Saddam: A bloody trail about to end
Cunning and ruthlessness brought him to power. Now he is almost certain to face the death penalty. JONATHON GATEHOUSE on the incredible, twisted and brutal career of one of the world's worst despots.
Saddam Hussein knows how he wants to die. Blindfolded, tied to a post before a firing squad, perhaps with the stub of one last Cuban cigar clenched between his teeth. The clichéd end of B-movie heroes and Third World tyrants. And a finish that speaks to his deepest insecurities.
Iraq’s former dictator has always been touchy about the trappings of power and privilege. Even now, in prison and the courtroom dock, he and his co-defendants insist on calling each other by their former titles. For Saddam, it’s usually “Mr. President,” but there are literally dozens of other options, ranging from the grandiosely bureaucratic “Chairman of the Supreme Planning Council” to the flowery “Knight of the Arab Nation.” The one that seems to be most important to him these days, however, is “Field Marshal,” the rank he gave himself when he officially took over the country in 1978. For despite his fondness for uniforms, medals and weapons, Saddam Hussein was never really a soldier. As a young man in the 1950s, his application to Baghdad’s Military Academy was rejected because of his poor marks—a slight that has rankled him all of his life, and may yet mock him in death.
By Iraqi tradition, a quick, clean execution by gunfire is reserved only for military criminals. Ordinary thieves, rapists and murderers get the indignity of the hangman’s noose. In the months that Saddam has been on trialfirst for the execution of 148 villagers in Dujail following a 1982 assassination attempt, now for a 1988 campaign of poison gas attacks and massacres that killed an estimated 180,000 in the Kurdish north—the former president has treated the proceedings like a game. He refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the Iraqi High Tribunal, dismissing it as a court of occupation “not worth the urine of an Iraqi child.” He sneers and shouts at the judges, lawyers and witnesses, frequently walks out, or refuses to attend at all. There have been lengthy hunger strikes, and innumerable smaller acts of defiance. In late July, however, the day before his first trial ended, Saddam Hussein had a small moment of clarity. In between windy bursts of scorn for his captors, he stood before the judges who will deliver their verdict on Nov. 5—surely a death sentence— and begged for one last favour. “I ask you, being an Iraqi person, that if you reach a verdict of death, execution, remember that I am a military man and should be killed by firing squad and not by hanging as a common criminal.” The Butcher of Baghdad, the strongman who terrorized millions, sparked three major wars, and helped set the Middle East aflame, needn’t worry. Regardless of how he dies, history will never confuse him with a common criminal.
The lies, myths and legends start on the day of his birth. Officially, Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti was born April 28,1937, in a mud hut in the impoverished farming village of al-Awja, near Tikrit. (In 1980, Iraq’s dictator made the date a national holiday, marked each successive year by ever more elaborate parades, pageants and celebrations.) But the government of the day wasn’t overly concerned about registering the offspring of illiterate peasants, and the evidence suggests Saddam wasn’t born that year, let alone that date. As he rose to power, he copied the day from Abdul Karim alShaikhly, a friend and fellow Baathist he once called his twin, and whom he had shot dead in front of his pregnant wife in 1980. Saddam’s birth year was backdated, probably from 1939, to lend him gravitas as he gained public stature, or to make his marriage to his first wife (and first cousin) Sajida—born in 1937more socially acceptable. (It’s rare for an Iraqi man to marry a woman who is his senior.)
The tales about Saddam’s early life are equally suspect. Depending on whom you believe, his father Hussein al-Majid was either dead by the time of his birth—killed by bandits, according to one version—or had abandoned his family. Subha, his mother, was a fortune teller. During the run-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion, an Israeli biographer, Amatzia Baram, uncovered the story of a Jewish family of Iraqi origin who claim they saved the life of the unborn dictator. Depressed after her husband’s death from cancer, and the sudden loss of another child to a brain tumour, the heavily pregnant Subha tried to throw herself under a bus, and later beat her belly against a door. The Jewish family, friends from Tikrit, intervened on both occasions and nursed her back to health. Months later, Saddam emerged unscathed and grew to be “both the best-looking and brightest” child in the village, they recalled.
Most sources agree that Saddam spent his first years in the care of a maternal uncle. His mother eventually found a new husband, Hassan al-Ibrahim, known locally as “Hassan the liar” for having once falsely claimed to have made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Saddam returned to live with them, but even by his own admission those were not happy times.
He once told an interviewer that his stepfather would drag him out of bed at dawn, screaming, “Get up, you son of a whore, and look after the sheep!” There are stories that Hassan used to beat him with an asphaltcovered stick, and forced the boy to steal chickens and other livestock for resale. Whatever the truth, when Subha died in 1982, Saddam built an elaborate mausoleum for her in Tikrit, dubbing her the “Mother of all Militants.” No such tribute exists for Hassan.
Almost all of the accounts of his early years offer glimpses—or more frequently dubious rumours— of a monster in the making. In Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography, authors Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi pass on a claim from exile groups that the future dictator used to while away childhood hours by heating iron bars in a fire and then impaling small animals with the red-hot pokers. Other books quote unnamed friends recalling how the young Saddam used to fish the Tigris with dynamite. And once he became Iraq’s strongman, Saddam wasn’t averse to spreading legends about his own precocious thuggery. In his 19-volume official biography—which was once mandatory reading for government officials—he claims to have received his first pistol at the age of 10, and to have used it shortly thereafter in a failed attempt to get even with a teacher who had beaten him at school.
