Saddam Hussein, 1937-2006 (David Hirst)
December 30, 2006
Brutal and opportunist dictator of Iraq, he wreaked havoc on his country, the Middle East and the world
The Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who was executed this morning at the age of 69, may not yield many general biographies - he was personally too uninteresting for that - but he will be a case study for political scientists for years to come. For he was the model of a certain type of developing world despot, who was, for over three decades, as successful in his main ambition, which was taking and keeping total power, as he was destructive in exercising it.
Yet at the same time, he was commonplace and derivative. Stalin was his exemplar. The likeness came from more than conscious emulation: he already resembled him in origin, temperament and method. Like him, he was unique less in kind than in degree, in the extraordinary extent to which, if the more squalid forms of human villainy are the sine qua non of the successful tyrant, he embodied them. Like Stalin, too, he had little of the flair or colour of other 20th-century despots, little mental brilliance, less charisma, no redeeming passion or messianic fervour; he was only exceptional in the magnitude of his thuggery, the brutality, opportunism and cunning of the otherwise dull, grey apparatchik.
His rise to power was no more accidental than Stalin's. If he had not mastered Iraq as he did, someone very similar probably would have, and very probably also from Tikrit. Saddam's peculiar fortune was that, on his political majority, this small, drab town, on the Tigris upstream from Baghdad, was already poised to wrest a very special role in Iraqi history.
Saddam was born in the nearby village of Owja, into the mud house of his uncle, Khairallah Tulfah, and into what a Tikriti contemporary of his called a world "full of evil". His father, Hussein al-Majid, a landless peasant, had died before his birth, and his mother, Sabha, could not support the orphan, until she took a third husband.
Hassan Ibrahim took to extremes local Bedouin notions of a hardy upbringing. For punishment, he beat his stepson with an asphalt-covered stick. Thus, from earliest infancy, was Saddam nurtured - like a Stalin born into very similar circumstances - in the bleak conviction that the world is a congenitally hostile place, life a ceaseless struggle for survival, and survival only achieved through total self-reliance, chronic mistrust and the imperious necessity to destroy others before they destroy you.
The sufferings visited on the child begat the sufferings the grown man, warped, paranoid, omnipotent, visited on an entire people. Like Stalin, he hid his emotions behind an impenetrable facade of impassivity; but he assuredly had emotions of a virulent kind - an insatiable thirst for vengeance on the world he hated.
To fend off attack by other boys, Saddam carried an iron bar. It became the instrument of his wanton cruelty; he would bring it to a red heat, then stab a passing animal in the stomach, splitting it in half. Killing was considered a badge of courage among his male relatives. Saddam's first murder was of a shepherd from a nearby tribe. This, and three more in his teens, were proof of manhood.
The small-town thug possessed all the personal qualifications he might need to earn his place in the 20th-century's pantheon of tyrants. And the small town of Tikrit, lying in the heart of the Sunni Muslim "triangle" of central Iraq furnished the operational ones, too. Orthodox Sunni Arabs are only a small minority, 15% at most, of Iraq's population, outnumbered by the Shias of the south, 60% at least, and the Kurds of the mountainous north. Yet they always dominated Iraq's political life.
Thanks partly to the decline of traditional river traffic, Tikritis had taken to supplying the British-controlled Iraqi state with a disproportionate number of its soldiers. With time and plentiful purges, they emerged within the army as a distinct group; a preponderance which had been fortuitous at first finally became so great they could deliberately enlarge it. A close-knit minority within the Sunni minority, they exploited ties of region, clan and family to seize control of the army, then the state. Saddam, perfect recruit to the sinister, violent, conspiratorial underworld that was Iraqi politics, positioned himself at the heart of this process.
He himself was never a soldier, but he used a formidable array of Tikritis who were, and Ba'athists to boot. Ba'athism was a radical, pan-Arab nationalist doctrine then sweeping the region. Though doubtless impelled in that direction by the extreme, chauvinist beliefs of his uncle Khairallah, who had been dismissed from the army and imprisoned for five years for his part in a 1941 attack on an RAF base near Baghdad, it was mainly out of convenience, not conviction, that Saddam joined the party; strong in Tikrit and the Sunni "triangle", dedicated to force not persuasion, it readily appealed to a man of his ambition and temper.
