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Iraq: Relations With The West Haven't Always Been Contentious

  • Kathleen Moore

War is looming as the United States and Britain prepare to disarm the Iraqi regime by force. It's hard to believe that modern Iraq's relations with the West have been anything other than hostile. But it wasn't so long ago that Iraq enjoyed periods of support from Western countries.

Prague, 12 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- "A personal friend." That's not what you're likely to hear many Western leaders call Saddam Hussein these days. But that's how Jacques Chirac, then France's prime minister, once spoke of Hussein during a visit to France.

To be sure, that was nearly three decades ago and several years before Hussein became Iraq's undisputed leader. Still, as war looms and Western countries argue over how best to disarm Iraq of its alleged weapons of mass destruction, it shows how Baghdad's relations with the West have not always been so hostile.

Modern postwar history shows two main periods that "bookend" Iraq's pro-Soviet sympathies throughout much of the Cold War. One prominent example is the Baghdad Pact of the 1950s. This pro-Western alliance brought together Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan as a counterweight to Soviet influence in the region. Another key member was Britain, which had drawn the map of modern Iraq in the early part of the last century and retained significant influence there even after formal independence in 1932.

But the alliance would be short-lived. It drew strong opposition in neighboring countries, not least from Egypt's president, Gemal Abdel Nasser, who was widely popular among Arabs. Iraq's military coup of 1958 would bring an abrupt end to the ruling monarchy and British influence, as well as to Baghdad's participation in the pact.

Over the next two decades, as Iraq's leaders drew closer to the Soviet Union, Iran and Saudi Arabia were the U.S. allies of choice in the region.

One Western country that kept close economic ties with Baghdad at this time was France. In the 1970s, Paris helped Iraq build a nuclear reactor, which was bombed by Israel in 1981 before it could go online. France also became one of Baghdad's main arms suppliers, hence Chirac's cordial remarks about Hussein in 1975.

But Iraq's ties with the United States would hit a low point toward the end of this period, with the United States putting Iraq on its list of states sponsoring terrorism.

Everything changed in 1979, again thanks to a revolution -- this time in neighboring Iran. The big worry was that the Islamic revolution would spread beyond Iran and destabilize the region.

Glen Rangwala of Cambridge University is an expert on the West's relations with Iraq. "When the Iranian revolutionaries took over, and especially when they took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the British and American governments -- especially the latter -- decided they needed a strong new alliance with one country in the region and that country turned out to be Iraq. So they were setting up Iraq, at least in that period, to be a powerful counterweight to Iran," Rangwala said.

Within a few years, diplomatic ties with the United States were restored and Iraq was taken off the list of countries sponsoring terrorism, a move that once again allowed arms exports and other support to Baghdad, such as agricultural credits. It was a strategic decision that, arguably, helped contain Iran and end the devastating Iraq-Iran War, despite the fact that Iraq had been the aggressor.

But it also had other, far-reaching consequences.

Bruce Jentleson is director of Duke University's Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy. He's also the author of a book about this period, called "With Friends Like These." "It was a classic 'enemy of my enemy is my friend' calculation made by the [Ronald] Reagan administration and then continued by the first [George] Bush administration, even after the Iran-Iraq War was over," Jentleson said. "One of the fundamental flaws in the calculation was not realizing that the enemy of my enemy may still be my enemy, too." And it wasn't just a U.S. misperception, he said. "Many European countries -- France, Italy, Germany, Britain -- all had more extensive technology trade with Iraq in the 1970s and '80s."

At the same time, Western intelligence showed that Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons, which he used against Iranian soldiers and Iraqi Kurd civilians. He got much of the technology on the black market, as well as with the help of now legally acquired technology.

"Not sufficient attention was paid [to the intelligence], partly because of this overfixation on the Iranian enemy, partly because of a somewhat naive belief that somehow Saddam would be changed into a moderate," Jentleson said. "So between the black market and legal trade in dual-use technologies -- technologies that could be used either for commercial or military purposes -- Saddam did indeed acquire much of the equipment and materials that helped build his [weapons-of-mass-destruction] complex."

Again, this phase in Iraq's relations with the West would abruptly change after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The United States led the coalition of countries that evicted Iraq from its tiny neighbor during the Gulf War. Then came a decade of UN sanctions and on-and-off UN inspections to check if Iraq had gotten rid of its weapons of mass destruction.

And in the next few days or weeks, possibly war.