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The Thief of Baghdad

the Ba’thists in 1986 ordered what amounted to a total call-up—knowing that their order could backfire on them. The Iraqi people might have refused the regime’s demand, which, under the circumstances, would likely have caused the downfall of the Ba’th. By complying—that is, by going along with the regime’s appeal—the Iraqi people in effect gave the Ba’thists a vote of confidence. The regime now has a broader political base than at any time in its history.

That, perhaps, is going further than the evidence warrants. Certainly it should not be taken as implying that the call-up of 1986, or anything else that has happened in Iraq under Baathist rule, was in any sense a free choice or a free vote. But it is also true that coercion is a method of government that Iraqis have been conditioned to regard as normal, and the ability of the regime to use it may actually be evidence of its legitimacy, rather than the reverse, in the eyes of much of the population. “Iraqi Arabs,” Khalil writes,

have always thought of themselves as having to be ruled in a certain way. Frequently in casual conversation they will contrast themselves with Egyptians or Indians for whom being subjugated, as many Iraqis would put it, is “part of their nature.”

And he points to the importance in Iraqi folklore of Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, the Umayyad governor of Iraq at the end of the seventh century AD, who used extreme violence to tame that turbulent province, and is held thereby to have laid the foundations for “the whole splendiferous drama of Iraq’s rise to preeminence under the Abbasids.” “Every Iraqi schoolchild,” according to Khalil, can quote the famous speech which Hajjaj made to the populace upon assuming his governorship: “I see heads before me that are ripe and ready for the plucking, and I am the one to pluck them, and I see blood glistening between the turbans and the beards.” There is, he suggests, a striking analogy between Hajjaj and Saddam Hussein.

This too would fit with the Stalin analogy. It would suggest that Saddam’s regime is a ghastly but perhaps somehow necessary phase in Iraq’s history, to be endured and if possible survived, but hardly to be resisted with any effect unless to provoke it to even greater savagery. Only when the regime has consolidated itself and a new generation has taken over would there be a hope of its being gradually corrupted and relaxed, à la Brezhnev, and eventually liberalized, à la Gorbachev. Khalil seems to endorse this point of view when he writes:

By presupposing, for instance, that torture is immoral, later generations of Iraqis will certainly try to untie the Gordian knot of Ba’thist legitimacy. In the meantime, Iraqis must live with the consequences of their actions regardless of legal niceties and despite postulated “rights,” which at this point in time have no real currency within the culture.

But on the previous page he also refers at some length to the Hitler analogy, suggesting that the success of Hitler’s coercive violence was only possible because large numbers of Germans accepted it as the way to achieve national objectives that they endorsed, and that “learning from the moral conundrums posed by such experiences necessitates putting aside the infantile notion that people treat all rulers who coerce them as illegitmate.”

The Hitler analogy occurred to me a good many years ago. Or rather, it was suggested to me by an official of the regime itself. When I visited Iraq in 1975 I was told by my government interpreter that Saddam’s half brother and head of intelligence, Barzan Takriti, had asked him to procure books on Nazi Germany. He believed that Saddam himself was interested in this subject, not for any reason to do with racism or anti-Semitism (he might have added, but did not, that the Baath had no need for tutors or models in this respect), but as an example of the successful organization of an entire society by the state for the achievement of national goals.

That set me thinking. Baathism is unquestionably a nationalist philosophy. It is also virulently anticommunist. (The alliance with the Soviet Union was purely tactical and designed to further nationalist objectives. Within Iraq, Baathists have alternately massacred Communists and humiliated them.) It calls itself socialist, while emphasizing that this “socialism” is based on the united force of the “Arab masses,” not on class divisions. At the same time it has borrowed more than it likes to admit of communist vocabulary, communist ideas on party organization, and above all communist paranoia about conspiracies and counterrevolutions. Is this not national socialism, if not quite National Socialism?

Then came the war with Iran, during which it struck me that Iran’s attitude to Saddam was more or less exactly the attitude of the Allies to Hitler during World War II: he was the aggressor; he was also a brutal and barbaric ruler fundamentally opposed to their ideology; he was dangerous, and no state in the region would be safe so long as he was at large. Therefore the only satisfactory way for the war to end was with his overthrow, and any talk of a compromise peace was treason. Finally he took to using poison gas, which made him a war criminal; and having used it successfully against the enemy he turned it in virtually genocidal fashion against the Iraqi Kurds. To my mind Saddam was definitely a regional Hitler—not quite a world-scale one—by the time the war ended in 1988. But at that time not many people in the West wanted to see him that way. To treat him as Hitler would have meant accepting Khomeini’s Iran as an ally. Of course against the real Hitler the West did accept Stalin as an ally, but then we ourselves felt directly threatened by Hitler. Few people in the West felt directly threatened by Saddam before August 2, 1990.

