I arrived in Baghdad on the eve of the Eid al-Adha, or Feast of the Sacrifice, a four-day holiday in late June. A sort of Muslim equivalent of Christmas, the Eid is a popular time for weddings, and as I walked into the al-Rasheed Hotel, exhausted and grimy after a fourteen-hour, 550-mile overland trip from Amman, Jordan (no planes fly into Iraq these days), I found the lobby full of women elaborately dressed in puffy white gowns and mustachioed men in smartly flaring suits. Some ninety couples would check into the hotel that evening to celebrate their wedding night in style. On the morning after, each husband, following an Iraqi custom, would take the sheet from the wedding bed and present it to his parents as proof of their new daughter-in-law’s virtue. Should the mark of rapture be absent, the girl can by rights be put to death. Fortunately, small vials of crimson dye are available if needed, so such extreme action is a rare occurrence in modernday Iraq. Certainly on this night the atmosphere in the lobby was festive as families and friends sang, danced, and ululated in an uninhibited display of joy.
Alas, I encountered few other such displays during my two-week stay in Iraq. The Eid is traditionally a time for entertaining friends, but not this year. The UN economic embargo on Iraq was hitting with force, and such customary summertime favorites as watermelon and grapes were well beyond the means of ordinary Iraqis. Even staple foods were prohibitively expensive. A fifty-kilogram sack of rice, which cost six dinars before the Persian Gulf war (about $20 at the official exchange rate) had by June soared to 180 dinars. Flour was forty times more expensive than before the war; eggs almost fifteen times. According to a survey by Catholic Relief Services, Iraqis were spending 90 percent of their household budget on food.
Gasoline, at least, was still plentiful. In Iraq, as in most of the other Gulf states, cheap gas is considered an inalienable right, and the government had worked hard to repair the refineries smashed by US bombing. Unfortunately, problems in the production process remained, and the gas was of very low octane, causing engines no end of trouble. Many of the country’s best mechanics—Egyptians imported during the war with Iran—had returned home after the invasion of Kuwait. To compound matters, spare parts were extremely scarce, and on every block, it seemed, cars were pulled over to the side of the road, their drivers desperately working under the hood as the traffic crawled by. What’s more, two key bridges bombed during the war were still out of commission, making elaborate detours necessary. Baghdad sometimes seemed one big traffic jam.
It didn’t help that Iraq was experiencing one of its hottest summers in years. On most days, the official weather report put the temperature at around 45 degrees Centigrade (113 degrees Fahrenheit), but people were convinced it was much higher. By law, when the temperature hits 50 degrees (122), factories must shut down, and people felt certain that the government, seeking to increase production, was shaving points. Though electricity had been restored to most of the capital, it always seemed to go out during the hottest part of the afternoon, leaving people to swelter in their airconditionless homes.
That Iraq had any electricity at all was to the credit of the country’s engineers. The air war had forced seventeen of the country’s twenty power plants out of service, and a UN mission, visiting in March, had concluded that Iraq had been bombed back to the “pre-industrial age.” Yet, during my stay, Baghdad’s streets stayed lit throughout the night and water ran freely from the tap. The air of normalcy was illusory, though. Outside Baghdad, and especially in the south, many towns still lacked basic services. In the capital itself, some generating stations had begun to break down again, and blackouts were growing more common. Chocked by sanctions, the postwar reconstruction process had all but come to a halt.
The sense of deprivation that most Iraqis felt was heightened by the realization that not everyone shared it. Thus, as most citizens contended with shortages of spark plugs and tires, a new fleet of flashy cars appeared on the streets of Baghdad: booty from Kuwait. Reserved for the rich and well-connected, these vehicles still bore license plates showing Kuwait to be the nineteenth province of Iraq. Similarly, while chicken was unavailable in many markets throughout the country, expensive food shops were stocking beer from Germany, chocolate from Switzerland, and biscuits from Italy—all trucked in from Jordan for sale at astronomical prices. During the Eid, fashionable Iraqi yuppies flocked to Baghdad’s luxury hotels to swim, dine, and dance. At the gaudy disco on the ground floor of the alRasheed, a special table was kept in reserve for Udai Hussein, the president’s hot-tempered playboy son.
Saddam Hussein himself was much in evidence during my stay. At every street corner, from every building, in every office, the president’s likeness peered forth. It was not only the number of these posters that impressed but also their variety. Saddam appeared as a judge, bedouin, aviator, caliph, general, builder, and—my favorite—a regular guy in a Panama hat. Every day, a photo of the supreme leader appeared on the front page of the nation’s newspapers, while on television he led off each night’s newscast. On some nights, he was the newscast, appearing for up to two hours as he received fawning delegations from around the country. At most of these sessions, officially sanctioned poets (handsomely paid by the government) offered long rhythmic tributes to Saddam, comparing him to Nebuchadnezzar, Hammurabi, and other Mesopotamian heroes. “Bush, Bush, listen well, we all love Saddam Hussein,” demonstrators chanted at one meeting.
At every opportunity, the Iraqi president directed taunts at the West. “You have all heard what they [the US] said before the aggression,” Saddam told one delegation. “They said they were not against the Iraqi people but against Iraqi policy. They said they had no ambitions in Iraq and did not want to commit aggression against Iraq.” Why, then, he went on, “did they jump into the north? Why has the blockade continued against the people since last year?”
