraqi buildup] was the whole justification for Bush sending troops in there, and it just didn't exist," says Jean Heller, the reporter who broke the story.

Then the U.S. brought a 15-year-old Kuwaiti "refugee" named Nayirah to testify before Congress about how she had witnessed Iraqi troops steal incubators from a hospital, leaving 312 babies "on the cold floor to die." When the Senate voted to give support Bush Sr.'s war, by a margin of only five votes, seven senators recounted Nayirah's story in justifying their "yes" vote.

But the story was a hoax. Nayirah's false testimony was part of a $10 million Kuwait government propaganda campaign managed by the PR firm Hill and Knowlton. Nayirah was not a hospital volunteer, but the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to Washington.

"We didn't know it wasn't true at the time," claims Brent Scowcroft, Bush's national security adviser. But, he admitted, "It was useful in mobilizing public opinion."

The killers they want to rule Iraq

Who will the U.S. government find to replace Saddam Hussein if a new assault can drive him out? Unfortunately for Washington, one of their top choices to replace Saddam might be busy when the time comes--serving a prison sentence for war crimes.

Last month, Danish police arrested Gen. Nizar Khazraji, the former Iraqi chief of staff and the most senior officer to defect from Iraq--on charges that he's responsible for killing thousands of Kurds in a chemical weapons attack 14 years ago.

According to a Danish judge, there are "justifiable suspicions" that Khazraji--the commander of the Iraqi military during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War--was responsible for using poison gas to attack Iranian troops and Kurdish civilians. In the most notorious incident, 5,000 Kurds in the town of Halabja were killed after being bombed with nerve gas and mustard gas.

For the last three years, Khazraji has been living in Denmark--where he has been under investigation after he was reported to Danish authorities by a Kurdish immigrant. But Khazraji's use of "weapons of mass destruction" hasn't stopped Washington from putting him at the top of their list to help topple Saddam's regime.

Khazraji's arrest came after he recently asked for permission to travel to Saudi Arabia--leaving some to speculate that he was going to the Middle East to help with Washington's war plans. "His arrest is a major setback for us," one Iraqi opposition figure told the London Times. "His arrest will make it that much harder to encourage other officers to defect if they fear that they will be charged, too."

The Times wrote that Khazraji "was regarded in Washington and London as one of the few former army officers with real clout inside the Armed Forces. His arrest will probably be greeted with dismay in both capitals. The Bush administration is counting on the Iraqi Army to revolt en masse against Saddam in the event of a U.S.-led operation."

Media "watchdogs" kept on a short leash

The Bush administration is placing further restrictions on the already strict limits of what the media are allowed to see in U.S. wars.

Arthur Kent, who covered the 1991 Gulf War for NBC, predicted that in a new war with Iraq, Pentagon "attempts to muzzle us...are going to be unprecedented." And that's saying something--given the drastic effort by George Bush Sr.'s administration to limit press coverage during the first Gulf War.

When the air war began in January 1991, the media were fed selected footage of U.S. bombing missions--"most of it downright misleading," according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Briefings by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and other military officers featured video images of laser-guided missiles and bombs hitting perfectly on target.

The Pentagon managed to not show a single picture or video of anyone being killed--even after tens of thousands of surrendering Iraqi troops were slaughtered by U.S. forces as they retreated from Kuwait on what became known as the "Highway of Death."

Dick Cheney later bragged that Desert Storm was the "best-covered war ever...The American people saw up close with their own eyes through the magic of television what the U.S. military was capable of doing."

The opposite is true. Cheney and friends went to enormous lengths to make sure people in the U.S. didn't see the horror that was inflicted in their name.

Pentagon lie machine

In war, the first casualty is truth. And Donald Rumsfeld doesn't care who knows it.

Last year, the Pentagon announced the creation of the Office of Strategic Influence to develop, as the New York Times put it, "plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations."

After a public furor, Rumsfeld backtracked, and the Pentagon pulled the plug on its lie machine. But at a press briefing on November 18, Rumsfeld told reporters that the Pentagon certainly hasn't given up on its work.

"Then there was the Office of Strategic Influence," Rumsfeld bragged. "You may recall that. And 'oh my goodness gracious, isn't that terrible, Henny Penny, the sky is going to fall.' I went down that next day and said, 'Fine...[y]ou can have the name, but I'm going to keep doing every single thing that needs to be done, and I have."

Among other things, what Rumsfeld and the Pentagon have "done" includes having an entire division of the Air Force transfer its bomber and fighter aircraft to other commands--so that it can focus exclusively on worldwide "information attacks."

This article originally appeared in Socialist Worker on December 13, 2002.

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