BACKSTAGE

“Things could be a great deal worse and any day now may become so"

BLAIR FRASER August 30 1958
BACKSTAGE

“Things could be a great deal worse and any day now may become so"

BLAIR FRASER August 30 1958

“Things could be a great deal worse and any day now may become so"

BACKSTAGE

BLAIR FRASER

BAGHDAD

OUTSIDE ON THE sunbeaten tarmac of Baghdad airport it must have been 120 degrees, but under the overhead

fans in the waiting room it wasn’t too bad. Our aircraft had been due to leave at ten o’clock and we ourselves had been there since nine; it was now half past twelve, so we all looked up hopefully when an airport official came and motioned us to move.

BLAIR FRASER reports from BAGHDAD

NASSER: “a kind of messiah” THE ARMY AND THE MOB:

"Sorry, you must please take other seats,” he said. "Centre seats have been reserved for the military.”

We went over to the side of the hall, out of range of the fans that kept the temperature bearable. We were about 30 all told — four white-robed sheiks from Kuwait with their veiled and jeweled wives and several children; a dozen other Arabs, mostly Syrians; six home-bound Americans, and me. After 20 minutes four colonels came in and sat down under the fans, chatting and drinking Coca-Cola, protected from eavesdroppers by rows of empty tables on each side. As we left the hall another hour later, more colonels entered and all sat down to lunch at a long table at one end of the room.

The small incident reminded two of us, at least, of the thing that most disturbs Western observers of the new government in Iraq — the unquestioned domination of the army.

Even though it is outnumbered in the new government, the army is obviously in charge in Baghdad. To get an exit permit, for instance, as even departing transients must do, you still go to the ministry of residence and fill out forms for half a dozen civilian officials. Two of them spent a happy half hour looking through dusty volumes for the record of my last departure from the country a year and a half ago, as if it still mattered. But when you come to the end of this process you do not, as once you did, get your exit visa. You’re told to go to the ministry of defense, where a Colonel Sa’adoon will stamp your passport with the necessary authority to leave. Colonel Sa’adoon does so in about ten minutes. Obviously, it would have been equally good and much quicker to come here in the first place.

What the army wants or intends is a mystery. Until July 14. even the harshest critics of the regime used to say disconsolately that Nuri Said, the

deposed prime minister, cherished and pampered the army, and that so long as he had the army with him he could hold the people down. As it turned out, he didn’t have the army with him —not the lower ranks—but nobody knew that. Nobody knew a man named Kassem or his hard-boiled deputy Colonel Abdul Salam Arif.

"I thought I’d met every man in the Iraqi forces who amounted to anything,” a British officer said, “but I never met either of these new boys.”

It is becoming a cliché to call Brigadier Abdul Karim Kassem, the youthful-looking soldier who is now prime minister, a "dedicated” man, on the odd ground that he has never married. The inference is that he was wedded to the revolution. He has an unusually handsome face, a shy but ready smile, and the kind of wide-eyed earnestness that often marks the fanatic. But what goes on behind the smooth high forehead and the bright staring gaze is, up to now, anybody’s guess.

Behind and beneath the army is another unpredictable force, the mob. In the first days after the coup, army spokesmen were saying two things with great earnestness—one, "We are still friends of the west”; two, "This government is the true voice of the people.” These statements could not both have been right. Luckily for the Westerners in Baghdad, the second is the one that was wrong.

No recent visitor to Baghdad can have the slightest doubt how the people, the city people at any rate, feel about Westerners. They no longer hide their hatred.

On the morning of July 14, when the British embassy was fired by the mob, one British official was stopped while driving to work by a fragment of the crowd, luckily a small one.

“You English?” one of them said. “We killing all English, Americans and French.”

"I'm Scottish,” was the truthful reply. This confused his questioner, apparently. and he got away.

On the same morning an Iraqi, and a nationalist sympathizer too. wore his European-style hat when he went out

to see the excitement. He heard a cry “Inglesi,” turned to see a small gang bearing down upon him, the leader pointing to his damning headgear. He snatched it off at once and cried out in Arabic, explaining who he was, so they left him unharmed—but they did trample on the hat.

