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Iraq in 1979: An article from Atlantic Monthly when Saddam was not yet President

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  • Tarek Fatah
    April 1979 Iraq by Claudia Wright The Atlantic Monthly http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/79apr/wright.htm I am looking at sandstone eagles in a desert temple
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 2, 2004
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      April 1979


      by Claudia Wright
      The Atlantic Monthly

      I am looking at sandstone eagles in a desert temple dating from 744 B.C. The
      enormous birds sit in repose, legless, wingless. Nearby is a statue of a
      headless Hercules, his genitalia worn away by the wind and sand to a
      proportion that appears ludicrous compared to the grossness of his body.
      Further into the dark depths of the temple all the statues seem to have
      larger-than-life proportions to simulate strength.

      Today Iraq tries to recreate the ancient message of the temple statues of
      Hatra, and the larger-than-life concept can be found in the desert in the
      form of huge metal sculptures billowing orange flares and pumping the oil
      that provides economic strength to the Iraqi people.

      Those who seek the mystery and the opulence of the rest of the oil-fed
      Middle East won't find it here. The visual contrasts in Iraq are jarring: on
      the one hand, traces of Babylon, Assyria, and Sumeria; on the other, the
      most advanced plutonium breeder reactor. But the visitor to Iraq must listen
      rather than look, and what he will hear is a new tone of Iraqi
      self-assertion and confidence.

      The country was for a long time regarded as a pariah in international
      politics, was forced to travel to other Arab capitals to plead its cause and
      was rarely listened to. But the summit meeting of Arab leaders in Baghdad
      last November was carried off by the Iraqis in a confident new style. It
      marked not only the first time that President Assad of Syria and the leaders
      of Iraq had agreed to meet since 1972 but the first time since 1976 that the
      PLO leader Yasir Arafat had met with Iraqi officials. (Twelve months of
      bloody feuding between the Arafat-led Fatah group and Iraqi-supported
      factions of the PLO preceded the meeting.)

      The Baghdad summit was also the first major set of Middle Eastern talks
      initiated and carried through by the Iraqis. Whether in the Palestinian
      showdown with King Hussein in 1970, the Iranian arms buildup in the Gulf,
      the oil embargo, or the wars against Israel in 1967 and 1973, the record
      shows that Iraq has been generally reluctant to collaborate in joint Arab
      initiatives, and other Arab nations have been reluctant to join with Iraq.

      The American view of these events has lulled policy-makers into an easy
      disregard for the Iraqi regime—an attitude compounded by ignorance, lack of
      contact, and a noticeable scorn among State Department veterans. (The two
      countries have had no formal diplomatic links since the Iraqis broke off
      relations in 1967.) By contrast with the once prosperous and confident
      embassy in Tehran across the border, Baghdad has been a backwater and a
      hardship post.

      To foreign visitors, Baghdad may still evoke the intense
      security-consciousness and secrecy associated with Iraq since 1958, when the
      British-installed monarchy was overthrown by a nationalist coup, and
      certainly since 1968, when the present military-led Baathist regime took
      power from a civilian coalition.

      The Palace Road quarter of Baghdad contains the kind of expansive,
      palm-lined avenues that British colonial engineers built all over their
      empire. This is where Baath party President Hassan al-Bakr and Vice
      President Saddam Hussein live, along with other leading party and government
      officials. In this section tanks can suddenly appear, take up a position for
      an hour or two around prominent official buildings, and then disappear.
      Heavily armed soldiers can be seen from time to time on the roofs
      surrounding the television and radio broadcasting studios, and photographs
      of these and other government buildings are not permitted. Although
      uniformed police are less obvious in Baghdad than in New York or Washington,
      random checks of cars are not uncommon.

      Many years ago Munif al-Razzazz, now in his sixties, collaborated with
      Michel Aflaq in creating the pan-Arab Baath party. Razzazz is assistant
      secretary general of the National Command of the party, which nominally
      covers both the Iraqi and the Syrian Regional Commands.

