Saddam the Phoenix

Saddam the Phoenix

Thanks principally to the reports of Barton Gellman in the Washington Post since last October, we know that US intelligence services fatally misused the United Nations Special Commission


Thanks principally to the reports of Barton Gellman in the Washington Post since last October, we know that US intelligence services fatally misused the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) for disarming Iraq of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The spy agencies did this as a cover to intercept not only communications between different branches of Iraq’s security services–suspected of concealing proscribed weapons and documents–but also routine military communications unrelated to UNSCOM’s mission.

At least one other account of the Central Intelligence Agency’s perfidious ways, going as far back as spring 1992, is available in Scott Ritter’s just-published Endgame. Ritter, a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer, became chief inspector with UNSCOM, which relied solely on personnel supplied by UN member states. But a broader account of Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War is offered by brothers Patrick Cockburn, the Middle East correspondent for the London Independent, and Andrew Cockburn, a Washington-based defense and international affairs specialist. Each writer brings to the book a respective strength. Patrick Cockburn has visited Iraq several times since the early nineties and is well connected with Iraqi exiles. Andrew has contacts with the intelligence and defense bureaucracies in and around Washington. The result is a clear, lively, well-researched narrative, which moves along at a brisk pace.

Since the end of the Gulf War, Iraq has altered little politically. But its economy is in tatters, its middle class in terminal decline and its economic infrastructure has deteriorated to the point where it is becoming irreparable. The cost of returning Iraq to pre-1991 standards in infrastructure is put conservatively at $50 billion. And, as a direct result of the UN sanctions, an estimated 1 million Iraqis have died, more than half of them children.

As the book title indicates, the authors focus on the survivability of Saddam Hussein. He is still in power despite repeated and varied endeavors by the United States, ranging from debilitating airstrikes to attempted military coups; a string of high-level defections from Baghdad; bloody rifts within Iraq’s first family; the blatant pauperization of Iraqis; and the near-collapse of the country’s economy, caused by the crippling UN sanctions. Washington finds this intolerable, and its top officials are seething with frustration and bewilderment.

Yet it is not the first time the United States has failed to impose its will on a Third World country. Socialist Cuba is a glaring example of US failure. Despite forty years of unremitting hostility, a string of attempts to kill President Fidel Castro and/or to overthrow his regime through a coup, Cuba is still firmly in “resist” mode.

Compared with Cuba, though, Iraq is a big fish. It has the world’s second-largest proven petroleum reserves. It sits at the center of a region possessing two-thirds of the world’s oil deposits. So the stakes are astronomically high, especially when the region has already spawned another oil-rich, strategic state–Islamic Iran–in the habit of branding America “the Great Satan.”

Internally, the reason for Saddam’s survival lies partly in the secretive, repressive and brutally efficient regime he heads, and partly in the fractiousness of the opposition, which is rooted in history. On his appointment as head of the British Colonial Office in 1921, Winston Churchill said, “I feel some misgivings about the political consequences to myself of taking on my shoulders the burden and odium of the Mesopotamia entanglement.” Four years later when a League of Nations arbitration committee awarded the disputed Kurdish-dominated province of Mosul (an integral part of Turkey before World War I) to Mesopotamia, thus creating modern Iraq, the “entanglement” became unbearably convoluted.

Today nearly one-fifth of 22 million Iraqis are Kurds, members of Indo-European tribes who stand apart from Semitic Arabs. Among the country’s Arabs, 70 percent are Shiite (that is, 56 percent of the total population), 25 percent Sunni and the rest Christian, the best-known among them being Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, born Mikhail Yahunna.

Externally, the Bush and Clinton administrations, publicly committed to Saddam’s overthrow, have drawn a not-so-thin red line: no American ground troops and no direct involvement in the byzantine politics of Iraq.

Beyond the man-made politics and policies stand geography and demographic distribution. Iraq is surrounded by Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Turkey’s restive Kurdish minority lives in an area contiguous with the Kurdish zone of Iraq. The events in one region directly affect those of the other. Iraq’s Shiite majority is concentrated in the southern plain, which extends into the overwhelmingly Shiite republic of Iran. Iraq’s Sunni-dominated area adjoins Jordan and Syria.

Shouldn’t all this play into the hands of Washington, determined as it is to oust the Saddam regime? In a word, no. At the first sign of central authority in Baghdad weakening, Iran will exploit the situation, as it did in the aftermath of the Gulf War. Since the early eighties it has built up an extensive Shiite network in southern Iraq through the Teheran-based Supreme Assembly of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI), which maintains its own army.

