Iraq in the 1990's
That session, however, highlighted some interesting things that are being done on the history of southern Iraq in what I suppose we can call the late Ba'athist period. Two of the papers focused on the 1991 uprisings in the south. Abbas Kadhim of the Naval Postgraduate school explained a massive oral history project on those events, in which he was himself a participant and which he says are misunderstood even by the best historians who address them. This project is underway but still evolving, and as he plans to make the raw primary source material generally available, it will represent a treasure trove, not only for the Shi'ite uprising, but probably for other matters incidentally related as part of the oral narratives. Charles Brown, a U.S. government official and the panel organizer, also discussed his work with the Open Source Center's transcripts of SCIRI's Voice of Rebellious Iraq concerning those events.
The panel's first paper, by Cornell University's David Siddhartha Patel, primarily focused on the late 1990's, though with a broader historiographic focus which could probably pertain to the entire period under consideration. Patel's major criticism of current understandings of late Ba'athist Iraq are that they focus too much on the regime as the only important actor, with far more attention needing to be paid to the changes which developed from below. What he proposes, and I draw this summary not only from his paper, but also from his responses to questions, is that the central authorities in Baghdad associated with Saddam Hussein lost control of much of the country, in which local officials developed their own informal fiefdoms based on the perception of government authority and access to resources. Because resources became increasingly scarce, those who could access those resources on behalf of clients became important local power brokers. As examples, he mentioned tribal shaykhs whose claim to influence was their ability to get the plastic sheeting necessary for protecting crops and the respect of letters of endorsement from the Sadr movement in accessing facilities at a local level.
What's the takeaway from this? Interesting and important things are starting to happen in our understanding of Iraq in the years between 1991 and 2003, things will may radically reshape our perceptions of what transpired both before and after the U.S. invasion.