Saddam: Washington’s Faithful Dictator
Both those who celebrated and those who mourned the execution of Saddam (December 30, 2006) seem to have in common a lack of understanding of the history and the complex role that Saddam played in Iraqi and Arab politics. That role left its mark on the future of the Arab people and their aspirations for freedom and liberty. Many of both the celebrants and mourners are acting upon impulse and or passion with little or no consciousness of even the most recent Iraqi history. This is deepening the fracture of the already polarized Arab nation.
One might question the savage conduct of the execution, its rationality, or even the fact that it was done under occupation. The fact remains, however, that a brutal dictator, one way or another, has met his ultimate fate. Indeed, there are those who believe that, under normal conditions and even in the absence of a 2003 invasion, the Iraqi people could have delivered swift justice. And, they believe that this would have sent a strong message to other Arab dictators forcing them into a living hell.
Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. argues that a nation denied a conception of the past will be disabled in dealing with its present and its future. The induced and seemingly unending turmoil in the Middle East has left the Arab people unable to think clearly. Connecting even recent events has become impossible. Sadly, this is vividly expressed in the reaction to the invasion of Iraq and to the seizing, and then hanging, of Saddam Hussein.
Those who are familiar with Saddam know that Saddam was always true to his roots. Saddam‘s personality was shaped by three factors: a troubled childhood; an ambitious but vicious uncle, Kharallah Talfah, and intense hate of communism. The early years were critical for Saddam’s view of life. He had an instinct for survival and the ability to maneuver those who were more powerful than him. His uncle was a retired military officer who displayed an affinity to the British occupation of Iraq and hated the progressive military officers, especially their leader Abdul Karim Qasim, who ended the British-installed monarchy on July 14, 1958.
In the late 1950s Saddam joined the Baath Party. At that time, the Iraqi political scene was dominated by the Iraqi Communist Party. The Communist Party attracted intellectuals and patriots and had a strong base among students and workers. Most of the people who resented the monarchy and its ruthless policies joined the Communist Party. The just - established Baath Party, with its emphasis on issues that appealed to unsophisticated individuals, found acceptance among youth who were either rejected by the Communist Party or who just moved from villages to the cities and disliked the communist’s overly progressive thinking and program.
When the Baath leadership decided to assassinate the communist–supported President Qasim, Saddam was selected to be among the group to carry out the assassination. Salah Ali al-Saadi, then deputy secretary general of the Baath Party, was responsible for recruiting the assassination team including Saddam. According to a UPI report (April 10, 2003) Saddam’s first contact with the CIA was in 1959 as the “CIA-authorized six-man squad tasked with assassinating” President Qasim. In 1964, al-Saadi acknowledged that the Baath Party was financed by the CIA.
President Qasim, with the help of the Communist Party, enacted agrarian and other economic reforms along with civil and personal affairs laws which were detrimental to landlords and other established elite interests. Likewise, in 1959, Iraq decided to withdraw from the Washington-supported Baghdad Pact which included Britain, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey. Qasim, too, issued law #80, under which the government reserved its right for oil exploration in 99.5 percent of the territory, called the non-concession lands. This imposed strict restrictions on the operation of foreign oil companies.
These actions prompted CIA Director Allan Dulles to state that Iraq was, “the most dangerous spot in the world.” Furthermore, Qasim’s close cooperation with the Soviet Union alerted all Arab regimes, especially those in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. These regimes along with the Iranian regime actively cooperated with London and Washington to change the patriotic Iraqi government. The Baath Party was seen as a viable instrument to change Qasim’s regime.
After the failed assassination of Qasim, Saddam escaped to Syria and then moved to Lebanon. While in Lebanon, a former CIA officer was quoted in a UPI report saying, the “CIA paid for Saddam’s apartment and put him through a brief training course.” Soon after, Saddam was moved to Cairo, Egypt, and supervised closely by both the CIA and Egyptian intelligence.
In February1963, the CIA orchestrated a coup d’etat and demonstrated that it was not only capable of removing a popular regime but also in rearranging the Arab political scene with considerable ease. In its editorial on April 2, 2003, the USA Today succinctly summed it up, “In 1963, the CIA intervened in Iraqi politics to help Saddam’s branch of the Baath Party seize power. A violent purge followed.”
