Middle East

Saddam Hussein's Iraq

The View from Baghdad

Saddam Hussein marches from Iraq to Jerusalem
Exploiting the Palestinians: An April 26, 2002 photo shows a painting at a Baghdad art exhibition celebrating Saddam Hussein's 65th birthday, depicts him "liberating" Jerusalem (Photo: AFP).  

With U.S. President George W. Bush's administration set on toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein by force, Iraqis already suffering under 12 years of crushing United Nations sanctions have nothing to do but wait for the hammer to fall. The latest indications, according to an April 28 New York Times report, is that the day of reckoning could come early next year with a land invasion, potentially involving thousands of ground toops. Then again, it could come earlier. A few in Iraq think it won’t come at all. But if it does, the state media are promising the Americans that all Iraq will stand against what it calls the "administration of evil"—Iraq’s response to Bush’s dubbing of Iraq as part of an "axis of evil" including Iran and North Korea.

That was one of the aims behind massive street processions involving up to 2 million people in all over five days in late April to show support for Saddam Hussein on the occasion of his 65th birthday on April 28. In the northern city of Mosul boys dressed as suicide bombers and girls brandishing cardboard swords took part in the city’s biggest-ever popular street demonstration. The revelers included Bedouins, Kurds, women’s groups, students, labor unions, and religious sects, marching over the words "let America fall" daubed onto the main road. "The birthday of the leader is a thorn in the eyes of the enemies," read one of the banners festooning the street. "Saddam, the man who stood up to America and the Zionists," said a running commentary blared from a loudspeaker throughout the four-hour spectacle.

The parades, which culminated in a 100,000-plus showing in Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, were notably strong on pro-Palestinian rhetoric during a period of bloody and controversial Israel sweeps into Palestinian towns that have presented the Iraqi regime with an ideal propaganda issue to rally the nation around.

Though clearly most Iraqis feel obliged to join in such festivities, occasions like this demonstrate the undeniable grip the ruling Baath Party has on the country. "We are always surprised to see the capacity of the Baath Party to organize huge mobilizations, although there is perhaps not a lot of sincerity [from the ordinary people who join in]," said one diplomat who estimated the party membership at 2 million members, in a country of 23 million.

When it came to power in the 1960s the party was selective in its membership, seeking to maintain a tight elite group to guide the nation. But in view of the weakness and isolation brought about by U.N. sanctions imposed after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, it has had to reverse its focus and aim to be a mass party. Now many millions of Iraqis rely on the party, and the regime is relying on that fact to ensure mass resistance to an American attack.

"It’s the way to get a job, to get facilities, to improve your life," the diplomat said. "You at least have to have good relations with members of the party. Civil servants don’t earn enough to live on—a teacher gets less than US$10 a month—they need to have two jobs. But they’ll keep the government job because it guarantees access to housing, welfare, and education benefits."

In the middle of their lost decade, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have sought refuge in God—with the state’s encouragement. Four years ago Hussein announced a "faith campaign" which aimed to keep the masses on the straight and narrow in difficult times. Under the campaign, dozens of mosques and religious schools have been set up around the country, a radio station dedicated to Quranic recitation and teaching started broadcasts two years ago, and rare independent newspapers for Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims specializing in religious affairs have been allowed to operate. All this in a country ruled by the pan-Arab Baath Party, which traditionally espoused secular nationalist ideology.

"People have been corrupted by the sanctions. Now we want to strengthen our faith," says one worshipper at a packed Baghdad mosque during Friday prayers. "There is no doubt that the difficult circumstances [of life in Iraq] require strong faith to confront and to overcome," says Abdul-Ghafur al-Qaisy, vice president of the Saddam University for Islamic Studies and a mosque preacher. "The leader [Hussein] has developed religious teaching and ordered the great faith campaign, which he led himself."

