Courtesy Reuters

Iraq-New Power in the Middle East

On the evening of August 8, 1979, immediately after 21 executions that he and his Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) had ordered and witnessed, Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti, President of Iraq, stood on the balcony of the presidential palace in Baghdad, his arms raised in salute. Over 50,000 demonstrators roared their approval and chanted, "Death to the traitors!" As he looked down, Hussein might have contemplated the example of King Sargon II, the Assyrian king and clever military tactician whose battle success is celebrated in 2,500-year-old reliefs from the throne room at Dur-Saharukin, today displayed in the splendid Iraqi Museum. In one, Sargon stands in his chariot reviewing his victorious army, while soldiers build a pile of his enemies' heads in tribute. Not entirely self-assured, the king stands behind a burly bodyguard.

Although he assumed the presidency only last July, Saddam Hussein, a lawyer now 42 years old, had been for years the strongman of the Baathist group that took power in Iraq in 1968. In November 1978, he played a leading role in organizing the Baghdad summit meeting at which Arab heads of state joined forces to condemn the Camp David accords between Egypt, Israel and the United States. A year later, at the second Arab summit in Tunis, he celebrated what he regards as Iraq's succession to Egypt as the preeminent organizing force in the Arab world. Hussein is the first modern Iraqi leader to dream of restoring the power of the ancient Mesopotamian city-states.

A thousand years before Sargon (whose rule collapsed after 16 years in the face of border assaults and internal division), the lessons of ancient political authority had been enunciated by the conqueror Hammurabi. Having "stormed the four quarters of the world," as he put it, Hammurabi dictated his conclusions in the famous code of law and administration, cut into black stone stelae and erected throughout his domain. The lessons reflected in the code were simple: never err in distinguishing between the people of the homeland, with whom you must be predictable and just and

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