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Flashbacks: "Iraq Considered" (October 1, 2002)
Should the U.S. intervene in Iraq? Articles from 1958 to the present offer a variety of perspectives.

Flashbacks: "The Intervention Question" (April 7, 2000)
Atlantic articles from 1967 to 1996—by George McGovern, Ronald Steel, Jonathan Clarke, John J. Mearsheimer, and Robert D. Kaplan—take up the issue of American interventionism.

Flashbacks: "Who Are the Kurds?" (February 17, 1999)
Two Atlantic articles from the past decade put the "Kurdish problem" in perspective.

Flashbacks: "Oil and Turmoil" (July 11, 1996)
Three Atlantic authors tackle the issues of politics, oil, and the Persian Gulf.

The Atlantic Monthly | April 1979

by Claudia Wright
am looking at sandstone eagles in a desert temple dating from 744 B.C. The enormous birds sit in repose, legless, wingless. Nearby is a statue of a headless Hercules, his genitalia worn away by the wind and sand to a proportion that appears ludicrous compared to the grossness of his body. Further into the dark depths of the temple all the statues seem to have larger-than-life proportions to simulate strength.

Today Iraq tries to recreate the ancient message of the temple statues of Hatra, and the larger-than-life concept can be found in the desert in the form of huge metal sculptures billowing orange flares and pumping the oil that provides economic strength to the Iraqi people.

Those who seek the mystery and the opulence of the rest of the oil-fed Middle East won't find it here. The visual contrasts in Iraq are jarring: on the one hand, traces of Babylon, Assyria, and Sumeria; on the other, the most advanced plutonium breeder reactor. But the visitor to Iraq must listen rather than look, and what he will hear is a new tone of Iraqi self-assertion and confidence.

The country was for a long time regarded as a pariah in international politics, was forced to travel to other Arab capitals to plead its cause and was rarely listened to. But the summit meeting of Arab leaders in Baghdad last November was carried off by the Iraqis in a confident new style. It marked not only the first time that President Assad of Syria and the leaders of Iraq had agreed to meet since 1972 but the first time since 1976 that the PLO leader Yasir Arafat had met with Iraqi officials. (Twelve months of bloody feuding between the Arafat-led Fatah group and Iraqi-supported factions of the PLO preceded the meeting.)

The Baghdad summit was also the first major set of Middle Eastern talks initiated and carried through by the Iraqis. Whether in the Palestinian showdown with King Hussein in 1970, the Iranian arms buildup in the Gulf, the oil embargo, or the wars against Israel in 1967 and 1973, the record shows that Iraq has been generally reluctant to collaborate in joint Arab initiatives, and other Arab nations have been reluctant to join with Iraq.

The American view of these events has lulled policy-makers into an easy disregard for the Iraqi regime—an attitude compounded by ignorance, lack of contact, and a noticeable scorn among State Department veterans. (The two countries have had no formal diplomatic links since the Iraqis broke off relations in 1967.) By contrast with the once prosperous and confident embassy in Tehran across the border, Baghdad has been a backwater and a hardship post.

To foreign visitors, Baghdad may still evoke the intense security-consciousness and secrecy associated with Iraq since 1958, when the British-installed monarchy was overthrown by a nationalist coup, and certainly since 1968, when the present military-led Baathist regime took power from a civilian coalition.

The Palace Road quarter of Baghdad contains the kind of expansive, palm-lined avenues that British colonial engineers built all over their empire. This is where Baath party President Hassan al-Bakr and Vice President Saddam Hussein live, along with other leading party and government officials. In this section tanks can suddenly appear, take up a position for an hour or two around prominent official buildings, and then disappear. Heavily armed soldiers can be seen from time to time on the roofs surrounding the television and radio broadcasting studios, and photographs of these and other government buildings are not permitted. Although uniformed police are less obvious in Baghdad than in New York or Washington, random checks of cars are not uncommon.

Many years ago Munif al-Razzazz, now in his sixties, collaborated with Michel Aflaq in creating the pan-Arab Baath party. Razzazz is assistant secretary general of the National Command of the party, which nominally covers both the Iraqi and the Syrian Regional Commands.

I asked Razzazz about his life as a member of the party. Pale-skinned, impeccable, and resembling Basil Rathbone, Razzazz sat in his office at the modern national party headquarters. He told me that he regretted the long time he had spent away from his home and family but, he emphasized, he did not regret the solitary confinement and the many years he had spent in jail as an advocate of the party: "I've seen our revolution grow from ideas we all had in jail cells."

