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The political demise of a regime

Published : May 09, 2003 00:00 IST

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Saddam Hussein was a brutal and autocratic ruler, but he also showed, however briefly, a dynamic vision of social modernisation. In the final reckoning, his crimes pale before the violence of the 1991 Gulf War, the cruelty of the sanctions that followed and the brutality of the final destruction.

DEATH, mayhem and anarchy have been the staple images of the war of destruction on Iraq. And far from the self-serving prediction that the aggressors would be welcomed by cheering crowds, the reception for the American and British forces has been sullen and resentful, indicating that the project to bring democracy to Iraq is soon likely to go the way of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

And yet there have been some uplifting images in the gathering gloom of resurgent colonialism. Days after a festival of iconoclasm was inaugurated in Iraq by the toppling of the statue of President Saddam Hussein at Firdaus square in Baghdad, the world was treated to the arresting image of a young boy standing on a recently vacated pedestal. His right arm raised in the posture made famous by Saddam, the child - who must have lived his entire life in the miasma of the leader's personality cult - simulates a silent benediction for the Iraqi people. Until recently, every pedestal in Iraq was reserved for one man, the popular joke being that there was one image of Saddam for every Iraqi man, woman and child.

When Faisal, the British-installed Hashemite King of Iraq was nearing the end of his days, he is known to have spoken with a growing sense of frustration of the travails of governing the fractious country. His subjects, he mused, were an emotional, well-meaning and deeply affectionate people. But they were just too disparate to unite in allegiance to a single sovereign.

Since becoming President, Saddam sought to create an image of Iraqi identity after himself. There were few nooks in the country where his image was not present. And like the people and the landscape, the personality of the President itself assumed diverse forms. Here he could be a chariot-borne Babylonian warrior, there a Bedouin tribesman, elsewhere still a Kurd, a jaunty hunter in an Alpine cap, a military commander, a sober business-suited statesman - Saddam Hussein was all these and more.

Although average Iraqis got to gaze at the leader's image virtually every waking moment , there was objectively little to suggest that his benediction did them any good. When Saddam assumed untrammelled power as President in 1979, Iraq's gross domestic product per capita was around $9,000 at constant 2002 prices. Today it is estimated to be in the region of $1,000. And as incomes have declined, so have key indicators of welfare, such as nutrition, health, literacy and school enrolment. Yet with all the intrigues launched from the northern Kurdish territories and neighbouring Jordan, Saddam could never quite be toppled. In the perspective of the neo-colonialists, Saddam had made himself coup-proof. This, as with much of the self-serving propaganda put out by the war lobby, is a half-truth.

The key to understanding the Saddam regime is to consider the various intangibles of political legitimacy that have influence in the Arab world. Baathist Iraq has lasted 35 years, just three years less than Hashemite Iraq. The Hashemites were installed on the throne by colonialism and enjoyed the West's untrammelled support, except for a brief interval when Ghazi bin Faisal reigned. A fiery nationalist-minded monarch, Ghazi was quickly disposed of by colonial intrigue, killed in a mysterious motor accident. Said K. Aburish, author of a critical and authoritative biography of Saddam (Saddam Hussein: The Politics of Revenge; Bloomsbury, London, 2000), records that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had a significant role in the 1968 coup that brought the Baath Party to power. Indeed, the U.S. publicly welcomed the Baath Party takeover but evidently failed, as the years passed, to obtain the promised rewards. It was, in retrospect, a losing bet for the U.S., since the Baath had mobilised opinion against the predecessor regime of Abdel Rahman Aref over Iraq's failure to support Arab states in the 1967 war with Israel. Diplomatic relations with the U.S. were broken off in 1967, but there was little by way of an Iraqi mobilisation. By 1969, the U.S. had signalled its disillusionment with the Baath regime. The Shah of Iran, with the obvious blessings of the CIA, unilaterally abrogated the treaty demarcating the Shatt-al-Arab waterway between the two countries. Early in 1970, he sponsored an abortive effort to topple the Iraqi government. Failing there, he launched skirmishes along the long common border, using restive Kurdish tribes in the north as a battering ram against the Baath. This undeclared war was to escalate with Britain's final withdrawal from the Gulf region in 1972 and was only called off after a virtual Iraqi capitulation in the Algiers accord of 1975.

