Iraq in 1990 – No Better Alternative Existed

Murder in Mesopotamia

II: Internationalism or Barbarism

The Bazoft affair highlighted the reality of Britain’s place in the world in 1990, the impotence of her foreign policy and the extent to which ignorance of and contempt for foreign countries has become intrinsic to the worldview of the British media and political establishment, as Hugh Roberts explains.

The article was actually written in June, since when a lot else has happened. Two English girls have been arrested for drug smuggling in Thailand. If convicted, the elder of them, aged 18, could face the death penalty. The release of nurse Daphne Parish, convicted along with Bazoft, clearly demonstrated Baghdad’s interest in making humanitarian gestures when these can be presented as concessions to third parties (in this case, President Kaunda of Zambia) as opposed to concessions to the ex-colonial power. And Saddam Hussein, having tested Britain’s government and found its responses ignorant and incoherent, grabbed oil-rich Kuwait.

Could Farzad Bazoft have been saved? Although his offence was a particular one, this is a question which not only journalists but any British citizen with an inclination to travel or do business in foreign parts has a material interest in asking. In the last few years, British citizens have been exposed to the full rigours of the law in a number of far-off places. British subjects have been flogged in Saudi Arabia and hanged in Malaysia and now in Iraq. A British woman who hosted an illegal private drinking party (at which a guest died) in Saudi Arabia some years ago was only saved from being publicly flogged by the energetic intervention of the Foreign Office. Such interventions cannot be repeated indefinitely and in any case most countries have less tractable regimes than the Gulf monarchies. It is probably only a matter of time before some unfortunate or unwary Brit is sentenced to have a hand or foot amputated or to be stoned to death or beheaded in Iran or the Sudan or Mauritania or somewhere.

We shall never know whether there was a chance of saving Bazoft. It is essential to the government which failed to save him to suggest that it was impossible to do so. But it is possible that the actions of the British government sealed his fate. The one thing that could not help Bazoft was public pressure on Saddam Hussein. The fact that the government put public pressure on Baghdad suggests either that it did not know what it was doing in this affair, or that it had written Bazoft off as a lost cause and was simply playing to the British and international gallery, in order to depict Baghdad in the worst possible light for other reasons. In other words, that it was using Bazoft’s corpse as a pawn in its game.

The behaviour of the British media immediately after Bazoft’s execution supports this view of the matter. Suddenly, from nowhere, there emerged a sheaf of radio and television programmes as well as newspaper articles on Saddam’s Iraq. The effect of this media barrage was, of course, to exonerate the government for its failure to save Bazoft (“See how awful this regime is? There is really nothing one can do with these people“), and to put Baghdad on the moral defensive for future reference.


The decision to hang Bazoft was a matter of raison d’etat, which is virtually the antithesis of barbarism in the proper sense of the word. If Bazoft was a spy, he received the standard penalty for spying in Iraq and in most other countries. If he was just a reckless journalist, Baghdad evidently took the view that it was necessary to impress upon western journalists that they must not overstep the bounds, and that the defence establishment is out of bounds. (Now do you believe this?) Either way, it was a matter of policy to punish him severely. But, once the death penalty had been pronounced, it became a matter of policy to carry it out, for another reason.

The tough Iraqi strongman is an essential aspect of Saddam Hussein’s image. And his image has a major role in his strategy for holding onto power, given the centrality of the personality cult in his regime. Because of this, he was bound to confirm the death sentence in defiance of British wishes, the wishes of the former colonial power, once these wishes had been stated in public. If Thatcher and the Foreign Office did not know this, British policy in the Middle East is being handled by appalling incompetents; if they did, it is being handled by appalling cynics.

It might be thought that once the sentence was passed, Bazoft was beyond saving. This may be true, but it is not certain that it is. In 1975, a British subject, Harry Colleila, was sentenced to death in Algeria for his role in a drug smuggling network. The late President Boumediene was a very humane ruler by Iraqi standards, but toughness and intransigence over Algeria’s national sovereignty were as important to him as they are to Saddam Hussein, and he certainly knew that there are times when raison d’etat requires someone to be put to death. Yet Harry Colleila was not executed. No public pressure was put on Boumediene by HMG. The affair was played down and forgotten by the media. And, after a decent interval, the sentence was commuted to imprisonment on the occasion of Boumediene’s election to the Presidency of the Republic in January 1977 and Colleila was eventually released after serving a stiff term in jail. Who is to say that the calculating mind of Saddam Hussein would not have found a better political use to make of Farzad Bazoft in such a humanitarian gesture on an appropriate occasion than the use which he actually made of him? All we can be sure of is that the public pressure put on him made it certain that Bazoft would hang.


