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Why Saddam's arrest did matter
By Marc Erikson

There is a body of considered opinion, my esteemed Asia Times Online colleagues Pepe Escobar and Spengler included, that says the ignominious extraction of Saddam Hussein from a reconditioned septic tank near his home village south of Tikrit mattered little and that things in Iraq will only get worse - at any rate, for the Americans.

Pepe believes there exists a loosely coordinated resistance of ex-military types (Republican Guards etc), tribal leaders, Fedayeen Saddam, and motley foreign jihadis bound together by a common nationalist/religious purpose to resist foreign occupation (Twin Towers and the Tower of Babel, Part 1, September 9, 2003; The Rat Trap Part 2, December 20). Spengler, in part drawing on an article by former US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative Angelo M Codevilla, similarly believes that nationalist and cultural-survivalist purposes and instincts among ex-soldiers and government officials never enamored of Saddam could forge a powerful resistance movement (Will Iraq survive the Iraqi resistance? December 23). Other commentators have simply concluded that the disheveled fellow pulled from a hole in the ground and "protected" only by his driver and his cook could not have been directing the fight against the foreign occupiers and thus his capture won't make a difference.

Six weeks, hundreds of attacks, and dozens of casualties later, I would still beg to differ. The Saddam arrest could very well prove a turning point - for the worse only if collective US foreign and intelligence services' memory utterly fails. That - given customary State Department and CIA institutional lack of attention span - cannot, of course, be ruled out. The crucial issue is what policy the United States adopts toward elements of the Iraqi resistance cast loose by the capture of their nominal leader.

The Saddam loyalists are largely drawn from Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority (22 percent) concentrated in and around Baghdad and to the north and west of the capital. Their religious and regional affiliation matters, but not as such. It's in combination with and as a backdrop to their Ba'ath Party and tribal loyalties that it defines their political identity and responses. US intelligence - for reasons detailed below - knows (or should know) their leanings and orientation and that at this stage, as Shi'ite majority religious rule threatens, they have little choice but to make peace (if not common cause) with the occupying force.

Who/what are the Saddam loyalists?
James Chritchfield, head of Middle East CIA operations from 1959-69, told the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 2000, "We should probably not be actively attempting to overthrow Saddam Hussein at this point. We should be pursuing an almost equal dialogue with [Iraq and] Iran, which is showing signs of change ... The United States using force in the world today, including in Iraq, is not a very good answer. We should be very laid-back ... We should have a growing dialogue with Saddam Hussein, and with the moderates in Iran, and coordinate these very carefully with all of the other Arab leaders. We should see if we can gradually move them together to end the current sharp division and hostility that is present in Iran and Iraq."

The Chritchfield interview didn't come to my attention at the time. If it had, I would have agreed with its policy precepts - even after September 11, 2001. But that's history. Force was used. Saddam was overthrown and now captured. What Chritchfield's comment reflects is the long-held opinion of numerous senior and Middle East-seasoned State and CIA officials that Arab nationalists like Saddam, religion-tinged but enemies of fundamentalism (and, at a time when it still mattered, anti-communist), were the lesser evil and the ones the West could and should work with.

And work with them they did. Some time shortly after Ramadan 1960, America's longtime top Middle East spook, Miles Copeland, close to Egypt's then president Gamal Abdel Nasser and his intelligence service, met with Saddam at the US Embassy in Cairo and pegged him as a key future leader - and the relationship lasted. A year earlier (October 1959), the 22-year-old Saddam, with apparently incompetent CIA help, had been involved in a botched Ba'ath Party assassination attempt on Iraqi prime minister Brigadier Abd al-Karim Qasim. (After overthrowing the corrupt British-installed Hashemite monarchy in 1958, Qasim had become a CIA target for, inter alia, pulling Iraq out of the anti-Soviet Baghdad Pact [Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan, Britain], decriminalizing the Iraqi Communist Party, and initiating the nationalization of foreign oil companies.) After holing up for a while in the same neighborhood in which he was caught by the Americans last month (the leopard can't change his stripes), Saddam escaped to Syria and from there via Beirut to Egypt. In Cairo he joined other exiled Ba'athists and lived high on the hog for four years in the posh al-Dukki district - with the CIA paying his bills at the Indiana Cafe.

During this period, the CIA continued to pursue the overthrow of Qasim, with the Ba'ath Party and Qasim's former No 2, Colonel Abdul Salam Arif (they had a falling-out over Nasserite pan-Arabism, which Qasim shunned) as its chosen vehicles. The coup went off February 8, 1963, and according to Chritchfield, "We [the CIA] really had the t's crossed on what was happening." Crossing of the t's in this case meant not only that Qasim was arrested, tortured and murdered, but also that in subsequent days thousands of Iraqi communists (or communist "suspects") were hunted down and executed. Saddam was one of the key informers helping to draw up the hit list. Soon after the coup, he returned to Baghdad and assisted a distant relative, the Ba'ath Party leader and new prime minister under president Arif, Ahmed Hasan al-Bakr, in "restoring order". Not all went quite as well for Saddam in the following few years. Arif booted the Ba'athists out of government in November 1963; an ill-fated 1964 comeback attempt landed many of them in jail - Saddam included. His fortunes decisively turned for the better only after another 1968 coup gave al-Bakr the presidency and Saddam the position of deputy chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council as head of internal security.

Who is Saddam? On the face of it, a poor boy born in a mud hut turned thug, street fighter, assassin, opportunist, informer, torturer, party enforcer. But that overlooks an important part of his pedigree. In 1947, aged 10, Saddam was sent to live with his mother's brother, Khayrallah Tulfah, in Baghdad. And Khayrallah was an interesting fellow. In 1941, he was cashiered from the Iraqi army and jailed for four years for participating in a pro-Nazi, anti-British coup attempt organized by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini - an admirer of Adolf Hitler to the end (he lived in Berlin until 1945) and beyond, organizer of Bosnian Muslim SS brigades, anti-imperialist protagonist of Arab nationalism, and after his postwar return to Jerusalem, mentor ("uncle") of Yasser Arafat.

