Opinion - Iraqis want to be rid of Saddam
In March 1988, I was in the first party of journalists to visit the Iraqi border town of Halabja, just conquered by the Iranian Army, and report on the terrible vengeance which Saddam Hussein wrought on its Kurdish inhabitants: He gassed them all. Shock at this grisly scene was quickly followed by disbelief at the official American comment on it: It might well, Washington said, have been Iranian, not Iraqi, handiwork. A few months later, in eastern Turkey, I saw the thousands who had fled across the frontier in the wake of Operation Anfal, Saddam’s bid to subjugate Iraq’s Kurdish citizens by gassing at least 100,000 of them. The American, indeed the wider Western, response to this genocidal act was minimal.
It is now known that this was deliberate. In a policy of which Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other neoconservative members of the current administration were key executives, the US had aligned itself behind Saddam in his war on Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fundamentalist Iran, and, in the aftermath of Halabja, officials were instructed to lie and obfuscate on his behalf.
So it will be hard to credit the American-led war on Iraq with any of the disinterested purposes that the administration ascribes to it, like “liberating” the Iraqi people and replacing Saddam’s despotism with a “democratic” new order. It is easier to agree with those, primarily but far from exclusively from whole Arab world, who only discern a self-interested agenda one which the neoconservatives hardly bother to disguise themselves. The Middle East stands on the brink of geopolitical upheavals unlike anything since the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, and the US is embarking on a quasi-colonial enterprise, involving direct, physical conquest and occupation, comparable to the one which it strongly opposed when, 80 years ago, the old colonial powers, Britain and France, were doing the colonizing. The basic idea is to install a client regime in Iraq, then turn this potentially rich and strategically pivotal country into the fulcrum of a wider design that will bring the entire region firmly under American-Israeli control: for such are the neoconservatives’ personal, professional and ideological ties with Israel, and right-wing Israel at that, that the agenda is patently Israeli as much as American. The Palestinians, completely bereft of any Arab support, will be forced to acquiesce in the formalized apartheid that is Ariel Sharon’s idea of a final settlement. America will secure the high hand over a denationalized Iraqi oil industry, and, from that position of strength, set production, supply and pricing policies for the whole region, undermining the traditional ascendancy of Saudi Arabia, emasculating OPEC, and ushering in an era of cheaper and more abundant oil.
Such quasi-colonial ambitions are good reasons for the Arabs to oppose the war. The trouble is that in doing so, they oppose the wishes of those Arabs, the Iraqis themselves, most directly concerned and with greatest right to the decisive voice in their own future. The Iraqis want to be rid of Saddam Hussein: Neither logic, nor the long, enormously costly and savage history of their unsuccessful resistance to his rule, point to any other conclusion. “Regime change in Iraq”, says Ahmad Partow, an Iraqi former UN human rights officer, “is a human rights and humanitarian imperative. Asking the Iraqi people to remain enslaved by the current regime, simply because Saddam can be deterred or contained, is selfish and unjust.” For the Iraqi opposition, the official American or UN rationale for war dismantling its weapons of mass destruction is the wrong, or at least a subsidiary, one; it is the uniquely evil regime, with or without those weapons, capable of another Anfal or not, that counts. That is why, for them, the key UN resolution was never 687 the original call for Iraqi disarmament but 688, which called for an end to the “repression” of the Iraqi people. For them, too, there is no other means to fulfil that resolution than an international military intervention. And if, owing to divisions within the international community, that turns out to be mainly, or even exclusively, American, then so be it. They have tried everything down the years: assassination, military putsch, terrorist insurgency, popular uprising. The 1991 rebellion came closest to success; it only failed precisely because in a shameful betrayal the administration of Bush the father withheld the international backing which, with troops in southern Iraq, it could so very easily have furnished. To be sure, some of the main opposition factions have had misgivings about an American intervention; not, however, for the reasons that other Arabs do, but because, after all America has done on the despot’s behalf, they needed to be convinced that it was truly serious at last, first about getting rid of him, and secondly about installing an acceptable new order in his place. They must still have misgivings about the second of these things; but at least they are now sure of the first.
