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[casi] The West's unnerving ignorance ...

Two pieces follow on the West's unnerving ignorance of Iraq:

[1] Frank Smyth collects several bits of pie-on-face punditry referring to
Iraq's 'Sunni majority', by such luminaries as Henry Kissinger and the premiere
American journal, Foreign Affairs.  To wit: "As Foreign Affairs' editors noted
two issues later: 'Most Iraqis are Shiites. Our apologies.'"  (... though CASI
members n.b., the offending authors were arguing against rollback.)

[2] Paul Roberts' splendidly written review of Sandra Mackey's "The Reckoning"
is also notable for its source: the Washington Post.  One wonders what the
Post's editorial board made of the first paragraph, among the most angry and
despairing I've read in the American mainstream.  Is there yet hope?

Drew Hamre
Golden Valley, Minnesota USA

Volume 13, Issue 6.   March 25, 2002.

Saddam's Real Opponents
What you don't know about the Iraqi opposition.
Frank Smyth

Three years ago, the influential journal Foreign Affairs published an article on
Iraq entitled "The Rollback Fantasy." It was a typically long and sober piece,
challenging the thinking of those who were arguing for a United States role in
toppling Iraq's ruler, Saddam Hussein. But unfortunately, the article contained
its own odd piece of fantasy: In referring to "Iraq's Sunni majority," it
managed to get one of the most basic pieces of demographic information about
Iraq exactly backward. There is no Sunni majority. In proclaiming that the
United States should back this alleged majority in a post-Saddam Iraq, while
opposing either "Kurdish or Shiite bids for hegemony over the Sunnis," the
magazine garbled its analysis. The Sunni Arabs who now govern Iraq make up no
more than 17 percent of the population. As Foreign Affairs' editors noted two
issues later: "Most Iraqis are Shiites. Our apologies."

In fact, as a quick look at a good almanac will tell you, Shiite Muslims make up
at least 60 percent of Iraq's population, while Sunni Muslims (including Sunni
Kurds and Sunni Arabs) are no more than 37 percent. These are important
distinctions -- perhaps the most crucial facts to know about Iraq if one is
speculating about a post-Saddam future for the country, as much of official
Washington is these days.

Yet here was Henry Kissinger popping up on the op-ed page of The Washington Post
in January referring to "the Sunni majority, which now dominates Iraq" and, for
good measure, adding an observation about "the Shiite minority in the south." It
seems to be a mistake that has staying power. A Washington Post editorial last
spring also made mention of "minority Shiites from the south." And last month,
New York Times reporter Todd S. Purdum worried in print "that a change in regime
could leave Iraq's Shiite minority more empowered."

Neither the Post nor the Times has corrected the mistake, so we can surely
expect to see more references in the U.S. press to a Shiite minority that does
not exist -- not in the south of Iraq, not in the north, not in the country as a
whole. Most Iraqis are Shiites. And it matters. For all the plans that are now
being hotly discussed about turning U.S. military might against the Iraqi
regime, there is widespread confusion about what political outcome is desirable
and what is realistic. If Saddam were removed from power, would the United
States feel compelled to prevent the majority Shiites from forming a new Islamic
state? What kind of "axis of evil" would the Bush administration face if both
Iran and Iraq were controlled by Shiite clerics? What are the alternatives?

The same U.S. newspapers that are misguided about Iraq's demographics have been
calling the Iraqi National Congress "the Iraqi opposition." But the INC is the
active opposition's least-significant part: It has not mounted any military
efforts in Iraq since September 1996. The group is based in London and is made
up mostly of families who fled Iraq after the fall of the British-imposed
monarchy in 1958. They are mainly Sunni Arabs -- just like much of Saddam's
regime -- and thus are not representative of the Iraqi majority.

Meanwhile, it's been Shiite rebel groups in southern Iraq that have attempted to
attack the "pillars" of Saddam's regime. In December 1996, a group calling
itself al-Nahda (Renaissance) wounded Saddam's eldest son and security chief,
Uday, a notorious enforcer who is credibly accused of using torture against
suspected dissidents. In 1998, Shiite rebels farther south threw hand grenades
at Izzat Ibrahim, Saddam's second-in-command in the Baath Party's ruling
Revolutionary Command Council. (The grenades missed their target.)

In fact, a quiet war has been under way between Saddam's security forces and
Shiite clerics in southern Iraq. In a bloody crackdown from April 1998 to
February 1999, three grand ayatollahs were killed in gangland-style
assassinations. In each case, the cleric had been handpicked by Saddam to lead
Iraq's Shiites. But each one had defied Saddam by encouraging Shiite Muslims to
return to their local mosques to receive prayers instead of receiving them
through Iraqi state television. The clerics had also asked Saddam to release
other religious leaders from imprisonment.

After Grand Ayatollah Sadiq al-Sadr was gunned down with his two sons on the
road to Najaf, Shiites from Beirut to Tehran marched in the streets denouncing
Saddam. Inside Iraq, some brave Shiites took to the streets, even in cities as
far north as "Saddam City," a Shiite slum on the south side of Baghdad. Iraqi
security forces opened fire there, reportedly killing 54 people.

The Shiites could be Saddam's Achilles' heel, but what will U.S. policy be
toward the enemies of our enemy? Policy makers and pundits have voiced concern
about whether the instability and "fragmentation" that might follow Saddam's
overthrow would be worse than Saddam's continued rule. Neighboring Turkey fears
the possibility that Iraqi Kurds in the north might attempt to secede, thus
fomenting Kurdish nationalism in Turkey. The United States is concerned with the
specter of Iraq's Shiites turning either all or most of Iraq into a pro-Iranian
Islamic state. Yet as long as the United States remains distant from Shiite
opposition groups, the opposition to Saddam will remain divided -- and

If only those troublesome Shiites really were a minority, as Henry Kissinger and
some in the press would have us believe, the answers might be simpler. But
hasn't Kissinger always insisted on "realism" in foreign policy? Or did he mean
magical realism?


His Way
'The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein' by Sandra Mackey

Reviewed by Paul William Roberts

Sunday, June 2, 2002; Page BW03

Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein
By Sandra Mackey
Norton. 415 pp. $27.95

Imagine that England went to war with Russia over a long list of grievances,
including Russian military assistance to the Irish Republican Army, and that the
war lasted a decade before ending inconclusively, with millions dead and the
economies of both nations in tatters. Then imagine that England invaded Ireland,
the United States went to bat for the Irish and, when British forces refused to
withdraw, launched air attacks that reduced London to rubble and the rest of the
country to the pre-industrial era. Imagine next that, through the United
Nations, Washington insisted that the British surrender all weapons of mass
destruction and sent in teams of inspectors to every military base in the
country. Unsurprisingly, these weapons inspectors would meet with little
cooperation. So imagine finally that the Americans urged the UN to impose such
severe trade sanctions on England that they effectively terminated the entire
British economy for the next 10 years, causing widespread malnutrition, disease
and the death of some 500,000 children under the age of 5. Oh, and while all of
this is happening, the rest of the world, if it thought about England at all,
did not seem to notice that any great injustice had occurred.

If you can imagine this far-fetched scenario, you may be able to grasp something
of the tragedy that is modern Iraq. With a few notable exceptions, the media
have acted for more than a decade, and continue to act, as little more than
propagandists and apologists for the largely Western-held -- and U.S.-led --
position that Iraq merely got what was coming to it and that Saddam Hussein is
really to blame. Sandra Mackey, a superb journalist and author of several other
books on the Middle East, has always been one of the most notable exceptions to
the rule of a dumbed-down media, and in The Reckoning she attempts to provide
the kind of context without which no discussion of Iraq can usefully take place.
As a history of Iraq, it is an admirable condensation of the salient details
going back as far as 4,000 years ago, and it provides more than sufficient
material for any reader to feel fairly well informed about the background to a
political drama-in-progress. However, as a political assessment on the lines of
"Whither Iraq?,"it reads suspiciously like a Republican foreign-policy primer.

Since the 1991 Gulf War, the big question has always been: Why did the U.S.-led
alliance leave Saddam Hussein in power if he was really such a menace to world
peace? The usual answer -- never given directly -- is fear that an Iraq without
Saddam's iron fist would fragment into a Middle Eastern version of the Balkans.
Fear on the part of whom? Presumably Washington, for a start, along with the
House of Saud and the al-Sabahs of Kuwait. If we include the House of Bush among
the oil royalty troubled by the prospect of uncertainty over the ownership of
the planet's richest sources of fossil fuel, we at least have a rational
economic reason for events of the past two decades. And if Mackey had pursued
this route to its end -- she certainly strolls down it a mile -- she would not
be open to the criticism that her book is mere propaganda for the White House.

For, like the various secretaries of state forced to answer for America's brutal
treatment of Iraq, she can never really say what there is to fear in a
balkanization that would probably create a Kurdish state to the north, a Sunni
Muslim state in the central area around Baghdad and a Shi'ite Muslim state to
the south. True, she can specify what the Sunni majority has to fear in such an
outcome -- in short, bloody revenge for Saddam's oppression of the Kurds and the
Sh'ia -- but this does not take into account new global realities that would
undoubtedly step in to curb such a retribution, no matter how richly deserved.

Mackey does an excellent job of portraying the birth of modern Iraq from the
ashes of Ottoman Mesopotamia, showing the historical unlikelihood of the
nation's three major ethnic and tribal groups ever being able to agree on
anything unless forced to do so. There has never been, she explains, anything
approaching an Iraqi sense of national identity -- and, by implication, there
never will be. But she fails to take into account the very historical forces she
presents so well, acting as if the future were all contained in the past, rather
than shaped by the past.

The perfidy of British and French dealings with the Arabs during the early part
of the 20th century is a thing of wonder, which in fact set the stage for
Israel's current plight far more than any action by the Jewish state itself.
Arab states were lied to, cheated and swindled, and it's amazing that any of
them feels good will toward the West. Yet many do. Iraq is not one of them,
however, and understandably so, at least as Mackey tells it. The central issue
has always been oil, and it cannot be stressed enough that, next to Saudi
Arabia, Iraq possesses the richest fields of Arab D-grade oil on earth. Not all
oil is black gold, but Arab D-grade is -- and, no matter how much oil any other
country may have, the kind most in demand to run the machines of an industrial
economy is D-grade, the champagne of oils. Even when Britain limped away from
its colonies to nurse a war-shattered economy back to health, in Iraq it left in
place legislation that would be laughed out of the World Court these days: No
matter what happened, for example, the independent Iraqis were not to do
anything against British interests. Those interests, of course, came down to
oil, period.

At the other end of the century, when the United States "returned Iraq to the
pre-industrial era" (in George Bush's repulsive phrase), by relentlessly bombing
its cities' vital essentials -- sewage treatment plants, bridges, power stations
-- the real purpose was, again, to preserve the West's supplies of D-grade oil.
If nothing else has unified the Iraqi people throughout history, this did -- and
Mackey makes no mention of it.

Indeed, The Reckoning is most at fault for what it omits. Having told us
precisely why Saddam Hussein went to war with Iran -- the newly created Islamic
state was supporting Kurdish terrorist factions intent on separatism -- Mackey
still acts as if the war were a mystifying and irrational event that in itself
justified American retaliation. In reality, any Western country would have done
the same thing -- and, in its own context, Britain is doing it in northern
Ireland, as is the United States in Afghanistan.

The most notable and egregious omission, though, is any discussion of the last
meeting that took place between Saddam Hussein and the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq,
April Glaspie, in the days before Iraq invaded Kuwait, after which all dialogue
between Washington and Baghdad ceased, and has yet to resume. It is quite clear
from the typescript of that meeting that Saddam asked permission from the United
States to invade Kuwait, and it is equally clear that Glaspie, relaying
then-Secretary of State James Baker's words, gave him that permission. Defending
herself in the New York Times against charges that she misunderstood Saddam,
Glaspie stated that no analyst, whether in Riyadh or in Washington, thought
Saddam would take all of Kuwait (they thought he would merely occupy the area
that has long been a matter of contention between the two countries). By
implication it seems that no one would have minded if Saddam had taken a bit of
Kuwait. These questions have never been satisfyingly addressed by any
administration since the war, and I was dismayed to find the entire subject
absent from this book. It smacks of a political bias that utterly undermines the
otherwise laudable intentions Mackey so clearly displays elsewhere.

Particularly good, for example, is her portrayal of Saddam's tyrranical rise to
power. We see the stages through which he progresses from rebel to political
insider, to man of the people, to Babylonian warlord and to reclusive deity,
each of them fully fleshed out with its own historical and political context.
Nor is Mackey afraid to applaud Saddam's considerable achievements, prior to the
war with Iran, in turning Iraq into the most modern, successful and democratic
of all the Arab countries, with advances in education and health care that
shamed many Western countries and far surpassed anything in the Middle East
outside of Israel.

What we don't see, unfortunately, is much of Saddam the good friend of America.
For good friend he once was, and indeed he viewed his war with Iran partly as a
big favor to Washington, not the least for its protection of that great U.S.
ally Kuwait from the Islamic menace of Iran. In fact, the Kuwaitis owed Saddam
billions of dollars for this protection, and the debt -- not to mention ancient
territorial disputes or Kuwait's drilling forays into Iraqi oil fields -- played
no small part in what led up to Iraq's ill-fated invasion. Yet none of this
modern history makes it into Mackey's book, and one cannot help assuming it is
because the book's objective is to justify foreign-policy decisions that are
bungled and inhumane enough as it is without throwing in further reasons to
despise them.

The constant jockeying for position among Kurds, Shi'ites and Sunnis that is the
history of Iraq over the last century becomes somewhat bewildering and wearying
in Mackey's hands, and one is tempted to speculate that this is also how it
seems to those attempting to formulate an Iraq policy in Washington. For, to the
best of my knowledge, they have no clear position beyond the protection of the
oil fields at all costs. The notion that Saddam has been deemed essential to
stability does not stand up to scrutiny. I know that there have been several
attempts by the British to assassinate Saddam -- I dined not long ago with one
of the Special Air Service officers in charge of three such attempts -- and
there is no reason to doubt that the United States knew of and approved this
technically illegal action.

Curiously, though, there's a sense in which one -- like that SAS officer and
like April Glaspie, James Baker and now Sandra Mackey -- finally cannot help but
admire Saddam Hussein, if only for the sheer gutsiness and true grit of his
stance against the West. After the disastrous war with Iran, he erected in
Baghdad a colossal triumphal arch modeled on his own arm holding a scimitar.
After the Gulf War, he also returned a hero, claiming victory as the only Arab
to stand up against the might of America and walk away alive. It was not such an
exaggeration. When the war started, Iraqis were jubilant, certain that it meant
the end of Saddam and his brutal regime. They looked in childlike innocence to
the West to rid them of the monkey on their backs. By the time the war was over,
however, they were confused: Why had their homes and their cities been bombed to
smithereens while Saddam was left in power? When I visited the country two years
ago, the mood had changed yet again. This time a weary hatred and suspicion of
all things Western predominated.

We have turned their prosperous, modern state into a backward wilderness with no
future and no hope -- except Islam. If the policy was to undermine Islamist
hegemony in oil country, it has failed abysmally. To the southern Shi'ites,
whose numbers composed most of the army that lost a million or more in the war
against Iran, a non-Arab Islamic state has probably never looked more
attractive. But at the end of the day, they are Arabs first and foremost, and
the Iranians don't like Arabs. To the Kurds, a Kurdish state without a share of
the oil may be romantically desirable, but it doesn't make economic sense. If
the Kurds have felt Saddam's fury in chemical attacks that have wiped out entire
communities, they have also tasted more of the West's scorn and perfidy, just as
the southern Shi'ites' most recent bad experience is not the war with Iran but
the betrayal of the United States.

Mackey mentions that President George Bush encouraged the Kurds to revolt
against Saddam, then failed to deliver the promised back-up, resulting in the
slaughter of many thousands at the hands of Saddam's Republican Guard. But she
doesn't mention the bitterness with which this and countless other betrayals
back through the centuries live on in the Arab heart. From someone so obviously
fond of the Middle East and so impressively erudite on its history, this is
simply puzzling. Yet it may well be that her book's most useful addition to our
knowledge of this history is its reflection of the puzzlement that ultimately
reigns among Washington's policymakers when they turn their attention to this
part of the world, and particularly to Iraq.

It is hard to see ourselves as living in what will one day be history, but it is
vital that we do so, and it is the job of journalists and writers to see that we
can. If Mackey could bring to bear on the present the clarity she has about the
past, she would surely see that, with regard to Iraq, we are continuing to act
as imperialists or colonizers in a post-colonial age. The more we attempt to
remake the world in our own image, the deeper the resentment against us will

Iraqis view themselves, rightly, as an ancient people with a history that is as
long as history itself. They realize that their star waned at least a millennium
ago. We are the ones who need to realize that, ascendant though it may be now,
our star too will one day wane. Yet life will go on. Just as we will then
appreciate the consideration of more powerful nations in leaving us to sort out
our own problems, so we should understand that this is all the rest of the world
wants from us now.

Ironically, though, the forces of history are such that we are probably even now
making the bed our great-grandchildren will have to lie in -- and curse us for
all their lives because of its unbearable hardness. Far from being the
indictment of Saddam Hussein that its author presumably intended, The Reckoning
is ultimately a savage indictment of Euro-American exploitation of the Middle
East, and the indefensible meddling in its affairs that continues and has no
clear objective beyond self-interest. If for no other reason than this, the book
is indispensable reading for anyone with an opinion on world affairs. 

Paul William Roberts is the author of "The Demonic Comedy: Some Detours in the
Baghdad of Saddam Hussein" and several other books on Middle Eastern history, as
well as a novel and four screenplays. He lives in Canada.

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