Politics & Policy

Saddam’s Orphans

Baathists hurting.

Barring a last-minute miracle, the pan-Arab Baath Socialist party, one of Jordan’s oldest political organizations is expected to file for bankruptcy within the next few weeks.

The party’s headquarters in Amman is a scene of daily demonstrations by creditors waving unpaid bills.

To make matters worse the party has to finance the repatriation from Iraq of over 3,000 Jordanian and Palestinians students it had sponsored. The students were sent to Iraq with scholarship from the Baathist regime in Baghdad. For every student introduced for the scheme, the Jordanian party received $600 a year. Last month the newly appointed Iraqi Governing Council scrapped the scheme as part of a broader de-Baathification program.

“We are in a tight spot,” says Ahmad al-Najdawi, one of the party’s leaders. “People don’t understand that no more money is flowing [from Iraq].”

Jordan’s Baathists are not alone in facing bankruptcy.

Two prominent Lebanese pan-Arabists have fled to France to avoid paying the mobs they hired for pro-Saddam demonstrations in Beirut last winter. Pro-Saddam Baathists are facing unpaid bills for demonstrations they organized in Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt, against the war. At the time, their effort was seen in the West as a sign that the “Arab street” was about to explode against the U.S.-led Coalition.

Before he went into hiding last April, Saddam Hussein held 55 posts. One of these was that of secretary general of the Arab Baath Socialist party (ABSP). The party’s program was aimed at creating a single pan-Arab state, stretching from Mauritania to Oman, led by Saddam.

The ABSP claimed to have branches in all Arab states. But it was only in Jordan, the West Bank, Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, and Yemen that it had a visible presence.

Some pro-Saddam Baathists outside Iraq are already engaged in talks to switch to the rival branch of the party controlled by Syria.

But that is no sure thing either. In a timid step away from one-party rule last month, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ordered his branch of the Baath to distance itself from the government. In any case, Syria lacks the financial resources of Iraq and is itself dependent on handouts from Saudi Arabia and Iran among others.

“What matters is to keep the flame of pan-Arabism burning,” says Taysir al-Khamsi, leader of Jordan’s pro-Saddam faction. “We have lost Iraq to the enemy and must get together not to lose Syria.”

There was a time, in the 1950s, when the Baath appeared as the rising star of Arab politics. Founded in 1947 by a group of French-educated Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals, the Baath (meaning Renaissance) offered a synthesis of Fascism and Communism.

Its militant secularism appealed to religious minorities in the Arab countries, especially Christians, Alawites, and Druzes. The Baath also won support among the Arab military and provided the political fig leaf for army coups in Syria and Iraq. In the process, the military transformed the Baath from a genuine political party into a façade for army rule centered on despots such as the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein. By the end of the 1980s the Baath had few genuine adherents anywhere in the Arab countries and was kept alive thanks to Iraqi or Syrian patronage.

Some Arab pundits believe that the fall of Saddam’s regime has spelled the end of Baathism as a political factor in the life of the Arabs.

“Baathism died long ago, maybe as early as 1965 when it became a cover for military juntas,” says Saleh al-Qallab, a Jordanian former information minister. “For years, Iraqi money enabled the Baath to maintain a presence. With Saddam gone, that presence will fade.”

Baathists are not the only political and financial orphans left by Saddam. The Iraqi dictator financed hundreds of intellectuals, journalists, novelists, poets, academics, and supposedly independent politicians in virtually all Arab countries. Documents seized from the Iraqi Cultural Office in London include lists that read like a Who’s Who of pan-Arab intellectual elite.

Over the years Saddam financed dozens of Arab publications, including weeklies and dailies based in Beirut, Paris, and London. Some prominent Arab journalists received “presidential presents” in the form of luxury homes in Europe, expensive cars, and costly gold watches, the standard Arab gift.

Iraqi groups studying the documents estimate that Saddam spent more than $1 billion over 20 years to buy prominent Arabs, and finance Arab parties and politicians devoted to his personality cult. Arab writers were paid millions of dollars to produce hagiographical accounts of Saddam’s life. Filmmakers and TV producers received cash in exchange for footage devoted to the “Great Leader of Arabs.”

Saddam also financed militant Palestinian groups, notably Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and terrorists such as Sabri al-Banna, Muhammad Abbas, and Ahmad Jibril. In 2001 Saddam also started channeling funds to the Lebanese branch of the Hezbollah (Party of God). The Lebanese Hezbollah, mainly financed by Iran, is the only Arab party, apart from the Baath, to have opposed the recent liberation of Iraq.

The list of those who benefited from Saddam’s handouts includes several Iranian opposition groups, including the Mujahedin Khalq (People’s Combatants) and the Iranian Kurdish Communist party, both of which are classified as “terrorist organizations” by the U.S. and several European governments.

Documents now being studied by the Iraqi research group also reveal that Saddam had a network of support in several European countries, notably Britain, France and Austria. At least three French political parties received financial contributions from Saddam between 1975 and 1990. Several prominent French politicians, including former cabinet ministers, received money from Saddam often through shell companies operating from Vienna. Several British politicians, including at least one member of parliament, were among the recipients of Saddam’s largesse, usually in the form of cash gifts to facade charity organizations.

Conducted by several groups, the current work on Saddam’s secret documents is largely chaotic. It is, perhaps, time for the governing council to take control of the project and make sure that the seized documents are not used, and abused, for selective leaks and the settling of personal scores. The people of Iraq have a right to know exactly who worked for a regime that wrecked their country and ruined their lives for over three decades.

Amir Taheri, a NRO contributor, is an Iranian author of 10 books on the Middle East and Islam. His latest, L’Irak: le dessous des cartes was recently published by Editions Complexe. A version of this article appeared in the New York Post and is reprinted with the author’s permission. Taheri can be reached through www.benadorassociates.com.


The Latest