Abdullah is a York University history prof with post-graduate degrees from Georgetown University, specializing in studies of the region. His direct personal connection provides some useful insights. No, he argues, Iraq is not an artificial entity, contrary to what many foreign authorities have claimed. He points out that much of the U.S.-Canada border is a straight line, like the much-maligned straight lines delineating Iraq.
American actions in Iraq, building on this mistaken interpretation, have served to emphasize Sunni, Shi'a, and Kurd distinctiveness, but, he argues, prior to the invasion these distinctions were less important, with political and civil society organizations crossing these boundaries. While his argument may hold less strongly for the Kurdish area, he points out that the Kurds are now strongly supporting a federated Iraq, fearing that the disintegration of the country would leave them at the mercy of Iran and Turkey.
Saddam Hussein is, quite naturally, a central figure in the book, a villain who brought untold calamity to his countrymen through his crimes and follies. However, he is not alone in these. The United States also has much to answer for. The U.S. actively supported the Iraqi attack on Iran, trying to maintain an embarrassed silence about Iraqi use of poison gas, both against the Iranians and against its own Kurds. I remember the news photo of a smiling Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Hussein. Then there was Kuwait.
Just prior to his invasion of Kuwait, Saddam met with April Glaspie, the U.S. ambassador. She told him that "we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait." When the invasion came, President Bush senior had a rather different take on the matter.
The peace that followed the Iraqi defeat was a strange one indeed. Bombing of Iraqi targets continued. Yet, even though Bush One encouraged Iraqis to rise up against Saddam, he sat on his hands while Saddam's forces decimated those that tried, even allowing Saddam's attack helicopters into action against Shi'a resistance. Then there was the embargo.
U.N. sanctions were devastating. Per capita income fell by at least two-thirds and perhaps by more than three-fourths from 1984 to 1995. In 1998, Denis Halliday, coordinator of humanitarian relief and U.N. Assistant Secretary-General, resigned, declaring that the sanctions policy "is totally bankrupt ... Five thousand children are dying every month."
Occupying forces protected oil-related facilities but allowed looting and destruction of museums, libraries, and private homes. Not surprisingly, Abdullah sees American thirst for oil and profits at the expense of the country as motivating factors in their activities in the country.
Through it all, Abdullah maintains a glimmer of hope that Iraq will somehow survive. In spite of the American-impelled sectarianism, Iraqis of all sorts believe in the unity of the country, even if in a federated structure.
One omission in Abdullah's account surprises. In 1958, General Abdul-Karim Qasim led a coup that overthrew the monarchy. During his populist rule, he put controls on the oil industry and sought greater revenues from oil for the government coffers. He also used some Communists in his administration. A year later, there was the awesome spectacle of Baghdad withdrawing from the Baghdad Pact! American intelligence enlisted Saddam Hussein to take part in an unsuccessful assassination plot. He continued on the U.S. payroll in his sojourns in Syria and Cairo, and when Qasim was finally killed and the Ba'thists came to power, Hussein got his toe-hold on the way to power as head of the secret police. This detail in no way contradicts Abdullah's analysis but in fact serves to complement it.
The book is a worthwhile read.