Amatzia Baram, Culture, History and Ideology in the Formation of Baathist Iraq, 1968-1989 (Macmillan, 1991).

Samir al-Khalil, The Monument: Art, Vulgarity and Responsibility in Iraq (Andre Deutsch, 1991).

Robert Fernea and Wm. Roger Louis, eds. The Iraqi Revolution of 1958: The Old Social Classes Revisited (I. B. Tauris, 1991).

Oles Smolansky with Bettie M. Smolansky, The USSR and Iraq: The Soviet Quest for Influence (Duke, 1991).

Eberhard Kienle, Ba‘th vs. Ba‘th: The Conflict between Syria and Iraq, 1968-1989 (I. B. Tauris, 1990).

Analysis of Iraq presents a special challenge. Long before its recent special prominence, Iraq has occupied a distinctive place in analyses of Arab societies. On the one hand, it would appear to be among the most fragile of the post-colonial states of the region: created out of three former Ottoman provinces for administrative convenience in 1918, encompassing a mosaic of ethnic and religious groups, and riven by a succession of bloody political upheavals.

Yet Iraq is also a country of considerable, recurring strength: In several respects it is the best endowed and potentially the most promising, economically and politically, of all Arab states. It has a substantial population, now around 18 million; by the year 2025 it will have 50 million. It has oil reserves second only to Saudi Arabia, but also, unlike the Gulf producers, considerable agricultural potential. Iraq’s urban civilization has produced a middle class of great political, cultural and administrative resources: Its adult literacy rate is far higher than Kuwait or Iran, higher even than that of Portugal or Venezuela.

Iraq was a colonial creation and British influence continued up to 1958, but it was, in 1932, the first Arab country to become officially independent and the only one to rise against the Allies in World War II (the 1941 Rashid ‘Ali insurrection). It has thus been able to present itself as in the forefront of Arab nationalism.

Contemporary Iraq can claim with some justice to be the inheritor of thousands of years of civilization, and some sense of modern Iraqi identity seems to have been forged over the past 70 years. Only this can explain the survival of the regime in the face of two major external crisis: with Iran (1980-1988), and with Kuwait and its US protector (1990 and after).

Amatzia Baram analyzes the role of ideology and culture, as promoted by the Baathist state, in the construction of an Iraqi national identity. The beginnings of this process, and the recuperation of a Mesopotamian past, lay in the British period; and in particular in the promotion through the schools of an alternative to pan-Arab nationalism in the wake of the 1941 coup. Baram’s speculation that Saddam — who went to school in 1946 — and his associates may have been influenced by this may not be wide of the mark. Baram shows how through archaeology, the reconstruction of Babylon, the promotion of images of Nebuchadnezzar and a general stress on 5,000 years of Mesopotamian power from the Sumerians onward, the state has sought to create a distinctive Iraqi identity. To this pre-Islamic identity have been added elements from the Islamic and more recent pasts — the claim that Saddam is a descendant of the Prophet, the revival of the cult of the Hashemite monarch and the invocation of the Abbasid empire (significantly, the US and its allies during the Gulf war were compared to the Mongol conqueror Hulagu, not to the Crusaders).

Baram’s analysis is in part, commendable. What is questionable is the widespread assumption in recent writing on changes in Arab nationalism that ideological choices concerning identity and aspiration need to be consistent. The history of the Arab world is not one of people so much choosing between different kinds of identity — Islamic, pan-Arab, local — but of mixing and varying these according to the circumstances (as do, among others, the British). Two further aspects must be considered. First, the greatest challenge to any Arab regime in Baghdad comes not from Israel, nor from other Arab states, nor from within the country, but from the much larger enemy to the east, Iran. This is all the more so because Iraqi society and culture are so permeated with Iranian influence — including language, the turquoise mosque domes and, most importantly, Shi‘ism. Iraq’s greatest claim to importance is as the homeland of Shi‘ism, yet this is the one thing the Baathists could not coopt, and their insistence on other identities may have much to do with this vulnerability. The record of the Iran-Iraq war indicates that they were relatively successful in doing so. The other consideration which goes against Baram’s analysis is that pan-Arabism is not contrary to state interests at all, but serves to validate the domination by a Sunni pan-Arab minority over the society of Shi‘i Arabs and Kurds. In this sense, what appears as a set of alternatives, a choice between a pan-Arab and an Iraqi identity, may not be. Both may serve the same legitimating function.

The Monument is a combination of aesthetic history and a broader analysis of the Baathist regime and its relation to Iraqi society. Al-Khalil (Kanan Makiya) focuses on the use made by Saddam Hussein of Iraqi plastic arts, which combines urban craft skills with international modernist trends. Al-Khalil shows how the rediscovery of Iraqi traditions, turath, as well as of avant-garde painting and sculpture in the West, fueled this artistic explosion in Baghdad, an explosion that was linked to the political processes that burst open during the July 1958 revolution. The Baath, taking over and abusing this great richness of Iraqi culture, including its administrative and engineering cadre, has diverted this cultural wealth into a glorification of its own macabre and bloody project. This process culminated in the construction of the monuments in the 1980s — including the double set of sword arches in Baghdad, with the arms and hands cast from those of Saddam.

