Saddam and the Ancient Culture of Iraq

  February 10, 2024   Read time 7 min
Saddam and the Ancient Culture of Iraq
In ancient times Iraq was known as Mesopotamia, a name that means “the land between the two rivers” (the Tigris and Euphrates rivers). To the modern world, this region has become known as the Cradle of Civilization. The Sumerian culture flourished here around 4000 B.C.
The Sumerians were the first recorded people to cultivate land and use calendars. The first written alphabet may have been invented here, too. The seat of Sumerian power was the city of Ur of the Chaldees. Over many centuries, however, the Sumerians fought countless invading enemies whose attacks took their toll on Sumerian civilization and culture. Fortunately, King Hammurabi of Babylon was able to salvage some of this civilization in 1700 B.C., and the region came to be known as Babylonia. On Hammurabi’s death, the land fell under Assyrian rule for about two centuries. It was then restored to its former legendary glory under Nebuchadnezzar II, who built the famous Hanging Gardens and made Babylon the most celebrated (and notorious) city of the ancient world.
Various invaders conquered the land after Nebuchadnezzar’s death, including Cyrus the Great in 539 B.C. and the Macedonian emperor, Alexander the Great, in 331 B.C. Then the armies of the Persian Empire overran Babylonia in the second century A.D. For 500 years, the region remained in Persian control until it was captured by Arab Muslims. The capital was moved to Baghdad. By the Middle Ages, Baghdad was a thriving commercial and cultural center—a city where humble marketplaces operated next to the walls of palaces and Eastern schools of religious thought.
In 1258 A.D., Mongol invaders from Asia sacked Baghdad and murdered the caliph (the term “caliph” means leader of Islam, or literally, the prophet Mohammed’s successor). Baghdad stood at the center of a contest for supremacy that lasted 400 years, until the Turks conquered the region and added it to the Ottoman Empire in the seventeenth century. Turkish rule continued unchallenged until the end of the nineteenth century. During World War I, Turkey became a German ally. The Ottoman Empire collapsed when British forces invaded Mesopotamia in 1917 and occupied Baghdad. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, the Allies (the coalition of the victorious nations in World War I) made Iraq—the territory encompassing the three former Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad, and Al Basrah—a Class A mandate. Under the mandate system, a territory that had formerly been held by Germany or the Ottoman Empire was placed under the supervision of the League of Nations.
The responsibility for directly administering the mandate fell to Britain, which was keenly interested in the area’s oil fields. Class A mandates were expected to achieve independence in a few years. In April 1920 the Allied governments confirmed British control of the region at a conference in San Remo, Italy. Local unrest, however, resulted in an Arab uprising in 1920 against British colonialism, and after costly attempts to quell it, the British government drew up a plan for an independent state of Iraq.
It was to be a kingdom, under the rule of Emir Faisal, and although the monarch was elected in 1921, full independence was not achieved until 1932, when the British Mandate was officially terminated. Iraq joined the League of Nations in October 1932 as an independent sovereign state. On Faisal’s death in 1933, his son, King Ghazi I, succeeded him. During this period of newly won independence and Iraqi nationalism, Saddam Hussein was born on April 28, 1937. His family were landless peasants who lived in the mud-hut village of Al-Awja on the outskirts of Tikrit, northwest of Baghdad. Saddam’s name means “he who confronts.” In accordance with Arab custom, Saddam’s second name, Hussein, was his father’s first name.
His father disappeared from the scene when Saddam was still only a few months old (the official version is that his father died.) His mother married a man named Hassan Ibrahim, nicknamed Hassan the Liar, who abused his small stepson with insults and blows. Forced to work like a hired hand, Saddam thrilled to a cousin’s stories of what life was like attending school in Tikrit. His stepfather refused to allow him any schooling, however. At age ten, Saddam ran away one night to live in Baghdad with an uncle, Khairullah Tulfah, a devout Sunni Muslim who would later be governor of Baghdad. Khairullah was an Iraqi army officer, and passionate Iraqi nationalist opposed to the foreign interference. A popular pamphlet he wrote carried the title, “Three Whom God Should Not Have Created: Persians, Jews, and Flies.” Khairullah became Saddam’s hero.
