Global Policy Forum

A Benevolent Dictator for Iraq?


By Claude Salhani

United Press International
May 19, 2004

At a time when President George W. Bush and his administration are trying hard to promote democracy in the Middle East, a key U.S. ally is proposing benevolent dictatorship instead.

King Abdullah II of Jordan, who only recently returned from a visit to the United States where he met with Bush, said Monday that a possible solution out of the Iraqi morass would be to install a strong military leader. Such a leader, said the king, could instill law and order in the chaos that is Iraq today. "I would say that the profile would be somebody from inside, somebody who's very strong, has some sort of popular feeling," said the Hashemite monarch, who was quoted in the International Herald Tribune. "I would probably imagine -- again this is off the top of my head -- someone with a military background who has the experience of being a tough guy who could hold Iraq together for the next year," said the king.

Jordan's King Abdullah is certainly not alone in thinking that Iraq may need to spawn its own version of an Ataturk to pull it out of the quagmire it now finds itself in. A year after the arrival of coalition forces and the fall of Saddam Hussein, who ruled the country as an absolute dictator for close to 30 years, Iraq is facing serious security concerns. With just a little over a month to go before Iraqis reclaim partial rule, a suicide bomb Monday killed Abdul Zahraa Othman, the leader of the Iraqi Governing Council, a man better known as Izzadine Saleem.

Meanwhile, fighting continues between insurgents and coalition forces in and around a number of major cities amid intelligence reports that Iran might be aiding some of the rebels, particularly Moqtada Sadr's Mehdi Army. Other intelligence sources have told United Press International that hundreds of Saddam's Fedayeen's -- the special group of fighters fiercely loyal to the former dictator -- have joined up with Moqtada Sadr's Mehdi Army to fight U.S. forces. Last week while sharing a ride from Kuwait airport into town with a veteran Iraqi journalist, this reporter was surprised to hear much the same argument made by Jordan's king, but this time by an Iraqi no less.

When asked what he thought would happen after the much-publicized June 30 date, when the U.S.-led coalition is scheduled to hand over partial sovereignty to an Iraqi government, the Iraqi journalist said he feared civil war would break out. Perhaps not immediately, he said, but certainly in due course. Many of the ingredients for a fratricidal conflict were already there, he said. The lack of any strong central authority helped place the elements for a civil war in place. Already tensions are running dangerously high between followers of the firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, who has been engaged in battling American forces in Iraq for nearly a month, and more moderate Shiite leaders, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

"We could have a bloody confrontation between Shiite groups in Najaf," said Sheikh Fatih Kashif al-Ghita, a cleric from a prominent Najaf family, reports Beirut's Daily Star. "That would be a very dangerous escalation -- it could cause deep divisions in the Shiite community, said the Shiite cleric. Others, too, shared this rather pessimistic view of Iraq's future during a weekend-long marathon conference addressing the future security in the Arabian Gulf that was held in Kuwait last week.

David L. Mack, a former U.S. ambassador to the Middle East and current vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., thinks that the prospect of civil strife in Iraq is not to be ruled out. "A civil war in Iraq," said Mack, "is all too possible."

When asked what he thought the outcome of the future elections in Iraq would likely produce -- once they are eventually held -- the Iraqi journalist sharing my ride uttered the Iraqi equivalent of "elections, shmelections." "What those people need is a military strong man. Forget elections," he said.

"They, (the Iraqis) are simply not ready for democracy." Reading from King Abdullah's inner thoughts, he echoed, "Give them a strong army man who can pull it together. Someone who can rule with an iron fist and bring back law and order. Someone not as bad as Saddam, but who has experience in the military, and in getting respect. That's what we need."

Given that President Bush keeps saying part of the reason the United States went to war was to liberate the country from a brutal dictatorship and to bring it democracy, this kind of rhetoric might not be exactly what the president would like to hear. But amid the mounting chaos that appears to be gripping Iraq today, the idea of a benevolent dictator could well be the lesser of many evils -- at least in the eyes of some Iraqis worried about their future.

Emerging as a military hero at the Dardanelles in 1915, Mustafa Kemal, better known as Ataturk or "father of the Turks," led the founding of the modern Republic of Turkey in 1923, after the collapse of the 600-year rule of the Ottoman Empire. Following a three-year war of independence, Ataturk led Turkey into the 20th century and modernization, and did so with a firm rule. The only trouble in identifying an Iraqi "Ataturk" is that Saddam's over-inflated megalomaniac ego did not leave room for any Iraqi heroes -- at least not any whose hands are not stained with Iraqi blood.

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