Saddam eventually won his war with Iran, with a great deal of outside help. The Soviet Union and France provided weapons in large quantities, many of them highly sophisticated, while the US withheld from Iran both spare parts and ammunition for its US-made weapons (except during the Iran-contra affair), and put pressure on its allies to do likewise. The Arab states of the Gulf, especially Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, donated oil of their own to be sold on Iraq’s account, and lent Iraq billions of dollars they knew would not be repaid. The US and its allies intervened, in 1987–1988, to protect those countries’ shipping from Iranian attack, while allowing Iraq open season against Iranian shipping. The West also turned a blind eye to Iraq’s more and more extensive use of chemical weapons in flagrant violation of international law. West German firms appear to have supplied the components of these weapons and the technology to manufacture and store them—a fact that was surely known to Western intelligence services. The US reportedly gave Iraq access to intelligence on Iranian military dispositions, and US firms are said to have been involved in helping Iraq’s military industry develop a missile production capacity.

Certainly the US government made it easier for Iraq to finance its war effort by providing credit guarantees, interest-free loans, and food deliveries at subsidized prices. The UK government also provided credit guarantees for British firms selling goods to Iraq, including military equipment of a supposedly “non-lethal” nature. I recall being personally rebuked in 1983 by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, after she had given a lunch for the deputy prime minister of Iraq, because I had written critically about the state of the Iraqi economy. “We’re doing very good business with Iraq,” she said. “You must support our businessmen.” It is a grim thought that some of those businessmen, and many of their employees, are now being held hostage by Saddam Hussein, whom Mrs. Thatcher has belatedly identified as a “despot and a tyrant who must be stopped.”

All of this was based on the premise that Iraq was defending civilization against a tidal wave of Islamic fundamentalism, or at least that an Iraqi victory would be the lesser evil. Yet when that victory occurred the West had no policy to hand for dealing with it. These were years when the West was taking a very firm line about human rights in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, which probably contributed to the changes there, and certainly earned the approval and gratitude of the peoples concerned. But, as Human Rights in Iraq amply documents, Iraq’s human rights record was worse than that of any Eastern European country, Romania included; the book’s principal author, David A. Korn, writes in his conclusion:

Iraq is a well-organized police state and its government is one of the most brutal and repressive regimes in power today. With the exception of freedom of worship, the Iraqi government denies its citizens all fundamental rights and freedoms, and ruthlessly suppresses even the smallest gestures of dissent. Iraqi citizens enjoy neither freedom of expression nor freedom to form or join political parties or trade unions of their choice. Their government subjects them to forced relocation and deportation, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, 2 disappearance, and summary and political execution. There is no meaningful legal recourse in Iraq against these abuses.

The Iraqi government imposes its rule through:

the Baath party’s monolithic organization, which penetrates all elements of society and is responsible for enforcing political and social conformity;

a pervasive system of informing—such that Iraq has become a nation of informers—which denies Iraqis the right to express their views candidly, even in private, and encourages friends and family members to report on one another;

a highly developed cult of personality for President Saddam Hussein, active participation in which has become a test of loyalty and a prerequisite for advancement;

secret-police agencies that are empowered to arrest, detain without trial, torture, and kill.

Western governments were well aware of this. Korn quotes a senior official of the US State Department describing the Iraqi government as “possibly the worst violator of human rights anywhere in the world today.” Yet that official and his colleagues “expressed considerable reluctance to press Iraq on human rights issues,” arguing that the Iraqi government was “uniquely impervious” to such pressure and that, despite substantial political support and trade credits supplied by the US, there was “little or nothing Washington can do that would make a difference.”

While Korn, investigating on behalf of Human Rights Watch, was shocked at Western governments’ seeming indifference to Iraq’s human rights violations, the team from the US Army War College were equally shocked by US complacency about Iraq’s newfound military power. Iraq, they warn,

because of its geographic location is able to jeopardize interests that are absolutely vital to us; it is the preeminent power in the Persian Gulf, an area on which we are becoming increasingly dependent for our oil supply.

They also point out that “the style of warfare in the Middle East has changed, radically, which means that, to perform competently, our forces must be reconfigured, retrained and reequipped.” But in spite of this their recommended strategy seems to have been one more of appeasing than of deterring Iraq, which, they believed, would “for the foreseeable future…have neither the will, nor the resources to go to war.” Baghdad, they write, “should not be expected to deliberately provoke military confrontations with anyone. Its interests are best served now and in the immediate future by peace.”

