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Old 02-13-2020, 12:15 PM
lordroel lordroel is offline
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Part One - Crisis in the Gulf


2 – Saddam bites the dust

Almost two years beforehand, back in November 1985, a massive explosion rocked the Iraqi city of Basra. A pair of Lebanese men, volunteers for a cause which they saw as the highest, drove an explosive-laden truck into Basra going through a crowd of people in their way. Those civilians were their fellow ethnic Shia, their fellow believers. That was unfortunate but all of those who lost their lives in this attack would, so believed their killers, be judged by the almighty with the deserving seeing heaven. The man at the centre of the crowd, on a stage where bodyguards leaped into action around him, wouldn’t be getting a divine reward like the worthy would. He was being dragged off the stage where he was addressing the people present when the truck-borne bomb detonated. What a blast it was! Those who arranged for this attack had been those involved in making the strikes using a similar method of employing explosives as had been done in Beirut two years previous. It was in many ways a fuel-air bomb. Iranian nationals acting for Hezbollah had committed that infamous act in 1983; in 1985, Lebanese-born Hezbollah volunteers repaid the favour for Iran.

Saddam Hussein, the President of Iraq, was the target in Basra. Like the US Marines and French paratroopers in Beirut, he was slain mercilessly in this act of state-sponsored terrorism.


For the two following days, the Iranians weren’t sure if they had killed him. He could have survived or maybe they had slain one of his reputed doubles used for public appearances. The explosion in Basra was something noted by intelligence agencies from other countries. America’s CIA, the Soviet’s KGB, British MI-6, French DGSE and the Israeli Mossad all sought information. Some of that was contradictory or just wild speculation. A picture started to emerge though: it became increasingly likely that Saddam was dead. Iraq, a highly centralised country in terms of power and in the middle of a war with Iran, had been left rudderless by the assassination of its dictatorial leader.

A power struggle erupted inside Iraq. It was one which would very quickly turn violent. As was the case with uncertainty over in Iran, inside Iraq there too was ambiguity over whether Saddam had been killed. It took some time for this to be confirmed. Those who knew the earliest were quickest to try to seize power for themselves. Saddam had never anointed a successor – a fatal move for any dictator – but there were those within Iraq who had coveted his position when he was alive and now sought to gain it following his demise.

Four high-profile figures began a battle to take the reins of power.

Saddam’s eldest son, the twenty-one-year-old Uday Hussein, believed he was the natural heir of his father when it came to the country’s leadership. By virtue of his birth, nothing more, Uday sought to step into the dead father’s shoes. Many would consider him a psychopath and Uday would quickly find that there was little support for him taking over just based on nothing more than just a blood connection.

An uncle of Uday’s was Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti. He was a half-brother to the deceased Saddam and headed up Iraq’s intelligence service. Another brutal figure, though someone skilled at it rather than clumsy like his nephew, al-Tikriti likewise found that once Saddam was gone, there were few who were willing to see him in charge of the nation. Who wanted someone with so much blood on his hands and who had made so many enemies?

General Ra’ad Rashid al-Hamdani was a senior military officer with connections to the regime. He was a political general who’d reached such a rank at a very young age. Not a brute like others, Hamdani was known for his somewhat jovial character. He was efficient not so much at military matters but maintaining the balancing act of being a political general. Saddam had trusted him, which led to much jealousy from elsewhere within the regime. He had enemies which he had no idea that he had, people who never would have spoken of their hatred while Saddam was alive.

Finally, there was another but more respected military man. General Maher Abd al-Rashid had political connections too – his daughter had married Saddam’s youngest son, Qusay – but he really was ‘army’ instead of a boot licker. He knew his business of soldiering. Considered a potential rival by Saddam, a few years past he had nearly met a grizzly end early in the Iran-Iraq War for criticising the president and political interference in that conflict. A military mutiny had loomed when the threat to Rashid came though and Saddam had blinked: his general had gone back to the front and corrected a terrible strategic situation. Rashid was someone who those in uniform would follow.

Through assassinations, kidnappings, blackmail, dubious loyalties and the threat of a civil war, Rashid won out in the fight to replace Saddam. He had the backing of the military. This won out over the regime’s intelligence apparatus plus the political infrastructure of the Ba’ath Party where they didn’t have that support of men with guns who would follow orders. Hamdani came onside with his fellow general but the two other challengers for the leadership, Uday and al-Tikriti, lost their lives in the fighting: Qusay got over the demise of his brother quickly and would have to get used to the new way things were less he wanted to join Uday in a shallow, lonely grave.


