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Analysis: Tracing The History Of Iraq From Its Earliest Days Of Civilization To The Present

History and Culture of Iraq


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

All of us studied about Mesopotamia in grade school. The word is Greek; it means `the land between two rivers,' in this case, the Tigris and the Euphrates. Today, that land is known as Iraq. There is a great deal of news about Iraq these days, and later in the program, we'll bring you up to date on the latest developments at the United Nations in New York and on Capitol Hill here in Washington.

But first, a conversation on the history, culture, religion, literature and the politics of Iraq. If you were born in Iraq, if you've lived there or traveled there, we'd like to hear your impressions. What was special or peculiar to this Islamic secular nation?

Our phone number is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is

How was Iraq created? Who have been its rulers? What ethnic groups live there? What languages are spoken, and what's every day like? And how did Saddam Hussein rise to power?

Joining us now on the line from New York is David Fromkin. He's the author of "A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East." He's a professor at Boston University.

And welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Professor PETER FROMKIN (Boston University): Thank you.

CONAN: We're going to try to conduct our conversation more or less along chronological lines, and while our primary interest is in the 20th century, Professor, can you remind us of the enormous contributions to civilization of the Sumerians?

Prof. FROMKIN: It was the Sumerians who invented civilization. They came to the southern part of the land we now call Iraq. We don't know who they were or where they came from. Their language group is not one that we recognize from any other. Whoever they were, they were immensely talented. We know what they looked like and what they dressed like, and they looked very much like people there do today, and they dress very much like the way we dress and they ate and drank pretty much the same things that we do.

Their enormous skill was their ability to deal with the rivers, the rivers and irrigation. They found soil there that was immensely rich because it was the accumulation of hundreds of years of silting. The rivers were unpredictable, so it took great skill and complexity on their part to devise systems for dealing with the water, and out of that society grew the world's first civilization, civilization in the sense that it had cities, it had towns, it had villages. It had all sorts of agriculture. It had division of labor.

It was able to create an enormous agricultural surplus because of the soil they had learned to deal with, and that, in turn, enabled them to initiate trade, and they became wealthy and they invented so many things. Some people think they invented the wheel. But the most--from my point of view as an historian--the most important thing they invented was writing, and because people could write, history began.

CONAN: How or where are people in modern Iraq of this ancient legacy? Is this a part of modern culture?

Prof. FROMKIN: That's something I really can't speak to. I don't know. I doubt it very much, though.

CONAN: OK. Well, for those of us whose knowledge of Mesopotamia may have ended more or less where it began back in eighth-grade social studies class, if we move to the 20th century, can you tell us when and how modern-day Iraq was created?

Prof. FROMKIN: Yes. What we call Iraq today was ruled, as was the rest of the Arab Middle East, by the Turkish-speaking Ottoman Empire, and the Ottoman Empire ruled for centuries until 1914, when the First World War broke out. For not very good reasons, the Ottoman Empire decided to join in that war, and threw in their lot with Germany. They lost. Great Britain, in negotiation with her allies, won that war. Great Britain, at the end of the war, had an army of a bit more than a million men in the Arab Middle East, and Britain, therefore, drew the new map of the Middle East. The old one was a blank.

The Ottoman Empire collapsed in the war. There was now this enormous blank map to be filled in with lines for frontiers and states. And in the course of that decision-making, the British decided to take three Ottoman provinces and--Basra, Baghdad and Mosul--and put them together and call them one country. They'd never been one country before, but the British created them as one country for reasons that suited the British and their allies.

CONAN: Where did the word `Iraq' come from?

Prof. FROMKIN: It means something like, `well-rooted,' in Arabic; in other words, ancient, a thing with ancient roots, and that is a reference, of course, to the origins of civilization there in Sumer.

CONAN: Now again, to some degree, did a popular culture--a lot of us are aware of the Arab revolt--Lawrence of Arabia and all of that--were the promises made to the Arabs as part of the Arab revolt--did that play a part in the post-war re-creation of the Middle East?

Prof. FROMKIN: It's a matter of controversy among scholars as to whether the British actually did make any promises, any binding promises to the Arabs. I myself think they did not, but others disagree. There is no doubt, however, that a number of the currents that make for today's Iraq and its problems and all date from that period because lots of things were going on.