At 12, Saddam moved to Baghdad to live with his uncle Khairallah Tulfah, and continue his education. Khairallah, a strong Iraqi nationalist and former army officer, was the biggest influence on Saddam’s formative years. (The bond only strengthened later on— Sajida is his daughter.) He spent much of the Second World War in a jail cell after joining a failed uprising aimed at kicking British troops out of the country and inviting the Germans to take their place. (Khairallah’s Nazi sympathies ran deep: in the early 1980s Saddam published one of his uncle’s screeds as a tribute. It was entitled Three Whom God Should Not Have Created: Persians, Jews and Flies.) The picture of the future dictator’s teenage years is murky. He went to high school in Kharkh, a working-class neighbourhood populated by Sunnis and Shias. Classmates remember him as a bright but indifferent student. During those years, Saddam reportedly spent much of his time peddling cigarettes, newspapers and candy on the streets of downtown Baghdad to earn his keep. Karsh and Rautsi tell the story of another Jewish Iraqi, Nahm Tawina, who was jailed as a “Zionist spy” by the Baathist regime in the early 1970s. One day as Tawina was standing in a torture room, waiting for the beatings to begin, Saddam walked in and glanced at his face. “Do not touch this man,” he ordered. “He is a good man. I know him. Let him go.” Once freed, Tawina left the country, but it took him many years to figure out to what he owed his good fortune. He came across a picture of a young Saddam and realized that the mustachioed tyrant was the teenager he used to buy cigarettes from, and always tipped handsomely.
‘I am a military person and should be killed by firing squad, and not by hanging as a common criminal’
His stepfather was known locally as 'Hassan the liar.' His uncle raised him, and directed his first murder.
It was Khairallah, by then a school principal, who introduced his nephew to plotting and violent politics—Iraq’s national pastime. (After gaining independence from Britain in 1932, Iraq had 12 governments in its first half-dozen years. Between 1936 and 1941 there were seven coup d’états.) By the mid1950s, Khairallah’s hardline nationalism had found a home in the nascent Baath (Arabic for renaissance) party—a socialist movement that called for a single, unified Arab state. Their vision of brotherhood was always rather limited, however. And Saddam’s first murder—a Communist party official—came under his uncle’s tutelage. In 1958, Khairallah was promoted to director of education for Baghdad, but lost the position a few months later when the Communist, a rival in Tikrit, told authorities about his controversial past. Saddam travelled home to avenge the family honour and ambushed the man on the street one night, shooting him in the head. Both he and his uncle were arrested, but a court freed them six months later for lack of evidence.
By the time he hit his 20s, Saddam had built a reputation within the Baath party as a useful, if not particularly clever, errand boy, especially when the job called for a heavier touch. A bloody military coup had permanently put an end to the country’s monarchy injuly 1958, with the king and all his extended family members machined-gunned to death in the courtyard of their Baghdad palace. The Baathists, then just one of many small competing nationalist groups, initially supported the new government. But when the junta’s leader, Gen. Abdul Karim Qassem, formed an alliance with their archrivals, the Iraqi Communist party, and began purging political foes, the honeymoon ended abruptly. Prominent Baathists hatched a plan to murder Qassem as he drove home from a diplomatic reception in October 1959. A four-man hit squad, including Saddam’s “twin,” alShaikhly, were provided with weapons and marching orders. Saddam was a last-minute addition to the group, and the botched assassination has become a central part of his myth.
The budding strongman was supposed to provide cover fire for the group’s retreat, but was the first to shoot, sparking a prolonged battle on a downtown street. Qassem was wounded, but survived. One of the would-be assassins was killed, and Saddam was hit in the leg (both, it seems, were victims of friendly fire, since the Baathist amateurs lined up across the street from each other). In The Long Days, a biopic made by Iraq’s Ministry of Information in the 1980s, Iraq’s great leader is shown impassively watching as the bullet is dug from his flesh with a pair of kitchen scissors. Hobbled, as the story goes, he bought a horse and fled Baghdad under the cover of darkness, heading toward Tikrit. After several harrowing nights on the road, he arrived at the banks of the Tigris, across from his hometown. According to legend, in a final dash to safety, Saddam swam the dark and chilly waters with a knife clenched between his teeth. (A feat he commemorated annually with a much-publicized dip in the river, bodyguards in tow.) “It was like you see in the movies, only worse,” he once told a British newspaper. “My clothes were wet, my leg was injured, and I hadn’t eaten properly in days.”
The reality was probably a lot less cinematic, but Saddam did manage to escape to Damascus, and then moved on to Cairo. He wasn’t much suited to the life of an exile, however. Other Iraqi nationalists spent their time studying and discussing the future of their country. Saddam spent his carousing and fighting. There are claims that he killed a fellow exile while in Egypt, and tossed a local man to his death from his apartment window. Both tales seem apocryphal, but in the early 1990s, the New York Times did find a Cairo café owner who remembered Saddam all too well as a troublemaker and cheapskate. He said the man who went on to become a fixture on Forbes’ s list of the world’s richest kings, queens and dictators left town in 1963, owing several hundred dollars. A decade later, when Saddam returned on a state visit as Iraq’s vice-president, he made a surprise trip to the bar, paid his outstanding bill, and left a $300 tip.
Reality television is old hat in Iraq. The grainy Internet beheading videos that have outraged Western audiences since the beginning of the insurgency are hardly shocking for a country that has long revelled in public executions and macabre displays of its deposed leaders. In 1963, when the Baathists teamed up with disgruntled army officers to bring an end to the Qassem regime, the fighting lasted two days. After the general’s surrender, his trial and execution—by firing squad—took less than an hour. The body was taken to the state television studios, and viewers at home were treated to closeups of the shattered corpse, propped up in a chair like a talk-show guest, as a soldier demonstrated the difference between entry and exit wounds. For his finale, the man grabbed Qassem’s head and spat in his face.