Violence and intimidation were the common currency of the Iraqi political style since the Hashemite regime. In the early years of the Baath regime the contours of an organised police state began to take shape. But this was clearly not the sole form of mediation between the regime and potential sources of dissent. A wide-ranging dialogue with Kurdish insurgent groups was initiated in 1970, despite the Iran-sponsored hostilities in the north. In 1999, Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan gave an account of the early days of the Baath regime in a programme for the U.S. broadcasting network, PBS. Focussing on the role of Vice-President Saddam Hussein, he said: "He tried to show himself as a progressive, as a man making development and progress for Iraqi people.... He showed himself as a man of unity for Iraq. He had in his office, Arab Sunnis, Arab Shias, Kurds. Many people were thinking that Saddam is representing a new generation. Myself included."

Sami Abdel Rahman, Deputy Prime Minister of the Kurdish Democratic Party, had a similar account of Saddam's early days as Vice-President: "When first time I met him (in 1970), I had already heard that he is a rising strongman in the Baath Party and the government. And that he wants to solve the Kurdish problem. He was a smart elegant young man, who talked very logically and in strong but friendly terms. So the impression all of us got about him was very positive."

Yet in the early-1970s, the Kurds could not decide where their best interests lay - in serving U.S. and Iranian geo-political interests or in seeking reconciliation within the Iraqi state. Iraq's diplomatic relations with the U.S. remained in limbo. But by far the greatest achievement of the early days of the regime came in 1972, with the nationalisation of the Iraqi oil industry. It was a historic day for the Arabs, celebrated across the region as an assertion of rights over their natural resources. Needless to say, it was bitterly resented by the U.S. and the U.K., which had controlling stakes till then in the Iraqi Petroleum Company. But every destabilising stratagem that they had at their disposal had been pre-empted by meticulous planning. According to Aburish's account of Saddam's role in this episode, it was "vintage performance, which perfectly demonstrated how methodical and organised he was".

Over the next decade, with their control over Iraq's natural wealth assured, the Baath regime ushered in changes that were little less than revolutionary by the standards of the time. Health and education levels improved rapidly and adult illiteracy was frontally dealt with. Equal rights for women were guaranteed by law and women became an important component of the labour force. Irrigation assets were built up and agriculture was modernised. The old feudal and tribal systems of land tenure were abolished and the small holders given an assured right to the land. Behind all these changes, observers concluded, was Saddam's implacable will. "It was to change later," writes Aburish, "but at the time Saddam was creating social forces while other Arab rulers were building palaces." Nothing, Aburish points out, escaped the Vice-President's attention during this period: "Saddam was changing Iraq, and he knew it."

The petro-dollar boom of the 1970s did not drive Iraq into the embrace of the U.S., as it did with other major oil producers. Claudia Wright, a U.S. journalist who travelled extensively through Iraq in the late-1970s, reported a high degree of sophistication within the regime with regard to the handling of the country's financial surpluses. The Iraqis, she reported in the Atlantic Monthly, are "hedging in a clever way to protect their oil earnings from the effects of the declining U.S. dollar and worldwide inflation."

Saudi Arabia and Kuwait had effectively immobilised their surpluses by putting these in dollar deposits, which could not be withdrawn without further depreciation of the currency and consequently of their assets. The Iraqis, however, had "opted for variable currency holdings". In December 1978, the Iraqi Oil Minister spelt out the philosophy of his country's approach to the dollar: "We do not believe the Americans will succeed in stabilising their currency. The only alternative to the dollar that we can see is a basket of currencies, like the special drawing rights, where the dollar has one of many shares with other currencies."

This spoke of a certain arm's length circumspection in attitude to the West, which the U.S. obviously could not have appreciated. The scenario was to change rapidly with the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 and the buckling of one of the U.S.' principal geopolitical props in the region. In July that year, Saddam nudged aside Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr and assumed the presidency, shortly afterwards launching a bloody purge of the top echelons of the Baath Party to extirpate a supposed "Syrian conspiracy". A cycle of events was about to be set in motion, leading to a hesitant rapprochement with the West, mutual recoil and the final cataclysmic destruction of the Iraqi state.