      I asked Razzazz about his life as a member of the party. Pale-skinned,
      impeccable, and resembling Basil Rathbone, Razzazz sat in his office at the
      modern national party headquarters. He told me that he regretted the long
      time he had spent away from his home and family but, he emphasized, he did
      not regret the solitary confinement and the many years he had spent in jail
      as an advocate of the party: "I've seen our revolution grow from ideas we
      all had in jail cells."

      Not an Iraqi by birth, he acknowledges the volatility of Iraqi and Baathist
      politics, but he says that the course of the revolution has depended on it.
      Without sharp and fairly continuous change, he insists, the Iraqi regime
      would not have achieved the success he believes it has today.

      Others who neither share the Baath vision nor would normally be comfortable
      with Razzazz's rhetoric now grudgingly accept his verdict. Neighboring
      Arabs, the French—who are replacing the conventional nuclear reactor Iraq
      obtained from the Russians with a sophisticated plutonium breeder plant—and
      the Japanese—who are trading oil for vast investment credits, consider that
      the Iraqi regime has all but shrugged off the instability of the past, and
      that it is about to assume major regional and international status. In a
      recent interview in Washington, Hisham Sharabi, president of the National
      Association of Arab-Americans, linked this position to the Camp David
      accords: "If Egypt signs a separate bilateral agreement with Israel and is
      thereby isolated, the role of Iraq would be the potential leader in the
      Eastern Arab world."

      Iraq's emergence is the result of three things: oil, military strength, and
      internal development. Superficially, Iraq is not overwhelmingly endowed in
      any one respect. Saudi Arabia has more oil. Israel and Iran are stronger
      militarily in the region. By any measure of industrialization, agricultural
      productivity, literacy, and manpower skills, Israel is much more developed.
      However, the combination of these three factors has led to Iraq's new status
      and to the recognition, everywhere else if not in the United States, of its
      extraordinary potential for pre-eminence in the Middle East.

      Oil power

      With oil reserves now estimated by State Department analysts at over 75
      billion barrels, second only to Saudi Arabia in the World, Iraq has pursued
      an oil production and development program which gives it an independence
      that no other oil producer possesses, inside or outside of OPEC. Iraqi oil
      power is a very recent development, for despite initial efforts at
      nationalization of its oil concessions in the early 1960s, Baghdad was
      unable to force the private British, French, Dutch, and American companies
      on which it continued to depend to produce at levels much higher than 40
      percent of capacity. Since 1972, however, when the foreign-dominated Iraq
      Petroleum Company (IPC) was taken over, the regime has steadily strengthened
      its control over expansion of daily output and has dramatically improved
      export earnings.

      Strategically speaking, Iraq could not hope to develop its economy without
      resolving serious territorial disputes with Iran and Kuwait and ensuring
      stable conditions for its oil trade in the Persian Gulf. As a consequence,
      in 1975 Iraq signed a border settlement with the shah, and after protracted
      discussions over mutual guarantees and protection for Urn Qasr, the new
      tanker port being built at the neck of the Gulf, Iraqi troops were withdrawn
      from adjacent Kuwaiti territory last year. These agreements helped to end
      more than twenty years of tense exchanges and bloody shooting matches.

      Iraq is now in a position to recoup the lion's share of its oil exports and
      to accelerate the increase in revenues—or almost, for its plan to use oil
      revenues and move ahead with national development hinges on the government's
      capacity for anticipating future annual oil receipts and for keeping these
      in balance with planned expenditures and the rising cost of imports.

      What the government has done is unique in the Middle East, for wherever
      possible it has negotiated the sale of oil for the import of goods and
      technology on a fixed-price, government-agreement basis. Italy, France, and
      Japan are currently the major oil purchasers. With each Iraq has signed an
      oil-for-import barter agreement. Japan, for example, will buy 9 million tons
      of oil a year and provide an annual import purchase credit worth about $1
      billion in return. Italy and France have negotiated similar agreements. For
      each country, Iraq has used its credit somewhat differently—the Japanese
      have been building power stations, refineries, and petrochemical plants; the
      Italians, a fruit and livestock farm complex; and the French, an iron and
      steel plant, a nuclear power reactor, and Mirage fighter jets.