For all the early doubts about his intelligence, Saddam proved himself a quick study of Iraq’s brutal politics after he returned from exile following Qassem’s death. When the military tired of the purges and street battles and kicked the Baathists out of government several months after the coup, Saddam had the good fortune to be sent to the same jail as most of the party’s senior leadership. By the time he was allowed to “escape” in 1966, he had forged fast friendships with almost everyone who counted and was tagged as a rising star. In 1968, the Baathists staged another putsch, led by Gen. Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, a fellow Tikriti and long-time patron of Saddam and his uncle. Saddam proved himself indispensible as Bakr’s chief of internal security, enforcing party discipline and settling scores with panache. Soon he was the weakwilled president’s right-hand man, controlling most aspects of Iraqi life.
All that was missing was the prestige and the title, and they came soon enough. But by Iraq’s bloody standards, Saddam’s 1979 power grab—immortalized on videotape and later broadcast to the nation—was G-rated. All the violence was off-screen. In mid-July, Bakr announced that he was “stepping down” for health reasons, and handing power over to his trusted deputy, “the man best qualified to assume the leadership.” Saddam had already installed loyalists in all of the government’s key positions. He had firm control of the growing state security apparatus. The military had been placated with a massive weapons buildup, financed by surging oil prices that were enriching government coffers to the tune of US$21 billion a year. Still, Saddam was taking no chances. He convened a special party conference and in one fell swoop rid himself of all his remaining critics and rivals.
Eyes filling with tears, his voice shaking with emotion, he stood before his colleagues and announced that he had uncovered a Syrian-backed attempt to overthrow the party, and that all the plotters were in the room. Taking a piece of paper from his pocket, Saddam read out 66 names. As the surviving party members applauded and screamed Saddam’s name, the men were hauled away. After rapid trials, 22 (including all the highestranking party members) were sentenced to death, 33 were sent to prison. As a test of loyalty, the remaining members of the Baath leadership were ordered to personally carry out the executions under the watchful eyes of the Mukharabat, Saddam’s secret police.
Even those rivals—real or perceived—who had fled the country weren’t safe from Saddam’s ruthless ambition. In 1978, Abdul Razzak Nayif, a former prime minister, was shot in the head as he left London’s Intercontinental Hotel. British authorities arrested two members of the Iraqi intelligence for the crime, much to Saddam’s displeasure. That same year, Ayad Allawi, the Iraqi exile leader, was attacked with an axe and left for dead at his Surrey home. (He survived and became a key U.S. ally, later serving as the country’s interim prime minister after the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam.)
During his years as the power behind the throne, Saddam had become the architect of
one of the world’s most repressive regimes. And what little freedom was left in Iraq disappeared once he took over the top job. The ranks of the army, police and Baath party militias swelled. A deal was struck with Yuri Andropov, then head of the Soviet KGB, to help improve surveillance techniques. Listening devices became almost as ubiquitous as real bugs. In the late 1980s, a senior army officer who made a derisive comment about Saddam’s mother in the privacy of his mistress’s bedroom was arrested, and had his tongue cut out before being executed. His son met the same fate, and all the family homes were bulldozed.
As Kanan Maykika notes in his influential Republic of Fear (a scathing critique of Iraqi ideology and thought that was adopted as gospel by the neo-con hawks of the Bush administra-
tion), by 1980 one-fifth of the country’s labour force “were institutionally charged during peacetime with one form or another of violence.” By the middle of the decade, there were two dozen offences that carried the death penalty in Iraq. Disclosing any sort of state or government information to foreigners was considered a capital offence, as was “propagating Zionism.” In the 1990s, contracting AIDS became grounds for summary execution.
Over the years, human rights organizations issued dozens of denunciations of the regime’s criminal excesses, detailing widespread torture, political killings, forcible expulsions, and thousands of “disappearances.” In February 1989, Amnesty International released a report entitled “Children: Innocent Victims of Political Repression.” It enumerated cases of school kids “who had been apprehended, lined up and summarily shot in public”; political prisoners who were forced to watch relatives, including children, being tortured until they confessed; and a husband and wife whose baby was kept in a nearby cell and “deliberately deprived of milk” until they cracked. Calling Saddam’s violations of human rights “flagrant and massive,” Amnesty said it could
think of no other regime “which cries out more for international attention and action.” In his 2002 book Saddam: The Secret Life, British journalist Con Coughlin tells the story of Sami Salih, a trusted Saddam confidant who ran Iraq’s sanction-busting oil smuggling operations in the 1990s. Contacts with Westerners brought him under suspicion, and he was arrested and taken to the presidential compound. Given a pair of bloodsoaked pyjamas to wear, he was blindfolded and placed in a cell for days and fed only bread and water. Eventually, he was taken to the “operations room.” Guards hung him from the ceiling by his feet and whipped his body with lengths of cable. Afterwards, as he lay bleeding on the ground, Salih was able to peek beneath his blindfold. “All around him he saw other prisoners being tortured by teams of Saddam’s tormentors,” writes Coughlin. “In one corner he saw a man being lowered into a vat of boiling water. In another, a victim was being tortured with electric shocks to his genitals. Yet another victim was strapped to a table in the centre of the room, where the guards were extracting his toeand fingernails.” (Salih eventually escaped from jail, and the country, after his wife bribed senior security officials.)
Saddam was not above getting his own hands dirty. In the summer of 1982, at the height of the Iran-Iraq war, it was announced that Riyadh Ibrahim Hussein, the minister of health, had been executed, purportedly for selling tainted medicine on the black market. But a more sinister story quickly became the accepted truth. During a cabinet meeting, the minister had the temerity to suggest that Saddam should step down so a peace deal could be negotiated. Saddam asked him to step out of the room so the two of them could further discuss the proposal. The president returned alone. Hussein’s wife later visited Saddam, and extracted a promise that her husband would be returned to her. The next day, henchmen delivered the bodychopped to pieces—in a black canvas bag.
