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Jim Hoagland

No Longer Your Iraq

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page B07

Dear Saddam,

Yes, it has been a long time since I wrote. But then you were so hard to find for a while. And since you surfaced -- in your case the word has real meaning -- we have both been so busy. So let's calm down and catch up.

Is it true that you watched on television as Jalal Talabani was elected to your old job as president of Iraq? You know, better than anyone, the extraordinary significance of a Kurd's becoming the head of state there in "the beating heart of Arab nationalism." And you know that I know that you know.

_____More Hoagland_____
The Backlash Paradox (The Washington Post, Apr 7, 2005)
Keeping Covenant With Iraq (The Washington Post, Apr 3, 2005)
De Gaulle's Tattered Legacy (The Washington Post, Mar 31, 2005)
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When we talked about the Kurds, I wrote afterward that you treated any mention of them "as an insult" to your very presence -- that you responded to concern about their rights as if you "had been accused of kicking at a snarling stray dog." That discussion was in 1975, before you dropped poison gas on them as part of the 1987-88 campaign of genocide you code-named Anfal.

Not only has this non-Arab minority from the mountains of northern Iraq survived; it has prospered under 14 years of U.S. protection and guidance. To see the worldly and wily Talabani become your head jailer is a moment to have lived for and to savor. And we both know that Talabani will do just that.

But the moment represents much more. This is matrix-breaking stuff, Saddam. It is the nail in the coffin for the racist myth of pan-Arabism that you (okay, okay, you and others) propagated to justify brute force as the lowest common denominator of power in the Middle East.

Your claim to defend "Arabism" by persecuting the Kurds (and going to war against the Persians in Iran) was always a cover for the fact that you and your Baathist sidekicks also represent a minority in Iraq. Like the Kurds, Sunni Arabs make up about one-fifth of the population.

Here's my point: The Middle East is a giant mosaic of religious and ethnic minorities that have until now known only how to persecute or be persecuted. Frequently the claim of cultural, political and religious cohesiveness contained in pan-Arabist ideology such as yours is put forward to mask the true diversity and conflicts of the people known as Arabs.

Suppressing diversity is what you were all about. The same is true for your ideological brothers yet personal enemies, the ruling Baathists in Syria, who represent a minority Alawite sect that can rule only by force. No wonder they see themselves as imperiled by democracy arriving next door. Let's hope for once they are right.

Your neighbors tolerated or actively supported your brutality and corruption simply because you were a Sunni Arab. For them, that gave you a license to kill, rob, rape or imprison not only the Kurds (though they are Sunnis) but also the majority Shiites (though they are Arab).

What you saw on television Wednesday is said to have set you to twirling your beard. But it gets worse: Talabani's accession to the ceremonial presidency is only part of the deal that the Kurds and Shiites struck last week to form a new transitional government.

When the details are released, you will choke to learn that the Shiite prime minister, Ibrahim Jafari, has agreed that the Kurds will maintain their regional militia -- to be funded by the central government -- and their regional political institutions, as well as key government departments in what Kurdish leaders now insist on calling "the Federal Republic of Iraq."

You will protest, of course, that this mongrelized electoral dealmaking will bring the breakup of Iraq as it exists today. I can't deny that possibility. The Kurds have come so far and gained so much confidence since I used to visit them in their besieged mountain hideouts that they will now begin to dream of independence.

But they have much to gain from staying in a decentralized, federal Iraq, and perhaps even more to give. By showing that minority rights can be protected by the rule of law and democratic practice -- not just by brute force -- Iraq can change the Middle East.

I close with regrets: Too bad the Arab summit was held two weeks before Talabani's election. We will have to wait to see the faces of Arab leaders welcoming a Kurdish president of Iraq into their midst. Seeing that would be almost as sweet as it would have been to see you watch Talabani get elected.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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