The war with Iran had started because Saddam wanted it to. There were historic issues with Iran that Iraq long had yet it was all about his personal ambition to lead the Arab world. He had launched a war of aggression against revolutionary Iran aiming for a quick victory. That hadn’t come. What instead there was, was a stalemate which took tens of thousands lives and cost Iraq plenty of treasure too. If he believed that there was a still a cause to fight for, Rashid would have continued the war. But there was no cause that he saw to make any more of this worth it for the Iraq he wanted to lead and him personally.

As the New Year came, now secure in power, Rashid made diplomatic approaches to Iran. He used both Omani and Swiss intermediaries to contact the Iranian leadership – the civilian and religious structures – to request an end to the fighting. It would take some time to do so and there would be many more deaths before the guns fell silent. However, on February 14th 1986, the Iran-Iraq War was over with.

Peace wasn’t about to return to the Middle East though.

3 – Erstwhile friends in the Gulf

Peace with Iran gave post-Saddam Iraq nothing in return. There was an exchange of prisoners of war – many who had been captured didn’t return home though and those who did were in a terrible state – and a withdrawal from what little territory of the other that each held. A re-establishment of full diplomatic relations was promised as well yet that was about it. Rashid had only achieved what could be considered a status quo ante bellum: a return to the situation before the war. Iraq still remained beset by the problems it had before the fighting ceased. That end of the war didn’t do much to solve those.

Rashid tried though. Iraq was his now and he sought to affect changes to the country which he had inherited. He would crack down hard on the continuing internal rebellion with the Kurds and others as well as trying to repair Iraq’s armed forces. Moreover, Rashid moved to fix Iraq’s international relations. With the war over with, Iraq sought an end to the sanctions imposed upon it by the world community. Those had been imposed against the actions of Saddam, he had his diplomats state in contacts with their counterparts, and there was no need for them to continue. They were crippling Iraq and had left a once prosperous nation almost bankrupt.

It was to the West that Rashid looked in the early months of his regime. Iraq had plenty of oil to sell and the hungry West had always been a market for the black gold which came out the desert. There was some success in this where many nations were willing to ease back on the sanctions though not fully bring them to an end. It wasn’t just the war with Iran which had brought them in the first place but also Saddam’s actions against the Kurds. Rashid didn’t use chemical weapons like his predecessor had done yet there was no soft touch when it came to this important fight against internal rebellion. It was the opinion of some of his advisers, one which Rashid was soon convinced of too, that the West was only using the Kurds as an excuse. They didn’t really give a fig for the fate of such people now or at any time before. There was more to this where their oil companies and commodities traders were dictating the actions of their political puppets. Iraq was willing to open up the floodgates to sell its oil yet Baghdad would be setting the price for that oil, not those in New York and London. This caused the issue on those capitalist markets who had the politicians in their pockets. Rashid too saw the hand of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab Monarchies in what was going on with this international oil conspiracy that was taking place against Iraq.

Those countries had funded the war against Iran to stop the extremism of the Shia mullahs from infecting their predominately Sunni nations. In Riyadh and elsewhere, the sheikhs didn’t want their Shia minorities to rise up and thus had paid for Iraq’s war to keep Iranian influence contained… via the dead of Iraq’s youth. Meanwhile, those countries had been working with the West to keep the price of oil low and plenty of it on the international market all as part of a complicated international scheme against the Soviet Union’s own oil trades. Saddam’s death and Rashid’s intentions to sell Iraqi oil threatened to upturn the applecart here. The countries which professed friendship to Iraq here in the Middle East, with envoys flocking to Baghdad, displayed a willingness to not upset their own situation and thus, by extension, keep Iraq down. They were doing all for the benefit of superpower games as well! To the Saudi’s especially, Iraq owed a lot of money. The loans given to Iraq during the war with Iran were issues raised by those diplomatic envoys sent to see Rashid by Iraq’s neighbours. Though a detailed examination of what was said, he understood that those countries wanted Iraq to start repaying them. They weren’t demanding all the money up front but they wanted repayment to begin. Among all of this, when the matter was raised by Rashid and his own people he had put into diplomatic roles after getting rid of Saddam’s people – Tariq Aziz was the highest profile figure given the boot, replaced by a military officer – of Iraq’s regional erstwhile allies supporting lifting the last of those sanctions, he found they linked that to a repayment of debts.

