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Siege mentality.

ROWS AND ROWS of bare and colourless cement high rises and the drab grey sky are all one sees walking down the once beautiful avenues of Baghdad. The ten-foot high heroic paintings of Saddam Hussein have largely been replaced by intricate art structures which have paintings of the Iraqi leader as a construction overseer, a doctor, a soldier and a father as their centre piece.

Cars honk their horns, an impoverished people scurry past one another and the soldiers sit on rooftops with their anti-aircraft guns tilted towards the sky. The old balconies on the two-storey buildings, the elegant Egyptian-style shutters and the baroque decor on the buildings have given way to huge concrete skyscrapers of grey, pale yellow and peach colours.

A good 80% of the Iraqi women visible on the street who wear either Western or traditional dress are still attired in black. According to official Iraqi figures, 10% of all married women are war widows. The Ministry of Trade recently made an application to the UN sanctions committee to import 215 boxes of black textile. The UN deferred taking a decision, asking for more clarification on the textiles' use.

The black clothes, the bleak high-rise buildings and the multi-lane avenues are all part of the modern Iraq that Saddam Hussein, the man from the town of central Iraqi town of Tikrit who claims he is a descendant of the prophet Mohammed, has built.

As 1993 began, warnings and air attacks by members of the US-led coalition again confirmed the continuation of the embargo of Iraq until Saddam is gone. But after more than a decade of almost continuous warfare, internal rebellions and internationally imposed economic sanctions, Saddam Hussein is still the unquestioned leader of the country

"There are obvious contradictions in the policies of the West towards Iraq and Saddam Hussein," says Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, one of Iraq's foremost intellectuals and poet laureate. "They |the West~ gave us military might by selling us every form of military hardware available and the ingredients to make other weapons, and then they come to destroy them.

"Then the West encourages a rebellion in the south and the north and fails to back up either fully. It is a false policy, a policy of hypocrisy." He dismisses any pretention that the United States has humanitarian motives as "ridiculous - it's the rule of the mongrels." But Jabra's disdain of the West, which is shared by many Iraqi intellectuals who believe the West is hypocritical and self-serving, is not really shared by the government itself.

While verbally lashing out against the new American secretary of defence, Les Aspin, for an "arrogant and belligerent response" to the Iraqi initiative of offering a unilateral ceasefire in January, Iraq's vice-president, Tariq Aziz, has clearly indicated Iraq's eagerness to make peace with the United States. "If the new administration shows any willingness to have a new relationship |with Iraq~, that would be very much welcome," he told CNN television after President Clinton's inauguration.

While Aziz is Saddam Hussein's diplomatic spokesman to the West, others in the ruling clique are more forthright. "We have no problem with US interests in this region," said Taha Yassin Ramadan, one of the ideological fathers of the Iraqi Baath Party who also holds the post of vice-president and sits on the Revolutionary Command Council. "The strategic interests of the US and our interests in the region are hardly different - we both want stability," he told The Middle East in a rare interview.

While failing to address Iraqi-Kuwaiti relations, Ramadan was making overtures to Saudi Arabia in no uncertain terms as well. "We want peaceful co-existence with our Arab brothers in Saudi Arabia. We are as much concerned about regional security as anyone else."

This about-face policy which the current Iraqi leadership is evidently planning to implement will need some reaction from the other parties, however. So far there has been little sign of hope.

The only non-Iraqi leader to have visited Baghdad to date is the PLO chief, Yasser Arafat. His mission was to debrief the Iraqi leadership on efforts being made by other Arab heads of state, notably King Hassan of Morocco and King Hussein of Jordan, to close Arab ranks and encourage a reconciliation between Iraq and the West.

"We are waiting for a response from the US leadership. In two or three months' time at the latest, we hope that a new policy towards co-existence with Iraq will have been formulated by the Clinton administration," said the minister of trade, Mohammed Mehdi Saleh, who is one of the leading lobbyists for lifting sanctions against Iraq.

Iraqi officials are well aware of the recent attention that growing industrial and military power in Iran have been receiving in Western think-tanks and the media. Hoping to capitalise on the West's traditional attempt to play the two Gulf giants off against one another, they hope the West will turn to Iraq once again to fend off the "Iranian threat".

"We know that the Russians were upset at the recent waves of attacks against us, mainly because they believe that it would be strategically unwise to weaken us further while Iran's power grows," said a political science professor at the University of Baghdad, Mahmoud Taha. "We believe both the Americans and the Saudis are interested in keeping Iran in check and that has traditionally been done by strengthening us."

The issue of democracy and liberalisation of the Iraqi political system was a major topic of conversation after the end of the war with Iran in 1988. The short-lived appointment of Saddoun Hamadi, a relative liberal in Baathist terms, as deputy premier during the period gave some credibility to the notion of political decentralisation. It has entirely evaporated today.

"We are not concerned with democracy right now," says Jabra. "We need a ceasefire, then we need stability and then we can talk about political liberalisation." While not a member of the Baath party, he is in favour of the secular character of the Baath regime.

No Iraqis any longer believe that democratisation or multi-party rule will be broached while Saddam Hussein remains in power. "This system is a one party system. It is a totalitarian system and thus popular consent does not come into the decision making process," according to Professor Taha.

"We will not have democracy under this regime. There is no hope of that. But we do hope that there will be a ceasefire between Iraq and the West and maybe a lifting of the non-military sanctions."

Many Iraqis fear that a violent end to Saddam Hussein could mean internal upheavals which would divide the country. Worse still, many believe it could throw Iraq into a long period of civil strife pitting the more affluent Sunni Muslim and Christian ruling class against the impoverished Shias in the south and the rebellious and independent-minded Kurds in the north. "We need a strong ruler to keep Iraq together and a mechanism which will eventually allow for a stable transition from a totalitarian system to a more pluralistic system," says Professor Taha.

Any attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein from within is dismissed as "an unrealistic option" by most Iraqis. As the Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani, recently responded when asked about ending the rule of the Iraqi president, "the Kurds fought him for ten years in the 1970s and 1980s, the Iranians fought him eight years, a 33-nation alliance sanctioned him and made war against him, the south and north rose up against him - and still he is there. Tell me, just what do you want us to do? Let it be for now, and accept that he leads the Iraqi people."
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Title Annotation:Iraq's foreign relations with the West
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Words:1275
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