Yes, the British, having decided, during the First World War, that the Moslem world, on religious grounds, was going to fight against them, decided to try to develop some native force, as it were, that would be on their side, and their notion was to sponsor Arab nationalism as vs. the Muslim religion. Now as it turned out, that is, indeed, a split within the Arab world--religious-oriented Iran as vs. secular-controlled Iraq now. And there is, of course, the split between the religion that Iran has, the Shiite religion, and--but the fact is that the nationalists turned out to be as anti-British as the Muslim religious leaders were, so in effect, that didn't help, but it did start one of the great discords, as it were, within the Arab world, the religious approach vs. the secular approach.

CONAN: Now the British, after they created Iraq after the First World War, who did they install as its head?

Prof. FROMKIN: They installed as its head Faisal, the son of Sharif Hussein, the guardian of the holy places of Mecca and Medina. Faisal had fought on the British side of the war. He was of the relatively small minority that did. He was also someone who was willing to work with the British. Faisal had been promised, or thought he had been promised, by some British representatives, the throne of Syria, and the British did their best to install him in it, and he did, indeed, go to Syria as king. But the French, to whom Syria-Lebanon were allotted by the peace conference, threw him out, and there was apparently nothing for him to do.

He was in exile when the British came up against the problem of unrest in what is now Iraq, because in 1921 and '22, the British, having demobilized their forces, there was disorder and there were tribal raids. People still aren't quite sure what it was all about. It may have been about not wanting to pay taxes. But in any event, the British found it difficult to restore order and felt that they needed some native figure whom they could put on the throne.

CONAN: Well, Faisal wasn't an Iraqi.

Prof. FROMKIN: No, he wasn't, but at that time--well, first, remember there was no Iraq then. There had not been. There was still these three provinces the British were--they were putting them together and putting Faisal on the throne at the same time. And at the time, there were those who spoke of an Arab nation, not nation-state divided as we are in the rest of the world. And if you are following that definition--I mean, if you say there is an Arab nation, then this was one of the pieces of the Arab nation and there was no reason why Faisal shouldn't have it.

In any event, the British organized a referendum in the country as to whether they wanted him as their king. Not surprisingly, the way the election was conducted, Faisal won, and he was installed and legitimized by a League of Nations so-called mandate, or trusteeship, which entrusted England with the task of guiding Iraq to independence.

These are three groups, once again, are three provinces that were quite different. You had the Kurds in the north, you had the Sunnis in the middle and you had a Shiite population in the south, and the great metropolis that they had, such as it was, was Baghdad, a predominantly Jewish city. So you had quite different groups of people, and the British were undertaking to make one country out of it in large part because of yet a new factor in world politics which had really just come to the fore, and that was oil. They wanted to create a system that would protect the exploitation by Western companies of the oil of Mesopotamia, which is now Iraq.

CONAN: Well, Faisal, the first king, was also the first to be overthrown.

Prof. FROMKIN: It wasn't that Faisal. It was his grandson.

CONAN: Aha! So the dynasty lasted a couple of generations.

Prof. FROMKIN: Yes. Again, it's slightly misleading because Faisal's son died at a very, very young age, had barely had time to--I mean, his reign was a very brief one, indeed. And searching my mind for people's ages--but the Faisal who was overthrown was very young, indeed, and was, in fact, underage, one would say. There was a regent for him.

CONAN: OK. Now how does all of this tie to the present situation today?

Prof. FROMKIN: Well, first, many of the forces that were unleashed at that time are still there. The secular nationalism vs. religion, the Sunni vs. the Shiite, and the long-standing conflicts between the people who live in Iran and the many peoples who lived and flourished in Iraq, lots of these things are there. But what I think is probably most important to think about in today's conflict is that Iraq, though it's 80 years old, was, in its origin, an artificial state. One could make an argument--should they lose another war--one could make an argument that perhaps they ought to be broken up into their separate and more coherent parts.

CONAN: For our listeners who might want to learn more about the history of Iraq, are there some books you might recommend?

Prof. FROMKIN: Yes. Fouad Ajami's "The Dream Palace of the Arabs," J.D. Kelly's book, "Arabia, the Gulf and the West"--very strong on the oil things--and for the origins of Iraq, a good biography such as that by H.V.F. Winstone of Gertrude Bell, the extraordinary English lady who, in large part, created the modern state of Iraq.

CONAN: Well, we'll find out--that's quite an interesting story, too. We'll put those titles on our Web site, so if you didn't grab a pencil in time to scribble down the names and the authors, you can look them up later at on the TALK OF THE NATION page.

