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Republic of Fear The Politics of Modern Iraq, Updated Edition, With a New Introduction

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Chapter 1
Institutions of Violence


The Secret Police

Salim was about to sit down to dinner when the knock came. The two men did not come in or identify themselves. They confirmed Salim's identity and politely told him to accompany them for a few questions. His wife asked too loudly whether anything was wrong, what was the problem, they hadn't done anything, and so on. Salim reassured her as though he knew all about it; he stepped outside with the men, and gently pushed the door shut in her face. Salim remembered his hands turning clammy in the car, although it was not hot, and feeling his stomach had caved in on itself although he was no longer hungry. The car stopped at the local Amn headquarters.

In the early 1970s, Baghdad was divided into security zones, the planning of which required citizens to sell their properties in certain areas at a price set by the government. The headquarters of such zones were surveillance centres, routinely checking on movements within and between zones. Many a casual visitor to Baghdad has confirmed their surprising efficiency upon being questioned for taking snapshots of the Tigris at sunset, or some other such offence (cameras are sold in Iraq, but photography is suspect without the written authorization of the Ministry of Interior). Some of these centres are hooked to video cameras concealed on roof tops or built into statues and public monuments. The cameras cover the major roads, intersections, and roundabouts forming a comprehensive network for each zone and enabling the centre to monitor its area visually. Salim was escorted into such a building.

He remembered waiting for a long time. Although still ignorant of the reasons for his being there, he was becoming more and more afraid. Eventually he was ushered into an enormous office. Screen monitors dotted the entire space, and their flashing images impressed him more than anything else about the room. Whether they were there for effect or for function made little difference.

Salim was offered tea and spoken to politely throughout. An important-looking man, whose office this was and whose name he never found out, looked at some papers before him and asked where he had been on a particular day many months ago. Salim didn't remember. He listed a few license plate numbers, only one of which Salim recognized as being his own. Dates and numbers were now being combined into single questions, and Salim was becoming so frightened he could not retain the different parts of each question, much less put them together into a coherent answer. Finally he was caught out: the interrogator demanded to know how he could have been at work on that particular day if his car had been left at home. They knew he always drove to work.

Now it dawned on him. Those were the weeks he had been laid up with a leg fracture. When he was well enough to go to work, a cousin had picked him up in the mornings. The children were taken to school by someone else; and his wife had rearranged her schedule. These and other details could not tumble out of his mouth fast enough, and he caught himself saying nonsense but he did not think the important-looking man noticed. To his astonishment the explanation appeared acceptable; in fact it seemed to come as no surprise. More questions followed as though to pin down the matter, and then the interrogation was over. Relief covered Salim's face until the bombshell struck.

The important-looking man wanted Salim and his family to vacate their house within ten days—clothes, furniture, and all. Salim was to drop his keys at another office in the building and register his new address; he would be contacted when his story had been checked out. Further questions and polite remonstrations were ruled out; the man's demeanour began to show irritation. Salim was escorted to the street and returned home.

The house was vacated, and the keys delivered. Months later a telephone call from Salim's local Amn headquarters informed him that he could collect his keys from the office where he had deposited them and return to his house.

Not a single official piece of paper was profferred, or for that matter asked for. Salim, having recovered from the mechanics of his tribulations, shoved the matter aside as one might the weather or a natural disaster of some kind, and pressed on with his otherwise perfectly mundane life.

From the standpoint of ordinary citizens like Salim, the secret police rules in Iraq and is all-pervasive. The public perception of police omnipotence and omniscience is resisted as a topic in books on the post-1968 Ba'thi regime, in part because so little is known about these institutions. But they rest on a central truth of Iraqi politics.

All anyone has to work with regarding the secret police are a failed 1973 coup, a few passages from the 1974 Political Report, reports on documents leaked in 1979, the publicity surrounding overseas operations that go awry, the observations of a handful of informed outsiders, hints from indiscreet party members, individual experiences passed along by word of mouth, and finally a book written by a man reputed to be the new head of the Mukhabarat, the party intelligence network. Apart from a few published laws regulating movement and prescribing the multitude of permissions required of citizens, published information on the role and purpose of policing agencies does not exist. The only statistics on the police date back to the monarchy, and even these lump together traffic control with the repressive institutions of the state. Prior to the Ba'thist coup of 1968, a police tradition remotely comparable with today's did not exist.

