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Hayder is a Researcher at the Centre for Academic Shi’a Studies. He is also a postgraduate student at the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS. You can follow him on Twitter @Hayder_alKhoei

A record worse than Saddam’s? Think again.

Bad girl Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. Like many others who have been trawling through the secret military records leaked on Friday, I was shocked at the candid indifference and complicity of the US military towards human rights violations in Iraq, but also the incompetence of the Iraqi government. The leaked documents though, in many respects, did not reveal a lot that many didn’t know already – abuse and torture by Iraqi security forces, foreign interference from both sides of the border, a cat-and-mouse game with terrorists and death, destruction and suffering on an epic scale. The difference now being that this information was never intended to be publicly available – and has embarrassed both American and Iraqi officials alike.

However, Ms Alibhai-Brown, in an opinion piece published in the Independent on Monday, insults the Iraqi people by callously claiming that “the sanctions and war killed, maimed and destroyed more civilians than Saddam did.” Ms Alibhai-Brown’s crass comments were, clearly, more about scoring some cheap political point than it was about giving facts.

Her fundamental mistake is that she somehow looks at Iraq in an epochal vacuum void of any historical context. She ignores the fact that the sanctions were manipulated by Saddam to score political points (a past-time Ms Alibhai-Brown appreciates). During the last year of Saddam’s disastrous rule, he allocated just US$16m for the Ministry of Health to spend for the year, amounting to around 60 cents per Iraqi, meanwhile, in the last decade of his rule (a decade in which Iraq was heavily sanctioned), Saddam spent an estimated US$2.2b on constructing palaces for himself and the coterie of despots he surrounded himself with. Saddam lived a life of luxury while his people starved through the economic sanctions and he, more than anybody else, should be held responsible for the suffering of millions upon millions of people under his regime. What followed cannot be “a worse record than Saddam’s” because the butcher of Baghdad was a big part of it.

Many in the west are obsessed with WMDs and the lies that were told to secure support for the Iraq war, but to many Iraqis, the matter is inconsequential. Saddam was the weapon of mass destruction.

Since Ms Alibhai-Brown matter-of-factly states that it was better during Saddam’s era “even during the most diabolical periods of his rule”, let us look specifically at the incidents that occurred.

Could she be referring to the eight-year war of attrition with Iran that claimed the lives of over one million human beings?

Could she be referring to the campaign of genocide in the north against the Kurds in the late 80s when over one hundred and eighty thousand civilians were systemically ethnically cleansed?

Could she be referring to the First Gulf War when Kuwait was plundered and seventy-five thousand people were killed?

Could she be referring to the mass-killings of those who rebelled against Saddam’s tyranny in ’91?

Could she be referring to the political opponents and religious scholars brutally tortured and executed by his regime that number in excess of one hundred thousand?

Could she be referring to the campaign of genocide in the southern marshes when the Ba’ath regime deliberately dried up the lifeline of a five thousand year-old community who once lived there?

Obviously, she can’t be referring to the plethora of Saddam’s crimes in their entirety because it would make her comment on breaking “records” seem slightly misinformed.

Another mistake Ms Alibhai-Brown makes is to assume the death toll would somehow have magically kept static had Saddam remained in power. I wonder then, has Ms Alibhai-Brown ever heard of two brothers by the names of Uday and Qusay? Even if Saddam had dropped dead before the invasion his sadistic sons would have ruled in his stead unchallenged and they would have carried on with the same campaign of hatred, fear and death that their father masterminded.

Ms Alibhai-Brown then goes on to say that hundreds of “savvy, smart, keenly aware” Muslims throughout various Muslim states send her e-mails because they are baffled at the foreign policy of western governments and their double standards. To an extent, they have a very valid point.

The hypocrisy of western foreign policy must be exposed whenever and wherever possible. Western support for dictatorships across the world is blatant and it is done in the interest of securing vital resources that fuel their economies or serves their foreign interests. But that does not mean the Arab and Muslim world should be let off the hook, or that their role should be downplayed.

