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Despite persistent rumors of illness, Saddam Hussein appears stronger than at any time since the 1991 Persian Gulf war. The U.S.-led coalition that drove Iraq out of Kuwait has disintegrated; support for the 11-year-old sanctions has eroded; internal and external opposition to the Iraqi government is weak and divided; the regime is flush with money from illicit oil trade; and Saddam has waged a successful propaganda campaign, using the Palestinian uprising and Iraqi suffering to rally anti-Western sentiment throughout the region. All the while, he continues to defy UN resolutions and to bar weapons inspectors.
Iraq gained formal independence in 1932, though the British maintained influence over the Hashemite monarchy. The monarchy was overthrown in a military coup in 1958. A 1968 coup established a government under the Arab Baath (Renaissance) Socialist Party, which has remained in power since. The frequently amended 1968 provisional constitution designated the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) as the country's highest power, and granted it virtually unlimited and unchecked authority. In 1979, Saddam Hussein, long considered the strongman of the regime, formally assumed the titles of state president and RCC chairman.
Iraq attacked Iran in 1980, touching off an eight-year war of attrition during which at least 150,000 Iraqis died and Iraq's economy was devastated. In August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. At least 100,000 Iraqi troops were killed in the Persian Gulf War before a 22-nation coalition liberated Kuwait in February 1991. In April, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 687, which called on Iraq to destroy its weapons of mass destruction, to accept long-term monitoring of its weapons facilities, and to recognize Kuwaiti sovereignty. The UN also imposed an oil embargo on Iraq, which may be lifted when the government complies with the terms of Resolution 687. In 1996, the UN initiated an oil-for-food program that allows Iraq to sell a limited amount of oil to pay for food and medicine.
UN weapons inspectors were withdrawn, and the United States and Britain began bombing military and potential weapons production sites in December 1998 after traces of a nerve agent were found in an Iraqi weapons dump. A UN weapons inspector had reported that Iraq was largely in compliance with Resolution 687 with regard to chemical and nuclear weapons, but was less forthcoming about biological weapons. In December 1999, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1284, which would suspend sanctions for renewable 120-day periods, provided Baghdad cooperates with a new arms control body, the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC). The resolution also lifted the ceiling on oil-for-food exports. Saddam rejected the resolution, refusing access to weapons inspectors without an unconditional lifting of sanctions.
According to UNICEF, more than 500,000 Iraqi children under age five died between 1991 and 1998. About 41 percent of the population has regular access to clean water. Contaminated water, deteriorating sewage treatment facilities, and sharp declines in health care services have increased the spread and mortality rate of curable disease. The UN Human Development Index, which ranks countries based on quality of life as measured by indicators such as education, life expectancy, and adjusted real income, rated Iraq 55th in 1990. In 2000, Iraq was ranked 126th of 174 countries.
Saddam has skillfully exploited the humanitarian disaster in Iraq to create divisions among UN Security Council members and to rally support for a lifting of sanctions. While the United States and Britain take a hardline approach, China, France, and Russia have pushed for an end to sanctions for humanitarian reasons and to restore economic relations with Iraq. Iraq reopened its international airport in August 2000, and a year later some 20 countries had defied the air embargo and resumed flights to Iraq. Jordan, Egypt, and Syria resumed scheduled flights, while Russia, France, and a number of African states sent humanitarian assistance or delegations interested in reviving trade. Turkey appointed an ambassador to Iraq in January 2001, and opened a rail link between the two countries in May. An international trade fair in November drew participants from 47 countries, and Iraq signed free-trade agreements with six Arab countries in 2001.
Iraqi officials reportedly pocket $1.5 billion to $3 billion per year from oil smuggling through Syria, Turkey, and the Persian Gulf. In March, UN officials reported that Iraqi officials demand millions of dollars in kickbacks and illegal commissions on contracts under the oil-for-food agreement. The illegal profits have been used by Saddam to build vast palaces, amusement parks, mosques, and other monuments, and to pad his personal fortune, which is estimated at some $6 billion in unfrozen foreign assets. U.S. intelligence and other sources say that Saddam is also using the revenues to rebuild weapons factories and may have begun producing chemical and biological agents. Meanwhile, Kurdish officials in the autonomous north of Iraq have spent their portion of the oil-for-food money on building schools, infrastructure, and hospitals. Recent public health statistics put infant mortality in Kurdistan at lower than its pre-sanctions rate. Several observers have reported that the Iraqi government exports food and medicine meant for Iraqis.
By blaming the United States and Britain for the poor state of his people, Saddam further inflames anti-Western sentiment among Arabs in neighboring countries, who already perceive the United States as supporting Israel against Arabs in the current Palestinian uprising. Saddam criticizes Arab leaders for not standing up to Western "meddling" in the region and recently announced the formation of a volunteer Jerusalem Liberation Army "to liberate Palestine from the Mediterranean to the Jordan." His skillful use of propaganda has won him support among Arabs and put increasing pressure on Arab governments allied with the West. Egypt and Jordan both reacted negatively to U.S. airstrikes on radar installations 20 miles south of Baghdad in February.
Saddam won another public relations victory against the West in 2001, when a U.S.-British proposal to overhaul sanctions was postponed under threat of a Russian veto. The proposal would remove restrictions on importing civilian goods while placing tighter controls on illegal oil trade and suspect items, including almost all computer and telecommunications equipment, and other civilian items which may have potential military uses. The United States failed to obtain support for the policy from Iraq's neighbors, who also benefit from illegal oil trade. Still, as the U.S. administration debated the direction of the war on terrorism following the September 11 attacks in the United States, with some officials favoring military action to oust Saddam, President George Bush warned that Iraq would face "consequences" if the Iraqi leader continues to refuse access to UN weapons inspectors.