Not an Iraqi by birth, he acknowledges the volatility of Iraqi and Baathist politics, but he says that the course of the revolution has depended on it. Without sharp and fairly continuous change, he insists, the Iraqi regime would not have achieved the success he believes it has today.

Others who neither share the Baath vision nor would normally be comfortable with Razzazz's rhetoric now grudgingly accept his verdict. Neighboring Arabs, the French—who are replacing the conventional nuclear reactor Iraq obtained from the Russians with a sophisticated plutonium breeder plant—and the Japanese—who are trading oil for vast investment credits, consider that the Iraqi regime has all but shrugged off the instability of the past, and that it is about to assume major regional and international status. In a recent interview in Washington, Hisham Sharabi, president of the National Association of Arab-Americans, linked this position to the Camp David accords: "If Egypt signs a separate bilateral agreement with Israel and is thereby isolated, the role of Iraq would be the potential leader in the Eastern Arab world."

Iraq's emergence is the result of three things: oil, military strength, and internal development. Superficially, Iraq is not overwhelmingly endowed in any one respect. Saudi Arabia has more oil. Israel and Iran are stronger militarily in the region. By any measure of industrialization, agricultural productivity, literacy, and manpower skills, Israel is much more developed. However, the combination of these three factors has led to Iraq's new status and to the recognition, everywhere else if not in the United States, of its extraordinary potential for pre-eminence in the Middle East.

Oil power

With oil reserves now estimated by State Department analysts at over 75 billion barrels, second only to Saudi Arabia in the World, Iraq has pursued an oil production and development program which gives it an independence that no other oil producer possesses, inside or outside of OPEC. Iraqi oil power is a very recent development, for despite initial efforts at nationalization of its oil concessions in the early 1960s, Baghdad was unable to force the private British, French, Dutch, and American companies on which it continued to depend to produce at levels much higher than 40 percent of capacity. Since 1972, however, when the foreign-dominated Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) was taken over, the regime has steadily strengthened its control over expansion of daily output and has dramatically improved export earnings.

Strategically speaking, Iraq could not hope to develop its economy without resolving serious territorial disputes with Iran and Kuwait and ensuring stable conditions for its oil trade in the Persian Gulf. As a consequence, in 1975 Iraq signed a border settlement with the shah, and after protracted discussions over mutual guarantees and protection for Urn Qasr, the new tanker port being built at the neck of the Gulf, Iraqi troops were withdrawn from adjacent Kuwaiti territory last year. These agreements helped to end more than twenty years of tense exchanges and bloody shooting matches.

Iraq is now in a position to recoup the lion's share of its oil exports and to accelerate the increase in revenues—or almost, for its plan to use oil revenues and move ahead with national development hinges on the government's capacity for anticipating future annual oil receipts and for keeping these in balance with planned expenditures and the rising cost of imports.

What the government has done is unique in the Middle East, for wherever possible it has negotiated the sale of oil for the import of goods and technology on a fixed-price, government-agreement basis. Italy, France, and Japan are currently the major oil purchasers. With each Iraq has signed an oil-for-import barter agreement. Japan, for example, will buy 9 million tons of oil a year and provide an annual import purchase credit worth about $1 billion in return. Italy and France have negotiated similar agreements. For each country, Iraq has used its credit somewhat differently—the Japanese have been building power stations, refineries, and petrochemical plants; the Italians, a fruit and livestock farm complex; and the French, an iron and steel plant, a nuclear power reactor, and Mirage fighter jets.

The record of their complex trade, credit, and investment deals illustrates also that the Iraqis are restraining oil output and conserving their resources. According to CIA estimates, the government is holding its production and export of oil to 67 percent of current capacity, far below the output-to-capacity ratios of Saudi Arabia (72 percent), Iran (87 percent before the anti-shah blowup) or Algeria (93 percent). This reflects the determination of Iraqi planners to limit both production and expenditure needs over the short term in order to maximize revenues over the longer future, when they expect the value of their oil to become much greater.

They are also hedging in a clever way to protect their oil earnings from the effects of the declining. U.S. dollar and worldwide inflation. Instead of accumulating large dollar surpluses, which the Saudis have put on deposit in the United States and cannot now move without causing even further dollar losses and depreciation of their assets, the Iraqis have opted for variable currency holdings. Unlike Iran and Kuwait, which have used export earnings to buy reserve positions or long-term borrowing rights in the International Monetary Fund, Iraq is keeping virtually all of its international reserves in highly liquid form, 96 percent in foreign exchange and 4 percent in gold.

Thus, the Iraqi oil minister, Tayih Abd al-Karim, was able to say at the OPEC conference in Abu Dhabi last December that "we do not believe the Americans will succeed in stabilizing their currency. The only alternative to the dollar that we can see is a basket of currency like the special drawing rights, where the dollar has one of many shares with other currencies."