They do refer to Iraq’s acute and growing economic problems, aggravated by debt, but failed to foresee that Saddam might seek to break out of these by grabbing oil-rich Kuwait. Had they talked to Iraqi exiles they would have discovered that such a move would instantly boost Saddam’s popularity at home, since it would have been regarded as legitimate by almost all strands of Iraqi opinion. (I was warned in February by Iraqi exiles to expect an Iraqi takeover of Kuwait within six months. They believed this was the only way Saddam could stimulate positive support for his regime, and so assuage popular anger at the continuing economic hardships two years after the end of the war with Iran. Iraqis were taught to regard Kuwait as rightfully part of their country long before the Baath came to power—much as Argentines regard the Falklands, Spaniards Gibraltar, or Chinese Hong Kong. In recent years this nationalist irredentism has been sharpened by jealousy of Kuwait’s prosperity and resentment at what was perceived as Kuwaiti arrogance. Since August 2 one Iraqi expatriate told me, “I hate Saddam but I am delighted at what he’s done to the Kuwaitis.”)

Under the heading “Human Rights,” the Army War College experts state blandly, “This issue relates to the Kurds”—as if the extensive violations of the human rights of 75 percent of the Iraqi population chronicled by Khalil and Korn were of no significance. Even more surprisingly they assert, without quoting any evidence, that the massacre of Kurds with chemical weapons at Halabjah in March 1988 was more likely the work of Iran than of Iraq. As Korn says, survivors testified that the chemical weapons were dropped from airplanes well after the town had been captured by Iranian and Kurdish forces and after fighting in the immediate area had ceased: it was Iran, not Iraq, that raised an immediate outcry, inviting the international press and humanitarian organizations to view the bodies and interview survivors; and Iraq, for its part, “produced no victims or evidence to sustain allegations that the gas attack at Halabja in mid-March was the work of Iran.”

The Army War College authors are critical of the then US secretary of state George Shultz (whose name they misspell) for his condemnation of Iraq’s use of chemicals against its Kurdish population in August 1988, and especially of the US Senate for seeking to impose sanctions on Iraq over this issue. They profess themselves unconvinced “that gas was used in this instance,” brushing aside the consistent and detailed evidence collected in over two hundred interviews by Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff members with survivors who had fled to Turkey, and completely ignoring the further eyewitness accounts from refugees in Iran, together with soil samples from inside Iraq, which were collected by the British journalist Gwynne Roberts and corroborated by chemical-warfare specialists to whom Roberts showed them on his return home. They also give a curiously garbled account of the Paris conference on chemical weapons in January 1989 and of the US position on this issue, ignoring the distinction between use of chemical weapons (banned by the Geneva Protocol of 1925) and their production, which is at present legal but would be banned under a draft convention currently being negotiated in Geneva under the aegis of the UN Disarmament Conference.

That said, the strategists of the Army War College make some concluding remarks on “the US dilemma” which are painfully pertinent to the present crisis. “It is extremely unwise,” they say, “to take the Ba’thists for granted or to underestimate their ability to react or adapt to new circumstances.” Especially pointed in the present context is their warning that

were we to try to introduce American troops into a Middle East conflict, we would be placing them at great risk. To begin with, we could not field a force of the size required to adequately protect itself…. To be sure, if we put our whole energies into the operation we could bring it off, but it would be tremendously costly.

The exact nature of the operation envisaged in these remarks is not clearly defined, but it appears to be an intervention to protect Western oil supplies in the event of war between Iraq and Israel. In those circumstances the authors’ assertion that “we probably could not count on the Gulf monarchs for support” would certainly have been correct if not an understatement. Clearly the present contingency, in which the Gulf monarchs have been able to mobilize their own armies and to ask Western governments for military assistance, with the evident support of their own populations against a direct and palpable Iraqi threat, is a more propitious one for US intervention than the authors envisaged. Nor did they imagine that the US would be able to act in the name of a broad international consensus including the Soviet Union, with the forces of Egypt and some other Arab states standing beside them, and the blessing of the Arab League. These may not be sufficient conditions for the success of the West’s belated effort to contain Saddam Hussein after a decade of short-sighted connivance at his crimes. But they are necessary ones. Any move that would break that fragile consensus, especially one that would allow Saddam to turn the conflict into an Arab-Israeli confrontation, could well prove fatal to the entire enterprise.

August 30, 1990

Letters

Iraq’s Chemical Warfare November 22, 1990

  1. 2

    Including the torture of children.

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