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Why did Saddam Hussein's regime collapse without a fight?
Bush topples an old U.S. ally

April 18, 2003 | Page 8

ONLY TWO weeks after Iraqi resistance to the U.S. invasion became a source of pride for people across the Middle East, the Iraqi regime collapsed--seemingly overnight. "We are all in shock. How did things come to such an end?...Where is the resistance? This collapse is puzzling …How come Baghdad falls so easily," asked Abu Dhabi Television correspondent Shaker Hamed. In Iraq, it appeared that thousands of soldiers and even Republican Guards--supposedly the bulwark of Saddam Hussein's power--deserted.

Why did the Iraqi state--after confounding George W. Bush's advisers' predictions of a U.S. "cakewalk" in the first weeks of the war--collapse? As LANCE SELFA and PAUL D'AMATO show, the answers to this question lie in the Iraqi regime and its history of repression at home and collaboration with imperialism abroad.

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THE MODERN Iraqi state emerged from a revolution against the British-imposed monarchy in 1958. The 1958 revolution was part of the nationalist, anti-imperialist fervor that swept the Middle East following Gamel Abdel Nasser's nationalist military coup against the British-backed monarchy in Egypt in 1952.

An Iraqi coup led by officer Abdel Kareem Qasim unleashed a wave of popular struggle from below in 1958. Peasants seized large landholdings. Workers went on strike. The Communist Party (CP) emerged from illegality to dominate the leadership of the workers', peasants' and students' movements and held large-scale influence in the military.

Qasim proclaimed a republic, kicked out British military bases and announced Iraq's alignment with the Eastern bloc in the Cold War. The new government decreed a wide-ranging land reform. It even granted autonomy to the Kurds.

As the second major nationalist leader in the Middle East, Qasim posed a challenge to Nasser and his followers. Qasim's government rested on an unstable alliance between communists, nationalists and Nasserites. These factional battles led Qasim first to lurch to the left, issuing decrees the communists supported, and then to lurch to the right, attacking the Kurds in the north. Nasser's supporters in the Iraqi army blocked with the Baath Party to form a conservative nationalist opposition to Qasim.

The Baath Party, formed in 1947 in Syria, stood for developing a single Arab nation from among the collection of states Western imperialism had created after the First World War. To accomplish this, they supported a one-party authoritarian state that would subjugate all conflicting social, class and political interests to the will of the "nation." Because of their anti-communism and opposition to Qasim, the Baathists won covert support from the CIA.

In 1963, the Baathists and other nationalist military officers overthrew and killed Qasim. The CIA supplied lists of communists to the Baath security apparatus--whose chief operative was Saddam Hussein--which used them to liquidate the leaders of the CP, the trade unions and other social organizations.

Building up support in the military and the security apparatus, the Baathists felt strong enough to eliminate most of their remaining coalition partners in 1968, establishing a Baathist dictatorship.

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AS SECOND in command of the Baath Party and vice president of the governing Revolutionary Command Council, Saddam Hussein built up the security forces that became the real power in the Iraqi government. Through state terror, the Baathists established control over every social and political organization in the country--from sports clubs to political parties.

With the backing of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Kurdish groups allied with Iraq's regional competitor, Iran, rose up against the dictatorship in 1974. In response, Saddam and the Shah of Iran announced a 1975 agreement that settled border disputes between Iraq and Iran and severed Iran's link to the Kurds. The U.S. tossed the Kurds overboard.

The Iranian revolution that overthrew the Shah in 1979 raised a new challenge to the Iraqi regime. The defeat of the Shah's tyranny appealed to Iraqis--the majority of whom, like Iranians, follow the Shia branch of Islam.

For the next decade, Saddam, who became the country's president in 1979, concentrated on containing the Islamist "threat" from Iran. In this task, he found a willing ally in Washington, where the loss of the Shah presented a great foreign policy crisis.

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FROM 1980 to 1988, the U.S., the West and the USSR fueled the Iran-Iraq War, costing some one million lives on both sides. While officially "neutral" in the war, the U.S. covertly aided Iraq as a means to contain the Iranian revolution.

The Reagan administration dispatched special ambassador Donald Rumsfeld to meet with Saddam and to work out improved relations with Iraq in 1983 and 1984. When it looked as if Iran was gaining the upper hand in the war in 1987, the U.S. shifted decisively and openly towards Iraq. Under the guise of protecting Kuwaiti oil tankers sailing through the Gulf, the U.S. intervened directly on Iraq's side. Iran conceded defeat in 1988.

For the next two years, the U.S. tried to build up Saddam Hussein as the new Western strongman in the Gulf. In 1988 and 1989 alone, the U.S. government approved licenses to U.S. firms to sell biological products to the Iraqi Atomic Energy Agency and electronics equipment to Iraqi missile-producing plants. Other Western allies, like Britain and France, also helped to arm Saddam.

But the entire Western ruling class performed an about-face when Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait in 1990. As long as Saddam served imperialism and kept his atrocities within Iraq's borders, the West would do business with him. But when he slipped the leash and invaded Kuwait, he became a "new Hitler."

The U.S.-led Gulf War routed the Iraqi military, forcing it out of Kuwait in six weeks. Bush Sr. called on Iraqis to rise up against Saddam. For almost two weeks in March 1991, ordinary Iraqis controlled whole regions of the country, and Saddam's government seemed on the verge of collapse.

Then, Saddam got a helping hand from an unlikely source--the U.S. government. Bush had meant his call for Saddam "to step aside" as a signal of U.S. support for a military coup against him--not a popular uprising. U.S. forces stood by as Saddam's government, officially violating the terms of the cease-fire agreement, slaughtered thousands of rebels in a counterattack.

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WHILE THERE'S no doubt that Washington's 2003 invasion is aimed at conquest--not "liberation"--it's clear that Saddam couldn't rally Iraqis to oppose it.

Saddam's regime knew that it couldn't stand up to the U.S. if it fought a conventional war. It tried to move its forces into the cities, to draw the U.S. into urban combat and conduct hit-and-run guerrilla operations aimed at making the conflict more protracted. The Baath regime hoped to raise the political cost of the war for the U.S., compelling the U.S. to withdraw.

But the character of the Iraqi regime made such a popular war more difficult to fight. A popular war would have involved arming the population, granting freedom to the oppressed Kurds and Shiites, and turning the resistance into a giant mass uprising.

But this was unlikely because both the U.S. and the Iraqi regime were "frightened of uprisings among the Kurds and the Shia Muslims, who together make up three-quarters of the population," wrote journalist Patrick Cockburn.

Saddam Hussein's regime was unpopular, ruling through fear and repression. And rather than standing up to imperialism, Saddam for most of his career acted as one of its willing subcontractors.

The U.S.'s overwhelming firepower and military technology gave it the upper hand. But the Vietnamese overcame an arguably greater imbalance of power to chase the U.S. out of their country in 1975. The mass of the population supported the guerrilla fighters in Vietnam, making the war one of an invading force against an entire population.

The explanation for Iraq's collapse lies not purely in issues of military hardware. The answer is political. For fear of losing its own control, an isolated and repressive regime would not--or could not--mobilize the kind of mass struggle that won in Vietnam.

But with Saddam's regime gone and a foreign army turning Iraq into a colony, the stage is set for the potential development of a genuine national liberation movement.

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