The CIA's Assets in the Middle East

President Bush in his speech on St. Patrick’s Day issued a challenge to Saddam Hussein: “Get out within 48 hours, and take your sons with you.”

I hope Hussein takes this warning seriously. If he leaves, his country will be spared a lot of bloodshed, at least until the Shi’ites take over. But he probably won’t leave.

In a superb two-hour documentary, “The Long Road to War,” which was aired on PBS’s “Frontline” on the evening of March 17, the same evening as Bush’s speech, it becomes clear that Saddam Hussein almost cracked under pressure, twice: when the Shi’ites of Iran almost won the war with Iraq, and again on the last day of the Gulf War, when Colin Powell persuaded President Bush to call off the march into Baghdad. Anyway, this was the opinion of one former Iraqi intelligence officer, who was with Hussein at the time. In both cases, Hussein rebounded and became more arrogant.

It also is clear that Hussein is no Hitler. He is a Stalin. He literally modeled himself after Stalin.

He was our man in Baghdad from day one. He was a CIA asset.

Saddam Hussein came under CIA influence after he had attempted to assassinate Iraq’s leftist military leader, Kassem, in 1958, the same year that Kassem ousted the ruling monarch. Kassem used Nasser as his model. Hussein put together a hit team to take out Kassem. Their attempt failed. Hussein was slightly wounded. He escaped, fled to Cairo, and began a series of contacts with the CIA in Cairo. The CIA was opposed to Kassem, who they regarded as too much like Nasser and too close to Moscow.

Although the documentary did not cover the following, it is worth noting that in 1953, the CIA and the British M16 had engineered a coup against the leftist who ran Iran, Mossadegh. The New York Times (April 16, 2000) ran several primary source documents written immediately after the coup by the CIA. They are on-line.

Mossadegh had threatened to nationalize the oil, owned mainly by the British. The British then stopped pumping oil in Iran, pushing the country into economic crisis. The coup followed.

The CIA installed the Pahlevi family on the throne of Iran, the Peacock Monarchy. It would be a modernizing force for Iran, the CIA believed: secular, not an arm of Iran’s dominant Shi’ite sect. And so the monarchy became. It maintained control over the Shi’ite majority by creating the infamous Savak: the secret police. In 1979, that plan backfired when radical Shi’ites overthrew the Shah. The Ayatollah Khomeini took over. The Shi’ites — far more aggressive than the Sunni sect — remain in power today.

In 1963, the Ba’ath Party engineered a coup against Kassem. They had CIA approval. They assassinated him. Hussein returned to Baghdad. Almost immediately, the new regime was recognized by the United States government. But the Ba’athists were tossed out almost immediately by a revolt of army officers. With CIA assistance, the Ba’ath Party regained power in 1968. Much of this background information is covered in a March 14 New York Times article by Roger Morris.

In 1979, the same year that the Shah was removed from power in a Shi’ite revolt in Iran, Saddam Hussein engineered a coup inside the Ba’ath Party and killed his opponents, Stalin-like. He has been in power ever since.


The United States in the 1980’s funded Iraq. The Shi’ites were seen by Reagan’s Administration as the more dangerous religious force in the region. So, we backed the secular Ba’athists, who were socialists to the core.

The Sunnis constitute only 30% of the population in Iraq. The majority is Shi’ite. The Ba’athists are more closely associated with the Sunnis. So, the Shi’ites in Iran are hoping for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

As “The Long Road to War” makes clear, the United States called on the Kurds (north) and the Shi’ites (south) to revolt against Hussein in 1991. They did, and then we did not intervene to support them after the cease fire. The documentary ran video clips taken by Ba’athists in the south, kicking and beating captured Shi’ites, whose resistance movement lasted only two weeks after their post-war revolt began. In the north, we did finally intervene defensively after the Kurds had fled their cities.

In both Iran and Iraq, the CIA’s assets used the power of the secret police to crush the Shi’ite opposition. Khomeini removed the former asset; President Bush will soon remove the latter. But this leaves the Shi’ites in the majority in both countries.

