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The Forgotten War

[Iraqi Casualties. Image from unknown archive] [Iraqi Casualties. Image from unknown archive]

Selective amnesia is often deployed or manipulated to package history in a more simple and palatable narrative. The process involves major elisions to edit out any event(s) that might complicate the desired reductive and truncated narrative. One such major elision in the reigning Iraq narrative is that of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). That destructive war claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Iranians and predetermined the lives of millions of others. It impacted the societies of both countries in a visceral manner and many of its effects and repercussions can still be discerned today, yet it is rarely discussed beyond its name and a passing mention. Recalling some of its long lasting effects might illuminate a few things taking place today in Iraq.

Three decades ago, in September of 1980, there were skirmishes and bombings of border posts between Iraq and Iran. On the 22nd of September, Iraqi bombers attacked Iranian airfields and air force bases in an attempt to disable Iranian airpower. On the ground, Iraqi troops invaded Iranian territories and occupied a number of towns. This was the culmination of tensions that had intensified in the months before. The ostensible reason for the dispute was the strategic Shatt al-Arab waterway, which formed the border between Iran and Iraq in the southernmost part of Iraq. The 1975 Algiers agreement, signed between the Shah of Iran and then vice president Saddam Hussein during the OPEC Summit in Algeria was supposed to settle border disputes. The border was to be the median of the Shatt al-Arab river. This was an undesirable compromise for the Iraqi regime, but the Iraqi army was drained by its campaign against Kurdish guerillas fighting for independence in Iraqi Kurdistan. One of the byproducts of the agreement was that the Shah terminated his support for the Kurds. Beyond national borders and claims of sovereignty was the quest for regional power and dominance.  

Saddam had officially assumed full and supreme power in July of 1979 and eliminated most of his enemies within the Ba`th and the regime itself. He had aspirations of being a pan-Arab and world leader and saw the war as a way to secure that. The fall of the Shah and the rise of the Islamic Republic in Iran energized Islamist movements in the region with discursive support in the promise to “export the revolution” as well as material support. Aside from the by then decimated and severely weakened Iraqi Communist Party, the Da`wah Party (Nouri al-Maliki’s party) was the regime’s only remaining organized enemy on the ground. Despite the regime’s brutal crackdown against any opposition and massive executions, the Da`wah was still active. On April 1st, a few of its members attempted to assassinate Tariq Aziz at al-Mustansiriyya university in Baghdad. On April 9th, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (1935-1980), one of the founders of the Da`wah Party and one of the most influential Shi`i scholars of the 20th century was executed by the regime together with his sister, Nur al-Huda, herself an activist. The symbolism and impact of these executions was to haunt Saddam many years later. The post-invasion Iraqi regime chose to have Saddam executed in the very same building where Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr was executed. The masked men who carried out the execution chanted the name of another, much younger Sadr, Muqtada.

Following the assassination attempt on Azizi, the Iraqi regime rounded up tens of thousands of Iraqi Shi`is, supposedly of Iranian descent, expropriated their property, and left them at the Iranian border. Iran became the temporary home for thousands of Iraqi refugees and opposition figures including Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim (1939-2003) who founded the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI, latele Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, ISCI)) in 1982 and its military wing, the Badr Brigades, which fought alongside Iranian troops at times. The Badr Brigades entered Iraq after the Anglo-American invasion of 2003 and became notorious during the sectarian civil war. But they were tainted in the eyes of many Iraqis already for havening their home in Iran for so many years and for continuing to receive support from the Iranian regime.

Saddam declared the Algiers Treaty null and void in 1980 and war was inevitable by then. The Iranian regime was deemed weak and plagued with internal struggles and conflicts. The Iranian army was judged to have been severely weakened by purges and executions of many of its officers. But it was a colossal miscalculation on Saddam’s part and the war raged on even after 1982 when the Iranians liberated all Iranian territory and started their own assaults on Iraqi territory. Fearing the demise of their own regimes in the event of an Iranian triumph, the Gulf regimes supported the Iraqi regime and extended billions in loans.

Internally, the war allowed the Iraqi regime to recast any internal opposition as treason and disloyalty. Army deserters were executed in public. The militarization of society had already started before the war, but it reached new heights because of it. Al-Jaysh al-Sha`bi (The Popular Army) became a second support army of sorts. It had some Arab volunteers in its ranks, but the great majority of its fighters were Iraqi civilians who were rounded up and forced to join. Following a short training period they were assigned to the battlefront.

Scenes of the brutal battles fought on the front were regularly shown on Iraqi TV in the evening. “Battle Scenes” was the title given to the program. The charred corpses of Iranian soldiers and their remains were shown accompanied by classical music and bombastic commentary. Those images were etched in the collective memory of Iraqis, especially the children.

The Iraqi regime’s powerful media machine was successful at manipulating Arabism and Iraqi nationalism to recast the war against Iran as a continuation of ancient Arab-Persian rivalries (it was called “Qadisiyyat Saddam” to hark back to the Islamic conquest of Persia). Scores of Arab intellectuals were co-opted and praised secular Iraq in its fight against Iran’s “theocracy.” By the end of the war in 1988, the discursive archive was quite powerful and voluminous. Many Arab and Iraqi intellectuals slip back to that archive nowadays in their critique of pro-Iranian Iraqi parties and end up regurgitating the Iraqi Ba`th’s discourse. This discursive archive is a treasure-trove for Arab neo-cons and for reviving anti-Iranian hysteria and fears of the so-called “Shi`i Crescent,” whenever necessary. 

Intricately related to this are the effects of the discursive and propaganda war waged between the Iraqi and the Iranian regimes. Iranian propaganda represented the Iraqi Ba`th as un-Islamic regime. To counter this and defend itself, the Iraqi regime appropriated religious symbols and Islamic vocabulary in its own propaganda and Saddam Hussein, who previously had been a fan of Lenin, was frequently shown praying and visiting religious shrines. This was perhaps the beginning of the erosion of what had previously been a more secular political discourse.

The war drained the economies of both countries and crippled their growth. The total cost to both countries was estimated at $1.9 Trillion. Iran agreed to UN Resolution 598 in August, 1988 and a ceasefire was in place on the 20th of that same month. None of the issues and disputes for which the war was initially waged were resolved. There are no exact figures, but Iran lost at least one million lives and Iraq about half of that. By the end of the war, Iraq’s army had grown to more than one million. Reintegrating them back into society proved to be very difficult. Iraq’s total debt by the end of the war was $130 billion, half of which was loaned by Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE. Another costly and disastrous adventure (the invasion of Kuwait in 1990) was the easy solution to a host of socioeconomic problems and massive debt. Only two years after the end of the first war, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait would lead to the 1991 Gulf War, which destroyed what remained of Iraq’s infrastructure and out it on a more disastrous course.

Looking at Iraqi politics and society today one can see some of the many effects of that long war at play. The excessive militarization and mobilization of society and militia culture. The wounds and ghosts of that war still haunt both peoples. Many of the political actors today are the children, victims, and veterans of the Iran-Iraq war and are still waging some of its battles and deploying its discourses.






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