I’ve been reading Andrew and Patrick Cockburn’s 1999 book, Out of the Ashes, a history of Saddam Hussein’s survival post-1991.
It’s a real eye-opener for a number of reasons. For one, it vividly illustrates the devastating effects on Iraqi society of the UN sanctions, imposed after Saddam’s Kuwait adventure and lifted only after his downfall 13 years later. But the truly illuminating part, at least for me, is the Cockburns’ account of how, starting in 1992, the Baath Party was sidelined as Saddam sought to ally himself with the country’s powerful tribal sheikhs:
The heightened profile of these traditional groupings was paralleled by the declining importance of the Baath Party organization which between the revolution of 1968 and the Gulf War had tightened its grip over Iraqi civil society by controlling all civic organizations. Faleh Jabber, formerly a leading member of the once powerful Iraqi Communist Party and an acute observer of Iraqi politics, cited a telling example of these two trends in a perceptive essay. ‘The telegrams of support sent to the President on Army Day and National Day are no longer from trade unions, students’ organizations, professional societies, political parties or other modern social groups,’ he wrote in 1994. ‘Nowadays they are signed by tribal sheikhs whose tribes are named and even the number of their tribe members is given. The revival of old social classes seems clearly intended to forge new social alliances, particularly in the south.’
Although Saddam courted both Sunni and Shia sheikhs, this bit of historical background is particularly relevant to post-2003 Anbar and its Sahwa movement. Sunni tribal leaders, used to Saddam’s pampering but stripped of their power by the invading Americans, should’ve been co-opted the moment Baghdad fell. Instead, the U.S. chose to attack Baathists, evidently ignorant of their organisation’s decline. It took the U.S. military two blood-filled years to realise their mistake, and another two to bring the sheikhs back to the fold. Like Saddam, they used bribes and flattery, conscious of the fact that the allegiance they had purchased remained slippery at best.
The Bush Administration and its representatives in Baghdad could have gained a lot of insight just by reading the Cockburns’ book. I bought it second-hand from Amazon. But I guess reading isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.