Iraq: The Republic of Fear

Against the Current, No. 31, March/April 1991

Joseph A. Massad

Republic of Fear:
The Politics of Modern Iraq
By Samir al-Khalil
University of California Press, 1989, Pantheon paperback edition 1990.

SAMIR AL-KHALIL’s Republic of Fear begins after the Ba’th Party gained power for the second time in Iraq, in July 1968. The book is divided into two parts: The first examines the “Ba’thist polity,” which describes and analyzes Ba’thist violence and terror that cause the pervasive fear that al-Khalil describes, while the second examines the “Legitimation of Ba’thism” by drawing on its history before and after it came to power.

Ba’th ideology is fervently nationalist, anti-imperialist and anti-communist. Although the party has played a decisive role in Iraqi history, it was founded by Syrian intellectuals in the 1940s.

Al-Khalil comprehensively lists and describes the party’s agencies of violence. According to him, it was Saddam Hussein who in 1973 created three separate agencies of the regional police, all independently responsible to the Regional Command, the highest decision-making body of the Iraqi Ba’th.

Since then these institutions, including the army and militia, have pervaded every aspect of Iraqi society. While describing Baghdad in the early seventies, with its hidden video cameras monitoring all major thoroughfares and intersections in the city, al-Khalil evokes in the reader images of Orwell’s 1984.

In the second chapter, “A World of Fear,” al-Khalil describes the anti-Semitic campaign launched against Iraqi Jews by the Ba’th regime. What is striking about the manner in which this chapter is presented is the selective nature of the historical evidence presented, and the introduction of psychoanalysis (although never explicitly) as a tool to explain Ba’thist ideology, with al-Khalil the self-designated psychoanalyst.

From this point on, we are told of how imperialism and Zionism are scapegoated by the Ba’thists, although they don’t play an objective role in the history of modern Iraq.

Fantasy and Reality

At that point al-Khalil introduces the implicit—at times explicit—thesis that underscores his entire book the Ba’thist mentality is psychotic, seeing threats that have no objective existence.

These “imagined” threats lacking objective manifestation are none other than imperialism and Zionism. Al-Khalil never uses the term psychotic to describe the Ba’th mentality, his use of other terms (“irrational,” “living in air of unreality,” “constructing reality in its imagination”) conveys the same conclusion.

In his “Note to the Reader,” al-Khalil contrasts Iraqi anti-imperialism with what he claims is the “factually diminishing ability of the West to influence local events in the coming period” (x). He explains this by informing us that for Stalinism and Ba’thism:

“(T)he world of appearances is but a mask for deeper historical truths—on imperialism, Zionism and Arab unity, in the case of the Ba’th—that are set apart from what is ‘on the surface.’ The degradation of this world in which one sees, hears and feels reality, as opposed to analytically constructing it in the imagination, is therefore already a part of its innermost nature, long before specific actors came along to make it even more so.” (57) [My emphasis]

The fact that Stalinism and Ba’thism use imperialism and other threats to further their own repression at home does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that these threats do not objectively exist. It leads to the conclusion that real or imagined threats are used as legitimizing internal oppression.

Throughout the remainder of the book, Khalil examines, often psychoanalytically, the inner mechanisms of Ba’thist thinking without any reference to the outside world. In fact the reader is taken to the psychoanalyst’s office, being exposed only to what goes on inside the mmd of the patient, the Ba’th, without ever being allowed to step outside al-Khalil’s (the self-designated psychoanalyst) office.

The Anti-Jewish Campaign

While describing the horrors that many Iraqi Jews underwent in 1969 with the anti-Semitic trials, al-Khalil concludes non-contextually and without explanation that it was “pan Arabism” that had introduced anti-Semitism to Iraq after independence (48). Al-Khalil states that it was this anti-Semitism that led to the farhoud against Iraqi Jews in 1941, whereby “in the end hundreds of Jews were killed” (180).

Aside from the distorted figure al-Khalil provides (in fact, the leader of the Iraqi Jewish community at the time put the number killed at 130, including 25 missing(1)), he shrouds the massacre with procrustean analysis, reducing its cause to anti-Semitism only. Since Zionism is claimed by the Ba’th as a threat that al-Khalil denies as real, and since anti-Semitic attacks on Jews constituted the first real terror campaign by the Ba’th after coming to power, one would expect a more thorough analysis.