The new regime in Baghdad embarked on three major endeavors to please Washington. Internally, it crushed the thriving and promising progressive Iraqi movement. Economically, it revised Law # 80 pertaining to Iraqi oil exploration and practically put on hold the ambitious economic plans that were devised just after the 1958 popular revolution. Internationally, it improved its relations with London and Washington and formally recognized Kuwait’s sovereignty.
Nine months later, however, disgruntled army officers, including President Abdul Salam Aref, removed the Baaths from power. The new regime maintained friendly relationships with the oil companies and the West in general. Nevertheless, it nationalized companies that were mostly owned by Iraqis, especially those who had sympathy to the progressive organizations. In the meantime, it attempted to strengthen its relationship with the regime in Egypt.
The jockeying for power among several military groups, however, resulted in the killing of President Aref in 1966. Many in the military saw Aref as an abusive incompetent and divisive president. After his death, his brother Abdul Rahman was selected by the competing military forces to be the President. Unlike his brother, the new President was soft and showed tolerance for competing political views. Progressive and patriotic forces took advantage of this newly founded political environment. This enabled liberal and national Marxist-oriented groups (e.g. The Arab Nationalists Movement and the Communist Party) to dominate public discourse and to gain control over civic organizations, especially labor, lawyers, and student unions.
During the 1967 War, President Aref declared that the establishment of Israel was a “historical mistake,” sent more Iraqi troops to Jordan, and aligned himself more closely than ever with Abdul Naser and his Arab national views. These developments alarmed the US and Saudi Arabia. Consequently, the Saudi Military Attaché in Baghdad approached some retired military officers, among them General Sebhi Abdul Hamid, to cooperate with a plan supported by the US and Britain to replace Aref’s regime.
The Saudi Military Attaché informed General Abdul Hamid that leftist and nationalist groups with Marxist tendencies were dominating the Iraqi scene and about to take over the government. When General Abdul Hamid refused to cooperate in overthrowing Aref‘s regime, Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, representing the Baath Party, was approached and accepted the offer to be the replacement of Aref.
On July 17, 1968, the CIA –supported coup d’etat successfully removed Aref and the Baath came to power. Al-Bakr was declared president. Capitalizing on his kinship with al-Bakr, Saddam positioned himself at the center of power by purging military officers not affiliated with the Baath Party and forcing into exile, among others, leaders of the Arab Nationalists Movement.
Early in 1969, Saddam consolidated his power by controlling all branches of security, including the military. Immediately, he closed down the offices of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arab Gulf and jailed many of its members. Further, he cooperated with Iran and the Arab Gulf governments in their attempt to eliminate the growing influence of progressive nationalistic groups. When Salah Omer al-Ali, the head of the Baath Gulf Bureau, questioned the rationality of this action, he was immediately demoted and sent abroad as an ambassador.
During black September 1970 (a month in which King Hussein of Jordan used force to crush the PLO fighters after bloody fighting), Michel Aflag, the National General Secretary of the Baath, and the Iraqi Military Chief of Staff, Hamadi Shihab, while in Jordan gave an order to Iraqi military stationed there to aid the Palestinians. Saddam, however, immediately issued instruction not to help Palestinians. When Michel Aflag wrote an article in the Party Magazine in Lebanon, al Ahrar, Saddam closed the magazine and dismissed its editors from the Party.
Internally, Saddam was able to restrict the movement of representatives of many Palestinian organizations, especially the Popular Front and the Popular Democratic Front. He attempted to divide the largest Palestinian group headed by Arafat, Fatah. In fact, he financed almost all Fatah splinter groups. Later, he closed down all Fatah training camps in Iraq and took over their property. This prompted Arafat to state that the fate of Saddam would be similar to that of Nouri Saed (a brutal former Iraqi Prime Minister who was dragged, by an angry Iraqi crowd in 1958 through the streets of Baghdad until death).
However, Saddam focused his wrath on eliminating the influence of the Communist Party. Despite attempts by the liberal wing within the Baath Party to reach out and cooperate with the Iraqi communists, Saddam arrested Aziz al-Haj and Salem al-Fakhari the leader of the Iraq Communist Party, Central Command, and the Iraqi Communist Party, the Revolutionary Committee, respectively. Saddam, under pressure from al-Bakr, did not arrest the leadership of the mainstream communists, the Iraqi Communist Party, but gradually eliminated most of its junior leaders, and jailed or forced the majority of its general members to go into exile.
