This morning, I went to the gathering of the tribes. From around the country they converged: 200 heads in black and white headscarves, a sea of checkers in front of the Sheraton elevators. These are the Sheiks, the elders. Some represent tribes of several million people. They are here to show a common front to the coalition, which, so far, has ignored them at official levels. Not a single man present today has been put up for inclusion in the soon-to-be-announced interim government. They are here to pledge unity to each other, almost against nature. Tribal rivalry has been the staple of Arabic literature for 2,000 years.
I spent an hour with a Rikabi sheik who told me nothing, in classical, elliptical Arabic. The only news of any note is that he hadn’t heard of plans to set up a tribal National Guard here, along the lines of the Saudi Arabian guard. I knew that two proponents of the plan had sat in the meeting with him, but they are from Ramadi and Falluja, near Baghdad, with stronger links to the north of the country, while the Rikabis are from the south. Apparently the northern leaders aren’t telling their plans to leaders from the rest of the country. So much for tribal unity.
Later I took a taxi up to the school of architecture to meet Hussam al-Rawi al-Rifa’i, ex-dean of the faculty of engineering. The driver, Raed, was a Palestinian from Gaza. He wants to go home, home to a country he’s never known—he was born in Kuwait, where his father was a migrant worker. In the minds of most Genoa/Seattle activists, the continued failure of the peace process and U.S. policy toward Iraq go hand in hand. Not so here. Saddam Hussein has used the Palestinian cause to garner support among anti-American Arabs across the Middle East: giving Palestinians shelter in Baghdad, free accommodation, and doling out $10,000 sacks to the families of Palestinian martyrs. Iraqis, however, believe Palestine is the cause of all their troubles. Raed, who lives in a Palestinian compound here, tells me there have been death threats and beatings; “They blame us for the war,” he says. It’s not just that Palestinians got preferential treatment under Saddam, it’s the belief that the United States only invaded Iraq to settle the Palestinian issue. The argument goes: Control Iraq to control Syria to control Lebanon to control Hezbollah to control Palestine. It’s far-fetched. On the streets of Baghdad, it’s a conspiracy theory; for those circling Paul Wolfowitz in Washington, it’s nearing policy.
Hussam sits beneath his portrait in the architecture school; he is second-to-last in a long line of illustrious names. The school was founded in 1948 by Muhammad Makiya, Iraq’s first great modern architect. He’s the father of the now famous Kanan Makiya, the author of Republic of Fear, Cruelty and Silence, and The Monument (catalogues of Baathist brutality) and the man who did most to justify this last U.S. war on humanitarian grounds. Kanan is the intellectual who hovers above but around INC policy. Kanan and Hussam are therefore linked in another way: The INC is intimately involved with the coalition’s de-Baathification campaign, and Hussam is a Baathist, recently sacked from his university post.
Hussam joined the Baath Party when he was 15, just after the 1958 coup that toppled the monarchy. Conservative, from an old Baghdad family, he, like many, felt the Baathists were his only hope against the rising power of the Communist Party. And he believed in them—in the unity of the Arab nation, in freedom, and in socialism. Back in those days, the Baaths were the underdogs; they were lynched all over the capital, and in Ma’mun, were he lived, no one under 18 escaped jail. Hussam believes the current mass de-Baathification stands as “collective punishment,” which contravenes the Geneva Conventions.
“We loved Michel Aflak [Baathism’s progenitor]—he was romantic, he was a believer, he was almost a Sufi.” I asked him why he stayed in the party, when he knew what Baathism was doing to his country. “We kept hoping that something would change. We didn’t want to leave because we loved the party, we loved its ideas. I thought we might just be able to fight from within.” And Hussam did help, in the most paradoxical way: 90 percent of the staff at the architecture college were not Baathist, because as a high ranking member himself, Hussam was able to stall outside pressure against their joining.
“I believed in an ideology that no longer existed, with a leader that contravened all its principles. I still have a strong ideological commitment to Baathism—in Arab unity, and in a kind of British Labour Party socialism. And I still stand against American globalization. The U.S. has never shown us Arabs any kind of moral justice. But we were torn between anti-imperialism and a bastard. Saddam, the man I hated, stood against America, the power I hated.”
That fracture runs through the very core of society. No one here, except the odd fawning ex-opposition party member, speaks of anything but occupation, and yet polls conducted weekly in the Arab Iraqi press show massive support (85 percent to 90 percent) for continued American presence. In Arabic, choosing between the lesser of two evils translates as choosing the madness that suits you best. It’s the choice on which life hinges here, but it’s not a way to live.