Magazine article The Spectator

Getting Away with Murder

Magazine article The Spectator

Getting Away with Murder

Article excerpt

SADDAM HUSSEIN:

THE POLITICS OF REVENGE

by Said K Aburish

Bloomsbury L20, pp.406

The most disastrous decision of the second half of the 20th century seems, on the evidence of this book, to have been George Bush's, when he stopped, in 1991, before Baghdad. The Gulf war itself had been, as was callously said, 'a turkey-shoot'. How on earth could the West have failed to get rid of the man who started it? When the war ended, two anti-Saddam groups immediately rebelled - Kurds in the north, Shia Arabs elsewhere. Saddam had been allowed, in the armistice, to fly helicopters. No one on the American side seems to have appreciated that these helicopters in effect, gun-ships - would be lethal in Saddam's successful efforts to put down the rebellions. The result was a massacre of the Shia Arabs and, initially, a flight of two million Kurds towards Turkey, until the West imposed a safe zone for them in northern Iraq. For almost ten years, British and American aircraft have been flying sorties to protect them, but there is still, apparently, no end in sight. Meanwhile, the economy of northern Iraq depends on international hand-outs, and the only employment there consists of recycling these. Not surprisingly, the place is a smugglers' paradise (at Urfa, the old Edessa, in south-eastern Turkey there is a bazaar where, at ridiculous prices, you can buy the best European brand names, falling off lorries courtesy of some 'non-governmental organisation' or other in northern Iraq). And the inhabitants, Kurdish tribesmen with a fine military bent, have ended up fighting each other.

In Iraq itself, Saddam goes on producing his deadly weaponry, whether nuclear or biological. At the end of this very informative book, Aburish describes the efforts of United Nations inspection teams to detect the place where these things are made, and the efforts made by Saddam to frustrate them. He is very clever and resourceful, holds down his countrymen with vicious strength of will, and seems to be indestructible. His survival is a terrible monument to the Bush presidency (and also to the Major government that went along with Bush's decision to leave Saddam Hussein in power). Perhaps the greatest problem that he leaves is that there is no one to replace him: even Aburish, who knows Iraq at first hand (he is of Palestinian origin, for years acted as consultant to the Iraqis when theirs was a going concern, and has interviewed a great number of people with stories to tell) cannot really say what on earth will happen in Iraq when Saddam finally goes. Vaguely, he expects something of the Shia Arabs, who make up nearly two thirds of the country's population. But religion, especially one as divided as Shia Islam some are crypto-Christian, others cryptoayatollah - is hardly going to be a prescription for any kind of modern rule. You put this book down, well written and informed as it is, with a deep sense of depression, and a feeling that the world is going to end somewhere along the line.

For quite a long time, Saddam Hussein was the most successful of the Arab dictators. The Iraqis - good fighters and good learners - counted as the Prussians of the Middle East. Saddam himself had come up the hard way (Aburish is excellent on the family background) as a street-urchin, regularly beaten by a cruel step-father, in a district, Takrit, that had been settled by Sunni Beduin (Takritis were known in Iraq, generally speaking, as bad hats). …

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