From Sumer to Saddam
For many long years, Iraq and the United States had little to do with each other. The days of Iraq's greatest glory occurred long before there ever was a United States, and in recent centuries, while America was still a young and relatively isolated nation, the Iraqis were ruled by the Ottoman Turks, whose relationship with the United States barely existed. Even after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in World War I and the formation of the modern state of Iraq, it was Britain, not America, that dominated Iraqi politics for decades. Indeed, as for many Arabs, until only the last few decades, the United States was little more than a strange name of a distant land for most Iraqis. Before the Second World War, the United States had only commercial relationships in the Persian Gulf, and it carefully avoided any involvement in the region's politics. In the decades after the war, Washington did take an increasing interest in the Gulf but mostly focused its attentions on Saudi Arabia and Iran. Iraq was a weak radical Arab state with ties to Russia but did not pose enough of a threat to take seriously. It was not until the 1980s that the two countries came into meaningful contact, and then the limits of their prior relations bred ignorance, miscalculation, and suspicion, leading to regular misreadings of each other's intentions.
The Shadow of Iraq's Past
In the popular imagination, Iraq is a vast desert, interrupted by occasional oases and cut by the two great rivers of ancient Mesopotamia, the Tigris and Euphrates. While much of Iraq is desert, especially in the south and west, the Kurdish north is heavily mountainous and great swathes of the country are fertile farmland. Indeed, in ancient times, Iraq was one of the lushest regions on earth. The biblical Garden of Eden was set in Iraqi Mesopotamia. More than 5,000 years ago, that verdant soil produced the world's earliest known civilization, that of Sumer in southern Meso-potamia, which developed writing, divisions of labor, complex social hierarchies, and an elaborate political and religious system. Out of ancient Sumer came Abraham, the father of Jews and Arabs, the founder of Judaism, the first monotheist. The Sumerians were also the first pyramid builders, although their massive ziggurats were great temples like those of the Mayans and Aztecs, rather than tombs like the Egyptians'. Sargon I of Akkad conquered Sumer and spread its culture to the Mediterranean by adding northern Mesopotamia, Syria, and southern Turkey to his demesne. After the Sumerians, two of the ancient world's great empires ruled the lands that would become Iraq. First Babylon, whose Hanging Gardens were a wonder of the ancient world and whose people bequeathed us the Code of Hammurabi, perhaps the world's first written legal system and the origin of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." After that came Assyria, whose fearsome armies are credited with the first systematic application of the science of military logistics. Later Assyrian and Babylonian kings ruled all of modern Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel. Indeed, it was the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II who sacked Jerusalem and took the Jews into captivity in Babylon.
For more than a millennium after the fall of Babylon and Assyria, the lands of Iraq would be ruled by empires out of what would become Iran. First the Medes, then the Persians, and finally the Parthians would rule Mesopotamia, both north and south. Throughout that time, Babylon remained an important center of culture and political administration. Alexander passed through on his campaigns, fighting a mighty battle at Arbela (present day Arbil in northern Iraq). However, it was not until the Islamic conquest of the seventh century a.d. that Iraq again resumed prominence. Mesopotamia was among the first of the conquests of the caliphs who succeeded the prophet Muhammad, and it enjoyed temporary glory again when 'Ali Abu Talib, the fourth caliph and the husband of Muhammad's beloved daughter, Fatima, moved the Islamic capital to Kufa in southern Mesopotamia. But 'Ali was murdered after only a brief reign. His followers became the Shi'ah (from Shi'at 'Ali, the Party of 'Ali), while his rival, Mu'awiyah of Damascus, became caliph and leader of the majority Sunni branch of Islam, transferring the capital to Syria.
Less than a hundred years later, in a.d. 762, a new dynasty of caliphs, the Abbasids, built a new capital at Baghdad that would remain the center of the Islamic empire for nearly five hundred years. During that time, Baghdad was arguably the greatest center of art, learning, and culture in the world and was ruled by storied caliphs such as Harun al-Rashid, famous for his role in the epic Thousand and One Nights. In the midst of this golden age, barbarian warriors (at least the Arabs considered them such) from Christian Europe invaded the Levant to seize Jerusalem and other sites considered holy by all three of the great monotheistic faiths. In the long war against these Crusaders, it was another Iraqi-Salah ad-Din, or Saladin, a Kurd from the city of Tikrit-who would turn the tide in favor of the Islamic armies, recapturing Jerusalem and setting in motion the inevitable destruction of the Crusader kingdoms. These glory days ended in the thirteenth century, when Mongol hordes under Hulagu Khan smashed the caliph's armies and sacked Baghdad in 1258, ending the reign of the Abbasids. Although the Mongol conquest was brief, it was terrible, and it broke the power of the Islamic Arabs, paving the way for the rise of the Turkish empires, first of the Seljuks and later of the Ottomans, who would rule Iraq for nearly four hundred years, until the First World War.