The excitement has cooled but the hatred has not. Foreigners in the streets continue to get the occasional jeer, the occasional shouted insult from some passing urchin—the words are unintelligible but the meaning is not. And if it is clear whom the people hate, it is even clearer whom they love—Gamal Abdel Nasser. Brigadier Kassem was as unknown to them a month ago as he was to the outer world, but Nasser is a kind of messiah.

In personnel the new government is mainly civilian; only the prime minister and his deputy, and the figurehead president, are actually soldiers. Some of the new ministers are young unknowns, but others have been leading figures in Iraqi politics for years. Most of these belong to Istiqlal, a nationalist opposition party that is called right wing but advocates liberal social and economic reforms. They are certainly not pro-Western in the sense that old Nuri Said was, but neither are they anti-Western as Khrushchev or even Nasser are. Westerners who know them say they are friendly and moderate men, and that is how they impress the visitor who meets them for the first time. They say with great emphasis, and a sincerity which there is no occasion to doubt, that they want to continue relations of friendship with the West.

In this they do not differ from their military colleagues who also say they want to be "friends with all nations, including the West.” The trouble is that it's impossible to know just what the army means by this or anything else, or indeed whether the army itself knows what it means. The young to middle-aged officers who led Iraq’s revolution are militarily skilful — their coup was well planned and astoundingly successful as an operation—but they seem to have no political ideas at all.

Kassem says he has been brood-

themselves regard it. If they have their way, that is all it will ever be. But will they have their way?

If by some miracle of competence the new government can put all Iraq's affairs quickly in order, bring a quick and obvious rise in the welfare of the poor, and avoid annoying Nasser while it continues the friendship with the West, all will be well. If not, it will feel itself the pressure of the mob. perhaps also the pressure of the lower ranks in the army, and there can be no doubt which direction that pressure would take.

It is impossible now and will be difficult even in future to tell just what is happening in Iraq. The censorship, even by Middle-Eastern standards, is pathologically sensitive. At the moment every despatch to the West is read either by the minister of guidance himself. Siddiq Shanshai, or by one of two senior assistants. All three consider that the censor is an editor they w ill hold up copy with such remarks as “If 1 were you I'd have said that differently; you imply a certain reflection on our country."

Some uncensored despatches have been smuggled out. but this is difficult, for the army officers who search luggage at the airport have a special eye for manuscript. 1 had heard this, and took care to destroy all l had with me: the officer nevertheless took out a sheet of nearly new carbon paper, held it up to the light, rubbed it with his thumb, and finally asked. "May 1 destroy this?"

In circumstances like these it will be hard to know, for a long time to come, what is really happening in Iraq. The most that can be said at the moment is that things there could be a great deal worse. Any day now, they may become so. ★

may become so”

an offense in Iraq to be a Communist or to engage in Communist activity. The people nowin power used to say the old Nuri government accused many of being Communists who w'ere nothing of the kind, and these no doubt will now escape. But the government readily admits it has no present intention of repealing the law' against the Communist party, or of releasing prisoners who appear to have been real Communists. These will remain in jail.

Apparently then the men in charge of the revolution are not themselves Communists or fellow-travelers, though some of them are members of the leftwing socialist Ba’ath party which in Syria, at least, is almost indistinguishable from orthodox communism. They all speak in a friendly way of the Soviet Union, which was one of the first to recognize the new regime in Iraq, but so far they’re speaking in a friendly way about everybody.

They can cite some deeds, too, to back up their friendly talk. When th British embassy was fired by the mob on the morning of July 14 the ambassador and most of his staff were still inside and might have been roasted alive. Instead they were taken out and led to safety by a small party of soldiers, through a crowd which would certainly have enjoyed tearing them limb from limb. Later the same day the new government got the mob off the streets by imposing, and enforcing, a curfew at 1 p.m. Europeans in Baghdad are devoutly grateful for this move, which they think saved the lives of most of them. Prompt apologies were made to the British ambassador for the sack of the embassy, and condolences offered for the one British official killed there. These assurances have been accepted by the British, not just formally but wholeheartedly — they profess to be fully convinced that the assault was merely the effect of a mob getting out of control, and neither the intention nor the wish of the new authorities.

