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Review of book on Iraq from Financial Times

Baghdad blues

Saddam’s grip has been strengthened by the west, says David Gardner

OUT Of THE ASHES: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein by Andrew Cockbum
and Patrick Cockbum HarperCollins US $26, 322 pages

For all the ink, policy time and ordnance that has been expended on
Saddam Hussein over the past decade, not until now have we had a
coherent account of how the Iraqi despot has survived the onslaught of
the west, even while his hitherto rich country was being pushed back
into a pre-industrial age.
This book is it, and it is a painful account.
Patrick Cockburn is a distinguished journalist with 20 years experience
to the Middle East, while his Washing-ton-based brother Andrew is an
acute and acerbic com-mentator on US foreign policy. Their skills and
knowl-edge complement each other to produce a seamless,
cockpit-to-ground narrative written with pace and verve, researched with
rigour, and telling in choice of detail.
The history of western intervention in Iraq, the book makes clear, seems
only to have made the country's vio-lent politics more blood-soaked.
Britain's quasi-colonial control from 1921 began with the imposition of
King Faisal, third son of the Hashemite dynasty from Mecca which
produced King Hussein of Jordan, through a rigged referendum which
yielded a 96 per cent endorsement - not far short of the 99.96 per cent
result Saddam enforced in October 1995 that so excited western scorn.
The British immediately faced revolt across this arbitrarily constructed
nation-state, from Kurds in the North, Sunni Moslems in the centre and
the Shi'ite majority in the South - a rare moment of Iraqi national
The Cockburns' sketch of the past finds eerie echoes in the present. The
colonial power withdrew its ground troops and tried to bomb Iraqis into
submission. The British used poison gas on the fractious Kurds and then
unleashed Arthur "Bomber" Harris, the architect of the air offensive
against Germany two decades later. The Arabs and the Kurds, Harris
averred in 1924, "now know what real bombing means . . . they know that
within 45 min-utes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out and
a third of its inhabitants killed or injured."
 The Hashemites were eventually massacred in the na-tionalist coup of
1958. Five years later, another power which wished to influence Iraqi
politics at one remove, the US, tipped the balance in favour of Saddam's
Ba'ath party in an equally bloody coup against the nationalising
government of Abdel- Karim Qassim.
Iraq's huge oil reserves were nationalised anyway, -------and under the
pan-Arab nationalist Ba'ath, Iraq evolved into the cultural hinterland
and industrial powerhouse of the Arab world, satisfying the west through
lucrative con-tracts and commissions. By the time the cunning and
ruthless Saddam seized absolute power in 1979 - the year of the Iranian
Revolution - all that interested west-ern and Arab governments was
whether he would serve as a bulwark against a militant Islamist revival.

Saddam duly invaded Iran, bankrolled by oil-rich Gulf monarchies and
armed by the west, and subsequently came to believe he could walk on
geo-political water, likening himself to Saladin and Nebuchadnezzar and
manufacturing a lineage from the prophet Mohammed. Certainly the tyrant
of Baghdad must have registered western and Arab insouciance about his
build-up - and use - of weapons of mass destruction.
The Cockburns say state department, CIA and depart-ment of energy,
officials knew that Saudi Arabia was fi-nancing Iraq's bomb programme in
exchange for even-tual payment in nuclear devices, but took no action.
They then reckon that his invasion of tiny oil-rich Kuwait in 1990 was
the biggest political miscalculation since Hitler invaded the Soviet
Union in 1941. From a per capita income equivalent to the lower levels
of the Euro-pean Union, Iraq, after the Gulf War and subsequent
sanctions regime, was reduced to the barely subsistent levels of Mali.
It is well known that fear of opening a gateway to Iran prevented the
US-led Gulf War alliance from pressing on to Baghdad to unseat Saddam
after it evicted Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991.
What is less well known is cock-ups in US policy on Iraq began exactly
A month after the war with Iraq in ferment, US president George Bush
called on "the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people" to force Saddam out.
The intention - then as now - was to incite another coup. But the phrase
the "Iraqi people" was added as an after- thought, and it un-leashed
insurrections in the Kurdish North and Shi'ite South, where people
thought they could count on allied support.
The uprisings reduced Saddam's control to four out of Iraq's 18
provinces, while his army was down to two days' supply of ammunition. If
indeed Saddam's miscal-culation ranks alongside Hitler's, then this
moment cer-tainly merits comparison with the Red Army's deadly pause
during the Warsaw uprising - drowned in blood just as these two
insurrections were, while the allies stood by, patrolling overhead. The
US instead exported the captured arms to Afghanistan, from where their
proxy holy warriors against the Soviet infidel have come back to haunt
Ever since, Washington has strangled Iraq with sanctions and hoped and
plotted for a silver bullet or - in the words of a CIA operative - a
"zipless coup" which would take out Saddam. The sanctions have instead
strength-ened his hold on a starving people with stunted or dying
children. And serial CIA schemes have resulted in set-backs which
warrant comparison with the 1961 fiasco of the Bay of Pigs US proxy
invasion of Cuba.
This book is particularly good on the dysfunctional US policy-makers -
who, it says, "knew a great deal about Iraq . . . [but] very little
about Iraqis". It should be obvi-ous that a sanctions regime which
places control over food rations in the hands of the state strengthens
Sad-dam's control; or that flirtations with a fragmented oppo-sition
tends to force anyone who fears retribution to close ranks behind
The message of this book is that Washington is not will-ing to take
action to get rid of Saddam, but instead makes the Iraqi people pay the
price of besieging him. One day, it says with bleak accuracy, the bill
for that - in accumulated bitterness against the west throughout the
Arab world - will come due.
 ‘Out of the Ashes' can be obtained through FT Book Shop 0181 324 5511

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