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Too soon to stop thinking: the view from Iraq

Faleh Jabar
24 September 2002

Saddam Hussein is a menace in his own right. Leaving the monster in his palace is an invitation to future catastrophe. This is an authoritarian regime, a Nazi-like system that is a menace to its own people, the region and the world at large. Suffice it to say, he waged two devastating wars, and wiped out once vibrant people’s movements to impose a single-party, single-clan system of a cruel and pernicious nature. But – and here my sympathies are with those who will demonstrate this weekend – I am also against warmongering. Warmongering is as short-sighted as philanthropic pacifism.

What has been missing from the commentary so far in this escalation towards conflict is what I know of the view from Iraq, for whose ruling class-clan the pending war has become a war for survival, the ultimate catastrophe. But let us begin with the other side.

America’s former containment strategy functioned at three main levels: first, sanctions, which impacted hugely on the civilian population, a burden only somewhat alleviated when the oil-for-food package was signed; second, a humiliating and enforced disarmament, supervised by UNSCOM, the UN special committee; and third, reduced sovereignty (with the imposition of “no-fly” zones in northern and southern Iraq). As Iraq managed to work its way through the loopholes, and dislodge inspectors in December 1998, hawkish voices began to be raised in the US.

There are three reasons why the US is shifting from containment to removal. The failure of the previous US strategy is one reason: the tragedy of 9/11 is another. Both motivated and provided ammunition to a rising American evangelical right, the neo-conservatives. The tragedy of 9/11 provided an ideal backdrop to a new “leaning forward” argument for invasion. Finally, the swift success scored by the US in removing the fundamentalist, medieval, Taliban regime was, and in fact still is, a catalyst for further experiments in surgical removals.

But this euphoria may be quite premature, and self-deceiving. “Afghanistan” does not prove the viability of enforced regime change in Iraq: rather it offers us a classic anti-thesis.

The transparency of Afghan society

With the wealth of intelligence available from CIA past engagements, and Pakistani and Iranian input, the Afghan social and political landscape was clear.

The Taliban (literally students of religious schools) movement itself was at its height a relatively small, well-knitted, organistion, recruiting both amongst the fanatics and the starving. In a war-ravaged country, food and shelter are as strong catalysts for loyalty as ideology and blood ties: and for around two decades, more than three hundred religious schools, mostly funded by public and private Saudi money, had cast their nets wide and brought in a good catch – a cohesive fundamentalist organisation that gave the young “hope” and “vision”.

The first step was to dissect the system and dismantle its constituent parts. It was a relatively easy task. The components in question were not only alien to each other, but three of them were also external to the fundamentalist, political system: Gulf money of which Bin Laden’s handsome payments were only a fraction, and the rigid Hanbalite going with it; Pakistani military and intelligence manpower which added flesh and muscles to the Taliban skeleton; and the armed tribal alliances throughout the country which, since time immemorial, had taken up defiance to a central authority as a hobby and a profession.

These four components are simple, well-known to the US as well as to their regional allies and Afghani protagonists. Shearing two of them off the regime was simply a matter of foreign diplomatic pressure. Gold was enough to buy back the tribes, with localism swiftly superseding fundamentalism as a focal recruiting discourse. In less than a month, the Taliban was reduced to what it had been at the beginning: an amorphous organisation, attempting to combine an array of religious zealots, idealist dreamers, warlords, dislocated orphans, unemployed youth, kinship groups and the like. The moment this core was isolated, the fate of Taliban was sealed.

Layers of the Iraqi onion

The political system in Iraq perhaps has certain similarities, but a comparative approach may prove far too tempting. To start with, the elements are much more diverse and intertwined into a much more complicated structure. Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq has a totalitarian system and a mass urban society, with revived traditional tribalism and popular religion adding to the cement.

The system uniquely combines modern mass politics, a command economy, oil rent and Arabist-Iraqi chauvinist-secular ideology, on the one hand, with tribal networks, kinship groups, sufi orders and the discourse of traditional solidarities (assabiya), on the other. These Iraqi components are all home-made and therefore rather well-blended since the 1970s. It is the relative peaceful symbiosis among these elements that may well explain the regime’s ability to survive thus far: but it is also its Achilles’ heel.

From the very beginning, Saddam Hussein yearned for a polity that was altogether more totalitarian. In the 1970s, he wrote an interesting piece entitled Building Socialism in One Arab Country, echoing Stalin’s motto of the 1930s (Stalin has remained a constant source of inspiration).

Operating in conspiracy theory mode, he identified two main threats of schism: the army and modern ideological, mass politics. Paradoxically, both were also the very instruments of control. How to keep them under control became a matter of life and death.

Two sources of strength were crucial. The oil boom in the seventies helped bribe and restructure the upper and middle classes. The Ba’ath reign started with an upper class of fifty or so millionaires; and ended up with some 3000 families (and capitalist cronies). Modern, highly-educated, middle strata grew from 34% to more than 54% of the urban population. The price of social mobility was always one and the same: undivided allegiance to the ruler and a compulsory membership of the single party. Once burgeoning, these middle classes paid the price of the eight-year adventurous war against Iran, and were on the receiving end during the 1991 Gulf war. Disillusioned by the totalitarian, nationalistic chauvinistic ideology of the Ba’ath, they took to arms in rebellion in most provinces. The mass, summary executions that followed silenced them for a while.

Tribal affiliations also helped. In less than two decades, a sophisticated network of tribal alliances suffused the party, army, bureaucracy and business classes. At the helm was Albu Nassir, the president’s clan, with its leading “house”, Albu Ghafour, (composed of two extended families: Al-Majid and Albu-Sultan). Clans provided a core of lifetime kinship loyalty. Blood ties offered cohesive collective allegiance and manpower. Schism within these clans did occur, in the leading tribe and its ruling house included. But this offered Saddam another classic device: playing on inter-clan rivalries to rearrange internal power structures.