From this limited pool of information, I surmise that the agency that Salim encountered in the late 1970s originated in a special unit of the Iraqi branch of the Arab Ba'th Socialist Party (ABSP) conceived in clan-destinity sometime between 1964 and 1966 and called al-Jihaz al-Khas, the special apparatus. Its code name was Jihaz Haneen, or the instrument of yearning. Haneen was a shadowy entity selected from the most committed cadre who became specialists in intelligence matters. These units of armed men were in the thick of events during the 1968 Ba'thi coup.

From the start Haneen was created as a party-based alternative power to that wielded by the officer cadres of the Ba'th and deriving from their strategic location in the state. The first Ba'thi regime in 1963 was overthrown when the military men of the party sided with fellow officers to oust the civilian Ba'thi National Guard. A similar occurrence in Syria left deep divisions throughout the Arab organization. In 1964 at the instigation of Michel 'Aflaq, the founder of the Ba'th, Saddam Husain was elevated into the Regional Command, the highest decision-making body of the Iraqi branch of the ABSP. This appointment marked a new beginning for the Ba'th in Iraq because Saddam Husain was the architect of Jihaz Haneen and always oversaw its various metamorphoses into the complex and ever-so-secret policing institutions of the second Ba'thi experience.

The first chief of Internal State Security was Nadhim Kzar, a 1969 appointee of Saddam Husain's. He was a hard and ascetic man who joined the party as a student in the 1950s and became one of the few Shi'is to occupy a position of real power. Kzar figured prominently in the excesses of the first, 1963 Ba'thi regime. He nurtured a reputation for ruthlessness and sadistic practices, which struck terror inside the party itself. For instance, he had a penchant for conducting interrogations personally and extinguishing his cigarette inside the eyeballs of his victims. Kzar invigorated an organization that was inefficient and subservient to army dictate between 1958 and 1968.

Under Kzar, the secret police was responsible for the torture and unpublicized killings of possibly a few thousand people, principally communists and Kurds. In 1971, for instance, one faction of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) issued a list with the names of 410 members who had died in the aptly named Qasr al-Nihayyah, Palace of the End. Kzar favoured settling the Kurdish question by force, and his agents attempted to assassinate Kurdish leader Mulla Mustapha al-Barazani at least twice. Both operations were undertaken shortly after the signing of the March 1970 autonomy accords, which, according to the Ba'th, were to bring peace and autonomy to the Kurdish people.

We know as much as we do about Nadhim Kzar's tenure as police chief because in July 1973 he was executed along with thirty-five others after a summary party tribunal presided over by members of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), the supreme authority in the post-1968 state (notionally elected from the Regional Command). Still, only a few facts were given by the regime, and clearly there is more behind the whole affair. Kzar took hostage the ministers of interior and defence and is said to have planned the assassination of the president, Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr. When this failed he attempted to flee with a loyal escort to the Iranian border. Cornered by his pursuers, he shot both ministers. The affair was used to instigate a widespread purge of the party.

The 1974 Political Report of the ABSP, an important benchmark for Ba'thi rule in Iraq, made an unusually frank assessment of previous Ba'thi practices; in particular it made this self-criticism of the Kzar reign in the secret police:

The state security service, though reinforced throughout by Party members and independent patriots, was an immense machine which, under previous regimes, had used blackmail against the party and other national movements, and thus had evolved a peculiar psychology. To reform it, to make it adopt new values and practices was therefore very difficult, it has indeed made serious mistakes during the period under review [1968-73], to the detriment of the Party's reputation and policy in various fields. . . . the leadership was at fault in allowing this sensitive organization to operate without rigorous and careful control. Some officers of this service abused the confidence placed in them by the Party, to the extent of conspiring against the Party, as in the plot of 30 June 1973. This criminal enterprise alerted the Party to the dangers of inadequate control, and extensive changes were made.
The regime was badly shaken by the Kzar episode. Moreover, that a "peculiar psychology" had indeed surfaced in the new state security services became evident in the course of a bizarre series of crimes that occurred right after the purges mentioned in the Political Report. The crimes rattled the party almost as much as the coup. The Ba'th had taken great pride in the fact that the crime rate was down in Baghdad; Shurtat al-Najdah, the emergency police, was reputed to be able to arrive at any point in the city within minutes. But this confidence was visibly shaken by a succession of house robberies in which whole families were hacked to death. The perpetrator, nicknamed Abu al-Tubar, the hatchet man, ran a gang made up of old hands in the Kzar police service. It transpired at the trial that the gang's ability to elude capture derived from their knowledge and expert use of secret radio frequencies to mislead the police.