In theory he remained a Ba'athist to his dying day, but for him Ba'athism was always an apparatus, never an ideology: no sooner was command of the one complete than he dispensed entirely with the other. For next to brutality, opportunism was his chief trait. Not Stalin himself could have governed with such whimsy, or lurched, ideologically, politically, strategically, from one extreme to another with quite such ease, regularity, and disastrous consequences, and yet still, incredibly, retain command to the end.
The Ba'ath, and other "revolutionary" parties, had come into their own with the overthrow, in 1958, of the "reactionary", British-created Hashemite monarchy. They quickly fell out with General Kassem's new regime and with each other, rivalries that expressed themselves mainly in streetfighting and assassinations. That was the way of life that Saddam fell into as a street-gang leader, after going, in 1955, to live with his uncle in Baghdad to study at Karkh high school.
Saddam first achieved national prominence in 1959 with a bungled attempt to kill Kassem. He seems to have lost his nerve and opened fire prematurely. But though his role was less than glorious, it became an essential component of the Saddam legend - that of the dauntless young revolutionary extracting a bullet from his leg with his own hand, and, with security forces in hot pursuit, swimming the icy waters of the Euphrates, knife between clenched teeth, before galloping to safety across the Syrian desert; eventually fetching up in Cairo, where his university law studies were terminated by the next political convulsion back home - Kassem's overthrow in February 1963.
Securing a share in the new regime, the Ba'athists lost it the following November when they fell out with the other parties. Pushed back into the underground, Saddam took what subsequently turned out to be his first, concrete step towards supreme office. In 1964, he formed the Jihaz al-Hunein, the Instrument of Yearning, the first, embryonic version of a terror apparatus of which, in its full fruition, Stalin would not have been ashamed.
It was an outgrowth of the party. That meant that, through it, Saddam, though not an officer, could now see his way to the summit. But at this stage his main asset was his collaboration with his fellow-Tikriti, Brigadier Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr. Thanks to a combination of Bakr's traditional military means and Saddam's new, "civilian" ones, the pair pulled off the "glorious July 1968 Revolution".
At 31, as deputy secretary general of the Ba'ath party, Saddam was the power behind President Bakr's throne. But at first he assumed, like Stalin in his similar period, a disarmingly modest and retiring demeanour as he lay the foundations of what he called a new kind of rule; "With our party methods," he said, "there is no chance for anyone who disagrees with us to jump on a couple of tanks and overthrow the government." Gradually he subordinated the army to the party.
There was nothing modest about the Ba'athists' inaugural reign of terror; few knew it then, but it was chiefly his handiwork, and quite different from anything hitherto experienced in a country already notorious for its harsh political tradition. Saddam's henchmen presided over "revolutionary tribunals" that sent hundreds to the firing squad on charges of puerile, trumped up absurdity. They called on "the masses" to "come and enjoy the feast": the hanging of "Jewish spies" in Liberation Square amid ghoulish festivities and bloodcurdling official harangues.
That was the public face. Behind it were such places as the Palace of the End. So called because King Faisal died there in the 1958 Revolution, it was now more aptly named than ever. Saddam's first security chief, Nadhim Kzar, had turned it into a chamber of horrors. But Kzar, a Shia, nursed a grudge against his Sunni patrons; in 1973, he turned against them; Saddam, Bakr and a host of top Tikritis had a very narrow escape indeed.
Thereafter the badly shaken number two relied almost entirely on Tikritis; the more sensitive the post, the more closely related its incumbent would be to himself. Meanwhile, with guile and infinite patience, he worked his way towards his supreme goal. Purge followed judicious purge, first aimed at the Ba'athists' rivals, then the army, then the party, then influential, respected, or strategically located people whom he deemed most liable, at some point, to cry halt to his inexorable ascension.
When, in June 1979, all was set for him to depose and succeed the ailing Bakr, he could have accomplished it with bloodless ease. But he wilfully, gratuitously chose blood in what was a psychological as well as a symbolic necessity. He had to inaugurate the "era of Saddam Hussein" with a rite whose message would be unmistakable: there had arisen in Mesopotamia a ruler who, in his barbaric splendour, cruelty and caprice, was to yield nothing to its despots of old.
