Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

On Borrowed Time

THE RECKONING: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein, By Sandra Mackey, W.W. Norton: 416 pp., $27.95

June 09, 2002|ANDREW COCKBURN | Andrew Cockburn is the co-author of "Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein."

Consulted on suitable bombing targets by an Air Force general just before the Persian Gulf War, former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia James Akins replied that he didn't have many ideas on what to blow up but could offer some insights on Iraqi politics and Saddam Hussein, whom he had known for years. The general politely declined the offer, indicating that such analysis was considered irrelevant among the war planners. "You see," he explained to the veteran diplomat, "this war has no political overtones."

Fortified by willful ignorance, the United States and its allies went to war with one straightforward political objective for Iraq: Kill its president. The chosen instruments were laser-guided bombs rained on Saddam's bunkers in the early weeks of the war and assassination plan cloaked in euphemisms about "targeting command and control centers" but confirmed by National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft after the war. The scheme failed, thanks to the Iraqi leader's foresight in moving into an unremarkable house in a middle-class Baghdad suburb at the outbreak of hostilities, and the U.S. has been grappling with the consequences ever since.

In fact, little has changed since then-President George Bush issued his infamous cease-fire order on Feb. 28, 1991. There have been few alterations in the cast of characters, from Saddam himself and his more visible henchmen (except, of course, his favorite and son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, murdered after unwisely returning from exile in 1996), to the leading lights on the home team, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. The same questions that echoed around high-security situation rooms 11 years ago are still being asked and left unanswered today: Who would rule Iraq after Saddam? Would the state dissolve, to the profit of the Iranians and other neighbors? What would our Arab allies make of a U.S. offensive? Is Iraq really a threat to us anyway?

Without apparent regard for these deafening political overtones, U.S. military preparations for Desert Storm: the Sequel are grinding forward (notwithstanding persistent foot dragging by the Joint Chiefs of Staff). Assuming for the sake of argument that the operation goes ahead some time next winter, those involved would do well to pack Sandra Mackey's "The Reckoning," an admirably lucid history of Iraq, in their knapsacks. Passing through the days of the ancient Babylonian and Assyrian empires, whose glorious legacy has been disinterred by recent Baghdad rulers, notably Saddam himself, whenever they find it useful, she devotes keen attention to the mosaic of peoples and cultures that the British hammered into a state for their own convenience in 1923. In particular, Mackey charts the evolution of Iraqi Shiism, which, she points out, became the dominant Muslim sect in what is now southern Iraq only in the 19th century, generating a center of resistance to the Sunni Ottoman Turkish empire, which in turn structured its local rule on the Sunni Arab minority.

The British infamously encouraged Arab nationalism as a weapon against the Ottomans in World War I, before welshing on the deal by dividing up Arab lands with the French as spoils of victory. Greedy for its abundant oil reserves, the British made sure to garner Mesopotamia, as the area was then known, which they then cobbled into a new country they called Iraq; to rule they selected a king, Faisal I, a veteran of the Arab revolt who happened to be conveniently unemployed. For Faisal's coronation, his British sponsors hurriedly constructed a throne out of packing cases still carrying the imprint "Asahi Beer," while a British military band played "God Save the King," there being as yet no Iraqi national anthem.

Nor was there much of a country. The Kurds inhabiting the northern mountains objected to their inclusion in the new entity and had to be brought into line with poison gas dispensed on villages by the (British) Royal Air Force. The Shiite majority was hardly less disaffected, thanks to its exclusion from power, which was reserved for the Sunni elite together with a clique composed of the king's old friends from the days of the revolt against the Turks. The mass of people in the countryside owed allegiance more to their tribal leaders than to the artificial administration in Baghdad. At the lower end of the social order, the peasantry, particularly the Shiites, lived in privation exacerbated by extreme social inequality: In 1947 two-thirds of the land was owned by just 2,500 people. Not long before he died, a weary King Faisal complained that "There is still ... no Iraqi people, but an unimaginable mass of human beings devoid of any patriotic ideas, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise up against any government whatsoever."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|