During the Ottoman era, the territory of Iraq was administered by three separate provinces (vilayets). In the north was Mosul vilayet, including the cities of Mosul, Kirkuk, Arbil, and as-Sulaymaniyyah and dominated by Sunni Kurds. In the center was Baghdad vilayet, comprising the former Islamic capital, its environs, and the lands to the west that were primarily Sunni Arab. Finally, al-Basrah vilayet administered most of the old lands of southern Mesopotamia. It was heavily Shi'ite Arab and included the Shi'ite holy cities of Karbala and an-Najaf.
After the defeat of the Ottomans during the First World War, their territory was divided up by the British and French, who established mandates over much of the former Ottoman Empire. Britain coveted Baghdad and al-Basrah (what it called "the Mesopotamian provinces") in part for its suspected oil and agricultural wealth, but mostly because London wanted a contiguous land bridge from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean across which it could move forces to defend British India. The British secured the Mediterranean end of this route by acquiring Palestine and Trans-Jordan (later renamed "Jordan"). The eastern end would be the new mandatory territory of Iraq, at first intended to comprise only the Baghdad and al-Basrah provinces. Eventually, London would add Mosul province, not only because it was believed to be rich in oil (later proven by the finding of the massive Kirkuk oil fields in the 1920s) but also to create a buffer zone against Turkey and Russia. As for Iraq's western boundary, it was determined largely by simple geography: the great urban centers of Baghdad and the Mesopotamian valley were divided from those of the Levant by the Syrian desert, and the main transportation artery stretching across it was the Baghdad-Amman road. The British essentially divided that road in half and gave the administration of territory to the west of that midpoint to Jordan, while that to the east went to Iraq. In 1921, the British decided to make Faysal ibn Hussein al-Hashim, the third son of their World War I ally (and Lawrence of Arabia's principal confederate) Sharif Hussein of Mecca, the new king of Iraq.
The Hashimites would rule Iraq for thirty-seven years. It was a turbulent reign because the kings were foreigners installed by the British, whom the Iraqi people quickly learned to hate. Of the three Hashimite kings, only Ghazi, who ruled from 1933 to 1939, had any degree of popularity, because he was anti-British. When he died in an automobile accident in 1939, it was widely believed that London was responsible. In 1936, Iraq was the first Arab nation to experience a military coup, although the generals were seeking only to replace the pro-British cabinet and not the popular King Ghazi. In 1941, with German armored columns driving toward the Middle East from both the west (Rommel's Afrika Corps) and the north (from Russia), a pro-Axis military cabal took power and attempted to evict the British from Iraq with German support. But the British quickly deployed forces from Palestine and India and crushed the revolt. The monarchy was then restored to its full authority and would rule with British approval for another seventeen years.Saddam Hussein and the Ba'th
Saddam Hussein was born in the small village of al-'Awja outside of the backwater town of Tikrit in northwest Iraq, probably on April 28, 1937.5 He was born into the Bayjat clan of the al Bu Nasir tribe, a modest-sized Sunni tribe. His name, a somewhat unusual one, means "he who confronts." His father, Hussein 'Abd al-Majid, died before Saddam was even born. His mother, Subhah Talfah, remarried quickly, to a man named Hassan Ibrahim, who was known locally as "Hassan the Liar." Hassan and his family reportedly made their living as local bullies and petty thieves.