The end result is a semi-monolithic, extensive ruling group, hegemonising power and wealth, and employing a varied and intertwined control system to manage both state and society. In addition to the regular chain of command, three other chains, for example, control the army: the party’s military bureau with networks of commissars; webs of intelligence service and, lastly, strings of kinship groups. Saddam Hussein is the president, the leader and the grand patriarch in one.

This amalgam has fared well. In the first phase, the tribal was set against the party. The latter staged mini-rebellions in 1973 and 1979, but in the end, had to acquiesce. Then the tribe was set against itself, but a peaceful cohabitation was soon reached. The devastating effects of the two Gulf wars and the legacy of the UN sanctions have disturbed peripheral elements of the system, but never damaged its central core beyond repair, until now.

The constraints on change

Why go into this detail? The latent forces in question have been pulsating beneath the surface of state and society; but little attention has been paid to their significance or dynamics. The demise of such a regime, however welcome, will involve and unleash latent, uncontrollable institutional and social forces besides which fantasy will pale. The very removal process may well prove too costly, or degenerate into chaos.

An attack on the head of the regime would not threaten a thin, narrow layer, but rather a wide array of powerful, well-entrenched and wealthy forces. Blood ties, economic interest and ideological and cultural bonds unite these groups, however alienated from the rest of the nation. An undifferentiated universal threat would only repair potential and actual cleavages.

Let us take a closer look at the view from Iraq. Apart from the threat of war itself, there are further challenges to the authoritarian regime in Baghdad. The strong feeling that the Iraqi army is no match for the US or a coalition advanced force, combines with the growing sense of a dangerous divorce between official nationalism and popular patriotism. The slightest sign of disunity spells dissent and rebellion. However, finer calculations are required because it is a question of credibility. The regime knows that most Iraqis in government-controlled areas think the US has been conspiring to keep Saddam in place, to use him as a bogey man to frighten the Gulf, and increase the sale of armaments. Kurds fear his removal might not be swift enough to avoid retaliation. They also fear one tyrant being replaced by another.

Challenge and response: how might the regime act?

There are five remedial courses of action for the Iraqi regime:

One: extending the sense of collective threat posed by the US to the whole range of the ruling elite. Elite here denotes not a thin and narrow layer of rulers, but a relatively large tribal core with even larger segments of tribal alliances. This large clan-class permeates the army, bureaucracy, security organs, party, business class and tribal domains.

Indiscriminate collective threat of elimination may well drive them en masse to fight to the bitter end. This sense has been equally re-enforced by Iraq’s regime, and the US choice of campaign.

Two: forms of popular and institutional religion have been mobilised: anti-shi’ite communalism on the one hand, and shi’ite fatwas, against shi’ite opposition, on the other. This is a new mobilisation device which replaces nationalism proper.

Three: entrenchment in the cities as the best fighting locations, since this may increase the possibilities of civilian casualties, offset the weakness of the Iraq army, and inflict the maximum US losses.

Four: wide exposure to the media. In the desert you stand no chance of any coverage. In the 1991 Gulf war, the media was entirely controlled by the military. Now Iraq seems hell-bent on reversing this situation. Ten radio stations have been installed in various underground locations.

Five: a bipolar system of political leadership has been created: Saddam and his son act as actual and reserve presidents. A third centre is also possible, although it has not been announced: General Kamal Mustafa.

How should the world act?

In all the decades of struggle and international lobbying, one approach has never been tried: a meaningful political process to disengage the various components of the regime from each other.

For example, no safe passage to a voluntary exile, for example, has ever been offered to the Iraqi dictator via regional channels. No differentiation between his inner kinship group and the larger clan networks has ever been drawn: a list of thirty or so persona non grata, who should leave the country in the manner of the Shah of Iran, inclusive of Saddam and his sub-clan Albu Ghafour, might well persuade the other groups in the tribal-military-business alliance that change is the best insurance policy for continuity.

Iraq is crisis-ridden in economic, political, social and cultural terms. A split at the helm might open up a window of opportunity for a peaceful change of hands which can finally be induced to embark on reforms, such as power-sharing, the rule of law, and even the retrieval of nation-building mechanisms inclusive of the long roll-call of disenfranchised ethnic and cultural segments.

At present levels of foreign indebtedness, the annual cost of debt servicing is estimated at 300 per cent of Iraq’s current GDP. Pinning hopes for reconstruction on oil revenues can only give us a “bubble” economy. A mini “Marshall Plan” could provide sufficient encouragement to rip the elite at the helm apart and/or increase the chances of a peaceful, or at least less costly, transformation. Half of the $150-200 billion estimated costs of the campaign against Iraq might lure the country into a post-Saddam rule of law.

The present campaign achieves nothing of this. It is a military crusade, with diplomacy as a reluctant sideshow. Moreover, once again this diplomacy is geared toward the UN, world powers and the US congress – everywhere but to the Iraqi people, its rulers and ruled.

At the same time, peace activists should remember that there are two sources of menace: war and dictatorship. If I applaud the demonstrators this weekend, it is because there is a desperate need to put pressure on those world leaders who will listen, to alter the structure of the campaign – into a longer-term political strategy, backed, if necessary, by military muscle.

By contrast, the present campaign led by the US and the UK is heading towards a costly full-scale invasion and occupation of Iraq. Another option, no less horrific, would be a civil war which would begin nobody knows where and end in nobody knows what. According to Newsweek (16-23 September), the US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, has sometimes quoted the notorious gangster, Al Capone: “You will get more with a kind word and a gun than a kind word alone.” But one logical term is missing from this vocabulary: “You will get much, much less with a gun alone.”

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