Saddam never shied away from brutality,
viewing it as a necessary part of a tyrant’s job. During his reign, government officials frequently treated Western journalists and businessmen to outrageous stories of their boss’s barbarism, conspicuously feeding the legend. Public speeches were filled with violent rhetoric and promises of retribution for enemies at home and abroad. All of Iraq knew the cost of crossing Saddam, and when the punishments were meted out they were almost always collective. In 1983, for example, the strongman had 99 members of the al-Hakim family, aged 9 to 76, arrested because one member was running an exile opposition group in Tehran. Most were tortured, six were executed.
In an infamous interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer in 1990, Saddam was asked about the draconian measures he used to keep his public in line. “Does not the law in your country punish whoever tries to insult the president?” he responded. When Sawyer told him that the answer was “no,” and that half the U.S. would be in jail if the government adopted the Iraqi model, Saddam looked stunned. “Well,” he huffed, “in Iraq the president is regarded by the people as a symbol representing something.”
Saddam has mommy issues. At least that’s what the U.S. government firmly believes. For 21 years, Dr. Jerold Post, a Washington psychiatrist, prepared secret psychological profiles of world leaders for the Central Intelligence Agency. (His crowning achievements were sketches of Menachem Begin—“a detail person”—and Anwar Sadat— “a big-picture person”—that reportedly provided Jimmy Carter with the insights he needed to clinch the Israeli-Egyptian Camp David accord.) The exact nature of his advice on how to handle Saddam remains classified, but a public version of the doctor’s analysis of the Iraqi dictator’s personality has been in circulation since the early
1990s. The root of Saddam’s behaviour is his unhappy childhood, a formative period that impaired his capacity for empathy, creating a “wounded self,” writes Post. “One course in the face of such traumatizing experiences is to sink into despair, passivity and hopelessness. But another is to etch a psychological template of compensatory grandiosity.” Consequently, for his entire life, Saddam has pattemed himself after the great Iraqi conquerors, Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king who enslaved the Jews in 586 BCE, and Saladin, the Tikriti who defeated the Crusaders and liberated Jerusalem in 1187. They were men of action, capable of both acts of unspeakable cruelty and moments of great generosity. So is Saddam. He “has a flexible conscience: commitments and loyalty are matters of circumstance, and circumstances change,” says the psychiatrist. “Nothing was permitted to stand in ‘the great struggler’s’ messianic path.”
In interviews over the years, Post has bandied about other 50-cent terms for the rot at Saddam’s core, like “malignant narcissism,” but it all comes back to Subha’s lack of nurturing. “Scars that deep that early you can’t really recover from,” the doctor told the London Times in 2003. “A lot of his total control of the environment is designed to compensate for his being totally out of control. A lot of the adulation he seeks is to compensate for the mirroring, the mothering, he never received.”
Whatever the explanation, there is no debate that Saddam has an oversized appetite for attention. During his regime, a favoured Iraqi joke was that the country’s population had recently hit 28 million—14 million peo-
By the mid-1980s, Iraq had two dozen offences with the death penalty. Getting AIDS was one of them.
pie, and 14 million pictures of Saddam. The entrance to every village in the nation was decorated with a 10-m high portrait of the “leaderpresident.” Paintings, murals and statues in public spaces depicted the dictator in a variety of guises— scientist, soldier, farmer, veterinarian. An entire government department—the wonderfully named Very Special Projects Implementation Authority—was charged with distributing and maintaining his image. Schoolchildren’s notebooks had his portrait on the cover, and a collection of his sayings on the back. And there was never a question of whose photo would be on the front page of the daily paper. Radio mentioned his name 3 0 to 50 times an hour. The nightly news theme sang his praises, and its coverage described every government action as a personal initiative of the president. State broadcasters regularly aired poems from “average citizens” lauding his accomplishments, and it was not uncommon to turn on one’s TV and be treated to Saddam himself delivering an hours-long, rambling lecture on practically any topic under the sun, from animal husbandry to ritual circumcision. (Former colleagues credit Saddam with having a “photographic” memory, and say that he was always masterful in meetings, able to pepper them with detailed queries about even the most arcane aspects of government business.)
Pivotal moments in Iraqi history were treated as excuses for even more outlandish celebrations of Saddam’s magnificence. The “Victory Monument” in central Baghdad (conceived in 1985, three years before the war with Iran ended in a bloody stalemate) is a massive pair of sword-wielding arms rising from the ground,
40-times scale models of Saddam’s own, down to the veins and hair follicles. The 43-m long pendulum on a downtown clock tower was surrounded with seven statues representing the stages of Saddam’s life, from birth to his “triumph” over the Persians. And after getting pasted by the Americans in the first Gulf War, Saddam celebrated by building the Mother of All Battles mosque on the outskirts of the city. Its four outer minarets are shaped like Kalashnikov rifles, its four inner ones like Scud missiles. The mosque also featured a Koran said to have been written in Saddam’s own blood.
Like many dictators, Saddam was also remarkable for his vanity. In later years, he dyed his hair and mustache a youthful shade of brown. Fie took pains to avoid being photographed with his eyeglasses on. He developed a taste for designer suits, and was said to own 400 different belts. (Although his dining habits remained down-market—barbecued ribs and Mateus rosé are his favourite meal.) After meeting Fidel Castro at a NonAligned summit, Saddam abandoned his pipe and cigarettes for a dictatorial cigar. Visitors to his palaces reported that a flunky was always standing at arm’s reach with a box of fresh Havanas. Following the first Gulf War,
the Iraqi strongman even branched out into literature, penning two allegorical romance novels. Zabibah and the King, which was later turned into a play, was the bigger success. A tale of sacrifice, it focuses on a wise king who falls in love with a virtuous, but married, commoner. Her jealous husband arranges for Zabibah to be raped on Jan. 17 (the date the U.S. began its aerial bombardments of Iraq in 1991) and later kills her. The king, vowing to avenge her honour, dies in a struggle with the evil spouse, his greatness made plain for everyone in the land.
