This nation redrew the world map Tuesday, erasing Kuwait from the face of the globe and making the former emirate its newest, and clearly its richest, southernmost province.
In a decree from President Saddam Hussein, Iraq spared no effort in removing every reference to the name of the nation that was its southern neighbor for more than a century, officially designating Kuwait as Province 19.
The same decree ordered that the nation’s capital of Kuwait city will now be known as the provincial capital of Kadhima, an ancient Arabic name for the region and the birthplace of Iraq’s greatest poet, Farazdec. And it pushed the boundaries of Basra province south into Kuwaiti territory, creating a new district named for the Iraqi leader himself, Saddamiyat al Mitlaa.
The order formalized Hussein’s statement earlier this month that Iraq was annexing Kuwait, which it invaded Aug. 2. But clearly, there was deeper meaning.
Within hours of Hussein’s order Tuesday, the printing presses were working overtime at the government’s map department, producing hundreds of thousands of copies of his newest blueprint for Iraq’s present and future--the new official map of the Iraqi nation that pictures what was Kuwait shaded in pink in the lower-right corner.
“This is very significant,” said Naji al Hadithi, the urbane and articulate director general of publicity in Iraq’s Ministry of Information and Culture and one of Hussein’s few, selected communicators with the outside world.
“What this means is Kuwait is and always has been part of Iraq. And now, Kuwait has become a part of Iraq forever. This is non-negotiable,” he declared.
Iraq’s longstanding claim to all of Kuwait dates from the time of the Ottoman Empire, which ended during World War I. Kuwait came under British tutelage after the war and was given independence in 1961, despite Iraqi assertions of sovereignty.
The symbolism of the map was as clear and direct as Al Hadithi’s message, and together they reflected a powerful insight into efficiency and bluntness that has come to characterize the Iraqi state during its two decades under Hussein’s ruling Arab Baath Socialist Party.
To the outside world, Iraq may appear as an Orwellian nightmare, but to most Iraqis, it is the only world they know--and it is a world in which personal pride in the power of one’s leader often translates into pride in one’s nation and in oneself. Decrees like Tuesday’s simply reinforce what most already believe.
All that most Iraqis know is what they have learned in Saddam Hussein’s schools, what they have read or heard or seen each day in the government media, and what the map and poster and statue makers believe they should believe.
It is perhaps one of the most tightly controlled societies on Earth, and yet many of the Iraqis themselves say that it is nonetheless a system that works, a system they need.
“It began in 1968 with a serious contradiction in our country, a rich country with a great potential for oil, a great potential for agriculture, a great potential for development,” Al Hadithi said. “But despite all this before the (Baathist) revolution in 1968, if you told somebody you were from Iraq, they’d think only of Iran. You’d say Iraq, he knew something about ‘Arabian Nights.’ You’d say Baghdad, he’d think only of feature films.
“All these positive factors, and yet the Iraqis had no place on the world map. Saddam Hussein was able to solve this contradiction, and Iraq was given the role it should have,” he said.
And today, Iraq is not only on that map, but remakes it in its own image. It makes its own rules, and it fervently resists outside interference of any kind, viewing most foreigners with the same deep suspicion that many Americans now have for Iraqis.
In an interview with The Times on Tuesday, the president’s information minister, Latif Jasim, explained it in a historical context.
“Before the revolution that came in 1968, those who were barefoot were more than those with shoes, and illiteracy of the people was 70%,” Jasim said.
“Everything you see nowadays in Iraq has been realized as a result of Saddam Hussein. You can ask anyone on the street--any shopkeeper, any taxi driver, any women or children--and they will say that President Saddam Hussein is the symbol of the whole country.”
Hussein’s handful of key civilian advisers decided to open Iraq’s doors a crack to the outside world so they could present such insights into the nation whose army is squared off against tens of thousands of American soldiers as part of the multinational force in the Arabian desert.
More than 100 foreign journalists have been permitted entry to Baghdad in the past few days, most of them representing nations whose diplomats and citizens are barred from leaving Baghdad under presidential decree.
Censorship of foreign television broadcasts has been tight, with sensitive pictures or interviews being blocked during government satellite transmissions. But, unlike previous years, newspaper reporters have been free to travel alone throughout the city, interview civilians unhindered and send stories without a hint of censorship.
Though most refused to give their names, the shopkeepers, office workers and street cleaners interviewed in several districts of Baghdad appeared to have no conception of how the outside world views the Iraqi people or their leader.
All remember the crushing poverty and obscurity of Iraq in the 1960s and, even though they now find themselves standing in long lines for bread, sugar and rice--a direct result of sanctions imposed by the United Nations--the lines are orderly and few complain. Food rationing is scheduled to begin on Saturday.
“We are told we must sacrifice, and so we must,” said one man in a sport coat and glasses at the end of one such line this week. “It’s not a question of good or bad. The president is our leader. He has said ‘sacrifice,’ so we sacrifice.”
Another man nearby who asked not to be quoted by name said most Iraqis in Baghdad are proud of Hussein for standing up to the world to protect something they lost scores of years ago.
“Our army is strong,” he said, “and their cause is that of a martyr. This is what we are told on TV. This is what we believe.”
The remarks provided rare insights into a closed culture. Western diplomats based in Baghdad, who all seem to agree that Iraqis are likable and engaging, complain that they are never invited to Iraqi homes, the result of a system one diplomat called “self-policing.”
“It’s not a question of worrying about getting caught doing something wrong,” this diplomat said. “With a party official on every block of the city, they just don’t. They don’t even think about it. So whenever they’re asked, their conscience is clear.”
But there is a basic steel to the Iraqi soul that only hardened during their nation’s eight-year war with Iraq, which left tens of thousands of amputees and as many as 1 million dead from both countries.
“These people are the toughest I’ve ever seen,” said one Asian diplomat who has been based in Baghdad for years. “The war has taught them they can survive anything, and they believe it.
“But there is also their tradition. Three weeks ago, when the sanctions were imposed, an Iraqi told me, ‘We have lived on hummus (a chickpea salad) and dates for centuries. We can live on hummus and dates for a few more years.’ ”
Times staff writer Nick B. Williams Jr., in Manama, Bahrain, contributed to this report.