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Bunkered down.

After the US-led air strikes against Iraq, Saddam Hussein seems as immoveable as ever. If anything, fresh evidence of Western hostility has reinforced his position. But his authority is increasingly restricted to Iraq's Sunni heartland as the Kurdish north and the Shia south drift beyond his control. One of his most important assets at present is the disorganisation of the opposition. The other, as Miriam Shahin reports in an accompanying article, is the fear in Baghdad of a chaotic future without Saddam.

SADDAM HUSSEIN's ability to remain in power is a wonder to outsiders after the humiliation and deprivation he has brought down on the Iraqi people. But unpopular though he may be, the regime has been remarkably successful in deflecting anger towards the West and the United States, the agents if not the progenitors of Iraq's misfortune.

Fear is one element in Saddam's durability. The inability of occasional dissident army officers to succeed in mounting a coup d'etat (and the retribution wrought afterwards) are enough to render the most hardened conspirators down-hearted. The security machine is perceived as too pervasive to make the effort to unseat Saddam a worthwhile enterprise.

In addition, however, a great number of Iraqis have an interest in keeping the Baath party in power, even without Saddam at its head. In the quarter century since the Baathists imposed single-party dictatorship, they have created a structure of control and complicity which effectively ties careers and well-being to the maintenance of the system. The party is adept at manipulating the levers of influence. In the army, not surprisingly, they are exercised to most effect. In January, for example, officers serving in the mutinous south were promised a cash bonus.

Saddam may retain his grip on Baghdad and the Sunni Arab central region of Iraq. It is the fear of the Kurdish north and the Shia south breaking away -- and the chaos which would ensue -- that reinforces loyalty to the regime in the capital. Paradoxically, the conflicting interests of the opposition groups also helps to bolster Saddam's position.

The Kurds, for example, have an important tactical interest in seeing Saddam survive, at least for a while. For so long as the Baghdad regime remains a threat to the Kurds' physical survival, they can hope that UN protection, under the West's Operation Poised Hammer, will be implemented. The replacement of the Baathist government by a motley regime made up of the opposition Iraqi National Congress (INC) would not necessarily be to the Sunni Kurds' advantage, especially if it was dominated by Shias with Islamic fundamentalist preferences.

Since holding elections last year and creating their own autonomous administration, the Kurds have placed more importance on establishing and preserving their own institutions than on cooperating with the INC. Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic party (KDP), and Jalal Talabani, head of the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), have forsworn their traditional rivalry in favour of maintaining a united Kurdish front.

By contrast, they have been reluctant to allow the INC to set up a solid operational base in the areas under Kurdish control, let alone to encourage the formation of anything resembling an Iraqi Liberation Army into which their own well-tested guerrilla forces would be absorbed. Given the uncertainty surrounding Iraq's future, this would be tantamount to surrendering the Kurds' principal weapon of resistance. One of their major fears is that a unified opposition army and disaffected units from Saddam's forces would turn upon them.

The Kurds are particularly suspicious of the pretensions of the Tehran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), headed by Mohammed Bakr al Hakim.

They have refused suggestions that Al Hakim's "Badr Brigade" should move its base to Kurdish-controlled areas on the grounds that it is under the control of Iran.

The credibility of the INC is further undermined by disagreement between the fragmented secular exile groups and SCIRI. Al Hakim and his followers initially failed to join the INC when it was set up early last year. When they did so after the unified opposition met in Iraqi Kurdistan last September, Al Hakim refused to take a place on the organisation's presidential council because of its collective leadership. SCIRI and the rest of the INC are also divided over their response to Western air strikes against Saddam Hussein. The INC's executive committee in London backs external attacks on the Baghdad government. SCIRI says (with some justification) that they distract attention from the regime's internal problems.
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Title Annotation:Current Affairs; Iraq's politics
Author:Shahin, Miriam
Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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