News Gerard O'Regan

Thursday 2 October 2014

'Sometimes you have to sup with devil to survive in Middle East'

Published 14/06/2014 | 02:30

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US President Barack Obama delivers a statement on the situation in Iraq. Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
US President Barack Obama delivers a statement on the situation in Iraq. Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

Seven years ago he was judged by many to be "the baddest man on the planet". So it seemed the forces of good finally had their way when the life of Saddam Hussein was ended in a fairly gruesome hanging ceremony.

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He died shortly before dawn having been found guilty on various charges. One related to the death of 100,000 people in northern Iraq – but as is the case with any mass killer the details didn't seem to really matter,

It is nearly impossible for those of us on this side of the world to really comprehend how fickle life can be in parts of the Arab Middle East. We know from our television screens there has been a seemingly endless stream of car bombings in Iraq since the demise of Saddam. Sometimes the numbers dead and maimed are horrific – but when viewed from the comforts of western European living rooms it all seems very far away.

And now the television images tell us once again that Iraq is tumbling into another abyss of bloodshed; the Jihadist group known as Isis is determined to topple the government and is spreading its own brand of terror. There have been reports of beheadings, crucifixions and suicide bombings.

Back in the Barak Obama inner sanctum, there must be a terrible sense of deja vu about all of this. And throughout the US, some of the families of the 4,486 American soldiers who died toppling Saddam and "liberating" Iraq will wonder once again what was the point of the whole exercise?

Much the same can also be said for the kith and kin of the estimated 179 British troops who lost their lives in what one relative described as "a faraway and forgotton war", forcefully supported by Prime Minister Tony Blair at the time.

Apart from the human cost the financing of the conflict was stratospheric; when the last US soldier left Iraq in December 2011 the bill for the US totalled more than two trillion dollars.

Yet whatever the cynics might say about the White House being primarily concerned with securing Middle East oil supplies, there was also a genuine hope that the fall of Saddam would herald a new democratic dawn for the Iraqi people. After all, 116,000 of its civilians had died in the conflict.

Over the past few years there have been some stuttering moments of hope on this front. But the intrinsic problems of this artificially created country – sharply divided along sectarian lines – have proved insurmountable.

This has meant the central government, even in the best of times, has barely been able to maintain law and order. Meanwhile, the culture of the backhander, and corruption in general, in such an oil rich region remains rampant.

It is ironic that this new fanatical faction of fighters, now threatening the very survival of the Iraqi regime, are considered to be too extreme by some of the hard men in al-Qa'ida – the terror organisation suspected of being behind 9/11.

Meanwhile, back in the White House situation room, there are no easy options on the table. Obama ran for office with a pledge to end the war in Iraq and there certainly is no political will for US ground troops to return to the Middle East, particularly to shore up a dodgy regime.

However, Obama is also facing increasing condemnation for allegedly downgrading America's role as "world policeman". But in this instance his options are limited – for example, air strikes against the insurgents carry a risk of high civilian casualties.

Neighbouring Syria remains in turmoil and the pessimists argue that Iraq is steadily heading towards all-out civil war, which will see the country broken up along religious and ethnic lines. The knock-on effects of such a patchwork of instability could affect us all by hitting oil supplies and living standards, both in the US and the EU.

Meanwhile, the remains of Saddam Hussein are entombed in what was once a community centre in his home village. Nearby lie the bodies of his sons who also met a violent end. Reports suggest the number of visitors who want to pay their respects to the one-time psychopathic tyrant is on the increase.

While Iraq plummets into even more instability, some hanker for a time when "one strong leader" was in command, whose viciousness would hold this most put upon country together. It's a price they would pay, just to be allowed stay out of trouble and simply get on with their lives.'

As the Israelis are fond of saying to visiting Irish people who lecture them on their deficiencies: "Things are different out here in the Middle East. It's always a battle for survival. Sometimes you've got to sup with a devil."

Gerard O'Regan

Irish Independent

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