Saddam Turned Neighbor Against Neighbor

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Dr. Rabil served with Red Cross in Lebanon, taught at Suffolk University, and currently is the project manager of Iraq Research and Documentation Project at the Iraq Foundation, Washington, DC. He is the author of Embattled Neighbors: Syria, Israel, and Lebanon (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2003).

If the United States overthrows Saddam Hussein, one of the most difficult and important postwar decisions will be finding those guilty of war crimes and punishing them, while not penalizing those unwillingly forced to do evil deeds by the regime itself.

In this respect, it is important to understand that Iraq's government, like the former Communist regimes of Europe, has developed a web that made many of its citizens into informers and persecutors of the rest.

Examining thousands of official Iraqi documents captured during the Kuwait war has shown me how thoroughly the regime's highest levels coordinated and supervised a system designed to turn the maximum number of Iraqis into accomplices. Saddam's idea was that the more people collaborated with the regime, the less willing they were to oppose it-and the more frightened they would be about their fate if it was to be overthrown.

In this respect, Saddam strove to spread the responsibility of guilt with regard to human rights violations and atrocities committed by the regime. Thanks to this policy, there exists no civil or societal structure in Iraq outside the state and the Ba'th party.

Of many interconnected procedures, one served as a basis for the penetration and atomization of Iraq's society, including its nucleus, the family. Through a comprehensive and methodical system, the regime with the help of the Security apparatus strove to deepen the population's dependence on the state for services and employment. Central to this policy was the objective to turn Iraqis into spies and executioners of the regime's policies. In order for any Iraqi to have a certain job, become an agent of a company, acquire a sales license, or practice a profession, his application could not be processed before it was reviewed and approved by Security.

Approval would be solely based on the applicant's readiness to "cooperate" with Security and thus becoming an informer. Correspondingly, Security would disapprove applications whose owners refused to cooperate with the authorities to provide information in Ba'thi lexicon on "everything that might negatively affect the public welfare," including delicate information on their own families. The regime would heap financial and promotional rewards on those who would cooperate. Those who declined to cooperate would not only lose their chances for employment but would also become targets of reprisal.

At the same time, Saddam deepened the ethnic, religious, social, and political divides in the country. On the one hand, he intensified the enmity and rivalry among and between Iraq's communities, thereby creating a collective national distrust. Iraqis could justify their cooperation with the regime no less on the grounds of inescapable dependency on the state for survival than on the notion that "if I did not cooperate with the regime others would." On the other hand, he brutally forged a symbiosis between tribal traditions, Ba'th ideology, and his personality cult. The corollary of this sanctified policy was that Saddam nurtured the creation of a class of oppressors by infusing Iraq's society with an atmosphere of malignant and survivalist narcissism whereby Iraqis rationalized their behavior.

Consequently, although the regime pressured Iraqis into collaboration, it faced neither a shortage of recruits nor executioners of its policies. Significantly enough, thanks to Saddam's equal opportunity oppression, these recruits and executioners, with Security personnel standing at the forefront, were not confined to a single ethnic or religious community.

Needless to say, Security participated in and supervised the most horrible actions and atrocities committed by the regime. In the name of national security, Security executed, detained, tortured, disfigured, deported, and displaced Iraqis collectively or individually. Importantly, rarely did Security officials wrestle with moral questions or defect from the apparatus.

This is Saddam's legacy, the legacy of spreading the responsibility of guilt by victimizing Iraqis and turning a significant number of them into the regime's willing and unwilling executioners of its policies and actions. This is the sad and harsh reality of Iraq that morally needs to change.

If Saddam is going to be attacked, the United States must make clear that it will not persecute those who have been forced to collaborate with it. And any postwar American authorities, as well as the new Iraqi government, will have to be generous in understanding that forced collaboration--even against members of their own family--was one more way in which the Iraqi people were victimized. At the same time, though, this is also one more crime for which Iraq's rulers and security forces are responsible.

This article is excerpted from Robert Rabil's"The Making of Saddam's Executioners: A Manual of Oppression by Procedure," Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal (March 2003). For a free subscription to MERIA Journal, write gloria@idc.ac.il. To see all previous issues and MERIA materials visit http://meria.idc.ac.il and http://gloria.idc.ac.il.

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More Comments:

Ushan Pradeep - 4/19/2003

Dear sir,
If you have any infomation and articals about the Hstory of the Ba'th party of Iraq please e-mail to my address
Thank you

Gus Moner - 2/25/2003

I see nothing new here, in historical fact or new information, that has not already been said or done. All the totalitarian regimes through the past century did much the same, each with their own cultural biases, of course. Can we forget Pinochet, Hoennecker, Cecescu, etc? What's new here?

David Nichols - 2/24/2003

An informative and perceptive article, and unfortunately one whose lessons will probably not be heeded by the Bush administration. The Washington Post reported last Friday that "a large number of current officials would be retained" by the American proconsulate in Iraq after the overthrow of Hussein. The U.S. State and Defense Departments promise a series of "de-Baathification" measures to separate the war criminals from the ordinary functionaries, but as Rabil makes clear such distinctions may prove meaningless. Most of Saddam's "class of oppressors" will remain in power under the Bush administration's policy of decapitation-and-stabilization, making a mockery of the United States' promise to bring democracy to the region.