Saddam Hussein’s presence is ubiquitous in Baghdad, where he is shown to be all things to all people. Throughout the city there are portraits of him dressed as Bedouin, Kurd, soldier and civilian. In some places he is wearing a white Bahama suit; in others he is in brown with a green Tyrolean hat and feather, ready for the ski slopes. At schools, he is surrounded by adoring students. The program for the Babylon festival has his face superimposed on that of Nebuchadnezzar: They are virtually identical except that one wears a crown, the other a military beret. Many offices have copies of Saddam’s family tree purporting to show his descent from the Prophet Muhammad, and at the imposing headquarters of the Regional Command of the Baath Party he is portrayed as if he is tutoring party founder Michel ‘Aflaq.

About 70 percent of Iraqis are under the age of 30, and have known nothing other than Saddam and the Baath Party. [1] It was not surprising to hear ordinary people say “God takes care of what is above and Saddam takes care of what is below.” Among the most memorable sights on Iraqi television in September were nightly pictures of prisoners of war returning from Iran, stepping out of their buses to the tune of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

For those who believe that the cost in terms of human life and human rights abuses has been too high, Saddam’s presence is felt more directly through the all-pervasive internal security services. Once we were filming with the family of a Baath Party member down a small side street on the outskirts of Baghdad. Within a short time plainclothes security men approached and closely questioned us. Despite their status, both the party member and our chaperone from the Ministry of Information were clearly intimidated.

Despite this pervasive structure of repression, long-term foreign residents tell of hearing some Iraqis openly criticize the regime and even the president. After eight years of war that cost up to 500,000 Iraqi lives, people here are tired. The regime has not delivered the promised fruits of victory. In the months leading up to August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, there was widespread unemployment, and inflation reportedly reached 50 percent. [2]

Some Iraqis told me in a whisper of their cynicism and opposition to Saddam’s policies. One friend took me to see a statue of King Faysal I, newly erected in a square in the center of the city, and then to a much larger one of Saddam Hussein. He looked from me to Saddam and back again and said, “King-size, eh?” Another person said, “We are all hostages here,” referring to a government order preventing Iraqis from traveling outside the country at this time.

Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz reportedly has said that “this crisis is more frightening to Iraq than the eight-year war with Iran.” [3] His fears are reflected on the street, where there is near-reverence for the destructive potential of the US and recognition that, with the Soviet Union out of the way, Washington is now free to use its war machine.

Iraqis are scornful of the US claim that it sent forces into the region to defend international law; they mention Grenada and Panama and Israel’s undisturbed occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Sa‘doun Hammadi, deputy prime minister and close associate of Saddam, gave me a representative Iraqi interpretation. “Because we emerged from the war with Iran with an independent foreign policy especially toward the Arab-Israeli conflict,” he said, “the Western powers and the US in particular wanted to cut Iraq down to size.” Kuwait’s obstinate refusal to cut oil production in the months preceding the invasion was perceived as a US-inspired plot to bring Iraq to its knees through “economic warfare.”

Exploiting the Embargo

The regime exploits such sentiments and has used the UN embargo to induce steadfastness. When rationing started in September, allowances seemed generous. Vegetables and other goods were on sale; in more expensive shops milk was available, though like meat it was beyond the purse of the ordinary Iraqi. Visible signs of the embargo were bread queues and the closed doors of smart restaurants and patisseries. Milk was reported especially short in the north around Mosul. Huddam al-Mahdi, a Women’s Union representative, angrily pointed out that Iraqi children were raised on powdered milk, which is imported and subject to the blockade.

By October and November there were long queues outside government stores and even higher prices in private shops. By late November, even the showcase hotels were being hit with a marked decline in food quality and quantity. Alcohol and other commodities looted from Kuwait since the invasion were also running out.

The government reminded people that imperialism, apart from its manifest injustices, brought with it unhealthy habits. Dates, plentiful in Iraq, were spoken of as a sugar substitute. With a good harvest in store, and rationing working efficiently, the regime seemed to be beating the embargo and uniting Iraqis against what was seen increasingly as a heartless adversary.

At the same time, most Iraqis I spoke with agreed that invading Kuwait was not the way to solve differences between the two states. They implied that Saddam had gotten them into another mess, but quickly added that he had been left with little choice. They did not want a war, they said, but would defend themselves if attacked. There was some confidence that, in contrast to Iraq’s commitment and combat experience, US troops do not know what they are fighting for and are unused to desert conditions. A market stall merchant and an ex-soldier said to me, “Let the Americans try us for an eight-year war.”