Putting the slap in the face aside, which Rashid wasn’t going to do, Iraq was being put in an impossible situation. Iraq couldn’t reimburse those other countries unless there was full access to the international oil markets. Full access of the oil trade would only come when debt repayment begun. Who need enemies when you have ‘friends’ like these?


Under Saddam, Iraq had been considered by many outsiders to be Soviet-friendly. This wasn’t the case. There had been arms deals done where the Soviet Union had supplied weapons to Iraq during the war with Iran yet other countries – such as France and China too – had done the same. Iraqi internal measures taken against domestic communists had always been a point of contention with the Soviets too. Yet, many Iraqi geo-political goals across the Third World were in alignment with that of the Soviets. These were of the nature of having a shared anti-West character rather than any form of alliance. Iraq’s outward political position of Arab socialism was seen as an abomination in Moscow too. Nonetheless, in many eyes, Iraq was friendly to the Soviet Union. Covert support from several Western nations, including the United States, even while supporting sanctions against Iraq, had come because there was a concern among those who understood the complicated real picture on this that Saddam might take his country into the Soviet camp out of desperation. Hurting Iran was another factor in this too but keeping Soviet influence out of the Middle East had greater importance.

Rashid found that the West was only willing to treat him as they had treated Saddam. They would change nothing and treat Iraq’s new leader like they treated the old one. The Soviet Union though took a different approach. An opportunity had opened up in Baghdad and it was one cautiously probed. Moscow didn’t want to get its fingers burnt in Iraq but there was a move to see what could be exploited with this. They found that Rashid had no interest in going as far as Saddam had done with domestic communists. Moreover, he showed an interest in working to further international goals that both Baghdad and Moscow shared. He wasn’t about to roll over and turn Iraq into a Soviet client state but there was a repairing of relations underway.

This relationship grew through the middle of 1986 as Iraq’s relations with its neighbours stayed where they were. Those countries continued to grow rich while conspiring with the West to keep the Soviets in-check and by extension hurting Iraq too. Rashid found the position of the Saudis, those in Kuwait, in Bahrain, in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to be anti-Iraq the longer the situation continued. They wouldn’t budge an inch in any practical manner despite proclamations of their friendship.

Friendship!? Only the Soviets were showing Iraq any sign of that.

4 – The Devil you don't know

The interests of foreign powers, friends and foes alike, hurt the Rashid-led Iraq yet the growing domestic problems through 1986 when the country was at peace were, at the end of the day, the consequences of their new leader’s actions. There had been a significant demobilisation of troops – Iraq still maintained a large army despite this – and there was also the liberalisation of some of the worse excesses of Saddam-era internal dissent suppression. These two actions, returning men to the civilian economy and allowing for opposition forces (the Iraqi Communist Party in particular) to be let off the leash, combined in unforeseen circumstances.

When war was raging with Iran, Saddam had allowed for the entry into Iraq of foreign workers. These came from select Arab countries though also from parts of Africa and Asia. They generally did the low-skilled jobs that Iraqis themselves didn’t want to do even without the large numbers of men in uniform. The return to civilian life of so many soldiers created a crisis in the Iraqi job market. Rashid had intentions to provide for Iraqi soldiers who had faced so much horror on the battlefield and government measures decreed that there would be favouritism in the workplace for them. The foreign workers were supposed to get the boot and the demobilised soldiers would take their jobs. This all worked fine in theory but not in reality. There was the issue of employers favouring the foreign workers who they could pay less & not treat well, the fact that the returning soldiers might not wish to do these jobs & instead do something better and also the issue with internal Iraqi corruption. Rashid’s military officers had replaced Ba’athists across the nation but they had quickly learnt how to enrich themselves like their predecessors.

The Communists were fast to latch onto this issue. They played all sides: the foreign workers, the soldiers-turned-civilians, the employers and even the military officers. Other opposition groups in Iraq were unable to make anything out of this yet the Communists, allowed to function because Baghdad was scoring brownie points with Moscow, were involved. There were riots and disturbances. Some of this was organised by troublemakers but in other places it took on a life of its own. The warm summer and the general malaise of post-war Iraq left much of the country, especially urban areas, ripe for violence. Those at the very bottom of the rung in terms of having any power or protection, the foreign workers of a non-Arab origin, suffered the most. Those others who feared that the mob might turn on them joined in when attacking the lowest of the low. However, there were still instances where this wasn’t always the case and there was violence directed against Arab workers and unscrupulous employers too.