David Fromkin, it's very good of you to spend some time with us this afternoon.

Prof. FROMKIN: Thank you.

CONAN: David Fromkin is author of "A Peace to End All Peace," a professor at Boston University, and he spoke to us from his home in Manhattan.

When we return from a short break, more about Iraq's more recent history, and a sample of some of the poetry. We'll take more of your calls, too: (800) 989-TALK. That's (800) 989-8255. The e-mail address, It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking about the history, culture, religion and the government of Iraq from its creation to the present. Have you ever visited there? What impressed you? Call us with your stories and your questions: (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. Or send us

And let's go to Bob, who joins us on the line from Minneapolis.

BOB (Caller): Thank you. I spent just six months there, roughly six months, stamping passports and issuing visas, but a rather prominent gentleman was our first secretary, political officer, a gentleman named Herman Iles(ph). I'm sure your guest is familiar with him.

CONAN: This is some time ago.

BOB: In the mid-50s.

CONAN: In the 19--so 50 years ago.

BOB: Roughly, yes. But I had some questions about Iraq. First, your introduction concerns the Sumerians. I wonder if any of the Sumerians remain among the Marsh Arabs, or has Saddam extinguished them?

CONAN: Well, let us get somebody on the line with us who is more expert than I am and who may be able to answer some of these questions. Joining us now from member station WAMU here in Washington is Edmund Ghareeb, a distinguished professor at the School of International Service at American University, co-author of "War in the Gulf, 1990-91: The Iraq-Kuwait Conflict and Its Implications."

Edmund Ghareeb, it's nice to have you back on the program.

Professor EDMUND GHAREEB (American University): Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be with you.

CONAN: Can you answer Bob's question?

Prof. GHAREEB: Yes. I mean, the Sumerians as a distinct people, as a community, no longer survive, but there's no doubt that there is Sumerian people mixed along with other peoples who had moved into Iraq, invaded Iraq--with the Arcadians, with the Babylonians, with the Syrians--and the Iraqi people are the descendants of all the peoples who lived in Iraq since time immemorial.

CONAN: He was asking specifically about the Marsh Arabs, who lived in the very wet, reedy places at the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Are they still existing, or, as he asked, have they been extinguished?

Prof. GHAREEB: The Marsh Arabs are still there, although the area where they used to live has been reduced in size a great deal, partly as a result of the Iran-Iraq war, as a result of the fighting, the destruction of much of the area, and also in part as a result of the diversion of water to irrigate other parts of Iraq. And there was a plan in the '50s, which was drawn by British and American engineers to divert water from the Tigris and the Euphrates, from Shat al-Arab, away from the marshes, and that has affected that area.


BOB: Can I ask another question?

CONAN: One more, sure. Go ahead.

BOB: Yes. Concerning the holy cities, the Shia holy cities, Abbas, Hussainiyah, Najaf and Karbala--what will become of them if there is conflict? Has Hussein generally made them into secular places, or are they still Shia holy cities?

Prof. GHAREEB: They are--especially the shrines, they are still Shiite holy shrines, holy cities to the Shia from all over the world. Najaf and Karbala are very important cities in the history of Shiism, and while there was, however, during the 1991 uprising, there was a great deal of damage to some of the shrines, particularly in Karbala, but these have been rebuilt, in fact, by the central government.

BOB: And a third question.

CONAN: Last one.

BOB: Concerning the north, Barzani's section of the...


BOB: ...of the north.

CONAN: Of Kurdistan, yes.

BOB: Of Kurdistan, yes. The Mosul oil fields should be part of Turkey. This was the Mosul province of Turkey, but the British needed the oil. That's my view of how Iraq was organized, with the Mosul, Baghdad and Basra provinces. But Barzani is a very venal fellow. Is he dealing both with Ankara and with Baghdad to make sure he siphons off as much money as he can, as the illegal oil moves from Mosul to Turkey?

CONAN: Just to say that Mr. Barzani is the head of the Kurdish Democratic Party, one of the two big parties in Kurdistan, and controls roughly half of the Kurdish area, but Edmund Ghareeb, why don't you go ahead?