While in exile in Cairo, Saddam married Khayrallah's daughter, his cousin Sajida Tulfah, a Baghdad high-school teacher. But family ties were not the most important bond. In 1956, Khayrallah (later made governor of Baghdad) persuaded the 19-year-old Saddam to join the small Ba'ath ("Renaissance") Party founded in Syria in 1947 by Greek Orthodox Christian, Sorbonne-educated, Lenin and Hitler aficionado Michel Aflaq. Khayrallah imbued Saddam with Aflaq's "visionary" Arab (supremacist) nationalism, the principles of permanent revolutionary struggle, and the Leninist organizational model of militant revolutionary cells. In 1963, Aflaq (who later resided in Iraq after the 1968 Ba'ath coup) appointed Saddam a member of the Ba'ath Regional Command.

Ba'athism is an odd political movement and ideological concoction, closely resembling fascism in its most important aspects. Examine the operational meaning of its slogan, "Unity, Freedom, Socialism", and this becomes immediately obvious. "Unity" stands for Arab unity, with strong ethnic and cultural supremacist overtones. "Freedom" means freedom from imperialist (first British and French, then US) oppression. "Socialism" means command economy, with the aims of economic policy subordinated to party political goals (and individual leaders' material needs and whims). The close similarities to Hitler's National Socialism - its Aryan supremacism, fight to restore Germany to national preeminence against the victors of World War I, and instrumentalization of the economy for the greater glory of the nation and its leaders - can hardly be missed. Similar as well, of course, to the Nazi Party's modes of organization and operation are the Ba'ath Party's revolutionary cells, elite party military units outside the purview of the regular military, all-powerful internal-security apparatus, insistence on a one-party model, and brutal oppression and extermination of political and ethnic enemies. Islam plays a subordinate role in this scheme of things and matters only insofar as it is regarded as an integral part of Arab cultural history and identity. It was only at the time of the Gulf War that Saddam had the words Allahu Akbar (God is great) inscribed on the Iraqi flag as an appeal to Islamic solidarity.

The next six months
Saddam is no Hitler. For one, the latter shot himself when cornered. Still, there are some useful comparisons to be drawn between Hitler's demise and Saddam's capture. Hitler's end spelled the end of World War II, and to the amazement of the victorious invading Allies, they found few if any avowed Nazis prepared to offer resistance or obstruction when they entered German towns and cities. Had they gone underground? Formed the vaunted "Werwolf" resistance cells propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels had bragged about? Few such cells were uncovered. None proved effective. The Werwolf largely remained Hermann Loens fiction and Goebbels' final hoax. Had Hitler and some of his top lieutenants survived and gone underground, the initial period of the Allied occupation of Germany might have been a different story.

There is a simple lesson: Religion is one thing, politics another. While political ideologies often sound like religious dogma, political leaders cannot put off rewards until the next life. Their goals must be realizable in the here and now. Defeats can be lived down only if the means for realization of political aims survive and the goals remain attainable, at least in principle. In top-down hierarchical organizations, that means survival of the leadership and its ability to dispense patronage and future rewards. When the Nazi leaders committed suicide, when Saddam was captured under ignominious circumstances, privileged followers once again became just ordinary folks left to fend for themselves. Fight on for what, when the leaders couldn't or wouldn't?

That was the condition of the Nazis then; it's the condition of the Ba'athists now. Some tribes might fight on. Tribes always do. But the majority of Ba'ath Party members, religion never having been their thing, now have every reason to be just ordinary Iraqis ("good Germans") and make their peace with the occupying powers - the more so as the occupiers are the only ones who can protect their interests against the majority Shi'ites, whom they once helped suppress.

The Americans know this, but they have to step carefully. They cannot simply reinstitute Ba'ath Party members and officials in positions of power. There has to be a show at "de-Ba'athification" much as in Germany there had to be a credible effort at de-Nazification. Of course, de-Nazification went only so far. For example, US intelligence struck a deal with Hitler's eastern-front military intelligence chief, Major-General Reinhard Gehlen, under which intelligence files and 350 intelligence officers came under US control and the "Gehlen Org" was formed, which later became the core group of the West German foreign-intelligence service (BND) headed by Gehlen. Moreover, tens of thousands of former Nazi officials, after a quick rinse, got their Persilschein (detergent certificate) and resumed leading functions in the civil service.

I cannot point to any concrete evidence that similar arrangements are currently being made in Iraq. But I would be most surprised if it weren't so. The old connections are there, much as the compelling logic of political alignments. Paul Bremer's US occupation authority has made its deal with the Kurdish minority and guaranteed it a substantial degree of autonomy. The ex-Ba'ath Sunnis need protection against Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's Shi'ites, who are bent on retribution and exercising control in the new Iraqi state. The Americans need leverage against al-Sistani and intelligence information on unreconstructed Ba'athists and foreign fighters.

When thousands of Shi'ites took to the streets of Baghdad this week, they called for direct elections and carried signs reading, "Saddam war criminal, not prisoner of war". It will have sent a chill down Saddam loyalists' spines. There are scores to settle. If the Americans left, it would be civil war - and the Sunnis wouldn't win it. The Americans won't leave. Too much has been invested and can't be written down. For better or worse, the Sunni Iraqis and Ba'athists at their core and the American occupiers are natural allies in the political wars ahead.

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Jan 24, 2004

Islamism, fascism and terrorism
(Nov-Dec '02)

Part 1 
Part 2 
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