Seeds of Hope: What if the Allies had Occupied Southern Iraq in 1991?
By Chris Nuttall
What actually happened: In discussing the war, Margaret Thatcher was very insistent that the oil fields in the south of Iraq (Shia-dominated regions) be held temporarily by the coalition powers to pay reparations for the damage to Kuwait and (probably) to pay for the cost of the intervention. The matter was not seriously discussed, however, and most of the urgency was lost when Thatcher was disposed of her position as Prime Minister – her successor, John Major, was less inclined to press Bush I towards any position.
The Shias revolted at the conclusion of the Gulf War, but a combination of perfidy, incomprehension, exhaustion and scheming allowed Saddam to rapidly crush the rebels without any intervention from the allied powers. This soured the entire region and played a major role in creating the conditions for the insurgency that followed the liberation of Iraq in 2003. (The Shias, quite reasonably, distrusted the US.)
What might have happened: The Allies end up occupying the south of Iraq.
One of the major flaws with the war planning was the lack of any post-war planning (a lesson that wouldn’t be learnt ten years later) and any idea of what should be done at the end of the war. Bush and his team focused on a quick victory, expecting that Saddam would lose his power and life very rapidly, allowing a short period for Iraq’s rehaliatation and return to the family of civilised nations. Other states wanted some form of US guarantees of an outcome acceptable to them, or merely to avoid further US involvement in the region. The issue of cost was also a dangerous item; there was some very real reluctance to pick up the tab for the multinational force. It was generally assumed that Iraq would pay some reparations, but Iraq’s economic state made extracting any reparations a difficult and politically dangerous task.
Let’s have Thatcher’s idea placed before the President and the (exiled) Kuwaiti Emir before she leaves office. The Emir had already balked at some of the cost (famously being reminded by the Saudis that it was a choice between the throne or his bank balance) and was grimly aware of the danger of Iraq taking advantage of Kuwait’s problems to impose a new government that might hold some political legitimacy. (Unlikely, but possible; IMHO, one of the major mistakes of the Gulf War was not insisting that Kuwait went democratic.) The idea also offers the possibility of a buffer between Iraq and Kuwait, somewhere where American troops can be based without exciting public opinion. The Saudis follow the same line of logic and support the plan.
There is little need to make a significant alteration to the Desert Storm campaign plan at this point. The American-led force will include a few more civil affairs units than it included beforehand, but it will have the task of securing the south of Iraq as well. It is unlikely that the Iraqis will have time or be willing to inflict serious damage on the oil wells, but in any case, it is possible that most of Saddam’s elite units will continue to escape the trap. Shia conscripts will melt into the local population; what uprisings there are will be devoted to assisting the American-led force as it secures the region, rather than a futile and bloody uprising against the Iraqi Government. For the moment, the region is quiet.
That won’t last. Saddam, in Baghdad, knows that he cannot allow the Shias any long term of independence. He is also worried – not entirely without reason – about Kurdish uprisings in the north and the Americans taking the chance to move on his city and dispose him. Iraqi army officers begin working desperately for the ‘mother of the mother of all battles;’ a desperate attempt to prepare for a possible invasion. Saddam is defiant; it serves to unite the Iraqi people (or at least the Sunnis and no one else counts in his view) behind him.
The negotiations drag on. Saddam’s fear of possible internal revolt means that he cannot afford to bend at all. The US finds itself in the position it didn’t want; a long-term commitment to defending a statelet that – legally – cannot be given a government or even a defence force of its own. The Shias are starting to organise themselves into a political entity and presenting their own demands and the allies are getting restless. France bows out of the coalition after a couple of months of increasingly acrimonious discussions between France, America and Iraq. The US has presented its demands to Saddam, but Saddam refuses to bend; showing weakness could be fatal to him in ways that the Americans could not match.
The US has a second problem. The people of the region, in Basra and the other settlements, are organising themselves under Kuwaiti tuterlage. The media is being shown images of what happened under Saddam’s rule, and what might happen if the coalition force is withdrawn. The issue actually leads to a serious political trend in favour of establishing a provisional democratic government in the region; Bush finds himself in a weak spot because the US has not encouraged the formation of a local government. His opponent, Clinton, uses it as a weapon; he warns the world that Bush might hand Basra et al back to Saddam if given half a chance. The Major Government, in Britain, finds itself blamed by the Opposition for the long-term British commitment, although to Major’s credit, he refuses to budge on the issue.
Bush finds himself working at cross-purposes to himself. One problem is that the use of Iraqi oil to fund the occupation is working, but it comes at a political price; the ‘unofficial-official’ Government of Basra (a shadow coalition enjoying broad political support) is using the issue to gain advantage. Assisted by people like Ahmed Chalabi, the Barsa faction is pointing out that the oil belongs to them, not to Saddam or the United States. Saddam’s own instringence is making it harder to be certain what he might do, but there are no UN inspections or even a real peace agreement. Worse (from Bush’s POV) the local ‘government’ has adopted a platform designed to appeal to western audiences; democracy, human rights, rights of women, freedom of religion…in short, it is a political liability that Bush cannot drop.
