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The Thief of Baghdad

Saddam Hussein: A Biography

by Fuad Matar
Highlight, 286 pp., £12.95

Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq

by Samir al-Khalil
University of California Press, 310 pp.

Human Rights in Iraq

Middle East Watch
Human Rights Watch / Yale University Press, 160 pp., $19.95

The publications under review about the regime of Saddam Hussein have at least one thing in common: they were all written before August 2, 1990. None of the authors had foreknowledge that, in the small hours of that day, the armed forces of Iraq would invade and occupy the entire territory of the state of Kuwait. The present reviewer, writing four weeks after that event, has a strong sense that the world before it happened was a different place; but he equally has no foreknowledge of other events, perhaps no less dramatic and even more momentous, that may have occurred before these words find their way into the hands of the reader.

For a writer, such an event has the effect of raising the stakes. On the one hand, it attracts public attention to his subject, thereby possibly bringing him a much larger readership. On the other, it subjects his work to a harsh, perhaps unfair test: it will be judged by the light it throws, or fails to throw, on an event he could not know of while he was writing it. At worst, he may have exposed himself to ridicule by selective quotation.

Such is the case of Fuad Matar, a wellknown Lebanese journalist who produced a quasi-official biography of the Iraqi president in 1981. This has now been reissued in a “1990 edition,” in fact unchanged except for a glossy dust jacket on which the author’s name is spelled wrong, and a preface in which, after claiming that all but one of the predictions in the early edition have come true (the exception being the Non-Aligned Summit, which was not held in Baghdad in 1982), Matar proceeds to assert “the right of the new Arab generation to read about Saddam Hussein now, especially after guns have become silent and doves fly with the olive branch of peace above the region.”

Yet the reader would be wrong to deduce from this that Mr. Matar’s book is of no further interest. If Saddam Hussein is now to be compared with Hitler (a point I shall return to later in this article), there is bound to be a search for his Mein Kampf, and Matar’s book, based mainly on interviews with Saddam and his close associates, and published with his approval, may well be the nearest available equivalent in Western languages. For instance, while it may seem merely ironic that among the gains Iraq expected from its war with Iran was the chance “to find out once and for all who its friends were and who its enemies were” (since if any state might be supposed to have passed this test of friendship it is Kuwait), it is surely not without interest that Iraq also saw that war as a chance “to test its Army on the battlefield and evaluate its capacity to handle modern weapons” in preparation for “a national duty, the Battle with Israel” or “the war for the recovery of Palestine.” Even if such motives in fact played no part in the decision to attack Iran in September 1980, it is worth noting that this interpretation was one that Saddam Hussein was glad to sell to external as well as internal opinion. And no less interesting is Mr. Matar’s conclusion that “President Saddam is seeking to play a major role in world affairs. This role will bring about a very strong Iraq, no matter what the dangers.”

From Mr. Matar’s brief sketch of the early history of the Baath party we learn that this movement, or at any rate its Iraqi wing, acquired from its handling by successive military regimes in Syria “a profound wariness of military coups” whereas “as a result of their experiences at the hands of Abdel Karim Qassem’s regime [in Iraq after 1958], the Baathists revised their policies and decided to adopt violence as a mode of action.” This is important. Of course one may well doubt the strength of the Baathists’ previous commitment to non-violence, particularly in the case of Saddam Hussein himself, who seems to have come from a violent background. His father, a farmer, died before he was born, and he was brought up near the town of Takrit, north of Baghdad, in the family of his uncle, Khairallah Tulfah, who had taken part in the anti-British revolt of 1941. Matar tells us that even as a child, when in “his first act of rebellion against his family” Saddam decided to attend school, he was encouraged by some relatives who “gave him a pistol and sent him off in a car to Takrit.”

He joined the Baath party at the age of twenty, in 1957; and soon after the 1958 revolution, when an official in Takrit was murdered, “the authorities accused Saddam Hussein of having killed him and threw him in gaol.” But it is highly significant that the party should present itself as, on the one hand, wary of military coups because of Syrian experience, yet on the other hand committed to “violence as a mode of action” by a deliberate decision based on Iraqi experience. Whether or not we choose to think of Saddam Hussein as a “military” dictator, we should realize that that is not how he thinks of himself. In fact, although he claims to have “led the tank assault on the Presidential Palace” on July 17, 1968, “wearing a military uniform,” he did not hold military rank until, as president, he became ex-officio commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

The faction of the Baath that seized power in Iraq under Saddam’s leadership in 1968 was the faction that had opposed the military coup in Syria on February 23, 1966. It was the faction most directly influenced by the founder and “historic leader” of the party, the Syrian Christian Michel Aflaq. We learn from Samir al-Khalil, the pseudonymous Iraqi author of Republic of Fear who writes from exile, that “in the 1950s Aflaq’s influence among Ba’thists sharply declined in Syria,” whereas in Iraq it “remained dominant.” Al-Khalil also says that it was “at the instigation of Michel Aflaq” that Saddam Hussein was appointed in 1964 to the Regional Command, the highest decision-making body of the Iraqi branch of the party. (In Baathist language Syria and Iraq are always “regions,” the word “nation” being reserved for the “Arab nation” as a whole.)

