‘The strong men of the Arab world’

June 30 1980

‘The strong men of the Arab world’

June 30 1980

‘The strong men of the Arab world’


Iraq, which held its first democratic election in many years last week, is one of the most powerful factors in current Middle East politics. Bidding for leadership of the A rab and nonaligned worlds, its leaders use their vast oil wealth to play off the superpowers and other interested nations against each other in a climate of secrecy which is seldom penetrated by foreign journalists, normally restricted to short and infrequent visits. One exception is Claudia Wright, an Australian journalist who knows the country well and recently returned from a month ’s stay. Her report:

Rasheed Street, the people of Baghdad say, is the father of all streets. “Every martyr demonstrated one day on Rasheed Street,” according to venerable Islamic legend, but little is left of the thoroughfare’s past glory, even from the 19th-century Ottoman period of this 1,000-year-old city.

But as British-made double-decker buses scrape past hydraulic sanitation trucks from the United States, each threatening to flatten the pedestrian and amputate the few remaining lattice balconies, Rasheed Street continues to venerate a man whose deed here, in 1959, was an assassination attempt that neither killed the intended victim nor

martyred his attacker. This modern hero is Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq since last July. His deed was a machine-gun attack on the then-premier, Brigadier-General Abdul Kassem.

Universally known to Iraqis, some of whom tell of calling him on his private line to discuss bureaucratic complaints and private troubles, Hussein leaves an enigmatic impression in the West, which he has seldom visited and for which he rarely grants interviews. Yet what little is known about Iraq abroad is projected onto this man whose Iraqi biographer has characterized as intensely “reserved and temperate,” with a mind “in which he [has] sealed up many secrets since childhood.”

Like many of his kin, the 43-year-old Hussein has been involved in Iraqi revolutionary politics all his life. For most of this time, the Arab Baath (Renaissance) party, which he now leads, has been a clandestine organization manipulated by the larger political forces of the Middle East and hounded by hostile regimes in neighboring Syria as well as Baghdad. Ever since the Baathistes took power in Iraq in 1968, the party has been torn by bitter factionalism and violence. This has largely subsided with time, although as recently as last August, Hussein crushed a conspiracy of

party members against him and 21 senior officials were shot.

Doctrinal and organizational quarrels between the Baath and the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) have also produced periodic violence, much of it lately in Southern Yemen and in London, where many Iraqi Communists have taken up exile. This year there have been grenade attacks on Iraqi officials by members of the Ad-Dawah, a splinter group of Iranians living in Iraq who are associated with the Khomeini regime’s campaign against Baghdad. The Ad-Dawah group was blamed for last week’s attack on the British embassy in Baghdad. “Their intention was to create an illusion of instability,” said an Iraqi diplomat in Washington, “and give a distorted picture of us.” However, many officials in Iraq believe “the British are still playing a dirty game in Iran,” and that the attack had a double meaning.

In this atmosphere, it was perhaps riskier than Western observers credit for Hussein’s Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) to proceed to last week’s elections for the Iraqi National Assembly. Balloting for its 250 seats gave Hussein’s followers a substantial majority.

At this time of year, the dust storms which bring Baghdad to a honking, gritty standstill during the spring have given way to a relentless swelter which drives the urban worker for cover of darkness and cool. But the city’s summer rhythm still produces more traffic jams per day than most visitors will have ever seen. Commuters battle into the office in the early morning, then surge home for the afternoon rest at 1 p.m., only to return to repeat the cycle in the late afternoon and evening. The government is trying to change this by shortening the workweek to five days and increasing daily hours, substituting air conditioning for the siesta. But traditional habits die hard.

Today in Iraq, no less than in other Arab states, there are natural tendencies for public opinion to divide under the intense pressure of the Arab-Israeli conflict, international disputes over oil production and prices and the enormous costs of developing the military capability to resist threats from what are seen as Israel’s expansionism and intervention from outside—American, Soviet, French and British.

Iraqis unanimously accept the role that Saddam Hussein has adopted of moderating inter-Arab disputes and preserving Arab unity in opposition to the Camp David accords. There is also

considerable willingness among Iraqis to pay the high price required by the economics of the nonalignment strategy Hussein advanced at last September’s summit meeting in Havana.

The government is setting aside substantial volumes of oil and billions of dollars in annual aid to strengthen the resistance of the Third World to the blandishments of superpowers seeking military-base agreements. Iraqis are enjoying their new status as the strong men of the Arab world. Iraqi women, too, assert their new emancipated role in national policymaking.

To date, Iraq’s advances have depended on the small, cohesive Revolutionary Command Council which supervises the cabinet and, through joint party and ministerial appointments, monitors the details of bureaucratic policymaking and administration. When the National Assembly convenes next month, it is worth asking, therefore, whether Hussein’s strategy will be subject to criticism.

The elections are an evident sign of the president’s confidence that there will be no Shi’ite Moslem unrest or reaction-much looked for by the Western press—and no weakening in the Iraqi stand toward the hostile regime in Teh-

ran. Indeed, speculation by foreign journalists about deep-seated resentment on the part of Iraqi Shi’ites against the predominantly Sunni regime in Baghdad overrates the religiosity of Iraqis almost as badly as the same observers underrated the potency of the Persian mullahs before the shah fell. In Iraq the mosque has played no significant popular political role for more than a generation.

What may produce division within the Iraqi assembly are the persistent disparities between rural areas and cities. Except for the Kurdish provinces in the north, which receive a special allocation of investment funds, regional development has not so far been a major point of government concern. Planners have concentrated instead on channelling money into high-priority industrial investments built up around the oilfields and ports around Basra, in the south, or in the vicinity of Baghdad— areas where at least two-thirds of the country’s 13 million people live.

At the same time, agricultural output from most rural areas is failing to match targets. Despite government land grants and credit incentives, peasants are continuing to move into city suburbs where work is easier and the pay and amenities greater.

Expressed in political terms, those trends may lead to conflict in the new assembly over the budget, stimulating disputes over oil output and revenues as well as the foreign policy purposes to which oil is put in Hussein’s grand strategy. The government recently released its spending plan for 1981-85. The first test of the new democracy may well be how fully this satisfies the regime’s ambitious goals inside and outside Iraq.