Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Iraq, Then and Now: Is the Arab Country Really All That Different?

Posted in Iraq by Dan on July 8, 2009

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A few days ago, FBI officials deliberately de-classified a series of interviews with the former Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein.  For all of Saddam’s acknowledged flaws as a brutal dictator and an anti-Israel fanatic, the recordings and confessions that have emerged through U.S. intelligence sources shed a valuable insight into his mindset.  It may come as a big surprise to some in Washington that many of his statements, although dominated by a recurring tone of arrogance against the United States and the western community at large, are quite rational in the general sense.

Of course, we as Americans all know that Mr. Hussein was captured by U.S. forces in his hometown of Tikrit months after the fall of Baghdad.  Political analysts and intelligence officers all understand Saddam’s repressive behavior against political opponents and sectarian groups inside Iraq throughout his rule:  most notably his decision to launch chemical weapons into Kurdish towns in 1988.  On a similar note, a majority of world leaders concede the fact that Saddam was a dangerous man intent on bolstering his own image and influence in the Middle East through direct confrontation…as was evident in his decisions to invade Iran in 1980 and the small oil-rich nation of Kuwait in 1990.  However, with these facts universally accepted, the June 2004 interrogation brings forth a tremendous amount of information regarding Mr. Hussein’s intentions immediately before the U.S.-led invasion.

According to the FBI, and as reported by the Associated Press, Reuters, and the Washington Times, the primary purpose of Iraq’s weapons-of-mass-destruction was to deter the Islamic Republic of Iran from hostile aggression.  FBI Special Agent George Piro, who was one of the officials responsible for Saddam’s interrogation, wrote that “Hussein believed that Iraq could not appear weak to its enemies, especially Iran…in his opinion, the UN inspectors would have directly identified to the Iranians where to inflict maximum damage to Iraq.” In other words, Saddam felt so threatened by Tehran’s military motives in the region that he was willing to risk the health of his nation, as well as the survival of his presidency, to deceive the Iranian establishment from a potential attack.  The very fact that Mr. Hussein shared President George W. Bush’s sentiment towards Iran’s clerics is a testament to how dispirited and suspicious he was of his western neighbor.  Ideological, unreasonable, and fanatical are words that best describe his perception of Iran’s mullahs.

At first glance, Saddam Hussein’s distrust of Iran is warranted, if not predictable.  After all, Iraq exercised eight years of warfare against Iran in the 1980’s, only to fall back to Baghdad with hundreds of thousands of soldiers lost in the campaign.  Ideologically, Iraq and Iran are perhaps two neighbors whose principles could not be more different: both politically and culturally.  The population of Iran is overwhelmingly of Persian descent (Farsi is the native language), while Arabs of all sectarian divisions reside in Iraq.  Politically, Iran is ruled by Tehran’s religious establishment (most predominately Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) who are intent on preserving, if not spreading, the indoctrinated Shia-strain of Islam.  The Iraqi Government under Saddam Hussein was strictly secular in its philosophy, a regime whose most influential positions were held by prominent Sunnis.  With so many contrasting qualities, and with Iran’s desire to expand its Islamic Revolution throughout the Middle East, Saddam’s concerns of vulnerability are certainly understood.  When considering the fact that Iran’s military forces heavily outnumbered Iraq’s Republican Guard, Saddam’s WMD bluff is even more warranted given the circumstances.

Nevertheless, the very idea that Mr. Hussein kicked out U.N. weapons inspectors from his country, despite the risk of harsh American retaliation, exposes to the ordinary foreign-affairs enthusiast how frightened he was of his “number-one enemy.”  Newly-released FBI documents confirm this belief…rather than feel vulnerable and powerless in the eyes of Iran’s government, Saddam’s inner-circle was far more willing to bear the brunt of a U.S. military strike than risk another long war with Iran’s mullahs.  It is actually a rather ironic development:  in the eyes of President Hussein, an American invasion was applauded, while an Iranian invasion was viewed as a distasteful reminder of Iraq’s military setbacks in the 1980’s.  Is it wrong to declare that Saddam did, in fact, succeed in his endeavor?  It appears that international condemnation and a U.S.-led invasion, while detrimental to Iraq’s infrastructure and Saddam’s grip on power, was actually a victory for the former president.  Sure, Iraq was quickly defeated and Baghdad quickly succumbed to insecurity and disorder.  But Saddam accomplished the goal he so personally set out to achieve: he did everything in his power to unleash the United States before Iran could take the strategic initiative for itself.

