A blood-soaked land between two rivers

Iraq since the Gulf War - Inside the Arab World - The Shi'as of Iraq
January 27, 1995

On July 14, 1958, the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq was overthrown in a violent military coup. The royal family was slaughtered, their dismembered bodies dragged by mobs through the streets of Baghdad. Prime Minister Nuri al-Said was gunned down attempting to flee disguised as a woman, an ignominious end for a man who once boasted that a "dog could not bark in Baghdad without his hearing of it".

The Iraqi revolution sparked a cycle of coups and countercoups which lasted over two decades. Abdel Karim Qassim, one of the officers who toppled the Hashemites, met a violent death in 1963 during a Ba'ath socialist-led coup d'etat. The Ba'athists executed and imprisoned thousands during their ensuing "reign of terror". In 1968, another mutiny brought to power a second Ba'athist cabal, which consolidated its power during the 1970s by ruthlessly suppressing its opponents. Saddam Hussein became president in 1979, ushering in an era of unprecedented brutality.

Saddam learned from the mistakes of his predecessors. He guards his regime with a Special Protection Apparatus -- a praetorian guard comprising 13 battalions of crack troops -- in addition to four powerful intelligence agencies. These organisations compete with each other, conducting surveillance operations against both citizens and officials. Vast infusions of oil wealth allow Saddam to equip his security forces with the latest technology. He has also fashioned a personality cult of gargantuan proportions. Artists, intellectuals, and business leaders are co-opted or coerced into singing the praises of "President Nebuchadnezzar", the "genius" of Iraq. Saddam contributes to national mythmaking with accounts of his "heroics", including his role as a teenage gunman in a failed assassination attempt against Qassim in 1959. As a result of such policies, roughly 11 per cent of Iraqis live outside their country.

The Gulf crisis and subsequent war focused western attention on Iraq in 1990-91. Iraqi exiles, largely ignored before Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, were suddenly embraced by the western media. For a time, it appeared as though the West would overthrow Saddam. President George Bush and Prime Minister John Major encouraged Iraqis to revolt, sending signals that any rebellion would have their support. When push came to shove, however, America and Britain allowed Saddam's forces to crush incipient uprisings in Iraq. Meanwhile, international economic sanctions and continued repression cause living conditions to deteriorate in Iraq. Saddam has even banned liquor in bars and restaurants, prompting one American pundit to quip: "We may not have reduced Iraq to rubble, but we at least reduced it to Coca- Cola".

Iraq Since the Gulf War is a vital contribution to any debate on Iraq's future. Published by the Committee Against Repression and for Democratic Rights in Iraq (CARDRI), this well-researched and edited volume presents the views of Iraqi dissidents. Some predict continued economic hardship and subjugation for Iraqis, while others are more optimistic. All agree, however, that Saddam should be removed, the territorial integrity of Iraq maintained, and democratic elections held (with a special self-governing status for Kurds). These are admirable goals. Unfortunately, the leaders of the Iraqi "opposition" -- most of whom live in London -- are detached from their natural constituencies and lack bases of power within Iraq (with the possible exception of the Kurds). The opposition's ability to effect political change in Iraq is thus limited.

While the Kurdish problem receives some coverage in the western media, less is known about the Shi'a majority of Iraq. The Shi'as comprise about 52 per cent of Iraq's population (and around 70 per cent of the Arab Muslim population). Contrary to popular western perceptions, the Shi'as are not an inherently fanatical or irrational people, but a religious community with various sects, beliefs, and rituals who have suffered at the hands of the sundry regimes in Baghdad. After the Gulf War, for instance, the Republican Guard was ordered to smash a Shi'a insurrection in southern Iraq. Iraqi troops executed clergymen, razed mosques and religious shrines, and adorned their tanks with slogans such as "no more Shi'as will live after today".

Both masterful and accessible, Yitzhak Nakash's The Shi'as of Iraq offers a comprehensive treatment of the Shi'as' stormy relationship with the Sunni-dominated Iraqi state. Using Arabic and Persian sources, Nakash argues that Iraq's Shi'as are recent converts to Shi'ism. During the 19th century, many nomadic Arab tribes settled in southern Iraq and began practising agriculture. The cities of Najaf and Karbala became centres of an emerging Shi'a polity as settled tribesmen converted to Shi'ism. The process of Shi'a state formation, however, was subverted by the British occupation of Iraq, and later by the establishment of the Hashemite dynasty. Neither Britain nor the Hashemites desired a sovereign Shi'a entity in Mesopotamia. Yet the Shi'a community flourished, and its leaders constantly sought additional political leverage vis-a-vis the Iraqi state.

