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The Thief of Baghdad

In other revolutions such events are blamed on the victim. But Matar’s biography makes it quite clear that it was the Baathists who took the initiative: Saddam

felt that Abdel-Razzaq Nayef’s participation was an obstacle in the Party’s path. Following discussion of the matter, it was agreed that Saddam Hussein would confront Nayef on his own at the Presidential Palace. Nayef’s special guard was drawn off, then, in Ahmad Hassan Bakr’s room at the Palace, Saddam Hussein drew his revolver and ordered Nayef to raise his hands. Nayef tried to play on Saddam Hussein’s feelings by appealing to him to spare him for the sake of his four children. Saddam Hussein was adamant; he told Nayef that he and his children would be safe only if he left Iraq. Saddam Hussein then said he would appoint Nayef as an ambassador, and asked to which capital he would like to be posted. Nayef chose Beirut, which Saddam Hussein rejected; he also rejected Nayef’s suggestion of Algiers, but agreed to send him to Rabat.

Matters did not end here. Once Nayef had accepted, Saddam Hussein ordered a plane prepared to convey him from the Rashid Military Camp to Morocco. Saddam Hussein ordered Nayef to act naturally, to salute the guards when they saluted him, and to walk normally to the official car awaiting him. He warned Nayef that his gun was in his jacket, and that if he saw the slightest sign that Nayef was about to disobey his orders he would end his life there and then. He asked some of his comrades to remain at the Palace to protect President Ahmad Hassan Bakr. Saddam Hussein sat next to Abdel-Razzaq Nayef all the way to the Rashid Military Camp. The plane was waiting. After it took off, Saddam Hussein felt tears come to his eyes. One shot could have aborted the whole operation to get rid of Nayef, but fate decreed that the operation went without a hitch from beginning to end.

Nayef subsequently went into exile in London, where he was assassinated in 1978, after a first attempt to kill him had failed in 1973.

Again, it is not really important how many of the details in this account are accurate. The point is that this is the story as Saddam himself wishes it to be known. He is shown as acting decisively and using armed force—in this instance behaving like a gangster—but doing so on behalf of the party and in order to assert its control over the armed forces. And he did so not only against Nayef, who was not a party member.

In the next step he “nipped in the bud the plans of some highly placed Baathist officers in the Revolution Command Council who were hoping to take advantage of the fact that they had taken part in the move to remove Nayef.” This was done by giving the posts of prime minister and commander-in-chief, as well as president of the republic, to the secretary of the Regional Command (i.e., leader of the Iraqi branch of the party), Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr, whose family was closely connected with Saddam’s.

The only flaw in this logic is that Bakr himself was also a career army officer of thirty years’ standing. Saddam was fortunate in finding such a partner. As al-Khalil writes, Bakr’s “Party seniority coupled with his high standing among officers was probably important in facilitating the repeated purges and growing hegemony of the civilian wing of the party over the army” during the early 1970s. By 1979, however, Saddam was strong enough to correct this anomaly, taking over the highest state and party offices himself. Bakr was honorably retired, ostensibly at his own request and on grounds of ill health. His removal was accompanied, however, by yet another purge of the party, including some of its highest-ranking members, conducted very much in the Stalinist manner.

Matar’s account of this affair is particularly chilling. Suspicion, he claims, was first aroused when Muhyi Abdel-Hussein, the secretary of the Revolution Command Council, requested a vote on the proposed transfer of state and party responsibilities from Bakr to Saddam Hussein and tried to dissuade Bakr from his decision to retire. This was suspicious, Matar tells us, because Abdel-Hussein’s job was only to take notes,

which was not a position that gave him the right to enter into such a dialogue with the President. Indeed, several leaders close to President Bakr had previously expressed doubts about Muhie Abdel-Hussein’s character and personality. What was odd was that, in spite of all this, Muhie Abdel-Hussein had remained in his post. After he was found to have taken part in a plot against the leadership…it was said that he had reached his position through devious means and that he was originally Persian.

After this, Saddam Hussein decided

to keep under observation those leaders who had looked worried or distressed after the Regional Command had decided that Muhie Abdel-Hussein should be taken in for questioning…. The participants in the plot tried so hard to act naturally while the questioning of Muhie Abdel-Hussein was going on that they made themselves conspicuous….

Those whose names were revealed by Muhie Abdel-Hussein were not arrested immediately, but their involvement in the plot was confirmed by their guilty behaviour…. After the Court had passed final sentence, it was decided that Party members should carry out the execution since the plotters had all been members of the Party. This would help to boost the Party’s morale after it had been shaken to find that conspirators had infiltrated it at such high levels. After this decision had been taken, every Branch was asked to send a delegate armed with a rifle. Hundreds of delegates congregated and carried out the sentence of execution on their comrades who had been found guilty of treason.

