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IRAQ: Iraqis pay tribute to a strongman

July 14, 2009 |  1:22 pm

Memories of Abdul Kareem Qasim (right), Iraq’s first leader after the monarchy, were alive today as Iraq celebrated the anniversary of the establishment of the modern Iraqi republic in 1958.

Qasim His supporters view him as a defender of the poor who fought for the state’s rights against the interests of the West. His detractors view him as the first in a series of disastrous would-be strongmen who led Iraq on to the path to instability that culminated in dictator Saddam Hussein.

Qasim was killed by the Baath party in a coup in 1963, bookending his own power grab five years earlier, which ended with his supporters killing King Faisal II. By 1963, Qasim had been undone by his poor relationship with the West, rivalry with Egypt, a Kurdish rebellion in the north and his own crackdowns against opponents.

But today, state television broadcast a documentary, entitled “Supporter of the Poor,” remembering him in a favorable light. The movie showed grainy footage of the tall, lanky army general in uniform, invoking nostalgia for the era before Iraq was plagued by successive wars and upheaval. The timing was interesting given the ongoing debate in Iraqi politics about whether the country needs a strong head of state or whether power should be decentralized and have a series of checks and balances to avoid the emergence of another autocratic ruler like Hussein.

The documentary interviewed people who knew Qasim, all of whom painted the general as modest and generous to the poor. His neighbor Makkai Hamdani says on the program: “He was honorable, sincere, with high dignity and integrity. He was always, in his speeches, repeating that he was poor, living with the poor, living in a poor neighborhood, that he knew their sufferings.”

A friend from the army, Abdullah Hamdani, now with a white mustache and gray hair, portrayed Qasim as a man of the people. “He was having his breakfast in an open restaurant together with the poor people, daily laborers and soldiers,” Hamdani said. “He was visiting the bakeries and asking the owners to make the loaves of bread bigger."

A lawmaker from Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr’s movement praised Qasim’s legacy. "We must consider him a good example for politicians and leaders in the government,” said lawmaker Felah Hasan Shanshal. “Each official in the current state of Iraq should review what this man has done for Iraq.” Chiding today's political class, he noted how Qasim lived humbly and built affordable housing for the poor.

-- Raheem Salman and Ned Parker in Baghdad

Photo: Abdul Kareem Qasim. Credit: Wikimedia Commons