Soon after assuming the presidency, Saddam expressed his wish for friendly relations with Iran based on "mutual respect and non-intervention in each other's internal affairs". The Iranian response was dismissive, but Iraq was not dissuaded. According to a biography of Saddam, relations rapidly went downhill after that: "Teheran did not reciprocate Hussein's goodwill. On the contrary, from its early days in power, the revolutionary regime sought to overthrow the Iraqi regime. Even though Iran's revolutionary zeal was directed against the rest of the Gulf states as well, several fundamental factors made Iraq the primary target for the export of Iran's Islamic revolution (Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi, Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography; Pergamon, London, 1991)."

Saddam's reform and development programme through the 1970s had targeted the Shia population for special benefits. Yet their wish for a share in political power remained unfulfilled. Moreover, the secularisation programmes of the 1970s - including the state takeover of the revenues of religious institutions and the land reforms that terminated traditional tribal forms of control - had created a disgruntled elite among the Shia, who responded with expected fervour to the messianic appeal from across the border. Having failed with the punitive approach, Saddam adopted a more conciliatory tone. He visited the Shia holy sites in the traditional garbs of piety, seeking to portray himself as a true believer. In June 1980, an assassination attempt on his close political associate Tariq Aziz brought forth another crackdown on Shia militants. And with an unrelenting chorus from Teheran calling for the overthrow of the apostate regime of the Baath Party, Iraq was reluctantly pushed towards war.

The initial pursuit of the war was half-hearted. Iraq deployed less than half its military forces in the operations and avoided attacks on population centres and economic targets. In just over a month, the campaign had sunk in a slough of strategic confusion. The original purpose evidently was to mount a massive punitive raid to persuade the Iranian regime not to meddle in Iraq's politics. But the implacable Ayatollah Khomeini was in no mood to yield. By early-1983, Iranian counter-attacks using repeated "human waves" had begun to shake Iraqi confidence. With the survival of the state now at stake, Saddam used chemical weapons against the Iranian troops. The war was to drag on for eight years and sap the energies of both combatants. With generous financial sustenance from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, both of which had reasons to be watchful about Iranian irredentism, Iraq had managed to come through the bruising conflict with its levels of social welfare relatively unimpaired. New threats were quick to emerge. Soldiers who were demobilised after the war found that there were no jobs to which they could return, since the transition to a peacetime economy was being thwarted by a sharp fall in international oil prices.

The U.S. had connived at Iraq's most serious war crimes during that dark decade, sharing battlefield intelligence to assess the damage caused by chemical agents on Iranian troops, and even supplying Iraq with the precursors and the material know-how to produce these lethal substances. But by the late-1980s, the rapprochement with the West was rapidly forgotten since evidence had emerged of U.S. double-dealing in the later phases of hostilities.

In February 1990, at an Arab Cooperation Council summit in Amman, Saddam resurrected the theme of combating the hegemony of the dollar. The Soviet Union was in decline, he warned, and the U.S. was all set to establish its world "superiority" as a "superpower without equal". This could work to the disadvantage of the Arab world. Was not the U.S. colluding with Israel in the Jewish colonisation of Arab lands? Were not U.S. warships maintaining their menacing presence in the Gulf well after the end of hostilities between Iraq and Iran? The Arab world, continued Saddam Hussein, needed to plan its moves well. The Arab countries could start by using their financial leverage in the Western banks to advance their political interests. If that did not work, then they could withdraw these deposits and invest them in the Soviet Union and in the countries of Eastern Europe. Saddam also held out a gentle warning to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, telling them that their violation of petroleum export quotas was doing serious harm to Iraq's earnings.

The Amman summit broke up in acrimony. But Iraq's persistence in playing upon the potential challenge that the oil weapon could mount to the hegemony of the dollar did not go unnoticed. It is clear that by then the trap was beginning to be baited. It was to lead, through a series of diplomatic feints and manoeuvres, to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, and the overwhelming response from the U.S., leading through two wars and over a decade of siege, to the destruction of Iraq.

