Bitter Iraqis remember George H.W. Bush as 'Mr Embargo'

Baghdad (AFP) –


The death of former US president George H.W. Bush stirred bitter memories for Iraqis Saturday of "Mr Embargo" -- the man behind crushing sanctions they blame for ravaging their country.

Under Bush's command, US soldiers in 1991 drove invading Iraqi troops from Kuwait, which strongman Saddam Hussein had infamously dubbed his nation's 19th province.

Iraq was slammed with crippling global sanctions and an oil embargo that left many relying on ration cards and slim salaries for over a decade -- a period not easily forgotten by those who lived through it.

"For Iraqis, Bush has no honourable reputation. Not a shred of respectability," said Shamel Abdulqader, a 60-year-old writer in a café on Baghdad's famed Mutanabbi Street.

He called the former US leader "a criminal and an aggressor" -- blaming him for the breakdown of ties with Iraq that the West pinned squarely on Saddam.

Starting in 1990, the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on Iraq that were seen as the toughest in UN history, with a near-total trade and financial embargo.

The sanctions were lifted in the years following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, led by Bush's son, but the shortages they brought are still fresh in the minds of Iraqis.

"Bush was Mr. Embargo -- he hit the Iraqi people hard," said Abdulqader, who sported a dark moustache and walked with a cane.

"In the end, it was the Iraqi people who paid the price."

- 'Destiny' -

Baghdad saw a period of relative prosperity during the 1970s, but the embargo laid waste to the economy that had emerged from eight years of brutal war with Iran in the 1980s.

"Iraq was on the fast-track to becoming a developed nation, with gross domestic product (GDP) tripling and high foreign currency reserves," said economic analyst Ahmad Subeih.

"When the embargo was imposed in 1990, it drained everything. GDP dropped from $33 billion to $16 billion because of it and 193 major firms closed," Subeih added.

Salaries plummeted by some 90 percent, he said.

To eke out a living, Iraqis sold their personal belongings and took up multiple jobs. Government employees moonlighted as taxi drivers and university professors would polish shoes in the streets for extra cash.

Even after sanctions were lifted, the economic impact of the conflict lived on.

Baghdad still has to pay reparations to Kuwait, so far doling out $47.9 billion to an estimated 1.5 million claimants.

Many Iraqis see a direct connection between Bush's 1991 intervention, the US-led invasion overseen by his son 12 years later, and the country's poor state today.

"It's Iraq's bitter destiny that the country's ruin and the destruction of its infrastructure was all tied to the Bush family," said Jamal al-Itabi, 70, tears welling up in his eyes.

- 'Nothing left' -

"We only remember him for death, pain, sadness, starvation, the destruction of infrastructure. Iraqis under siege ate dirt because of him," said Itabi.

"Then he sent us his son to occupy the country and sow the chaos that we still see today."

After the 1991 defeat, a mosaic of Bush was installed at the entrance to the landmark Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad, reportedly on Saddam's orders so that guests could insult the US leader by stepping on his face.

It was removed shortly after the 2003 invasion.

Mohammad al-Sheikh, 52, was himself a soldier during the first Gulf war and said Bush had "hurt" Iraq.

"He imposed an unjust siege on the children, youth, and elderly of Iraq," said Sheikh.

"We ate hay. We buried our dead far away from their hometowns. He bombed our schools and hospitals, even our power stations. We had nothing left."

Another Iraqi officer who took part in the fighting, but spoke on condition of anonymity, said Bush was remembered as a "criminal".

"It goes without saying that you won't find an Iraqi mourning him today," he told AFP.