Baghdad’s Ruling Cliques

Keith Kyle

  • The Iraqi Revolution of 1958: The Old Social Classes Revisited edited by Robert Fernea and William Roger Louis
    Tauris, 232 pp, £35.00, May 1991, ISBN 1 85043 318 6
  • Instant Empire: Saddam Hussein’s Ambition for Iraq by Simon Henderson
    Mercury House, 271 pp, £8.99, June 1991, ISBN 1 56279 007 2
  • Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography by Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi
    Brassey, 307 pp, £17.95, April 1991, ISBN 0 08 041326 9
  • The Gulf Between Us: The Gulf War and Beyond edited by Victoria Brittain
    Virago, 186 pp, £5.99, June 1991, ISBN 1 85381 386 9
  • Under Siege in Kuwait: A Survivor’s Story by Jadranka Porter
    Gollancz, 250 pp, £4.99, July 1991, ISBN 0 575 05185 X

‘Colonel van Ormer has a forceful personality,’ lamented Brigadier Lushington, head of the British Services Mission in Iraq, of his new American colleague in October 1954. ‘I suspect that he has been “hand-picked”. If he is to be believed, he is being given a very free hand indeed. He talks very big.’ The aggrieved brigadier, charged with managing the operational end of what had been, since the creation of the state of Iraq at the conclusion of the First World War, an exclusive relationship between Britain and the Iraqi Armed Forces, was not disposed to ‘belittle the seriousness of this American invasion’. This was a ‘potential threat to British military influence’.

The reverse side of the same coin is struck in The Iraqi Revolution of 1958 by two of its American contributors: Nicholas Thacher, a diplomatic veteran who was in the American Embassy in Baghdad from 1956 to 58, and Frederick Axelgard, a current State Department official, both of whom consider that in the Fifties the United States displayed altogether too much deference for her own good to British views and the protection of British influence. Axelgard, who has made a special study of this period, finds that ‘the United States consciously cultivated a secondary position politically and militarily behind British influence in pre-revolutionary Iraq.’

The Iraqi Revolution of 1958: The Old Social Classes Revisited takes its main title from a single event of central importance – the destruction of the Iraqi monarchy and, with it, the British interest – and examines how it affected historical judgment of what had gone before and what was to follow. The subtitle, on the other hand, refers to the vast but engagingly written work by Hanna Batatu, a Palestinian PhD candidate, called The Old Classes and Revolutionary Movements of Iraq. This was published in 1978, and rightly hailed as a milestone in the study of a Middle Eastern state. The present book was planned well before the invasion of Kuwait. As a result of that event, the 1958 Revolution has gained an exceptional salience in the chain of events that led to the Gulf War, and those readers not coming to the book by way of Batatu might have liked to start off with a clear factual account of what, in fact, happened in Baghdad on 14 July 1958.

Roger Owen says here that when Iraq was re-occupied by the British in 1941, after the Hashemite Regent had been deposed by four colonels and a pro-Axis politician, the structure of British influence was put on a new footing. From then on, the relationship between the regime and a small group of the largest landowners and tribal chiefs became much more mutually supportive. It was not that the British were unaware of the dangers of this. Sir John Troutbeck, one of the two Ambassadors of the Fifties examined in the chapter by William Roger Louis, was outspokenly crit ical of the immense social gaps, and in his view Western education had only made the younger generation of Iraqis more narrow-minded politically; his successor. Sir Martin Wright, that most proconsular of post-war British diplomats, known to his wife as ‘His Excellency’ or, in rare moments of informality, as ‘H.E.’, was much more complacent. That he had enough evidence to the contrary is shown by Louis’s telling quotations from the field reports of his talented subordinate, Sam Falle.

General Nuri es-Said, the head of 12 of the always short-lived governments under the monarchy, was the outstanding personality of the ancien régime. He came to have the most remarkable hold over most Britons; the fact that he was for ever plotting made him in no way less lovable. His reputation among Arab nationalists was as a British puppet, but it might well be asked who was the puppet and who the puppeteer. ‘The weakness of our long-term position in Iraq,’ a Foreign Office document said in 1943, ‘undoubtedly consists in the extent to which our eggs are concentrated in Nuri’s somewhat unstable basket.’ Thirteen years later, when the Foreign Office was striving to work out what should be Britain’s Middle East policy in the wake of Suez, the best it could come up with was a still greater reliance on the friendship of Nuri’s Iraq. On this Lord Gladwyn (then Ambassador in Paris) very reasonably commented: if Nuri ‘is by chance bumped off or dies, the whole of the officials’ report and the tentative policy based thereon will presumably have to be thrown in the waste-paper basket’. This was precisely what happened in July 1958, when Nuri, disguised as a woman, was caught and butchered by a mob which had come out in support of the Army coup against the monarchy.