Ironically, Iraq has obtained a far more effective system of internal security for its oil production system than has any of its neighbors, although it has spent only a fraction of what the Saudis and Iranians have spent for expensive foreign military hardware. The May 1977 explosion and fire at the main oil field at Abqaiq demonstrated how vulnerable the Saudis are to sabotage, while the continuing conflict in Iran and the cessation of oil exports have illustrated how fruitless the shah's precautions were as insurance against internal dissent.

What was already evident by late 1977 is now, in the wake of the Abu Dhabi decisions, abundantly clear. Iraq has perceived that it can afford to wield the "oil weapon" with a militancy that its Arab OPEC partners have hesitated to do. Without the Camp David accords it might not have been able to use its leverage over the Saudis, but by the end of the Baghdad summit, agreement between the two countries on basic strategic principles was sealed.

The shutdown of Iranian oil exports triggered the most serious drop in world supplies since the 1973 embargo. From the Iraqi point of view, this could not have come at a better moment, since it enlarged earnings for the rest of the OPEC producers at the same time that it increased Western, particularly American, dependence on Arab suppliers. The unwillingness of the Saudis to give in to American pressure to step up short-term output is a sign of the effectiveness of the Baghdad summit and the Abu Dhabi meetings in cementing the Arab leadership in a joint economic strategy.

Iraqis point also to the new strains that the Iranian situation is creating for the Israeli economy. Although Ayatollah Khomeini's much-publicized threat to withhold oil is disturbing to the Israelis, a selective embargo can be survived, as it was in 1973, so long as the oil keeps flowing. However, a total export cutoff would be crippling. So far the Mexicans have refused to supply the full emergency rations Israel negotiated for last year, and in desperation Tel Aviv ordered immediate new drilling on the shore of the Sinai Peninsula, just north of the Alma field which the Israelis captured from Egypt in 1973 and which currently produces about 20 percent of the country's daily requirements. This move sharply aggravated President Sadat, and has been harmful to the negotiations for an Israeli-Egyptian treaty.

Observers who concede that the Iranian revolution has produced positive benefits to Iraq suggest that serious costs must also be recognized. The Soviet Union, for example, has been reluctant to make good on its promises of military aid to Syria and Iraq in the wake of the Baghdad summit. This inaction stems from nervousness in Moscow about the outcome of the Iranian revolution. At first the Soviets were anxious not to be blamed for the anti-shah movement: then they wanted to keep the Americans out while avoiding a slide into confrontation. More than usually sensitive to the threat of Israeli provocations in Lebanon, the Soviet Union was acutely nervous about the proliferation of flashpoints their strategists were having to monitor simultaneously. As a result, Soviet military leaders have deliberately slowed the pace of talks on military aid with Syria and Iraq, and deferred delivery dates until the environment appears more predictable. This has provoked open Syrian annoyance, and the crucial supply questions remain unresolved.

Leaders of the Baath

Iraq, with its population of almost 12 million, is a territory that the British colonial administration carved out of Turkish Mesopotamia during World War I, and then administered via the Hashemite royal family until 1958. It has been among the most volatile and unstable of Arab states. After the republican coup of 1958 overthrew King Faisal II, factions of the Baath party, pan-Arab groups identified with Gamal Abd al-Nasser of Egypt, communists, and others sought to gain control of the military and the government.

The struggle within the Baath party took several ideological turns during the 1960s, but by 1967 the group that had supported the party founder, Michel Aflaq, in his contest with the Syrian Baath faction emerged in more or less solid control of the Iraqi Baath party. The leaders of this group, which successfully took power In July 1968, were Army General Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, who became the president of the new regime, and Saddam Hussein Takritti, who was at the time deputy secretary-general of the Regional Command, the party executive.

At the outset, the 1968 government was a coalition of Baathists and two non-party colonels who had been commanders of the military guard and intelligence units closest to the former president. These two, al-Dawud and al-Nayif, became defense minister and prime minister in the new cabinet, but were edged out in a bloodless purge within two weeks. Both were sent into exile (al-Nayif was assassinated in London in 1978 by Iraqi agents).

And so, for the last ten years, the Baath party has been able to maintain its position in government, and has had time and resources to mobilize every aspect of organized Iraqi society, from the unions and the agricultural cooperatives to the professional associations and the armed forces.