In the anti-Iraq propaganda with which the British media were immediately awash after Bazoft’s death, Saddam Hussein’s rule was unanimously denounced as barbaric. In an article in the Sunday Telegraph (March 18, 1990), for example, Geoffrey Wheatcroft described Iraq as “a tract of land inhabited for the most part by primitive tribesmen” and said of Saddam Hussein that

“Morally, he lives in the stone age. Even to speak of Bazoft’s death as judicial murder is to miss the point; it was human sacrifice, as practised by tribes just emerging from the other higher mammals.”

This article appeared immediately below an unsigned piece (“Opinion“) which acknowledged that the Iraqis had no reason at all to distinguish between investigative reporting of their military secrets and spying on same, but which could not resist concluding with the remark that “None of this means that the Iraqi regime is not barbarous.” It is this remark which Wheatcroft then proceeded to amplify. That his article could be written, let alone published, is a measure of the collapse of the Tory establishment’s world-view from an intelligent understanding of other countries to a mindless gibbering about them.

Is the Sunday Telegraph unaware that quite a few Arabs were casually hanged by the British between 1882, when British rule began in Egypt, and 1967, when it ended in Aden?

I know nothing of the detail of Iraq’s history under the British mandate from 1920 to 1932. But I know something about Egypt under British rule. And I am sure that many Arab nationalists in Baghdad as well as Cairo have heard of the pigeons of Dinshaway,

One day in June 1906 a group of British officers rode into the village of Dinshaway in the Nile delta and started shooting at the pigeons there. Since these were domesticated and belonged to the locals, the latter protested. Their remonstrations were treated with contempt, at which point the confrontation turned into a small affray, in the course of which an Egyptian man was killed, an Egyptian woman was wounded, and a British officer ran off for help, only to be later found dead of sunstroke. In retaliation for this affray in which the Egyptians were the injured parties from start to finish, the British authorities held a summary trial of the villagers involved and sentenced four of them to be hanged, two to penal Page 12  servitude for life, one to 15 years, six to 7 years, three to one year and 50 lashes, and five to 50 lashes. The executions and floggings were carried out in the village in the presence of the victims’ parents, wives and children. It took three hours to hang and flog them all.

This incident is obviously forgotten in this country, although there was a minor stink about it at the time. (George Bernard Shaw took the matter up, and Keir Hardie asked questions about it in the House.) But it· would be unwise to assume that it is forgotten in the Arab world. In 1956 Muhammed Heikal observed, of Egypt’s triumph over British arrogance and folly in that year, that “the pigeons of Dinshaway have come home to roost.”

The moral of this story is not that the British today should feel guilty about the dreadful things that were done by their forefathers during the colonial era. That is the ludicrous mistake made by the middle-class left. The moral is that the British should remember these things when dealing with the countries which Britain once ruled, that they should think twice before engaging in fatuous moralising about the son of thing that goes on there now, and that they do not have and will never acquire the right to accuse the rulers of these countries of barbarism. The citizens of these countries may have that right, and the substantial democrats among us may look forward to their exercising it to some effect before long, in Iraq in particular. But the British forfeited it decades ago.


Saddam Hussein’s rule is certainly harsh, brutal and ruthless. It is also a formula which is yet to prove inadequate to Iraqi conditions. These conditions are not a function of tribal primitiveness, and British Toryism had a hand in creating them.

Iraq is not a nation-state. This does not mean that it is a barbaric place, on the contrary. But it does mean that it is a difficult place to govern. It has an old state tradition going back over 2,500 years. It left the stone age long before Britain did. In fact, it pioneered mankind’s advance out of the stone age. But it does not have a national tradition. The society today is split into three communal groups, Sunni Arabs, Sunni Kurds and Shi’i Arabs. The latter are the largest element ( c. 60%) but historically have been based mainly in the rural areas, whereas the towns, and so the centres of power, have been dominated by the Sunni Arabs. The Sunni-Shi’i division is politically septic, and the Arab-Kurd division is even more politically septic. There are also other minorities, including the Assyrians, who are Nestorian Christians, and an eccentric off-shoot of Islam, the Yazidis. And then there are other lines of cleavage, between the settled population and the nomadic Bedouin, and, among the sedentarists, between plain and mountain, and, among the lowlanders, between town and countryside (not to mention the vast marshlands of the Euphrates-Tigris flood plain). How is such a society to be governed?