Saddam’s bluster was most apparent in his dealings with the UN inspection team come to examine Iraq’s nuclear facilities. Arriving in late June, the group was immediately denied permission to visit the sites it had requested. When the UN complained, Baghdad claimed that it had all been a big misunderstanding, that its offices had been closed because of the Eid holiday. At a hastily convened press conference on the morning of June 28, the government promised its full cooperation. Later that same day, though, when the inspectors tried to photograph equipment being removed from a military site, Iraqi soldiers let loose a barrage of warning shots.
To the rational observer, such behavior would seem not only contradictory but self-destructive. Shunned by the world community, its international trade and communications links severed, its economy on the brink of collapse, Iraq would seem to have every reason to cooperate with the UN. Instead, it appeared to go out of its way to misbehave. There was a certain logic to Saddam’s provocations, however. Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction had been one of the principal targets of the allied bombing campaign. At the end of the war, US officials had confidently asserted that Iraq’s missile program was a thing of the past. Now there were reports, still unconfirmed, that Iraq had even more enriched uranium than Washington had thought before the war. By playing cat-and-mouse with the UN team, Saddam could show the world that it had failed in its mission—that, despite the campaign by thirty nations to dislodge him, he was back in control, as strong and confident as ever. President Bush, for one, seemed driven to distraction. Saddam, he testily declared, was a liar with “bloody hands.”
Viewed up close, however, Saddam’s position seemed anything but secure. While projecting an image of strength abroad, he has had to confront enormous problems at home. For every defiant gesture he makes to the outside world, many similar gestures are being made within his own borders, directed at Saddam himself.
A traditionally closed, secretive society, Iraq today is more open to foreigners than it has been for many years. The government—eager to rally world opinion against the sanctions—has given journalists unprecedented freedom. Inside Baghdad, I was allowed to come and go as I pleased; only when traveling outside the capital did I need a government escort, or “minder.” Also unprecedented were the many nongovernmental organizations working in Iraq. In the past, most such groups had been barred from the country, but the government has had to relent, and Baghdad was crowded with representatives from such groups as the International Committee of the Red Cross, UNICEF, Save the Children, Oxfam, and Médecins sans Frontières. Members of these groups had frequent contact with Iraqi citizens, allowing them excellent insights into local conditions.
All of which made it possible to explore that most pressing question: Can Saddam survive?
In many ways, Baghdad resembles Los Angeles. During the last twenty years, as it has gone from being an Arab backwater to a modern metropolis of nearly four million people, the city has grown not upward but outward, with sprawling residential neighborhoods spread over a vast space, all connected by an impressive network of expressways. The lively downtown district, located on the east bank of the sluggish Tigris River, has broad avenues opening on to traffic circles with soaring palm trees and sparkling fountains. In the bustling souks, or markets, shoppers can find everything from spices to spatulas, and they can stop in tea shops to sip highly sweetened brews from tiny glasses. Most signs in central Baghdad are in English as well as Arabic, lending the place a distinctly Western air.
The one discordant element in all this is Baghdad’s public buildings. Ministries, institutes, bureaus, and centers—there are hundreds of such sites in the capital, all built in grandiose style. There are colossal buildings for sporting events and date exports, for retired people and performing artists, for roads, bridges, traffic, and irrigation. The Ministry of Oil is housed in a vast beehive of a building that looks like a giant Marriott Hotel, while a self-contained Medical City rises dramatically at a bend in the Tigris. And, everywhere, there are public monuments—stark stelae and ziggurats commemorating battles, soldiers, and Saddam. Among the most bizarre is a pair of immense crossed swords, 131 feet in height, held aloft by equally immense forearms allegedly modeled from Saddam’s own (the subject of Samir al-Khalil’s book The Monument).* Arrestingly ugly, the display commemorates Iraq’s “victory” in the war with Iran.
Scattered throughout the capital are other, less well-marked sites. Nondescript in appearance, these buildings usually have a pair of uniformed guards by the door and a land cruiser out front. They are part of the intricate security apparatus that Saddam has built up over the years. Iraq’s secret police consists of multiple overlapping agencies, the most feared of which is the mukhabarat, the intelligence arm of the Baath party, whose tentacles extend into the army, ministries, schools, work places, and every other institution. In Baghdad, it maintains a clandestine network of detention centers, prisons, interrogation rooms, torture chambers, and execution sites—a vast urban gulag.
President Bush’s likening of Saddam to Hitler, however popular with the press and public, seems off the mark; Stalin would be more like it. Saddam has made no secret of his admiration for the Soviet dictator, and he is said to keep books on Stalin in his office. One day over lunch, a Soviet diplomat marveled at the remarkable similarities between the two men—their indifference toward ideology, their cultivation of a climate of paranoia, their singleminded pursuit of personal power. In some respects, the diplomat said, Saddam was even worse than Stalin. “In Stalin’s time, we at least had war heroes,” he observed. “Here, there are no war heroes. Saddam fears they will offer competition.”
In the 1970s, the Baath party, in an effort to absorb the Soviet experience firsthand, sent a high-level delegation to Moscow. “They thoroughly studied all spheres of the Communist party’s activities,” another Soviet diplomat told me. “They then tried to apply it in Iraq, taking into account their own ideology.” Having seized power in a 1968 coup, the Baathists remained a Bolshevik-l they saw a party that had expanded mightily in the course of swallowing civil society. Intent on following suit, the Baathists began a major recruitment drive, and by the end of the Iran-Iraq War their party had between 1.5 million and 2 million members and supporters—about one in every ten Iraqis.