Rashid couldn’t stand for this. In his capital, there was blood running in the streets as mobs ran rampant. Parts of Baghdad were up in flames too. He flooded the streets with soldiers in the end. Order needed to be restored! This was done but it was costly. Neither did the end of the shooting solve the underlying issues.

Moreover, the Iraqi Riots led to further diplomatic woes. Many of those foreign nations didn’t really care about their workers whom had gone to Iraq and now suffered death or injury but several did – or pretended they did, Rashid believed – and made official diplomatic complaints. Egypt was at the forefront of this. Rashid was at the time involved in discussions with President Mubarak as he sought help from the Egyptian leader when it came to getting the Saudis & the Gulf Arab Monarchies to ‘see sense’ on their financial dispute with Iraq. The deaths of many Egyptians on Iraqi streets led to a break in those contacts and a diplomatic cooling with Cairo.

There was the hand of the Soviet KGB in the activities of the Iraqi Communist Party. A revolution in Iraq wasn’t being sought but there was meddling done just to stir the pot a little to see what the outcome might be. Those on the Politburo in Moscow weren’t all made aware of this factor in what occurred in Iraq. The general direction being sought by the Soviet leadership was to extend a hand of friendship to Iraq and continue to improve relations: aiding in fermenting domestic unrest wasn’t part of that.

Iraqi-Soviet friendship through ’86 was something that others were becoming aware of when it came to military matters. There were port visits to Iraq – which had a tiny coastline at the mouth of the Persian Gulf – by Soviet Navy warships and then flying from Iraqi airfields were Soviet military aircraft taking part in exercises which too saw them out in the Gulf. The first instance of this Soviet presence was put down to a one-off event elsewhere but when it was repeated several times, it became rather alarming. Both Iran and Iraq were the devil you know as far as the neighbouring countries were concerned but the Soviets were something else. These countries, each oil-rich though with extremely weak military forces despite some fancy equipment, found themselves feeling even more concerned than they had long been. They had financed Iraq’s war to contain Iranian extremism before suddenly seeing that ended unexpectedly. They were also involved in an American-sponsored scheme, which had Egyptian participation too, to help aid the Afghan rebels fighting against occupation of Afghanistan for the purposes of curtailing Soviet expansionism as well. The Soviets were now opening a presence in the Gulf facilitated by Iraq, a country with whom relations had so soured and which maintained a huge & capable military.

The Saudis and those little countries might have been worried but the Americans were even more concerned. The Carter Doctrine was still in effect despite Reagan’s presence in the White House. The Soviets were looking likely to make their presence in the Gulf now permanent, the current US president’s advisers told him. This wasn’t something that America was willing to accept. Such a thing threatened the international order which the United States wanted to maintain. The question was though how to address this.

5 – The Bear gets its fur wet

Back at the beginning of 1980, before he left office a year later, then-President Carter had spoken before Congress and the watching American people about how the United States would react should a ‘foreign power’ attempt to seize control of the Persian Gulf. Everything up to the use of force was promised in what was afterwards deemed the Carter Doctrine. This speech had occurred following the Iranian Revolution, the storming of the US Embassy there to take hostages and then the Soviet Union moving into Afghanistan: it was before the Iran-Iraq War started. There had beforehand been the announcement of a multi-service US military commitment to out-of-area operations worldwide and this, the Rapid Deployment Force, which became the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF) later on, was soon tied to possible Gulf operations under the Carter Doctrine. That foreign power was the Soviet Union despite it not being directly named. Saddam had then launched his war against Iran with the border fighting expanding to ballistic missile attacks by each other against urban areas – the War of the Cities – as well as into the Gulf where oil tankers & facilities were targeted by each side. Reagan had beaten Carter at the polls by this time and taken office, with the hostages from Tehran being released at that point, yet the Carter Doctrine and the option of using the RDJTF remained in-place. The Soviets were in Afghanistan and had also established a small presence – but a presence nonetheless – over in Iran as well as supplying Iraq with arms. The transport of oil out of the Gulf via tankers was what the West feared that the Soviets wanted to control should they move closer yet the fighting already taking place caused a lot of worry. That oil was the lifeblood of the West’s economy. It had to keep flowing in the face of Soviet desires as well as Iran and Iraq trading shots with one another.