The west should indeed be blamed for many of the catastrophic events that unfolded in Iraq throughout its history, but it would be both naïve and insincere to try to pin all the blame on Bush and Blair. If anything, these leaks confirm previous suspicions that terrorists came ten a penny from neighbouring Syria and Iran.

To Iraqis like me, who have lost immediate family-members both pre and post 2003, the sudden burst of conscience from a public that was silent during three decades of the harshest, most despotic regime the Middle East has seen in the last few centuries is abhorrent in itself, and leads me to question the motivation behind the sudden faux-concern for the plight of the millions of suffering Iraqis. Here in London, Iraqis campaigned for years against Saddam, and tried desperately to convince people like Ms Alibhai-Brown to support their worthy cause. Very few heeded the calls; apparently stories of Iraqis dying are not all too interesting. Unless of course the West is somehow culpable in the killing.

It is such a shame that commentary on Iraq has been reduced by many to an industry focused at selling news with little regard for history and context. Much of the suffering in Iraq today is a direct result of Saddam’s legacy. It is the failure to understand and appreciate historical context that has led to the crass, shallow, superficiality that has become a feature of much of the news coverage in Iraq.

It is cruel to count victims as statistics who perished in the recent war, but if we want to be soulless and academic, then the civilian victims that are identified in the latest documents make up only one-third of those who vanished during the Anfal campaign under Saddam. More to the point, Ms Alibhai-Brown seems to paper over the fact that tens of thousands of the post 2003 war victims were in fact targeted by a ruthless insurgency in Iraq, and insurgency that relies on remnants of Saddam’s regime for funding, logistics and indeed recruits. Saddam may have been arrested, tried, and executed, but his men are still in Iraq committing the same crimes they have always been committing. The legacy of Saddam is still claiming lives and it is still destroying the country.

But this story isn’t just about Iraq, Muslims should have a better understanding of what other Muslims are doing to them and those smart and savvy Muslim youths should be looking closer to home when it comes to figuring out why so much has gone wrong in that part of the world. Perhaps they should realise when they point a finger across the Atlantic, three fingers are pointing straight back at them.

I wonder if Ms Alibhai-Brown even knows that two hundred years before the US invasion of Iraq – during Thomas Jefferson’s Presidency in 1802 – fanatic Muslims attacked Iraq and indiscriminately slaughtered the men, women and children they saw. This was all done in the name of Islam to purify the religion. The people who committed that heinous crime are the ideological ancestors of modern-day terrorists that are responsible for many of the deaths Ms Alibhai-Brown is apparently concerned about and they were slaughtering innocent Muslims centuries before the neo-con mandarins planned the Iraq war.

One thing Iraq now has, that it never had under Saddam, is hope. The situation on the ground is messy, and it is important to condemn first and foremost the Iraqi government for failing to secure the country or provide basic services to its people, but at least now Iraq has a chance for a better future. Its people have a say in the running of the country and they exercise democratic rights many other Middle Easterners can only dream of.

Edited by Ali Rashid.

30 Comments on “A record worse than Saddam’s? Think again.”

  1. Mazin October 28, 2010 at 2:32 pm #

    Amazingly written article. This needs to be published across all supposed left-wing media.

  2. Ahmed Al-Saeed October 28, 2010 at 3:45 pm #

    Hayder, excellent article. It’s not only a response to Alibhai-Brown’s piece, it puts all facts in the right context to be weighed against each other correctly. I couldn’t agree more. Very well said.

  3. Ali Latif October 28, 2010 at 4:20 pm #

    Great piece Haider. Its about what narrative we choose to construct for ourselves whether or not it corresponds to present or historical reality.

  4. Muhannad October 28, 2010 at 4:43 pm #

    EXCELLENT article.

  5. Perry October 28, 2010 at 5:04 pm #

    I browsed through The Independent Opinion section and couldn’t find this rebuttal anywhere. Shame on them. Whatever the motives behind the war, only a fool would argue that Iraqi’s are worse off than before.

  6. Hayder al-Khoei October 28, 2010 at 5:08 pm #

    Two days ago, I sent this article to both an online editor at the Independent and also the letters editor. No response.