More recently, however, the Iraqis have been less eager to follow the Soviet lead. “In 1987, a delegation from our country visited Iraq,” one of the Soviets told me. “Saddam was very enthusiastic about our reforms. He said, ‘We’re doing the same process here. In fact, we’re ahead of you.’ At that time, they were in favor of Mikhail Gorbachev. Now they’re very critical. They look at the Soviet Union and see anarchy, a country on the brink of economic collapse, with its allies gone over to the other camp.”
The regime’s disdain for perestroika is apparent in its actions since the end of the Gulf War. On the one hand, the government has loudly declared its commitment to political reform. It has promised to complete the drafting of a new constitution (a project underway for severalears) and to hold elections by the end of the year. In early July, Iraq’s National Assembly adopted a new law authorizing the formation of opposition political parties (as long as they adhere to the principles of the 1968 “revolution”). And a new press law will soon permit the publication of independent newspapers.
In practice, though, little seems to have changed. Consider the press. Iraq has three main daily newspapers, published by the party, the army, and the Ministry of Information. (A fourth, called Babil, or Babylon, was recently established under the editorship of Saddam’s son Udai; its main purpose seems to be to give him a job.) Except for the activities of the president, whose every move is chronicled in tedious detail, the papers offer little in the way of news. Thus, the negotiations with the Kurds over an autonomous zone—surely the most important domestic story in Iraq—have received almost no attention beyond an occasional item predicting that a pact will be signed. Every now and then, the papers direct mild criticisms at government ministries for failing to restore water or electricity in a particular district, but even then the real blame is reserved for the Western “aggressor” nations and their Zionist minions.
As for the government itself, Saddam, far from reaching out for new supporters, has turned further inward, filling most top posts with relatives and friends, many of them from his home town of Tikrit. As interior minister, for instance, Saddam appointed a cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, who is known primarily for having ordered the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in 1988. Saddam’s half brother now controls the intelligence services and his son-in-law heads the defense ministry. The army and party, meanwhile, have been subject to ongoing purges. According to news reports summarized in the Los Angeles Times of July 14, as many as eighteen senior army officers were recently hanged for attempting a coup. In the south, Baath officials who were spared execution by Shiite rebels have been ordered to explain how this happened. Those judged to have been too lenient toward the local population have reportedly been executed.
Arriving in Iraq, I hoped to find out about the mood within the Baath party. The decision to invade Kuwait rates as one of the great political blunders of the century. What were people in the party saying about it? Nothing, I discovered. There are no debates going on inside the party. In fact, the party itself barely exists. “The party is dead,” I was told by one Iraqi well versed in Baath affairs. “People are too deathly afraid of Saddam Hussein to engage in any discussion.”
Essentially, the party has become even more subordinate to the whims and ambitions of one man. The war did little to erode Saddam’s cult of personality; today, in fact, more of his pictures are on display than ever before. Soon, I was told, the cult will enter a new phase as the paintings of Saddam, which wilt quickly in the heat, are replaced with mosaics. The overall theme will be Saddam and the reconstruction of Iraq. Dr. Mahoud Ahmed, a member of the Presidential Murals Committee, which oversees public portraits of the president, told me that “the mosaics will be more beautiful and last longer.” They will also be more expensive. Unemployment in Iraq is approaching 70 percent, yet somehow the government has found the resources needed to plaster Iraq’s walls with tiny tiles.
The most important factor in Saddam’s ability to retain power has been the revitalization of his internal security apparatus. After the war and the March uprisings, the secret police, like other organs of the government, were evidently in disarray. Journalists and diplomats in Baghdad at the time recall an atmosphere of exhilarating freedom, with Iraqis suddenly giving vent to the bitterness that had accumulated over the years of repression. Once it became clear that Saddam was going to survive, though, the mukhabarat and its affiliated agencies were quickly able to regroup.
That they could was owing, in part, to the variable effects of the air war. Allied bombers inflicted immense damage on Iraq’s military infrastructure. The huge army installation on the main road leading west out of Baghdad now is largely vacant. Hundreds of soaring antennae, clustered in a huge command-and-control field, remain standing but they are mute, their transmitting equipment destroyed in the air assault. The hated Popular Army, in which all Iraqi males had had to spend five, or eight, or even more years, has been dissolved.
Internally, though, the regime’s capacity for repression seems undiminished. Few of the prisons and detention centers used by the secret police were damaged by the air war. A highly visible row of expensive townhouses along the Tigris River, known to house topranking members of the mukhabarat, came through the war without a scratch. Today, the long reach of the security agencies is apparent in the shady-looking men who gather in front of hotels, in the guards who camp outside embassies, in the many checkpoints along the nation’s highways.
Returning to my hotel one night, I received an urgent message from a European relief worker asking that I come to her hotel at once. Distraught, she told me how a cab driver who had picked her up had begun pouring out his hatred and contempt for the regime. He wanted to tell his story to a journalist, he said, and as they pulled up in front of the al-Rasheed Hotel, where she had an appointment, the woman scribbled her name on a piece of paper and told him to get in touch with her when he felt ready to talk. Just then, a burly man stationed at the hotel gate hurried over. The driver began shaking uncontrollably, and the relief worker—realizing that her presence had gotten the man in trouble—quickly walked away. She worried about what had become of him.
The fear is back in Baghdad. And yet, something has changed. I met more than a few people who, for the first time, are refusing to be afraid. Just below the surface of Iraqi politics, I came to believe, something very important is beginning to take shape.
One morning I set out for Baghdad University, a cluster of modern buildings that, like so many other public spaces in Baghdad, seemed grimly impersonal. I was hoping to find a professor of economics, who, I’d been told, could speak knowledgeably about the economic challenges facing the government. Since most of the telephones in the capital were still not working as a result of the allied bombing, I’d had to show up without an appointment. At the main administration building, mention of the professor’s name drew a blank stare. I persisted, however, and the receptionist seemed finally to grasp whom I was looking for. I was led outside, down a walkway, and into another building, where I was shown into a room filled with laboratory equipment. In it was a balding middle-aged man. I told him of my interest in learning about the Iraqi economy. “But I know nothing about economics,” said the man, pointing to the technical equipment around him. “I’m a scientist.”
Clearly, I had the wrong man. Nonetheless, he invited me to stay for coffee. Filling a beaker with water and placing it over a Bunsen burner to boil, he closed the door and we began to talk. Like most Baghdadis these days, the scientist was obsessed with prices. He had to support a family of five on a monthly salary of 150 dinars. In the past, that had been more than sufficient, but with a kilo of beef selling for thirteen dinars, he could barely get by. Referring to sanctions, the scientist said, “Why is President Bush hurting us, the people? We have no problem with the United States.”
He continued: “Why did the US begin something here, then leave it halfway?” To judge from events since the war, he said, the US “did not really seem to support freedom in Iraq.” At this point, he said, he saw only one solution to the crisis: emigration. He had begun to investigate the possibility last year, but the invasion of Kuwait had put an end to his efforts.
We spoke for about an hour. As I prepared to go, I asked whether our meeting would cause him any trouble. “I don’t know,” he replied evenly. “You’re the first journalist I’ve ever spoken with. Maybe I’ll be visited by someone after you leave.” The risks were clearly great, but he had been willing to take them—even with a total stranger.
In an effort to limit Westerners’ contact with local residents, the government had declared all mosques offlimits to non-Muslims. One night, while I was standing outside the Imam al-Adham mosque, a lovely shrine with handsome pillars and a goldleafed dome, a slightly built man leaving the mosque greeted me in English. Without prompting he informed me that he had spent twenty-five years working as an engineer in Kuwait before the invasion had forced him to leave. “I lost everything I had,” he said bitterly, adding, “America must help us put an end to all this.” Glancing around, he remarked, “I realize I can get in trouble for talking to you—there are detectives everywhere—but I don’t care. I have to say that we’ve had enough of this bullshit.” The “man cannot last,” he said, but before I could press the point, he said goodbye and hurried off.
Everywhere I went, Iraqis went out of their way to express disgust for Saddam Hussein. Shopkeepers and taxi drivers, doctors and nurses, journalists and nuns, secretaries and government workers—all spoke to me frankly of their desire for change. Even the Ministry of Information—the agency responsible for maintaining Saddam’s image—was full of people who detested him. It was at the ministry that I caught up with the latest Saddam jokes.
Question: Why are there no people in Iraq who don’t like Saddam?
Answer: Because if you don’t like him, you’re executed.
“People simply feel they have nothing left to lose,” a diplomat told me, describing the new willingness of many Iraqis to speak out. “That encourages them to demand changes.”
Interviewing officials is generally a frustrating enterprise in Iraq, especially because of all the minders and translators who normally hang about. Once, though, I managed to get an official alone, and his candor was astounding. A man of some prominence, he asserted that going to war with the allied coalition “was a major miscalculation.” By the time the January 15 deadline rolled around, he explained, “everybody realized America would go ahead and attack. I’m surprised [Saddam] would let it happen. The man has been in absolute power for so long that he was blind to the reality of the situation.” As for the invasion of Kuwait, he continued, “the masses may have supported it, but those who are educated—even the politicians—thought it was wrong.” Certainly a majority of Baath party members felt that way, he said.
During my stay I heard a few unrehearsed expressions of support for the government, but they tended to be very fleeting. Once, for instance, I was in a restaurant reading a book about Saddam. “Good man,” said the waiter, pointing to the photo on the cover. At a government cultural center, a young administrator seemed genuinely to like Saddam. I asked why. “Because there’s no one else,” she said. But what was it about Saddam himself that she liked? “I told you—there’s no one else.” Not much of an endorsement.
Things were different before the Gulf War. Iraqis may not have liked the government, but they seemed resigned to living with it. As long as one steered clear of politics, life could be fairly comfortable. During two decades in power, the Baath party had converted a backward country into a powerful nation-state. Food was cheap, education free, and health care widely available. Iraq’s infant mortality rate—80 per 1,000 in the early 1980s—had been cut in half by 1990. Iraq produced more engineers, doctors, and scientists per capita than almost any other country in the Arab world, an achievement in which even non-Baathists could take pride. Of course, the interminable war with Iran sorely tested public tolerance, but the government was able to mitigate its effects through patriotic appeals and generous benefits. (Every war widow was given a plot of land and an interest-free loan for building a house.)
When the war finally ended, Iraqis looked forward to getting on with their lives. Yet the peace proved only too brief. Families still mourning the loss of husbands and sons in the Iran conflict now had to worry about further losses in Kuwait—all to no apparent end. Baghdad, which had suffered little physical damage during the Iran war, was subject to a fearful bombardment that, in forty-three days, set the country back decades. Then came the aftermath—more trying, in many ways, than the war itself. The constant power failures made refrigerators useless and caused continual breakdowns in sewage-pumping stations. Untreated waste was dumped into the Tigris and other rivers, contaminating a major source of drinking water. Infectious diseases like typhoid, cholera, hepatitis, and meningitis began to spread, just as hospitals were suffering severe shortages in medical supplies.
