Text size

A cartoon published this week by the Egyptian daily Al-Gomhuriya shows a condemned man who, just before his execution, makes one last request: "I'm dying to know what the word `oulouj' means."

He's not the only one. Ever since the Iraqi information minister, Mohammed Said Sahhaf, started using the word to describe the coalition forces in Iraq, everyone has been scrambling to find out what it means.

The word oulouj, which is the plural of ilaj, has a number of definitions. Among other allusions, it is a word used to describe the Crusaders, referring to infidel warriors but also to rude and crude people and to wild asses. It's not a word that is in common daily usage, says an Egyptian journalist, but "right now it is the most widely recognized word in the Arabic language. It is also the word that carries the greatest connotations of derision. People brand their neighbors oulouj, children are starting to use the word to bad-mouth one another, and in general, this looks like an act of genius by Sahhaf, who has succeeded in making an Arabic word a symbol of war."

Sahhaf has long been known for his sharp tongue and his undiplomatic language, and his rhetoric in fact cost him his high post of foreign minister, which he held for nine years, beginning in 1992. In 2001, an Arab summit meeting was held in which the Iraqi delegates failed in their attempt to persuade the member states of the Arab League to accept an unequivocal position vis-a-vis the sanctions that were imposed on Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. Saddam Hussein's son Uday, who owns several Iraqi newspapers and is considered his country's real information minister, was critical of Sahhaf for his performance at the summit and demanded his dismissal. Sahhaf was appointed information minister and was replaced as foreign minister by Naji Sabri.

But during the tenure of Naji Sabri, Iraq's foreign policy continued to be managed by Tariq Aziz, as it had been during Sahhaf's tenure as well. Aziz, the deputy prime minister, is a Catholic whose original name was Michael Yohanna. He served as foreign minister from 1983 to 1991 and was the architect of Iraq's foreign policy with respect to relations with the United Nations and Europe. It was Aziz who first breached the Syrian boycott of Iraq, forging new relations with Damascus in the period of Bashar Assad - relations that, during the war, have become a symbol of inter-Arab loyalty and solidarity.

Aziz resigned as foreign minister when it was discovered that his son, Ziyad, was getting kickbacks and illicit commissions as part of a ring involving businessmen and suppliers who sold merchandise to Iraq. Ziyad ran his commercial enterprise in Jordan, where he also had a female companion - and it was apparently she who conveyed information to Iraqi intelligence about Ziyad's illegal practices. He was tried and sentenced to 22 years in prison.

"In the Mafia, you don't steal from the Don," says a Jordanian journalist who has extensive knowledge of the affair. "Because of the high regard that Saddam Hussein had for Tariq Aziz, Iraqi intelligence officials sent Ziyad several warnings, but he seems to have thought that his father's connections with the authorities would be enough to protect him."

`A tribal person'

This week the only one of the Iraqi leadership who was still on television was Information Minister Sahhaf. All the others - Tariq Aziz, Naji Sabri, Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, deputy chairman of the Revolutionary Council and commander of the northern sector Izzat al-Douri, Ali Hassan al-Majid ("Chemical Ali") - have vanished.

The last appearance of Saddam Hussein, who was shown on the streets of Baghdad kissing a baby and rallying the crowd, also failed to convince Iraqi viewers in Jordan. Where has the Iraqi leadership gone? The usual answer one gets from Arab journalists is that the group is continuing to run the war from bunkers. None of them has left the country and they are all under the close supervision of Saddam Hussein loyalists. Some rumors say that at least some of their families went to Syria even before the hostilities began. According to another rumor, the members of the High Command split up among the various headquarters in order to serve as a form of moral support for those commanders who are continuing to fight. In the meantime, there is no certainty that Majid was in fact killed in the air attack on his house in Basra.

As the stranglehold on the center of Baghdad tightens and discussions about the future of Iraq intensify, theories are also beginning to be propounded about the plan the Saddam regime prepared for the postwar era. "Saddam is a tribal person, loyal to his followers, and we have to assume that he has an organized plan for them in event of a defeat," says a researcher at the University of Amman. The working assumption of the Americans is that they will be able to lay their hands on Saddam, his sons and their aides personally, and place them on trial - if they have not been killed in the war.

"But there could also be another possibility, like the case of Osama bin Laden, who has not been found to this day. I have no doubt that if Saddam remains alive and is not apprehended, or if he was not killed this week by four tons of explosives, he will try to go on managing Iraq's affairs by means of the institutions he established himself."

This refers mainly to the institutions of the Baath Party and to the thousands of officials, engineers, department chiefs, university heads and almost every part of the state that was built and appointed by Saddam.