After the documentary, the local PBS station ran Bill Moyers’ weekly “NOW” show. He interviewed one of the expatriate Iraqi advisors to President Bush, Kanen Makiya. He has been in the United States for 35 years. He teaches at Brandeis University, the liberal, secular Jewish university. This is the man Mr. Bush has selected to run the committee that will produce the post-Saddam Iraqi constitution. He told Moyers that he is confident that democracy will work just fine in Iraq — as confident as Richard Perle is. The two of them delivered a joint lecture on March 17.

My suggestion: when putting together a committee of Kurds, Sunnis, and Shi’ites, it’s probably not a good strategy to put a Brandeis professor in charge. I would call this arrangement “insensitive,” except that liberals have co-opted this word.

Moyers also interviewed the historian Simon Schama. Schama thinks that the invasion of Iraq will be the Rubicon crossing for the United States, i.e., a major turning point in the history of the Middle East and the United States. He is not confident that we will be successful in putting the pieces back together. Far more optimistic was Walter Isaacson, now the head of the Aspen Institute, formerly a senior editor at Time and the co-author of The Wise Men, a book on the six men who shaped American foreign policy, 1935—80. He thinks that we may actually be able to depart in two years. Isaacson was also interviewed by Moyers.

As an historian, I’m with Schama on this issue. We are about to open Pandora’s box, where only hope was positive. The United States must protect the rebuilt oil fields. A bigger task will be to keep the Kurds out of the clutches of the Turks, and the Sunnis out of the clutches of the Shi’ites.

Twenty years ago, the Reagan Administration was determined to keep the Iranian revolution bottled up. This was why our government sent money and weapons to Iraq. Now Reagan’s hawks — Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle — insist that a Saddam-free Iraq can move into democracy, despite the 1991 slaughter of the Kurds and the Shi’ites by the Sunnis under the Ba’ath flag. More than this: they actually believe that Iraq will become a model of democracy for Arab states in the region.

I’m sure that our allies, the Saud family, get all tingly just thinking about how much democracy will do for them and their continuing control over Saudi Arabia. As Sunnis, they must relish the thought of democracy in Iraq, where their ancient rivals, the Shi’ites, will become the dominant political force as soon as American troops leave.


Similarly, Sunnis aren’t like Presbyterians. Iraq is not the United States. These Islamic sects take their religion very seriously. They are not like America’s denominations, content to recruit from each other’s members unofficially, and not much more. If you want a comparison for Iraq, think of the Thirty Years War (1618—48), which tore up Germany for a generation.

For almost a quarter century, Saddam Hussein has ruled with an iron fist. Prof. Makiya said that the Ba’ath Party has murdered well over a million people — something in the range of 8% of the population. I don’t doubt it. When a man models himself on Stalin, he is not going to be squeamish about a million counter-revolutionaries.

So, without any democratic tradition, Iraq is about to be pushed into democracy by occupying troops, whose main task will be the defense of the oil wells. The United States will hand out billions of dollars for rebuilding what our military forces will soon blow up. It would not surprise me if Haliburton Co., Mr. Cheney’s former employer (CEO), might even get a few construction contracts. Why not? It has experience. While Mr. Cheney was running Haliburton, the company signed two contracts with Iraq through two of its subsidiaries. The contracts were worth $73 million.

The hostility between these groups runs deep. It will take more than the skills of a Brandeis professor to create a working constitutional settlement and establish peace. It will take full-time American troops. The problem we will soon face is how to keep a well-armed citizenry from killing each other and assassinating our troops from time to time.

Meanwhile, the Shi’ites across the border in Iran will do what they can to see that their spiritual brethren are not denied their “democratic rights” as the dominant majority in Iraq. For this cause, they lost about 400,000 troops in the 1980’s. Now their rival, Saddam Hussein, no longer has U.S. money to back him in his war against Iran.

The problem, of course, will be the presence of full-time American troops in Iraq. The Great Satan will be within a couple of minutes’ flight from Iran. To keep the lid on in Iraq, the United States must station troops.

There is a slogan attributed to Islam: “My brother and I against our cousin. We and our cousin against the world.” I am beginning to hear assorted pundits in Washington discuss the recruiting potential for al-Qaeda, now that American troops are stationed in the region. In a report to my subscribers on October 11, 2001, I wrote this:

All over the Middle East, bin Laden is getting a hearing. His accusations now focus on Islamic concerns generally, not just the issue that first motivated him: the presence of infidels (Americans) on Saudi Arabian soil. He now talks of U.S. support of the State of Israel, the U.S. sanctions against Iraq, which still include almost daily bombing, and the looming attack on an Islamic nation, Afghanistan.

