Iraq on War Edge, as PRAVDA.Ru Reporter Saw It

PRAVDA.Ru reporter writes about his personal impressions of a trip to Iraq

Our plane landed in Baghdad at about 1 p.m. Moscow time (Moscow and Baghdad are almost of the same time zone. The temperature was about 20 degrees centigrade, which is the summer weather from the Russian point of view. The plane landed at the airport, which was named in honor of Saddam Hussein. It was as big as a Moscow major airport Domodedovo. The only difference between the Moscow and the Iraqi airport is the air traffic: it is very quiet in Baghdad and really wild in Moscow. Our plane was the only one that landed at the airport that day, as well as the day before that and so on. The weather was really warm, which was rather unusual for the winter time. When in the plane, I was praying to God to avoid bombings and to return back home safe and alive. However, the first thing that I noticed about Iraq was calmness. It was very quiet there. Yet, it only seemed so. There were a lot of low buildings built all around the airport. They looked like truncated pyramids. At first I thought that they were some civic buildings, although it turned out that those buildings were so-called weapon emplacements.

The interior of the airport was a lot more majestic in comparison with the outer look of the airport. There were huge chandeliers in there, fountains, carpets of all colors, and Saddam’s portraits, of course. We were welcomed with great hospitality, every member of the Russian delegation was offered a foreign car. Soon we found ourselves in Al-Rashid hotel, one of the best (maybe the best) hotels of Baghdad. Someone told me that UN inspectors lived there too. Maybe it was true, although I never seen anyone of them during those three days that I stayed in Iraq.

General information

According to the results of the latest population census in Iraq in 1998, there were 22 thousand 196 people living in the country. the Iraqi population was growing very fast for several decades, owing to the high natality level. Today the situation is absolutely different: high death rate, especially amid children, reduced demographic achievements of previous decades to nothing. Arabs make up 75% of the Iraqi population, Kurds make up 18% and seven percent falls for other ethnic groups. The majority of the Iraqi people practice the Islamic religion, although there are some Christians there as well.

The country is presumably governed by Sunnite Arabs, who come from Baghdad and Mosul (a large city in the north of the country). Nevertheless, several Shiites and Iraqi Christians have been taking important state positions in Iraq too, for example Sadun Hamadi and Tarik Aziz. Educated Iraqi men from remote little towns of the country were also appointed for certain administering positions. The religious or national affiliation did not matter at that. Iraq is a country of the state-controlled capitalist economy from the constitutional point of view. The state is aimed to control the extraction and export of oil, the majority of other leading industries, all banks, and the whole foreign trade. The state is also obliged to distribute contracts on major building projects and to keep the currency exchange rate stable. The state is responsible for assisting investors in the organization of expensive agricultural enterprises that deal with fruit growing or vegetable growing, for example. Agricultural enterprises rent state lands on privileged prices, they raise loans on privileged interest rates too, and use a favorable currency exchange rate. Private businessmen are allowed to invest money in construction, cargo transportation, retail sales and services. The state also regulates prices on certain goods.

There are very few large cities in Iraq, beside Baghdad, the capital: Mosul in the north, Kirkuk in the east and Basra in the east, the Persian Gulf. Oil fields, the American dream, is basically located around the area of Kirkuk and Mosul cities in the north, as well as around Basra in the south.

Monarchy or republic?

The League of Nations issued a mandate to Great Britain to govern Iraq in April of 1920. Three former vilayets of the Ottoman Empire were included in the structure of the Iraqi state: Basra (Kuwait was separated from it earlier), Mosul and Baghdad. In 1921 Iraq was pronounced a kingdom with Emir Faysal at the head (from Hashimite dynasty). Iraq became a constitutional monarchy, the country also had a parliament of two houses. However, all important ministries of the country were originally controlled by British advisors, whereas final decisions were made by the British High Commissioner and by the commander of the Royal Air Force. Several municipal clans were in charge of local political governments.