To the north, Turkey is hellbent on denying its Kurdish minority autonomy and is extremely wary of the quasi-independence that the Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed for more than seven years under the protective umbrella of the US and British warplanes enforcing the no-fly zone in northern Iraq. Were the Iraqi Kurds to declare an independent state of Kurdistan as the central power in Baghdad waned, the Turkish military would march into Kurdistan.

The prospect of a civil war in Iraq alarms Washington because oil prices will skyrocket, causing inflation and a downturn in corporate America’s profit margins.

It is this (very probable) scenario that has time and again led US policy-makers to gravitate toward the “military” option: Overthrow the Iraqi dictator through a military coup and replace him with a strongman committed to building bridges with Washington. This is not as neat as assassinating Saddam–the silver-bullet option–but neat enough, and certainly far more controllable than popular insurrections. The trouble with uprisings is that you never know which way they will go and which group will emerge at the top. That was the key reason President Bush did not aid the popular insurrections that erupted in southern Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf War, not to mention the fears of Saudi Arabia–a Sunni state and the crucial regional partner of the United States–of a multiparty democracy in Iraq putting the Shiite majority in power.

That explains, too, the consistent bias of American decision-makers toward the Iraqi National Accord (INA), which has focused all along on staging a coup. The following account of the recent Iraqi oppositionist history, teased out of a couple of chapters of the Cockburns’ book, illustrates the highly convoluted nature of Iraqi politics and explains as well why the United States wants to stay out of the imbroglio:

Formed in 1990 by two high-level Iraqi Baath Party defectors, the INA was bankrolled by Saudi Arabia. It admitted only defecting Iraqi military and security officers and Baath Party functionaries. But the situation changed in June 1991, when, as the authors tell us, Bush signed a “finding” that authorized the CIA to initiate covert operations to “create” the conditions for the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. A year later, thanks to the CIA’s largesse, Ahmed Chalabi, an exiled Shiite Iraqi, convened an impressive assembly of Iraqi oppositionists in Vienna [see Ken Silverstein, “Crazy About Hussein,” May 10]. Chalabi was suitable for this role for several reasons, not least because as a former banker in Amman, Jordan, whose bank had collapsed in 1989 under mysterious circumstances, he was thought by the invitees to be funding the event out of his pocket.

The result was the formation of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an umbrella body that won the affiliation of more than thirty groups. These included not only the long-established Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), with their respective militias, but also the INA. The plan was that the INC would base itself in Iraqi Kurdistan and build a liberation army composed of exiled and defecting Iraqis. The end purpose was to set up a democratic regime in post-Saddam Iraq, which chimed perfectly with Washington’s undying commitment to democracy and human rights, whatever the odds. But democracy was the last thing Saudi Arabia–an oil-rich authoritarian monarchy–or its protégé, the INA, had in mind for Iraq.

The onerous task of conciliating the competing strategies of a war of liberation and a military putsch fell to Frank Andersen, head of the CIA’s Near East division. He drew on the CIA’s rich heritage–in subterfuge. While professing to be dealing solely with the INC as the representative of Iraqi oppositionists, the CIA maintained clandestine contacts with the INA, nominally just one of the many INC affiliates.

Once the INC (under the eagle eyes of CIA officials on the spot) based itself in Salahudin, a town in Iraqi Kurdistan, a cat-and-mouse game ensued, with the INC and INA spying on each other, fueled by Chalabi’s pathological suspicion of anybody with a Baathist background; and the INC and the INA being in turn spied on by the KDP and the PUK. These Kurdish parties were themselves at odds with each other, the KDP being strong in the northwest, where Kurds speak the Kermanci dialect, and the PUK in the southeast, where the inhabitants speak the Surani dialect. On top sit the tribal differences. Little wonder that the KDP and the PUK, sharing power equally in Iraqi Kurdistan, kept a wary eye on each other. By 1994 the INC employed several thousand Kurds and Iraqi Arabs, so there was much to watch and hear on the various sides of this intricate CIA-funded conglomerate.

With the defection of Wafiq al Samarrai, the Iraqi military intelligence chief, in December 1994, pressure built from high up in Washington to move against Saddam and replace him with a committee of five generals, including Samarrai. The plan involved an attack by INC troops on the nearby oil cities of Mosul and Kirkuk as a diversionary move while the military plotters in Baghdad stormed the barracks where Saddam had a residence. A five-member CIA team was dispatched from its Langley, Virginia, headquarters to Salahudin. The D-day was March 4, 1995. But at the last minute, listening to the plea by an INA leader who flew to Washington, the White House withdrew its support. Nonetheless, Chalabi made his move along the front lines in Kurdistan. But nothing of substance happened.

