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Arabian knight

War on Iraq: The West has finally given Saddam Hussein the role he always longed for

india Updated: Mar 31, 2003 21:30 IST

Uncle Saddam, we’re going to miss you. While the world’s eyes are fixed with alarm on the invasion of Iraq, the spin doctors of George Bush and Tony Blair are already writing scripts for victory celebrations. The first question they are trying to address is whether they can afford whatever change is on the way.

According to OPEC, Iraq has the second-largest oil reserves in the world. The scramble for Iraq’s oil has already begun. American oil companies have been negotiating concessions with the Iraqi opposition in exile for months. The British are staking a claim based on their original pre-nationalisation control of the Iraqi Petroleum Company. The French believe that the Anglo-French Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 gave them the rights to the oil-rich north of Iraq. Russia’s claim is based on an agreement signed by Saddam Hussein.

The Iraqi opposition in exile is so divided even the Americans have stopped thinking of them as Saddam’s replacement. To a US career diplomat who dealt with them for years, “they reek of corruption and talk nonsense”. The Iraqi National Congress, the umbrella organisation that speaks on behalf of more than 80 political groupings, is unknown to the people of Iraq. As well as receiving money from the US under the Iraqi Liberation Act, each of its key components maintains a regional sponsor. Some want to follow Iran, others Saudi Arabia, a few receive money from Kuwait, the Kurds fear Turkey and there are some who want to restore the monarchy. Unable to agree, Saddam becomes everybody’s second choice.

The deep divisions in the Arab world and the average Arab’s bitterness towards its leaders mean there is no way to express the pervasive anti-American feeling on street level except through Islamic fundamentalism. To many, Saddam was the best of a bad lot, the only secular counterweight to the Islamists. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and even Turkey are threatened by the Islamist tide gripping their countries. Fearful of alienating their people further, none of
the leaders of these countries is now likely to obey the West as in the past.

Iraq’s riches and strategic positions are sources of weakness and strength. The tortured past of the country (Arab, Persian, Ottoman, Sumerian, Babylonian, Akkadian, Assyrian) has haunted its rulers for centuries. Not a single empire conquered, occupied or annexed Iraq without resorting to bloodshed and cruelty. In 1922, King Faisal I, chosen by the British, reduced his country’s problems to: “In Iraq, there are no Iraqis.” Soon after, Winston Churchill described the place as “unmanageable”.

The ethnic and religious strands that make up Iraq have never come as close to national cohesion as they did under Saddam Hussein. Saddam portrayed himself as being a Kurd, a Sunni, a Shia, a worker, a farmer, a military genius, a supporter of Christian rights, a noble Turkoman and a holy descendant of the Prophet. His utterly shameless claims were supported by one of the most ruthless security systems in the world.

The reasons for missing Saddam have always been there. Iraq was the first Arab country to suffer a string of military coups, from 1936 onwards. Saddam came to power as a legman gabadai (tough guy). In 1979, he forced his cousin into retirement, made himself president and executed all members of the Ba’ath Party leadership who opposed him. It was the Iraqi equivalent of the night of the long knives — and an expression of the inherent violence of Iraq by a seemingly invincible leader.

Saddam then moved to befriend America. The degree with which the United States welcomed his approaches was remarkable. What followed amounted to a strange secret alliance between two parties who did not trust each other. It was America that supplied him with the blueprint for his first chemical warfare plant. And it was the US that prevailed on King Hussein of Jordan and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia to back him against Khomeini of Iran. As with Iraq’s neighbours, the US considered him the lesser of two evils.

Saddam’s problems with America began after he triumphed over Khomeini in 1989. The US had provided him with considerable logistical and financial support. But it dropped him the moment the war was over. Deeply in debt and unable to provide his people with the fruits of victory, he became convinced that the US was conspiring with Kuwait to overthrow him — and in 1990, the chicken thief from Tikrit invaded Kuwait.

Surviving the pressures brought to bear on him ever since is a case of 13th time lucky. He is finally going, courtesy of Osama bin Laden and a crime Saddam didn’t commit. But even Donald Rumsfeld admits the West has no definite plans for Iraq’s future. So, it will be left to the Sunnis, Shias and Kurds — as well as Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, among others — to produce a new Iraq. The Iraqis in exile will play any game that produces money and position for themselves.

Unlike the only Arab leader to whom he is often compared, Nasser of Egypt, Saddam never tried to go directly to the Arab street. In fact, his relations with the rest of the Arab countries, including the conservative ones, were cordial. What he wanted was to turn Iraq into a model, a magnet that would attract and change the ways of the rest.

In essence Saddam achieved all the traditional ambitions of Iraq. He succeeded in nationalising the country’s oil industry, managed to unify the country (albeit through Police State methods) and stabilised relations with all of its covetous neighbours. In the process, for the first time he created an Iraqi identity.

The mayhem on the way will help Saddam realise his dream. While he didn’t intend to become the leading martyr of our time, he has always been preoccupied with his place in modern Arab history. By allowing him to drag them into a regional war that recalls every bit of humiliation the Arabs have ever suffered at the hands of Britain and the US, George Bush and Tony Blair have elevated his status. Saddam’s ambitious view of himself and how the Arab people are likely to regard him have suddenly become one and the same.

What the future holds for Iraq after Saddam Hussein is not as much a matter of speculation as it was a week ago. Saddam has been helped materially by the ineptitude of his opponents, the feckless establishment Iraqis who make up the INC and Blair and Rumsfeld, the self-appointed experts on things Arab and Muslim. It is these background confrontations and how he and his army acquit themselves during the coming few days which matter. Iraq’s bloody history has never accommodated fabricated stories of western concern for human rights.

The Guardian The writer is the author of Saddam Hussein: The Politics of Revenge and A Brutal Friendship: The West and the Arab Elite

First Published: Mar 24, 2003 22:15 IST