‘It was a grave mistake not to topple Saddam Hussein in 1991’

20 years ago, the US and its allies, the “Coalition of the Willing”, overthrew the regime of Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath Party in Iraq. Their goal was to replace the brutal dictatorship with a democratic system.

Thomas von der Osten-Sacken i manager of the aid organization Wadi e.V. in Northern Iraq for over thirty years. V. and thinks that this has been successful, albeit after a lot of effort. Stefan Laurin spoke to Thomas von der Osten-Sacken.


Former Prison of Iraqi Security Forces, Picture: Thomas v. der Osten-Sacken

Ruhrbarone: The overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party by a US-led coalition in 2003 is seen by many as the great sin of international politics at the beginning of the century and as evidence of Western hubris. The price the people of Iraq and the region have had to pay has been civil war, instability and the emergence of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State.

Thomas von der Osten-Sacken: In my view, the great fall from grace was that Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party were not overthrown in 1991. At the time, the US-led coalition was content to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. At that time there were major uprisings against Saddam in southern Iraq, and they were brutally suppressed by the regime, killing hundreds of thousands. At least the Kurds were able to liberate themselves and create the autonomous region of Kurdistan. Since then, semi-democratic structures have been set up there and the people of Kurdistan live in relative safety. In the 1980s, they were victims of poison gas attacks 47 times. Over 250 mass graves have been exhumed in Iraq since 2003 and many remain to be discovered.

anfal map

This terror used to determine the everyday life of all Iraqis. Many have forgotten or never wanted to admit what a criminal and brutal regime was in power in Iraq. I was sort of a spokesman for the Iraqi opposition in Germany in 2003 and apart from the communists, who opposed the war but not the overthrow of Saddam, all major political organizations were in favor of the US-led coalition overthrowing Saddam. In 2003, Kurdish Peshmerga fought alongside the Allies against Saddam’s army. They could not hope for the solidarity of the left in Europe, who would rather oppose the United States than Saddam’s regime.

Ruhrbarone: The USA justified the 2003 war primarily with the existence of weapons of mass destruction, which were never found.

Thomas von der Osten-Sacken: The weapons of mass destruction were just one reason among many. Saddam had used them in the past and at the time refused to prove that he had destroyed his old stocks. In the case of chemical weapons such as poison gas, it is not at all about the stocks, but about the knowledge: whoever has the knowledge can produce them quickly at any time. And it was German companies that enabled Saddam Hussein’s regime to do this and sold him the knowledge and the necessary equipment.

Ruhrbarone: After winning the war and the occupation, however, chaos broke out. What had the Allies done wrong?

Thomas von der Osten-Sacken: They assumed that the public structures would remain intact in Iraq after the end of the regime, just like in the Kurdish areas after 1991. But that was not the case. Whether water works, power plants or the buses: nothing worked anymore. With the end of the regime, all structures collapsed and chaos ensued. The country was broken after decades of brutal oppression. That was one of the two great and tragic misjudgments.

Ruhrbarone: And what was the second?

Thomas von der Osten-Sacken: Viewing Iraq as a homogeneous country. In the north, where Kurds live and in the south, with it’s Shia majority, people felt liberated by the Allies.

najaf 2003

Locals cheer American Troops in Najaf 2003, Picture: Wikimedia Commons

The Sunni triangle roughly formed by the cities of Falluja, Ramadi and Tikrit, and also in Mosul, the elites who benefited from Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath Party were entrenched. They started the fight against the Allies and later also supported the Islamic State. While the north and the south only had to be liberated, these Saddam supporters should have been fought. But there was a lack of troops for this. They were also missing in the fight against gangs supported by Iran. So the country fell into chaos that need not have lasted as long as it did. Iran was afraid that regime change in Iraq would be a success story.

Ruhrbarone: But Iran also supported this “resistance”.

Thomas von der Osten-Sacken: The Iranian Iullahs wanted everything, but not a democratic Iran. Their mantra was that Islam and Democracy are incompatible.

But that was not in line with the thinking of Shia clerics in Iraq, many of whom represent the Shia mainstream more than the Iranian Mullahs do. Most of them wanted a democratic Iraq, not the Iranians in charge. As everywhere in the Middle East, Iran has been and continues to be a destabilizing factor in Iraq.

Ruhrbarone: The crucial question for me is: Are people better off today?

Thomas von der Osten-Sacken: I’m sitting here in Sulaymaniyah and when I look out the window I see a modern city with high-rise buildings, restaurants and traffic jams, where people are not afraid to speak their mind.


Main Street in Suleymaniah, Picture: Thomas v. der Osten-Sacken

And that’s how it is everywhere in Iraq today, not just in the Kurdish autonomous region: anyone who doesn’t remember the time of Saddam’s regime can’t imagine what it’s like to be afraid of the secret police picking you up at four in the morning and every protest is brutally crushed. There are elections, presidents come and go. People’s incomes have risen sharply, with the south still being very poor. Iraqis bitch about their government, but they can do so without fear. There is a parliament that is democratically elected and strong, and all major parties are committed to democratic elections and the Iraqi constitution. It’s good that in Iraq, unlike in Tunisia, the French didn’t win through with their idea of a strong president. In a crisis, a presidential democracy tends towards dictatorship. Then the president wants to be the strong man who doesn’t let parliament say anything more. In Iraq, the president is weak but the parliament is strong. This is a good basis for lasting democratic development.

Ruhrbarone: Where is Iraq today?

Thomas von der Osten-Sacken: Today the country is more or less whre it should have been in 2005, if things had gone well. I think there would have always been a chaotic and uncertain phase after decades of dictatorship, but it shouldn’t have had to be so long and bloody if the Allies had guaranteed people’s safety with more troops. Iraq is a democracy in the making, with citizens voting and arguing about politics as it should be. Today, the army and police serve people from a wide variety of groups in the country. Young Iraqis, and Iraqis are young because half the population was born after the war, are no longer afraid of the police. You go to a police station without fear, for example to report a theft. Under Saddam, the police were primarily an organ of the dictatorship. Of course, everyone who travels in Iraq has a map in their head with neighborhoods and regions that are better avoided, because they are dangerous. But that’s no different in Brazil or Colombia and they are democratic countries. No, the occupation was not the great fall from grace, but a lot could have been done better. Leaving Saddam in power was not an option. By the Arab Spring at the latest, there would be major massacres of the population. Saddam did not stand for any stability, he stood for mass murder and oppression.