The United States Navy, like the Royal Navy too, established a naval presence in the Gulf. They had access to port facilities (not real bases though) among the Gulf Arab Monarchies. For the British, this was the Armilla patrol with the rotation of a warship along with a supporting vessel. The Americans did things on a larger scale. When Reagan would later expand the RDJTF into Central Command – CENTCOM: a multi-service geographical combat command on par with SACEUR – there was the regular commitment of a carrier battle group to the Arabian Sea, which lay just outside of the Persian Gulf, in addition to several warships at a time going into the Gulf itself all with that nearby air power on-call. Attacks on tankers, those of the belligerent nations in the Iran-Iraq War but also those of neutral countries by Iran which they considered to be aiding Iraq’s war efforts, gained more and more American attention. There were calls in Washington for CENTCOM to prepare missions to escort tankers if this continued. The focus of the Americans remained on Iran with that nation being considered hostile in this process, more so than the Soviets to be honest.

Saddam’s death and the subsequent ending of the war which he had started at first led to talk of scaling back this Western military presence. Withdrawal of the Armilla Patrol and the redeployment of the always overstretched Royal Navy was something that there were calls to see done back in London. Even in Washington, there was consideration given to possibly easing up on the commitment: the attacks on oil tankers had ceased and the Soviets remained landlocked in Afghanistan. American hostility towards revolutionary Iran and then the worry from the Saudis and others that Rashid might do as Saddam had done and start another war kept the United States, even the British, committed to the Middle East though. The efforts of cost-cutters and the beliefs of geo-political strategists on Western politicians could have changed minds given time yet then the Soviets started making their presence felt in the Gulf when staging out of Iraq. This hadn’t been foreseen in Western capitals. It was happening though.

Ships from the Soviet Navy’s Indian Ocean Squadron had port access to facilities in Ethiopia and Yemen, some distance from the Gulf, but now Iraq allowed them to use Umm Qasr too. Their well-armed cruisers and destroyers made their presence felt in sailing through the Gulf, the Arabian Sea and out into the ocean too. Iraq’s own navy was receiving ships built in Italy and long impounded there as well as receiving some Soviet-built ships. However, it was these Soviet Navy ships which caused all of the uproar. The Armilla Patrol was outgunned significantly and despite having serious firepower among whichever carrier group was on-station, the Americans still couldn’t ignore those Soviet vessels. Moscow responded to diplomatic enquiries with the remarks that it had established a military presence in the Gulf to keep the peace. It didn’t look like that to everyone else.

There too was that presence of their aircraft. They were flying naval-rolled combat aircraft out of Iraq which flew out over the Gulf. Their fighters and tactical strike aircraft didn’t have much range but their bombers & patrol aircraft did. The strategic balance here was upset by this presence. In Western capitals they didn’t like how the Bear was getting its fur wet here and they were receiving visitors from their regional allies stating that they felt intimidated by the Soviet presence in Iraq. The reaction from the Saudis and the Gulf Arab Monarchies was done in private though. In public, they had an image to maintain. When at the same time as the Soviets were showing this overt support for Iraq, Rashid had his army, one he proclaimed as ‘victorious’ in the fight with Iran, on exercise throughout southern parts of his country. From out of Saudi Arabia, there came the worry that was expressed to the US secretary of state when he visited the region in September of 1986 that a nightmare situation might occur where the Soviets would forge an alliance between themselves, Iran and Iran together against the Gulf countries. It was an overblown fear, not one likely at all, though was something latched onto back home in Washington by certain figures pushing an agenda. Such an idea wasn’t fully dismissed though.

The following month, as CENTCOM retained its naval presence due to Soviet naval & air activities, the Americans watched as one of those Soviet ships was involved in an incident in the Straits of Hormuz at the head of the Persian Gulf. Here between Iran and Oman, a Qatari vessel was stopped on the high seas and a hostile boarding operation took place. The Soviets would afterwards state that they were responding to a distress call – this was a lie – and stumbled upon the shipment to Afghanistan, via Qatar and then Pakistan, of arms. Qatar denied the ship had been carrying weapons – they lied too – and claimed international piracy. The vessel was then afterwards forced to dock at Bandar Abbas in Iran where from Tehran the act of Qatar shipping arms to Afghanistan was denounced.