As the elections loom closer in the United States, the political firestorm grows. Saddam is pointing out that the United States is encouraging Iran to extent its grasp into the south of Iraq, threatening both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Elements within Saudi itself see the presence of American troops as an abomination and demand that they be removed; one man, Osama bin Laden, plans to take the issue a step further. (It doesn’t stop his company from collecting billions of dollars in American reconstruction money.) Saddam’s offer of a conciliatory approach, recognising local autonomy in exchange for the end of the American occupation, might look good to Bush, but the local reaction and peaceful protests are reported widely around the world. Bush hopes to put the issue aside until after the election…
…Which he loses to William Jefferson "Bill" Clinton.
[One might argue that Bush would win here, but frankly, Bush was never able to be decisive when it mattered. Neither was Clinton, but Clinton wasn’t the person who was being tested.]
Saddam plays into Clinton’s hands in the lead-up to his inauguration. His formal rejection of any independence for Basra and the south of Iraq was calculated to raise hackles; his refusal to allow UN inspections for chemical and biological weapons forces Bush and then Clinton to order a series of airstrikes against suspected facilities. Saddam also has his allies in the UN; both Russia and France will provide some support in exchange for later contracts. This has the effect of forcing him to remain focused on recovering the lost territory; without it, his supporters will lose interest.
[No, this is not France-bashing or Russia-bashing, but a statement of their positions.]
Clinton comes into office determined to solve the ‘problem’ presented by the occupation. The first step is to reduce the costs as much as possible, both in financial terms and in political terms (after all, if he hammered Bush…) to America and his administration. There are also tricky political issues at home and abroad; continued possession or at least influence over the oil fields is something important to oil companies, while the survival of the semi-state is of importance to some factions of the Democratic Party. His solution is, under the circumstances, the best one he can come up with.
Saddam cannot be disposed, either though a popular uprising, a coup, or by direct military action. The semi-state (sorry, but the precise wording for a situation like this is a little hard to define) cannot be abandoned, or Saddam’s army will march in and crush it, costing Clinton a large part of his core constituency. The American and British occupation might be popular with the people, but American exploitation is not; now that a year has passed, there are some rumbles of discontent over the use of the oil money.
The US, contrary to Saddam’s claims, is not raping the south of Iraq. What it is doing is controlling the source and destination of the oil money. One-third is being paid to Kuwait for reparations, one-third is meeting the costs of the occupation, and one-sixth is being put against Iraq’s debts. That leaves only the final sixth to invest in Basra and the south, something that the shadow government finds revolting. They didn’t invade Kuwait, after all, and it’s their oil. As the benefits of peace start to spread still further, there is some unrest and American troops start to face some of the dangers of living in a possible war zone.
Faced with Saddam on one side, and political complications on the other, Clinton acts. As Iraq cannot be trusted with Southern Iraq, the US will set up a provisional government that will oversee the region until some hoped-for reunification along the lines of East and West Germany. Kuwait will no longer receive any reparations, but will continue to support the small state (hereafter referred to as Basra), along with Saudi Arabia. Basra will be permitted to develop a defence force and American troops will remain based within the country until at least 2020.
Saddam’s supporters proclaim it to be neo-colonialism and worse, but the UN – which had been facing demands from several states like Libya and Syria to declare the US action illegal – was confronted by the truth of Saddam’s campaign against the Kurds. Saddam tried to suppress them in 1991, but launched a much larger campaign in 1992-93; the Kurds are facing the fury of Saddam’s suppressed rage. Surprised and angry, Clinton orders the establishment of a no-fly zone, despite the Kurdish request for comparable protection and support to the Basra Government. Saddam vows revenge and digs into Iraq.
Clinton turns his mind to other projects, such as trying to negotiate a peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, working on internal projects and his own grand plan for reforming America. The American mind slips away from Basra, but American and British soldiers continue to be based there and, to some extent, America has actually profited by the occupation and the establishment of a democratic state. Clinton does not cut the army much – although he insists on the deployment of more civil affairs units – and some of his plans to reform health care are actually met with more enthusiasm. Other trends, however, are becoming apparent…
The only Shia state in the Middle East was Iran; now there are two, one of them a very strong democracy. (partly because of the presence of American troops, partly because of the awareness that democracy will attract American support, partly because of fears for the future.) As Basra becomes more wealthy and powerful (in theory, Basra could become as wealthy as Kuwait), it starts to have an effect on other Shia populations around the region, including the Shias in Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf States.
Saudi Arabia had lost most of the American troops based in the country when barracks were opened in Basra. Their loss was not mourned by the people, but the Royal Family was terrified. The opening of Basra oil meant that they were less important to the Americans…and they depended very much on American support against internal and external enemies. A rumbling tide of discontent started to rise, some of it directed, some of its leaderless…and all of it focused on the democratic success and honesty of the Basra state.
