Washington's 'safe' option explodes

Neighbours, not Friends - Iraq since 1958
September 27, 2002

These two books are complementary in their chronological coverage of Iraq's politics, but they differ from each other in the manner of this coverage. Iraq since 1958 , by Marion Farouk-Sluglett and Peter Sluglett, is a political history of Iraq since the overthrow of the monarchy, when mass political movements and the army entered the main political arena. The conflict that ensued gave way to single-party rule, the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, and eventually to the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf war of 1991 and external intervention. The war periods are covered in less detail than the earlier period.

Neighbours, not Friends , by contrast, is devoted to the period after the Gulf war. As its subtitle shows, it is also as much about Iran as about Iraq. It gives a sensitive political chronology, emphasising international factors in the case of Iraq, particularly the country's relationship with the United Nations and the US. In the case of Iran, the book gives more coverage to domestic politics, and the two countries are dealt with separately, making each part almost a book in its own right. Dilip Hiro deals with the contemporary history of conflict situations where the control and manipulation of information is part of the conflict itself. He is usually careful in his interpretation of events. His chronicles tend to describe more than one version of events, and he uses a variety of written sources, as well as extensive interviews conducted in Iraq, Iran and outside the two countries. He wades through the disinformation and emerges with a credible historical record and useful analytical insights.

Neighbours, not Friends is the third of Hiro's Gulf conflict trilogy covering the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf war and their aftermath. In this last volume, Hiro's introductory chapter is very useful on the period at the end of the 1980s, but less so in its description of a broader historical framework for the 1990s. The main Iraqi chapters cover both domestic developments and international relations.

Hiro also describes in some detail the manner in which UN weapons inspection teams were used by the US alternately to manoeuvre, spy, and synchronise confrontations with the Iraqi government, in order to suit US domestic politics. "Two major elements... kept surfacing time and again over... many years: systematic and determined attempts by Baghdad to conceal the true extent of its WMD [weapons of mass destruction] projects, and Washington's misuse of the UN as a cover for spying on Iraq."

When the UN weapons inspectors had achieved most of their task, and when their political expediency for the US had expired, they were pulled out to make way for the Anglo-American bombing campaign of December 16-19 1998. The information provided by the inspectors served to draw up a political rather than a weapons-related target list. Hiro's book also describes direct US involvement in simultaneous and competing coup attempts inside Iraq. The manipulation of the Iraqi opposition and of the UN sanctions regime for the US policy of containment is detailed, and some of the human and political consequences of this policy are reported. In addition to being a useful record, this account is revealing about the complexity of the factors and the motivations of decision-makers.

However, Neighbours, not Friends is not history so much as a record and chronology of political events. It does not seek to analyse underlying economic and social trends, but it will be extremely useful to anyone undertaking that task. The part dealing with Iran reflects the much more open political system of Iran compared with Iraq and the lively discourse that both the political establishment and large sections of the population are engaged in. Hiro offers important insights into the decisions to pursue economic liberalisation after the end of the Iran-Iraq war, and into the subsequent evolution of a more wide-ranging reform movement that quickly transcended the political establishment's "left-right" divide of the 1980s and early 1990s.

Iraq since 1958 was first published in 1987 and has now been revised by Peter Sluglett (Marion having died in 1996). The new edition has a chapter on the invasion of Kuwait and its aftermath, but the majority of the revisions are in the rewritten endnotes. There is also a new bibliography almost double the length of the original one, which provides a very useful and up-to-date list of references to European and American scholarly research on the modern history of Iraq. But references to Arabic sources remain sparse.

The new chapter covering the 1990s is disappointing as it seems to have been written as a justification of the author's support for economic sanctions. We are told of the dishonourable positions of China, France and Russia in seeking a relaxation of sanctions in order to benefit from "lucrative business opportunities", but Sluglett makes no similar attempt to question the motives or the morality of US policy. The efficacy of the UN sanctions in achieving their declared objectives is not examined either, while doubt is easily cast on the extent of their humanitarian impact. The US's preference for Saddam's regime during and after the 1991 uprising is described as the Americans' "safe" option.

This should not detract from the earlier chapters. They are still among the very few studies that recognise the significance of Iraq's mass politics, as opposed to the country's ethnic discord and elite intrigue. There is a substantial and useful chapter on the pre-1958 period, which has been enhanced by references to recent research. It deals with its subject chronologically, defining periods by regime changes and by major political events.

The Ba'th period since 1968 is divided into five sub-periods, three of which cover the first 12 years, while the other two cover the war periods of the 1980s and the 1990s. Iraq since 1958 marks 1972 and 1975 as turning points in Iraq's history under the Ba'th, on the grounds of the regime's orientation first towards conflict and then towards rapprochement with the West. Though a useful sub-division, other turning points are arguably as important, such as the attempted coup by Nadhim Kzar in 1973 that reinforced the clannish character of the regime.

The authors' choice of key events seems to stem from a framework of analysis that treats Iraq's mass politics as being synonymous with the politics of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP). The momentous role of the ICP is also dealt with in the earlier chapters of the book as it has been addressed in other scholarly literature, notably and sympathetically in Hanna Batatu's 1978 landmark work, The Old Social Classes and the Movements of Iraq . In comparison, Iraq since 1958 offers a version that is relatively uncritical of the active role of the ICP leadership in promoting a repressive political culture in Iraq and in aiding the rise of Saddam.

A major thesis of the book is of conflict between Iraqi patriotism championed by the ICP and Arab nationalism championed by the army and bureaucracy. In my view, this is simplistic. Apart from a brief and tumultuous period in 1958-59, the left in Iraq was always in alliance with Arab nationalism, not in opposition to it. This was the case during the 1940s, in the mid-1950s, and again in the second half of the 1960s, when the resurgence of the communists was accompanied by a critique of the leadership's orientation, not only of its tactics. The authors briefly note the split in the ICP's organisation and the early destruction of the radical wing. However, the radicals' critique of the ICP's subservience to the Soviet Union, and of its ambivalence on Arab and Kurdish national issues, continued to have serious resonance; the ICP was never likely to have regained its earlier popularity even if the Ba'th had not manipulated and repressed it.

The book's identification of Iraq's mass politics with the ICP alone has also led to relative neglect of the Islamist movement. This movement is not treated by the authors as a modern political force, but as a last gasp of traditional religious institutions. Instead of arguing that Iraq's politics had virtually ceased by the late 1970s, one needs to ask what forms politics have taken under Ba'thist repression of party politics.

Kamil Mahdi is lecturer in the economics of the Middle East, University of Exeter.

Neighbours, not Friends: Iraq and Iran after the Gulf Wars

Author - Dilip Hiro
ISBN - 0 415 25411 6 and 25412 4
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £55.00 and £14.99
Pages - 388

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