Today Iraq seems like a giant prison from which all of its inmates are trying desperately to escape. Since the end of the war, restrictions on foreign travel have been relaxed, and many families are selling their furniture, jewelry, and other valuables in a frantic effort to get out. Since most Western embassies in Baghdad are closed, would-be emigrants must make their way overland to Amman, but, once there, most find the way to the West barred. Britain, for one, has a flat policy of denying visas to all Iraqi men between the ages of fifteen and sixty-five. So, once their money runs out, the families are forced to return home to resume their oppressive lives, only now they are immeasurably poorer. So many Iraqis asked me for advice about getting to the US that, by the end of my stay, I felt like a consular officer.
As an American, of course, I may have naturally attracted the attention of people critical of the government. Yet the sense of spreading disaffection I detected is backed up by the arithmetic of Iraqi politics. The diversity of Iraqi society has often been remarked upon, but only by traveling around the country can one appreciate how truly divided it is. Iraq, in fact, is really three nations in one. The center, anchored by Baghdad, is modern, sophisticated, worldly. Here, in the heart of the Tigris-Euphrates valley, are Iraq’s largest military installations, its most impressive public works, and much of its heavy industry. Baghdad is surrounded by huge, smoke-belching plants producing everything from bicycles to rocket launchers. Most of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs live in this part of the country. Overall, the Sunnis—the more secular-minded of Islam’s two houses—account for 20 percent of Iraq’s 16 million people. (Officially, the figure is 18 million, but many observers believe the government has inflated the figure to enhance its image of strength.)
About 55 percent of Iraq’s population are Shi’ite Muslims, most of whom live in the south, whose cities of Karbala and Najaf are held sacred by Shi’ites throughout the world. (The Ayatollah Khomeini lived in Najaf for fourteen years while in exile from Iran.) In contrast to Baghdad, where Western dress is common, women here uniformly wear the traditional black robe known as the abayah. Flat, hot, and arid, the south is home to many of Iraq’s thirty million date trees, majestic, soaring palms that have been part of the landscape since civilization itself was born here in the third millennium BC. Unfortunately, little else of value grows here, and economically the south is badly off.
The north, by contrast, is rich in resources. Much of Iraq’s oil is here. So, too, is its best farmland, gently rolling plains that, after years of neglect, now yield harvests of wheat, barley, and vegetables. Gradually these fields, which were not much damaged by the war, give way to the soaring highlands where the Kurds live. Accounting for about 20 percent of the Iraqi population, the Kurds have their own language, history, and dress (baggy pants, cummerbund, and headdress). Reputed to be the best fighters in the Middle East, the Kurds feel closer to their brethren in Turkey, Syria, and Iran than to fellow Iraqis, and they have been battling the central government for decades.
To add to the demographic jumble, Iraq is home to nearly one million Christians, themselves an extraordinarily diverse group that includes Chaldeans, Armenians, Latins, Syrian Catholics, Assyrians, Circassians, and Greek Orthodox. There are also some 300,000 Turkomans, plus a dwindling number of Jews, who worship in a faded, airy synagogue in downtown Baghdad.
Since the end of World War I, when Britain created Iraq out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, the country has been dominated by its Sunni center. Sunni Arabs fill most of the top positions in the Baath party, the government ministries, and the armed forces. Naturally, this does not sit well with either the Shi’ites (who are Arabs but not Sunnis) or the Kurds (who are Sunnis but not Arabs). In other words, fully three quarters of the Iraqi population is predisposed to regard the Baathist government—indeed, any Sunni Arab regime—as unrepresentative. The uprisings in March, which involved thirteen of the country’s eighteen provinces, showed how broad is the opposition to Saddam’s rule.
The position of Iraq’s Christians is somewhat more complicated. As a small minority in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, the Christians are interested primarily in avoiding persecution. The Baathists—resolutely secular in outlook—have long provided them with the necessary protection. The founder of the Baath party, Michel Aflaq, was a Christian; so is one of its leading officials, Tariq Aziz. During the war, Saddam Hussein made much of his Islamic faith, but most of his maids, cooks, tailors, and other personal staff members are Christians, whom he reportedly regards as more trustworthy than Muslims. Raphael Bidawid, the patriarch of the Chaldean church (Iraq’s largest), is a staunch supporter of the regime.
At the same time, Iraqi Christians tend to be better educated than the rest of the population. Many speak English and have relatives living in the West. (Detroit has a large Chaldean community.) With highly marketable skills and connections abroad, Christians have a better-than-average chance of making it to the West, and many are attempting to do so. Indeed, church officials are deeply concerned that their communities will slowly vanish as their parishioners depart. To the extent that Christians support Saddam, then, it’s only because they see no palatable alternative.
That leaves the Sunni Arabs. As the chief beneficiaries of Saddam’s rule, the Sunnis have long made up his principal constituency. Certainly the prospect of a Khomeini-style Shi’ite government makes them shudder—especially after the revolt in the south, in which dozens of senior Sunni officials were summarily executed. Ironically, the March uprisings, which at the time posed the gravest threat to Saddam’s rule, have since become one of his most potent weapons as he projects himself as the only force capable of holding Iraq together.
Some observers have accepted this logic. Milton Viorst, writing in the June 24 New Yorker about a visit to Iraq in April, says:
To Baghdadis, who are the heart of Sunni power, Saddam represents the Iraqi nation—not Sunnis or Shi’ites or Kurds separately but the nation. And, much as they detest his brutality, they will not give their consent to having the nation, their nation, shatter.