Indeed the relations between the British and Iraqi authorities have been most cordial right from the beginning. The minister of education earnestly requested that the usual recruitment of British teachers for Iraqi schools next year should go forward as usual — they want more British teachers, not fewer, he said. Even the British airmen at Habbanayeh. the former RAF station now run by the Iraqi air force with a thousand British technicians and instructors to help, are being told. "We now hope you’ll be able to carry on as before” — although in fact they have not yet been allowed to do so.

But if everyone is so sweet and everything so lovely, why w'as the revolt ever staged against Nuri Said. King Faisal and their strongly proWestern government?

From educated and sophisticated Iraqi, both in and out of the government. it is easy to get a rational, plausible answer to this question. They rather overwork the phrase "corruption and tyranny"—reporters soon began calling it “C & T"—but when challenged they can say what they mean in great detail.

The corruption, they say, was not so much in outright theft or graft as in the retention of all good things for a favored few. Parliaments no less than governments were appointed, chosen from a well-entrenched family compact or from upstarts who had managed to toady their way into favor. For a man with ministerial backing any good job was open, for a man without it no good job was open, regardless of ability or qualifications.

Even more fundamental was the way in which the much-advertised development program left the social structure of Iraq undisturbed. To call Iraq’s social structure “feudal" is gross flat tery; it has all the faults of feudalism and none of the virtues. The sheiks who are the great landowners do nothing at all, in most cases, for their destitute tenants; they simply take half to tw'o thirds of the crop, giving no service in return.

Up to now the biggest fraction of development spending, which totaled nearly $200 million last year, has been on irrigation and flood control. Thus its effect has been to increase land values while leaving the land itself in the same hands, making the rich richer and the poor no better off.

All this would be exasperating enough in a poor country. But Iraq is rich. It is literally true that the development board has not known how to spend all the money oil has provided for it. As Muhammed Hadid, the new minister of finance said: “About the only problem Iraq has not got is a financial problem.”

Hadid is a middle-aged, soft-spoken, very intelligent businessman who got his education and his political outlook from the London School of Economics in the days of Harold Laski. He is, or was, a member of the Ahali party, a liberal-democratic movement of the 1930s, and he believes in democracy and a liberal approach to social reforms. Hadid has often said that he thinks Iraq should continue to cooperate with Western countries where, in his opinion, Iraq’s true interests lie.

Listening to such men as Hadid, or to the Oxford-educated economist Fakri Shehab with his British wife and his even more British children, it s easy to see the Iraq revolt as a simple, natural, almost bloodless revolt against an outworn and intolerable system, and the installation instead of a modern, moderate. welfare-minded liberal regime. Unquestionably that is how these men

ing about the revolution since he got out of military school in the 1930s, but in all his brooding he seems to have given no thought to what kind of state he wanted to put in place of Nuri’s "tyranny and corruption." When he met the Western press for the first few times after the coup he seemed about equally baffled by all the questions put to him.

Did he have any intention of nationalizing the oil industry? Iraq intends to continue and increase the development of oil, taking into consideration her own interest and "the interest of the world at large.”

Did he intend to allow the formation of political parties? “Leaders of the various tendencies will form a national front. The old suppression is over and the unity of the country is now achieved.”

Yes, but specifically, would they be allowed to vote for more than one party?

"That will be fully considered and debated, and it will be decided when the proper day comes.”

Decided by whom?

He didn't answer that question at all —indeed. I couldn't be sure that the translator even passed it on. Kassem doesn't really need a translator though: he insists on speaking Arabic so as to be sure of his ground; but his English is fairly good.

We got into the same impasse when we tried to find out if he intended to release political prisoners, an estimated thousand of whom are still in the cells where Nuri Said’s "tyranny" put them. Kassem said the sentences of all political prisoners had been reduced by twenty percent.

But these were men imprisoned for opposing the old regime — why, and on what charge were they being held now?

“The revolutionary phase is now over, and order has been restored — we have now an orderly pattern in our country. That includes asking questions and quizzing the prime minister.”

Later I found out from another government source that a committee has been set up to review all political cases, and those found innocent of any real offense will be released. But it is still

still an unpredictable force

KASSEM: still an unknown quantity