Strip the emperor of his clothes: Cruise missiles will not destroy Saddam Hussein. Losing face before the Iraqi people will, says Kanan Makiya

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The Independent Online
BEFORE contemplating further air strikes against Iraq, President Bill Clinton would do well to study the art and history of Mesopotamia. If he did so, he would learn that the kings and queens of ancient Mesopotamia, like President Saddam Hussein, lived in mortal fear of losing face before their enemies.

'He who would seize my statue, who would smash it, who would destroy its inscriptions, who would erase my name, may he be smitten by the curse of Napirisha, of Kiririsha, and of Inshushinak, that his name shall become extinct, that his offspring be barren, that the forces of Beltia, the great goddess, shall sweep down on him.' Thus reads an inscription at the base of the headless statue of Napir-Asu, the wife of one of the most important 14th century BC Kings of Susa.

In two and a half years of intensive dealings with President Saddam, Washington never learnt the political importance of making the Iraqi leader lose face before his own people and the world. In the Middle East, military defeats do not translate directly into political gains. Witness what happened the last time US warplanes bombed Iraq, just before George Bush handed over the presidency to Mr Clinton.

The dust from the outgoing president's final salvo had hardly settled when the official Iraqi newspaper, al- Jumhuriyah, advised Mr Bush's psychiatrists 'to lock him in a place adorned with an Iraqi flag . . . and give him shock treatment'. But even that might not work, Baghdad concluded, and Mr Bush was advised to commit suicide as a way of ridding himself once and for all of his Iraqi obsession. 'The head is gone,' crowed al-Jumhuriyah in another article, 'and all that remains is the tail.'

Neither the military pyrotechnics of Operation Desert Storm, nor the more recent pinpricks from Presidents Bush and Clinton, can cover up for the failure of American political vision to determine what ought to have been done about Saddam Hussein. No policy that does not finally and irrevocably deal a crippling blow to this tyrant's political 'face' is going to make him go away.

If this loss of face is to be achieved, the focus of attention must shift from an obsession with useless weapons to people; from the formalities of UN inspection teams and Resolution 687 to an unflinching, resolute enforcement of Resolution 688, which deals with President Saddam's mistreatment of the Iraqi people. The UN should not only be sending weapons inspection teams but dispensing humanitarian aid inside Iraq and deploying human rights monitors in the country.

We must not forget what happened when the formal cease-fire in the Gulf war came into effect on 28 February 1991. A column of Iraqi tanks fleeing Kuwait rolled into Saad Square, in central Basra, Iraq's southernmost city. The commander at the head of the column positioned his vehicle in front of a gigantic mural, showing President Saddam in military uniform, next to the Baath Party headquarters building in the middle of the square.

Standing on the chassis of his vehicle and addressing the portrait, he denounced the dictator in a blistering speech: 'What has befallen us of defeat, shame and humiliation, Saddam, is the result of your follies, your miscalculations and your irresponsible actions.'

A crowd assembled and the atmosphere became highly charged. The commander jumped back into his tank and swivelled the gun turret to take aim at the portrait. He blasted President Saddam's face away with several shells. It was a classic revolutionary moment that sparked off the post-war uprising, the most serious threat to his power that Saddam Hussein has ever faced.

However, President Saddam is a consummate manipulator of the distinction between image or 'face' and real power. That is one of the great advantages of his kind of absolute rule, and the West, after all, left him with five intact divisions of his dreaded Republican Guard. Having used those divisions to crush the March 1991 rebellion, the first thing President Saddam did was to restore his face, quite literally, by plastering his portaits all over the pock-marked entrances to the seriously damaged holy shrines in Najaf and Karbala.

The March rebellion was brutally crushed and nearly two million Iraqis fled the country in terror. The catalogue of known past and ongoing horrors committed against the people of Iraq grows, even as the efficacy of the regime's weapons and means of mass destruction declines along with standards of maintenance and availability of spare parts.

More and more Iraqis working in countries all over the world, along with human rights organisations such as Middle East Watch and Amnesty International, are documenting and recording the terrible things that have happened in Iraq in the past two decades. The Gulf war may not have removed Saddam Hussein, but it certainly opened up his regime to a scrutiny that few countries in the world have ever been subjected to. The barrier of fear among Iraqis is breaking down and the stories are coming tumbling out.

No force on earth will reverse that trend. It makes more long-term political sense for the West to ride with that force, not against it.

Before 1991, for instance, we did not know that President Saddam's regime organised the mass murder of at least 100,000 non-combatant Kurds between February and March 1988 in a government campaign called Anfal. The victims were taken from their villages and trucked to giant forts that housed thousands of people in ghastly, barrack-like conditions. There they were sorted out according to sex and age. In the early stages of the campaign only men 'disappeared'. Towards the end of it, everyone was disappearing - men, women and children.

These 'lost ones of the Anfal,' as official Iraqi police documents refer to them, are dead. They were trucked in convoys from those forts to desert locations west of the city of al- Samawah, in southern Iraq, close to the Saudi border. They were unloaded from the trucks directly into pits and shot (roughly 100 people per pit, according to one survivor I interviewed in northern Iraq). Bulldozers from all over Iraq were put under the authority of Ali Hasan al-Majid, President Saddam's cousin and right- hand man, for dirty work of this kind.

This is also a regime, new evidence suggests, that employed civil servants to 'violate the honour of women'. I have in my possession a document issued by the Central Security Organisation of the city of Sulaymaniyah, which provides the curriculum vitae of a gentleman named Aziz Salih Ahmad (file number 43,304), a 'fighter in the people's army', whose job was to rape Iraqi women. A regime that routinely generates 'paperwork' like this is beyond the pale.

The pain inside Iraq goes on. In southern Iraq, artillery is being used against civilians inside the no-fly zones. The army is conducting mass arrests and executions while draining the marshes and wetlands to provide access for its tanks.

Max van der Stoel, the UN human rights investigator on Iraq, has described this destruction of a unique ecosystem, home to the earliest urban civilisations, as 'the environmental crime of the century'. The no-fly zones protect Iraqi lives. The problem is they do not go far enough.

So what should Bill Clinton do about Iraq? George Bush and the aftermath of the Gulf war have left him with few real options.

The best of these by far is to work through Iraqi democrats towards the regime's overthrow. Military strikes are not helpful. Concerted political action designed to strip the emperor of his clothes is the answer.

Democrats from the Iraqi National Congress, an opposition group with bases in northern Iraq, are preparing dossiers and gathering evidence to charge the relatively small band of men around President Saddam as criminals. This list would then provide the basis for the announcement of a general amnesty to every other Iraqi who has ever worked with the regime. Fear, the cement that binds this regime, would then lose its efficacy. President Saddam would lose face forever.

A return to the Nuremberg-like idea of an international tribunal is called for. In a world drifting along without guidelines, the way forward is to make credible that wonderful, old-fashioned idea of 'crimes against humanity'. Only tin-pot dictators have something to lose by such a policy. Even they, however, will stand up and listen.

A new binding norm will emerge that cuts across ethnic and religious differences. For the case that the Iraqi leader and a small circle of men around him have deeply and irrevocably offended against the humanity of every single one of us on this planet is simply unanswerable.

The writer is an Iraqi expatriate and author of 'Cruelty and Silence' (Jonathan Cape, 1993).

(Photograph omitted)