In an interview with the BBC to mark the fifth anniversary of the 1991 Gulf War, Tariq Aziz, Deputy Prime Minister in the Iraqi government, was asked about the concerns and compulsions that led to the invasion of Kuwait. The denouement of the imperialist plot to destroy Iraq was still in the distant future, but Aziz' reply had a certain prophetic quality about it: "We were pushed into a fatal struggle in the sense of a struggle in which your fate will be decided. You will either be hit inside your house and destroyed, economically and militarily. Or you go outside and attack the enemy in one of his bases. We had to do that, we had no choice, we had no other choice.... Iraq was designated by George Bush for destruction, with or without Kuwait. Inside Kuwait or outside Kuwait. Before the 2nd of August (when the invasion of Kuwait took place) or after the 2nd of August."

These may sound like paranoiac words, but recent accounts of the prelude to the invasion seem to lend it much support. Aburish has pointed out how Kuwait seemed strangely impervious and deaf to the appeals of all the Arab countries that tried to mediate a peaceful outcome to the dispute with Iraq. Several countries are believed to have warned the Kuwaiti delegations at various crisis meetings not to adopt a stance that could prove ruinous to the Arab world's collective interests. But the Kuwaiti Prime Minister's last word on the matter, just days prior to the invasion, was that Iraq could do its worst, since Kuwait had "very powerful friends".

Dilip Hiro in a recent work (Iraq: A Report from the Inside; Granta, London, 2003) mentions the visit of a Kuwaiti intelligence official to the U.S. in November 1989. According to a memorandum later prepared for the Kuwait Interior Minister, the State Security Department (SSD) of Kuwait and the CIA had agreed at the meeting "that information would be exchanged about the armaments and political structures of Iran and Iraq". It was also agreed, said the Kuwaiti memorandum, "that it was important to take advantage of the deteriorating economic situation in Iraq to put pressure on that country's government to delineate our common border".

This document was discovered by Iraqi forces in Kuwait in September 1990, shortly after the invasion, and it was promptly placed before the U.N. Security Council. The U.S. denounced it as a forgery. But as commentators have pointed out, if Iraq were to plant a forgery, it could well have made it much more damaging to the Kuwait cause. Even after the invasion, a number of exit options were explored. The initial Saudi reaction, to resolve the matter within the framework of the Arab League, was scuttled by relentless U.S. pressure and faked intelligence purporting to show an Iraqi intent to invade the desert kingdom. A later Saudi effort to work out a few territorial concessions between Kuwait and Iraq was shot down by Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi Ambassador to Washington and a long-time servitor of U.S. interests.

In October 1990, Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov came up with another set of proposals, which was rejected out of hand by the U.S. and the U.K. Aburish records that as the occupation of Kuwait wore on, Saddam's main interest was to find an exit option that would safeguard his personal honour and uphold Iraq's security and dignity. Sensing this, the Western cabal insisted on an unconditional withdrawal. As The Economist put it editorially, the idea was not just to secure Iraq's withdrawal but to ensure that the withdrawal was as humiliating as possible. Knowing what great store Arab cultures set by honour, the purpose was not just to reverse Iraq's aggression but to inflict national humiliation.

NO evaluation of the Saddam Hussein regime could avoid the fact that it was brutal and autocratic, often impelled by a sense of nationalist paranoia into unspeakable crimes. But it was also a regime which briefly showed a remarkably dynamic vision of social modernisation, only falling in upon itself when threatened with warfare and economic dislocation. An immense number of people have been killed by the Saddam regime and many have suffered. Equally, it must be said, many more benefited and stood potentially to gain more when the social modernisation process was rudely halted in 1991. And in the final reckoning, Saddam's crimes are nothing compared to the violence of the 1991 Gulf War, the insensate cruelty of the sanctions that followed and the brutality of the final destruction. Saddam denied the Iraqi people their basic political rights, assuring them instead that their social and material rights would be given due priority. The West responded to this by denying the Iraqis their material rights and killing their aspirations for social advancement. Inevitably, victors' justice will prevail in the immediate aftermath of war. But the judgment of history will be quite something else.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated May 09, 2003.)

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