Oddly enough this direct and presumably decisive intervention of the founder of the party at an early stage in Saddam’s career is not mentioned by Matar—presumably because it might cast doubt either on the democratic processes of the party or on the extent to which Saddam’s rise was the product of his own intrinsic merit. Matar does, however, lay great emphasis on the relationship between the two men. He quotes a fulsome telegram of congratulations sent to Saddam by Aflaq, who was still recognized in Iraq as secretary-general of the party, on July 17, 1979, when Saddam had just taken over “full responsibility for the State and the Party” in Iraq, replacing President Ahmad Hasan Bakr. The telegram refers to Saddam as having brought “the Party’s ideology and principles to fruition, making them a tangible part of life.”

Later in the same year a meeting of the National (i.e., pan-Arab) Command unanimously elected Saddam Hussein deputy secretary-general: in other words, in pan-Arab matters he was still formally only Aflaq’s deputy, a fact that Aflaq announced in a memorandum to all party bureaus in the Arab world and abroad. “It looked,” comments Matar, “as though the historic leader of the Party was laying the ground for the future leadership. Such a step, taken while Aflaq is alive and carrying out his duties, is extremely significant.” Matar then goes on to quote at some length from interviews he himself had with Aflaq, also in the autumn of 1979, giving further endorsements of Saddam’s unique leadership qualities, “the strength of his moral principles,” etc.—one of the strong points in his favor being that “he entered the Party at a very early age and has known no other surroundings than those of the Party. His education was first and foremost the Party’s philosophy.”

Aflaq remained in Baghdad until his death last year, after which he was buried with all the honors due to the founder and “historic leader.” (It was announced after his death that he had secretly converted to Islam during the 1970s.) To what extent his endorsement of Saddam’s leadership and policies in his later years was genuine and unforced, or whether he became in any sense a prisoner of the regime he had helped to found, we shall probably never know. What is significant is that Saddam continued to attach importance to Aflaq, and to his own links with him, as a major source of legitimacy for his own leadership. It is comparable to the use that Stalin made of Lenin’s name, and of a carefully doctored version of Lenin’s heritage, in legitimizing his own absolute power in the Soviet Union—except that until last year, instead of keeping his Lenin embalmed in a mausoleum, Saddam had a living Lenin who could be wheeled out on suitable occasions to ratify his decisions and above all his status as guardian of party orthodoxy against successive groups of “old Bolsheviks” whom he found it necessary to eliminate.

Like Stalin, Saddam has repeatedly purged his party and has turned it into a vehicle for ensuring his personal power and propagating his own personality cult. Like Stalin, he has thus laid himself open to the accusation (from those outside his considerable physical reach) that he has in the process deformed or distorted the party’s original ideals and message—though it is at least equally arguable, as in Stalin’s case, that all he has done is to pursue to its logical conclusion the ruthless and antihuman authoritarianism that was always at the heart of the doctrine. The latter view is forcefully argued by al-Khalil.

It would in any case be wrong to imagine that Saddam himself and all of his supporters are pure opportunists, just as it would have been wrong to imagine the same about Stalin and Soviet Communists in his lifetime—this being the great difference between Stalin’s regime and Brezhnev’s. Iraqi Baathists see themselves as faithful guardians and exponents of a doctrine that includes the supremacy of the party over society as a whole, including the armed forces. As they see it, collusion with the military may have been a necessary tactic for gaining power, but it exposed the party to great temptations and dangers, by which in Syria it was overwhelmed.

The genius of Saddam, in al-Khalil’s words, is that “he held the military at bay while cutting away at their power base, and eventually he transformed them into creatures of the party that had nurtured him and that had been the obsession of his entire mature life.” Perhaps the decisive event in this process was the ousting of Abdel-Razzaq Nayef, the senior non-Baathist participant in the coup of July 17, 1968, who immediately became prime minister but was deposed and exiled a mere thirteen days later.

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,

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. 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.

  2. 2

    Including the torture of children.

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