To Sunnis—and, to a remarkable degree, to other Iraqis, too—Saddam Hussein established his legitimacy as the nation’s leader by virtue of keeping the country together during the long war against Khomeini’s Iran…. As for the Baath Party, it is Saddam’s lapdog: a self-serving bureaucracy; an oppressor that may be corrupt but is a unifying force; the impartial Big Brother to all citizens; the instrument that turns Kurds and Shi’ites into Iraqis. The Sunnis’ anger with Saddam is the product not only of the material destruction but also of the political decomposition that the nation experienced in the war. If there is a Sunni consensus, however, it is that abandoning Saddam now would—in provoking a fierce struggle over succession—weaken the central government further, at the very moment that it is most needed in order to preserve the integrity of the state.
Viorst does not explain how he arrived at this sweeping conclusion. He does not mention any Kurdish or Shi’ite citizens who regard Saddam as a legitimate leader or the Baath party as a unifying force. Certainly many members of the Kurdish community, having been gassed, strafed, and uprooted by the central government, would dispute the notion of Baathist impartiality.
As for the Sunnis, many no doubt fear the dismemberment of the country. The extent of their loyalty to Saddam, however, remains a matter of dispute. One diplomat told me that he believed the Sunnis are indeed “firmly behind the government. They fear that if anything happens to it, there will be a bloodbath in Baghdad and everywhere else.”
But another diplomat, in an assessment I heard from several other knowledgeable people, observed that
except for some ideological activists, including some party members, almost all Iraqis—including Sunnis—have turned against the regime. Iraqi society is dividing into two groups—very, very poor people, including many unemployed, and a small core of rich people plus people from the party, army, and bureaucracy—maybe 200,000 to 300,000 in all. After a while, there will be nothing in between. And this could lead to social and political unrest.
The growing instability in Iraq is apparent in the decline of the Iraqi dinar. Before the invasion of Kuwait, illegal trading in the dinar was strictly prohibited, and the black market barely existed. Today, it is evident everywhere. Officially, one Iraqi dinar is worth 3.22 dollars; on the black market, a dollar fetches more than six dinars—almost twenty times the official rate. The dinar, it seems, is fast going the way of the ruble. Stymied by the embargo, Iraq is unable to import printed currency from Britain as it had in the past; today, it is issuing photocopies of dinars. If the bills are put through the laundry or left in a sweaty pocket, the dye washes away.
As long as sanctions remain in place, the situation can only get worse. Unable to export oil, the government has little money to invest. Factories remain closed and unemployment is sharply rising. “If the embargo continues, the government is going to be less and less in control of the situation,” one diplomat told me. It’s not hard, then, to see why Saddam Hussein wants sanctions lifted. And why President Bush wants to maintain them. The President has vowed to keep the sanctions in place until Saddam is out. It is a potent strategy. Unfortunately, it is a costly one as well.
Saddam City is Baghdad’s bleakest district. A fifteen-minute drive from the city center, it is flat, dry, and choked with dust. No grass grows here, and the few palm trees in evidence are all badly stunted. The streets, laid out in a dull grid, are lined with drab concrete boxes that look as if the construction crews forgot to finish them. In all, some 1.5 million people live in the township. Most are Shi’ites who migrated from the south in search of work, only to find destitution, despair, and a Sunni government eager to keep them under control. Originally called al-Thawra, or Revolution City, the district in the early 1980s was renamed in order to show who was in charge.
One evening I visited one of the two hospitals in Saddam City. I was introduced to a young doctor who was doing emergency duty at a table just inside the entrance. As the doctor began telling me about life at the hospital, a distraught woman in a black dress suddenly pushed her way forward and held up a pathetically pale baby with a bloated belly and shriveled arms. The doctor quickly led the woman to a nearby ward, where he placed the baby on a table covered by a bloodstained sheet and hooked up an IV. As he inserted a needle into the baby’s scalp, the mother began to pray.
“Gastroenteritis,” said the doctor as he examined the child. An inflammation of the membrane lining the stomach and intestines, the illness had brought on chronic diarrhea and severe dehydration. He grabbed the skin covering the baby’s abdomen; it bunched together in loose folds. Would the child survive? “If he makes it this time,” the doctor replied stoically, “he will die another.” Cases like this were not unknown before the war, he said, “but the situation has since gotten worse. We now get many cases of gastroenteritis.”
The main problem, he said, was lack of food. “In the situation we’re living in now,” he explained, “there are many cases of anemia and poor feeding. Most of the people who come here eat meat only twice a week. As a result, they have a reduced immunity to disease.” Of particular concern was the shortage of infant formula for the large number of women who are unable to nurse their children. A single tin that lasts for three days used to cost about a dinar; since the war, the price has soared to sixteen dinars. Most families earn little more than 150 dinars a month. Consequently, many babies are going without milk. As the infant lay helplessly on the stained sheet, the doctor showed me his swollen legs and the cracked skin on the soles of his feet, telltale signs of malnutrition.
According to a UNICEF report issued in mid-June, “Malnutrition, which had not been seen in Iraq for at least the last decade, is now widely reported in pediatric wards and health clinics across the country.” Marasmus and kwashiorkor, two forms of severe malnutrition found mostly in Africa, have become increasingly common in Iraq, the report stated, adding that an “alarming proportion of children are not gaining weight at all.” Famine, it observed, was a real possibility. Two Tufts University nutritionists visiting Iraq in June on behalf of UNICEF found, after examining 676 children in the south, evidence of “acute and chronic” malnutrition—a situation they said required urgent attention.