  7. Mohammed Abdullah October 28, 2010 at 5:35 pm #

    Perry :

    I think that’s pretty insulting to a lot of Iraqis who are suffering the misery of living in Iraq right now. Im not going to say one way or another whether Iraq is better off now than before, partly because I don’t have strong evidence either way, and partly because it undermines the plight of those who are actually living a pretty horrific life while we sit in our comfy chairs in the West. Who are we (and by “we” I mean you) to call them fools?

    • Ameer October 28, 2010 at 7:23 pm #

      And who are you to say that Iraqis should have continued to live under the ignominy and misery of Saddam? The US offered a rare, valuable, unique chance to rid Iraq of the Baath and most importantly give them life, but because of ignorant, masochistic Iraqis (the ones in the West were just plain dumb and the ones in Iraq itself were either narrow racists or acting on emotion) who opposed this it almost never happened, and still might go wrong.

  8. g2-6d4db297475a1204050f0d4e26a0b887 October 28, 2010 at 6:45 pm #

    There’s a mouintain of evidence that Iraqi’s are better off today Mohammed. Twice as many Iraqi’s have clean water and sewage. 20X as many Iraqi’s have a telephone. 150X as many Iraqi’s have internet access. The average Iraqi is 4.5X richer than he was 8 years ago. Per capita GDP has gone from $800 to almost $4000. I could go on all day. By any metric available, Iraqi’s are MUCH better off today. Only a fool would say otherwise.

  9. Mohammed Abdullah October 28, 2010 at 7:49 pm #

    Ameer :
    And who are you to say that Iraqis should have continued to live under the ignominy and misery of Saddam?

    I didn’t say that. Infact, I’ve never said it, on this blog or elsewhere. Calm down son.

  10. Mohammed Abdullah October 28, 2010 at 8:00 pm #

    g2-6d4db297475a1204050f0d4e26a0b887 :
    There’s a mouintain of evidence that Iraqi’s are better off today Mohammed. Twice as many Iraqi’s have clean water and sewage. 20X as many Iraqi’s have a telephone. 150X as many Iraqi’s have internet access. The average Iraqi is 4.5X richer than he was 8 years ago. Per capita GDP has gone from $800 to almost $4000. I could go on all day. By any metric available, Iraqi’s are MUCH better off today. Only a fool would say otherwise.

    This can’t be said to paint a complete picture of the situation. Economic indicators are just that – they talk about one aspect of life, not all of it. Furtermore, averages don’t give any information the distribution of the changes.
    So Im not entirely convinced by this, because it’s not enough. Clearly, we are not going to get anything comprehensive in a blog comment, but a link to some academic studies would be useful, if anyone has any. In particular, I would be interested to know about the state of Iraq’s higher education system and research output. I don’t care about comparisons with pre-2003, just some indication of how bad things are at the moment. I have a survey dated Feb 09 in which 46% or Iraqi respondents give a negative view of the invasion, but the plus side is that slightly more give a positive view. In anycase, there are a lot of “fools” in Iraq, at least in Feb 09.

    • Sand Storm October 28, 2010 at 9:26 pm #

      “In anycase, there are a lot of ‘fools’ in Iraq, at least in Feb 09.”

      Wow! Who are you to call Iraqis fools?

      Feb 09, was one of the worst periods Iraq was going through, and still Iraqis thought positive about the invasion. The reason for this is that although the occupation has caused a lot of trouble, Iraqis didn’t forget what it has achieved for them. Sadam was so bad that anybody who could help get rid of him and his rest overs was considered positive.

      This does not make Iraqis fools, this is an indication that they are desperate. And the more Sadam’s advocates do their evil and get support from our neighbors, the more the occupation will be tolerated. The one who can’t see this and understand why is the “fool”.

      • Mohammed Abdullah October 28, 2010 at 9:43 pm #

        No, you’ve misunderstood, I wasn’t actually saying that….nevermind, I’m sorry for calling Iraqis fools.

        How did this happen..