The campaign also aims to check the ability of Shi’ite Iran, Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, or radical groups like Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda to make inroads with Iraqis. The state doesn’t want religious extremism seen elsewhere in the region to spread here. "After the Iran-Iraq war and the bad relationship with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia since 1990, the regime doesn’t want religious people to say this country is against God," the diplomat said.

But a faith campaign requiring large resources can expose the government to criticism of misspending its limited income to maintain its own grip on the population by exploiting religion. The Great State Mosque, slated to be the largest in a country already filled with mosques, is currently under construction in Baghdad. One almost as large opened in the capital in April. "There is a crisis of housing. If it was spent on housing it might have been better," said a Baghdadi political analyst, "though after 1991, refuge in God from the fear and corruption is a normal thing."

While the sanctions have ravaged Iraq’s economy, they have also emasculated a once-vibrant cultural life, now reduced to a pale sycophantic shadow of what it was. "It’s a major catastrophe that has befallen the country," says politics professor Wamid Omar Nadmy. "Iraq was very good in poetry, drawing, et cetera. A lot of [creative people and intellectuals] have left, to Libya and Yemen, and some went to the West as political or humanitarian refugees. Now you don’t have a genuine intellectual life in Iraq."

Indeed, staying in the country through the 1991 Gulf crisis when the embargo was imposed on Iraq has imposed certain realities on cultural and intellectual life—such as joining in the regular praise jamborees for the regime. "Your light stays shining bright, you who have given all your being to God," poet Abdel-Razzaq Abdel-Wahid said in a full page of verse dedicated to Saddam during his 65th birthday celebrations and published in the state-owned Al-Zaman cultural weekly.

Since the sanctions were eased in 1996, the government has found the money for a large program of arts patronage. Six fine arts colleges have been set up since 1991; the capital is overflowing with architectural references to pre-Islamic civilizations in Iraq, and many traffic circles are adorned with state-of-the-art sculptures and colorful panoramas. But reminders of state largesse are heavy. Many buildings bear Hussein’s name as well as paintings, statues, and busts of him.

A novel turned into a play that premiered during Hussein’s 65th birthday celebrations is a good example of what cultural life has come to in Iraq. The novel, Zabibah and the King, was published last year to rave reviews in the local press, then adapted for theatre by Palestinian-born poet Adib Nasir. But the rapturous reception given by Iraqi media to the book and a second novel by the same mysteriously unidentified author left no doubt as to who penned the works: the president.

The story has a king avenging the honor of a woman after she is raped on the day U.S.-led forces launched the 1991 Gulf War to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait. The king, who is earlier spurned by the same woman, dies in the process. Zabibah is apparently meant to represent the Iraqi people, who come to realize eventually that the ruler is acting in their best interests and is ready to make all sacrifices for them. High government and ruling Baath Party officials as well as much of Baghdad’s intelligentsia turned out for the first performance in late April. The story harks back to the ancient Mesopotamian tale of King Gilgamesh, who is engaged in an epic battle of good versus evil and dares to challenge the gods.

In the absence of a strong theatrical culture, bawdy Egyptian productions with cheap entrance fees are attracting even the wealthier, more cultured classes of Baghdad society. A skit on the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky affair was a big hit last summer when its Egyptian cast traveled to Iraq especially to perform it.

The collapse of the Iraqi dinar has also affected reading habits among a highly literate population. The saying in the Arab world used to go: "Egypt writes, Lebanon prints, and Iraq reads," but sanctions have also put books beyond the reach of most Iraqis. Sanctions also affected painting, an Iraqi strong point. "The United Nations used to even stop paint colors coming into the country, with the argument that they contained chemicals. We couldn’t even get pens and paper," says well-known Iraqi artist Mukhallad Mukhtar. In April an annual international arts exhibition reopened after it was suspended in 1993 when artist Laila Attar was killed in a U.S. air raid. Mukhtar is proud to be its new director. "The exhibition returning this year shows that culture, and life, go on," he says. But the venue for the festival says as much about culture in Iraq today as the paintings themselves: It was held in the Saddam Arts Center.