Only now did he emerge, personally and very publicly, as accuser, judge and executioner in one. He called an extraordinary meeting of senior party cadres. They were solemnly informed that "a gang disloyal to the party and the revolution" had mounted a "base conspiracy" in the service of "Zionism and the forces of darkness", and that all the "traitors" were right there, with them, in the hall. One of their ringleaders, brought straight from prison, made a long and detailed confession of his "horrible crime".
Saddam, puffing on a Havana cigar, calmly watched the proceedings as if they had nothing to do with him. Then he took the podium. He began to read out the "traitors'" names, slowly and theatrically; he seemed quite overcome as he did so, pausing only to light his cigar or wipe away his tears with a handkerchief. All 66 "traitors" were led away one by one.
Thus did the new president make inaugural use of that essential weapon of the ultimate tyrant, the occasional flamboyant, contemptuous act of utter lawlessness, turpitude or unpredictability, and the enforced prostration of his whole apparatus, in praise and rejoicing, before it. Those of the audience who had not been named showed their relief with hysterical chants of gratitude and a baying for the blood of their fallen comrades.
Saddam then called on ministers and party leaders to join him in personally carrying out the "democratic executions"; every party branch in the country sent an armed delegate to assist them. It was, he said, "the first time in the history of revolutionary movements without exception, or perhaps of human struggle, that over half the supreme leadership had taken part in a tribunal" which condemned the other half. "We are now," he confided, "in our Stalinist era."
But in one way he had actually surpassed his exemplar. Upon entering the Kremlin, the former Georgian streetfighter had at least kept himself fittingly aloof from his "great terror". Not Saddam. Newly exalted, he was to remain down-to-earth too; new caliph of Baghdad, but, direct participant in his own terror, very much the Tikriti gangster, too.
The "Leader, President, Struggler" now emerged as a regional and international actor with the disproportionate capacity for promoting well-being and order or wreaking havoc which Iraq's great strategic and political importance, vast oil wealth, relatively educated citizenry and powerful army conferred on him. With U-turns, blunders and megalomaniac whimsies, he chose havoc; he wreaked it on the region and the world, but above all on Iraq itself.
In September 1980 he went to war against Iran. It was known as "Saddam's Qadisiyah", after the Arabs' early Islamic victory over the Persians. His official, strictly limited war aims revolved round the Shatt al-Arab estuary and his determination to renegotiate the "Algiers agreement" he had concluded a mere five years before. A dire emergency had forced that humiliation on him: the Iraqi army had been close to defeat in its campaign to suppress the last great, Iranian-backed Kurdish uprising led by Mullah Mustafa Barazani. The quid pro quo for Algiers had been the American-inspired withdrawal of the Shah's support for Barazani.
His "Qadisiyah", first of his spectacular volte-faces, was now to avenge the humiliation. But he also had a higher, unofficial aim: to weaken or destroy the Ayatollah Khomeini's new-born Islamic Republic, or at least its subversive potentialities in Iraq itself. For Iraq's Shia majority now saw in their Iranian co-religionists a means of bringing down Sunni minority rule. Hitherto closely bound to the Soviet Union, Saddam now bid for the west's favour as the Shah's natural heir as the "strong man" of the Gulf.
In the terrible eight-year struggle that followed, the Ayatollah's Iran remorselessly turned the tables on the Iraqi aggressor, recovered all its conquered territory, and, in a series of fearsome "human wave" offensives, tried to conquer Iraq, and turn it into the world's second "Islamic Republic".
That would have been a geopolitical upheaval of incalculable consequences. To forestall it, the west, beneath a mask of outward neutrality, put its weight behind one unlovely regime because it found the other unlovelier still. While the frightened, oil-rich Gulf furnished cash, the west furnished conventional weapons, and the means to manufacture a whole array of unconventional ones: nuclear, chemical and biological. Almost miraculously, Saddam held out, until, in July 1988, Khomeini drank from what he called "the poisoned chalice" of a ceasefire.
Of course, Saddam hailed this, his "first Gulf war", as a victory. Though what possible victory there could have been in an outcome which, in addition to hundreds of thousands of dead, wounded and captured, immense physical destruction and economic havoc, left Iraq on a permanent war footing, still seeking to renegotiate the status of the Shatt al-Arab?
