April 2003


Iraq: misreading the vital signs

A paucity of original sources, a repetition of misinformation, and plain wishful thinking in the West have led to dangerous errors in interpreting the nature and behaviour of the Iraqi regime through the past decade.


THE way that the Iraqi regime has been analysed in the past few years reminds us of the era when Kremlin analysts scrutinised official photos of Soviet leaders to determine who was in (sitting near the centre) and who out (no longer in the picture). The old methods of the Kremlinologists seemed to have inspired Global Security, a Virginia-based research institute frequently cited by rightwing thinktanks influencing the governmental policy of the United States.

Global Security studied official photos of Iraqi summit meetings in 2002 and concluded disturbingly that the unusually prominent position of Iraq's deputy prime minister and military industrialisation minister foretold the regime's ill intentions. John Pike, credited with preparing the report, wrote on Global Security's website: "Abdul Tawab al-Mulla Howeish is prominently featured in many of the recent photo-opportunity videos and photographs released by the Iraqi government. In some photographs he is the only person other than Saddam Hussein himself whose face is identifiable. In others he is seated prominently away from the table at which the other attendees at the meeting are seated" (1).

This conclusion got a response from the press. On 20 September The New York Post asked Pike for additional analysis: quoted in Niles Lathem's article, "Butcher's Evil Rising Star", he asserted the photos clearly demonstrated the importance of Iraq's special weapons programme. The issue was serious, and Pike restrained his imagination, acknowledging in the London Observer that this was not a definitive smoking gun and did not prove Iraq was developing nuclear weapons. But that did not prevent Leela Jacinto from assuming the worst in her ABC News website article, "A Rising Star: Saddam's Right-Hand Man Under Scrutiny From the West" on 26 September 2002.

Rumours that Saddam Hussein had married Howeish's daughter were connected with the truth: Howeish certainly was a rising star in the regime. Pike's conclusions about the importance of Howeish in the pictures would have been very interesting but for one thing, which nobody seemed to have noticed: the man in the picture wasn't Howeish but Abdul Hami Hmoud al- Abdallah al-Khattab, a former presidential bodyguard well known to Iraqis. As a distant cousin of Saddam's half-brothers and the president's brother-in-law, he also serves as Saddam's personal secretary, explaining his constant presence at official gatherings. He is responsible for reviewing official dossiers, but his duties do not include public speaking. Fortunately, his prominent position at Saddam's side is not proof that Iraq is manufacturing nuclear weapons.

When war is imminent, we all expect disinformation (3). Because the Iraqi regime is so impenetrable and in constant flux, its behaviour, or lack of it, causes problems of circularity. Motivated by the legitimate need to make sense of their observations, "experts" attempt to interpret seemingly straightforward noises and signals from within Iraq. Saddam's mercurial regime produces a lot of these, albeit fragmentary and contradictory. Interpreting them means overstatement, and this adds to the ambiguity of the actual signals. Foreign observers acting in good faith then play into the hands of an inscrutable, unpredictable regime. And the essentially false analyses get the media cover.

Consider Ibrahim al-Marashi, a research associate at the centre for non-proliferation studies in Monterey, California, and lecturer at the US naval postgraduate school. Parts of his doctoral thesis, Iraq's Security and Intelligence Network: A Guide and Analysis, first published in 2002, unexpectedly turned up in a recent British intelligence report, which plagiarised his findings and caused controversy (4). The resulting fuss brought him much publicity, increasing his readership, and he soon became a frequent point of reference. But his research, which British intelligence repeated almost verbatim, is in fact a synthesis of other previously published sources.

Although al-Marashi provided a comprehensive bibliography, he left out his primary sources. He relied primarily on two dossiers published in 1997. Jane's Intelligence Review commissioned the first of these, which also was paraphrased in the British intelligence report. The second study, published by the Federation of American Scientists, parroted the first study's main findings. So what were the primary sources for these studies? Military information is the exclusive property of the intelligence network, usually unwilling to share its data. Moreover intelligence services, along with Iraqi opposition parties, claim exclusive rights to information from the few high-level Iraqi defectors, information that is in any case quickly outdated.

Iraqi opposition groups are the main source of intelligence on Iraq, but with problems of credibility. Behind the scenes, they seem to be at the shadowy core of these independent reports, which presumably include documents released in early 1997 by the Iraqi National Congress (INC). The INC documents strive for truth but actually contain a lot of unverifiable data. Websites run by the Federation of American Scientists and Global Security run almost word-for-word transcripts of the INC documents, including lists of high-ranking Iraqi intelligence officials, and references to Colonel Ayed al-Duri (nicknamed Abu Teiser). But is the 1997 list up to date? Saddam replaced his internal security (political police) director twice after the 1996 appointment of Taha Abbas al-Ahbabi (whom al-Marashi mentions) and before the publication of al-Marashi's work. Since accurate facts were available in 1997, why did no one bother to update the information?

Drawing up lists of Iraqi officials only fosters an illusion of authoritativeness. This causes problems: faulty information is disconnected from its dubious sources and given credibility by serious, respectable media outlets that quote it. This disconnection is supposed to remove doubts about the sources' truth. But the media tendency to quote from the media ( the cuttings-job syndrome) leads to repetition and worsens matters. This information overload obscures the dearth and unreliability of the primary sources.

The intelligence update of the global information company Stratfor on 23 March 1999 was the perfect example of this. The report's author knowingly gave credence to information he knew to be questionable. The title is a classic: "Conflicting reports suggest interesting possibilities in Iraq". Relying on Iraqi opposition communiqués, the author referred to the "assassinations" of Mahmud Feizi Mohammed al-Hazzaa (who headed the Iraqi governorate of Maysan) and a high-ranking Ba'ath party official, Abdul Bazi Abdul Karim al-Saadun. He linked these to the disappearance on 4 March 1999 of Ali Hassan al- Majid, Saddam's cousin, allegedly implicated in a coup attempt. But on 18 and 21 March 1999 media reports indicated that al- Majid and al-Saadun had reappeared.

