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Iraq Handles Stark With Confidence

May 31, 1987|G. H. Jansen | G.H. Jansen, author of "Militant Islam," has covered the Middle East for many years

BASRA, IRAQ — "Confidence' is the key word that now describes most aspects of Iraqi life. It is because of their confidence in the viability of this war-torn city that citizens of Basra have been returning in sufficient numbers to belie the premature and exaggerated descriptions of it as a ghost town.

On a Friday, the weekly day of rest, and at sweltering high noon, there were both people and traffic in the streets. Shopping centers, and especially that most sensitive commercial barometer, the gold bazaar, were thronged, with a noticeable number of foreigners.

Perhaps 40% of the people have returned to the residential areas, even though as recently as May 14 the city endured a five-hour Iranian bombardment that left 13 people dead and scores injured. Evidence of prolonged bombardment over many months this year is everywhere--shrapnel holes, rather than shell craters, because the Iranians were obviously trying to kill people (fellow Shias, incidentally) rather than to demolish buildings. Nothing was spared--not foreign consulates (Soviet and India consulates were severely damaged) or places of worship or hospitals or schools.

If the Iraqis had been less confident they would also have been less accommodating and more self-assertively chauvinistic about the attack by an Iraqi jet on the U.S. frigate Stark. The Iraqis, surprised and appalled by what had happened, very quickly offered apologies, regrets and compensation. President Saddam Hussein, a hard man, has proffered regrets to President Reagan twice over, the second time in even more flowery and effusive terms than the first.

If chauvinism had taken over the Iraqi people, putting themselves in the place of the Mirage pilot who fired the Exocets, they would have said, "What do you expect? America is the enemy of the Arabs and, in particular, my comrades-in-arms have recently been shot down by American missiles given to our Iranian enemies. So when I have an American target in my sights . . . . "

The Iraqis officially repudiate this rogue-pilot theory, but many individual Iraqis do not, which means that that theory cannot be dismissed entirely. The pilot might have become a hero if the U.S. Navy investigators had questioned him, but they did not. The Iraqis disliked the prospects of his being interrogated by outsiders, and when giving their reason for this the Israeli factor intervenes.

The Iraqis recall that on June 8, 1967, Israeli planes and torpedo boats attacked the U.S. technical research ship Liberty, in broad daylight at point-blank range for 75 minutes in international waters off the Sinai Peninsula, using rockets, torpedoes and napalm and even strafing lifeboats. The United States officially accepted the Israeli explanation that the attack was not deliberate (even though the ship's identification was painted on its sides in large letters and it flew an outsized U.S. flag) and covered up the whole affair without any Israeli serviceman being interrogated. The attack costs the lives of 34 U.S. sailors, with 171 others wounded.

Why then, the Iraqis say, should an Iraqi attack, accepted by the United States as an accident, be treated differently? If the Iraqis had only their own interests to consider they would definitely have been less appeasing, but they also have to consider Kuwait, their friend and paymaster, which very much wants the United States to put its flag on the 11 Kuwaiti oil tankers for their protection. So the sooner the Stark affair is over, the sooner they believe the Kuwaiti tanker deal will take place. For these reasons the Iraqis are trying hard to maintain friendly U.S. relations; thus the United States should not push the Iraqis too much.

Above all, President Hussein has shown his supreme self-confidence as the absolute boss of Iraq by turning the economic structure of his country upside down and inside out in the last three months. The ruling party in Iraq is the Arab Baath ("Resurrection") Socialist Party and, in effect, what he has done is to dump its socialism and to turn to what can only be called "Thatcherism." Swiftly and ruthlessly, state enterprises and state farms are being privatized wholesale; cooperatives and trade unions in the public sector have been abolished; an entire layer of administration, just below the apex of the bureaucratic ziggurat, has been eliminated so as to reduce red tape. Decentralization and private initiative are the order of the day; productivity, not socialist ideology, has become the guiding principle.

This sudden loosening of the economic control is popular because for some time it has been apparent that in Iraq state socialism does not work. It is the realism, the sheer hard necessity to take account of facts, enforced by the war situation that has made it easier for the president to ram these reforms through a somewhat reluctant party and administration: As he himself has said, war has had some beneficial effects.

One crucial question remains: In the long run, will not a contradiction develop between a liberal economic system and the rigid security needs of what will continue to be a police state? Very likely, but in accordance with the new pragmatism, that problem will be dealt with as it actually arises.

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