Now with Saddam long gone, executed for crimes against humanity in December of 2006, we can all speculate as to whether this nationalistic fervor will continue in Iraq’s coming days.  Without question, the new Iraq is heavily distinguished from the Iraq of the 1980’s and 1990’s.  First and foremost, Saddam’s monopoly on power is gone, replaced with a fragile system of democratic elections and a ruling coalition governed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.  The state-run oil facilities that pumped money into the hands of the Iraqi Government are now auctioned off to private investors.  Iraq’s security services were decimated by six years of war and insurgency, only to be rebuilt and re-trained to take back control of the streets from Sunni insurgents, Shia militias, and Al’Qaeda terrorists.  The moderately-sized Arab country is now slowly gaining back its sovereignty, albeit forced to take primary responsibility for the safety of its population as American troops withdraw from Baghdad.  Without question, the political landscape in the 21st century Iraq is completely separated from the Iraq of old.  Or so we thought.

There is one main similarity that persists within Iraqi politics…a characteristic that is engrained in the very fabrics of Iraqi culture.  Of course, I am speaking of nationalism and patriotism, as well as an absolute indifference and skepticism to foreigners in the region.  As Baghdad continues to rebuild and eliminate the daily suicide-bombings perpetuated by terrorists and insurgents, ordinary Iraqis continue to feel threatened by their neighbors.  Shatha al-Musawi, an independent parliamentarian in Iraq’s Unified Iraqi Alliance, is only one such public official carrying on the nationalistic torch.  In her view, the Islamic Republic of Iran should still be regarded as the main threat to Iraq’s internal security.  She comments that “if Ahmadinejad stays, the consequences will be very bad for Iraq.  He is more Iranian than Muslim.  His priority will be Iranian influence in the region.”  Such a statement bears the rhetoric of a disenfranchised Sunni, yet Mrs. Musawi is a prominent Shia in her own party (the same strain of Shia Islam that Tehran’s administration boasts).  While only one comment by one individual, this sentiment shows how worried and frustrating the Iraqi Government is to a rising Iranian power- one continuing to develop its own nuclear capability.

As Lennox Samuels of Newsweek correctly asserts, “many Iraqis are deeply distrustful of Iran in any case.”  Not only does the country remember the horrific 1980-1988 war with Iran’s armed-forces, but Iraq is continuing to deal with a variety of internal security issues that many claim are perpetuated by Tehran’s clerics.  Some Iraqis allege that Iran’s central goal is to eventually exploit Baghdad’s young democracy when U.S. soldiers depart in January 2012; filling the power vacuum by funding Iraqi Shia groups sympathetic to Tehran’s goals for the region.  Others argue that Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad will deliberately order the loyal Revolutionary Guard Corps to cross the border and train insurgent groups who will challenge Maliki’s coalition government.  Still others are heavily persuaded that Iran will go so far as to annex Southern Iraq, a large swath of the country where a large portion of the Shia population resides.

Not unpredictable in the least, Saudi Arabia is also regarded as a potential adversary that may use Iraq to its advantage:  particularly against the Iranians.  Religious leaders and intellectuals alike are heavily concerned that the Saudi royal family may potentially flex its muscles by interfering in Iraq’s parliamentary elections (scheduled for January of 2010).  Whether or not this interference is designed to counter Iran’s expanding influence or whether it is aimed to strengthen Riyadh’s hand is beside the point.  It is the possibility of foreign intrusion that gives Iraqi citizens troubling prospects for the future.

All of these forecasts are contingent on whether Iraq’s military will be strong enough to restore order domestically while protecting its national interests internationally.  All of this may fall by the wayside if Maliki is unable to tame the growing violence by radical Islamists.  If disorder once again emerges, it is difficult not to believe that the Iranians and Saudi’s will perceive Iraq as a playground for their personal objectives.  Perhaps then Baghdad will cease to exist, only to be replaced as another city for the House of Saud or the Islamic Republic.  Only the next few months will tell.

What is accurate to this day is that Iraqi nationalism is anything but dead.  The military parades and dramatic celebrations (in response to the American withdrawal from Baghdad) in the last weeks, not to mention Mr. Maliki’s declaration of an Iraqi “national sovereignty day,” only supports this growing fact.  While controversial, we may be witnessing the beginning of a resurgent Iraq that is all too accustomed to dangerous forms of nationalism.  A whole two years after Saddam’s execution, it appears that his paranoia (towards Iran and the Middle East as a whole) is as robust as ever.  Perhaps Iraq has not changed as much as we would like to think.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from JoAnne Allen of Reuters and Lennox Samuels of Newsweek contributed to this blog.

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