The public profile of the foreign jihadists frequently obscures the Islamic State’s roots in the bloody recent history of Iraq – its brutal excesses as much a symptom as a cause of the country’s woes.
The raw cruelty of Hussein’s Baathist regime – the disbandment of the Iraqi army after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 – the subsequent insurgency and the marginalization of Sunni Iraqis by the Shiite-dominated government all are intertwined with the Islamic State’s ascent – said Hassan Hassan – a Dubai-based analyst and co-author of the book ‘ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror’.
‘A lot of people think of the Islamic State as a terrorist group and it’s not useful’ Hassan said.
‘It is a terrorist group – but it is more than that.
It is a homegrown Iraqi insurgency and it is organic to Iraq’.
The de-Baathification law promulgated by L. Paul Bremer – Iraq’s American ruler in 2003 – has long been identified as one of the contributors to the original insurgency.
At a stroke 400,000 members of the defeated Iraqi army were barred from government employment – denied pensions — and also allowed to keep their guns.
It wasn’t one dinner but years of lunches and dinners because my father was his private pilot. At times my parents would be in their bed falling asleep when suddenly they had to wake up and entertain Saddam in the middle of the night – making sure that they looked bright and excited.
He was charismatic and engaging but he also spread fear. In the midst of one family lunch he asked everyone what they thought of Napoleon. At face value you would think that’s just a lunch conversation among friends. And that is indeed how one friend answered saying: ‘Napoleon is a man who rolled down from the hill of power as fast he rose up to it’.
Saddam answered: ‘Are you referring to Napoleon or are you referring to Napoleon [referring to himself]?’ If there is such thing as air leaving the room then that was that moment. His switch from friendliness to anger was common and we all knew he killed friends and relatives; no one would be spared.
My family and their friend survived that incident but it was impossible to avoid all faux pas. At another dinner we were surprised to find juicy grapes. My mother’s friend could not contain her excitement. ‘What do you mean?’ he told her. ‘All of Iraqis have access to this grape’.
Everyone froze. It was not true: at times Iraqis lined for hours to get even basic food items such as eggs or chicken.
Saddam was the Mary Antoinette of Iraq; he thought everyone had what he had while most of his population were terrified – short of food and mourning the deaths of those who died in the three wars he’d put the country through.
Yet he believed he was loved.
In examining the run-up to the war the importance of one agreement is often overlooked. In 1975 Iran and Iraq signed the Algiers Accord. This agreement of convenience suited both Saddam – who was increasingly in power but not in office until 1979 – and the Shah. It demarcated their disputed borders and allowed Saddam to crush the Kurds in the north of Iraq who had been getting help from Iran.
But it also de facto established the Shah as the Gulf’s policeman. This was a role that Saddam cherished but was not yet ready for. When the Shah was overthrown – Saddam, with the blessing of Washington – became the policeman and was encouraged and paid handsomely by the Gulf Sheikhs to topple the Ayatollah whose Shia revolution they saw as a direct threat to their Sunni power.
In August 1980 Saddam visited Riyadh where the green light was given and in September Iraq invaded Iran. It was meant to be all over by Ramadan. Iran the feeling went – was in turmoil – its officer corps decimated through exile or executions and its Shah-era United States-supplied equipment was lacking spare parts. Piece of cake.
Then the trenches were dug – poison gas used and a war of attrition ensued. Eight years later it ended but like in 1918 the seeds of further conflict were sown. Both countries were exhausted and financially fragile. Whatever his shortcomings in executing the war Saddam felt he had saved the Gulf sheikhdoms and was worthy of greater respect – especially from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Above all – he wanted more money.