Death of a nationalist

Mike Macnair looks at the death of Saddam Hussein

On Saturday December 30 the Iraqi occupiers' puppet regime hanged Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti for "crimes against humanity". Only on the approach to the scaffold was he handed over from US to 'Iraqi government' custody.

The charges had been carefully selected: 'Saddam', as he is normally called in the press, was convicted for the reprisal killing of 148 shia men in Dujail after a 1982 assassination attempt organised by the Dawa party, which is part of the present 'Iraqi government'. The Ba'athist regime's use of chemical weapons (supplied by the US and Britain) in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and against the Kurds in 1988 did not figure.

Saddam wrote a final letter, released after the courts had denied his appeal (see www.uruknet.info?p=29464). The language and imagery of the letter is strongly islamic (Saddam offers himself as a 'sacrifice' to god), but its political content is nationalist.

For example: "On the basis of faith, love and peace, which bring glory and not bitterness to the glorified, you built the edifice and raised it without any fight or spite, and on this basis you were enjoying glory and peace in your beautiful colours, under the country's flag, not in the distant past, especially after your distinguished revolution, your 17th revolution, on July 30 1968. You realised victory and you carried it in the colour of the one great Iraq as loving brothers in the battle trenches or in the construction fields. The enemies of your country, the invaders and the Persians, found that your unity stands as a barrier between them and your enslavement."

Similarly, the letter calls on Iraqis "not to hate the people of the other countries that attacked us. You should distinguish between the decision-makers and the people." He insists: "You should know, brothers, that among the aggressors there are people who support your struggle against the invaders ..." This is a markedly different approach to that of the jihadi islamists proper, who see the invasion of Iraq as expressing the line between dar-al-islam and dar-al-harb - war must be carried on against non-muslims until they surrender.

There is a sense in which Saddam Hussein's death sums up his life. He died as he had lived, an Iraqi nationalist and an Arab nationalist. But that very nationalism made him, for most of his career, an instrument of US imperialism. He was still an instrument of US imperialism as its straw-man enemy between 1991 and 2003, and the timing of his death was no doubt calculated to serve US imperialism's interests.

The muslim language of Saddam's final letter expresses an evolution, begun while he still held power, towards the use of islamic political rhetoric by the Ba'athist regime he headed. This, in turn, reflected in a dilute way the growing ascendancy of political islam across the Middle East. But the consequences of this evolution were also expressed in his death. He was executed on the first day of Eid according to the sunni calendar, in violation of Iraqi law and of sharia, but the day before the beginning of Eid according to the shi'ite calendar. His executioners shouted shi'ite slogans as he was killed: in particular, Sadrist slogans, the slogans of one faction in the faction-ridden Iraqi puppet government.

Saddam's appeal in his final letter for Iraqi unity against the imperialist occupiers, cast partly in the language of political islam, thus expressed an utter contradiction: there is no road through any variant of political islamism to unity against the imperialists.

Born in 1937, at the age of 20 Saddam joined the pan-Arab nationalist Ba'ath Party. Two years later, he was involved in the attempted assassination of Abdul Karim Qasim, who had taken power in a left-nationalist officers' coup in 1958 and (allegedly) leaned towards cooperation with the communists. The attempt failed and Saddam fled to Egypt.

In 1963 the Ba'athists succeeded in overthrowing and killing Qasim, only to be felled eight months later by a counter-coup. Saddam after the Ba'athist coup returned to Iraq and became head of Ba'ath intelligence. In the 1963 coup the US is alleged to have supplied the names of communists to the Ba'athists to arrange for their assassination. In 1968 a CIA-backed coup brought the Ba'athists back to power under the leadership of Ahmed Hasan al-Bakr. Al-Bakr's cousin, Saddam Hussein, became deputy general secretary of the Ba'ath Party.

In this period the Ba'athists 'disappointed' their US sponsors by developing close links with the USSR. This was understandable, given that their immediate neighbour, the Iranian monarchy, was heavily supported and armed by the USA. Iraq came close to being a Stalinist regime, with a Ba'athist party-state and secret police apparat presiding over an economy dominated by nationalised industry and armed forces supplied by Soviet bloc manufacturers.

In 1979 Saddam displaced al-Bakr and proceeded to an immediate and brutal purge of the Ba'athist leadership. Almost his first act on the international stage was to invade Iran in 1980, in the wake of the Iranian revolution. The invasion struck at the core of the Iranian workers' movement in the southern oilfields, and helped the theocratic regime in Tehran consolidate its power by posing as the leaders of national resistance.

It was alleged at the time that the original invasion was promoted by the US, though no 'smoking gun' has yet been found. After initial successes, the war dragged on, and the Iraqis were thrown back and threatened with outright defeat. It is known that from the early 1980s the US and Britain provided covert military support to the Iraqi regime, including the technology for producing chemical weapons, which were used first on the battlefield and then in 1988 - when the Iran-Iraq war finally ended - against the Kurds. Donald Rumsfeld, later to be the architect of the 2003 invasion, was Reagan's envoy to the Ba'athist leadership in 1983.