Zionism and Iraq, in fact, did have an important history together, the victims of which were none other than Iraqi Jews. Aside from the Zionist movement’s schemes to found “an autonomous Jewish state in Mesopo1amia,”(2) the exodus of Iraqi Jewry, to which al-Khalil makes no reference at all, took place after the Israeli government had dispatched Israeli agents who bombed several Jewish neighborhoods in Baghdad with the aim of scaring Iraqi Jews into believing that non-Jewish Iraqis were attacking them, thus eliciting their exodus to Israel.

This tactic, coupled with increasingly restrictive anti-Jewish laws enacted by the pm-Western Iraqi government of Nuri Said (whose anti-nationalist credentials are well established) in collusion with Israel, worked.(3) Al-Khalil makes no mention of this tragedy since the Ba’thists or other nationalists were not the primary culprits.

Al-Khalil’s assertion that it was Arab nationalists who introduced anti-Semitic attacks in Iraq are without basis. As early as 1915, Arab nationalists issued a Manifesto in which th9r referred to the Jews of the Arab countries as an indivisible part of the Arab “race.”(4)

Iraqi Arab nationalists (of Moslem background) made it a point, at several junctures in their struggles against the British and later against Zionism, that Iraqi Jews and Christians were with them in their struggle In fact many Iraqi Jews were in the forefront of those who spoke against Zionism.(5)

The Israelis continued to play a significant role in the imperialist policies of the United States in the area until the present. The unofficial alliance among Israel, Turkey, the Shah’s Iran and Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia encircled the Arab world. Two of these forces, Turkey and Iran, bordered Iraq, while Israel was getting closer geographically after its conquest of the West Bank and Golan Heights in 1967. The Iranian-Israeli partnership(6) continued to play an important role even after the Iranian revolution.

In the late 1960s and until the mid-seventies, Iran and Israel were the major supporters of the Kurdish independence movement, which was suppressed by the Ba’thists in 1975 after the Shah had abandoned the Kurds. Israel’s support of the Kurds, like the Shah’s, was inspired not by principles but by plans to undermine the Ba’thist regime.

Some Missing History

The Israeli bombing of the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 was the first manifestation of a direct Israeli aggression against the Ba’thist state This fact is conspicuously absent from the history al-Khalil provides and is made more significant by his eagerness to convince his readers that Israel and Zionism, as threats to Iraq, are concoctions and/or delusions suffered by the Ba’th. Subsequent Israeli deals with Iran during the lraq/Iran war, along with the Iran/contra scandal, show how influential Israel has remained in Iraq’s modern history.

Al-Khalil’s insistence that Zionism and imperialism have not played a direct role in modern Iraqi history is questionable He states the “link between state power and the perceived illegitimacy of the Iraqi territorial entity found a perfect pair of scapegoats in imperialism and Zionism, neither of which was directly shaping Iraqi political realities.” (248) [all emphasis mine]

Al-Khalil has an excellent grasp of the methods used by the Ba’th to “explain” imperialism and Zionism in order to increase internal repression and to assert the Ba’th’s own legitimacy as a guardian against these threats; his conclusion that these threats are “imagined,” however, is only defended by the selectiveness of his historical presentation.

Moreover, the role of the United States in building alliances especially during the John Foster Dulles “pactomania” of the fifties was amply demonstrated in creating the Baghdad Pact in which Iraq played a central role despite opposition of the majority of Iraqis.

The role played by the oil companies, who controlled Iraqi oil until the mid-seventies when the Ba’th nationalized the oil industry, is another episode where imperialism directly shaped Iraqi political realities.

To facilitate such control, the CIA moved its Middle East headquarters in 1973 from Cyprus to Tehran.(7) And Nixon through the CIA channeled $16 million to Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani(8) with the intention to “help the Kurds make life difficult for [the Shah’s] Iraqi neighbor and enemy.”(9)

Meanwhile, the British remained an important power to contend with in the Arabian Peninsula. When in 1961 Qasem’s government decided to intervene in and “retrieve” Kuwait urn that country’s independence, which the Iraqis did not accept, it was British forces from, the then British colony of Men (in today’s Republic of Yemen—ed.) who intervened to defend their latest creation.

In 1962 Washington dispatched eight interceptor planes from Germany to prop up Saudi forces supporting the royalists against the North Yemeni republicans.(10) This was the second U.S. intervention in the area in three years, the first having been in Lebanon in 1958. Later in the decade and in the early seventies, it was the Iranians, on behalf of the United States and Britain, who intervened in Oman to quell the revolution in Dhofar.