The important point made by Albert Hourani, in his brilliant introductory essay, is that it was not only Nuri and the British who were wrong in their calculations. So were the Communists, who thought themselves and were thought by others to be the most likely beneficiaries of any revolution. They were wrong on two counts: they had a short innings as junior partners of General Qassim, who carried out the 1958 Revolution, and another one as the stooges of the Ba’th Party, but they were ineffective as contenders for power and they were apparently abandoned by the Soviet Union. The Nasserite Free Officers were also worsted – first by Qassim and the Communists, then in the course of the savage in-fighting which followed for most of the Sixties and from which Saddam Hussein and the Ba’th Party emerged as victors.

One hard lesson learned by Saddam from the searing experiences of these years was never to give a rival a break. When the first Ba’th regime of 1963 had lasted a matter of months, Saddam was imprisoned, but was treated with liberality and emerged to fight another day. This was a fatal mistake of a kind he resolved never to make himself. The story of the professional killer and torturer who after the Revolution of 1968 gradually emerged as the second-ranking Ba’th leader, and then, long before his formal recognition as President in 1979, as the real leader of Iraq, is told in Instant Empire by Simon Henderson of the Financial Times and in Saddam Hussein by Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi, an Israeli and a Finnish academic. Both books honestly admit difficulties over sources and make efforts to overcome them; and both can be recommended for the interim purposes for which they are intended. Both usually remember to put in the necessary caveats, though in Karsh and Rautsi – the more ambitious work – there are a few passages where the authors appear implausibly to have a route into the Iraqi ruler’s head.

As might be expected, Henderson’s footnotes refer mainly to interviews, most of them anonymous, spreading over his seven years’ experience of writing about Iraqi affairs. Karsh and Rautsi make more use of the literature but for many matters are heavily dependent on a wide variety of press sources. The two books are designed to serve somewhat different purposes. Saddam Hussein is intended, within the limits of the possible, as an orthodox biography. Instant Empire is primarily designed to supply a general briefing on the Iraqi background to the Gulf War. This starts with a glance at ancient Mesopotamia, including Saddam’s harbinger Nebuchadnezzar, and an outline of modern Iraq, continues with several biographical chapters on Saddam Hussein, and treats at some length the question of how Iraq came to be such an apparently impressive military threat, largely with the help of elements in the West. Henderson also deals with the execution of the journalist Farzad Bazoft, quoting ‘information given to the author by a former British official on condition that he not be identified’ for the statement that Bazoft had in fact been acting as an intelligence agent. He writes with admirable clarity and accuracy but there is the occasional lapse. His summary of what happened in 1941 gives the impression that Rashid Ali, the pro-Axis Prime Minister, was in office at the time of the military coup, which he had not been for three months. There is some loose editing at the end of one chapter and the beginning of another, where two versions of Saddam’s role in the 1968 coup are, when not repetitious, not quite compatible. Moreover, although Saddam was related to General Hassan al-Bakr, his predecessor in the Presidency, he was not his nephew.

The questions that arise after reading these three books are how Saddam emerged as the ultimate successor of Nuri and what light this throws on the conventional wisdom of why the 1958 Revolution took place and on what comes next. There was an overdue generational shift from Nuri to his successors, and by not handicapping themselves with a British alliance they avoided a major propaganda weakness. Saddam also made sure that, in contrast to Nuri’s Iraq, broad sections of the population, especially the formerly disadvantaged Shia villages, benefited through welfare measures from the oil wealth of the country, while making certain, through a prodigious cult of personality, that any gains were associated with him personally.

As Karsh and Rautsi explain, Saddam’s position rests on his achievement in building a security apparatus capable of defeating repeated plots. With it is associated an elaborate party structure: a small conspiratorial party of four to five hundred members, with a mystical ideology which Faleh’ Abd Al-Jabar tries valiantly to explain in The Gulf between Us has grown into a pervasive network of people with a vested interest in the continuity of Saddam’s rule. The story of what happened to Ba’th Party members in Shi’ite and Kurdish areas immediately after Desert Storm will be a sharp reminder that for these people personal survival is closely linked to the retention of power.

Sami Zubaida in The Iraqi Revolution of 1958 sees the Ba’th Party regime narrowing its ruling élites to particular clans and families – of which the Takriti group is the most notorious – so that the Party ‘becomes a vehicle of loyalty to the ruling clique and the ideology a symbol of that loyalty’. The similarities with the Nuri regime are thus emphasised, though Batatu himself holds that Zubaida has over-done this. There are two apparently opposite phenomena which have yet to be adequately examined: the striking Shi’ite identification with the state during the war with Iran, presumably, as Batatu thinks, because of economic benefits received, and the immediate uprising of the Shi’ite areas as soon as Saddam had been defeated by the Coalition.

