A world we have lost-memories of Saddam Hussein

Leelananda de Silva
It was 28 years ago, in 1975. Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the then Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, was on her way to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting (CHOGM), being held in Kingston, Jamaica. She did not proceed there direct and went through Baghdad, Kuwait and London. I happened to be part of the entourage of the Prime Minister and as such, I had a peep at life at the top. (It was my privilege to have accompanied her on many of these kinds of trips between 1971 and 1977). The others accompanying the Prime Minister to Baghdad on that tour were Ms Sunethra Bandaranaike, the late Mr Tissa Wijeyaratna (who was Additional Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), Mr Gamini Seneviratna (Director of the West Asia Desk in the Foreign Of fice), the late Dr Mackie Ratwatte and if my memory is right, Mr Lucky Kodituwakku, the Security Officer of the Prime Minister. (Unlike my esteemed friend, Mr Dharmasiri Pieris, I failed to keep diaries and have to rely on memory.) Mr Faisal Junaid was Sri Lankan Ambassador in Baghdad at the time.

We were in Baghdad for four days and stayed at the Baghdad Palace, which was then the State guest house. It was a sprawling building, the former Palace of King Faisal, who had been murdered there 17 years before. There were probably two reasons for the Prime Minister’s visit to Baghdad. This was the time when OPEC had sharply increased the price of oil and countries like Sri Lanka were reeling under its impact. This was also a time when there was a world food crisis and food prices were shooting up. Sri Lanka’s foreign currency reserves were at a pretty low ebb. We had to obtain oil, if that was feasible, at concessionary prices. Any attempt to raise the issue of oil prices in the UN (for example, UNCTAD) was anathema to OPEC countries. They were supposed to be friends and this was the last thing they wanted. Until this day, OPEC has been successful in keeping the oil price issue outside the UN. The second reason was that Sri Lanka was hosting the Non-Aligned Summit in Colombo in 1976. Iraq was next in line for the 1979 Non-Aligned Summit. The Iraqis were interested in discussing this issue, as the decision to hold the Non-Aligned Summit in Baghdad had to be confirmed at the Colombo Summit.

Saddam Hussein was then the Vice-President of Iraq, but in reality he was the ruler of Iraq even then. He was the Prime Minister’s host. The President was a mere figurehead. We saw Saddam Hussein several times and what I most remember is the discussion we had with him on the oil question. He had come to the Palace to accompany the Prime Minister for the formal meeting. We were walking to the meeting and the Prime Minister raised with him the issue of concessionary supplies of oil. (This issue had been raised earlier at the level of officials). He said that he would see to it, as to what could be done. The outcome which was announced later was that Iraq was to supply 250,000 tonnes of oil on a four-year deferred payment basis, at a very low rate of interest. This was some kind of a relief. This is probably one of those instances when membership of the Non-Aligned Movement had some practical beneficial result. At the formal Meeting, the Non- Aligned Conference issue was raised and it appeared that Saddam Hussein was looking forward to being Chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1979. It was not to be. The Iran/Iraq War started before that and the venue for the Summit was shifted to Havana. From the interactions the Prime Minister had with Vice-President Saddam Hussein at that time, one got the impression that he was not anti-West. He briefly enquired from the Prime Minister about the Commonwealth Meeting where she was heading. He was not particularly well-informed about that.

The Iraqi Government had organised a trip by air for the Prime Minister and her party to Mosul and Kirkuk. These are cities in the news just now. The Iraqi Government had brought in a distinguished Professor of History to explain to us the historical and archaeological importance of the region (the heart of Babylonian civilisation), where the Tigris and the Euphrates meet. He spoke excellent English and was a superb mentor. Immediately after he finished, the irrepressible Tissa Wijeyaratna took over and expanded on the history of Babylon. The Professor was impressed and told the Prime Minister that he felt rather superfluous there, when in our presence was such an erudite historian. Others knew better; Tissa had imbibed in some detail the brochure which had been given to us earlier and he expanded on the theme based on that scholarly document.

We were to have taken a regular flight to Kuwait. However, Saddam Hussein had ordered a special Iraqi Airforce plane to take the Prime Minister there. Talking to some senior Iraqi officials before the flight, it was clear even at the time that Iraq thought of Kuwait as one of their own provinces, rather than an independent country - shades of the Kuwaiti invasion later on. We had to wait at Kuwait airport for about six hours to catch the British Airways flight to London. I still remember clearly that our reception in Kuwait was extremely cool. I do not think we were welcome guests after the trip to Baghdad. There were hardly any transit facilities for the Prime Minister, although the Kuwaiti authorities had been informed. This was totally unlike the experience we had in 1977, when the Prime Minister went to Japan and came through British-controlled Hong Kong. We were to have a six-hour stop at the airport, but we were taken to the Chief Secretary’s palatial residence for a rest.

From Kuwait, we went to London and on to Kingston, Jamaica. As a postscript to this little memoir of Saddam Hussein, as he now leaves the international stage, the Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting was also an exciting experience. Unlike other Conferences, it is a round-table meeting, with only Heads of Governments present and only two officials sitting behind each of them at any one time. There was only one language (English) and the atmosphere was distinctly informal. Michael Manley, the Prime Minister of Jamaica, chaired the meeting. The week of this meeting was the week that saw the end of the Vietnam War. Many Prime Ministers were on edge and one could see this in Harold Wilson, Prime Minister of the UK and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. Although they were on the same side in the Vietnam War, nerves had frayed and there was an unforgettable clash between the two.

Almost every other Head of Government that was present there has now left the stage. There was Mrs Indira Gandhi, who was staying at the same Hotel Sheraton with Mrs Bandaranaike, of whom we saw a lot. She left the meeting a day early, as a close friend of hers, the daughter of Sarojini Naidu, passed away and she had to attend the funeral. She went back to India and immediately thereafter became involved in the famous invalidation of her election, which led to events which changed the course of India’s contemporary history. Also at the meeting was Mujibur Rahman, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, with his 10-year-old son, both to be the victims of a brutal assassin a few months later. Probably only the Head of t he Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth, who hosted the traditional reception on board the Brittania, is still on the scene.

(The writer was Senior Assistant Secretary and Director of Economic Affairs at the Ministry of Planning & Economic Affairs and was also Secretary of the Economic Committee of the Non-Aligned Summit in Colombo i1n 1976)