Such is the gulf between Iraqi and Arab positions on the coming war that some Arab newspapers call Iraqi opposition leaders traitors, because they are ready to enlist the services of a foreign devil against their own. But these accusations only dramatize the moral and political confusion into which, over this momentous question, the Arabs have fallen.
The Iraqi opposition, in its incoherence, bears some responsibility for this. But, as victims, theirs is the least. The Arabs have more to answer for. They consider that the coming onslaught will, in effect, be directed against the entire Arab world, not just Iraq. But they would not be facing this calamity if, in the past 20 years, they had recognized Saddam for what he is, the most villainous and destructive of Arab leaders, the worst manifestation of a sickness that afflicts almost all Arab societies, and, having recognized this, sympathized with those Arab, the Iraqis, who had to endure it, and helped them end it. Of course the other Arab rulers themselves would never have done that; autocrats too, they know that to conspire against one of their number is ultimately to do so against themselves. When Saddam gassed the Kurds, he may have earned unconscionably little reproach from the West; but that little was enough for the Arab regimes, via the Arab League, to volunteer their “total solidarity” with him. But the Arab peoples insofar as, oppressed themselves, they could express a distinctive opinion at all were not much better. In his book Cruelty and Silence, leading Iraqi opposition figure Kanan Makiya reflects the Iraqi sense of betrayal by an Arab intelligentsia ready to applaud Saddam as a champion of the higher, pan-Arab, anti-imperialist cause, and to expect the Iraqi people, prime victims of this catastrophic championship, to find virtue in him too.
If war turns out to be a calamity for America as well, that will be because the moral and political confusion it embodies is no less, in its case, than it is in the Arabs’, and certainly greater in its consequences. However valid the official or semi-official reasons for it, disarming Iraq, or the bringing about the “regime change” which is probably the only means of ensuring that on a permanent basis, it will still be seen as the supreme expression of those double standards which are the single-most important reason why Arab hostility to the US has reached the intensity it has. It will be wreaking punishment on an Arab country for its acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and its violations of UN resolutions even as the US continues to indulge an Israeli protege which has a far longer, no less deceitful, illegitimate and ultimately dangerous record of doing the same. In these conditions, the long-overdue enfranchisement of the Arab people which it might indeed unleash be it in the form of a relatively orderly transition to democracy, or, more likely, in the chaotic overthrow of a rotten existing order will not help America at all. Indeed, given its quasi-colonial, ever-more pro-Israeli agenda, it will turn the Arabs even more strenuously, and probably effectively, against them. The neoconservatives seem to realize this. In Commentary magazine last October, Norman Podhoretz, their veteran intellectual luminary, wrote that “regime change” should extend to no less than half-a-dozen Middle Eastern countries. However, he warned, the “alternative to (existing) regimes could easily turn out to be worse, even, or especially, if it comes into power through democratic elections;” in that case the US would have to summon up “the will to fight (a world war) against militant Islam to a successful conclusion.” In other words, America’s own policies will generate an ever-growing hostility which America will have to commit ever-growing material and human resources to combating. Where does such well-nigh megalomaniac, imperial logic end?
Probably the only way that the opponents of war can now, in extremis, pre-empt the worst is to achieve by political means what America want to achieve by military ones, and persuade Saddam to step down voluntarily. That, it seems, is what, breaking their sacrosanct, noninterventionist code, some Arab leaders are desperately trying to contrive. So salvation now entirely hinges on Saddam himself or rather, perhaps, on an assassin, from within the innermost circles of power, who strikes him down. Seemingly proof against every other form of retribution, that has long been the most likely, if at the same time most obscurely unpredictable, manner of his going. But, as all-out war looms, it is at its likeliest now.
David Hirst, a veteran Middle East correspondent, wrote this commentary for The Daily Star