Asked for an assessment of Iraqi military strength, a U.S. State Department official answered: "In a word, worthless. They are all talk and no action." A superficial assessment of recent Middle Eastern military history might tend to support that view. In the June 1967 war with Israel, Iraq was soundly defeated in the air, and its losses, although small by comparison with Syria and Egypt, were sizable. They were more than compensated for, however, by Soviet replacements, and the signing in 1972 of a cooperative treaty with the Soviet Union opened the way to substantial Soviet armaments as well as to military advisers. These remain virtually untested except for brief and inconclusive tank skirmishes in the last days of the 1973 war with Israel, and equally inconclusive artillery, rocket, and ground-to-air duels with Iran in the central border area.

Other military analysts believe that while its offensive forces are inferior to Israel's, Iraq has built a defensive force capable of deterring most types of Israeli attack. Roger Pajak, an adviser to the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, points to Iraq's possession of advanced TU-22 bombers and at least 80 MiG-23Bs, the sophisticated supersonic fighters rivaling the American F-4 Phantom. According to another analyst, when the French-built Mirage F-1s are delivered and then weighed in the balance with the dense deployment of SAM-missile batteries (these took a heavy toll of Israeli aircraft over Syria in 1973), an Israeli air attack is likely to seem too costly to be tried.

The Kurdish problem

One of the reasons Iraq has committed few of its ground forces to battle with Israel in the past is that it has been preoccupied with the Kurdish conflict in the northeast. Openly aided, armed, and protected by the shah (and by the CIA, covertly), the Kurds fought tenacious campaigns from their border mountain sanctuaries throughout the 1960s and the early 1970s, tying down the bulk of the Iraqi army and tactical air force.

Despite negotiations for regional autonomy and promises of substantial economic aid by Baghdad in 1970, the Kurds returned to fighting in 1974 after a three-year lull, but this time Iraq threw in more than 80,000 troops, tanks, bombers, and (because of some Russian hesitancy in meeting Iraqi requests for more weapons) French helicopters. The result was militarily much more decisive than in earlier campaigns, and in March 1975 the shah withheld support of the Kurds as part of the quid pro quo negotiated with Iraq over the two countries' border disputes.

Large Kurdish communities exist not only in Iran and Iraq but also in Syria, Turkey, and the Soviet Union, and none of these countries has been willing to tolerate an active secessionist movement. Indeed, they were relieved that Kurdish leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani concentrated his resources on Iraq, and that, in draining each other, neither the Kurds nor the Iraqis appeared to have much of an appetite for neighboring territory. In 1975, with the cessation of Iranian support and Barzani's departure into American exile, the greatest military problem the Baghdad regime had to deal with was substantially, although not completely, solved.

The legacy of the Kurdish problem is that Baghdad has been caught in an awkward position toward Tehran. Though Iraq prefers an Islamic republic to the Pahlevi regime, it was careful to avoid aggravating Tehran or provoking any large-scale resumption of Iranian aid to the Kurds, who, according to French intelligence reports, started sporadic raiding again in midsummer of 1978. Indeed, Baghdad was so concerned about its treaty commitments with the shah that it invited Ayatollah Khomeini to leave his long-time residence on the Iraqi side of the border. It should be said, however, that at no stage of Khomeini's fourteen-year exile in Iraq did the authorities try to stop the steady stream of the Ayatollah's visitors, or suppress his active direction of the Moslem resistance in Iran.

Water and the land

Next to oil, water is Iraq's most precious resource, and it is the only oil-rich Arab state with potentially enough water to become self-sufficient in agriculture, perhaps even an exporter of food grains and livestock. This looming self-sufficiency is endangered not only by the competing water claims of Syria and Turkey, where the Euphrates originates, but also by technical problems of salinity and flood control. Iraq also faces severe administrative difficulties as it attempts to mechanize agriculture while many peasants abandon the land for better-paying city jobs. Those who stay on the land, however, demand more rapid redistribution under the agrarian reforms in order to build up their holdings to economically profitable sizes.

My guide in the south, a soldier who doubled as our hunter and cook, told me that he used to farm rice but found that being a soldier was easier and paid more, so that, despite his absence from his village, he could better support a family of ten. Individually, under the reform system, farmers are better off but their holdings are small, the farm cooperatives that have been promised are still relatively unorganized, credit takes time to flow, and too few peasants remain to increase output or productivity. This in turn has put a strain on Baghdad to stop food prices from rising too steeply.