Nakash also contends that Iraqi Shi'ism is unlike Iranian Shi'ism. Iran became predominately Shi'a by the 18th century. By the time of Reza Shah's modernisation programmes in the 1920s, the Shi'a clergy of Iran had built an autonomous position in society. Moreover, Iranian clerics established an independent economic base. The formation of modern Iraq, on the other hand, as a Sunni-dominated polity, curtailed the power of local Shi'as. Spiritual leaders lacked the financial power enjoyed by their Persian brethren. A precarious relationship existed between the monarchy and Shi'a leaders in the years preceding the 1958 revolution. Relations between the state and the Shi'as worsened under the Qassim regime (1958-1963), culminating in increased tensions between state and Shi'a society when the Ba'ath solidified its position in 1968.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Islamic ideology began attracting Iraqi Shi'as as they became further alienated from an avowedly secular, oppressive state. Religious leaders formed al-Da'wa al- Islamiyya (The Islamic Call) to oppose Ba'athist policies. Although the Shi'as were against the pro-Sunni orientation of the Iraqi regime, they nevertheless identified with Iraqi nationalism, This, in part, helps explain the lack of an "Islamic revolutionary frame of mind" among Iraqi Shi'as during the Iranian revolution. Despite Tehran's attempts to mobilise all Shi'as during the Iran-Iraq war, Iraqis remained loyal to the Iraqi entity, identifying with Arab rather than Persian nationalist symbols.

Are Iraq's problems indicative of a greater predicament in the Arab world? Michael Field's Inside the Arab World explores why "(t)he Arab world has not been a happy or successful place in the last 50 years". Many Arabs, Field maintains, realise something is amiss and are seeking change. A veteran journalist, Field knows the Middle East and has produced a readable account designed for a general audience. The author charts the rise and fall of pan-Arabism, economic expansion and decline, transformation of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and growth of political Islam.

One of the strengths of this book abides in Field's analysis of economic and political trends in the Arab world. He shows how fiery Arab nationalist rhetoric was used to mobilise Arab populations during the 1950s and 1960s. Leaders such as Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser promised to lead the Arabs to prosperity and victory. The massive Arab defeat in 1967, however, sparked a wave of popular discontent with ruling regimes. As the Palestinian liberation effort gained momentum, Arab governments began concentrating on economic development, reaping the benefits of the petroleum boom of the 1970s. As these regimes expanded, so too did corruption and economic mismanagement. By the 1980s, when the oil market contracted and revenues fell, many Arab states had large, educated populations, but no jobs to offer. Disenchantment began to surface throughout the Arab world, and Islamic movements picked up steam, becoming the chief vehicles for opposition to corrupt regimes. Stripped of religious rhetoric and symbolism, the political platforms of most Islamist groups resemble those of reformist parties operating in underdeveloped countries throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Although Field has a lot of information to convey, he sometimes relies on impressionistic, unsubstantiated evidence to bolster his arguments. For example, he writes: "in an emotional sense, and in assessing their leaders, Arabs are less concerned with their economies, or with improving or deteriorating social services, and more concerned with national pride and military success". What Arabs is Field talking about? Does a slum dweller in Cairo have the same priorities as a wealthy prince in Saudi Arabia? Are the goals of a Yemeni tribesman those of an Algerian postgraduate student? Such writing is suitable in a script for a remake of Lawrence of Arabia, but should not pass as reasoned analysis.

It is impossible to tell what the future holds for the Arab peoples. The past year has witnessed significant progress towards ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. But, as these recent books attest, Iraq and the rest of the Arab world will confront a host of challenges in the next millennium.

Lawrence Tal is researching Middle Eastern politics at St Antony's College, Oxford.

Iraq since the Gulf War: Prospects for Democracy

Editor - Fran Hazelton Cardri
ISBN - 1 85649 231 1 and 232 X
Publisher - Zed Books
Price - £36.95 and £14.95
Pages - 260pp

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