      The record of their complex trade, credit, and investment deals illustrates
      also that the Iraqis are restraining oil output and conserving their
      resources. According to CIA estimates, the government is holding its
      production and export of oil to 67 percent of current capacity, far below
      the output-to-capacity ratios of Saudi Arabia (72 percent), Iran (87 percent
      before the anti-shah blowup) or Algeria (93 percent). This reflects the
      determination of Iraqi planners to limit both production and expenditure
      needs over the short term in order to maximize revenues over the longer
      future, when they expect the value of their oil to become much greater.

      They are also hedging in a clever way to protect their oil earnings from the
      effects of the declining. U.S. dollar and worldwide inflation. Instead of
      accumulating large dollar surpluses, which the Saudis have put on deposit in
      the United States and cannot now move without causing even further dollar
      losses and depreciation of their assets, the Iraqis have opted for variable
      currency holdings. Unlike Iran and Kuwait, which have used export earnings
      to buy reserve positions or long-term borrowing rights in the International
      Monetary Fund, Iraq is keeping virtually all of its international reserves
      in highly liquid form, 96 percent in foreign exchange and 4 percent in gold.

      Thus, the Iraqi oil minister, Tayih Abd al-Karim, was able to say at the
      OPEC conference in Abu Dhabi last December that "we do not believe the
      Americans will succeed in stabilizing their currency. The only alternative
      to the dollar that we can see is a basket of currency like the special
      drawing rights, where the dollar has one of many shares with other

      Ironically, Iraq has obtained a far more effective system of internal
      security for its oil production system than has any of its neighbors,
      although it has spent only a fraction of what the Saudis and Iranians have
      spent for expensive foreign military hardware. The May 1977 explosion and
      fire at the main oil field at Abqaiq demonstrated how vulnerable the Saudis
      are to sabotage, while the continuing conflict in Iran and the cessation of
      oil exports have illustrated how fruitless the shah's precautions were as
      insurance against internal dissent.

      What was already evident by late 1977 is now, in the wake of the Abu Dhabi
      decisions, abundantly clear. Iraq has perceived that it can afford to wield
      the "oil weapon" with a militancy that its Arab OPEC partners have hesitated
      to do. Without the Camp David accords it might not have been able to use its
      leverage over the Saudis, but by the end of the Baghdad summit, agreement
      between the two countries on basic strategic principles was sealed.

      The shutdown of Iranian oil exports triggered the most serious drop in world
      supplies since the 1973 embargo. From the Iraqi point of view, this could
      not have come at a better moment, since it enlarged earnings for the rest of
      the OPEC producers at the same time that it increased Western, particularly
      American, dependence on Arab suppliers. The unwillingness of the Saudis to
      give in to American pressure to step up short-term output is a sign of the
      effectiveness of the Baghdad summit and the Abu Dhabi meetings in cementing
      the Arab leadership in a joint economic strategy.

      Iraqis point also to the new strains that the Iranian situation is creating
      for the Israeli economy. Although Ayatollah Khomeini's much-publicized
      threat to withhold oil is disturbing to the Israelis, a selective embargo
      can be survived, as it was in 1973, so long as the oil keeps flowing.
      However, a total export cutoff would be crippling. So far the Mexicans have
      refused to supply the full emergency rations Israel negotiated for last
      year, and in desperation Tel Aviv ordered immediate new drilling on the
      shore of the Sinai Peninsula, just north of the Alma field which the
      Israelis captured from Egypt in 1973 and which currently produces about 20
      percent of the country's daily requirements. This move sharply aggravated
      President Sadat, and has been harmful to the negotiations for an
      Israeli-Egyptian treaty.