Other less “direct” roles of the West in the region range from the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 to the counter-revolution launched against South Yemen in 1962, in the manner of the Bay of Pigs invasion. In fact, between 1960 and 1915, the United States had “been involved and fighting for oil… by proxy, in a campaign more overt and strategically more important than any war in Indochina or Latin America.” [emphasis added](11)

Psychosis and Reality

Al-Khalil continues to make reference to the psychotic nature of Ba’thist thinking. In an attempt to show how Khomeini’s Iran and Ba’thist Iraq have survived their common war, al-Khalil states that:

“(W)hen dealing with each other (or any other outsider), that same strength that each has when firmly implanted in his own world turns into a colossal weakness. The commonality to put it mildly was lacking; consequently the absence of simple common sense in Ba’thist Iraq and Islamic Iran is not a reflection on the sanity of those who made up these worlds, or those caught in their vicelike [sic] grip. It is an outcome of the air of unreality that exists in the fictitious goals that their lives are scaled up in and being consecrated for.” (285) [all emphasis added]

One must emphasize here that both Iraq and Iran are accused of living in an “air of unreality” with “fictitious goals,” when their mono-ideological “fictitious” worlds are no different than that in which the United States, whose imperial adventures are often built on “fictitious goals,” exists.

Reference points to the real world are never provided by al-Khalil the psychoanalyst. The reader is left in the dark with the ability only to examine the psychotic nature of Ba’thist thinking, with the impression that the rest of the world is “sane,” living in an air of reality.

In another reference to Ba’thist psychotic thinking, during al-Khalil’s discussion of the massacres of Iraqi Assyrians in 1933 by the army, the author states:

“(A)nti-imperialism … as manifested in the Assyrian events, should properly be understood as a representation or metaphor… There is no simple cause-and-effect relationship between the object of hatred—the British and their role in Iraq—and the intensity of the anti-imperialist sentiment among the masses; the relationship is one of appearance and similarity, not causality.

“By way of illustration, consider the case of a psychiatric hysterical seizure, which to an observer looks exactly like an epileptic seizure; in fact the latter bears a definite organ relation to the body, whereas the former only conveys a message about one’s confused state of mind. Hysteria is an indirect form of communication, a sign as opposed to a genuine manifestation of a bodily disorder. The feelings are of course almost always perfectly genuine, whether in the case of hysteria or this kind of anti-imperialism. Hut in their role as symbols, icons of a dislocated consciousness, they must not be confused with the object they purport to represent, and m particular with the realty of the object’s actions.” (172-173) [All emphasis added]

While explaining what anti-imperialism is an icon of, al-Khalil observes that imperialism threatened tradition and in-yoked rapid change. Consequently, anti-imperialism “set comforting limits on modernization.” Al-Khalil condemns the Third World left and secular intelligentsia for supporting anti-imperialist views.

Without stating it, al-Khalil is invoking Marx’s view of imperialism as modernizer—witness his statement that “the British in Iraq were modernizers more than colonizers” (174). Marx’s view of imperialism as such led him to support it in India and, especially, in Algeria where he viewed it as civilizing the barbarians.(12)

In reiterating such a view, al-Khalil seems to have missed all the literature developed after the fall of Western political science’s Modernization Theory and the rise and fall of Dependency Theory and beyond.

In another of al-Khalil’s non-contextual comparisons, he states that compared to the secular traditions of the West, the Bath fails the test of modernity due to its reliance on Islamic tradition and the primacy of Arabs in its doctrine, rendering it anything but secular (211).

A simple comparison with the United States illustrates al-Khalil’s bias: The constant invoking of the “Judeo-Christian” tradition in U.S. “secular” doctrine is a matter of course From legitimizing slavery and racism at the inception of the United States to the current process of re-criminalizing abortion and enacting laws regulating sexual conduct, Christianity is very present in U.S. political doctrine.

This, of course, does not deny the religious influences on Ba’thist doctrine, it simply situates it in its proper global context, something which al Khalil is determined to deny his reader.

While making a commendable case for disarmament, al-Khalil again singles out “irrational” Iraq for attack without the proper regional context. For example, Anwar Sadat, the darling of the West and by allusion considered rational by al-Khalil (118), threatened in 1977 to use nuclear weapons against Israel only months before his trip to Jerusalem.(13)

Moreover, the Israelis themselves, while losing the first round in the 1973 war, made preparations to use thirteen nuclear bombs against Syria and Egypt It was Kissinger’s then largest arms airlift in history which halted that decision by Golda Meir.(14)

These examples show that Saddam’s willingness to use nuclear weapons (which I do not doubt) does not necessarily stem from his personal “irrationality” or that of his “pan-Arabist” Ba’thist ideology, it stems from the irrationality of global politics itself of which he is part.