But the flip side of the decades of enforced adulation was the galloping paranoia that came to define Saddam’s regime. (Although in fairness, despite the difficulty of separating the disguised purges from real coup or assassination attempts, the dictator appears to have had ample reason to be mistrustful.) Latif Yahia, a former body double for Saddam’s son Uday, describes his first meeting with the Great Leader as a bizarre affair. The process began with an order to strip and a full body pat-down. Guards then checked every seam of his clothing for hidden weapons. A doctor was summoned to examine the inside of his mouth and swab his skin for evidence of poison. His hands were doused with a powerful disinfectant, lest he be planning to pass on killer microbes. And finally, he was given a new pair of white cotton socks. “Saddam hated having his subjects appear before him in worn socks,” Yahia writes in his autobiography, I Was Saddam's Son. “He despised worn socks.”
One joke said that the population had hit 28 million: 14 million Iraqis, and 14 million pictures of Saddam
Day-to-day security precautions were equally elaborate. Whenever Saddam prepared to leave a palace, there were five decoy motorcades. Doubles were frequently used for public appearances. His food was flown in from abroad once a week, and official tasters sampled every dish before he dined. The palaces, always opulent, became more and more like the villain’s lair from ajames Bond film, filled with subterranean shelters, escape tunnels, and high-tech communications equipment. Reinforced concrete bunkers were scattered around the country. Con Coughlin describes one, near the Presidential Palace in Baghdad, that was located 300 feet below the Tigris River, built on springs to absorb any bomb impact, with its entrances protected by automatically controlled machine gun nests. The VIP lounge at Saddam International Airport was said to be attached to a 15-km secret tunnel leading to a helicopter landing pad. By the time of the 2003 American invasion, Saddam was so (rightfully) convinced that his enemies were gunning for him that he never slept in his palaces, and often moved from bed to bed in the middle of the night. Chefs were under orders to prepare three elaborate meals a day at each of his homes in case he dropped by. The scuttlebutt in Baghdad was that he personally executed one of his security aides after two near-death air-raid experiences, on the suspicion that the U.S. military was tracking the man’s satellite phone.
Those faces of Saddam, egotist, bully, psychopath and coward, are surely what history will remember. But it’s worth noting that there was a time when many considered him one of the most progressive leaders in the Arab world. His timely drive to nationalize Iraq’s oil industry and boost production in 1972 provided the country with almost limitless spending power. (The price of oil trebled after the 1973 ArabIsraeli War. In 1968, Iraq’s oil revenues were US$476 million. In 1980, they were $26 billion, a full 50 per cent of national income.) Much of the money went toward a massive military buildup—by the mid-1970s the country was spending close to US$5 billion a year on defence—or into his supporters’ pockets, but the sums were vast enough to finance some good works as well. Prior to the war with Iran, Iraq had the best health care system in the Middle East—modern and universal. There was a massive expansion of the education system, and Iraqis could follow their studies from kindergarten through university, tuitionfree. Saddam’s regime expanded women’s freedom to marry and divorce, outlawed job discrimination, and enacted equal pay laws. In 1979, Iraq received a UNESCO award for its comprehensive national campaign to eradicate illiteracy. The government established 1,779 adult learning centres and more than two million people were taught to read and write over a 21-month period. (Some critics, like Makiya, suggest that Saddam’s real goal was to create a larger audience for his newspaper propaganda.)
For many, Post’s vision of the hurt little boy inside the monster treads uncomfortably close to an apologia, but there are moments when it resonates. One of Saddam’s more curious habits as president was his impromptu visits to commune with the people. Saddam and his security entourage would suddenly descend on your family barbecue, or show up at the door in local costume, always eager to hear just how fantastic a job the great leader was doing. In his dissection of the U.S. invasion and occupation, The Assassin’s Gate, George Packer tells the story of a family from Kirkuk, who were favoured with a visit in 1983. One afternoon, two presidential helicopters landed in a nearby field, tanks cordoned off their street, and a trailer was parked in their garden. Saddam, dressed in an olive army uniform, appeared at their door. He came inside to sit in the living room and malee chit-chat for a while, before setting up shop in the trailer. Neighbours were instructed to line up in the garden for a private audience with the president—an opportunity to petition for favours—and everyone who did was given a present of 3,000 dinars. The next morning, the whole show moved on. It was like a dream, the family said. The only proof that it had ever happened was the lingering odour of Saddam’s cologne, a scent so powerful that they eventually had to give away the sofa he had sat upon.
It’s a picture that Donald Rumsfeld undoubtedly wishes had never been taken. The December 1983 snapshot shows the current U.S. secretary of defence, then president Ronald Reagan’s special envoy, grinning and shaking the outstretched hand of the man he has, of late, so often compared to Hitler. Times change.
In early 1982, Reagan had Iraq removed from a U.S. State Department list of nations supporting terrorism that had been established by his predecessor, Jimmy Carter. Since the beginning of the 1970s, Iraq’s Baathist regime had nurtured a close relationship with some of the more militant members of the Palestinian liberation movement. It was a major source of funds, and training, for the PLO. Abu Nidal, whose faction was responsible for dozens of high-profile terror incidents including embassy takeovers, hijackings, bombings, and attacks on Jewish schools and synagogues in Europe, used Baghdad as his base for a number of years. He was not alone. The Kurdish PKK used Iraq as a refuge, as did Syria’s outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, and for a period in the early 1970s, Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Saddam viewed brutality as a necessary part of a tyrant's job. His crimes became biqqer and bolder.