From interviews given by some of the Iraqi opposition leaders, the indication is, for example, that it will be almost impossible to establish a new regime in Iraq unless the Baath Party officials and others who served in Saddam's apparatus are arrested. One of the major candidates to run the affairs of state, the aged opposition figure Adnan Pachachi, said in a recent interview to the journalist Amir Tahari that he does not rule out cooperation with Nazar Khazraji, a former Iraqi chief of staff, who defected to Denmark. Khazraji, who was under house arrest in Denmark, "disappeared" two weeks ago, and according to various reports, made his way to Hungary, where the American military maintained a training camp for the Iraqi opposition. He then went on to Kuwait, where he apparently is now, awaiting his next position. Beyond the story of Khazraji's defection in 1996, via Jordan, where he was "invited" that year by opposition figures who were supported by the Central Intelligence Agency, there is considerable interest in the information being put out about him now.

As a Saddam loyalist, Khazraji was not only the planner behind Iraq's war against Iran, he also gave the directive to attack the Kurds in Halabja with nerve gas and mustard gas in 1998, ordered the brutal suppression of the Shi'ite revolt in 1991, and is said to have perpetrated a whole series of what human rights organizations term war crimes. That was the reason he was placed under house arrest. However, this "history" is apparently of no interest to his supporters in Washington, or at least to those in the administration who do not back Ahmed Chalabi, the chairman of the Iraqi National Congress, the opposition's umbrella organization.

"It's interesting that people are now suddenly remembering Khazraji's past," says an American diplomat, "and it's also interesting to see who is behind the dissemination of these rumors." The diplomat is alluding to Chalabi, the Pentagon's favorite, but a figure of loathing to the State Department and the CIA.

Khazraji is perhaps the most striking example of what the Jordanian researcher was referring to, but there are many others like him: "Where will they find Iraqi commanders for the Iraqi army? Who will run the government ministries? Who will be the teachers in the schools and kindergartens? Where will the police come from? When Bush and Blair say that it will be up to the Iraqis to administer their country by themselves, they are actually saying that the same bureaucratic apparatus will remain, and that only those who run it may change, and this is an opportunity that may play into Saddam Hussein's hands, if he survives."

Things will not necessarily go according to the American-British plan after the fighting ends. "The establishment of a provisional government in Iraq is a complicated and complex mission in itself," says a member of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Turkey. "But there is something even more difficult than that: to keep such a government alive and bring about the establishment of a permanent government. We saw a new government formed in Afghanistan within a short time, but today it faces economic bankruptcy and the opposition groups are running the country like their private ranches. The tribal chieftains have private armies, and the CIA is managing its own independent life in the country.

"Wherever you look, Iraqi integrity is threatened by vested interests. From the inside, it is still difficult to see a government in which Kurds serve alongside Shi'ites, Sunnis alongside Turkmen and all of them led by a thief [referring to Ahmed Chalabi, who embezzled millions of dollars as the CEO of Petra Bank in Jordan - Z.B.] or a murderer [Nazar Khazraji].

"My government, in Ankara, has also not yet had the last word. It is perhaps the best example of how things can go awry and not follow the plan. Will Turkish forces enter Iraq if the Kurds get control of Mosul and Kirkuk? I don't rule that out. We also have to bear in mind that the governments of Turkey down the years had good relations with Saddam Hussein, and now it looks as though a small coalition, involving Turkey, Iran and Syria, is forming to ensure that what happens in Iraq will not be to their detriment. This is a situation that an Iraqi opposition, which will be formed to the new government, will want to exploit, because in a situation of disorder, there is a better chance for those with vested interests to grab a slice of the pie."

Will Saddam Hussein or his confidants be able to establish such an opposition, if they remain alive? "The infrastructure exists, and there will be many people in Iraq who will not be happy with the new order in the country. Saddam is a genius at manipulation and he apparently also has the wherewithal to finance his ambitions. It doesn't have to happen in the first few months, when all the American power is still in Iraq, but at some stage, the soldiers will start leaving and then the true test will begin. That's why it's so important to get rid of Saddam for good. He is not only a symbol, he is also a danger even when he is not in power."

To get rid of Saddam for good was one of the causes cited for this war, and logic says that it will be realized if it hasn't yet. But given the unlikely situations this war has already generated, and with opposition figures who will serve in official capacities in the new government but who were Saddam loyalists just a few years ago, it's doubtful that anyone today can say for certain that within a fairly short time, we won't see a new information minister in Iraq, whose name is Mohammed Said Sahhaf.