In 1932 Iraq became formally independent, although the real governing levels were concentrated in the British embassy. Iraq’s significance was determined with its strategic location on the way to India. In addition to that, Iraq possessed rich oil reserves. The English-French-American consortium Turkish Petroleum obtained the concession for the development of Iraqi oil fields. In 1929 the enterprise was renamed to Iraq Petroleum. King Faysal died in 1933. His life was not really pleasant, for he had to change countries in which he ruled several times, whereas in Iraq he had to struggle with refractory Kurds and Shiites all the time. This was probably the reason why he died at the age of 50. Faysal’s son Ghazi I became the new King of Iraq. The political life of the country in the 1930s was characterized with faction fights in the army, especially after the coup in 1936. King Ghazi died as a result of the car accident in 1939. He was only 27 years old. Ghazi’s juvenile son Faysal II was enthroned, Abdul Illah became his regent.

After World War II started, the position of nationalist-oriented officers turned out to be too strong, which helped to avoid declaring war on Nazi Germany. The strength of that position can be illustrated with the fact that the that-era Prime Minister of Iraq was pro-English General Nuri Said. Iraq simply severed its relations with Germany and pronounced its neutrality. In April of 1941 military man overthrew the government, which resulted in the faster deployment of the British Armed Forces there. By the end of 1941, British military men brought Nuri Said and regent Abdul Illah back to power. In January of 1942 Iraq formally declared war on Germany and Italy. British troops stayed in Iraq until the fall of 1947. The civic governing was retrieved in the country in 1946. However, leftist parties were banned, while the government remained conservative. In 1948 Iraq took part in the first Arab-Israeli war and then, in 1949, the country refused to sign the peace treaty with Israel. In 1953 Faysal III became the new king of the country. In 1952 the government legalized the increased Iraq’s share in the growing income that was gained from the activity of Iraq Petroleum company. A very big part of the money was invested in long-term development projections. In 1955, Iraq concluded a military contract with Turkey, trying to secure itself against the leftist movement that was gathering pace in the Middle East at that period of time. After Iran, Pakistan and Great Britain joined the treaty, it became the so-called Baghdad Treaty, which was supported by the USA. However, the efforts of the government were not successful, the plotters’ influence was too strong. On July 14th, 1958 the Front of National Unity and Free Officers underground organizations arranged a coup in the country. The monarchy regime was overthrown, Iraq was pronounced a republic. King Faysal II and Nuri Said were shot in their palace. Abdul Karim Qassem, Free Officers leader, became the head of the new Iraqi government. The government passed the law pertaining to the land reform, which was similar of the one that took place in Egypt. In 1959 Iraq pulled out from the Baghdad Treaty, and in 1961 it expropriated the oil fields, which were owned by the company Iraq Petroleum. On June 25, 1961, six days later after Great Britain acknowledged Kuwait’s independence, Qassem set forth Iraq’s claims concerning the territory of this country. Dictatorship became stronger with time, Saddam Hussein came to power.

American magazine <i><b>Wall Street Journal</b></i> published an article in the fall of the past year. The article was devoted to the problems of Eastern regimes. It was particularly written in the article that monarchy suits the traditions of the Arab world a lot more than presidency. The new generation of kings came to power in the East, from Marocco to Bahrain. New kings accustomed their people to modernization, to the world of high technologies. Probably, this variant of Iraq’s future will be the best for its people, who are basically indifferent to the present opposition to Saddam Hussein. The people of Iraq are rather nostalgic about the times of Iraq’s last king, Faysal II.

