For the global citizen, Tariq Ali needs hardly any introduction. Born in Lahore into a Communist family in 1943, Tariq was sent to England for studies, mainly for his personal safety. His uncle who headed the military intelligence was convinced that his nephew stood a good chance of being incarcerated in Pakistan, even running the risk of getting killed by the state. Tariq flourished in Oxford and became president of the Oxford Union in 1965. At the time of the global outrage against America’s war on Vietnam, Tariq became famous with his much publicized debate with Henry Kissinger. There is a historical depth in Ali’s book that is so refreshing and rare. The book was first published in 2003 in London. The author has written an introduction to the Indian edition. “The account of Iraqi history offered in this book is a painful one. No happy endings are in sight.” In 1258, Baghdad fell to the Mongols. A conversation between the Mongol chief Hulegu and the fallen Caliph, as recorded by philosopher al –Tusi (d.1274) is interesting: The King(Hulegu) went to examine the Caliph’s residence and walked about it in every direction.
The Caliph was fetched and ordered presents to be offered. Whatever he brought out the King at once distributed amongst his suite and emirs, as well as among military leaders and all those present. He then set a golden tray before the Caliph and said: ‘Eat!’ ‘It is not edible’, said the Caliph. ‘Then why didst thou keep it’, asked the King, ‘and not give it to thy soldiers? And why didst thou not make these iron doors into arrow-heads and come to the banks of the river so that I might not have been able to cross it?’ ‘Such,’ replied the Caliph, ‘was God’s will.’ ‘What will befall thee,’ said the King, ‘is also God’s will.’
Can we imagine a similar conversation between George Bush and Saddam Hussein?
The first chapter following the introduction is titled ‘The Jackals’ Wedding’ after a poem of the same title by Saadi Youssef, a patriotic Iraqi poet living in exile in Damascus as the American occupiers have prohibited his entry. In southern Iraq, on a summer’s night, in order to recover from the day’s heat, people in the villages often sleep in the open air, underneath a star-lit sky. “Their peace is sometimes disturbed by a conclave of noisy jackals, some engaged in mating, others clamouring to be next, and a few simply quarrelling. After an hour or more it reaches a climax. By this time the noise and the stench is unbearable. Suddenly, the animals depart. Next time they will meet elsewhere, but wherever and whenever they do, the villagers recall, with disgust, the nights disturbed by a ‘jackals’ wedding’. For Tariq Ali, the Interim Governing Council appointed by the occupier, resembled a jackals’ wedding.
Thanks to cyber connectivity, the poem of Saadi Youssef reached Baghdad and Basrah within minutes and many Iraqis started referring to the Interim Council as the jackals’ wedding. The poem ends on a defiant note: I’ll spit in the jackals’ faces, I’ll spit on their lists, I’ll declare that we are the people of Iraq- we are the ancestral trees of this land, proud beneath our modest roof of bamboo. Tariq Ali considers that all Iraqi collaborators belong to a single party, ICP, the Iraqi Collaborators’ Party. Adnan Pachachi, the temporary speaker of the Iraqi parliament has been a collaborator. But before the invasion, he told the Financial Express (March3,2003) he declined to take part in any arrangements for a post-Saddam Iraq for the reason that ‘serving as an advisory body attached to a US military administration would be damaging and unacceptable.” The chapter titled ‘An Oligarchy of Racketeers’ sums up the history of Iraq from the first decade of the twentieth century till the 1958 revolution. A month after the First World War began, Lord Kitchener in his capacity as Minister for War, sent a hand-written letter to the Sharif of Mecca and his son Abdullah. The Iraq that the British brought into being at the end of the First World War was a colonial state with the British High Commissioner wielding real power. An outsider (Feisal) was imposed on the people as their king. Nuri al-Said, formerly an officer who served in the Ottoman Army, played Iago to Feisal’s Othello. When Feisal protested at the overbearing attitude of his British protector, the High Commissioner “was unscrupulous in mobilizing sections of the Shia to protest against the Sunni ruler.” Incidentally, much has been written about the oppression of the Shias under Saddam Hussein. But, it was the British who imported a Sunni ruler(sic) to a Shia majority country. The question arises in the mind of the reader whether the foreigners have anything to do with the growing sectarian violence in Iraq. Nuri became a “much despised political figure.” A businessman informed a visiting historian that “politicians like Nuri and his gang were corrupt to the core, they were ‘dogs and one best deals with dogs by tossing bones to them.” Tariq Ali has given us a gripping account of the July 14(1958) Revolution that brought an end to the hold of Britain over Iraq exercised through a subservient monarchy. A few days before the Revolution the British Ambassador had informed the Foreign Office that “the situation was stable.”
The 1958 Revolution was made possible because “Colonels and Communists” collaborated. It was to prove to be short-lived collaboration, partly because the Communists played their cards clumsily and partly because they were mistrusted by the nationalists who saw them as instruments of Moscow. The two major complaints against the Communists were that they had ceased all opposition to the British and French military once the Soviet Union was attacked by Hitler and had supported the formation of the state of Israel under Moscow’s bidding. Later, Saddam Hussein pursued a policy of befriending the Soviet Union and at the same time outwitting the Iraqi Communists and virtually eliminating them from the political scene. They have now resurfaced in Iraq under Bush.
Tariq Ali’s account of the origins of the invasion and occupation of Kuwait by Iraq under Saddam Hussein is much superior to what we have come across in many other books. He does make the point that Ambassador April Glaspie in her meeting with Saddam Hussein a few days before the Iraqi army entered Kuwait was “both ambiguous and misleading.” But, he could have told the reader about the change in the war doctrine of the Central Command from prevention of a Soviet attack on the Arab oil fields to that of an Iraqi move to take over the oil fields in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, a change that was effected in early 1990. In fact, General Schwarzcopf the then head of the Central Command and the future Commander of the Coalition against Iraq had toured the Gulf capitals in the second quarter of 1990, months before the actual invasion, asking the heads of state about their reaction to such an eventuality. In other words, Washington was expecting Saddam Hussein to invade and occupy Kuwait months before he actually did.
In the final chapter ‘Empires and Resistance’, there is a catalogue, very useful albeit incomplete, of US aggression since 1944. It used to be said, Publish or perish. A good many of the books on Iraq have already perished. Tariq Ali’s book will be read for years to come. Policy-makers in chancelleries in world capitals, including Washington, might benefit from reading this book. In any case, it is a pleasure to read the book, even if one does not agree with the author all the time.
K.P Fabian is the author of Commonsense on War on Iraq.