The Bath in Real Life

Al-Khalil never discusses the class basis of the Ba’th party. Although he discusses the Ba’th’s view on class (251-253), he seems uninterested to investigate the classes that have benefited from Ba’thist rule. The only exception is one cursory note that after 1958 “Iraq’s wealthy producing classes underwent an even sharper decline, which was only reversed by the Ba’th during the 1970? (241).

It must be emphasized that despite the real threat of imperialism Iraq has continued to face from its creation to the present, the Ba’thists seemed at different times in their history to have favored the imperialists over the communists. Allegations (not mentioned by al-Khalil) have it that the first coup that the Ba’th staged in 1963 took place with CIA help.

More importantly, during a newspaper interview, King Hussein of Jordan stated that it was the CIA who provided the Ba’th with lists of the names of communists, aiding the Ba’th’s witchhunt killings of 5000 communists.(15)

One of the more interesting critiques that al-Khalil provides, however, is that of the Ba’thist notion of freedom. Al-Khalil states that freedom, for the Ba’th, means “freedom from imperialism? He states that not only the Bath, but “most types of Third Worldism [sic]” have reduced all the “civilizing” attributes of the “Western connotation of personal sovereignty” to the exploitation of labor, this skipping over the “kind of enlightenment that preceded modernization in the history of Europe” (253)(16)

Certainly regimes as varied as Saudi Arabia, Panama’s Noriega, Ba’thist Iraq, Argentina, China and the Soviet Union, who all refer to imperialism in one form or another, have rendered the term meaningless. Thus, “freedom from imperialism” could mean any number of things, paramount among which is the monopoly of power by the national ruling class.

Limitations of the meaning of democracy in these societies are therefore very much dependent on the nature of the ruling class in each particular country and its relationship with the imperialist countries. Such points, however, are not raised by al-Khalil.

What Kind of Party?

The Ba’th’s other meaning of freedom is linked to their notion of “socialism.” Although the Ba’th adheres to the notion of a vanguard party, it does so with its party being a “vanguard” not of the proletariat but of the undifferentiated “masses.” The complete immersion of the individual in the Ba’thist concept of the “masses” negates, from the very beginning, individual freedom.

Ba’thist freedom “is total ‘unity’; at the same time it is an equalizing forte of the most fundamental kind, and its own language ‘socialist,’ because its unchecked course implies the obliteration of separateness, privacy, independence, difference, autonomy, variety, character and personality.” (257).

Al-Khalil’s condemnations go beyond the Bath. His villain is Arab nationalism itself-to which he constantly refers as “pan-Arabism”(17)–as more dangerous and regressive when compared with Iraqi nationalism. In fact he credits “pan-Arabism” with evaporating “the Iraqi sense of humor.” (164).

Al-Khalil rightly shows the arbitrary nature of designating who is an “Arab” by Ba’thist ideology, without staling that such arbitrariness is also used when defining who is “Iraqi.” The fact that parts of Kuwait were excluded from Iraq (and added to that country when it obtained its separate independence), and that the Kurdish province of Mosul was included in Iraq and not in Turkey, have significantly affected who is considered Iraqi.

Some of al-Khalil’s statements regarding Islam and Arabs have orientalist tendencies. For example he states that “(c)onspiratorial thinking has broad roots in the extreme of fatalism and hostility to individualism that may be characteristic of Islamic culture generally” (100); or that “Shi’ism in particular has an undiluted hem-worship; take away its object of veneration, or replace it with another, and you have transformed the relationship of the creed to those who wield power from one of rebellion to one of allegiance.” (108)

No such descriptions are made of American hero-worshipping cults, the most recent embodiments of which were Ollie North and Rambo.

One of al-Khalil’s better contributions is his analysis of the pervasive mono-ideological discourse that the Ba’thist terror system has created. Such a discourse is so pervasive that even opponents of the Ba’th cannot escape using these same discursive axioms and vocabulary, including, as he painfully states, al-Khalil himself. (136-137)

A Partial Understanding

Republic of Fear advances our understanding of Ba’thist thinking on several topics–freedom, totalitarian discourse, institutionalization of fear as a way of life, etc. Yet it fails in its attempts to uncover the “real” roots of Ba’thist ideology and Saddam Hussein’s practice of it.

Ba’thism emerged in the 1940s as an ideology to combat imperialism and the Arab Communist parties in the attempt to ‘recreate the glory of the Arab nation.” Its reactionary romantic nationalism, however, is not necessarily based on Arab and Islamic traditions as al-Khalil asserts, but on a “traditionalization” of Arab and Islamic history, as the Moroccan philosopher Abdullah Laroui would have put it.

