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Iraq: the Long Road Back to Respectability

Mohammad Fadhil Jamali, who died in Tunis on May 24, was one of the last surviving ministers of Iraq's royal regime. His passing leads those of us who lived in Baghdad before the 1958 revolution to reflect on Iraq's troubled past and unpredictable future.

Jamali was one of a generation of Arabs, educated at the American University of Beirut, who, despite differences over Palestine, saw that Arab interests lay in close association with the US and Western Europe. In Western eyes, the period in Iraq under the monarchy from 1922 to 1958 was a positive era for this ancient land, the former Mesopotamia. The king's ministers maintained the country's three divisions - the Kurdish North, the Sunni Arab center, and the Shiite south - in relative balance.

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Oil revenues managed under a professional development board were used to build dams and infrastructure rather than palaces. Except on matters relating to Israel, Iraq's stance on international issues was favorable to the US. Its modified authoritarian regime permitted considerable freedom and elements of democracy.

The regime, however, faced a cynical population conditioned by centuries of external rule by Ottomans and a British mandate. Although the mandate was relatively benign, the Iraqi monarchy, imposed from the outside, was seen by many Iraqis as a continuation of external domination. Suspicion of corruption in the leadership further undermined public support.

The Arab credentials of the regime should have been impeccable. When King Faisal I came to Iraq in 1922, he brought with him veterans of T. E. Lawrence's campaign against the Turks. Fadhil Jamali, himself, assisted in the founding of the Arab League and was a leading spokesman in the UN for the Arab resistance to the founding of Israel. But the more strident messages of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser prevailed with the population. Jamali, although he escaped the violent deaths of King Faisal II and others of the regime, gained no respect for his efforts in the Arab cause but rather the humiliation of a trial and threat of execution. Washington, tragically, never fully appreciated how much its close embrace of Baghdad had increased the regime's vulnerability.

The nearly 40 years since 1958 have seen Iraq continually under the rule of military tyrants. The latest, Saddam Hussein, basing power on harsh security and a tight tribal/family clique, has perpetuated this brutal tradition. His cult of personality has led to grandiose projects, two devastating wars, and misery and deprivation for the population.

The way back for Iraq is hard to perceive. Iraq's neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia, have made clear that they are opposed to any breakup of the country. Yet Saddam and his immediate predecessors have undoubtedly exacerbated the divisions between north, center, and south, making the task of restoring balance among the regions even more difficult for a successor.

Iraq's exiles have been unable to mount any realistic alternative to Saddam. Efforts by the US Central Intelligence Agency to organize opposition in the north of the country were badly bungled. If change takes place in Baghdad, it is most likely to come from within - and possibly from quarters no one can now predict. A successful regime must either show the same capacity for brutal tyranny as Saddam or create a nationalistic appeal that will resonate with all sections. The most logical agent of change would be an element within the Army, but Iraq's military is closely watched and the least evidence of revolt is quickly and brutally squelched.

Fadhil Jamali and his colleagues will be remembered by those who knew them as men who brought a degree of harmony and progress to a troubled land. Their generation cannot be replicated. But it is not vain to hope that others to come may yet rise to restore this fascinating ancient land to a respected place among the nations of the Middle East.

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* David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.

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