[Since the overthrow of Saddam, most Iraqi Christians have fled.  Yazidis and other small religions have also suffered.  Iraq is fragmented, with pro-Iranian politicians dominating.]

The most natural formula would be monarchy. Monarchies have historically proved far more adept at accommodating cultural diversity than other forms of government. And in fact monarchy was the original formula promoted by the British, in this case with the Hashemite dynasty, which derived a unique degree of legitimacy from the fact that it can trace its descent back to the Prophet Mohammed (a pedigree which, unlike those of numerous pretenders in the Muslim world, is historically incontrovertible and accepted by all and sundry as such).

The formula worked for thirty-seven years (1921-1958), despite the fact that the Hashemites were outsiders in Iraq (they came from Mecca) and were not only pro-British but politically dependent upon the British to a considerable degree. This need not have doomed them; a Hashemite with a similar world outlook who initially was highly dependent upon the British is still on his throne in Jordan. But the Hashemites in Baghdad were overthrown in the bloody revolution of 1958. This was motivated by the anti-imperialist feeling, especially in the Iraqi army, which developed after Nasser’s successful defiance of the British over Suez in 1956. To a substantial extent, it was Eden’s mixture of folly and irresolution in throwing British weight around in 1956 which undermined the Iraqi monarchy. This monarchy, and especially the very pro-British prime minister Nuri Said, had backed the expedition to Suez, because they felt threatened by the rise of Nasserism and were delighted that Britain should put a stop to it, But they assumed that Britain was in earnest, and would see the thing through. When Eden backed off under American pressure, they were left in an impossible position, and were done for.


After 1958, the only element in Iraqi society with both the ambition and the strength to govern the place was the Ba’ath. It did not have the advantages of the monarchy and had an explicitly nationalist vision. This vision was at odds with the socio-cultural reality of Iraqi society, which meant that the Ba’ath was inevitably led to govern the place by dictatorial methods. In addition, the Iraqi Ba’ath soon found itself bitterly at odds with both its main neighbours on its eastern and western flanks, Iran and Syria. Both of these have been willing and able to fish at frequent intervals in the troubled Iraqi waters, Iran exploiting the Kurdish and Shi’ite connections and Syria exploiting the Ba’athist connection. Because of this, the regime in Baghdad has also, unlike most other Arab dictatorships, become extremely brutal in its methods. It has ruled by terror, and terror has been a routine technique of government. Opposition is not even informally tolerated, as it has been in many other single party Arab states, and opponents are butchered pour décourager les autres.

As Saddam Hussein has found it harder and harder to realise the Ba’ath’s original nationalist vision in the actual circumstances of Iraqi society, he has come increasingly to rely for support and security on people closely linked to him by family ties, people from his own home town, Tikrit, to the north of Baghdad. (This change in the internal structure of the Ba’athist leadership began under Saddam’s predecessor, Ahmed Hassan Al Bakr, who was also from Tikrit.) And as the Tikriti mafia has emerged as the effective inner circle of the regime, Saddam has himself tended to rule in an ever more autocratic fashion, in order to arbitrate the factional rivalries within this mafia, a role which has become more and more necessary as palace politics have displaced revolutionary party politics. And he has recently ‘discovered’ that his ancestry links him to the Hashemite dynasty.

And so, by a tortuous route, the form of government of Iraq has been reverting to monarchy. This strategy may not come off and it has its desperate side, but there can be little doubt that it has been thought out, and is intelligent. But it has involved, among other things, the consolidation of Saddam’s control over both the Ba’ath party and the military establishment, and this has been a ruthless and cruel business. And while the Ba’ath and the officer corps have been under the knife, it has been more than usually necessary to terrorise the rest of the population, because of the instability within the regime and its consequent inability to find political as distinct from physical solutions to all of its problems.

These are the internal reasons (quite apart from the war with Iran) for the particular, extremely ruthless, style of Saddam Hussein’s regime. No doubt Saddam Hussein is himself in his subjective nature a deeply unpleasant person. But ‘nice guys finish last’, as Harry Truman once said, and if that was true of American democracy when it was at its most progressive it is most certainly true of a place like Iraq, whether Mrs Thatcher likes it or not. Mrs Thatcher has proved capable of sanctioning a number of pieces of extremely vicious and lethal behaviour, such as the Belgrano sinking and the Gibraltar murders, and does not feel herself to be, and is not generally considered, a barbaric politician. A man who did not have it in him to be ruthless would not last a day in Iraqi politics. These politics are the direct product of the collapse of the prospec2 Iraqt of stability under the Hashemite monarchy and, more than any other force in the world, Great Britain under Tory misgovernment was responsible for this collapse in 1956.

