Coups led to emergence of Saddam

April 14, 2003|by TAMELA BAKER

Smithsburg resident Larry Sharpe remembers another regime change in Iraq "like it was yesterday," he said.

The former Hagerstown Community College instructor was a U.S. consul in neighboring Iran in the summer of 1958. Three years before, Iraq and Turkey had entered into a military security agreement called the Baghdad Pact.

Britain and Pakistan eventually signed on as well, and "there had been a lot of effort to get Iran to join," Sharpe said. There was a celebration in Tehran when Iran signed the pact.

"There were about 100 of us in a room" for the occasion, Sharpe said. "Nuri as Said was prime minister of Iraq, and it was rumored he would be there for the signing."


The room suddenly went quiet, Sharpe said, and the crowd "parted like the Red Sea" as Said walked in.

"You could hear people chanting 'Nuri, Nuri' " as the Iraqi premier passed by, Sharpe recalled.

"Two weeks later, he was tied to the front of a Mercedes-Benz and driven through the streets of Baghdad at 60 miles an hour."

Iraq's monarch, King Faisal II, also was killed in the first of several violent coups that would rock the beleaguered nation for the next decade and lead to the emergence of Saddam Hussein.

Broken promises

The seeds of political instability not only of Iraq, but of the Middle East as a whole were sown 40 years earlier at the end of World War I, according to Dr. Hoda Zaki, chairman of the Department of History and Political Science at Hood College.

"In the 20th century, Iraq - like all of the Middle East - was colonized," Zaki said.

Britain and France had promised Arabs that if they fought against the Germans and the Ottoman Turks during the war, they would be given political independence, she said.

What the Arabs did not know was that France and Britain had secretly agreed to divide the Middle East between them, she said. The Sykes-Picot treaty of 1916 placed much of the area that became Iraq and Jordan under British influence, and the area of the "Fertile Crescent," including Baghdad and Basra, under direct British control. The northern city of Mosul was under French influence, as was part of Syria.

A portion of Palestine, once known as Judea but renamed by the Romans after they put down a Jewish uprising in 136 A.D., was declared an international zone. The League of Nations, precursor to the United Nations, later formalized Britain's control over Mesopotamia, which received the Arab name "Iraq."

Such Western maneuvers "created boundaries of division sometimes without regard to ethnic populations," Zaki said.

For Iraq, the new boundaries drawn after the war lumped together three disparate groups - the Kurds in the north, the Shi-ia Muslims in the south and the Sunni Muslims in the center.

"The borders were done by surveyors," Sharpe said.

Documents from the period show some in Britain foresaw the long-term political problems that have plagued the country ever since. Writing in London's Sunday Times in the summer of 1920, Lt. Col. T.E. Lawrence, the legendary "Lawrence of Arabia," said "the people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour things are far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows."

The following year, Sharpe said, Britain installed a monarch from the Hashemite family, the same family that rules modern-day Jordan. In 1932, Iraq formally gained its independence from Britain, although Britain briefly took control again during World War II to prevent Iraqi alliances with the Nazis.

After the war, a pro-Britain government headed by the Hashemite royal family and a prime minister led Iraq until the 1958 military coup of Gen. Abdul Karim Qassim, who replaced the murdered Said as prime minister. The monarchy ended.

Power plays

After that, Iraq's government was marred by a series of coups, attempted coups and counter-coups. And one name popped up again and again until finally in 1979, he became, in Sharpe's words, "head honcho": Saddam Hussein.

Hussein's Ba'ath party, a prime target in Operation Iraqi Freedom, came to prominence in the 1960s, taking permanent control in 1968. As Zaki and Sharpe both note, the party - also active in Syria - is secular and socialist in nature, unlike a number of Arab political parties.

Zaki said differences among political parties in the Arab world developed as they did in the last century because of "differences of opinion on how to achieve statehood."

Yet Arabs also have developed a common feeling of nationalism and a desire for political sovereignty, she said, which helps account for the war protests in the Middle East.

"Because they shared a common language, they developed what is called the Arab Umma, or community. There are very strong and very real links" between Arab countries, including her native Egypt, Zaki said.

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