Reagan’s decision was strategic. The Iranian mullahs, initially taken by surprise by the 1980 Iraqi invasion, had rallied, and looked like they might be winning the war. In the summer of 1982, the U.S. began to provide the Iraqis with satellite photos of Iranian lines, and their own defensive liabilities. In 1984, the co-operation was expanded to “limited intelligence sharing,” including communications intercepts, data on strategic bombing targets and enemy troop positions. And U.S. hatred of Khomeini aside, there was a need to replace the oil that used to flow from the Shah’s Iran. In 1981, the U.S. did not import a single barrel of oil from Iraq. By 1988, it was consuming 126 million barrels annually. (At the time, Saddam gave American petroleum refiners a $l-a-barrel discount on world prices.)
Reagan was hardly alone in throwing his lot in with Saddam (although he was probably the only world leader to give the dictator a pair of gold spurs as a gift, hand-delivered by Rumsfeld.) The Soviets, who had been the Baathists’ major supplier of arms and technology since the beginning of the 1970s, had been gradually supplanted by the Europeans. By 1982, Iraq accounted for 40 per cent of all French arms exports—guns, missiles, Mirage fighter jets—a relationship that grossed the French more than US$7 billion during the course of the Iran war. The Italians were also supplying weapons. And the Germans were cleaning up on construction contracts and exports of industrial equipment—much of it with “dual” military uses.
It was not a secret that Saddam’s regime had been aggressively pursuing nuclear, biological and chemical weapons technology since the mid-1970s. Saddam himself had publicly mused about the need for “an Arab bomb” on a number of occasions. In 1975, be inked a US$3-billion reactor deal with France. (According to Coughlin, the agreement, which also provided for the training of 600 technicians, had a stipulation “that all persons of the Jewish race and the Mosaic religion” be excluded from participating.) Four years later, Saddam struck a deal with the Italians to build labs for plutonium enrichment. There were allegations of secret nuclear support deals with Brazil, China and India. Israel became so alarmed about these developments that it first dispatched agents to sabotage the reactor cores as they were being built in France, and in June 1981, staged a daring bombing raid that destroyed Saddam’s nearly completed Osirak nuclear plant.
The Baathist regime had also sought out Western technology and expertise for two massive new chemical plants, purportedly designed to produce pesticides, but with a worrying focus on highly toxic compounds— amiton, demeton, paraoxon, and parathion— that could easily be converted to nerve gas. In addition, the Iraqi government had become a major purchaser of bacterial and fungal cultures (mostly from West Germany and the U.S.) for killer diseases like anthrax, typhoid and cholera. The Iraqis claimed they were trying to develop vaccines, but many questioned why they would go to such trouble and expense when treatments were widely available on the international market.
The first rumblings that Iraq was using poison gas against Iranian troops were heard in late 1983. By the spring of 1984, there was no doubt. That March, a team of UN experts concluded that the Iraqis had used mustard gas and the nerve agent tabun in an all-out effort to retake the Majnun Islands—two oilrich strips of land near Basra. (The UN would go on to document three other gas attacks between 1985 and 1987.) There were international protests, but few real consequences for Saddam. That fall, the U.S. restored full diplomatic relations. The granting of export licences for American companies seeking to export “dual use” technology (i.e. crystal for radar that could also be used for missile guidance systems, or sophisticated computers that might end up in weapons labs) was streamlined. Iraq also became a major beneficiary of a U.S. program that financed agricultural exports—federally guaranteed bank loans to the Iraqi government that were used to purchase American produce. Between 1983 and 1990, Iraq received US$5 billion in such protected loans, one-sixth of the worldwide total. Saddam ended up defaulting on $1.9 billion worth.
There were limits to the U.S. support. An arms embargo against Iraq remained in place—although there were reports that Americanbuilt helicopters, supposedly for civilian use, ended up being used in military campaigns, including poison gas attacks against the Kurds. And the Reagan administration wasn’t adverse to plying both sides of the street. In 1985, it approved the sale ofTOW antitank missiles and aircraft spare parts to Iran via Israel in a mostly unsuccessful effort to secure the release of 10 Americans held hostage in Beirut. (In an inspired bit of capitalism, national security adviser Col. Oliver North diverted profits from the deal to the Contras in Nicaragua.) But for the most part, Iraq remained the U.S.’s partner of choice.
Saddam’s crimes, meanwhile, became bigger and bolder. In late 1987, he began an ethnic cleansing campaign in the north, deporting thousands of Kurds and razing their homes. In the winter of 1988, he launched his al-Anfal campaign to crush a Kurdish revolt in the north—the genocidal massacres for which he is currently on trial. On March 16, the Iraqi air force sprayed Halabja, an agricultural centre, with mustard gas and nerve agents. The few survivors recall great clouds of garlic-scented yellow fumes spreading over the city. More than 5,000—men, women, children—died. After signing a ceasefire with Iran that August, Saddam’s forces stepped up their efforts, blocking escape routes and launching chemical attacks on 30 northern villages. Troops were sent in to finish off the survivors.
Again there was outrage, but little real action. The U.S. Senate passed the Prevention of Genocide Act, calling for tough new sanctions against the regime, but the Reagan White House killed the bill, choosing instead to sponsor a UN Security Council resolution that offered harsh words, but little else. When George Bush the elder took office, he made improving relations with Iraq one of his administration’s security goals, betting that Saddam Hussein could be induced to moderate his behaviour, and Iraq could be transformed into a key Middle East ally.