      Observers who concede that the Iranian revolution has produced positive
      benefits to Iraq suggest that serious costs must also be recognized. The
      Soviet Union, for example, has been reluctant to make good on its promises
      of military aid to Syria and Iraq in the wake of the Baghdad summit. This
      inaction stems from nervousness in Moscow about the outcome of the Iranian
      revolution. At first the Soviets were anxious not to be blamed for the
      anti-shah movement: then they wanted to keep the Americans out while
      avoiding a slide into confrontation. More than usually sensitive to the
      threat of Israeli provocations in Lebanon, the Soviet Union was acutely
      nervous about the proliferation of flashpoints their strategists were having
      to monitor simultaneously. As a result, Soviet military leaders have
      deliberately slowed the pace of talks on military aid with Syria and Iraq,
      and deferred delivery dates until the environment appears more predictable.
      This has provoked open Syrian annoyance, and the crucial supply questions
      remain unresolved.

      Leaders of the Baath

      Iraq, with its population of almost 12 million, is a territory that the
      British colonial administration carved out of Turkish Mesopotamia during
      World War I, and then administered via the Hashemite royal family until
      1958. It has been among the most volatile and unstable of Arab states. After
      the republican coup of 1958 overthrew King Faisal II, factions of the Baath
      party, pan-Arab groups identified with Gamal Abd al-Nasser of Egypt,
      communists, and others sought to gain control of the military and the

      The struggle within the Baath party took several ideological turns during
      the 1960s, but by 1967 the group that had supported the party founder,
      Michel Aflaq, in his contest with the Syrian Baath faction emerged in more
      or less solid control of the Iraqi Baath party. The leaders of this group,
      which successfully took power In July 1968, were Army General Ahmad Hassan
      al-Bakr, who became the president of the new regime, and Saddam Hussein
      Takritti, who was at the time deputy secretary-general of the Regional
      Command, the party executive.

      At the outset, the 1968 government was a coalition of Baathists and two
      non-party colonels who had been commanders of the military guard and
      intelligence units closest to the former president. These two, al-Dawud and
      al-Nayif, became defense minister and prime minister in the new cabinet, but
      were edged out in a bloodless purge within two weeks. Both were sent into
      exile (al-Nayif was assassinated in London in 1978 by Iraqi agents).

      And so, for the last ten years, the Baath party has been able to maintain
      its position in government, and has had time and resources to mobilize every
      aspect of organized Iraqi society, from the unions and the agricultural
      cooperatives to the professional associations and the armed forces.

      Asked for an assessment of Iraqi military strength, a U.S. State Department
      official answered: "In a word, worthless. They are all talk and no action."
      A superficial assessment of recent Middle Eastern military history might
      tend to support that view. In the June 1967 war with Israel, Iraq was
      soundly defeated in the air, and its losses, although small by comparison
      with Syria and Egypt, were sizable. They were more than compensated for,
      however, by Soviet replacements, and the signing in 1972 of a cooperative
      treaty with the Soviet Union opened the way to substantial Soviet armaments
      as well as to military advisers. These remain virtually untested except for
      brief and inconclusive tank skirmishes in the last days of the 1973 war with
      Israel, and equally inconclusive artillery, rocket, and ground-to-air duels
      with Iran in the central border area.

      Other military analysts believe that while its offensive forces are inferior
      to Israel's, Iraq has built a defensive force capable of deterring most
      types of Israeli attack. Roger Pajak, an adviser to the U.S. Arms Control
      and Disarmament Agency, points to Iraq's possession of advanced TU-22
      bombers and at least 80 MiG-23Bs, the sophisticated supersonic fighters
      rivaling the American F-4 Phantom. According to another analyst, when the
      French-built Mirage F-1s are delivered and then weighed in the balance with
      the dense deployment of SAM-missile batteries (these took a heavy toll of
      Israeli aircraft over Syria in 1973), an Israeli air attack is likely to
      seem too costly to be tried.

      The Kurdish problem

      One of the reasons Iraq has committed few of its ground forces to battle
      with Israel in the past is that it has been preoccupied with the Kurdish
      conflict in the northeast. Openly aided, armed, and protected by the shah
      (and by the CIA, covertly), the Kurds fought tenacious campaigns from their
      border mountain sanctuaries throughout the 1960s and the early 1970s, tying
      down the bulk of the Iraqi army and tactical air force.