Even if he could not officially admit it, he had good reason to give his people some recompense for their sufferings. He made as if to offer them two things, material betterment and some democratisation. But he cannot have been serious about either. Thanks to the ravages of his "Qadisiyah", he had no money for economic reconstruction. And, in another great volte-face, he staged a virtual counter-revolution against the one ideal of Ba'athism, its socialism, which he had made a passable attempt to put into practice. Worse, the main beneficiaries of the economic revisionism were the Tikriti pillars of his regime, now corrupt as well as despotic.
With the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu, the east European dictator he most closely resembled, Saddam abandoned talk of "the new pluralist trends" he discerned in the world. Indeed, he persisted, more surrealistically than ever, in the despot's law: the more disastrous his deeds the more they should be glorified. His cult of personality expressed itself most overbearingly in monumental architecture, where the public - an amazing array of bizarre or futuristic memorials to his "Qadisiyah" - merged with the private (his proliferating palaces) in grandiose tribute to all the attributes, bordering on the divine, ascribed to him.
It reflected a degree of control that enabled him, amazingly, to embark, within two years of the first, on his "second Gulf war", and then, more amazingly still, to survive that yet greater calamity in its turn. It was a resort to the classic diversionary expedient, a flashy foreign adventure, of the dictator in trouble at home. He cast himself once again as the pan-Arab champion, boasting that, having secured the Arabs' eastern flank against the Persians, he was now turning his attention westwards, with the aim of settling scores with the Arabs' other great foe, the Zionists. He threatened "to burn half of Israel" with his weapons of mass destruction, thrilling large segments of an Arab public desperately short of credible heroes.
But instead of Israel, it was Kuwait which, on the night of August 2 1990, Saddam attacked, or, rather, gobbled up in its entirety. Hardly had he done that than, to appease Iran, he unilaterally re-accepted the Algiers agreement on the Shatt al-Arab. It was the most breathtaking of his volte-faces; even as he dragged his people into another unprovoked war, he was in effect telling them that, in the first, they had shed all that blood, sweat and tears for nothing.
The Kuwait invasion was the ultimate excess, whimsy and Promethean delusion of the despot: the belief that he could get away with anything. Yet nothing had encouraged this excess like the west's indulgence of his earlier ones. Sure, it had never loved him. But neither had it protested at his use of chemical weapons against Iran. It had contented itself with little more than a wringing of hands when he went on to gas his own people.
In March 1988, in revenge for an Iranian territorial gain, he wiped out 5,000 Kurdish inhabitants of Halabja; then, the war over, he wiped out several thousand more in "Operation Anfal", his final, genocidal attempt to solve his Kurdish problem. In effect, the west's reaction had been to treat the Kurds as an internal Iraqi affair; exterminating them en masse may have briefly stirred the international conscience, but it tended, if anything, to reinforce the existing international order.
But now that he was so ungratefully, so shockingly threatening this order itself, the west finally awoke to the true nature of the monster it had nurtured. Before long, Saddam faced an American-led army of half a million men assembled in the Arabian desert.
He did not blench. And for a few months he won adulation as the latter-day Saladin, who, after Kuwait, would go on to liberate Palestine. He said his army was eagerly awaiting the coalition's great land offensive to reconquer Kuwait; in "the mother of all battles", Iraq would "water the desert with American blood".
But he stood no chance. For a month, allied aircraft rained high-tech devastation on his army, air force, economic and strategic infrastructure. He panicked, ordering his army's withdrawal from Kuwait. It was not enough for the allies. As their ground forces swept almost unopposed through Kuwait, then into southern Iraq, the withdrawal became a rout. They could have marched on Baghdad. He caved in utterly, accepting every demand that the allies made. Only then did they cease their advance.
They had shattered most of his "million-man army" except for its elite Republican Guards, held in reserve to defend the regime against the wrath of the people. And this time their wrath was truly unleashed. The two oppressed majorities, Shias and Kurds, staged their great uprisings. These began spontaneously, when a Shia tank commander, having fled from Kuwait to Basra, positioned his vehicle in front of one of those gigantic, ubiquitous murals of the tyrant and addressed it thus: "What has befallen us of defeat, shame and humiliation, Saddam, is the result of your follies, your miscalculations and your irresponsible actions."