His final hours in power were spent careening around in an armoured Mercedes, begging for support
Official U.S. policy didn’t change until Aug. 2,1990, the day Iraqi forces crossed the border into Kuwait. Saddam had been spewing threats for months, demanding that his brother Arab states forgive $40 billion in debt from the Iran conflict—a war he had “waged on behalf of the whole Arab world.” He had also let it be known that he was ready to use his weapons of mass destruction in a wider Middle East conflict. “We will make the fire eat half of Israel,” he said in an April speech. Still, the feeling in Washington was that it was better to have Saddam as a friend than an enemy.
On the eve of the invasion, Saddam summoned U.S. ambassador April Glaspie to his palace for a frank discussion. According to transcripts of the meeting, the dictator was his usual blustery self, threatening retribution if the Americans interfered in his dispute with Kuwait. “Everyone can cause pain according to their ability and size,” he said. “We cannot come all the way to you in the United States, but individual Arabs may reach you.” Glaspie responded with a fateful phrase: “I have direct instructions from the president to seek better relations with Iraq.” The dictator left the encounter believing he had just received the green light to invade. Glaspie cabled back an upbeat report on the tête-a-tête—her first meeting with the Iraqi leader in two years on the job. It was slugged “Saddam’s Message of Friendship for President Bush.”
The “Mother of all Battles” proved to be one of the great mismatches of history. In a six-week air campaign, the U.S.-led international coalition flew 109,876 bombing missions, dropping 60,000 tons of munitions and shattering Iraq’s defences and infrastructure. It took ground forces just 100 hours to liberate Kuwait, with just 148 American troops killed in the battle and 467 wounded. Iraqi losses were estimated at 100,000, with some 300,000 wounded. By the time it was over, Saddam’s vaunted military machine was in total disarray. The road to Baghdad was wide open.
Bush balked. Even when Shias in the south and Kurds in the north heeded his call to rise up against the Baathist tyrants, the Americans refused to step in and give the teetering regime a final push. The White Elouse brain trust feared the post-Saddam landscape: an unstable Iraq, divided along sectarian lines; a potential powder keg in the heart of the Middle East. Saddam rose from the ashes to crush the rebellions, then rediscovered the strength to thumb his nose at the international community, turning a historic shellacking into a great moral victory. The economic sanctions made life punishing for ordinary Iraqis, but seemed to have little effect on those at the top. The oil still flowed, so did the money. Iraq played cat and mouse with the inspectors the UN dispatched to monitor its arsenal of deadly weapons. In some circles, it became accepted wisdom that Bush had made a horrible mistake.
The dictator’s final hours of power were spent careening through the streets of Baghdad in an armoured Mercedes, begging for support. In the end, all the old tricks— threats, money, appeals to patriotism—failed him as he helplessly watched even his most fanatical troops desert en masse. He escaped the capital in the chaos after the American takeover with only his sons, six bodyguards, and a suitcase of U.S. cash. Saddam spent nine months scuttling between safe houses in the Sunni heartland. His brutal heirs, Uday and Qusay, died in a shootout in July. In early December, 600 U.S. troops found a dishevelled Saddam hiding in a concrete-lined hole on a farm near Adwar—a few hundred metres from the riverbank where he claimed to have made his escape across the Tigris in 1959-
Since his capture, Saddam’s home has been a three-by-four-metre airconditioned cell on the grounds of a former palace near Baghdad’s airportnow known as Camp Cropper. It contains a fold-up bed, a small desk and chair, a prayer mat, and a Koran. He gets ready-to-eat military rations for breakfast, and is permitted three hours of daily exercise, much of which he spends tending a small garden. The indignities must be hard for him to bear. In May 2005, the New York Post published a photo taken by his American captors of Saddam in his cell, wearing only his underwear, on its front page. The headline was “Butcher of Sagdad.”
The first trial, for the 1982 killings of 148 Shias, opened in October 2005Of the 12 potential cases against Saddam investigated by the High Tribunal, the Dujail massacre was generally considered to be the most open and shut. “This was a case that even a chimp could win,” says Michael Scharf, a law professor at Case Western University, and one of the international experts who helped train the Iraqi judges and prosecutors. The Baathist regime left behind reams of documentation on the failed assassination attempt and their retribution, including 148 death warrants signed by Saddam.
From the outset, Saddam and his co-defendants turned much of the the proceedings into a farce
The path of justice has been a lot bumpier than anticipated, however. From the outset, Saddam and his seven co-defendants hijacked the proceedings, dragging the hearings they deigned to attend into farce. Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, the dictator’s half-brother, protested by wearing only his long underwear to court. Saddam claimed he had been beaten by U.S. troops, and rarely missed an opportunity to ridicule his captors, the judges, and the entire process. “Who are you? What is this court? If you are an Iraqi you know very well who I am,” he shouted on the opening day. “I am the president of Iraq.” There were lengthy postponements. During the course of the trial, three of the defence lawyers were abducted and killed. There were dozens of attempts on the lives of the others. The chief judge, Rizgar Amin, stepped down in January, following criticism from Iraqi government officials that he was being too lenient toward the accused. A trial that was scheduled for one month ended up taking 10. “It’s been a mess,” says Scharf. “A lot of it was the fault of the defence. They wanted to disrupt, derail and distract, make Saddam a martyr, and use the TV coverage as a platform to speak to his people.” The biggest problem was the court’s decision to allow Saddam to question the witnesses, providing him with a daily opportunity to perform. “We had no idea, nobody realized it was going to happen,” says Scharf. “The Iraqis just said, ‘that’s the way our courts do things.’ ”
The Anfal trial, which began at the end of August, has scarcely been better. Saddam and his six co-defendants are again hogging the stage. In early September, after a Kurdish survivor mocked him from the witness stand— “Congratulations! You are in a cage, Saddam,” said Ghafour Hassan Abdullah—an angry Saddam called his opponents “agents” of Iran and Zionism. “We will crush your heads,” he screamed. Abdullah al-Amiri, the chief judge, was turfed by the government after consoling the former president: “You were not a dictator. People around you made you look like a dictator.” His replacement has since thrown Saddam out of court on multiple occasions, and the entire defence team has taken to boycotting the proceedings. The complex Anfal case, optimistically scheduled to last four months, seems certain to stretch deep into 2007
The delays have created a rather sticky problem for the Iraqi government. If a death sentence is returned in the Dujail case, Saddam may have to be executed before his
genocide trial concludes. Under Iraqi law, once the verdict is handed down, the clock starts ticking. The Court of Cassation will automatically review the finding, and must start its deliberations within 10 days. That process “would only take days,” says Jaafar alMoussawi, the chief prosecutor. If the judgment is upheld, Saddam has a month to ask the court to correct any “legal errors.” After that, the death sentence becomes final and must be carried out within 30 days.