That claim from Riyadh before about an Iran-Iraq-Soviet axis now didn’t look so silly, did it?

6 – A deal

It could be said that superpower tensions eased somewhat in the coming months over the matter of Soviet entry into the Middle East and the American reaction to this. Neither side wanted a conflict. There were other factors at play, ones considered to be far more important. Premier Gorbachev and President Reagan each had their eyes on the bigger picture. Only days after that act of at-sea piracy or fulfilling international obligations with regard to maritime law – it depended upon how you wanted to see it – the two leaders had met at the Reykjavik Summit. Their talks in Iceland concerned strategic arms. Reductions in such weapons really mattered.

Upon returning home from Reykjavik, Gorbachev met with the Politburo to discuss what had been agreed with Reagan. Not long in his role, the general secretary was still conciliating his position at the very top in Moscow. There wasn’t wide, real agreement on the course of action being followed yet no open hostility either. The foreign minister mentioned to the Politburo what the Arab countries in the Persian Gulf region were crying to the Americans about: an axis between Baghdad, Tehran and Moscow with the ultimate goal of conquering them. A few smirks were raised among these men present at the Kremlin while one of the ministers even let out a chuckle. The idea was ridiculous! That wasn’t the case at all. Neither Iran with its religious extremism, of a similar sort which the Soviet Union was fighting in neighbouring Afghanistan, nor the morally bankrupt Iraq could ever be seriously considered their allies. Some cooperation on select matters was done yet that was all. Why would the Soviet Union wish for a war against those sheikhdoms to the south too? That would only bring in the Americans and turn the Cold War into a Hot War.

The matter of the ship stopped and seized was discussed too. This had occurred after approval for the operation had come at the highest level before Gorbachev left to meet with Reagan. It was done for political purposes rather than any real benefit. Unsaid among the Politburo, and something which would be denied by many if raised, was the simple fact that the KGB supplied more arms to the Afghan rebels than could be found upon that Qatari ship. The war being fought in Afghanistan involved Soviet soldiers being killed by Soviet weapons funnelled to the rebels via the KGB. Complicated powerplays were involved in this where the party, the military and the Chekists all had their own end-goals. As said, that link was something not spoken aloud of and the focus was on the American-backed scheme for the Arabs (even the Israelis had been dragged into that!) to send weapons to Afghanistan. Breaking this up and exposing it in public for Western public consumption was the ultimate intention but there was a certain way in which that would be done. Access to the Gulf for the Soviets from Iraq had brought about the ability to allow for this to continue. The Politburo was pleased with how things had turned out though there was an understanding that this was a long-term matter. There was more to be done there.

Bringing about a cooling of war worries was being done in the Middle East by those who lived there too, not just those from afar who had abstract goals. The dispute over Iraqi debts to its neighbours wasn’t one which anyone wanted. It was recognised by many as the root cause of the attempts at intervention by outsiders. Couldn’t they, as Arab brothers, sort this all out between themselves?

Kuwait made the first move. It was they who were right next to Iraq and felt the most concern for what would happen if Rashid in Iraq decided to send his army on a drive southwards. Long Iraqi territorial designs on Kuwait existed and one of the underlying reasons for Kuwait joining the others in lending Iraq all that money in the first place was to placate them. The Saudis and the other Gulf Arab Monarchies feared Iranian extremism foremost, and Kuwait had suffered that too with Iranian-backed terror attacks, but it was Iraqi invasion & annexation which Kuwait dreaded more than anything else.

Rashid welcomed Kuwait’s leader, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, to Baghdad personally when the official state visit was made. The two men had never met before but soon seemed to establish a good relationship. This came as a surprise to many. It was a matter of chemistry though. Jaber presented an offer to Rashid to solve the debt issue that Iraq had with its neighbours. There could too be cooperation on the access to the international oil markets as well. The concession here, one which freed Iraq from the impossible situation it was in, was something that stunned Rashid. He seized upon it though. Naturally, there would have to be a look at the figures and the details needed to be worked out, but what Jaber was putting on the table was what Iraq wanted.

The two men shook hands on this deal. The future looked rosy.

7 – Deterrence

The deal didn’t hold up.