A terrorist became a marshal

Saddam Hussein was born on April 28, 1937 in the village of al-Avdja in the south of the Tikrit region. In 1947 Saddam escaped to Tikrit to enroll a school there. He finished six years of primary studies, as well as one incomplete year of secondary studies. In 1954 he moved over to Baghdad, where his uncle lived. Saddam continued his studies at al-Qarh school, which propagated nationalism. The Suez crisis helped 20-year-old Saddam become a member of the Iraqi division of the Arab Ba’thSocialist Party. Saddam started dealing with underground party activities. After he became a member of the party, he made the party’s leadership pay attention to him. In December of 1958 a senior official of the regional administration was shot in Tikrit. The police arrested Saddam as a suspect of the crime, although there was nothing to prove the allegation of murder. The court acquitted Saddam after he had to spend six months in jail.

After he was released, Saddam went back home to his village, although he did not stay there for long. He was called to come to Baghdad, where the Ba’th Party worked on an attempt on Abdul Karim Qassem’s life. Saddam was chosen by the party’s leadership to be a part of a special group, that was supposed to implement the plot. Saddam and four of his friends attempted to assassinate Qassem on October 6th, 1959. However, the Iraqi prime minister was just slightly wounded. As a result of the operation, Saddam was wounded in his left leg too, although he managed to disappear anyway.

The Ba’th Party seized power in Baghdad on February 8th, 1963. Prime Minister Qassem was shot the next day. Saddam returned to Baghdad very soon after the coup. He was appointed to take an honorable senior position of a member of the Central Peasant Bureau. However, the new position was too far from the ruling elite of the party anyway.

Hussein’s phenomenon appeared as a result of the control over the party leadership, not as a result of his own influence on the officer corps. His power was contained in his organizational talent, which allowed him to set up a strict party organization, to select officials and appoint them, to weave plots against dangerous opponents and to get rid of them, to use regional, family, tribal links and contradictions skillfully. At that period of his life Saddam started establishing a virtually new party. The Ba’th party managed to consolidate their forces under Saddam’s guidance. They attempted to seize power in Baghdad twice, although both of those attempts were not successful. Saddam Hussein was arrested and put into a single prison cell. He escaped from the prison in July of 1966 together with other party officials.

On July 17th 1968, Ba’th conducted a successful coup. The party got rid of its allies soon after that, on July 30th, as a result of another, smaller coup. Saddam celebrated his achievement in a very specific way: he arranged cleansing procedures amid the leadership of his own party. He simply removed potential, real adversaries and critics.

I would like to apologize for such a long review of the Iraqi history, for I think that my personal impressions would not be understandable without that.

All roads lead to Baghdad

Baghdad is the city of glory and poverty. Needless to mention that poverty is not exposed into the public eye, although only blind people do not notice it. Iraq takes the second place in the world as an oil rich country. On the other hand, the living wage in Iraq is extremely low. However, it has not been like that always. Iraq was not worse than Saudi Arabia until the year 1990. As a result of the economic boom in the 1970s, a lot of foreign workers came to Iraq from Arab and other Asian countries (Hindu waiters, Egyptian workers, Lebanese nurses and so on). The situation is totally different nowadays. Sanctions broke the Iraqi economy, foreign workers left the country, and Iraqi people were forced to work themselves. Engineers and doctors (they studied in the USSR) had to become workers, mechanics and the like. Someone started private businesses, others joined the army (they pay more money there and there is no need to spend it).

One-third of the Iraqi population lives owing to the food program of the state. They have something to lose, if the new war in the Gulf happens. The average pension is 100-150 dinars, the average salary is about six thousand dinars. One American dollar is equal to 1200 Iraqi dinars. Pensions have not been increased in the country since 1990. People live with the help of their big families. Everyone has to work there, both little kids and elderly people.

To be continued tomorrow: Arabian fatalism, (who is going to wage war on America), Quran written with blood (the story of the bloodiest religious conflict of the 20th century from the point of view of modern Iraqi people), the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (who destroyed one of the seven wonders of the world).

On the photo: Musa al-Qadim tomb (the Golden Mosque)

Dmitry Litvinovich

Translated by Dmitry Sudakov

Author`s name Olga Savka