Once Saddam felt secure in eliminating the national and communist threats, he devoted his time to eradicating any threat from the Kurdish organizations and the traditional religious establishment in major cities such as Najaf, Basra, Karbala, Nasyria and Baghdad. In the early 1970s, Saddam issued a decree prohibiting any public religious sentiments. He made it a law that any member of the al-Dawa Party (of the current Iraqi Prime Minister) was subject to execution.
By November 1974, Saddam Hussein was successful in getting rid of all leftist and nationalist members in the existing cabinet and leadership. He organized a new cabinet which was full of right-wings and Baathists loyal to Saddam. The American Interest Section in Baghdad sent a report to Washington stating that “We consider the change in cabinet on November 11 as an indication of political stability and a continuation for the non-aligned policy and demonstrates the ability of Saddam Hussein in embarking on realistic and practical policy in managing the government.” (quoted in Hashim, 2003).
In his quest to steer Iraq away from an Arab nationalist path, Saddam, in 1979, arrested and executed all senior members in the Baath Party who supported a unity with Syria. He completely marginalized President al-Bakr and forced him to relinquish his job. This allowed Saddam to direct all his resources to cement relations with Arab authoritarian regimes, especially those of the Saudi Arabia and Jordan and set the stage for invading Iran. Saddam instructed the media to refrain from criticizing Arab dictators and any reference to imperialism and ordered the media to refer, derogatorily, to the new government in Iran as a Majosi (Zoroastrian) regime.
The above activities pleased the neoconservatives in Washington who, for years, had considered Iraqis progressive and liberal tendencies a threat to their design for the Middle East. Neoconservatives in the Congress (e.g., Congressman Steven Solarz and Senator Arlene Spector) visited Saddam and commended him for stabilizing the area. For example, Solarz, on August 25, 1983, had a private meeting with Saddam and praised him for his practicality. Neoconservatives treated Saddam‘s ambassador to Washington, Nazar Hamdoon, majestically and invited him to give speeches to major think tanks.
Neoconservative thinkers projected Iraq as an important instrument for protecting American interests in the Middle East. Pipes and Mylroie (1987) stated "The fall of the existing regime in Iraq would enormously enhance Iranian influence, endanger the supply of oil, threading pro-American regimes throughout the area, and upset the Arab-Israeli balance...If our tilt toward Iraq is reciprocated, moreover, it could lay the basis for a fruitful relationship in the longer term."
It was during the Iraq-Iran War that Washington cooperation with Saddam reached its peak. The Washington Post reported (December 31, 2006) that President Bush, the senior, advised Saddam, through intermediaries, to intensify the bombing of Iran. In fact, according to a 1994 Senate report, American companies, licensed by the U.S. Department of Commerce, “exported a witch’s brew of biological and chemical materials to Iraq from 1985 to 1989” (Blum, 1998).
Even after the U.S. attacked Iraq in 1991 and removed it from Kuwait, Washington thought that keeping Saddam in power was a strategic goal. Former White House National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft, summarized this up when he wrote that the goal of getting rid of Saddam would “not serve our interest. So we pursued the kind of inelegant, messy alternative that is all too often the only one available in the real world.”
Saddam like any other Arab dictator thought that the way he acted and treated his people was serving the U.S. interest. Whether his perception is right or wrong is not an issue. The primary matter remains that Arab dictators, emboldened by Washington support, do not answer to their people. Their loyalty, first and foremost, is to their protector and ultimately they must select to engage in courses of action that they believe are in line with Washington‘s design for the region.
It was reported that Saddam laughed just before he was hanged when an audience present in the gallows chamber shouted at him. Saddam’s laugh might be symbolic to some but he intended to convey the message that he was a faithful collaborator with Washington, taking forever valuable secrets to his grave. And it may be, too, that Saddam wanted to remind the audience that Washington let him run the show for thirty years while the people of Iraq had no access to him, even as a jailed person, until the last moments of his death.
Baker, Peter (December 31, 2006). Conflicts shaped two presidencies. Washington Post, A 21.
Blum, William (April 1998). Anthrax for export. The Progressive, Vol. 62 94), 18-20.
Hashim, Jawad (2003). A memoir of an Iraqi minister with Al-Baker and Saddam. Available: www. Sotaliraq.com.
Pipes, D. and Mylroie,L. (April 27, 1987). Back Iraq. New Republic, 14-15.
Sale, Richard (April 10, 2003). Saddam key in early CIA plot. , UPI
Abbas Ali is member of the WSN International Advisory Board.