It should be clear what he is doing. It is what I have said from the beginning that the attack was all about: recruiting for the jihad.

How serious is this jihad for Americans? Until September 11, it was only marginal. Now, it is on the minds of tens of millions of potential recruits. The U.S. media will not discuss this. They do not want to face facts. This is why we saw so little of the street demonstrations on TV. They were spontaneous, unlike most street demonstrations. What we saw was a spontaneous, deeply felt hatred of America all over the Islamic world — not just the Middle East.

The reality of this process is becoming visible, even to the talking heads in Washington. For a decade, Osama bin Laden has preached the removal of American troops from Saudi soil. He has argued that we plan to control the region. Now we are proving his point.

In February, a British-based Islamic news agency claimed to have an audiotape by bin Laden that predicted his martyrdom this year. This was the day after al-Jazeera broadcast another tape by bin Laden calling for martyrdom in the war against the United States and Israel.

There have been a few reports of volunteers coming into Iraq from other Arab nations to join the Iraqis in what are essentially suicide operations. I have seen one video clip of a group of these volunteers. Their presence, followed by their certain deaths, will serve as fuses that are laid all over the region. The solidarity of Arabs is rare. It takes a common enemy. We are now the target, even more than the British after 1918. The British knew how to run their empire from the shadows. We will be on satellite TV.

American forces or our allies (for this year) may kill bin Laden later this year. This will not do us much good. We are about to enter the tar baby of the Middle East. We have become the common enemy. Europe, apart from Britain, will be able to say, “It’s not our fault. Our hands are clean. Blame Bush.” If the cost of the war escalates, we can be sure that the Democrats in Congress will say the same thing.


If Saddam has any sense of military strategy, he has dispersed his forces into squads. These squads are assigned to homes in Sunni-dominated areas. This will force our troops to attack villages and towns. It is unlikely that we would level each town from the air. House-to-house combat will raise the cost of the war: more casualties for our troops, and more civilian casualties, which is bad for public relations.

There is no way that Iraqi tanks, planes, or anything larger than a mortar will survive our initial onslaught. If he masses his troops, they will be taken out early. There will be tens of thousands of grieving families who blame America for their post-war desolation.

But if he has dispersed them, we will have a tactical problem. House-to-house combat in Sunni areas will tend to create a bond between the Sunnis and Ba’ath forces. The Sunnis know what will happen if Shi’ites get into power. This is why they will be willing to defend their homes from our troops. For his troops to attempt to occupy Shi’ite areas now would be foolhardy.

Americans are being told nothing about how the Iraqi military forces are being deployed. Our military forces must know from satellite surveillance. I have no inside information. If Hussein learned anything from the road of death — the retreat from Kuwait — in 1991, he will not concentrate his forces where planes can bomb them. He will place them in close contact with civilians, not just in Baghdad, but in the whole region.

If Hussein keeps large numbers of troops massed together, then his generals can surrender more easily. I saw a press conference at which Donald Rumsfeld claimed that there have already been preliminary negotiations between American generals and Iraqi generals. But if Iraqi troops are dispersed, then no surrender at the top will be enforceable on the troops. They will be dug in.

The initial phase of the attack has a name: shock and awe. (The post-war phase, as described by the Administration so far, can accurately be named shuck and jive.) Shock and awe worked in Afghanistan. But in Iraq, the Sunnis know that they will be the big losers in any post-Saddam regime. They probably know that those Iraqis who survive the war will be well-treated by American troops. But we are not their main problem. Shi’ites are their main problem. If we leave, the reprisals will begin. We allowed Saddam exact his reprisals against the Shi’ites in 1991. If we decide to leave or withdraw to the oil fields, there will be executions on a scale never dreamed of by the Hatfields and the McCoys. I don’t think a professor from Brandeis can do much to stop this process.


This war is not going to be a cakewalk. I pray that Saddam Hussein will get out while the getting is good, but I think he has decided to take his chances. He will not win this war.

The question is: Will we?

March 19, 2003

Gary North is the author of Mises on Money. Visit For a free subscription to Gary North’s twice-weekly economics newsletter, click here.

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