Perhaps the most far-reaching result of the November summit agreement has been the rapid improvement of relations with Syria. High-level committees, representing both sides, have been working continuously since November to integrate the military commands of the two countries' armed forces, to reopen the oil trade, and to plan joint use of irrigation and water conservation projects. On the agricultural side, this promises welcome relief to the water supply problem while efforts are being made to encourage Moroccan and other Arab peasant immigration to expand farm employment. Inflation, which has hit the Middle East just as badly as the rest of the world, is better controlled in Iraq than in the neighboring economies. With more than three quarters of the gross national product produced by the government sector. And with the unions linked to the government through Baath party mechanisms, the regime's economic planners have managed to hold annual price increases to less than 10 percent-an achievement that only Kuwait among the Arab countries has been able to match.

Wages have been increased for all workers, and real income gains have been supplemented by special government programs to assist minority and disadvantaged groups. Land reform and extra investment have lifted, the income of Iraqi Kurds, I was told, way above the Turkish, Syrian, or Iranian standards, and programs of training, maternity leave, pay equalization, and state-operated child care have improved the condition of women to an extent difficult to match in the Moslem world.

Party organization

What exactly is the structure of the Baath party, and who are the men who control it? Tariq Aziz, one of the party's eminent publicists and theoreticians and a senior government minister, is protected by more than half a dozen guards carrying machine guns. But the security, which is all that Western correspondents often see of the Baathist hierarchy, is a poor test of the stability of the regime or of its mass appeal.

The party still retains much of the secret, compartmentalized structure and the clandestine methods by which, like many other revolutionary parties, it has ensured its survival. Direction of the party comes from the Regional Command, which represents sixteen provincial units. The members of the Regional Command are elected from a network of sections and cells not unlike the local communist party committees in many countries. They function everywhere—in the workplace, in neighborhoods, and in all ranks of the military forces—inculcating the party's doctrines of traditional Arab unity, nationalism, socialism, and spiritual revival. Membership in the party, which numbers approximately half a million at present, is required of all regular officers and diplomats.

Since its emergence from the underground, and following a decade of experience in power, the Baath leadership has been able to train a second elite group to operate at all levels of the bureaucracy and the military forces. These are the commissars, and they are often from peasant or lower-class village backgrounds; few of them have been abroad for university degrees, and much of their training has been from the military academy. Al-Bakr and Hussein are also lawyers. The two Iraqi leaders reflect the strong pull and push of regional factions within the Baath party. Both come from the same small village, Tikrit, fifty miles north of Baghdad. Several times during their parallel careers, Al-Bakr through the military and Hussein through the party, the former has owed his survival to the intervention of the latter.

Hussein, forty-one years old, has worked his way up through the ranks since high school days as a Baath youth organizer. He is quite dashing and his photograph occupies a place with al-Bakr's in all ceremonial locations. If there are elements of a personality cult in the country, Hussein, who is famous for his white suits and black ties, outshines the president with his military ribbons. Western correspondents tend to overemphasize that as a measure of the two men's power.

They have tried to secure tenure by bringing the Communist and Kurdish Democratic parties into the Progressive National Front and by severing the armed forces from the political process to prevent what they call an "Allende Coup." But challenges do occur, and are swiftly resolved. Last year, two Communists were executed for creating an anti-cell in the army. The Communist party has been vocal for fifty years in Iraq and has been punished often with massacres and jailing for its internal political schemes. The Communists want Iraqi unification with the Soviet bloc and are against the government policy of unity with the United Arab Republic. The government's stability really relies on the Iraqi people and on its ability to set up the promised national assembly.

Under al-Bakr and Hussein the regime appears flexible enough to tolerate substantial differences over social and economic policy. When big mistakes in economic management are made, they are admitted, and the corrections are reflected in the annual budget and investment program.

After twenty years of chronic warfare in the northeast, tension, and military preparedness along every frontier, the Iraqis have little taste for military adventures or bloodshed. And on the domestic front, the present leadership cannot afford to allow the country's resources to be drained away by unproductive investment, or its energies to be wasted in protracted military conflict. Iraq's first goal, as officials declare in interviews and in the hard facts of the annual budget and the current five-year plan, is to put internal development ahead of military buildup.

Still, militant and uncompromising hostility to Israel remains the cornerstone of the country's foreign policy. Iraq's current leadership believes that Israeli dominance in the Middle East would increase military pressure on Iraq's borders and threaten every one of its cities. Eventually, even without another Israeli military success, Iraqis are convinced, Israel's economic power would penetrate Iraq's domestic product markets, disturb the balance of the wage and price structure vital to development planning, and finally undermine the principles of socialism and nationalism to which the regime is dedicated. When the Camp David accords are viewed in that light, the Iraqis believe they are facing the most important challenge to their state since its founding eleven years ago. Washington needs to understand that.

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Copyright © 1979 by Claudia Wright. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 1979; Atlantic Report: Iraq; Volume 243, No. 4; page 12.