Tue, May 20, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Arab world will have to rethink the rebuilt Iraq

Most Arab states have avoided criticism of Saddam Hussein's rule, but that will change as more atrocities are revealed

By Awad Nasir

With the end of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's regime, the scope of his brutalization of the Iraqi people is becoming clear. Mass graves are being unearthed and torture chambers opened. Countless Iraqis now openly recount horrifying stories of the murder and disappearance of loved ones.

In the other Arab states, the political leadership and the media have not dwelled much on these aspects of Saddam's rule. They have good reason for avoiding such close scrutiny. Many of them benefited directly from Saddam's rule. Examining what he did in Iraq means examining their own role in supporting more than three decades of brutality.

The heyday of Saddam's relations with the Arab world came during the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s. Saddam's attack on Iran allayed the fears of Arab regimes that Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran would export its Islamic revolution. The late Jordanian monarch King Hussein would join Saddam in inspecting the frontlines. The Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, offered Saddam massive financial and media support.

Egypt's centers of power, such as its army, businessmen, journalists and ideological parties, played a prominent role in supporting Saddam's war against Iran. Syria was the sole exception to this chorus of Arab approval for Saddam, because its late leader, President Hafez al Assad, had aligned himself with Iran.

Saddam's brutality within Iraq also served his neighbors' purposes. He repressed the Shiites, the traditional opponents of Sunni-dominated regimes in the region. He suppressed the Kurds, reassuring both Turkey and Syria, countries with sizeable -- and restive -- minority populations of their own. Indeed, by stifling any hint of democracy or political opposition in Iraq, Saddam's police state eliminated all risk of possible contagion of neighboring states.

Outside Iraq, Saddam understood the uses of wealth and influence as a means of gaining friends. He put his oil reserves to good use, providing Jordan and Syria -- each a failing economy -- with deeply discounted supplies, assuring their goodwill.

Saddam also focussed his attention on the media in the Arab world, understanding their power in controlling and regimenting an audience. Saddam spent unreservedly, buying off politicians, journalists, writers and artists in Iraq, the Arab world and beyond. Through a large and interlocking network of security and media organizations, Saddam financed scores of newspapers and magazines, lavishing on their hack writers sums of money that were unimaginable to ordinary Arab journalists.

A political-intelligence-media network was constantly at work. Arab writers and artists invited to Saddam-sponsored cultural events would invariably find a pleasant surprise when opening brief cases distributed as presents -- wads of dollars would be stuffed inside. For favored supporters, the rewards could be much greater: mansions, luxurious apartments, the latest cars.

Dozens of Arab intellectuals engaged in this kind of business with Saddam. In the Arab world many of these people are literary celebrities, film idols, and media stars. Recently discovered documents reveal that hundreds of them received money and gifts from Saddam or his henchmen.

At the center of this network were the cultural organizations that Saddam established in Arab and other capitals. Iraqi embassies acted as media centers, along with their despicable role in hunting dissidents of all political stripes. The sole concern of these lavishly-funded front organizations was to sell Saddam abroad and discredit his opponents.

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