Kzar's coup and Abu al-Tubar's crimes were preceded by oil nationalization decrees (March 1973) and followed by the overthrow of the Allende government (September 1973). To readers not versed in the synthetic method of Ba'thism, these might seem like separable events. In a September 24th speech, however, Saddam Husain analysed the situation by contrasting Iraq and Cuba, which took imperialism by surprise, with Chile, where the "concealed reserves" of imperialism crushed the experiment:

We know that imperialism realised finally and particularly in 1972 that the Revolution in Iraq had gone past the state of the "permitted revolution" which it was accustomed to see in the countries of the Third World. . . .
We have objective evidence that imperialism was surprised by the many fundamental methods of the policy followed in this country. It had previously been surprised by several earlier experiences [in Cuba]. . . . However hard imperialism may now look for its concealed reserves [in Iraq] it will never be able to compel our Revolution to retreat and collapse. . . . Some people may imagine that the Revolution is unaware of what is happening around it. The Revolution has its eyes wide open. Throughout all its stages, the Revolution will remain capable of performing its role courageously and precisely without hesitation or panic, once it takes action to crush the pockets of the counter-revolution. All that we hear and read about, including those crimes which have taken place recently, are new devices to confront the Revolution and exhaust it psychologically. These are not sadistic crimes as some imagine; they are crimes committed by traitorous agents.
Those who have sold themselves to the foreigner will not escape punishment. . . . Those who are committing these deeds are individuals who have been hired and exploited in certain ways in the midst of the difficult phase through which we are passing. However, it is not enough to speak loosely about our forces' capabilities and concepts or about imperialism. We must know, learn, and accurately monitor the movements of imperialism. We must calculate with foresight the probable developments of its plans, forces and reserves both inside and outside our frontiers. We must be prepared. The plans, concepts, views, internal forces and reserves we used up to the 1st of March 1973, the day on which the monopolistic companies knelt down and recognized our nationalization, are no longer enough to confront imperialism with its newly conceived and developed plans. We know on this basis that when imperialism was surprised by the revolutionary moves and measures of 1972, it re-examined the situation in order to launch a counter-attack. Thus we prepared additional forces for which imperialism had not allowed in its plans. We can assure our patriotic brothers, . . . they will not make an Allende of us.
The speech was a restatement of the reasoning behind having a power-fill secret police at a time when confidence in the agency was at an all-time low. The "eyes" of the Revolution, the "unmasking" of enemies, and the various "preparations" can only be functions of an intelligence-gathering capability. Throughout, the stress is on what the Ba'th "know," or have "objective evidence" for. Such knowledge does not originate in loose talk and abstract ideological analysis, but from accurately monitoring the furtive movements of this thing, imperialism, and its "concealed reserves" inside Iraq; only a politically motivated police also working furtively can provide it.

While notions of secrecy and conspiracy shade into one another in Saddam Husain's speech, a completely new conception of treason is highlighted. Treason is the magic word that brings together Abu al-Tubar's exploits and the outside world; it invests his crimes with a public significance they might not otherwise have had. For some countries, including pre-Ba'thi Iraq, treason was a more specific offence involving, for instance, selling state secrets to a foreign state, promoting a coup, or violating the person of the monarch. Punishment for treasonous acts when so defined was more procedural and lenient.

