The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Mr Major’s Article on Iraq – 19 February 2003

The text of Mr Major’s article on Iraq, published in House Magazine on 19th February 2003.


It looks like war but it is not yet unavoidable: Saddam could back down or be deposed, or accept an offer of sanctuary although, sadly, none of these options is likely. President Bush could not – and will not – back down and, with one-quarter of the British Army committed, nor can Britain.

It is a natural human emotion to oppose war but action against Iraq is not precipitate. Iraq has been ignoring the UN for twelve years and continues to do so despite clear knowledge of the consequences. She has chemical, biological and conventional weapons and has not shrunk from using chemical weapons on her own people. She is feared as a threat to stability in the region and may have links with terrorist organisations. The longer the delay in disarming her the greater her strength may become, not least in developing a nuclear capability: and if Saddam is seen to face down the most powerful nation in the world, his prestige in the Middle East will be given an enormous boost.

If it does come to military action, the United States will win. Iraq, with her massive but ill-equipped Army, cannot withstand the most powerful military force the world has ever seen. The US spends more on defence than the next nine high spending nations added together – and such power is irresistible.

But the fact that the US will prevail militarily is one of the few certainties that lie ahead. The danger of Saddam unrestrained is well understood but the short and long term risks in restraining him have had little public airing.

But these risks are stark. In the short term, there is the dangerous situation that arises as Saddam is faced with a war he cannot win and the near-certainty that he will be deposed. This is very different from the Gulf War. Then, Iraq was to be evicted from Kuwait. Now, although Resolution 1441 does not specify regime change, it seems almost certain that Saddam and his Government will be removed from power unless they disarm voluntarily. Since, notwithstanding their defeat in the Gulf War, the regime has remained in power sustained by the Republican Guard and the feared Secret Police, the chance of them stealing away quietly seems an unlikely option. We must, therefore, presume that we may have an unstable and threatened man at bay: what may he do?

At worst, there is the risk that Saddam, believing he has nothing to lose, will use all his arsenal in the forthcoming conflict including biological and chemical weapons. If so, what would be his target? It could be the invading Army. Or he could attack Saudi Arabia for being staunch allies of the US and as revenge for the Saudis’ financing of the Gulf War. Or, of course, his target could be Tel Aviv in order to draw Israel into the war in the hope of maximising Arab support. He will be likely to use conventional weapons to set alight the Iraqi oil wells in an attempt to maximise economic chaos. He would justify this latter act of destruction by deploying the populist but misguided view that the aim of the US is to control Iraqi oil. He may also seek to contaminate or set alight oil wells in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

He might also leave as his legacy a gift of weapons of mass destruction to terror groups so that they might strike against the US and her allies for years to come. This, of course, assumes he has not already done so. None of these scenarios may come about but none dare be ignored.

We must plan also for what may happen in Iraq itself once the immediate battle is over. There may well be chaos, near civil war, revenge taking and the onset of anarchy.

At the end of the Gulf War in 1991, a Shi’ite uprising began and may do so again once US and other ground troops begin to get the upper hand. Such an uprising could even include Baghdad where there is a large Shia population. Last time, the strife was brutally put down by the Republican Guard. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of Shi’ites have been killed by Saddam’s regime. As a result, Shi’ites in the holy cities – Najaf, Basra, Karbala – have old scores to settle and will not be merciful to their Sunni enemies. The US and her allies may arrive as liberators but be compelled to remain as peace-keepers.

The US may also have a task to keep Iraq as one entity since, as in 1991, there is a subliminal suspicion among many Arabs that one war aim might be to dismember it. This is not so but, were it to happen, it would inflame suspicion and hostility throughout the region. In the North, the Kurds could well manoeuvre for an independent Kurdistan, a long cherished aim. It is highly unlikely to come about – the US, Turkey and Iran will all oppose it – but the wily Kurds will be pushing for it and this may well add to the post war cocktail of chaos.

And what happens post Saddam? What nature of Government is likely to take power? Another ‘strong man’ is unattractive for he may be as bad as Saddam. The US would have great difficulty in governing Iraq and, no doubt during a UN supervised interlude, there will be efforts to form a new Iraqi Government.

This will not be easy and the replacement Government may not be benign: the concept of a Western style democracy can be dismissed. In practice, voting by clan would mean power would pass from the less-than-20% Sunni minority to the overwhelming Shi’ite majority. This would be bitterly resisted by both Sunnis and Kurds. Even if any new Government is dressed up in some form of regional representation and minority involvement, it would still be dominated by the Shi’a. We would awaken to a Shi’ite Iraq alongside a Shi’ite Iran which would harbour ambitions to dominate the Gulf. At first, their eyes would turn to the Shi’ite communities in Bahrain and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. The Gulf States would tremble and their tremors would reverberate throughout the region.

The destruction of the whole hideous apparatus of Saddam’s regime has an aftermath with ramifications far beyond Iraq. It would be folly beyond belief to plan only for a swift and successful war followed by a smooth transfer of power. It may be not all these problems will arise – but some surely will. We must prepare for the many problems ahead for it would be ironic to win the war only to lose the peace.

Yet if the US and Britain are to win the peace, they must win hearts and minds for their cause. This will not be easy. The cause is not popular in the Arab world and, unlike 1990/1, there is no Arab coalition for the war. There is little or no regional support for it either. Instead, there is resentment and suspicion of the motives of the US and Britain with many voices claiming the war to come has more to do with Imperialism and Oil than disarmament. Although these charges are unfounded and wrong, they are deeply felt and damaging. To help minimise opposition and build long term support, the US and Britain must have their plans ready for the reconstruction of a war damaged Iraq; for the renovation of her already-declining oil industry which they must make clear will be left in Iraqi hands; for the provision of food, water and medicine to a population that will be grievously short of all such necessities; and for dealing with an exodus of refugees to neighbouring countries.

The advocates of war cite the need for Churchillian resolve for their enterprise – and they are right. But when the fighting is done, they will need another Churchillian virtue – magnanimity – or Iraq will sink into despair and the Moslem world will grow still further in hostility to the West. If that were to be the outcome it would be a calamitous setback in the war against terror.

It may be easy to win the war: it will not be easy to win the peace.