The last time Britain had a coherent and defensible policy towards the Middle East was in Ernest Bevin’s day. This policy was not a complete success because of the Palestine problem, which American interference for domestic electoral reasons in the USA prevented Bevin from dealing with effectively. But the policy was coherent and realistic, and allowed for the need for good government in the former provinces of the Ottoman empire, one of which was Mesopotamia, modern Iraq. It was the irresponsible adventure of an incompetent Tory prime minister in 1956 which undermined the British post-war position in the Middle East, because it enabled American power, which was viscerally opposed to Britain’s imperial position for ideological and commercial reasons, to link up in an objective alliance with revolutionary Arab nationalism at the expense of the prospect of orderly political evolution within the framework of the monarchies fostered by British power after the first world war.


Foreign policy is a very complicated thing. Under Bevin and Attlee the Labour Party demonstrated its fitness to take charge of the foreign policy of a democratic socialist Britain. That legacy was squandered by the Wilson governments and remains to be recovered. As for the Conservative Party, the foreign policy of the Thatcher government has up to now been a miserable and disgusting affair, a mixture of atavistic irresponsibility towards the European Community, servile fawning on Uncle Sam, ludicrous presumption and posturing towards Eastern Europe and the Third World, and the abject pursuit of trade opportunities at any price everywhere. It may be possible for Britain to sink lower than this but it will take effort and ingenuity.

There is absolutely no reason these days why any of the substantial states which have come into existence since 1945 should be in any way impressed by the private urgings or public pleas of Her Majesty’s Government Britain is not a force in the world. It counts for nothing. Who cares about it? Why should anyone listen to it? It is incapable of preventing its citizens from behaving badly or foolishly abroad and it is incapable of protecting them from the consequences of their own behaviour. And the rest of the world is waking up to this, from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon and from Malaysia to Iraq.

Iraq is a force in the world. It has fought a long and bitter war with the storm centre of militant Islam and held its own. It counts for something in the counsels of the Arab states. Its views are consulted in Cairo, Riyadh and Amman and taken into account in many other places, from Jerusalem to Moscow. And it has a large military establishment and an advanced defence industry which it considers that it needs and which it does not intend to have interfered with by outsiders if it can help it. An Iranian journalist with a British passport working for a British Sunday newspaper which has been declining in seriousness for years broke one of the most elementary and fundamental rules of journalistic practice in the Middle East. He had no business going where he went and Iraq killed him for it. What reason did Her Majesty’s Government give Saddam Hussein for refraining from doing what came naturally to him? Obviously it failed to give a satisfactory reason. That is a measure of the weakness of the foreign policy of Thatcher’s Britain. But would Kinnock’s Britain have a stronger foreign policy? Would Gerald Kaufmann have saved Bazoft? These questions answer themselves.

The execution of Farzad Bazoft was, among other things, an expression of Baghdad’s contempt, not for civilised values, simply for the British state. It is time British politicians and newspaper editors stopped confusing the two, because this contempt is well deserved. And more British citizens and passport-holders in foreign parts and out East in particular are going to come to sticky ends until Britain is well governed again and has recovered its self-respect and a measure of real influence in foreign capitals.

Britain can only be well governed by a politics which faces up to the realities of British society and its place in the world, and treats the rest of the world with an intelligent and well-informed respect, and which by doing so gives its ordinary citizens and its journalists an effective orientation to local realities when they are abroad. The empirical socialism of Attlee and Bevin and the social-democratic Toryism of Macmillan and Heath are the only two forms of politics to have done this since 1945. Both were based on a conception of the British national interest which recognised the working class as the dominant class in society from 1940 onwards, and which promoted a consistently internationalist foreign policy. Under the vainglorious sway of Thatchockism British party politics have degenerated into insular ignorance and vulgar nationalism where foreign affairs are concerned and have lost track of the basis of an effective foreign policy entirely. The working class must reassert its empirical internationalism within Labour politics and reclaim its political inheritance in external as well as domestic affairs.


This article appeared in September 1990, in Issue 19 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at