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DIPLOMACY

Requiem for an Iraqi Patriot

August 03, 2003|Milton Viorst | Milton Viorst, a Washington writer, has covered the Middle East, including Iraq, for three decades. Among his books are "In the Shadow of the Prophet: The Struggle for the Soul of Islam" and "What Shall I Do With This People? Jews and the Fractious Politics of Judaism."

WASHINGTON — Nizar Hamdoon was Baghdad's ambassador to Washington during the 1980s, in the heyday of America's support of Iraq in its seemingly endless conflict with Iran. He was a star then. Soft-spoken and self-effacing, he was consulted by government officials and foreign policy specialists; hostesses wanted him for their dinner parties; journalists relied on him for straight information. While he was here, Iraq enjoyed a moment of respectability. It is a measure of the regard in which he was held that in recent years, even as the U.S. and Iraq spiraled toward war, Hamdoon was granted visas to enter the U.S. for cancer treatment. He received his last therapy soon after U.S. troops had taken his home city of Baghdad. Hamdoon died July 4 in New York.

I met Hamdoon during the mid-1980s, soon after his arrival here. He became a source, but we also became friends. It was easy befriending an Iraqi in those days. In Baghdad, most of the officials who spoke to Western writers -- as opposed to the thugs who really ran the state -- promised a flowering of democracy once the Iraq-Iran war ended. They may even have believed it, though at the same time the thugs were laying plans to tighten Saddam Hussein's tyranny. Hamdoon was identified with the pro-Western faction, but he surely knew it was a tiny sect. He was too honest to lie; I do not recall his making any rosy predictions himself.

It was my sense that Hamdoon was torn between a feeling of duty to his country and a recognition that he worked for a band of criminals. A disciplined diplomat, he rarely let slip an expression critical of the regime, even in relaxed moments. But, at the end of the Gulf War in 1991, I recall his muttering bitterly in his office at the foreign ministry that Iraq had experienced the "mother of all defeats."

The 1991 war marked an end to Hamdoon's dream of bringing his country into the community of nations. In the ensuing years, as the regime's brutality intensified, I found it difficult to maintain our friendship. I didn't know then how difficult the years also were for Hamdoon. Repudiated politically, fighting the debilitation of his relentless illness, he receded to the margins of Iraqi affairs.

I saw Hamdoon last September in Baghdad, where it was rumored that he had risked his last political capital by making a strong argument to Hussein to take daring steps to avert the looming American attack. A mutual friend told me that he had recently become more outspoken in criticizing Hussein. In a country where only the regime had the right to speak, such audacity would normally have earned him a prison cell or worse. I heard speculation he was saved by his acknowledged popularity and integrity.

In late May, I had lunch with Hamdoon in New York. He was staying at the Iraqi mission to the U.N., although Iraq's foreign minister, as long as the government lasted, had tried to evict him. Hamdoon, an Iraqi friend said, was too broke to afford a hotel room. After lunch, Hamdoon left me with a memo he had prepared on Iraq's future. I believe he also sent a copy to old friends in the State Department. It was, predictably, not driven by ideology but by his common-sense concerns for his country.

Knowing that Iraq's constantly squabbling ethnic and cultural groups needed a symbol around which to unite, he argued for the restoration of the monarchy, which had been overthrown by a military coup in 1958. For the same reason, he proposed establishing a bicameral legislature to give representation not just to individuals but to the country's diverse groups -- just as America's two-house Congress gives representation to both individuals and the states. Neither of these proposals seem to be on the current U.S. agenda in Iraq.

Hamdoon called for cleansing the top echelon of the army and security services of their old guard. But, he cautioned prophetically, "Don't throw thousands of officers and soldiers to the streets. Their families will be with no income. They may well turn into terrorists or thieves." He then added, "The people who [ran] the torture and repression machines should be kept for trials." The memo was candid in evaluating the Baath Party, to which he himself had belonged. Calculating membership at nearly 2 million, Hamdoon said, "multiply that by five to seven average members of the families and you can imagine the size of the problem." He wrote that "95% of them were not really loyal to the regime, nor believed in the doctrine." He urged efforts to find the good ones among them to serve in rebuilding the country, though characteristically he made no claims for himself. He equivocated a bit about whether Iraq's coming democracy should ban the Baath Party, but he insisted it would "never be the same without Saddam."

As for Hussein himself, Hamdoon wrote, "Given his long-term survival, he thinks that he is invincible." Moreover, he wrote, Hussein has convinced "respectable and credible" Iraqis of this invincibility. "That is why nobody should expect the participation of those people in the political process. And this is why the militant Islamists have been filling the [TV] screens. I bet he [is] free in Baghdad now ... [and] can send a group to ... get rid of his old comrades if they are to show dissent ... or [run] an operation against coalition troops that may inflict heavy damage. Each day may carry that possibility."

The government of Jordan took the responsibility for transporting Hamdoon's body to Amman, from where it was sent overland for burial in the family plot in Baghdad. In Hamdoon, the Iraqis lost someone who had much to offer in the nation's reconstruction.

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