Prof. GHAREEB: Yes. First of all, I'm not so sure I'd buy the idea that Mosul belongs to Turkey. Mosul, in fact, historically has been an area that's inhabited mostly--the old Mosul province--by Arabs, by Turkoman, and also by large numbers of Kurds, Christians, Assyrians and Chaldeans. So I do not know why Bob would say that it belongs to Turkey. Turkey made a claim on part of the Mosul province, since it was part of the Ottoman Empire, and in fact, there was an agreement that was ultimately reached in 1926 under the League of Nations which said that Mosul belongs to Iraq, and ultimately the state was formed, as we've heard, from these three provinces.

But there's no doubt, however, Bob was correct when he thought that oil was a factor, because originally, the Mosul province was supposed to go to the French mandate, to the area under French mandate, which was Lebanon, Syria and it would have been Mosul, but since the British were interested in oil, they wanted Mosul to be part of Iraq, the area under their control.

And one other point I want--if I may, I would like to mention...

CONAN: Sure.

Prof. GHAREEB: that Iraq has existed historically as a distinct entity during certain periods within more or less its present boundaries, and there were periods, however, when it was also the heart of a much larger empire, and it was also a core, or a small part, of larger empires that were ruled from other places at other times, so it's very difficult to really say that it did not exist. But historically, there are also borders that existed, physical borders to a certain extent, because in the north, you have the mountains, and to the west and south you have the desert, and these sort of form natural barriers as well.

CONAN: Well, Bob, thanks very much for the call.

We were talking earlier with David Fromkin about the first leader of modern-day Iraq, King Faisal, and since his grandson, I guess, the government has been overthrown something like 23 times over the past 80 years. Just in a broad question, why such instability?

Prof. GHAREEB: I think that Iraq, because of the composition of the population--Iraq is one of the most unique countries in the region and the world in terms of its ethnic and religious makeup. It's also because it's, in part, a legacy of foreign rule over that area, first by the Ottomans. Iraq--one of the things that we have to remember--for a long time became an arena for fighting between the two large Muslim empires in the Middle East at that time. You had the Safavid Shiite Iranian empire in Iran, and you had the Ottoman Sunni empire in what's today Turkey and much of the Middle East. And the two fought for control over the Islamic world, and certainly Iraq was an important arena, and that became a source of tension.

Then when the British came, that was an additional factor because the British tried to impose their own will and their interests upon the population, which rejected them. As we heard from Professor Fromkin, the Islamists first opposed the British, and later on, the nationalists opposed them as well, and the British used a policy of divide and rule in order to continue to dominate the country that ultimately contributed to the 1958 revolution.

And in addition to that--and maybe this is something we can get into a little bit later--is the question of the ethnic mix of the country. One interesting thing is that when King Faisal came to Iraq, he asked--Faisal the First--he asked some of his advisers to write memos to him on how to deal with the Iraqi population, and each one did. But he ultimately, himself, wrote one in which he said, `Unfortunately, in Iraq, what I see is that I see Shiites, I see Sunnis, I see Kurds, I see young nationalists, I see tribal chiefs, I see Jews, I see Christians, I see Azeris. I see different ethnic groups, and each one of them sort of--either they want to rise to the top and control the country, some of them, or they are not willing to see themselves as a part of the larger whole.' He said, `Unfortunately, I do not yet see in Iraq an Iraqi people.' And to a certain extent, there is an element of truth in that.

CONAN: Joining us now on the line from London is Simon Henderson. He's written a biography of Saddam Hussein called "Instant Empire: Saddam Hussein's Ambition for Iraq."

And, Simon Henderson, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. SIMON HENDERSON (Author, "Instant Empire: Saddam Hussein's Ambition for Iraq"): Hello.

CONAN: Obviously, no conversation about Iraq could exclude the man who's been running the country now for some 20 years. Give us, if you would, a sense of who this man is, when he was born, what his childhood was like.

Mr. HENDERSON: Well, this is reasonably well chronicled, but it's not terribly clear how much is truth and how much is myth. But to an extent, that doesn't really matter because if the truth has been twisted into myth, it's the myth we're living with now. He was born in 1937, and so one of the formative experiences in his early childhood, which he probably didn't realize about at the time, was the attempt by an Iraqi nationalist army officer in 1941 when there was already a war between the British, who were in control of Iraq at the time, and Germany. And there was an attempted coup by this officer called Rashid Ali, and this was put down--Rashid Ali was pro-German. I think it's arguable whether he was pro-Nazi, but he was anti-British.

