It would be a gross misrepresentation of the character and long history of the Iraqi people, I think, if our portrait of them were summed up only by images of a nation that marked its freedom by unbridled looting and lawlessness. There is surely more to Saddam’s Iraq than a people kept docile by a brutal secret police and a ruthless regime. The point is not to set the record straight but to offer a perspective that allows us to understand why there is persisting doubt among Iraqis about the beneficial effect of their “liberation” by the United States and Britain.
This is not to defend Saddam. The crimes he committed against his own people and neighbors make him easily one of the most odious rulers in the history of the Middle East, and he does deserve to be overthrown. But how does one explain the anger of Sama Samira, a 21-year-old Iraqi university student, whose photo was taken recently while she lectured Tank Commander Staff Sergeant Terry Brake on how US troops have hurt Iraq by invading it? Could she be the daughter of a ranking Ba’athist official, or one of Saddam’s scholars perhaps? But there seem to be many more like her, ordinary Iraqis who speak to their incredulous liberators before TV cameras telling them that water and electricity should be restored ahead of their freedom.
The thing about any dictatorial regime is that while it oppresses it also makes things possible. No regime can be maintained purely on the basis of coercion. It would not survive if it did nothing for the people it governed, and if its impact on the rest of the world was relentlessly negative. Saddam’s regime was no exception. Until the war of 1991, Iraq was home to about 50,000 Filipino workers. Up to the 1980s, it played host to many foreign companies including Landoil, a construction firm identified with Speaker Jose de Venecia. At the height of the oil crisis, Saddam assured the Philippines a steady supply of its oil requirements. By no means does this excuse Saddam’s dictatorship, of course. But it does make one wonder why our government, hand in hand with the US and Britain, suddenly found it necessary to liberate Iraq this year.
Embedded journalists traveling with US and UK forces have treated us with pictures of a country that seems not to have benefited from its oil wealth at all. Surely this is not the whole of Iraq. Mani Shankar Aiyar, currently a member of the Indian parliament, was deputy chief of mission in 1976-78 at the Indian Embassy in Baghdad. In a recent article for UPI International, he provides a different picture: “It was Saddam’s revolution that ended Iraqi backwardness. Education, including higher and technological education, became the top priority. More important, centuries of vicious discrimination against girls and women was ended by one stroke of the modernizing dictator’s pen.
“I used to drive past the Mustansariya University on my way home from downtown Baghdad. It was miraculous — I use the word advisedly — it was nothing short of miraculous to see hundreds of girlstudents thronging the campus, none in “burkhas” or “chador” — the head-to-toe black cape that was, and is, essential dress for women in most of the Islamic world — and almost all in skirts and blouses that would grace a Western university.
“The liberation of women — that is half the population of Iraq, as for any other country — has been the most dramatic achievement of Saddam’s regime. To understand how dramatic just look across the Iraqi border at America’s once-favorite Arab satrap, Saudi Arabia.”
The truth of the matter is that Saddam’s Iraq is a modern secular society, whose people are among the most highly educated in the whole Arab world. Saddam was for the West an effective foil to the Islamic regime run by clerics in neighboring Iran. That is why the US and Britain kept him supplied with modern weapons.
“Saddam ran a brutal dictatorship. That, however, caused no concern to the hordes of Western businessmen who descended in droves on Iraq to siphon what they could of Iraq’s newfound oil wealth through lucrative contracts for everything.
“Iraq under Saddam had everything going for it — except democracy.
And it was, of course, the absence of democracy that accounted for Saddam brushing aside all vested interests: his instant liberation of women, his instant dismantling of feudalism, his instant caging of the priesthood, and, therefore, his instant — and, yes, brutal — exclusion from Iraq of all forms of religious fundamentalism and religion-based terrorism.”
The Americans have vowed to establish a modern democracy in Iraq. Of all the countries in the Middle East, outside of Israel, Iraq is probably the one most prepared for political modernity. You can’t say that for the rest of the Arab world, which are societies still painfully evolving from the ethos of sectarian tradition and personal rule. With Saddam out of the picture, Iraq can move forward and become a democratic polity. But the field is now also open to those who want a strict Islam to be the core of the new Iraqi state.
When one considers the wide range of regimes that America has armed and supported, one wonders if America, having secured control of Iraqi oil fields, really cares which way the rest of the country goes. The “liberating” forces would not lift a finger to protect the National Museum in Baghdad from looters, but they had all the time to secure the offices of the Iraqi Oil Ministry. That speaks a lot about priorities.
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