The broader issues raised throughout all these books concern the character of Iraqi society and politics. They deal with the Baathist regime, the social composition and consequences of which must, because of the lack of independent assessment, remain obscure. What is possible is to step back and look at the origins of this state in the most momentous event of modern Iraqi history, the 1958 revolution. The volume by Louis and Fernea takes as its starting point a set of critical reflections on the work of Hanna Batatu and looks afresh at this event. Norman Daniel conveys, on the basis of his experiences in Iraq at the time, a vivid account of the ideas and optimism, the lived experience of the revolution, one that challenges the somewhat tidier retrospective analyses of historians and political scientists. What he conveys above all is the spontaneous explosion of joy and hope, one that for a time allowed the variety of political, ethnic and cultural trends in Iraqi life to come into the open.

Several articles analyze how blind foreign powers were to what was happening, and how little the autonomous and unpredictable course of Iraqi politics was comprehended. In challenges to some of Batatu’s analyses, Peter and Marion Sluglett question the degree to which capitalist social relations had pervaded the countryside. Sami Zubaida shows how different ethnic groups, positioned not by their ethnicity as such but by the combination of this with the political situation at the time, played their part in the emergence of national political forces. His conclusion, ironic and cogent, is that it is the Baath Party which has reconstituted the Orientalist project in Iraq, setting up a state based on absolute despotism, state monopoly of (oil) resources and a narrow communal base. In his concluding essay, Batatu engages with some of these criticisms, and reaffirms the importance of 1958 as a major event in modern Arab history. There is little here of Orientalist transhistorical essences, or postmodernist rambling.

No analysis of the Baathist regime is possible, however, without addressing the effect of international factors. This applies both to any attempt at realistic analysis and, equally, to the disentangling of Iraqi myth from actuality. Oles Smolansky traces the course of Soviet relations with Iraq from the 1958 revolution to the late 1980s and shows how autonomous Baghdad always was from Soviet control. Particularly interesting is his analysis of how the 1972 oil deal between Iraq and the USSR, under which Iraq could supply oil to Moscow at fixed prices, became an issue of dispute between them, since the Russians, taking advantage of the 1973 oil price rises, then sold oil off at great profit. He also shows how the Iran-Iraq war occurred against Soviet wishes. The subsequent inability of either Moscow or Washington to control Iraqi foreign policy appears to be a continuation of a high degree of Iraqi independence. This was a freedom born in part of oil revenues, but also of dictatorial control within the country, from which neither the Communists nor other political forces were able to escape.

Kienle’s study focuses on the struggle between Syria and Iraq since the establishment of their respective Ba‘thist regimes in the late 1960s. It forms a third volume in the study of inter-Arab relations begun by Patrick Seale in The Struggle for Syria and Malcolm Kerr in The Arab Cold War. To the question of what they were fighting over, the answer, once the claims of Baathist ideology are resisted, is clearly power, and the degree of regional influence each can assert. In both cases, external assertion is an extension of internal weaknesses. Kienle sees a retreat of Arab nationalism, including its Baathist variant, from the pan-Arab aspirations of the early 1960s to a more state-centered and national, or local, focus in the 1970s and 1980s. There is certainly truth in this, but it may be that the success of these states in generating a sense of national identity has more to do with the forging of an economic community through state employment and redistribution of wealth. Moreover, the dynamic for regional influence arises in both countries not just from ideology or national myth, but from the very nature of the communal-military states of Iraq and Syria, seeking to acquire through foreign policy a legitimacy that is lacking on internal grounds alone.

Kienle observes at one point that the pan-Arab postures of these regimes “may also facilitate bids for leadership and all kinds of Napoleonic designs that are far from being defensive.” It is indeed impossible to read these books, all completed before the Kuwait crisis of 1990-1991, without reflecting on what has since happened. Both the weaknesses and strengths of the country have been highlighted by this, as yet unfinished, crisis. On the one hand, Saddam’s reckless leading of his people into war illustrates much about the Baathist regime. The revolt of March 1991, the first real exposure of the Iraqi political scene since the revolutionary period of 1958-1959, illustrates how much the communal character of the regime was resented by much of the population. But the very ability of the Iraqi state to muster the military forces it had, to resist and “confront” the powers ranged against it, to survive the March uprising and in some measure to reconstruct the country, demonstrates the considerable strengths and social resources the state could call on.

The tragedy is that a country with such great potential for itself, and for the region as a whole, should have generated such a ferocious and destructive regime that has done so much to postpone the realization of its political, economic, cultural and social potential.

How to cite this article:

Fred Halliday "Iraq Revisited," Middle East Report 187-188 (March/April 1994).

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