Propaganda and Terror in Iraq
Oh Saddam, our victorious;
Oh Saddam, our beloved;
You carry the nation's dawn
between your eyes ...
Oh Saddam everything is good
with you ...
Allah, Allah, we are happy;
Saddam lights our days ...(1)
Since the seizure of power by the Baathist movement in Iraq, terror has been employed as a central weapon of the regime. Whole villages of Kurds in the North and Shiites in the south have been ethnically cleansed. Terror reinforces a Propaganda State in which believing and participating in state propaganda has become the only means of surviving in a country where daily disappearances of opponents to the government are common. The purpose of my lecture today is to examine the interrelationship and interdependency of the use of terror and propaganda in a Propaganda State.
The Need For Propaganda
The Arab Baath (Resurrection) Socialist Party (ABSP) was founded by three French educated intellectuals: Michel Aflaq, a Christian; Salah al ditan Bitar, a Sunni Muslim and Zaki al Arsuzi, an Alawite. It is a self professed revolutionary Party with a doctrine that combines Pan Arabism with Socialism. In 1944, in an article entitled "The New Arab Generation" Aflaq wrote:
"The nation is not a numerical sum, but an "idea" (spirit) embodied either in the total or in part of it. t. The numerical total is not a holy thing and end of itself, but only in so far as it has an embodiment of the "idea" of the nation ... The leader in times of weakness of the idea and its constriction, is not one to appeal to a majority or to consensus...: He is not one to substitute numbers for the "idea", but to translate numbers into the idea. He is not the in gatherer, but the unifier ... He is the master of the idea from which he contradicts all those who contradict it."(2)
Herein lies the roots of totalitarianism in Baathist ideology and the challenge for State propaganda.
Aflaq's concept of "the idea" or "spirit" reflects the thoughts of Rousseau and his belief in the "General Will". Justice and democracy is not an expression of the will of the majority: but rather that of an existential truth. The role of the leader and the Party is to express that "General Will": The nation is constituted by those who recognize "the idea". The "idea" is expressed through the Party leader.
Only through Party organization could the thwarted sense of individual identity be realized. The Party leaders were considered the enlightened, the carriers of "the idea" or "spirit" who "represent the people before the People ... (and) ... delegate themselves to undertake this representation."(3)
Morality, normalcy and existence are only definable ideologically within the parameters of the Party , its leadership and its propaganda. The Party itself gives meaning to existence. The ideological message of the party is expounded in its propaganda in which Unity, Socialism and Freedom are the pillars of the Baathist propaganda message. The nationalism of the Baath calls for an unquestioning faith:
"... a faith that precedes all knowledge and mock definition .. the nationalism we are calling for is love before anything else ... He who loves does not ask for reason." (4)
An open expression of faith is required by the Party. State propaganda, whether rallies of support for Saddam or otherwise provide the means for expression of solidarity with the regime. Given the tenet that freedom could only be achieved through the Party Organization; a questioning of reason, a doubting of Party policy, is considered the work of the enemy and its network of agents. State propaganda gives the very meaning of being and the means of survival in Iraq.
THE LEADER SYNDROME AND THE CULT OF PERSONALITY.
The enormity of the personality cult developed by Saddam Hussein has surpassed Orwellian innovation. Pictures of the President adorn children's notebooks, houses, shops and schools. In all public institutions, in every entrance to every village a picture of the President can be found. New calendars are produced with a picture of the President on every page throughout the year. Over two hundred songs in adoration have been written. Families name their children after him. The presence of the leader of Iraq is omniscient and omnipresent. For behind the photographs, propaganda on television and radio, the statues and the tunes, lies the power of fear.
The party apparatus, shaped largely by Saddam Hussein himself, serves to place absolute power in the hands of the Leader. Saddam Hussein is the Chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, Secretary of the Regional Command, Deputy Secretary General of the National Command, President of the Republic, Prime Minister and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.
Unquestioning allegiance through state propaganda to the leader provides the only certainty of survival in a world of disappearances, arrests and arbitrary execution. The Baath Party have created a state of fear where morality and logic are indivisible from the ideology of the Baath and its state propaganda machine.
Saddam Hussein appreciated the constraints on the use of terror as a political weapon. During the Iran Iraq war the need to unite a people behind a common cause and against a common enemy became apparent. "Terror," Hussein commented, "can force people to take to the streets and to chant enthusiastic slogans for the regime, but it cannot make them fight a war for outside their own territory."(5) Iraqis had to be convinced they were fighting a just cause by other means. The means of persuasion was a propaganda campaign to an incredible peak.