The Ba’th’s class basis is also important to stress in the light of its ideology. The bourgeois and petit bourgeois classes, especially merchants, contractors and comprador elements whom its rule has benefited,(18) indicates the class nature of the meaning of “imperialism in the Ba’thist lexicon.

Al-Khalil’s approach is a classic Western approach to studying the “Third World.” His ideas, inspired by outdated Western political science criteria, are Eurocentric and as distortive of the West’s own history and conceptions of freedom as of the history of the Arab world and the general effect of imperialism on the Third World. Moreover, al-Khalil’s use of archaic forms of psychoanalysis obscures more than it clarifies Ba’thist thinking.

It is interesting to note the changed subtitle in the new Pantheon paperback edition, from the hardcover’s academic-sounding “The Politics of Modem Iraq” to the sensational “The Inside Story of Saddam’s Iraq.”

If al-Khalil’s aim was only to prove that Ba’thist Iraq is an Orwellian republic of fear, he has succeeded. In singling out Ba’thist Iraq, however, he failed to situate the regime in the context of a modem world with many equally Orwellian and fearsome attributes.


  1. Shiblak Abbas, The Lure of Zion, The Case of the Iraqi Jews, Al Saqi Books, London 1986, 154-155 (fn 10).
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  2. Letter of 31 August 1910 from Sir Gerald Lowther, Istanbul, to Sir Edward Grey, citing a German Zionist document. The quote is that of then prominent Zionist leader Israel Zangwill. Further Correspondence, July-September 1910, pages 155- 156, cited by Hanna Batatu’s classic, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq, A Study of Iraq’s Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of its Communists, Ba’thists and Free Officers, Princeton University Press 1978,288-289.
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  3. For a comprehensive account of the exodus of Iraqi Jewry see Shiblak, op. cit., 101-129; Woolfson, Marion, Prophets in Babylon, Jews in the Arab World, Faber and Faber, London 1980, 155-163; Hirst, David, The Gun and the Olive Branch, Faber and Faber, London 1984,155-164.
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  4. Quoted by Batatu, op. cit., 288.
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  5. Shiblak, op. cit., 46-48.
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  6. See Batatu, op. cIt., 1093.
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  7. Halliday, Fred, Arabia Without Sultans, A Political Survey of Instability in the Arab World, Vintage Books, New York 1975,42 (fn 7).
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  8. The Pike Report submitted to the U.S. Congress, excerpts reproduced in the Village Voice, New York, 23 February 1976, cited by Vanly, Ismet Sheriff, in “Kurdistan in Iraq” in Chaliand, Gerald, ed., People Without a Country, the Kurds and Kurdistan, Zed Books, London 1980, 184.
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  9. Satire, William, “Mr. Ford’s Secret Sellout,” New York Times, 5 February 1976.
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  10. This operation was dubbed “Operation Hard Surface” by the U.S. military. In a recent correspondence with Professor Fred Halliday, he clarified to me inter alia the limited extent of the U.S. role in the North Yemeni civil war.
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  11. Halliday, Arabs Without Sultans,, op. cit., 23.
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  12. Munck, Ronaldo, The Difficult Dialogue, Marxism and Nationalism, Zed Books, London 1986, 1-28.
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  13. Guardian (London), July 18, 1977, Cited in Hirst, David and Beeson, Irene, Sadist, Faber and Faber, London 1981, 281ff.
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  14. Time, April 12, 1976.
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  15. According to the King, “a secret radio beamed to Iraq was supplying the men who pulled the coup with the names and addresses of the Communists there so that they can be arrested and executed.” Al-Ahram (Cairo), September 27, 1963, cited by Batatu, op. cit., 985-986.
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  16. This valuing of the Enlightenment should be contrasted with the arguments of Michel Foucault (whom al-Khalil quotes), demonstrating the ubiquitous control by the rulers of the individual’s mind and body that the Enlightenment has brought about and institutionalized. See Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, The Birth of the Clinic, Discipline and Punish (which is mentioned by al-Khalil) and the first volume of his The History of Sexuality.
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  17. Western authors have chosen “pan-Arabism” as the “proper’ translation of the term “Arab nationalism” to remind the Western of pan-Germanism and, of course, Nazism. For al-KhaIiI’s discussion of “pan-Arabism” in Iraq, see chapter 5.
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  18. See al-Khalil, Isam, “The Parasitic Base of the Ba’thist Regime,” in CARDRI, Saddam’s Iraq, Revolution or Reaction, Zed Books, London 1986, 73-88.
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March-April 1991, ATC 31