Another rumour was used to corroborate this disinformation: there was supposed to have been an altercation over the "missing" man (al-Majid), pitting Hashem (al-Majid's brother) and Qusay (Saddam's son) against each other. This clash was supposed to have been fatal to several members of al-Majid's family. The author of the Stratfor report, after a few caveats, concluded: "At the very least these reports are intriguing.At the very most, chaos may have reached the closest ranks of Saddam's supporters" (5). But the regime still stands, as does Governor al-Hazzaa, recently relieved of his duties in Maysan. Al-Saadun is still going strong in the Ba'ath party's Command. Al-Majid, a key figure in the regime, and Hashem, his self-effacing brother, are very much alive.

A close look shows that the Iraqi regime is filled with the living dead. According to Iraqi opposition sources, the Republican Guard commander who put down the 1991 Shi'ite uprisings in southern Iraq, General Abdul Wahed Shinan al-Ribbat (himself a Shi'ite), died in 1992 as part of a purge. But al-Ribbat served as army chief of staff through the 1990s, and was governor of Ninawa early this year. Hamid Sha'ban Khudhayer al-Nasseri, Iraq's air force commander in the 1980s, thought to have been executed in 1991, was alive enough in 1996 to face serious allegations of conspiring with the opposition (he defected in 2000). So who is the al-Nasseri currently serving as presidential adviser? The "execution" on 17 July 1991 of Kurdish General Hussein Rashid Hassan Mohammed al- Windawi, who was army chief of staff during the Gulf war, seems to have been only a small blip in his long career.

These examples were taken and misinterpreted from a long list of genuine deaths and falls from power. External observers have failed to grasp the confusion inherent in the regime's behaviour. They insist on presenting a picture that fits their distorted perceptions of Saddam as a powerful, authoritarian ruler, whose long-term power basis is maintained by violent purges, falls from grace and brutal repression. This skewed vision of the regime contrasts sharply with more ambivalent descriptions circulating in Iraq. There are bizarre discrepancies between the interpretations abroad and the nuanced domestic realities.

In October 1998 Max van der Stoel, the UN human rights commissioner's special rapporteur in Iraq, backed by Amnesty International, issued a report condemning the arbitrary detention of Dawoud al-Farhan, a prominent Iraqi journalist (the press is tightly controlled by Saddam's eldest son, Uday). But al-Farhan, who had already received several warnings as vice-president of the journalists' union, was not under detention: he was attending a conference at the time.

The desire for accurate information on Saddam's mercurial regime leads to the replication of, and emphasis on, cliches, while ambiguities and contradictions that merit further analysis are ignored. The al-Hazzaa clan, part of Saddam's tribe, is an excellent example. The 1990 "assassination" of Omar Mohammed al-Hazzaa for alleged treason has long been used as an example of the horrors of the regime: later, his brutal death was cited in connection with a failed assassination of Saddam's son, Uday. According to journalist Mark Bowden, the "would-be assassins are rumoured to be associated with the family of General Omar al-Hazzaa, the officer whose tongue was cut out before he and his son were executed" (6). But al-Hazzaa's three nephews, Mahmud, Tariq and Nateq Fayzi Mohammed al-Hazzaa, are still serving as governors and army commanders: so perhaps there is no vendetta?

The central problem is the basis of the cliched thinking about the Iraqi regime, revealed by the way that a new crisis is always described as the crumbling of Saddam's power structure. Iraq's obsessive secrecy begets the experts' obsessive need for signals, which impel their quest to interpret these signs to reveal deeper truths: these "truths" are what the experts want to happen.

Iraq's elections on 15 October 2002 were misinterpreted. The headline in Le Monde was: "Saddam Hussein plots his victory in defiance of George Bush." But the elections' timing had been worked out seven years before, after the first referendum on Saddam's rule in 1995. If the president had called off the 2002 vote, the Iraqi people would have viewed this as a sign of political weakness; his decision to proceed with the elections was not arrogant. The final election results reflected the built-in mechanisms of the Ba'ath party, not Saddam's will (7). Because of the crisis, ordinary party activists felt compelled to break previous records: at each polling station they compiled lists of people who had neglected to vote and marked those ballots themselves.

Propaganda and personality cults are not real manifestations of Saddam's megalomania. They show the Iraqi people's active, even cynical, role in their own subjugation. But this conclusion is unacceptable to those who seek to explain Iraq's political situation exclusively through Saddam's character. This overriding focus on personality, accompanied by conflicting biographies of the "real Saddam", is the consequence of the experts' distorted vision. This has made everybody shortsighted about the really significant forces at work in Iraq. Analysing these might provide valuable insights into the functioning of the regime.

* David Baran is an Ottowa-based journalist currently in Iraq

(1) See http://www.globalsecurity.org

(2) Now official currency in the US, the term smoking gun is used for alleged evidence of illicit Iraqi weapons programmes.

(3) For examples of disinformation on Iraq, see The Christian Science Monitor, Boston, 6 September 2002, and Le Monde, Paris, 9-10 March 2003.

(4) For al-Marashi's work, see the Middle East Review of International Affairs website ; for the British intelligence report, refer to the UK government official website.

(5) See http://www.casi.org.uk/discuss/1999...

(6) See Mark Bowden, "Tales of the Tyrant", The Atlantic Monthly, Boston, May 2002.

(7) See David Baran, "Iraq: the party in power", Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, December 2002.


Translated by Luke Sandford