Know Your Enemy: Iraq before Saddam Hussein

By Meyers, Jeffrey | The World and I, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Know Your Enemy: Iraq before Saddam Hussein


Meyers, Jeffrey, The World and I


Iraq is now a repressive police state headed by Saddam Hussein. Recent wars have devastated and demoralized the people, who suffer under the economic embargo imposed by the United States and its allies after the Gulf War of 1991. Deprived of food and medicines, with no work and a decaying infrastructure, yet possessing vast oil reserves, the Iraqi people seem powerless to dislodge the leader responsible for their wretched condition. Yet this bleak, impoverished country was once a true cradle of civilization. How did its current situation come about? How does Iraq's troubled cultural and political history inform and motivate the actions of its leader? The emergence of Saddam Hussein cannot be understood without a knowledge of the early and modern history of Iraq.

ANCIENT MESOPOTAMIA

Until 1921 Iraq was known by its ancient Greek name, Mesopotamia: literally, the land "between the rivers" Tigris and Euphrates. This fertile valley produced a civilization that reached its peak in the early part of recorded history. In its deserts lie buried the capitals of most of the great empires of the ancient Near East. Except for Egypt and China, no other civilization came earlier, lasted longer, or shone more brilliantly. A small country, surrounded and often dominated by stronger nations, it has been declining for hundreds, even thousands, of years. Saddam's propaganda constantly claims that twentieth-century Iraqis are the direct descendants of the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Abbasids; that the war with Iran would finally conclude the millennial struggle against Persian aggressors and repeat the legendary victory of Muslims over Persians during the Arab conquest in A.D. 636. Just as Mussolini invoked the Romans while urging modern Italians to fascist conquests, so Saddam, while reducing his people to poverty, stimulated nationalism by stressing their country's glorious past.

To the West this great contrast between past achievement and present obscurity has made the region synonymous with lost splendors, decay, and destruction. In his poem "Recessional," reflecting on the might of the British, Rudyard Kipling stressed the complete extinction of the old Assyrian and Phoenician empires: "Lo, all our pomp of yesterday/Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!" But to modern Iraqis, Nineveh remains a painful memory of lost grandeur.

As early as 3,500 B.C. the Sumerians, a non-Semitic people, built important cities like Kish, Erech, and Ur (in the Bible, the original home of Abraham) in southern Iraq. Archaeological excavations revealed their fine artistic work in copper, silver, and gold. They constructed canals and systems of irrigation and developed the cuneiform system of writing (arrangements of four kinds of wedge strokes impressed into brick or stone), which was strikingly parallel to Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Babylon, whose ruins still exist sixty miles south of Baghdad, was the first great Semitic empire in Iraq. It was the traditional site of the Garden of Eden (Assyria and the Euphrates are mentioned in Genesis 2:14) and the Tower of Babel, a Babylonian ziggurat, or terraced tower. The aim of King Hammurabi's humane code of law, carved on a column in thousands of lines of cuneiform, was "to cause justice to prevail in the country, to destroy the wicked and the evil, that the strong may not oppress the weak." The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were--along with the Pyramids, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the Pharos lighthouse of Alexandria--one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

The Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C., and for the next fifty years the Jews endured slavery in exile. In Psalm 137 they lament: "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion." In the Book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar is punished and humiliated for persecuting the Jews and for failing to recognize the omnipotence of the Jewish God. In Western art Nebuchadnezzar was identified with defeat and humiliation, a fate Saddam Hussein suffered in the Gulf War. …

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