In this crowd, Saddam fits right in

Monday Book Review

April 01, 1991|By Stanley A. Blumberg

HUMAN RIGHTS IN IRAQ. A Human Rights Watch Book. By David A. Korn. Yale University Press. 155 pages. $19.95.

COUNTRIES that torture their citizens almost always deny it.

Several years ago, I encountered an example of this while having dinner with a government minister in Seoul. My host refused to admit that his government engaged in this cruel practice. It was only after I reminded him that one of our mutual friends had lost the sight of an eye while in a local prison that he stopped protesting and fell silent. Then I suggested that since torturing prisoners was a common practice, it was clear that the South Korean government obviously approved the practice.

It is unrealistic, of course, to expect practitioners of this black art to admit to their crimes. They may believe they are justified in using torture as a weapon to curb and control dissent. But they are also aware of the nearly universal condemnation that follows the exposure of their barbaric acts.

Dictators, from left or right, do not appreciate and do not tolerate a free press. And so it falls to dedicated organizations such as Human Rights Watch (in this case, in cooperation with Yale University Press) to detail and expose human rights violations. This first of a series of books is devoted to Iraq. Given the events in the Persian Gulf since last August, it appears to have been a fortuitous choice.

Skillfully, the author sets the stage and provides a backdrop for an understanding of the long history of oppression in the "fertile crescent."

For nearly four centuries before World War II, the country now known as Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire. After the war, the British created Iraq by piecing together three Ottoman provinces and ruled it under a League of Nations mandate until 1952, when it was given its independence.

The British proceeded to give the new state a king, Faisal Ibn Hussein, a prince of the Arabian peninsula Hashemite family and a British ally in the war against the Ottoman Turks. They also established a parliament, a judiciary, a governing bureaucracy and an army.

Stresses soon appeared in the artificially created state. The Sunni minority had enjoyed the favor of their Ottoman rulers, and as a result they had had greater access to the country's limited educational opportunities. They thus became the intellectual, professional, business and government elite.

The Shiite majority was for the most part poor peasants, but it included among its ranks wealthy merchants and landowners. They, however, do not have a history of challenging or rebelling against the Sunni Arab domination.

The Iraqi Kurds are not so docile. They were separated from Kurds in Turkey, Iran and Syria by the border drawn by the British. From their revolt in 1922 to the present, they have fought for their independence. The Iraqi government has responded by uprooting the Kurdish population along the borders with Iran, Turkey and Syria. This has cut the Kurds off from their brothers and sisters in neighboring countries and has prevented them from obtaining military and other assistance.

Korn, citing an expert on Kurdish issues, estimates that about 75 per cent of the villages and towns in the Kurdish area of Iraq were destroyed and their inhabitants forcibly relocated.

This exodus was given greater impetus when about 60,000 Kurds fled from the widely reported Iraqi chemical weapons attack in late August 1988.

The British-installed monarchy co-existed with a series of military coups until July 14, 1958. The king was overthrown by a military coup. He was killed and his body dragged through the streets of Baghdad.

This was not the end of the bloodshed. The Baath Party seized power in 1963, and thousands of people were arrested. "People were killed in the streets, tortured to death in prisons or executed after mock trials," Korn writes.

Since 1979, Saddam Hussein has been president of the Revolutionary Command Council and has expanded on his country's well-deserved reputation for torture, murder and terror.

People who believe that the U.S. should allow the "Butcher of Baghdad" to save face after his defeat in the gulf war ought to read this book.

FTC Stanley A. Blumberg is co-author of books on Israeli intelligence and physicist Edward Teller. He writes from Baltimore.

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