That same year, 1947, Iraq entered the arena of international politics as a nation-player. Iraq bitterly objected to the United Nations decision to partition Palestine and sent several hundred recruits to the Palestine front when hostilities broke out on May 15, 1948. Iraq sent an additional 8,000 to 10,000 troops of the regular army during the course of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Fighting continued until the signing of a cease-fire agreement in May 1949. But the Iraqis had arrived at the Palestine front poorly equipped and poorly trained. The humiliations they suffered on the battlefield reflected badly on the country’s monarchy. The war also had a negative impact on the Iraqi economy. The government allocated 40 percent of available funds for the army and for Palestinian refugees. Oil royalties to Iraq were cut in half when the pipeline to Israel was shut off in 1948. The war and the lynching of a Jewish businessman led, moreover, to the departure of most of Iraq’s prosperous Jewish community—about 120,000 Iraqi Jews emigrated to Israel between 1948 and 1952.
By the early 1950s, government revenues began to improve with the growth of the oil industry. The Iraqis constructed new pipelines to Tripoli, Lebanon, in 1949 and to Baniyas, Syria, in 1952. A new oil agreement, concluded in 1952, netted the government 50 percent of oil company profits before taxes. Government oil revenues suddenly increased almost four times over. But little of the money was reaching the Iraqi people. Corruption among government officials increased; foreign oil companies employed relatively few Iraqis; and the oil boom had a severe inflationary effect on the economy. Inflation hurt in particular a growing number of urban poor and the salaried middle class.
Then, starting in 1955, the monarchy committed several foreign policy blunders that led to its undoing. The government announced that Iraq was joining a British-supported mutual defense pact with Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey. The Baghdad Pact constituted a direct challenge to Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser. Nasser, a handsome, eloquent Egyptian nationalist, was expertly using the newly opened Suez Canal to make Egypt the most influential nation in the region. In response to the pact, Nasser launched a heated media campaign that challenged the legitimacy of the Iraqi monarchy. He called on the Iraqi officer corps to overthrow it. Egypt then formed an alliance with Syria. In 1958 King Hussein of Jordan proposed a union of Arab monarchies to counter the EgyptianSyrian union. Despite protests in the streets of Baghdad and other major cities, Iraq joined, giving the people the impression that the monarchy would do anything to preserve itself, even if it meant sacrificing the national interest.
At dawn on July 14, 1958, Iraqi officers of the 19th Brigade seized the government. The coup was triggered when Jordan’s King Hussein, fearing that an anti-Western revolt in Beruit might spread to his country, requested Iraqi assistance. Instead of moving toward Jordan, however, an Iraqi battalion entered Baghdad and immediately proclaimed a new republic and the end of the old regime. The July 14 Revolution met virtually no opposition. The coup brought cheering crowds into the street calling for the death of the king. King Faisal II was executed, as were many others in the royal family. A mob attacked the British embassy and destroyed most of it. An influential political organization involved in the coup was the Ba’ath party, to which Saddam’s uncle had belonged for a number years. Saddam joined when he was 19 or 20. During the 1950s, the Ba’ath was a secret anti-British political party, and its members were subject to arrest if their identities were discovered. From its early years, the Iraqi Ba’ath recruited converts from a small number of college and high school students, intellectuals, and professionals— nearly all of whom were Baghdad Sunni Arabs, like Saddam’s uncle, Khairullah Tulfah. A handful of Ba’ath high school students entered the Baghdad Military Academy, where they persuaded several classmates to join the party. In the 1957, the academy rejected Saddam, a devastating blow to his self-esteem, especially since he wanted to emulate his uncle.

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