Under the terms of the UN embargo, Iraq is technically allowed to import food and medicine, but it must pay for these items with hard currency. Most of its funds, however, remain frozen in Western banks, and so far Western governments have been unwilling to release the money. And so the food shortages continue. The grain harvest currently underway in northern Iraq is expected to help the country get through the next few months, but relief workers predict a major crisis by November or December if sanctions remain in place.
For this reason, the UN embargo is deeply unpopular in Iraq, and not only with government officials. Every single relief worker I spoke with—more than a dozen in all—expressed strong opposition to the policy. A “useless, cruel exercise,” one senior relief official said. Archbishop Marian Oles, who has spent more than three years in Baghdad representing the Vatican, told me, “The sanctions are hitting the poorest part of the population. That’s w adamantly opposed to them. And make sure you quote me.”
One evening I met with two Iraqi nuns involved in distributing food to needy residents of Baghdad. The sisters—one in her mid-twenties, the other perhaps twice that—expressed anguish at the growing shortages of flour, rice, cooking oil, and milk. There weren’t even enough votive candles for use during mass. Who, I asked, was to blame for all this? There was an awkward pause. “Mr. Bush,” the older nun finally said. The other clapped in agreement.
“People liked it when the American bombers came,” the older nun explained. “They liked it when the bombs hit the telecommunications building and the air force baseBut now they’re changing their attitude. Before Kuwait, no one was poor in this country. Life was good. Now many people are poor. There is no work. If this goes on, many people will die.” President Bush “doesn’t want to help the Iraqi people,” said the nun. She pointed to a picture of Saddam Hussein in the corner. “These two people—they are the cause of our trouble.”
Time and again, I heard Iraqis lump Bush together with Saddam. Pro-American sentiment—overwhelming immediately after the war—is quickly evaporating as the sanctions continue. This, in turn, has fed skepticism about America’s real interests in Iraq. Habitual listeners to the BBC, VOA, and other international broadcast services, Iraqis are well aware of President Bush’s refusal to support the anti-Saddam uprisings in the north and south. They are perplexed by Washington’s fear of Iraq’s Shi’ites and of its failure to press more vigorously for democracy in the region. President Bush’s denunciations of Saddam Hussein notwithstanding, many suspect that, deep down, his administration is comfortable with the Baathist government and perhaps even with Saddam Hussein himself. They feel that the Gulf War has left them with the worst of both worlds: intense suffering without anything to show for it.
For a sense of what the future may be for Iraq, it’s necessary to travel outside Baghdad. To visit the north, I had to get special permission from the Ministry of Information. Official guides could not enter the region for fear of attack, so the ministry arranged for me to go with a Kurdish guide and driver. Leaving the capital at five o’clock in the morning, we were soon whizzing through fields of grain being harvested by modern combines. About one hundred miles out of Baghdad, we crossed a rocky patch of land near the 35th parallel—the southern boundary of what the Kurds consider their land. As we continued along the road we came upon numerous army encampments, machine-gun emplacements, and tanks with their turrets pointed north.
About four hours out of Baghdad, after driving higher and higher into the hills, we reached the last government checkpoint. Less than a kilometer away, we hit another checkpoint—this one supervised by Kurdish guerrillas, known as Pesh Merga. Dressed in traditional Kurdish costume, the heavily armed guerrillas waved us through with a smile. “Welcome to Free Kurdistan,” my guide exclaimed. We were still seventy-five miles from Dohuk and the southern boundary of the allied security zone, but the entire region had been fully liberated. Continuing northward, we soon reached Shaqlawa, an attractive resort town nestled in a valley thick with trees. The streets bustled with shoppers, women in abayahs, and bands of gaunt guerrillas, their weather-beaten faces testifying to the many years they’d spent in the mountains fighting Saddam. Along the main street, shop windows were covered with posters memorializing guerrillas who’d fallen in battle.
Shaqlawa was serving as the base for Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two main Kurdish parties. Visiting his headquarters, a rustic hotel crowded with Pesh Merga, we were told that Talabani was closeted with his war council, discussing whether or not to sign an autonomy accord with Baghdad. The pact under discussion would satisfy many longtime Kurdish demands, including freedom for all Kurdish political prisoners, Kurdish control over some of the region’s oil revenues, and the election of a Kurdish assembly. The agreement would also promise democratic reforms for the nation as a whole, including the holding of a presidential election. The other main Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani of the Kurdish Democratic Party, had already indicated his readiness to sign, and for weeks a final deal had seemed imminent.
But several sticking points had emerged. One of them was Saddam Hussein’s insistence that the Kurds sever all ties to foreign powers. Wanting to remove allied troops from Iraqi soil, Saddam was determined to restore his, and his nation’s, sovereignty. The Kurds were just as determined to maintain their foreign ties. In view of their history of bloody relations with Saddam, the Kurds saw the US, Britain, France, and the other allies as necessary guarantors of any agreement. That the Kurds had won as many concessions as they had from Saddam was owing in large part to allied support.
Gradually, though, the firmness of the commitment of the West was itself becoming a source of concern to the Kurds. Already, the US had begun pulling its troops from the northern security zone. The formation of a rapid deployment force in southeastern Turkey to respond to new trouble was of some comfort to them, several Kurdish leaders told me, but such a force would prove useless should Saddam try to send his secret police back into the region, as he surely would. The Kurds—let down so often by the outside world—seemed braced for yet another disappointment.