While the High Tribunal now says the Nov. 5 sentencing date is firm, the Dujail verdict has already been postponed once to allow the court to re-interview key witnesses. And some observers, concerned about the fairness of the process, are calling for further foot-dragging. Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group, was one of the Hussein regime’s harshest critics, but now decries the new Iraqi government’s rush to judgment. “These trials are so important that we want to see them create an indisputable benchmark of law, the way Nuremberg did,” says Richard Dicker, director of their international justice program. The general climate of instability in the country, the courtroom chaos, lack of resources for the defence, and the purely domestic makeup of the tribunal—a departure from other recent war crimes proceedings—have put the legitimacy of the process into question. “I’m not saying that the whole thing is a wreck, or a waste, or should be scrapped,” says Dicker. “But there are international standards that should be met.” It’s a rather uncomfortable position for an organization that helped document the Anfal massacres. Lasting justice, however, demands greater rigour. “Think of what the Holocaust-doubting industry would be like without Nuremberg,” says Dicker. “I’m afraid it’s too easy to characterize Saddam’s proceedings as show trials right now.”
There are fears that executing Saddam might worsen the sectarian violence in Iraq. That hardly seems possible.
Scharf, who has studied Nuremberg, says our collective memories are a bit faulty. “The same exact things happened there, but what history remembers is that the Nazis convicted themselves with their own documents.” The Iraqi High Tribunal is far from perfect, he says, but it is more than adequate. And no matter how many legal safeguards are put in place, its findings will still be divisive.
For Saddam’s countless victims and their families, justice has already been far too long in coming. Rizgar Ali Tofik, a former Kurdish fighter now living in Ottawa, can list off 27 friends and family members who perished during the Anfal campaign. Many of the young men were taken from their homes in Koiysnjak, a village near Erbil, by the Iraqi army in the summer of 1988, and never seen again. Tofik, now a short-order cook, has been following the court cases and is impatient for a verdict. “I hope they kill Saddam as soon as they can because he killed a lot of Kurdish people,” he says. “And every time I see him in the court, I remember everything from 20 years ago, just like I am there.” Others, however, harbour fears that putting Saddam to death could worsen the sectarian violence in Iraq, although that hardly seems possible. A recent United Nations report found that 5,106 people died in Baghdad alone during July and August, an estimate that many observers feel is too low. Suicide bombing attacks on civilian targets are now a daily occurrence, and death squads rule the night, littering the streets with mutilated corpses. In early October, the government suspended an entire brigade of 1,200 police officers for suspected participation in kidnappings and executions. Last week, Bush himself likened the current spate of violence to the 1968 Tet Offensive, which spelled the beginning of the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. And with American military casualties nearing 2,800-October has been the deadliest month in two years—the search for an exit strategy has taken on new urgency.
The weapons of mass destruction, which served as the pretext for the U.S. invasion, have never been found. And the available evidence suggests that Saddam’s once-thriving chemical, biological and nuclear programs were shut down long before 2003, hamstrung by international sanctions. The U.S. Senate intelligence committee has found no trace of Iraqi ties to al-Qaeda-another justification for the war-or proof that Saddam offered refuge to
its operatives. A recently declassified report pooling the views of 16 U.S. government intelligence services concluded that the Iraq war has actually increased the threat of global terrorism.
The dictator isn’t given much access to the news, but he is well aware how chaotic his former playground has become. To him, the violence is a glimmer of hope. According to his lawyers, Saddam believes the U.S. will soon seek his help to quell the insurgency and provide the stability it needs to start withdrawing from Iraq’s quagmire. “The United States will use this [death] sentence to put pressure on Saddam to save it from its mess,” Khalil alDulaimi, his Jordanian counsel, told reporters. “He’ll be the last resort; they’ll knock on his door.”
The latest in a long line of Saddam Hussein’s delusions. But one that has already been embraced by his followers. In the spring of2005, al-Usbu, an Egyptian magazine, published a transcript of a purported jailhouse meeting between Saddam and Donald Rumsfeld. “I’m making you one offer and that is that you will be released and can choose for yourself a place of exile freely, in any country you like, on condition that you go on television and issue a condemnation of‘terrorism’ and order your men to stop these acts,” Rumsfeld is supposed to have said.
Saddam’s response reads like one of his plays. “I am not looking for opportunities.
I am not looking for a way to save my neck from the gallows,” quotes the magazine. “I am concerned with every Iraqi citizen and with the future of great Iraq more than I am concerned with myself and my family. I have nothing left but honour, and honour cannot be bought and sold.” High drama, but fiction all the same. At this point, the once great leader of Iraq would happily sell his kingdom for a horse, or the promise of a firing squad.