But the uprisings foundered on the rock of Saddam's residual strength, western betrayal and, in the south, their own disorganisation, vengeful excesses and failure to distance themselves from Iranian expansionist designs. Exploiting the Sunni minority's fear that if he went, so would many of them, in the most horrible of massacres, Saddam sent in his guards. Dreadful atrocities accompanied the slow reconquest of the south. And when the Guards turned north, the whole population of "liberated" Kurdistan fled in panic through snow and bitter cold to Iran and Turkey.
The television images of that grim stampede caught the measure of western betrayal. Four weeks previously, President George Bush senior had urged the Iraqis to rise up. But when they did so, he turned a deaf ear to their pleas for help. "New Hitler" Saddam might be, but he was also the only barrier against the possible break-up of Iraq itself. Saudi Arabia, for one, could not tolerate the prospect. It told the US it would work to replace Saddam with an army officer who would keep the country in safe, authoritarian, Sunni Muslim hands.
Saddam was saved again. And for 12 more years he hung on, as his people sank into social, economic and political miseries incomparably greater than those which had propelled him into Kuwait. Tikriti solidarity continued to preserve him against putsch and assassination. And never again would the people stage an uprising without assurance of success. Only the west could provide that. But the West, preoccupied with other crises, was paralysed.
It would, or could, not withdraw from what, after the Gulf war, it had put in place, a curious, contradictory amalgam of UN sanctions that penalised the Iraqi people, not its rulers, a moral commitment to safeguard "liberated" Kurdistan, an ineffectual "no-fly zone" over the Shia south.
But it also feared to go further in and, completing the logic of what it had begun, join forces with a serious Iraqi opposition that could bring the tyrant down and keep the country in one piece thereafter. This was inertia, which, the longer it lasted, the more dearly it would pay for in the end. Every now and then confrontations erupted between the world's only superpower and this most exasperating of "rogue states"; they arose out of Saddam's attempts to break out of his "box", via some renewed threat to Kuwait, an incursion into the western-protected Kurdish enclave, or - most persistently - showdowns over the UN's mission to divest Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction.
In the last of them, in 1998, his elite military and security apparatus took a four-day pounding from the air. Heavy though this was, it proved to be the last, symbolic flourish behind which the Clinton administration acquiesced in what, with the expulsion of the arms inspectors, was a diplomatic victory for Saddam.
In the end, it was less his own misdeeds that brought the despot down, but those of the man who, for a while, supplanted him as America's ultimate villain, Osama bin Laden. Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11, but he fell victim none the less to the crusading militarism, the new doctrine of the pre-emptive strike, the close identification with a rightwing Israeli agenda, that now took full possession of the administration of George Bush junior. Iraq became the first target among the three states (with Iran and North Korea) that it had placed on its "axis of evil", and with the launch of the invasion by the US, UK and their allies in March 2003, Saddam's days were numbered.
However, three years passed between his capture and his execution yesterday. In December 2003, following a tip-off from an intelligence source, US forces found him hiding in an underground refuge on a farm near Tikrit, where his life had begun. It was the middle of the next year before he was transferred to Iraqi custody, and in July 2004 the former president appeared in court to hear criminal charges. Another year passed before the prosecution was ready to proceed with counts related to the massacre in the small Shia town of Dujail in 1982. The trial at last opened in October 2005 and the proceedings were immediately adjourned. Saddam, who two months earlier had sacked his legal team, pleaded innocence. A second trial on war crimes charges relating to the 1988 Anfal campaign opened on August 21 this year. He refused to enter a plea, and episodes of black farce, which characterised his earlier appearances in court, recurred, with the judge switching of his microphone because of his interruptions, and ejecting him from the court four times. The trial was adjourned on October 11, but on November 5 the court handed down a guilty verdict and sentenced Saddam to death by hanging.Saddam married Saida Khairallah in 1963. Their sons Uday and Qusay (obituaries, July 23 2003) were killed by American forces; they had three daughters.
· Saddam Hussein abd al-Majid, politician, born April 28 1937; died December 30 2006.