Recent media reports alleging that Saddam has cancer or has suffered a stroke have highlighted the issue of succession. While authorities have vehemently disputed these reports, Saddam appears to be grooming his younger son, Qusay, for the presidency. In May, the Baath Party elected Qusay to its leadership structure. Three days later, Saddam named him one of two deputy commanders of the party's military branch. Qusay, 34, is head of the country's security apparatus and keeps a much lower profile than his older brother, Uday, who has a reputation for brutality and excess. Throughout the year a number of senior figures, including foreign ministry officials and the sons of several senior government aides, were arrested or fired for alleged corruption. The purges have been seen by some as a way of eliminating potential rivals to Qusay.
Iraqis cannot change their government democratically. Saddam holds supreme power, and relatives and friends from his hometown of Tikrit hold most key positions. Opposition parties are illegal, and the 250-seat National Council (parliament) has no power. Members of the Council serve four-year terms. Elections were held in 2000 for 220 of the seats; 30 seats reserved for Kurds are appointed by presidential decree. Saddam's older son, Uday Hussein, won a seat for Baghdad. All candidates are vetted to ensure their support for the regime, and all are either Baathists or nominal independents loyal to the Baath Party. High turnout is typical of Iraqi elections, as failure to vote may be seen as opposition to the government and thus may result in harassment, arrest, torture, and/or execution.
State control is maintained through the extensive use of intimidation through arrest, torture, and summary execution. In August 2001, Amnesty International published a report entitled "Iraq: Systematic Torture of Political Prisoners," which details abuses against suspected dissidents, including electric shock, extraction of fingernails or toenails, severe beatings, rape or threats of rape, and mock execution. An Amnesty International press release in April 2001 said that hundreds of political prisoners and detainees are executed in Iraq every year. Dozens of women accused of prostitution were beheaded in front of their homes in October 2000 by a militia created by Uday Hussein, according to the statement. London-based opposition groups report that Qusay Hussein regularly carries out mass executions of prisoners in a campaign to "cleanse" prisons. Military and government officials suspected of disloyalty to the regime are also reportedly killed from time to time.
Some safeguards exist in civil cases, but political and "economic" cases are tried in separate security courts with no due process considerations. Theft, corruption, desertion from the army, and currency speculation are punishable by amputation, branding, or execution. Doctors have been killed for refusing to carry out punishments or for attempting reconstructive surgery.
Criticism of local officials and investigation into official corruption are occasionally tolerated, as long as they do not extend to Saddam or to major policy issues. The government makes little effort to block the signal of Radio Free Iraq, which began broadcasting in 1998. An opposition-run, U.S.-backed satellite channel called Liberty TV was set to begin broadcasting into Iraq from London around early September 2001. The government carefully controls most information available to Iraqis. Restricted access to satellite broadcasting was allowed beginning in 1999. Uday Hussein is Iraq's leading media magnate. He is head of the Iraqi Journalists' Union, owner of 11 of about 35 newspapers published in Iraq, including the Babel daily, and director of television and radio stations. In July 2001, Uday reportedly threatened to kill a Kurdish journalist living in Britain for criticizing the Iraqi regime on the Internet.
Freedom of assembly and association is restricted to pro-Baath gatherings. All active opposition groups are in exile, and regime opponents outside Iraq are subject to retaliation by the Iraqi regime. There have been credible reports of Iraqi defectors receiving videotapes of their female relatives being raped in attempts to coerce them to abandon the opposition. In 2000, the Revolutionary Command Council passed Societies Law 13, which specifies that "the goals, programs, and activities of societies should not conflict with the principles and objectives of the great 17-13 July revolution, the independence of the country, its national unity, and its republican system." Workers for the UN oil-for-food program were accused of spying and expelled in September 2001.
Islam is the state religion. Shiite Muslims, who constitute more than 60 percent of the population, face severe persecution. Shiites may not engage in communal Friday prayer, the loaning of books by mosque libraries, broadcasting, book publishing, or funeral processions and observances. The army has arrested thousands of Shiites and executed an undetermined number of these detainees. Security forces have desecrated Shiite mosques and holy sites. The army has indiscriminately targeted civilian Shiite villages, razed homes, and drained southern Amara and Hammar marshes in order to flush out Shiite guerrillas.
Forced displacement of ethnic Kurds, Turkomans, and other non-Arab minorities continued in 2001. According to Kurdish sources, a government "Arabization" policy involves authorities' forcibly expelling thousands of Kurdish families from Kurdish areas under Baghdad's control and replacing them with Arabs, who are offered land and money as incentives. A Kurdish newspaper reported in March that Kurds in the Kirkuk governorate have been ordered to report for military training or be imprisoned. In August, the government reportedly issued a ban on Iraqis traveling to Kurdistan. Many believe that the purpose of the ban is to prevent Iraqi awareness of the relative peace and prosperity in the north. Ethnic Turkomans have also been subjected to Arabization and assimilation policies, as well as displacement to reduce their concentration in the oil-rich north.
Although laws exist to protect women from discrimination in employment and education, to include women in security and police forces, to require education for girls, and to grant women rights in family matters such as divorce and property ownership, it is difficult to determine whether these rights are respected in practice. Men are granted immunity for killing female relatives suspected of "immoral deeds." In May 2001, the Baath Party elected a woman to its leadership for the first time.
Independent trade unions are nonexistent; the state-backed General Federation of Trade Unions is the only legal labor federation. The law does not recognize the right to collective bargaining and places restrictions on the right to strike.