The handshake between Rashid and Jaber had taken place at the beginning of November 1986 and a long series of negotiations had begun with that. Those fell apart though once the New Year came around. The Iraqi number-crunchers reported back to Rashid what the Kuwaiti offer at settling the financial dispute really meant in the long term. On the face of things, it appeared to be fair yet when examined such as they had done, the Kuwaitis were being extraordinarily greedy. Jaber and his partners to the south were going to receive a significant sum from Iraq and the minute details of the deal would see Iraq tied economically to them for the foreseeable future. Rashid had the talks cut off following a confirmation of this from outside sources. There were some West German economists, in whom he had faith because they were ‘Frankfurt bankers’ as far as he was concerned, who looked over the whole matter and agreed with what his own people were telling him. The Kuwaiti negotiation team was sent home from Baghdad was undue haste and little diplomatic niceties.

In contact direct with Kuwait’s ruling sheikh, Rashid told him that Iraq had been insulted by Kuwaiti double-dealing. He would have nothing more to do with him and would too seek a suitable response for callous betrayal which he regarded as having taken place of his trust.

Such a smashing of promising new relations came at a time where Iraq was hit once more by unrest. The domestic economical situation hadn’t been fixed. Many foreign workers had gone home after last year’s troubles and their jobs taken by demobilised Iraqi soldiers yet that wasn’t that widely done. There was much unemployment in the country with angry young men out of work and angry. To whip them up, there once more came interference from opposition groups. Rashid had ruled out making any promises of elections but he had said that political reforms would come. They hadn’t taken place. Regardless, such actions were never going to placate the opposition. They found Rashid soft too, unwilling to do what Saddam had done. That wasn’t true because the current president had flooded Iraqi streets with soldiers last year when the deceased president had never gone that far but the truth here didn’t matter that much anymore.

Perception was key.

Like the Kuwaitis, Rashid’s internal opponents underestimated him. He sent in his soldiers again against a big demonstration in the capital. The men obeyed orders and put down a peaceful series of marches with violence. Rashid would afterwards feel ‘forced’ to start using his military intelligence services against opposition figures where they would act as a secret police. Saddam’s pet killers had been long let go and Rashid had done without such a force but no longer. He also used what happened to his advantage. Knowing that the domestic situation remained volatile with the public mood whipped up, he sought to direct that anger as much as he could elsewhere. That direction was towards Kuwait. Government-organised – and policed – marches took place against the Kuwaitis in late January.

Among their allies, and to the international community too, Kuwait played the innocent victim card. They had been reasonable with Iraq and what had they received in exchange? Insults and threats followed by Rashid having the Iraqi people on the streets marching against Kuwait with claims that their country was part of Iraq, stolen from them. There were plenty who understood what the Kuwaitis had been up to and been caught doing. Yet… Iraq was who got the bad press behind this while Jaber skated free. The issue with the renewed Iraqi claims that Kuwait was rightfully a part of Iraq was the defining factor behind this. Jaber received messages of support from regional allies and found to that among the international community, especially nations to which Kuwait exported oil, there remained the long-standing hostility to Iraq.

Back in 1981, Kuwait had been one of several countries which had formed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were the other founding members. There was an economic and diplomatic focus with the GCC though the fundamental independence of each nation wasn’t affected by this partnership. As the Iran-Iraq War had continued, the GCC agreed to establish what was called the ‘Peninsula Shield Force’. This would be a joint, deployable military force to be used within the Gulf. It was a lofty goal to get this up and running: making it effective was even more of a challenge. The GCC wasn’t NATO nor the Warsaw Pact and thus was unable to have the political will neither the military capabilities to build a credible armed component. They tried though.

Oman refused to add an attachment to the Peninsula Shield Force when it was stood-up in the field come February ’87 on Saudi soil. Kuwait kept its own troops at home but the other four nations each made a commitment to what was in effect a brigade of combat troops. Starting out at Dhahran, the brigade then moved northwards to near the Kuwaiti-Saudi border, not inside Kuwait itself. This was a deterrent force and not something designed to try an intimidate the Iraqis. Such was the reason for no forward deployment given. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia both had other military forces active on their own soil too.

Nothing any of the GCC countries had organised as a ground force, individually or collectively, compared in any way to the Iraqi Army. Should it come to a fight, there would only be one winner. No one wanted that fight though.