"Larger than life paintings and posters of Saddam Hussein are omnipresent in Iraqi cities and villages. The paintings, several stories high, depict Saddam in his role as Field Marshal, as a businessman, as a Bedouin Arab in characteristic headdress, as a Kurd, as a comforter of bereaved children, as a devotee in prayer at the holy shrines, as an air force ace, and as a cigar smoking politician ... Baghdad's new International Airport is named after him; his face adorns calendars, clocks and watches."(6)
State propaganda compared Hussein to Hammurabi and Asurbanipal of Mesopotamian antiquity and to the two great early Islamic rulers, the Abbasid Caliphs al Mansur and Harun al Rashid. The President's birthday was declared a national holiday and in 1982 members of the Iraqi national assembly wrote in their own blood a pledge of loyalty to him.(7) Defaming the name of the President was decreed a capital punishment.
Throughout, Hussein was also doubtful of the impact of his own personality cult campaign. Once hostilities broke out with Iran, Saddam developed a "guns and butter" policy which sought to protect the home front from hardship. Public spending rose from $21 billion in 1980 to $295 billion in 1982.(8) The majority of the extended budget was spent to prevent commodity shortages. Bereaved families were granted a free car, a free plot of land and an interest free loan to build a house. (9)
During the war Saddam had placed his political future first. He had successfully projected himself as the progressive Arab leader confronting the tide of fanatical Islam. As a cease fire came into practice, the cult of personality and leader syndrome remained in tact, if not strengthened.
The Gulf War.
"Oh great Iraqi people ... the great jewel, the mother of all battles between victorious right and the evil that will certainly be defeated has begun(10) Saddam Hussein 1991
Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait on 2nd August 1990. In his 17th July speech, Saddam Hussein justified the invasion by accusing the Kuwait's Royal family of damaging Iraq's economy by exceeding it's OPEC production quota ,and purposefully forcing down the price of oil. Following the invasion, Iraq announced the creation of a nine man 'Provisional Free Kuwait Government'. Six days following the invasion, the Provisional Government was disbanded and Iraq announced the annexation of Kuwait. On the 28th August 1990, Kuwait was declared Iraq's 19th Province whilst the border area was incorporated as an extension of the province Basra. Al- Hassan al Majid, Iraq's Minister of Local Government and cousin of Saddam Hussein was appointed Governor of Kuwait.
From the onset of hostilities Saddam's war strategy was directed at drawing the allies into a premature ground offensive in Kuwait and thus enhance his chances of inflicting maximum destruction to allied forces. By attacking Israel, Hussein hoped to incite a retaliation and broaden the war into an Arab-Israeli conflict.
When the attack on Israel did not trigger the anticipated response, Hussein resorted to ecological terrorism. On January 22 Iraq began to set fire to Kuwaiti oil installations. Moreover, Iraq began pumping oil into the Persian Gulf from the Ahmadi loading complex. This move by Saddam Hussein was the first indication of a growing frustration at a lack of progress with the war.
As state propaganda expounded the virtues of the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein found himself in a "Catch 22" position of his own making on the eve of the allied ground operation Hussein, despite his desperation, could not allow himself to submit to an American ultimatum before his people. Such a capitulation, he believed, would be signing his own death warrant. Yet an unmitigated military defeat would act likewise to weaken his position.
Within less than twenty four hours the backbone of the Iraqi army would be broken. The apparently formidable line of defense in Kuwait, the "Saddam Line" collapsed with Iraqi troops surrendering en masse. The war with the coalition forces devastated Iraq. 2,500 Iraqi civilians and 70,000 - 115,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed by the allied bombing.(11) A further 70,000 to 90,000 Iraqi civilians died after the war from hunger and insufficient medical care. The coalition forces had succeeded to achieve what the Iranians had failed to do in eight years - destroy the Iraqi army and weaken Saddam Hussein state propaganda and terror machine. What had once constituted the world's forth largest military establishment, had been destroyed within one hundred hours of battles. The magnitude of defeat was not easily hidden by State propaganda.
Indications that the state propaganda machine had weakened soon became apparent. A rebellion that began in the southern city of Basra was to prove the most severe challenge to the survival of the Iraqi leader. Iraqi troops joined local citizens in attacking the organs of the central government. A giant portrait of Saddam in the city center was brought down by tank shells. Party offices, police stations, security services headquarters and prisons were ransacked. Government officials, who had not escape were killed including the City Mayor and the Governor of the Basra Province. Worse was yet to come. The Basra rebellion spread to the Shiite south of Iraq including the towns of Najarf and Karbala.