  11. Perry October 28, 2010 at 8:26 pm #

    “I have a survey dated Feb 09 in which 46% or Iraqi respondents give a negative view of the invasion”

    I’m surprised that number wasn’t 100%. I’ve got a negative view of the US economy. That doesn’t mean I want a return to the days of British rule. There’s no way someone can claim quality of life was better under Saddam with a straight face. Who would pine for a time when there was a secret informant on every block? When a joke about Saddam could get you and your family killed? I saw an interview of one of Saddam’s top aides. He would piss his pants when Saddam summoned him for a meeting. Saddam’s gaze would send sheer terror down his spine. And this was one of Saddam’s trusted aides!

    • Mohammed Abdullah October 28, 2010 at 9:04 pm #

      Question 8 http://tiny.cc/ixndb

      • Mohammed Abdullah October 28, 2010 at 9:21 pm #

        56%, sorry…don’t know why I remembered it as 46%.

  12. Ali Rashid October 29, 2010 at 8:28 am #

    If its any consolation Mohammed, I completely understand your point. I think we need to understand that we can criticise the situation in post-war Iraq without it meaning that we yearn for the days of Saddam.

    • Sand Storm October 29, 2010 at 9:39 am #

      Fully agree Ali.

    • Mohammed Abdullah October 30, 2010 at 7:30 pm #

      I would hope we can also admit that for some people, life has clearly gotten worse since 2003, even if over all the country is better (in aggregate terms).

      • Ameer October 30, 2010 at 8:33 pm #

        Yes, for the Baathist apologists and Saddam lovers who lost their power and privileged status when their idol fell.

  13. Mohammed Abdullah October 30, 2010 at 8:50 pm #

    Ameer :
    Yes, for the Baathist apologists and Saddam lovers who lost their power and privileged status when their idol fell.

    Does that include the displaced and young girls who were forced into prostitution in Iraq and outside it? Come on, get real, the idea that only the Saddam lovers and Ba’athist apologists have lost out is absurd.
    I know people were made refugees and prostitution sky-rocketed in the 90’s with the sanctions, but it doesn’t detract from the fact that a new set of people (both Sunni and Shia), have fallen into this situation and have hardly reaped the gains. There have been losers and winners, and this characterisation you give is far too simplistic.

  14. Sand Storm October 30, 2010 at 10:10 pm #

    True, but we should not forget the fact that those Sadam lovers who lost their power and privileged status can’t accept their loss, and therefore try to make the reality of Iraq like hell, as long as they are not in power. They are the real enemies, as well as those who represent them today under different names.

  15. Zaid October 31, 2010 at 11:55 am #

    Ameer :
    Yes, for the Baathist apologists and Saddam lovers who lost their power and privileged status when their idol fell.

    Ameer – What about the Christian population of Iraq that has been decimated since 2003? What about the millions that have been displaced or forced to live as refugees? Your insensitivity is difficult to fathom and to bear.

  16. Hayder al-Khoei November 2, 2010 at 3:58 pm #

    Ameer, Ba’athists apologists are not the only ones who had a hard time post-2003.

    Of course many people suffered more before than now and many others suffered more now than before. I was talking about the country in its entirety and arguing there is a potential future for Iraq today – the same Iraq that didn’t even have hope under Saddam.

  17. Fatema November 2, 2010 at 7:57 pm #

    Good Analysis


  18. Zaid November 2, 2010 at 11:27 pm #

    Today – and even this week as a whole – is not a good time to be talking about hope… What desperate scenes…

  19. Hayder al-Khoei November 3, 2010 at 12:43 am #

    Why not? Because the terrorist cowards are desperately trying to reignite the sectarian war again? Or because if one does not live in Iraq today it means he/she can never understand what it’s like to be surrounded by so much misery?

    I understand how looking at the prospects of the future can be interpreted as being insensitive to victims of today (2nd November 2010) but I did not mean it in that sense. The politicians in Iraq today are hopeless, and I can’t see anything changing for the better if we only see the same corrupt faces that have been ruling Iraq, but in 5 years time, in 10 years time, what will this mean for Iraq?

    • Zaid November 3, 2010 at 3:38 pm #

      I agree. Anyone have a workplan to get us out of this mess?

      • Yasser Alaskary November 4, 2010 at 10:09 pm #

        Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

  20. Fatema November 3, 2010 at 5:04 pm #


    rape alarms are free on me !

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