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I came away with the sense that the Iraqis are simply fed up. If you look at what Iraq has gone through in the past decade, you can see why. They had eight years of war with Iran, a war which was very divisive internally because a large proportion of Iraqis are Shiites and many of them actually favored Khomeini and the new system in Iran. About 60 percent of the Iraqi population is Shiite. The other 40 percent is Sunni, but within that there's another division, in that approximately 50 percent is Sunni and approximately 50 percent is Sunni-Kurdish - so, politically, these two groups often are at loggerheads because of their ethnic difference.
Besides the war with Iran, Iraq also went through a period of economic liberalization in which the government tried to promote the private sector and made all kinds of reforms, including the privatization of industry. They dissolved the labor unions. Wages dropped. There was unemployment. There were all the kinds of stresses that we see in Eastern Europe right now, that same kind of eonomic instability and collapse. All this was going on from October 1988 until the initiation of this new military venture. So Iraqis, I think, are generally fed up. They don't understand why it is that they have to bear the burden of the Arab cause time and time again. They thought that's what was going on with the Iran-Iraq war and now they're doing it again.
What do you mean by the "burden of the Arab cause?"
Well, each one of these conflicts for the Iraqis and the Arabs has been framed in terms of opposing an external non-Arab entity. The Iran-Iraq war, of course, was about opposing the Persians, and particularly the Iranian revolution. And that's why all the Arab countries supported Iraq in this war; Kuwait and Saudi Arabia loaned Iraq billions of dollars to fight the war against Iran. The current conflict, which started out as a financial disagreement with Kuwait, has now been posed in terms of, first, a conflict between the Arabs and the Israelis, and now a broader conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims, or Arabs and the West. So in that sense, it's very abstract for most Iraqis. They can't quite understand why basic goals that they have - such as getting a better standard of living, having their children educated abroad, living the kind of life that other people in oil-exporting countries live - have been shelved once again for these abstract ideological causes.
So how did Iraq get in this position? I mean, these things always seem like they come out of the blue, but of course, they don't. There's always a history.
A lot of the Middle East's current problems come from the colonial period. After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the borders of Iraq were drawn deliberately to prevent Iraq from having an easy access to the Gulf. So Iraq had, as a country, this persistent problem of not having an outlet to this main waterway. And of course, once it became a major oil exporter, this became a huge problem for them.
Another thing is that all of these borders were drawn somewhat arbitrarily. When Britain and France carved up this area, they did not pay very much attention to the ethnic and religious composition of these countries or to the economic resources that they had. I'm not suggesting that there was a deliberate negative agenda, but there certainly wasn't careful attention given to what these countries were going to look like afterwards. Under the Ottoman Empire, Kuwait was part of a province that was actually administered from Basra, which is a city in Iraq. So that whole historical dimension of the unity between the two countries is actually there. There are a lot of older ties as well: a lot of tribes that you can find in southern Iraq will have kinsmen in Kuwait; there are a lot of trade ties, and so on. I'm not suggesting in any way that, therefore, the historical claim that the Iraqis are making is valid. I'm just saying that Iraq's claims didn't appear out of nowhere. They came right out of the colonial period and affected what happened later.
This isn't the first time that Iraq has tried to press its claim to Kuwait. Under Abdul Kareem Kasim, a populist who came into power immediately after the revolution of '58, the Iraqis did try to take Kuwait after the British moved out of Kuwait in 1961. The British had maintained a base at Aden, which is in the Arabian peninsula in the south. When the British moved out, Abdul Kareem Kasim moved his troops in and captured part of Kuwait. The response at this point from all the Arab states was extremely forceful. Even though the Arab world at the time was tremendously divided - remember, this was the heyday of Nasser, and the Arab world was divided between the monarchies and the republicans and there was a tremendous amount of conflict. Still, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, all these countries sent troops to the area, and then the British began to send troops, and Abdul Kareem Kasim then moved the Iraqis back out.