In September, back at my hotel, I was shocked to see a delegation of Iranians in high-collared white shirts and black suits. On October 21, the Iranian embassy reopened in Baghdad and the Iranian flag flew over the Iraqi capital. I asked several Iraqis for an explanation, and they were quick to respond that “there will be no more divide-and-rule in this part of the world. We have the right enemy in our sights this time.”

Talks or Tanks?

“If it is a matter of humiliation and surrender, it won’t work,” King Hussein of Jordan told me in late November. “Saddam Hussein will fight rather than capitulate.” Ahmad ‘Ubaydat, an ex-prime minister of Jordan, emphasized to me in Amman that “it must be recognized that Iraq has weight in the region.” “If Saddam Hussein is sure about the response from the West,” he added, “he will make the gesture that the international community led by the US requires.”

His optimism was borne out in my interviews with Iraqi leaders. In September and again in November, Sa‘doun Hammadi insisted to me that while “the case between Iraq and Kuwait is not like any other case,” the Iraqi regime “is for negotiation, the UN Charter and law, order and security for all nations of the world.”

Saddam Hussein complains that the US deals with him as if Iraq were a colony. He has convinced King Hussein, Yasser Arafat, Edward Heath, Daniel Ortega and many others that, in negotiations, he would be prepared to go a long way toward responding to international demands. In a meeting with Jesse Jackson on August 31, he claimed that Iraq “had limited its original demands on Kuwait to ending the harmful manipulation of oil prices.” [4] On November 29, in three hours of private talks with British MP Tony Benn, which were also attended by Tariq Aziz, Latif Musayyif Jasim and Sa‘doun Hammadi, Saddam Hussein took off his gun belt and explained that Iraq’s war aims were limited to the two islands and the south Rumayla oilfields, implying that Iraq had seized Kuwait as a negotiating ploy and would withdraw in return for some recognition of its “legitimate concerns.”

This interpretation is supported by facts on the ground. There is no bureaucratic infrastructure for the absorption of the “nineteenth Province,” as Kuwait is now called in Baghdad, while there are signs that the Iraqis are setting up a new border south of Basra.

In the West there has been much speculation that Saddam might be preparing to withdraw unilaterally to the new frontier. While this remains a possibility, at the end of November Saddam surprisingly admitted that “public concessions at this time would demoralize our troops” and by extension undermine his position inside Iraq. It would also mean dismantling defenses in Kuwait and opening the way for an invasion of Iraq by forces gathered in the Gulf. “If I take this step, what guarantee do I have that there will be a response and that we will not be attacked?” he asked.

Saddam seemed to acknowledge that there were double standards in his position, too. After all, how could UN Resolution 242 be implemented if 660 was ignored? He also appeared to believe that President Bush needed a way out of the impasse in the Gulf, too, and he concluded that all these reasons recommended a private dialogue between the US and Iraq. [5]

Jordanian and PLO officials have said since August that this is a time of great danger but also of enormous opportunity. In my interview with him at the end of November, King Hussein spoke expansively about the “need for an Arab-Arab dialogue to see if we can get them to withdraw, to see if we agree among ourselves, then agree to implement UN Resolution 660. We also need some commitment to resolve the Palestinian problem, not necessarily at the same time. Third, weapons of mass destruction should be removed. Also, there is the problem of the ‘haves and the have-nots’ and there will have to be negotiations.”

Recent reports suggest that some Iraqi opposition groups have united around the twin goals of removing Saddam Hussein and preventing a war. [6] They seem to recognize that many potential allies, inside Iraq in particular, are being driven into Saddam’s arms by the policy of confrontation, and that conflict will lead to the deaths of thousands of innocent Iraqis.

At this moment, in the weeks just after January 15, it appears that the powers that cynically supported Saddam for so long are not prepared to foster the climate that would provide the peoples of Iraq, and the Middle East as a whole, with the opportunity to realize these ambitious aims.


[1] Interview with Peter Sluglett, Oxford, September 1990.
[2] Ibid.
[3] New Yorker, September 24, 1990, p. 90.
[4] New Yorker, September 24, 1990, p. 95.
[5] I did not attend the meeting with Saddam, but Benn briefed me immediately after it.
[6] Guardian, December 29, 1990.

How to cite this article:

Paul Lalor "Report from Baghdad," Middle East Report 169 (March/April 1991).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This