By then the KDP and the PUK had battled each other, killing several thousand Kurdish fighters, and been reconciled; but the control of Arbil, the regional capital, had passed from the KDP to the PUK, a setback that the KDP leader, Massoud Barzani, vowed to reverse, come what may.

To do so, Barzani invited military assistance in late August 1996 from none other than Saddam Hussein–responsible for the death of three of Barzani’s brothers, the murder of some 8,000 members of his tribe and the killing of 60,000-150,000 Kurds in counterinsurgency operations in 1988.

Saddam obliged with alacrity. While his tanks and soldiers expelled the PUK from Arbil, his intelligence operators killed the CIA agents and informers. By the time the agency pulled all its local personnel from the region, it had 6,500 Kurds and Iraqi Arabs on its hands at the Turkish border.

What motivated Barzani’s invitation to Saddam? The reason, elicited by the Cockburns from Barzani, was: “The Iranians were coming!” More specifically, Barzani stated, the PUK’s Jalal Talabani, backed by Iran, was set to wipe out the KDP.

The key to understanding the puzzlingly cozy relationship between Barzani and Saddam is money, a factor largely overlooked in Out of the Ashes. The KDP controls the border post through which 800 trucks carrying Iraqi diesel fuel pass daily. The hefty customs revenue goes to the KDP. This blatant breach of the UN sanctions has been going on for years and is known to all, including the United States. When queried on the subject, following a front-page story in the New York Times last June, the State Department spokesman said that Turkey was a member of NATO and an ally of the United States! What he did not say was that while Washington was not prepared to fund the Iraqi Kurds to administer Kurdistan, it was allowing them to finance themselves through customs duties.

This past February Tariq Aziz, on his way to Ankara overland, not only traveled through KDP-controlled Kurdistan in comfort but also had a clandestine meeting with Barzani. Earlier, finding the KDP on the list of Iraqi organizations eligible for arms training and supplies according to the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, Barzani had promptly said, “Thanks but no thanks.”

There is, of course, an equally murky story to be told of the duplicities of the CIA and National Security Agency in penetrating UNSCOM for unilateral purposes and going far beyond UNSCOM’s writ. But that is outside the scope of the Cockburns’ book. Among other things, they have chronicled the machinations of Saddam Hussein’s family, especially the elder son, Uday Hussein, a violent brat who escaped assassination in late 1996. They have pieced this part of the story together well.

Overall, though, the text has been left dotted with inconsistencies and factual errors. On page 268, Rolf Ekéus left UNSCOM in July 1997; two pages later he did so at the end of 1997. (Actually, June 30, 1997, was his departure date.) Since 1959, the KDP has stood for Kurdistan Democratic Party, not Kurdish Democratic Party. More serious, President-elect Clinton went beyond a passing remark that normal relations with Saddam were possible. In a long interview with the New York Times in January 1993, he said that “as a Baptist” he believed in “conversions” (i.e., Saddam is redeemable); and of other countries that “my job is not to pick their rulers for them” (a flush of anti-imperialism, certainly!).

Since the authors have provided compelling evidence to show that the UN embargo has doomed Iraqis to unending economic misery resulting in a whole generation of children growing up with subnormal intelligence, they could have ended with a ringing condemnation of the sanctions. Instead they write, “The biggest mistake of all [by America] was to make the Iraqi people pay the price of besieging Saddam. One day, the bill will come due.” Nor does their finger-wagging at Saddam’s family–“Sooner or later there will be a reckoning”–say much.

But this is reflective of the general tone and texture of the book, which is rich in information and atmosphere but poor in insight and analysis.Writing in the strict “report” mode, the Cockburns have shied away from offering comment, reflection or even interpretation. By not writing a preface or introduction–which allows the author to outline the framework within which certain themes and subthemes will be fleshed out in the main text–they have failed to provide an overview to the reader at the outset of this complex story, a drawback. So vital is Iraq to regional peace and stability–and oil prices–that the subject of its immediate past and future deserves a book by an author who successfully marries hard information with insight and analysis.

Meanwhile, some of the details provided by the Cockburns, especially about the Al Nahdah, the home-based clandestine group that crippled Uday Hussein in an unsuccessful attempt to kill him, will be useful to future writers on the subject, especially if they decide to go beyond synthesizing information into the realm of interpretation and even informed speculation about post-Saddam Iraq. The future of the country will be decided by how Saddam goes. If he dies naturally it will lead most probably to the implementation of a political will drawn up by him, likely prescribing collective leadership. If he is assassinated or overthrown in a military coup, it will almost certainly lead to civil war and the breakup of Iraq as we have known it since 1925.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy