Lines in the Sand

Keith Kyle

  • Saddam’s War: The Origins of the Kuwait Conflict and the International Response by John Bulloch and Harvey Morris
    Faber, 194 pp, £13.99, January 1991, ISBN 0 571 16387 4
  • Unholy Babylon: The Secret History of Saddam’s War by Adel Darwish and Gregory Alexander
    Gollancz, 352 pp, £9.99, January 1991, ISBN 0 575 05054 3
  • Cambridge International Document Series: Vol. 1 The Kuwait Crisis edited by E. Lauterpacht, C.J. Greenwood, Mark Weller and Daniel Bethlehem
    Grotius Publication, 330 pp, £35.17, January 1991, ISBN 0 949009 86 5
  • Air Power and Colonial Control by David Omissi
    Manchester, 260 pp, £35.00, January 1990, ISBN 0 7190 2960 0

Of all the many guises in which Saddam Hussein has appeared before the Iraqi people and the world, the most surprising was that of the great white hope of Arab moderation. Formerly known as a rejectionist – a last-ditch opponent of a negotiated Palestine settlement – he emerged in 1987, under the strains of a war against Iran which he appeared to be losing, as a charter member of what the Jordanians were describing as ‘the great moderate centre’. The other members of this new alignment were Egypt, Jordan and the PLO; it was part of the shift in policy towards Israel which the Palestine National Council finally endorsed in November 1988.

‘The perception that Saddam was a reformed character overlooked the fundamental nature of his regime,’ observe the authors of Saddam’s War, and there were people who at the time who found the notion of a ‘moderate’ Saddam Hussein an implausible proposition. But in the Middle East one must pick one’s moderates where one can find them and many Westerners who had previously thought of post-1980 Iraq and Iran as two equally unpleasant regimes intent on doing the maximum of damage to each other began to see in the ‘mature’ Saddam Hussein the lineaments of a roughhewn statesman, who, having involved himself by miscalculation in a real war instead of a walk-over, could be relied on not to make impulsive mistakes again.

A great impersonator, Saddam Hussein has now thrown off the moderation and makes speeches in the fashion and often the actual vocabulary of his deadly rival, the Ayatollah Khomeini: speeches stuffed full of Islam, abuse of enemies and denunciation of the materialism of the Great Satan, the United States. A civilian, he is now a field-marshal; a brazen secularist, he is now to be a saint.

Saddam Hussein has retained power for so long, despite mistakes that would have felled anyone else, because he has developed an instinct and a system that enable him to kill potential rivals (or cause their helicopters to crash) before they can kill him. He differs from the other figures, mainly military, who have enjoyed the leadership of Iraq since 1958, when the Hashemite monarchy was drowned in blood, in that he has personally shared in the shooting of those of his close colleagues whom he has come to distrust. Both the authors of Unholy Babylon and those of Saddam’s War give examples of this. There was the occasion in 1979 just after Saddam Hussein had taken over the Presidency (he had been deputy leader for ten years), when he converted half the Revolutionary Command Council into a firing-squad to execute the other half. There was also the occasion in 1982, during one of Iraq’s worst moments in the war with Iran, when his Minister of Health seemed to favour his stepping down from office to enable peace to be made with Khomeini. A shot from Saddam’s pistol settled the problem of the Minister of Health. By contrast, at one point during the Suez invasion in 1956 Major Salah Salem thought that Gamal Abdul Nasser should give himself up personally to the British ‘because it is only you they want’: the Egyptian leader contented himself with sending the major into retirement with his life pension as a Free Officer intact.

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