In 1990, Saddam Hussein provided US president George Bush senior with his own 'Falklands invasion'. In dispute with the Kuwaitis about oil overproduction and claims that the Kuwaitis were drilling into Iraqi territory, the Iraqis also had a historic claim to Kuwait on the basis of Ottoman-period provincial borders. US ambassador April Glaspie told Saddam the US "took no position on Arab-Arab disputes" (similarly, the US and British states had sent informal signals to the Argentinean junta in 1981-82 that pointed to the south Atlantic being a low priority for Britain and possible US support for Argentina). The Ba'athists took the hint and invaded. The result, in 1991, was an enormous display of 'western' firepower which crushed the - fairly limited - Iraqi attempt to resist the recapture of Kuwait and inflicted major damage to Iraqi infrastructure.

The 1991 war was a disaster for the people of Iraq. But it was less of a success for the US than policymakers had hoped for. Bush encouraged the Iraqi people to rise up against the Ba'athist regime: but those who did, the southerners and the Kurds, were given no military assistance and were crushingly defeated by the surviving Ba'athist armed forces. Neither the generals nor the US's allies were willing to support an invasion of Iraq for 'regime change'. The Iraqi regime continued to use nationalist rhetoric of resistance to the Americans. At the immediate geopolitical level, the war had fairly clearly been intended as a display of US world dominance in the wake of the fall of the USSR. The result seemed rather to display the limits of US world dominance.

In the light of the limited results, the war looked like a massive expenditure of US resources for the benefit of a small number of oil rentiers in Kuwait and of US oil corporations. And this expenditure had taken place in the context of adverse market conditions in the US (in fact, it was overwhelmingly paid for by US allies and delivered a military-Keynesian stimulus to the US economy, which allowed boom conditions to return in the mid-90s). The result was that the Republicans lost the 1992 presidential election.

The Ba'athist regime was left as 'unfinished business' to the Clinton administration, who adopted the policy of trying to squeeze it to death by a combination of blockade ('UN sanctions'), episodic air raids and military support to the Kurds. The blockade killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, particularly children. But the regime remained in place and Saddam continued defiant.

The Bush junior administration came to office determined to complete the unfinished business of Iraq. 9/11 diverted them briefly into implementing the Clinton administration's contingency plans for military overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. But in March 2003 the 'coalition of the willing' finally embarked on a full-scale invasion for regime change in Iraq, and cast the country into the abyss.

Saddam Hussein has been presented by the western media as a uniquely brutal tyrant and an aggressive war-maker comparable to Adolf Hitler: the invaders of Iraq have repeatedly dressed themselves in the clothes of the Allies of 1941-45. Regrettably, the Alliance for Workers' Liberty has gone part of the way along with this: Sacha Ismail commented: "The sheer murderousness of his 35 years in power is at least comparable to the Nazi regime before the start of World War II, and we have no more reason to mourn his demise than socialists had to mourn the end of Hitler and Göring" ('Mourn a million dead Iraqis, not Saddam Hussein!', www.workersliberty.org/node/7289).

In reality he was something much less unique. He was a 'post-colonial', nationalist state-builder, like many third world dictators. He was a 'good Ba'athist party man' who came to power, like Stalin, through control of the party's internal apparatus. The Ba'athists, like many nationalists in the aftermath of World War II, were impressed by the apparent successes of the USSR and China in obtaining national independence and strength. Brutality, secret police and the oppression of dissident national and religious groups went with the territory. The Ba'athists went further towards a regime like the USSR than many nationalists, possibly because in the 1970s oil rents allowed them to spend more, while US support for Iran pushed them into alliance with the Soviet Union.

Within this territory, Saddam Hussein was distinguished by the pure nationalism, and 'realism', which led him and the Ba'athists to act on behalf of the US state both against the communists in the early 1960s and against Iran in the 1980-88 war. In both cases the possibility of short-term immediate gains for 'Iraqi national unity' and Iraq as a nation-state outweighed any calculation of the global relation of forces and led to alliance with US imperialism. In this light, his career should be seen as that of a Suharto, not a Sukarno; a Boumedienne, not a Ben Bella.

The same hope for short-term gains for the nation and the nationalist regime led him into the Kuwait adventure: and the same nationalism led him and the Ba'athists generally to refuse to capitulate in face of the imperialist war drive in 2002-03 (admittedly at this last stage it is unlikely that even total capitulation to US demands would have averted, rather than postponed, invasion). The results have been deadly for the people of Iraq.

It is common on the left to believe that the 'nationalism of the oppressed' is somehow 'progressive'. It is not. In truth, nationalism is not about the struggle for the equality of all nations. It is about improving the position of one's own nation, within a world which will remain a hierarchy of nation-states as long as capitalism survives. Once the nationalists come to power, nationalism inherently involves the creation of new oppressed national minorities within the nationalist state, and the promotion of 'national unity' (at the expense of the working class and political democracy) against external 'enemies'. It does not matter whether the national group in question was originally oppressed or not.

The purer the nationalism, the worse the myopia about the global hierarchy of nation-states. It was the 'pure nationalists' like Boumedienne, Suharto and the Ba'athists who served US imperialism by overthrowing the left nationalists in the 1960s. The ultimate consequence of this sort of nationalism is either collapse into complete obedience to the imperialist centre - or the ruin of the nation in hopeless war, as happened when Siad Barre turned Somalia into an agent of the US to attack Ethiopia, and as has happened in Iraq.

From his final letter, it is clear that Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti hopes to be remembered as a martyr of the struggle for Iraqi independence. The imperialists want us to remember him as a Hitler. In truth, he lived and died a nationalist leader. In doing so, he became a tyrant and led his nation-state to ruin. We should remember him as an extreme example, among many lesser examples, of the disastrous consequences of nationalism.