      Despite negotiations for regional autonomy and promises of substantial
      economic aid by Baghdad in 1970, the Kurds returned to fighting in 1974
      after a three-year lull, but this time Iraq threw in more than 80,000
      troops, tanks, bombers, and (because of some Russian hesitancy in meeting
      Iraqi requests for more weapons) French helicopters. The result was
      militarily much more decisive than in earlier campaigns, and in March 1975
      the shah withheld support of the Kurds as part of the quid pro quo
      negotiated with Iraq over the two countries' border disputes.

      Large Kurdish communities exist not only in Iran and Iraq but also in Syria,
      Turkey, and the Soviet Union, and none of these countries has been willing
      to tolerate an active secessionist movement. Indeed, they were relieved that
      Kurdish leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani concentrated his resources on Iraq,
      and that, in draining each other, neither the Kurds nor the Iraqis appeared
      to have much of an appetite for neighboring territory. In 1975, with the
      cessation of Iranian support and Barzani's departure into American exile,
      the greatest military problem the Baghdad regime had to deal with was
      substantially, although not completely, solved.

      The legacy of the Kurdish problem is that Baghdad has been caught in an
      awkward position toward Tehran. Though Iraq prefers an Islamic republic to
      the Pahlevi regime, it was careful to avoid aggravating Tehran or provoking
      any large-scale resumption of Iranian aid to the Kurds, who, according to
      French intelligence reports, started sporadic raiding again in midsummer of
      1978. Indeed, Baghdad was so concerned about its treaty commitments with the
      shah that it invited Ayatollah Khomeini to leave his long-time residence on
      the Iraqi side of the border. It should be said, however, that at no stage
      of Khomeini's fourteen-year exile in Iraq did the authorities try to stop
      the steady stream of the Ayatollah's visitors, or suppress his active
      direction of the Moslem resistance in Iran.

      Water and the land

      Next to oil, water is Iraq's most precious resource, and it is the only
      oil-rich Arab state with potentially enough water to become self-sufficient
      in agriculture, perhaps even an exporter of food grains and livestock. This
      looming self-sufficiency is endangered not only by the competing water
      claims of Syria and Turkey, where the Euphrates originates, but also by
      technical problems of salinity and flood control. Iraq also faces severe
      administrative difficulties as it attempts to mechanize agriculture while
      many peasants abandon the land for better-paying city jobs. Those who stay
      on the land, however, demand more rapid redistribution under the agrarian
      reforms in order to build up their holdings to economically profitable

      My guide in the south, a soldier who doubled as our hunter and cook, told me
      that he used to farm rice but found that being a soldier was easier and paid
      more, so that, despite his absence from his village, he could better support
      a family of ten. Individually, under the reform system, farmers are better
      off but their holdings are small, the farm cooperatives that have been
      promised are still relatively unorganized, credit takes time to flow, and
      too few peasants remain to increase output or productivity. This in turn has
      put a strain on Baghdad to stop food prices from rising too steeply.

      Perhaps the most far-reaching result of the November summit agreement has
      been the rapid improvement of relations with Syria. High-level committees,
      representing both sides, have been working continuously since November to
      integrate the military commands of the two countries' armed forces, to
      reopen the oil trade, and to plan joint use of irrigation and water
      conservation projects. On the agricultural side, this promises welcome
      relief to the water supply problem while efforts are being made to encourage
      Moroccan and other Arab peasant immigration to expand farm employment.
      Inflation, which has hit the Middle East just as badly as the rest of the
      world, is better controlled in Iraq than in the neighboring economies. With
      more than three quarters of the gross national product produced by the
      government sector. And with the unions linked to the government through
      Baath party mechanisms, the regime's economic planners have managed to hold
      annual price increases to less than 10 percent-an achievement that only
      Kuwait among the Arab countries has been able to match.

      Wages have been increased for all workers, and real income gains have been
      supplemented by special government programs to assist minority and
      disadvantaged groups. Land reform and extra investment have lifted, the
      income of Iraqi Kurds, I was told, way above the Turkish, Syrian, or Iranian
      standards, and programs of training, maternity leave, pay equalization, and
      state-operated child care have improved the condition of women to an extent
      difficult to match in the Moslem world.