Matar says that he asked “some top Iraqis” why the plotters, all of whom owed their promotions to Saddam Hussein, had not wanted him to take over power. “The answer was that as long as there is a revolution, there will be a counter-revolution.”

Samir al-Khalil, drawing on opposition sources, adds some details that Fuad Matar omits: during the investigation (which coincided with his takeover of the presidency) Saddam held hostage the families of one third of the members of the Revolution Command Council “while these officials continued to sign papers and make appearances. In the meantime, he purged hundreds of their cronies, and finally executed the lot, including some of the families”—notably that of Muhyi Abdel-Hussein, whose

confession was filmed and then, as one version of the story has it, shown to an all-party audience of several hundred leaders from the entire country. A grief-stricken Saddam addressed the meeting with tears running down his cheeks. He filled in the gaps in [Abdel-Hussein’s] testimony and dramatically fingered his former colleagues. Guards dragged people out of the proceedings and then Saddam called upon the country’s top ministers and party leaders to themselves form the actual firing squads.

It seems that some five hundred high-ranking Baathists were executed by August 1, 1979, but, Khalil says, “the full scale of killings and lesser degrees of terror at all levels of the party must be considered still unknown today.”

As you see, to read these two books side by side is a fascinating exercise. What is particularly striking is that on points of fact Matar’s hagiography hardly contradicts al-Khalil’s terrifying account of the Baathist mentality and method of government. Wherever they do differ on details, it can in itself be instructive. In the above account of the 1979 purge, for instance, al-Khalil gives the last name of Muhyi Abdel-Hussein as Rashid. Matar gives it as Mashhadi. Since Mashhad is a place in Iran, one can only assume that this name was bestowed on the unfortunate Abdel-Hussein posthumously, after it had been discovered that “he had reached his position through devious means and that he was originally Persian.”1

A few pages further on (neither book is arranged chronologically) Matar deals with the Baghdad summit meeting of 1978 held to rally Arab governments against the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel. (Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad of Kuwait, it is piquant to note, is mentioned as “one of the most important participants.”) “The Iraqi people,” he writes, “participated in the preparations to host the Arab kings and presidents. Many families living in Mansour, one of the most exclusive residential districts in Baghdad, offered their homes as guest houses. The houses were ready to receive the arriving VIPs within two days—some had even been refurnished for the purpose.” If the reader wonders how such generosity on the part of “the Iraqi people” was stimulated, he need only read the dramatic opening passage of Republic of Fear, “a true story, the details of which have been changed,” in which a citizen of Baghdad, taken without warning from his apartment to the local headquarters of the secret police and interrogated at length (but to no apparent purpose other than to frighten him) about his recent movements, is then told to vacate his house—clothes, furniture, and all—within ten days, leaving his keys at another office in the building and registering his new address. Months later a telephone call informs him that he can collect the keys and return to his house.

Not a single official piece of paper was proffered, or for that matter asked for. Salim, having recovered from the mechanics of his tribulations, shoved the matter aside as one might the weather or a natural disaster of some kind, and pressed on with his otherwise perfectly mundane life.

Samir al-Khalil,” as I have said, is a pseudonym. It would have to be, since its user is identified on the dust jacket as an Iraqi expatriate. No one with relatives currently living in Iraq could possibly publish a work such as Republic of Fear. But the book is not, it must be emphasized, a mere chronicle of atrocities committed by the Baath regime. It is an extremely subtle and erudite analysis of the way that regime actually thinks and functions. The author’s approach is a refreshing change from most of what passes for political commentary in the Middle East, especially in its rejection of the standard Middle Eastern conspiracy theory according to which whatever one dislikes must be the work of external, usually Western, “imperialist” powers. But the book is depressing to read because it brings one back repeatedly and inescapably to the conclusion that this appalling regime is, in its own terms, remarkably effective and successful.

The test of war,” Khalil writes, “points to a large degree of Ba’thist success in moulding the country’s youth in their own image.” This point is echoed by Dr. Pelletiere, Lt. Col. Johnson, and Dr. Rosenberger, all of the US Army War College, in their report Iraqi Power and US Security in the Middle East. They write that during the war against Iran,

  1. 1

    Family surnames are not traditional in the Arab world. Last names commonly denote the place of a person’s origin or that of his family. The Baath regime in Iraq has officially abolished such surnames, on the grounds that they encourage local particularism. Critics believe that the true motive was to avoid drawing attention to the fact that Saddam himself shared the surname “Takriti” with an embarrassingly high proportion of his senior aides and colleagues, many of them closely related to him.

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