But now Ba'thist legitimacy derived from "the people" and the "Revolution" made in their name. The new state and its mission were virtually synonymous with "the Arab nation" or "the people," conceived as an undifferentiable collective noun. As it became harder for an individual to offend against this collectivity through specific acts (peoples have no secrets, nor do they have "bodies" except in the form of tired metaphors), it became easier to offend against the idea of its sovereignty. In the Ba'thist mind, violating the whole "people" was an even more monstrous version of old-fashioned treason; it assaulted their source of authority, much as a coup attempt assaulted the authority of the individuals at the helm of state. Somehow we have all come to feel that an affront to the dignity of "the people" is worse than an affront to yet another seedy regime, however little it may mean politically. Another type of regime, less entangled in the embrace of so many people, might have shunned this association between Abu al-Tubar's actions and treason, not least because he and his cronies had been state functionaries. Such a regime would choose to prosecute on criminal, not treasonous grounds. But all the people were genuinely terrified by Abu al-Tubar and his actions; and the more they talked about it, the more frightened they became. An unprecedented situation had to be accounted for; a reason for this fear had to be found that would ultimately justify Ba'thism, and not turn into the focus of attacks on it. Saddam Husain set out to find that reason working from conviction and not from cynical intent.

His speech was designed to make treason grow more vague and abstract; now it could be found in people's thoughts, not only their deeds. At the same time its monstrousness was made palpable and concrete through Abu al-Tubar's sadism. This thinking derived from Ba'thist ideology and was of course consistent with broader twentieth-century ideological trends, originating in Europe at the turn of the century. In light of the precedents that culminated in the interwar years in fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism, Saddam Husain was an imitator, not an innovator. Nonetheless, his legacy has already been assured by the consistency and determination with which he brought such trends to bear inside Iraq. Above all, his particular achievement was the placement of an inordinate emphasis on a revised conception of political crime, one that made it ever more loose and all-inclusive. Treason in his hands was a much larger offence, directed at the whole people, and a much less specific one. Once treason was ensconced in this fashion, police work logically became the substitute for all politics.

In the following year, the Political Report placed the blame for Kzar's actions on "some officers" and the inherited bureaucracy of the service. This contention was less tenable than Saddam Husain's because it presented itself in too factual a guise, eschewing the appeal of a teleological explanation of human affairs. After all, who was Kzar if not the creature of the party that had spawned him? Was the psychological profile mentioned in the Political Report an old or new phenomenon? Are men like Nadhim Kzar and Abu al-Tubar not mirror images of one another? Is it any wonder that the cronies of the one were the cronies of the other?

But where are the same sort of questions for those who are already motivated by faith in abstractions like imperialism, the ubiquity of its presence, concealed reserves, and a politics singularly confined to the distinction between treason and virtue? There are none, because all facts are necessarily buried in the secrecy required by the explanation. A strong and secret police provides the only way to "be prepared" and get at the facts that are needed to defeat imperialism. Even asking a question about Abu al-Tubar thus becomes grounds for casting suspicion of treacherous intent on the part of the questioner.

If the aftermath of the Kzar affair suggests a police going out of control, the background to the story highlights important institutional tensions that became manifest in the new regime because of the escalating power of the police.

Kzar's formal position was ambiguous. He had been granted a military title without ever having been in the army (later Saddam Husain would do the same without the resentments that had accompanied Kzar). In a country that had been ruled by army officers (1958-68), it was still deemed necessary to have the appearance of an army man in charge of the police. Kzar's department was theoretically under the combined jurisdiction of the interior and defence ministers whom he had taken hostage; however, his party rank greatly exceeded that of the two men, both of whom were officers who had hitched their fortunes to the rising star of the party after 1968. Moreover, Kzar was known to harbour resentments against the growing Sunni domination of the party, and had been arguing for restriction of all ministerial appointments to members of the Regional Command (the ministers taken hostage were not on this body and owed their position in the state to their services during the coup). He wanted a purge of all rightists and careerists in the party.

Alongside Kzar's problems with his ministers, a conflict was brewing between the head of the Ba'th Military Bureau (executed with Kzar) and the same defence minister who had disregarded a number of directives coming from the bureau. In short, a conflict of authority between party and state had arisen. This translated in the conditions of the early years of Ba'thist rule into a power struggle between an increasingly assertive secret police and the long-standing political authority of the army. Kzar's failure suggested that this conflict was being resolved in favour of the army and to the detriment of the civilian wing of the party. But even if true, it proved to be a temporary outcome.