      Party organization

      What exactly is the structure of the Baath party, and who are the men who
      control it? Tariq Aziz, one of the party's eminent publicists and
      theoreticians and a senior government minister, is protected by more than
      half a dozen guards carrying machine guns. But the security, which is all
      that Western correspondents often see of the Baathist hierarchy, is a poor
      test of the stability of the regime or of its mass appeal.

      The party still retains much of the secret, compartmentalized structure and
      the clandestine methods by which, like many other revolutionary parties, it
      has ensured its survival. Direction of the party comes from the Regional
      Command, which represents sixteen provincial units. The members of the
      Regional Command are elected from a network of sections and cells not unlike
      the local communist party committees in many countries. They function
      everywhere—in the workplace, in neighborhoods, and in all ranks of the
      military forces—inculcating the party's doctrines of traditional Arab unity,
      nationalism, socialism, and spiritual revival. Membership in the party,
      which numbers approximately half a million at present, is required of all
      regular officers and diplomats.

      Since its emergence from the underground, and following a decade of
      experience in power, the Baath leadership has been able to train a second
      elite group to operate at all levels of the bureaucracy and the military
      forces. These are the commissars, and they are often from peasant or
      lower-class village backgrounds; few of them have been abroad for university
      degrees, and much of their training has been from the military academy.
      Al-Bakr and Hussein are also lawyers. The two Iraqi leaders reflect the
      strong pull and push of regional factions within the Baath party. Both come
      from the same small village, Tikrit, fifty miles north of Baghdad. Several
      times during their parallel careers, Al-Bakr through the military and
      Hussein through the party, the former has owed his survival to the
      intervention of the latter.

      Hussein, forty-one years old, has worked his way up through the ranks since
      high school days as a Baath youth organizer. He is quite dashing and his
      photograph occupies a place with al-Bakr's in all ceremonial locations. If
      there are elements of a personality cult in the country, Hussein, who is
      famous for his white suits and black ties, outshines the president with his
      military ribbons. Western correspondents tend to overemphasize that as a
      measure of the two men's power.

      They have tried to secure tenure by bringing the Communist and Kurdish
      Democratic parties into the Progressive National Front and by severing the
      armed forces from the political process to prevent what they call an
      "Allende Coup." But challenges do occur, and are swiftly resolved. Last
      year, two Communists were executed for creating an anti-cell in the army.
      The Communist party has been vocal for fifty years in Iraq and has been
      punished often with massacres and jailing for its internal political
      schemes. The Communists want Iraqi unification with the Soviet bloc and are
      against the government policy of unity with the United Arab Republic. The
      government's stability really relies on the Iraqi people and on its ability
      to set up the promised national assembly.

      Under al-Bakr and Hussein the regime appears flexible enough to tolerate
      substantial differences over social and economic policy. When big mistakes
      in economic management are made, they are admitted, and the corrections are
      reflected in the annual budget and investment program.

      After twenty years of chronic warfare in the northeast, tension, and
      military preparedness along every frontier, the Iraqis have little taste for
      military adventures or bloodshed. And on the domestic front, the present
      leadership cannot afford to allow the country's resources to be drained away
      by unproductive investment, or its energies to be wasted in protracted
      military conflict. Iraq's first goal, as officials declare in interviews and
      in the hard facts of the annual budget and the current five-year plan, is to
      put internal development ahead of military buildup.

      Still, militant and uncompromising hostility to Israel remains the
      cornerstone of the country's foreign policy. Iraq's current leadership
      believes that Israeli dominance in the Middle East would increase military
      pressure on Iraq's borders and threaten every one of its cities. Eventually,
      even without another Israeli military success, Iraqis are convinced,
      Israel's economic power would penetrate Iraq's domestic product markets,
      disturb the balance of the wage and price structure vital to development
      planning, and finally undermine the principles of socialism and nationalism
      to which the regime is dedicated. When the Camp David accords are viewed in
      that light, the Iraqis believe they are facing the most important challenge
      to their state since its founding eleven years ago. Washington needs to
      understand that.
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