Saddam Hussein was four years old at the time. He subsequently said it was a formative experience in this life. I don't think we need to say he couldn't have done--he was only four years old, but I would imagine as he grew up, he was told about this and how unfair it was that the British were there and how brave Rashid Ali had been to try and seek independence from the British. And so this was him in his early years. When he's slightly older, at the age of 21 in 1958, this was when the monarchy was overthrown. And it's not terribly clear whether Saddam had a direct role in this. I think not. He was merely a bystander. But this started at the time when he became a political activist in the Ba'ath Party, obviously, another very formative experience.

CONAN: Well, let's turn to Edmund Ghareeb there. Tell us a little bit about the Ba'ath Party, its origins and what it aimed to do.

Prof. GHAREEB: The Ba'ath Party is a unique party in the Middle East. It was born not in Iraq, actually, but in Syria. It was founded by two teachers who were educated in France at the Sorbonne. One is a Christian Syrian. The other one is a Muslim Sunni Syrian. The two believed that--were nationalists. They were very much opposed to the domination and control of the region by the British and by the French. They were very much opposed to the idea of the division of the Middle East by these two powers in accordance with the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and they were very much determined to try to modernize the Arab world and to unite the Arab world. This was, in fact, the message of the Ba'ath leaders. They emphasized unity, freedom, Arab freedom, Arab unity, and also, they advocated a mild form of socialism.

So basically, the party was formed initially in Syria. It attracted some students, some teachers from among the Palestinians, a few Lebanese, Jordanians and a few Iraqis. Actually, the speaker of the Iraqi parliament today, Saadoun Hammadi, who comes from the city of Karbala, a Shiite city in southern Iraq, was actually one of the early founders of the Ba'ath Party, and he went back to his city of Karbala and founded a cell in Iraq. The Ba'ath Party was very tiny. It began to operate in Iraq in the '50s, and they played an important role during the latter part of the '50s and ultimately contributed to overthrow a prime minister of Kassem. And then they seized power in 1963. They were ousted very quickly, and that was also a formative period because that was one of the periods when they were determined after that that if they ever come back to power, they were not going to be pushed out again. And in 1968, they launched a coup which was led by Bakr, who was assisted by Saddam Hussein, and they came to power and they have been in power ever since.

CONAN: We're speaking with Edmund Ghareeb from American University. Also on the line with us from London is Simon Henderson, author of "Instant Empire: Saddam Hussein's Ambition for Iraq." And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get a listener involved. Barbara joins us now on the line from Kansas City.

BARBARA (Caller): Yes. My husband and I lived in Iraq '88 to '90, and I thought I'd just share a couple of experiences. One was that we would often--I always wore a cross when we were in Baghdad, and we would have people sometimes that were working in our house or in other places kind of pull me aside and say, `I'm a Christian, too.' They wanted to share that. We know certainly under the dictatorship that there was a lot of struggle going on for the people. There was a lot of hardship, and the people are suffering a lot. But they would often say, `Well, my cousin is in Detroit,' or `I love Americans.' And we found that in 1990, we saw on the news when all of the difficulties started right before the Gulf War that we could see some English-speaking friends of ours that were pulled forward, and they would be marching and have signs, and the news would interview them, and they'd say, `We hate Americans,' when I knew they really didn't, but they had teen-age sons and they didn't want them sent to the front line. So often, the marchers that Americans see on the television are being--they don't know what they're marching for. They sometimes can't read the signs. But they get free food or they get paid, and they're just told to get on the bus. And if they don't mind, if they don't follow the instructions of a few of the leaders, sometimes their sons are sent to the front line or sometimes they're executed.

CONAN: When did you leave, Barbara?

BARBARA: We left in 1990 before...

CONAN: Just before.

BARBARA: We were there between the wars, if you will.

CONAN: I see. OK. Thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

BARBARA: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Simon Henderson, as we're talking about that period, Saddam Hussein--we were talking about the time he came to power. Did he always have a vision for Iraq? He's always spoken about having a sense of Iraqi history and his place in it.