8 – Intimidation

Iraqi diplomats found themselves under instruction from Rashid to form if not an anti-GCC alliance throughout the Middle East than at least a pro-Iraqi broad coalition. This was quite the task set for them, especially as so many of them were as inexperienced as they were. The general who ruled in Baghdad had put military officers in these diplomatic posts like he had sent others elsewhere in his government. Talks aiming to secure support from Jordan failed spectacularly. Jordan and Iraq had always had good relations no matter who was in charge in Baghdad but when it came to the matter of taking sides against Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Arab Monarchies, those in Amman would have none of that. The aid of Jordanian diplomats in resolving the matter was offered by King Hussein yet there could be no support for Iraq’s claim that Kuwait had no right to exist and thus belonged to Iraq. Down in Sana’a, the president of North Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, refused Rashid’s advances too. He’d been close to Saddam and had initially been welcoming to Rashid yet couldn’t support him on this matter… not when the Saudis had already approached him with generous financial aid promised to his country. Syria stood somewhat in contrast to Jordan and North Yemen though. When his diplomats looked unlikely to get anywhere in Damascus with President Assad’s people, Rashid went to Syria himself. The Ba’athist split between Baghdad and Damascus was something that Rashid never had a stake in. The two countries had more in common that they had in opposition. Assad agreed with Rashid that he had a valid cause to be aggrieved with Kuwait though he did stop short of making public statements calling for the disestablishment of Kuwait. Through Syria, Iraq would soon be exporting oil, which Rashid considered an important improvement in relations, though it would have been better to get full, open support on the matter of Kuwait rather than the half-measure of support that he did receive.

With diplomatic avenues not living up to hopes, Rashid attempted to intimidate Kuwait using military force. Invading Kuwait and annexing it at this point remained only a threat. It was done to keep a lid on domestic tensions – focusing anger on outsiders – as well as to turn the screws on his neighbours to bring them back to the negotiating table where they would no longer try to cheat Iraq. That intimidation came at sea.

The Iraqi Navy put to sea. There were several warships, all well-armed, which made their presence felt at the northern end of the Persian Gulf. Staying clear of Iranian waters, they instead moved from what were internationally agreed Iraqi waters into Kuwaiti ones. Aircraft joined them and made invasions in Kuwaiti airspace too. Challenged over the airwaves, there came a mixture of threats of force as well as denials that neither the waters nor airspace were Kuwaiti.

This all historically belonged to Iraq!

During late February 1987, several vessels inbound for Kuwait were challenged when at sea by the Iraqi Navy. These instances took place in international waters and Kuwaiti waters too. Claims were made that they were in Iraqi waters without permission. No vessels were directly seized though there were boardings and ‘inspections’ as well as warning shots fired to get vessels to stop. This activity caused all sorts of complications. Kuwait could do nothing to stop it nor the disruption that it caused. Moreover, as Rashid had intended, Kuwait found that there were negative financial consequences. If it continued onwards, Kuwait’s economy would take an serious hit with the delays caused to the export of oil as well as the certainty that shipping would avoid Kuwait in the face of this.

Iraqi action here wasn’t something that was ignored. The GCC countries had tiny naval forces and nothing which could influence what was happening off Kuwait unless they wanted to enter a shooting war. Diplomats from these nations were busy on the international stage yet before their impact could be felt, the West had already taken notice. Iraqi activity had a rapid ripple effect on the global markets. It wasn’t so much as what the Iraqis were doing, but what they might do. Reagan caught political flak at home while in Britain, Lloyds of London, which insured so much of the shipping in the Gulf, exerted its own considerable effort on the Treasury and thus Downing Street.

Naval vessels of both Britain and the United States turned up. The Royal Navy sent the frigate HMS Alacrity to the area with the mission of stopping piracy. The rules-of-engagement (ROE) issued to the captain were complicated though that wasn’t that unusual for RN vessels on the Armilla Patrol. Into the same waters, with less restrictive ROE, came a trio of American warships: two destroyers and a frigate. Whereas the British were long used to operating without on-hand immediate air cover (used to it; not happy not to have it), the United States Navy didn’t like it. There was a carrier in the Arabian Sea yet the flying time for its aircraft to reach the northern Gulf was significant. The mission for them and the RN wasn’t to fight here though so air cover shouldn’t matter. They were supposed to monitor the situation with Iraqi forces active here and intervene to stop at-sea piracy.

There were soon aircraft in the sky above these Western warships. The Iraqis put some of their combat jets up before, on the last day of February, Soviet aircraft flying out of Iraq were spotted in the skies too. Those captains of the American & British vessels were not going to be comfortable under the intimidation that these would bring upon them.
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