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By Eric Margolis

The United States has just embarked on the ninth attempt to overthrow - and likely assassinate - Iraq's much unloved ruler, and former American ally, Saddam Hussein. CIA - a government agency that has operated in recent years with about the same level of efficiency as the Post Office - is tasked with mounting a complex coup against one of the world's most ruthless police states.

Naifs who believe `taking out' wicked Saddam will restore Pax Americana to the always troubled Mideast should study the long, blood-washed history of Iraq.

`The wildman of Baghdad!' That's what Egyptian leader Gammal Abdel Nasser used to call Iraq's regime - 40 years ago. Nasser was not speaking of Saddam, but his predecessor, the bloodthirsty Col. Abdel Karim el-Kassem, who pioneered the art of executing political opponents on Iraqi TV. Running Iraq, a nation that may well be a political impossibility, is not for gentle parliamentarians.

At the end of World War I, Britain and France carved up the defeated Ottoman Empire. France was supposed to get Mesopotamia, plus Syria and Lebanon. But when British agents learned oil had been found in Mesopotamia, Britain's imperialists quickly elbowed aside the French, grabbing the region from the steamy Gulf up to the snow-capped mountains of Kurdistan. France has never forgiven this British perfidy, believing to this day that Iraq is part of its legitimate sphere of influence.

To protect their new-found oil, Britain stitched together three separate, dissimilar Ottoman regions: Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul, calling their hybrid creation, Iraq. The new kingdom, ruled by a British puppet, Faisal I, forced together antipathetic Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, and Kurds, with important Jewish and Christian minorities. This was like sticking highland Scots, Spaniards and Greeks into one small country.

Today, southern Iraq is 50% Shia. Shias look towards neighboring Iran for political and spiritual guidance. Sunni Muslims, located in central Iraq, comprise 27%. Ever-rebellious Kurds up north, the remaining 23%. Shias and Kurds sit atop vast seas of oil. Iraq has the Mideast's second largest oil reserves after Saudi Arabia. Sunnis control the army, consequently the government.

Rebellions and uprisings were a constant feature of Iraqi life. Before WWII, Britain's RAF used to regularly bomb and strafe Kurdish tribesmen, even using poison gas against Kurds in the 1930's. After the war, Britain's loyal Iraqi strongman, Gen. Nuri as-Said, ruled the fractious nation with an iron fist.

Nuri and his nominal master, King Faisal II, were overthrown in 1958 by a military coup led by Col. Kassem. Faisal was shot. Nuri, disguised as a woman, tried to flee Baghdad, but was caught and hanged from a lamppost, a punishment much favored in Iraq.

Kassem, an enrag', staged a bloodbath in Baghdad, and massacred Kurds. In 1963, Kassem was finally machine-gunned during a coup led by Col. Abdel-Salim Aref, a Nasserite. A young Baath Party organizer, Saddam Hussein, took part in the coup. But in 1966, Col. Aref's helicopter was destroyed in midair by a bomb. Aref's brother,a major general, became president.

Two years later, anti-Nasserite Baath Party officers, secretly aided by the US, overthrew Aref. Maj. Gen. Hassan al-Bakr became the new, figurehead leader. His right-hand man was Saddam Hussein. In 1979, Saddam pushed aside al-Bakr, who became the first Iraqi leader in memory to leave office alive. Saddam has ruled Iraq ever since.

Meanwhile, Iran, Israel and the US were busy stirring up and arming the Kurds in order to destabilize and weaken Iraq. Iran threatened to annex southern Iraq's oilfields. Turkey kept a hungry eye upon the northern oilfields around Kirkuk and Mosul. Baghdad swirled with plots of every sort, hatched by the US, Britain, Israel, the Saudis, Syria, and Iran. Iraq's oil riches were as much a curse as a blessing.

Saddam ruthlessly crushed all attempts to overthrow his regime and fought Iran to a draw. However, the 1991 Gulf War left Iraq gravely destabilized. The US created an independent Kurdish mini-state in the north into which Turkish troops regularly penetrated. The Shia south was only kept in Iraq at gunpoint. President George Bush decided not to overthrow Saddam for fear this strategically important, oil-rich nation would disintegrate, creating Yugoslav-style chaos and uncontrollable tribal and ethnic warfare in the heart of the Mideast.

The threat remains today. Iraq is the second most important Arab state after Egypt. Baghdad has always be the political and cultural rival of Cairo. Before the Gulf War, Iraq was also the most modern and technologically advanced Arab nation. Iraqis are heirs to 5,000 years of civilization and culture.

Tragically, Iraq, the mutant stepchild of British imperialism, has proven inherently unstable. Keeping it together requires constant brute force. Perhaps Washington will succeed in eliminating Saddam and installing a new general who is more compliant with American policy. But don't count on it.

For the past 50 years, the US has overthrown regimes, tried to assassinate leaders, and intrigued throughout the Mideast. The result has been a gigantic, bloody mess.

As Americans demand Saddam's head, it's worth remembering CIA helped put him - and Libya's irritating Col. Khadaffi - into power. CIA used to call them, `our boys.'

Copyright: Eric Margolis, 1998

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