Fighting continued to spread to some Sunni towns and finally reached Baghdad. The Kurds needed little encouragement to join the battle. On March 10th 1991, 300 delegates from twenty three exile opposition groups met in Beirut in an unprecedented attempt to coordinate a joint strategy against Saddam Hussein.
During the rebellion an alternative to state propaganda emerge and was to provide an important source of news. This new phenomena was facilitated by foreign radio broadcasts hostile and contradictory to state propaganda. From Saudi Arabia 'Radio Free Iraq' urged Iraqis, specifically the Kurds to rise against Saddam. The Saudis paid for the station, but sources close to them say that CIA helped to supply the transmitters and other equipment and to recruit broadcasters. (12)
On July 8th 1991 the clandestine radio 'Voice of Iraqi Opposition' reported 5th Corps Commander Staff major General Ismat Sabir along with 45 officers had been executed for refusing to bomb populated centers in the marshland areas. (13) The next day the same radio station reported the execution of 18 officers as well as some Major Generals who were accused of attempting to stage a coup. This, it was claimed, had been the third attempt to overthrow the regime. (14) Underground press sources also revealed: "Officers, whose loyalty ... (Hussein) doubts, have been transferred to civilian posts or to posts in the police and traffic departments and to ineffective military units. The officers are angry because Saddam based the appointments on the sectarian and tribal criteria of kinship which the repudiated despot's regime pursues.." (15)
The Iraqi opposition was not alone in its euphoria regarding the success of the war and the rebellion that followed. President Bush predicted "the day of the dictator is over"(16) However the contradiction within Bush's policy emerged the moment the ground war ended. Bush had called on Iraqis to "take matters into their own hands and to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step down".(17) Yet the specter of being drawn into a Vietnam style quagmire continued to haunt the US. Administration. In Washington and Riyadh alarm began to grow at the possibility of a Shiite regime in Baghdad. A weakened Saddam, still in power, became to be considered a least of all evils and Hussein's use of political terror to quell the uprising was to be given a silent approval by the US. The uprising was to prove ineffectual against the might of the Iraqi regime.
Today Saddam Hussein, although weakened by international sanctions and the defection of family member to Jordan, remains firmly in power. Most of the state propaganda machine has been rebuilt, as have the means to rule a nation by terror.
As before the war, the Iraqi people are subjected to propaganda and subjugated by it. Their only hope is in the hands of the international community.
- Theme tune to the Iraqi evening news.Quoted in "US News and World Report" September 1989. p.37
- Alfaq: "The New Arab Generation"; Fi Sabil 1944, pps. 61, 63; Samil Al-Khalil: "Republic of Fear"; Hutchinson, London, 1989. Opp Cit; pps. 195 - 196.
- Aflaq: Ibid; pps. 116 - 117. Quoted by Al-Khalil; Ibid, p. 121
- Michel Aflaq: Fi Sabil; Opp Cit, pps. 29 - 30; quoted in Al Khalil, Opp Cit, p. 190.
- Saddam's interview with al-Siyasa (Kuwait) January 17th 1981. Quoted in Efraim Karsh and Inari Rausti Opp Cit p.151
- Staff Report to The Committee of Foreign Relations U.S Senate, "War in the Persian Gulf: the U.S Takes Sides" (Washington U.S. Government Printing Office 1987) p.19. Quoted in " Middle East Watch" Opp Cit p.16
- Middle East Contemporary Survey 1982-3 Westview Press for the Shilo Institute Tel Aviv University p.p 555-566
- Kanovsky "Economic Implications" p.236. Quoted in Efraim Karsh and Inari Rausti: "Saddam Hussein - A Political Biography"; Fontana Books, 1991; p. 1539. Financial Times (London) March 16th 1982
- Baghdad Domestic Service January 17th 1991 Quoted in Efraim Karsh and Inari Rausti Opp Cit, p. 245.
- The Jerusalem Post "70,000 Iraqi Civilians Died after the War" 10th January 1991
- Newsweek "A Quagmire After All" April 29th 1991. P. 12 - 14
- Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) July 9th 1991. p.32 "Voice of Iraqi Opposition" in Arabic 1300 GM4 July 8th 1991
- FBIS July 9th 1991 p.32 "Voice of Iraq in Opposition" in Arabic 0442 GMT July 9th 1991
- Voice of the Iraqi People: 1600 GMT; 5th May 1992.Quoted in FBIS, 12th May 1992. p. 22
- International Herald Tribune March 2nd 1991
- The Times (London) March 2nd 1991