Saddam Husain, then assistant secretary-general of the ABSP and deputy chairman of the RCC, was Kzar's immediate party superior. Probably his position weakened for a while, as rumours circulated that he was behind Kzar. The provisional constitution, for instance, was quickly amended to give the president, Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr, much greater powers. Bakr's credentials were well-suited for a resolution of the crisis. He was secretary-general of the Ba'th Regional Command from 1965, a party man from its earliest and most isolated days, and its most respected member since 1964 when his elevation into the leadership brought the internal factional struggles to an end. Moreover, he was a much respected former member of the Free Officers organization that overthrew the monarchy in 1958. These qualities combined in no other person in Iraq.

Bakr assumed control of the Ministry of Defence, thus alleviating the further escalation of party-army tensions. Saddam Husain's position could not have eroded all that much, in part because he had close family connections to Bakr (both are Takritis from the same tribal subsection, related yet again through marriage). The pair also had a close working relationship since 1964 when they forged a leadership team based on Saddam's control of the party, and Bakr's prestige in the country and army. Yet all of this might not have been enough to save Saddam were it not for three steps taken by him in the course of the Kzar affair.

First, he implicated his most popular rival in the party, 'Abd al-Khaliq al-Samarra'i, a leading ideologue considered the third most powerful man in the country (after Bakr and Saddam). Samarra'i was tried on the flimsiest of evidence, but Bakr refused to ratify his execution order. He was imprisoned, only to be summarily shot in 1979, after Bakr himself was purged.

Second, Saddam acted decisively to resolve the confusion that had spread through the ranks of the party militia, many of whose local commanders were torn between loyalties to Kzar, party bosses further up the line, and the authority of their state against which Kzar was clearly aligned. Saddam personally took command of loyal units of this militia, gave these a high visibility in Baghdad, used them in hot pursuit of Kzar, and sealed and stormed suspected Kzar strongholds. The army was excluded. However weakened the secret police may have been by whatever happened in June-July 1973, the army's political position had at the very least been checked by Saddam's resolute actions. Under his leadership the party put its own house in order.

Third, Saddam Husain administered the restructuring of the secret police by himself. The institution that Salim and his family encountered originated in this overhaul. The outcome was three agencies, independently responsible to the RCC.

1. The Amn or State Internal Security, Kzar's old department, was transformed and modernized. By the end of 1973 Saddam Husain had hammered out a secret intelligence agreement with Andropov, then head of the KGB, on the strength of certain clauses in the Iraqi-Soviet Friendship Treaty signed in 1972 (also negotiated by Saddam Husain). The agreement, leaked to the West by dissident Ba'this after the 1979 purges, provided for a) reorganization of all aspects of internal security on the recommendations of the KGB; b) supply of sophisticated surveillance and interrogation equipment; c) training for Iraqi personnel in KGB and GRU (Military Intelligence) schools in the Soviet Union; d) exchange of intelligence information; and e) provision of assistance by Iraqi embassy personnel to Soviet agents operating in countries where the Soviet Union has no diplomatic relations.

2. The Estikhbarat, or Military Intelligence, controls most of the operations against Iraqi or other nationals resident abroad. It employs embassy personnel, in particular the military attache's office. Presumably it has a brief for duties inside the army, but no information is available on this.

In 1979 a forty-page document by Khalil al-Azzawi, director of operations of the Estikhbarat, was also leaked. The Strategic Work Plan set the goals of the overseas branch of the agency. These read like something out of a cheap thriller. For example, the military attache's office, say in London, is instructed to provide regular reports on "nuclear, bacteriological and chemical warfare institutions and installations, giving as detailed information as possible on their capacities and stockpiles." Within this rubric the document demands information on particular experiments, cross-country cooperation, data on the "personal tendencies" of individual scientists who work in these institutions, and full specifications of naval bases accompanied by plans and aerial photographs.

