Juan Cole on the US-Saddam Connection

For Whom the Bell Tolls: Top Ten Ways the US Enabled Saddam Hussein

The old monster swung from the gallows this morning at 6 am Baghdad time. His Shiite executioners danced around his body.

Saddam Hussain was one of the 20th century’s most notorious tyrants, though the death toll he racked up is probably exaggerated by his critics. The reality was bad enough.

The tendency to treat Saddam and Iraq in a historical vacuum, and in isolation from the superpowers, however, has hidden from Americans their own culpability in the horror show that has been Iraq for the past few decades. Initially, the US used the Baath Party as a nationalist foil to the Communists. Then Washington used it against Iran. The welfare of Iraqis themselves appears to have been on no one’s mind, either in Washington or in Baghdad.

The British-installed monarchy was overthrown by an officer’s coup in 1958, led by Abdul Karim Qasim. The US was extremely upset, and worried that the new regime would not be a reliable oil exporter and that it might leave the Baghdad Pact of 1955, which the US had put together against the Soviet Union (grouping Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Britain and the US). (Qasim did leave the pact in 1959, which according to a US official of that time, deeply alarmed Washington.)

Iraq in the 1940s and 1950s had become an extremely unequal society, with a few thousand (mostly Sunni Arab) families owning half of the good land. On their vast haciendas, poor rural Shiites worked for a pittance. In the 1950s, two new mass parties grew like wildfire, the Communist Party of Iraq and the Arab Baath Socialist Party. They attracted first-generation intellectuals, graduates of the rapidly expanding school system, as well as workers and peasants. The crushing inequalities of Iraq under the monarchy produced widespread anger.

Qasim undertook land reform and founded a new section of Baghdad, in the northeast, which he called Revolution Township, where rural Shiites congregated as they came to the capital seeking work as day laborers (it is now Sadr City, where a majority of Baghdadis live). The US power elite of the time wrongly perceived Qasim as a dangerous radical who coddled the Communists.

1) The first time the US enabled Saddam Hussein came in 1959. In that year, a young Saddam, from the boondock town of Tikrit but living with an uncle in Baghdad, tried to assassinate Qasim. He failed and was wounded in the leg. Saddam had, like many in his generation, joined the Baath Party, which combined socialism, Arab nationalism, and the aspiration for a one-party state.

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