The question of the war itself is examined by a collection of writers in The Gulf between Us. The most notable gulf is that between Victoria Brittain’s introduction, which seems designed to prepare the way for a sustained polemic against the war and anything the Americans do in the region, and the quite different tone of the outstanding epilogue by Roger Owen, which, while starting off from the view that all war is likely to make things worse in the Middle East, manages to pack into a short chapter a number of considered judgments about the effects of events on the various players. Some of the contributions adhere more to the mood of the introduction; others, happily, to that of the conclusion. Two of the latter which can be warmly commended are the chapter on the military operation itself by two retired (and liberal) American Rear-Admirals, Eugene Carroll and Gene La Rocque, of the Washington Centre for Defence Information, and the brilliant summary of ‘Iraqi Political Dynamics’ by Faleh’ Abd Al-Jabar. There is also a most moving evocation, in various Arab voices, orchestrated by Fadia Faqir, of what it was like to be the human victims of this war.

The American military commentators make the point that it is now evident that US Intelligence grossly overestimated the size and combat readiness of the Iraqi forces, but add that the command was prudent and sensible not to take risks. After all, many were inclined to doubt whether American military doctrine based on the vaunted superiority of their sophisticated command, control and communications systems, would work on the day. When it did, the Soviet Union must have gained a fair impression of what would have been thrown at it had there been any aggression in Europe. ‘After the disastrous defeat suffered by Iraq,’ say the Admirals, ‘who will risk a conventional armed confrontation with the USA in the future?’

While finding much to applaud in that part of the Coalition’s performance in the air that could be plausibly linked to the fulfilment of UN resolutions about the liberation of Kuwait, Carroll and La Rocque are sharply critical of the scope of the target list. ‘Only by a strained logic,’ they say, ‘can water and power facilities in northern Iraq be related to reducing Iraqi military capabilities in Kuwait,’ and they ask: ‘If the USA wanted only to implement the UN call for withdrawal, why were Iraqi troops attacked when they were leaving?’ The Admirals make it clear that, in their opinion, Saddam was mistaken not only in deciding to invade Kuwait but also in practically every command decision he made thereafter, including the decision not to take advantage of surprise to advance immediately into Saudi Arabia while he had the chance to seize the ports and airfields which the United States and her allies would need for deployment. Yet fool though he was in so many departments, he was smart enough to defeat, at any rate for a while, the scarcely disguised aim of American strategy, unsanctioned by UN resolutions: that of setting the scene for a new Iraqi coup d’état.

Those opposed to the resort to war and not willing to condone Saddam’s aggression placed their reliance on economic sanctions, and it is certainly worrying that this method of non-military pressure by the world community was abandoned so soon, in a case which had been described as ideal for the purpose, with Iraq so dependent on imports. One may suspect that the most powerful motive for this was impatience, but there was another much more respectable one: concern for the Kuwaitis, who were being subjected to a senselessly cruel regime of looting, pillaging, torture and murder. A vivid account of life for a foreigner under the occupation has appeared in Jadranka Porter’s Under Siege in Kuwait. Ms Porter was a Yugoslav (and a British citizen) employed by the local English-language paper and living with her much older black American boy-friend. Fortunately for the book, this rather loud gentleman (a military adviser to the Kuwaiti Defence Ministry) was arrested after the first month and held as a hostage, thereby sparing Porter’s readers further accounts of their claustrophobic squabbling. She found herself emerging into an adventurous life of continual alarm and insecurity. She ceased ‘hyperventilating’ (a favourite word) and began, in a perverse fashion, to enjoy life under occupation. ‘It tested my courage and sapped my energy but this, I thought, was just the situation to throw up heroes ... I wanted it to continue. I was afraid that, if the curtain came down, the heroes would be dragged off the stage before the end of the drama.’

Although she felt unusually fulfilled – she was doing two dangerous jobs, delivering correspondence to other members of the foreign community and smuggling out a total of 21 ‘letters’ for anonymous publication in the Sunday Times – she discovered, to her surprise, that other expatriates ‘weren’t interested in life-enhancing experiences’. One other major discovery, which had escaped her before despite her profession, was that she liked Kuwaitis: they were courageous and could be unselfish. She was never betrayed. There were signs, however, of trouble to come. ‘It was becoming increasingly clear,’ she records, ‘that once the nightmare was over, there would be a horrible settling of accounts.’