In a separate section of the Work Plan on NATO, Ba'thist agents are instructed to uncover no less than the "structure of NATO's forces. . . . Its air, land and sea bases throughout the world, and particularly in the Mediterranean area. The armaments of its conventional and nuclear forces. The objectives of its forces in the Middle East, and their movements." Iraqi agents are recommended tactics that "suggest that the authors of the plan are not convinced that their men in foreign capitals will know how to buy a newspaper unless every detail of the transaction is spelled out for them."

Still one should not dismiss such agencies too lightly. After Saddam Husain threatened in February 1980 that "the hand of the revolution can reach out to its enemies wherever they are found," several opposition leaders were assassinated in Beirut and at least one attempt was made in Paris. The Estikhbarat assassinated Abdul Razzaq al-Nayef in London and provided training and logistical support for the Iranian London embassy siege in May 1980. Their involvement in the assassinations of Palestinian leaders by the Abu Nidhal group through 1980 is also likely. When the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) tried to return the favour to Abu Nidhal while he was undergoing medical treatment in a London hospital in 1979, they could not get at him because "the Iraqis had turned the hospital into a fortress."

The Guardian exposed an agent of the Estikhbarat as having been the ringleader of the attack on Shlomo Argov, the Israeli ambassador to London, an event that provided the pretext for the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and also revealed the existence of six separate death squads sent from Baghdad to murder Iraqi political exiles in Egypt. "Death lists" uncovered in Britain prompted a Home Office investigation and demands for the protection of Iraqi students whose names were on the lists. Ba'th is also suspected in the death of Napolean Bashi, an anti-Ba'th journalist of Iraqi origin assassinated in Detroit on January 11, 1983, and three other assassinations in the Detroit area between 1977 and 1980 (one student, two recent immigrant activists). Prominent non-Iraqi personalities, like Ismet Vanly, a Swiss national of Kurdish origin, have also been the target of assassination attempts.

Another ominous example of the methods of the Estikhbarat, is the case of Hans Melin, chief of the police immigration unit in Sweden. Melin was arrested on February 5, 1979, for passing classified information to Iraqi embassy officials, three of whom were expelled from Sweden that day. Melin had access to the files of some 150,000 foreign nationals living in Sweden among whom were many Kurdish political refugees. Collating information, particularly on Kurds resident in "target countries," featured prominently in the Strategic Work Plan. Another foreign official, Norwegian diplomat Arne Treholt, was convicted of spying for the Soviet Union and Iraq and sentenced to twenty years.

3. The Mukhabarat or Party Intelligence, the most powerful and feared agency among the three, is a meta-intelligence organization designed to watch over the other policing networks and control the activities of state and corporate institutions like the army, government departments, and the mass organizations (youth, women, and labour). A section of the Mukhabarat called the Special Security Section commands the armed party militia headed by Saddam's younger brother and Sa'doun Shakir, a member of the Regional Command. The Mukhabarat developed directly out of Jihaz Haneen, Saddam's creation during his years in the political wilderness. The paucity of information at our disposal on this institution makes it impossible to establish what relation, if any, Nadhim Kzar had to it, and whether it played a role in the 1973 affair. Nonetheless, in Ba'thist affairs political weight increases with secrecy. To the best of my knowledge, the only published acknowledgment of the Mukhabarat's existence are two paragraphs in the 1974 Political Report:

At the beginning of the Revolution, the Party undertook to build a special security apparatus [jihaz khas], at first known as the General Relations Bureau, later as the General Intelligence Department [Da'irat al-Mukhabarat al-'Amah]. It also tightened its control over the Security and Police services [al-'Amn wa al-Shurtah] by appointing Party members or independent patriots to sensitive posts inside them, and by reorganizing and reeducating these services in accordance with the concepts of the Revolution and the requirements of the new stage.
This special security apparatus, manned entirely by Party members, has in the last few years been a model of efficiency, loyalty to the leadership, and precision in accomplishing its party security tasks. Although the personnel of this apparatus has no formal experience of security work before the Revolution, these comrades learned the arts of this work through absorbing certain aspects of the party's activities before the takeover of power through trial and error. They proved highly efficient in unmasking foreign and internal plots, and in repressing and liquidating them. This apparatus also played a crucial role in liquidating the espionage networks.
Unlike other policing agencies, the Mukhabarat