Life in a Dictatorship
With Susan Glasser
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 18, 2003; Noon ET
A system greased by money. Quotas for cheering crowds. Everyday coercion. Copious files on comrades.
This describes a portrait of everyday life in Iraq under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, according to hundreds of pages of documents recorded by the ruling Baath Party in Basra and translated in recent days.
Washington Post foreign correspondent Susan Glasser was online from Basra on Friday, April 18 at Noon ET, to discuss more of what the documents reveal about life before the fall of Saddam.
A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
washingtonpost.com: Susan, thank you for being with us from Basra. The documents that were found at Baath Party headquarters there really paint a picture of how the dictatorship worked. Can you give us a few examples of how the government treated party members?
Susan Glasser: It seems to me that the party itself was run on a system of coercion and incentives. The incentives were special perks, bonuses paid out on every holiday and every state occasion and a better standard of living in a poor country. The coercion was in the police state even reached into the party's ranks and even police officers and other servants of the regime were not immune to being tortured and arrested.
Montclair, N.J.: Do you see parallels with oppression during the Stalin era in Russia? In your opinion do you believe in light of what you have seen and read that Baath Party officials and ranking officers in Saddam's military can be co-opted successfully to serve in the post-Saddam government?
Susan Glasser: Those are two important questions. As for the first, there is an obvious analogy to the Soviet period in that Iraq was clearly governed as a dictatorship and under the rule of a party with a nominally socialist ideology. Many of the stories that we're hearing now have echoes of Eastern Europe after the wall came down. There's a sense that the party itself had become a vehicle for holding onto power and coercing citizens in ways comparable to that seen as that of the communist party in the late Cold War.
San Francisco, Calif.: How far back in Saddam's history do these documents go? Are there paper's from the 80's when the U.S. was supporting him?
Susan Glasser: I'm sure there are. The documents that we looked at are a very, very small percentage of thousands of pages of documents that are still lying unexamined at the Baath Party headquarters in Basra. We focus only on recent ones.
Ann Arbor, Mich. Have there been any surprises in what has been found?
Susan Glasser: Everything that we've examined about the Baath Party is revealing in its own way. For example, it's been noted in recent years Saddam Hussein's increasing reliance on tribal leaders and efforts to win their cooperation. But the documents reveal just how extensive that process was and how much effort the party put into it, even down to the level of recording how many tribe members and how many weapons they brought to a military parade.
New Concord, Ohio: Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented in exacting detail the butchery of Saddam's rule. I'm worried though that what comes next could be just another flavor of thug regime. We haven't been shy about supporting regimes that do bad things to their people in the past; the authors of the Iraq war plan made their reputations bolstering dictatorships across the globe, from Indonesia to Chile to Honduras to El Salvador to the Philippines to pre-revolutionary Iran, and we're still propping up regimes that kill, torture, and arbitrarily imprison their citizens, like Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Given all that, what steps do you see being necessary to ensure Iraq becomes a democracy and not simply a U.S. puppet that oppresses its own people? Iraq is better off without Saddam, but how can we ensure that Iraq (and the world) will have made the historic progress towards a new day we all desire going forward?
Susan Glasser: Well, that's another big question without an obvious answer. But I think that in looking ahead it's pretty important to look back as well and understand in more detail and with greater depth than we have been able to before what exactly went on inside Saddam Hussein's Iraq before we can begin to establish the best way to move forward. Without understanding the history of political repression here and how the Baath Party worked in practice, it's going to be almost impossible to figure out who, for example, to be included in a new government, what crimes were really committed and what sort of traumas the people here need to recover from. And we're just in the very, very initial stages of being able to figure that out.
Gardnerville, Nev.: If the new government in Iraq is supposed to include everyone, who is going to oversee the voting rights of women there? They should be 50 percent of each and every meeting and have full voting rights. This would be great insurance that Iraq not fall into any type of religious or tribal factionalism and should be a top priority. There must be the recruitment and teaching of women so they know they are to participate. Who will do this? Not the Iraqi men, that's for sure.
Susan Glasser: Sounds like a good plan to me. One striking thing we've seen here in Basra in the week and a half since the British took it is a total absence of women from the two new civic councils that have been established here with the British blessing to begin organizing the rudiments of a new city government. We've asked that question to many Iraqi men here as to why there are no women participating and we haven't gotten back anything more than a confused look.
Portsmouth, N.H. : In your assessment, how widespread is support for an Islamic state among the people of Iraq?
Susan Glasser: Another subject that has yet to be fully explored. There is certainly evidence to indicate a certain amount of pro-Iranian sentiment among the Shiites of southern Iraq but several people we've spoken with who've lived in exile in Iran also insist that they are really interested in a democracy here in Iraq and not a replication of Iran's Islamic revolution.
Silver Spring, Md. : Everything thus far found is very interesting indeed, but it begs the question -- where are the weapons of mass destruction we were assured existed and threatened us?
Susan Glasser: Well, I haven't stumbled over any in Basra. Aside from Saddam Hussein's whereabouts which is perhaps the biggest unresolved issue of the war, especially since it was used as a justification for starting the conflict, it's a story that I'm sure the Post will be following in the days and weeks ahead.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.