All the while, they were coming under pressure from other forces in the Iraqi opposition. In late June, a coalition of anti-Saddam forces called the Joint Action Committee gathered in Damascus to discuss possible ways of bringing down the dictator. Many delegates criticized the proposed Kurdish deal, especially its provisions for political reforms in Iraq generally. To them, the idea of negotiating such reforms was meaningless as long as Saddam Hussein remained in power. An accord with Baghdad might fulfill Kurdish hopes for autonomy, they believed, but not the democratic aspirations of the rest of the country. This was of particular concern to the Shi’ites, who feared that a separate Kurdish deal would free the government to concentrate its repressive energies on the south. In these circumstances, the Kurds were having second thoughts about signing the accord.
Were there other ways of putting pressure on Saddam’s regime? One possible approach was spelled out in a letter sent by several opposition groups to the UN secretary-general. It proposed that Iraq be allowed to resume oil exports, with all revenues deposited in a UN escrow account. The UN would use those funds to set up an extensive relief network inside Iraq. Such an arrangement would not only ensure that food and medicine got to the people who needed it, it would also establish a parallel administrative structure that could compete with—and gradually erode—the government’s own authority. Whether the allied nations would support such an ambitious program was not clear. Even more unlikely was whether Saddam Hussein would ever allow such a challenge to his power.
In the short term, the position of the Iraqi president seems unassailable. The organized opposition outside the country is weak and divided; inside, save for Kurdistan, it hardly exists. Iraq has no Ayatollah Khomeini, a man to whom everyone instinctively looks as the country’s natural leader. In conversations with the opposition, no names of potential presidential candidates emerge. In the long run, though, it’s unclear how long Saddam can last. Even the most ruthless dictators require some popular base on which to lean, and Saddam’s is shrinking with every passing day. The one thing that could save him would be a program of genuine political reform, but that’s what he is least capable of. And so the acts of defiance—modest and discreet at the moment—could multiply and spread, until one day, perhaps, they gain enough force to sweep him from power.
Yet the Iraqi people won’t be able to achieve that alone. Continued pressure from the outside world is essential. In this respect, the withdrawal of allied forces from northern Iraq, completed in mid-July, seems a major blunder, one sure way of helping Saddam to strengthen his grip on the country. Rather than reduce its presence in Iraq, the West should increase it. The more allied soldiers, UN, observers, relief workers, and foreign correspondents working in the country, the more emboldened will be those seeking change.
One way or another, the task won’t be easy, as I discovered on a visit to the holy Shi’ite city of Karbala, located sixty miles to the south of Baghdad. Karbala poses a special challenge to Saddam. Some of the fiercest fighting during the Shi’ite uprising took place there. Rebel forces sacked many government buildings and set up nooses to lynch Baathist officials. The government responded with even greater brutality, using heavy artillery with indiscriminate zeal. The result today is a restive, resentful Shi’ite population that would like nothing better than to see Saddam go the way of Ceausescu.
Evidence of the fighting appeared well before we reached the town. Along the road from Baghdad, acres of date trees had been toppled, uprooted, and burned—the work of the army, which had destroyed the trees in order to deny the rebels cover for ambushes. Some of the trees were a hundred years old, and new ones would take at least twenty-five years to mature. Karbala itself looked like a ghost town, with block after block of buildings smashed by mortars. The heaviest fighting took place at the city’s Abbas and Hussein shrines—magnificent Shi’ite mosques with spectacular goldleafed domes. At the height of the fighting, the rebels took refuge in both mosques, and the army had attacked them without mercy. Three months later, the exquisitely tiled outer walls of the mosques still bore huge gashes.
Wishing to enter, I went with my minder to one of the gates. A soldier told us we needed permission from the governor. We trudged back through the blistering heat to our car, which we’d left with our driver on a side street. When we got there, we were horrified to find the car, a Toyota Super Saloon, smashed. Our driver, the owner of the car, was screaming at the crew of an army petrol truck, which, we learned, had clipped the back left-hand corner of the car, forcing it up on the pavement and into a cement column.
In Iraq, it is almost impossible to get the army to compensate civilians for accidents, even when—as in this case—it is entirely at fault. As it happened, though, Saddam Hussein was in Karbala that day. Ostensibly he had come to tell the local Shi’ite population that repair work on the damaged shrines would proceed as quickly as possible; his real purpose, though, seemed to be to make a show of force. Saddam was the one man in Iraq who could resolve my driver’s plight, and so he marched off into the searing afternoon, intent on pressing his case. Three hours later he returned—alas, empty-handed. He had never gotten even close to Saddam.
There was nothing to do but return to Baghdad. The car’s engine still worked, and for half an hour we banged away at the smashed frame to get the tires free. As we rolled out of town, we saw a company of soldiers camped on either side of the road. My driver, a persistent man, pulled over, hopped out, and began seeking the officer in charge. Again, he got nowhere and was soon walking back to the car. Just as he arrived, the soldiers around us began scrambling about, and there, suddenly, was Saddam’s motorcade, tearing along at ninety miles an hour. In the lead were six white Mercedes-Benzes. Saddam was clearly in one of them, but since they all had curtained windows and were identical in appearance, it was impossible to say which.
The rest of the convoy followed. I began counting the Mercedes that passed but lost track at sixty. There were jeeps outfitted with anti-aircraft guns, communications vans, ambulances, diesel trucks, police cars, vans mounted with machine guns, howitzers, and dozens upon dozens of buses and trucks filled with troops—about 150 vehicles in all, madly dashing back to Baghdad through the corridor of broken, battered palms.
—July 18, 1991
See the review by Peter Partner, The New York Review, April 25, 1991.↩
See the review by Peter Partner, The New York Review, April 25, 1991.↩