[Absent the major presence of American forces in the country, discontent becomes more focused on the Royal Family.]
Worse, the Shias are starting to grow unsettled themselves. The Saudis have historically responded badly to such unrest, but now they are in the middle of a serious crisis. Iran makes matters worse by a public relations campaign directed against the Saudis, attempting to regain the position of leadership over the Shias. (This has more in common with the Soviet claim to leadership over the world communist movement rather than direct formal authority.) Iranian weapons begin slipping into Saudi; the Saudis are forced to call on American support to secure their coastline…
…Which provokes a crisis with both Basra and Saudi. America had prevented Basra from becoming involved in the Gulf affairs – officially. Unofficially, Basra worked hard to build up goodwill, including some voluntary assistance to Kuwait and charitable work among the Shias in Saudi. The oppression of the Saudi Shias becomes worse and so does the reaction from Riyadh; Clinton finds it harder to make any real impact on the region through a combination of internal and external pressure. America is paranoid about Iran, but much less worried about Basra…and Clinton’s own support base refuses to allow him to aid the Saudis much. He is also under attack by the neoconservatives (I use this term because everyone will understand it) who want the US to become much more involved with redrawing the map of the region.
The discontent spreads rapidly. Osama bin Laden extends a long network of support into Saudi, calling for the overthrow of the Royal Family, the suppression of the Shias, and the termination of all relations with America. The Royal Family finds itself in a blind; if it orders the army and the National Guard to open fire on protesters, there is a good chance that it will not be obeyed, while it cannot arrest the more radical clerics for fear of sparking off an uprising. It arrests some moderates, including a handful of women who dared to drive, only to discover that it is pushing the moderates out of business. The radicals take control. As the chaos starts to spread, the Saudi economy collapses.
Clinton goes to the polls in 1996 with a major weak point, although he has escaped any major military disaster. [The Battle of Mogadishu was butterflied away as US troops were more concerned with the Middle East.] His supporters want more decisive action to be taken in support of the Shias in the Gulf, even though that risks bringing the US into some kind of relationship with Iran. His detractors point to the chaos spreading out of Saudi and start wondering when Saudi will go the same way as Iran. Part of the problem is that there is no real opposition in Saudi for the US to negotiate with…and the Princes are leaving their country. All it needs is for some idiot to light a match…
…Which happens on the day of Clinton’s (re)inauguration. A peaceful protest against Saudi oppression in the east of Saudi (including dozens of oil wells) becomes violent as nervous guards open fire and the protesters produce weapons of their own. The fighting spreads rapidly out of control – the Saudi National Guard is hated and incompetent, not a good combination – and the Saudi authority collapses over the entire region. The shadowy government – semi-elected, semi-appointed by Iran – declares itself an independent state and asks for support; Iran agrees at once. Iran starts transporting in weapons through the air.
The Saudi royal family hesitates. The RSAF could stop the air bridge, although not easily, and it is sent into battle. They daren’t summon up the army, however; the army might decide that turning the guns on the royal family instead is a better idea. They attempt to negotiate as American power is drawn into the region – America cannot allow Iran to control so much of the world oil reserves – and it is a fatal show of weakness. Protests begin in half a dozen cities and get radically out of hand as radicals declare the Royal Family unislamic and traitors to the country. Amid calls for a Jihad against Iran and America alike – and Basra, just to be complete – the Saudi government collapses. A small-scale civil war has begun.
Clinton finds himself torn in two. Images of the Saudi massacre of protesters in the Shia lands have been broadcast around the world. The fighting in Saudi is having a major effect on the world price of oil, even with the US keeping the sea lanes open and Iran slapped back; the price is rising and threatening to damage the American economy. US forces are on stand-by, but where do they go? Iran is preparing to move across the gulf in support of the Shias, Saddam’s forces are preparing to invade Basra and the fighting in Palestine has popped up again. The US is coming in for very heavy criticism at the UN; having started the problem, the charge is that the US is doing nothing to solve it.
A coalition government is finally formed in Saudi, headed by Osama bin Laden. It’s shaky, however, and very dependent on keeping everyone onside. It’s a coalition of radicals, businessmen and army officers (those that remain; princes are being torn apart on sight) and is very, very shaky. It doesn’t help that while Osama bin Laden is seen as a liberator inside Saudi, he is seen as a terrorist by the outside world.
[Questionable; would Osama bin Laden enjoy the same degree of notoriety as he does in OTL?]
The government is forced to work hard to gird the country for war. The problems are immense; they are distrusted by most of the world, they have very limited resources, they have a rebellion going on in the oil-producing regions and a shattered economy. As they start to work to solve some of the problems, they end up with a surprising, indeed unprecedented, offer of help from the one person they would prefer never to talk to.
TO BE CONTINUED…