- BANGALORE, India (UPI) --
Why should the Iraqi people feel any gratitude or loyalty to President
Saddam Hussein. You would not know it from anything that has been written
in the U.S. or British media, but there are very good reasons.
- I was commercial counselor and deputy chief of mission
at the Indian Embassy in Baghdad from 1976 to 1978. During the interregnum
between two ambassadors, I was also for a while the Indian charge d'affaires.
This explains why I had more than one occasion to stare into Saddam's expressionless
grey-green eyes -- straight out of "The Day of the Jackal" --
while shaking his hand at various official banquets and other ceremonial
- Saddam ran a brutal dictatorship. That, however, caused
no concern to the hordes of Western businessmen who descended in droves
on Iraq to siphon what they could of Iraq's newfound oil wealth through
lucrative contracts for everything. Everything -- from eggs to nuclear
plants. Because technologically, from the end of the Turkish Empire over
Iraq in 1919 through the British mandate, which lasted till 1932, and the
effete monarchy masterminded by Anthony Eden's buddy, Nuri es-Said, right
up to the Baath Party coup of 1968, there was virtually no progress at
- Iraqi latifundia -- the vast country house estates of
the tiny privileged elite -- gave large parties for visiting Western guests,
including Agatha Christie's archaeologist husband who did most of his digging
in Nineveh, now known worldwide to TV viewers as Mosul, while the puppet
ruling establishment gave away Iraq's most precious asset, oil, for a song.
Iraq's major export was -- hold your Patriot missile -- dates, the fruit
of the Arab desert eaten by pious Muslims to break their daylight fast
during the Muslim Lent -- Ramadan. India was Iraq's largest buyer.
- It was Saddam's revolution that ended Iraqi backwardness.
Education, including higher and technological education, became the top
priority. More important, centuries of vicious discrimination against girls
and women was ended by one stroke of the modernizing dictator's pen.
- I used to drive past the Mustansariya University on my
way home from downtown Baghdad. It was miraculous -- I use the word advisedly
-- it was nothing short of miraculous to see hundreds of girl-students
thronging the campus, none in "burkhas" or "chador"
-- the head-to-toe black cape that was, and is, essential dress for women
in most of the Islamic world -- and almost all in skirts and blouses that
would grace a Western university.
- The liberation of women -- that is half the population
of Iraq, as for any other country -- has been the most dramatic achievement
of Saddam's regime. To understand how dramatic just look across the Iraqi
border at America's once-favorite Arab satrap, Saudi Arabia.
- These last few days, watching television footage of President
George W. Bush's fireworks over Baghdad, I have been remembering pretty
Samira, Purchase Officer at the Iraqi Cement Co., with whom India was doing
a lot of business. She was as efficient as she was lovely, with every little
detail at the tips of her delicate fingers. She was also the velvet glove
protecting us from her irascible boss, Managing Director Adnan Kubba, a
man not inclined to treat leniently the many and varied delinquencies of
the Indian business enterprises it was my duty to shepherd into his presence.
Between Samira and me, we got Adnan to warm to India and the Indian businessmen
to mend their ways. It was a great and valued partnership.
- Samira's mother and all her female ancestors for centuries
could never have left the cloistered cages of hearth and home. But here
she was, under 30, yet the motor driving the engine of the Iraqi state-owned
cement monopoly. I do not know if Samira is still alive -- or buried under
the rubble of a bombed-out Iraqi marketplace. But as U.S. missiles fall
nightly on her neighborhood or her grave, why would she not have at least
some gratitude in her heart for the revolution Saddam brought into her
life and those of her countrywomen, whatever the horrible things he has
been doing to keep his regime going? Has U.S. Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld factored the feelings of Samira into his war plans for the taking
- I think also of the chief engineer at the State Organization
for Industrial Housing, the driving force behind the massive housing program,
which turned Baghdad in the first decade of Baath rule from a dirty shantytown
into a pulsating modern metropolis that provided a roof over the head of
every family in the city.
- The chief engineer was a woman. I kick myself for having
forgotten her name. But I remember her well. She was so much like Mama
in "Chicago"! Across the road from SOIH was SOI -- State Organization
for Industry where my diplomatic fate obliged me to cross swords with another
tough-as-they-come lady, the head of the Legal Division, without whose
OK no bills were paid. This was the position of women in Iraq under Saddam
a quarter century ago. One had to keep reminding oneself that this was
the Middle East..
- My second daughter, Yamini, was born in Medical City,
Baghdad, symbol of the astonishing revolution wrought by the Baath Party
in health care. My child's cradle is now a coffin, a purgatory that holds
the mangled remains of Iraqi babies killed by a rain of terror to end a
reign of terror. If I, who lived in Baghdad but two years, and that too
as a foreigner and so many decades ago, feel violated in my deepest sensitivities
at what is being done to my memories of the ordinary Iraqi men, women and
children I knew, consider the feelings of those who have lived all their
lives in Iraq, all those below 40 years of age who have known no Iraq other
than the Iraq of Saddam, and now find everything they have seen grow around
them going up in smoke - for their "liberation!"
- Iraq is home to some of the holiest Muslim shrines, fertile
ground for religious fundamentalism. Saddam would have none of it. Clerics
were put firmly in their place -- that is, the mosque and the madrasa --
and the Iraqi believer liberated from the thralldom of the priesthood.
The ethos was completely secular: we interacted every day with Iraqis of
numerous religious persuasions in every position of responsibility.
- Few know even now that one of Iraq's longest lasting
Baath leaders, companion-in-arms to Saddam for the last four decades, is
Tariq Aziz, a practicing Christian notwithstanding his name. For Indians,
there is a special place in our regard for Saddam who has treated with
reverence a sacred spot in Baghdad where, legend has it, Guru Nanak, the
founder of the Sikh faith in the 16th century, meditated on his way back
to India from Mecca on the imperative of synthesizing Hindu and Muslim
- Iraq under Saddam had everything going for it -- except
democracy. And it was, of course, the absence of democracy that accounted
for Saddam brushing aside all vested interests: his instant liberation
of women, his instant dismantling of feudalism, his instant caging of the
priesthood, and, therefore, his instant -- and, yes, brutal -- exclusion
from Iraq of all forms of religious fundamentalism and religion-based terrorism.
Which is, one thing at least that Osama bin Laden and Bush III share: they
hate Saddam equally.
- If Saddam goes, the brutality of the Baath party will
finally be ended.
- But other things not wonderful either will take its place.
There will be a takeover of civil society by the elements sidelined over
four decades of Baath rule. Therefore, along with democracy, fundamentalism
and terrorism will rear their heads. Samira -- if, poor thing, she has
not already been killed -- will probably lose many of the privileges which
Saddam ensured her. RIP.
- Mani Shankar Aiyar is a member of the Indian parliament
representing the Congress Party. His column is published weekly.
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