Mr. HENDERSON: Yes. It's hard to tell when he got a grand vision, but I think he did think he had a vision and a role. And he actually achieved power at a comparatively young age. After all, when Bakr was the leader of the coup which seized power in 1968, Saddam was 31. Bakr chose Saddam as his chief lieutenant, his number two. And within a matter of weeks or months, it became clear that the real force at the time was Saddam. And at that time, I'm told by friends who lived in Baghdad, Saddam often used to sort of wander around the streets without any bodyguard or hardly a bodyguard and sort of chatting to people, feeling the pulse of the nation, but also, beginning to build up his own ego. Now this seems to me that he--so he did have the sense that he was a particular Iraqi, had a particularly--challenge for he, himself, to rule Iraq. And I think this is one of the contributory factors which has made him so ruthless, but he didn't want political opposition which might affect this destiny. So, in fact, although he's been ruthless and terrible to a whole range of Iraqis--in fact, some of the ones which he's been most ruthless to were the other political activists around about him who he saw as rivals.

CONAN: Edmund Ghareeb, Mr. Henderson mentioned Saddam Hussein's ego. It brings to mind the phrase `cult of personality.'

Prof. GHAREEB: There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein is a leader who believes he has a unique role to play and not only in Iraq, but also in the Arab world and in the region as a whole. Saddam Hussein, in fact, has helped transform Iraq; in some ways, in very positive ways, but in other ways, in very, very negative ways. Saddam Hussein embarked on a program to eradicate illiteracy in the country, to build hospitals, schools, universities in Iraq. He's played, especially in the early period, a very important role in liberating women and establishing a secular government. At the same time, he also was a very ruthless, very brutal authoritarian leader who did not brook any opposition and crushed any attempt to unseat him and move him out of power.

CONAN: We have to say goodbye now to Simon Henderson. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. HENDERSON: Thank you. Goodbye.

CONAN: Simon Henderson, a former journalist for The Financial Times. His book is "Instant Empire: Saddam Hussein's Ambition for Iraq." We spoke to him from his home in London.

We'll have more with Edmund Ghareeb and the history of Iraq when we come back from a short break. (800) 989-8255. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Tomorrow, Ira Flatow talks with the director of the National Institutes of Health, Ilias Zerhoui is--excuse me, Elias Zerhouni. That's on the next "Science Friday."

Today we are talking about Iraq. In a few minutes, we're going to bring you an update on the latest developments at the United Nations and here in Washington on Capitol Hill. But right now, on the line with us from the studios of WAMU in Washington is Edmund Ghareeb, a professor at the School of International Service at American University.

And let's go right to the phones. Our next caller is David, who's in his car in Falls Church, Virginia.

DAVID (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hello.

DAVID: Thanks for the chance to be on the air.

CONAN: Sure.

DAVID: I lived in Baghdad for two years, 1988 to 1990, and one memory I have that's most striking was the extraordinary level of brutality that permeated Iraqi society, thanks to Saddam Hussein. For example, it was customary that if someone criticized the government, the penalty was, of course, death. And I spoke with the legal adviser to the American Embassy about this matter, and he modified that a little bit. He said, `Look, if it's an ordinary farmer, a fellaheen or something, we simply beat him badly for about six months and let him go. But if he has any position of power, then he is executed. And if he's prominent enough, we'll also execute innocent members of his family.'

Just a question I have is this. This tradition of brutality seems to have been around for a long time in Baghdad, and I go back to the days when, for example, King Faisal's family was butchered and what happened to Kassem later on. Can you give any explanation for why this happened? And I'll take my answer off air.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, David. Before you go, David, what were you doing there?

DAVID: I was in the American Embassy.

CONAN: OK. Edmund Ghareeb.

Prof. GHAREEB: Well, I think there's no doubt that in Iraqi history, there's been a tradition sometimes of the harshness, but this is something that's not unique to the Iraqis or to the Iraqi population. If you take a look, for example, how the Ottoman Empire ruled or how some of the shahs ruled in the region, there has been a tradition, to a certain extent, of putting down opposition with ruthlessness. But at the same time, I think it's also important to remember that what we saw in Iraq in the modern period is that there was a great deal of tension--societal tension, ethnic tension, political tension, ideological tensions...

CONAN: And `ideological tension' seems to be the cue word. We seem to have lost our line to WAMU, where Edmund Ghareeb is. And, well, we were planning to keep him on the line with us for just a couple of minutes more, and we apologize for losing him so abruptly, and we thank him very much for his time. Edmund Ghareeb, a distinguished professor at the School of International Service at American University, co-author of the book, "The War In The Gulf, 1990-91: The Iraq-Kuwait Conflict and Its Implications." And again, his name was Edmund Ghareeb.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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