What little we know about Saddam's early life indicates that it was unpleasant for all involved. Various sources claim that Hassan Ibrahim often beat Saddam with an asphalt-coated stick and kept him busy stealing with his own sons and their cousins. For his part, Saddam was something of a loner, famous for carrying an iron bar wherever he went that he would heat until it was white hot and then use to impale unwary animals-dogs, cats, whatever made the mistake of coming within his reach. When he was ten years old, he was sent off to live with his uncle Khayrallah Talfah, a former army officer who had briefly been jailed for his role in the 1941 pro-Nazi coup attempt. In later years, Khayrallah regaled the world with his philosophy in the book Three Whom God Should Not Have Created: Persians, Jews and Flies. Saddam's closest friend from childhood was Khayrallah Talfah's son, Adnan, who convinced Saddam to go to school to learn to read and write. Adnan eventually passed the entrance exam to Iraq's military academy, thereby earning a career in the army, but Saddam failed the exam-to his enduring resentment.
As a young man, Saddam got caught up in the maelstrom of Arab politics during the 1950s. In those days, Communists, socialists, Nasserists, Pan-Arabists, and nationalists of every stripe actively vied for power throughout the Middle East. Saddam soaked up the politics of his uncle Khayrallah and Khayrallah's cronies, who included a kinsman and army officer named Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, an important member of the Iraqi Ba'th Party. The Ba'th (Renaissance) Party had started in Syria in the 1930s as one of many Pan-Arabist parties but later sprouted offshoots in Iraq and several other Arab countries. Like numerous other political parties then in vogue, the Ba'th combined socialism and Pan-Arabism in a nebulous and often contradictory philosophy that showed little real erudition or practical knowledge. Its treatises were mostly rhetorical gobbledygook that provided little basis for concrete action. But in this respect too, the Ba'th was not unlike many of its competitors. Saddam himself began carrying a gun and drifted among various groups of Nasserists and Pan-Arabists before eventually falling in with Bakr and the Ba'th. The early Ba'thists were mostly intellectuals, army officers, students, and lawyers; Saddam stood out for his limited education, money, and manners. His only virtues were his ambition and penchant for violence. He was relegated to a low position within the small Iraqi branch of the Ba'th Party.
In 1958, the monarchy was finally overthrown by General 'Abd al-Karim Qasim, who capitalized on the widespread popular unhappiness with the government because of its failure to provide any support to Nasser's Egypt when it had fought the Israelis, British, and French in the 1956 Sinai-Suez War. When Qasim overthrew the monarchy, Saddam and the Ba'thists rejoiced, only to become quickly disillusioned with the new dictator. The key to Pan-Arabism was the notion of uniting all of the Arab states into one great Arab nation, powerful enough to stand up to the Western powers as an equal. Qasim refused to join the Pan-Arabist vehicle, the new United Arab Republic, which Syria and Egypt had formed under Gamal 'Abd al-Nasser. In addition, Qasim began relying heavily on the Iraqi Communists and increasingly regarded the nationalist and Pan-Arabist parties as enemies. Saddam and the Ba'th's other toughs began mixing it up with their opposites from the Communist Party in bloody gang wars. In 1959, Saddam participated in an assassination attempt against Qasim. He was the seventh member of a seven-man hit team, and his job was to provide covering fire against Qasim's bodyguards to allow the rest of the team to kill the dictator. But Qasim was late on the day of the hit. When he finally arrived, Saddam was so keyed up that he forgot his assignment and instead fired at Qasim too. Thanks to Saddam's impatience, the hit failed: Qasim was seriously wounded but not killed because his bodyguards were able to kill one of the assassins and drive the rest off, wounding Saddam. Eventually, Saddam managed to flee to Syria and from there to Egypt, where he spent three years lying low, debating politics, and waiting to return to Iraq.
The Ba'th finally managed to overthrow Qasim in 1963, but only by combining forces with a group of army officers including Qasim's former accomplice in the 1958 coup, Colonel 'Abd as-Salim Arif. With the Ba'th in the driver's seat, Saddam returned home as a follower of Hassan al-Bakr. However, the Ba'th was ill suited to rule Iraq and no sooner had it taken power in Baghdad than the left and right wings of the party fell to fighting among themselves, leaving Bakr to try to moderate-unsuccessfully. The divisions within the Ba'th then allowed Colonel Arif to turn on them and purge them the next year. While a traumatic event for the party, its ouster proved to be to Saddam's advantage. The radical wings of the party were purged, and Bakr emerged as the leader of the new Ba'th with Saddam as his right-hand man-a ruthless thug whom Bakr could count on to work tirelessly and do anything. Saddam spent two years in prison as a result of his work for Bakr.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Threatening Storm by Kenneth M. Pollack. Copyright © 2002 by Kenneth M. Pollack. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.