Iraq Flexes Arab Muscle

In 1976 Christopher Hitchens saw Saddam as an up-and-coming secular socialist who would transform Ir

From The New Statesman 2 April 1976

Hitchens, now an American citizen, remains one of the fiercest and most unrepentant enthusiasts for the US-British overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But, back in 1976, when working for the New Statesman, he took a more admiring view of the Iraqi dictator, as this article shows. Young Hitchens saw Saddam as an up-and-coming secular socialist who would transform Iraq into a progressive model for the rest of the Middle East.

Selected by Robert Taylor

An Arab country with the second largest proven oil reserves, a fierce revolutionary ideology, a large and recently-blooded army, and a leadership composed almost entirely of men in their thirties is obviously a force to be reckoned with. Iraq, which has this dynamic combination and much else besides, has not until recently been very much regarded as a power. But with the new discussions in Opec, the ending of the Kurdistan war and the new round of fighting in Lebanon, its political voice is being heard more and more. The Baghdad regime is the first oil-producing government to opt for 100-per-cent nationalisation, a process completed with the acquisition of foreign assets in Basrah last December. It was the first to call for the use of oil as a political weapon against Israel and her backers. It gives strong economic and political support to the ‘Rejection Front’ Palestinians who oppose Arafat’s conciliation and are currently trying to outface the Syrians in Beirut. And it has a leader — Saddam Hussain — who has sprung from being an underground revolutionary gunman to perhaps the first visionary Arab statesman since Nasser.

Dining with an old man on a houseboat moored in the Tigris. I discovered that he inadvertently embodied the history of modern Iraq. He had been imprisoned in 1941 for opposing the British, again in 1959 for hostility to Kassem’s pro-Russian line and finally in 1969 by the present regime. The last of these had, he said, been easily the worst. He was personally interrogated by Nadim Kzar, then head of the secret police and since executed for his crimes. There had been torture and brutality of a far worse sort than his previous incarcerations. And yet he declared that he thought the present government the best Iraqi Administration he had seen. Why? ‘Because it has made us strong and respected.’ There seems no getting round this point. From the festeringly poor and politically dependent nation of a generation ago, Iraq has become a power in every sense — military, economic and ideological. Currently, it is pressing for a more aggressive Opec pricing strategy in order to raise more cash for its development projects, and envisages a doubling of oil production from 2m. barrels per day to over 4m. within the next ten years.

Strangely, its ally in this push against the Saudis is none other than neighbouring Iran, with which Iraq has only recently ceased a near state of war over Kurdistan. The Shah and his ‘White Revolution’ also need quick money to finance internal development, enormous military expansion and foreign aid programmes. The difference is that while the Shah ranges himself against communism and sends troops to the Gulf to fight Arab guerrillas, Iraq is dedicated to the idea of a single socialist Arab nation from Gibraltar to the Indian ocean; the original Ba’athist dream.

In their different crusades, both Iraq and Iran take a distinctly unsentimental line on internal opposition. Ba’ath party spokesmen, when questioned about the lack of public dissent, will point to efforts made by the party press to stimulate criticism of revolutionary shortcomings. True enough, there are such efforts, but they fall rather short of permitting any organised opposition. The argument then moves to the claim, which is often made in Iraq, that the country is surrounded by enemies and attacked by imperialist intrigue. Somewhere in the collision between Baghdad and Teheran on this point, the Kurdish nationalists met a very painful end. We now know, from the US committee of investigation, chaired by Congressman Otis Pike, that there was a Nixon- Kissinger strategy of arming and encouraging a Kurdish revolt, not for the purpose of creating a Kurdish state (which would have horrified the Shah) but for the purpose of de-stabilising Iraq. It was specifically argued, by those who planned the operation, that the Kurds should not be allowed to win.

They were allowed to take heavy casualties and suffer appalling refugee problems; and then were dumped unceremoniously when it became clear that the Iraqi government was not going to crumble. ‘Even in the context of covert action,’ says the report, ‘ours was a cynical enterprise.’ As one who had, on previous visits to Baghdad, scorned the argument that the Kurds were foreign puppets, I should say that ‘cynical’ is the mildest adjective that could be used about this latest triumph of the Secretary of State.

The Kurds now have a very attenuated version of autonomy, and former members of the Barzani armed forces are being moved to the South. At least, however, Iraq constitutionally recognises that she is a partly Kurdish state, which is more than Iran or Turkey do. Further tests for the regime lie ahead. The quarrel with Syria, which involves differences over Ba’athist ideology as well as a dispute over Syrian damming of the Euphrates river, has now extended to the Lebanon, where Syrian troops have attacked newspapers and buildings controlled by Iraqi-sympathising Palestinians. Relations with Iran are still far from cordial. In response to requests for criticism in the party press, some demands were raised for a constituent assembly, and other complaints voiced about the tightness of the regime. All these remain to be acted on, and as the situation grows more complicated Saddam Hussain will rise more clearly to the top. Make a note of the name. Iraq has been strengthened internally by the construction of a ‘strategic pipeline’ which connects the Gulf to the northern fields for the first time. She has been strengthened externally by her support for revolutionary causes and by the resources she can deploy. It may not be electrification plus Soviet power, but the combination of oil and ‘Arab socialism’ is hardly less powerful.