August 7, 2010

Tariq 'Aziz critical of U.S. policy - what a surprise

Tariq 'Aziz was the former deputy prime minister of Iraq under Saddam Husayn. When I was in Baghdad as a liaison officer to the Iraqi Directorate of Military Intelligence in 1988, 'Aziz was also the foreign minister of the country and an integral part of the decision to accept U.S intelligence support during the last year of the Iran-Iraq War.

Some background might be useful. Tariq 'Aziz was born Mikhayl Yuhanna in a suburb of al-Mawsil (Mosul). As you can tell from the name, he is not an Arab, but an Assyrian, nor is he a Muslim - he is a member of the Chaldean Christian Church (affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church). Those two factors were partially responsible for his rise in the Ba'th Party and in the regime of Saddam Husayn. There was no way that a non-Arab Christian was going to pose a threat to the continued rule of Saddam Husayn. He himself could not assume the leadership position, and his gratitude for his position guaranteed loyalty to the dictator. 'Aziz's protestations to the contrary, Saddam Husayn was a dictator of the worst order.

Okay, I said that I was in Iraq providing American intelligence to the Iraqi armed forces during the last year of the 1980-1988 Iran Iraq War. If Saddam was a "dictator of the worst order" as I describe him, then what were we doing as a country assisting him? For the long answer, I refer you to my book, Ally to Adversary An Eyewitness Account of Iraq's Fall from Grace (Naval Institute Press, 1999). In the "small world" category, when Tariq 'Aziz's house in Baghdad was raided by U.S. Army troops in 2003, they found a copy of my book in his library. I think I'll take that as a compliment.

The shorrter answer - it was not about Saddam Husayn and Iraq, it was about the Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran. By 1987, the war had been raging for seven years and was a bloodbath on both sides. It was obvious to military analysts at both the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency that if the war continued into 1988 and the Iranians launched their expected spring offensive, Iraq would lose the war. President Ronald Reagan decided that an Iranian victory in the war - and its repercussions in the region - were unacceptable outcomes for American foreign policy. He directed that the Defense Department begin providing intelligence to the Iraqis to make sure that Iran did not win the war.

To that end, another officer and I made our way to Baghdad overland via Kuwait and up the roads in southern Iraq crowded with military traffic. When we reached Baghdad, we met with the deputy director of military intelligence Brigadier Wafiq al-Samarra'i. (Al-Samarra'i defected to the West after Desert Storm and joined the opposition). We proposed to provide intelligence assistance to the Iraqis - it took a few days to receive an answer. The delay was the decision process involving Saddam Husayn and Tariq 'Aziz. They agreed and we began the intelligence support that - along with Iraq's deplorable use of chemical weapons - turned the tide of the war.

Recently, 'Aziz gave his first interview since his arrest. Not surprisingly, he claims that the West (read the United States and the United Kingdom) has misjudged Saddam Husayn. In his words, "He is a man who history will show served his country." He also said Iraq was now much worse off.

I guess that all depends on your perspective and who you ask.

The Kurds are certainly better off - there is no more
t'arib, the Arabization program that forced them to use Arabic as their official language, resettled thousands of Kurds to the Shi'a south and thousands of Shi'a to the Kurdish north, no more chemical agent attacks such as that at Halabjah in 1988 in which thousands of Kurds died. We discovered later that the attack was a test of the weapons later used against Iranian troops. I guess if forcibly uprooting thousands of citizens or using them as human guinea pigs is serving your country, Saddam certainly served.

Despite the rhetoric of radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shi'a Iraqis are much better off without Saddam Husayn. It was the Shi'a youth that bore a disproportionate share of the casualties in the Iran-Iraq and Gulf wars. Before the overthrow of Saddam, they had little input into the political system that ran the country - now they hold the majority. The two men competing to form a new coalition government and serve as prime minister are both Shi'a - both had been persecuted (and one almost assassinated) under Saddam Husayn. I guess Tariq 'Aziz also considers that service to his country.

Perhaps some of the Sunni Arabs are not better off now that Saddam Husayn and the Ba'th Party are gone, but they probably deserve their fate. Other Sunnis, including the tribes in the areas north of Baghdad and south of the Kurdish area, are certainly better off.

All that said, Tariq 'Aziz is an astute man. He does agree with me on an issue that I have written about before - the withdrawal of American combat forces from Iraq based on a politically-imposed timetable rather than the security situation in the country. See my earlier piece,
Differences in the Iraq casualty count - math or politics? Like me, he believes that pulling out combat units before the country is stable is a mistake, in his words, "leaving Iraq to the wolves."

Tariq, you have good taste in literature, to be sure, and you understand that a politically driven withdrawal date is a mistake, but your romanticized memory of the Iraq under Saddam Husayn defies reality. Maybe you can sell it to someone who never lived in Saddam's Iraq, but don't try to sell it to me - I saw what Saddam Husayn (and you) did to the country and its people. Of course, you still have 14 more years as a guest of the new Iraqi government to reflect on that.