In February 1991, former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, visited Tehran and met with Iran’s president, Ali Akhbar Rafsanjani. Neighboring Iraq figured high in the conversation. The US and its allies had just launched the ground war to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation forces, this coming three years after the end of the disastrous Iran-Iraq war which cost over a million lives and devastated the economies of both countries.
During the meeting, Gandhi asked Rafsanjani whom he thought should and could rule neighboring Iraq. Rafsanjani thought for a moment and then replied, “Saddam Hussein.”
What a depressing assessment it was that, in the mind of Rafsanjani, only a pitiless despot like Saddam could hold Iraq together and prevent its sectarian and ethnic divisions from plunging the country into a Hobbesian bloodbath.
Doubtless, that was one of Saddam’s final thoughts as he meekly accepted the noose around his neck and scoffed at the jeers and taunts of his Shi’ite executioners, telling them that Iraq today was like hell without his iron grip.
An apposite finale
Still, his execution—for all its sordidness—was perhaps an apposite finale for a man whose brutal role over Iraq and reckless foreign entanglements shaped the course of history in the Middle East for over a quarter century.
“He was a catalyst, he made things happen and usually they were not positive and constructive but he constantly kept the Middle East in a state of turmoil,” says Gary Sick, professor of International Affairs at Columbia University.
Saddam was perhaps the last of the ‘great’ Arab nationalist dictators, his rule being founded in an ideology of left-leaning secular and militaristic nationalism; he became little more than a vicious sectarian mafia boss, plundering the wealth of his country and murdering its people to maintain his grip on power.
Iraq was always fated to play a key role in the Middle East due to its massive oil wealth, geographical proximity to non-Arab, mainly Shi’ite Iran, and potential financial and military weight in the Arab-Israeli conflict. But it was the potent mix of Saddam’s over-arching ambition and sense of destiny combined with an impulsive and vengeful nature that propelled Iraq into a series of disasters that has left an indelible mark on the region.
Saddam’s rise to absolute power began in 1968 when he participated in a bloodless coup that saw his cousin Ahmad al-Hassan al-Baqr become president. In the 1970s, Saddam, who gradually came to overshadow the president, helmed an economic modernization program, funded by the proceeds of the 1973 oil boom. Iraqis were granted free education and hospitalization and campaigns were launched to eradicate illiteracy. Saddam also helped forge a sense of national unity rooted in Baath Party ideology, smothering Iraq’s diverse ethnic and sectarian composition.
Despite his later tendency to make colossally bad foreign policy decisions, he had some success during the mid-1970s in outflanking Israel and US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. In the wake of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Kissinger conspired with the Shah of Iran and Israel to foment a Kurdish uprising in northern Iraq. The goal was to tie down the Iraqi army and prevent it from coming to the assistance of Syria if another war with Israel were to break out. But Saddam made a separate deal with the Shah, offering to share the Shatt al-Arab waterway between their two countries if Iran dropped its support for the Kurds. Iran closed its border to the Kurds, allowing Saddam’s army to crush the rebellion.
However, Saddam continued to resent the deal he struck with the Shah and it was one of the reasons why he went to war with Iran five years later.
“He was able to bring to Iraq a sense of development for a period … Then it was all destroyed year after year with adventurous decisions,” says Shafeeq Ghabra, a Kuwaiti professor of politics.
Saddam pushed aside the ailing al-Baqr and became president in 1979, the same year that the Shah was toppled by the Islamic revolution that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power. The rise of a militant Shi’ite theocracy in Iran alarmed the Sunni Arab Gulf. Saddam, fearing Khomeini’s influence over Iraq’s restless Shi’ites and tacitly backed by his Sunni Gulf neighbors, invaded Iran in 1980, setting in motion the devastating eight-year war.
Saddam intended to smash the disorganized fledgling Islamic regime in Iran, an act that would confirm his leadership of the Arab world and earn the gratitude of his neighbors in the Gulf. But the war had the unintended consequence of strengthening Khomeini’s rule.
“It forced the Islamic revolution to get out of its zealous craziness and begin to organize itself and pull itself together,” says Professor Sick, an Iran specialist. “In a way, Saddam stabilized the Iranian revolution and kept the mullahs in power.”
Bringing Iran and Syria together
The conflict also triggered an alliance between Iran and Iraq’s arch enemy, Syria, which was ruled by a rival branch of the Baath Party. The Iranian-Syrian relationship has proved enduring: in the past year, it has further strengthened to become one of the region’s most significant geo-strategic alignments.
When the Gulf war ended in 1988, the Iraqi economy was in ruins with some $75 billion owed to Iraq’s Gulf backers. Relations between Iraq and Kuwait steadily deteriorated over the next two years with the latter’s refusal to forgive the war debt and cut oil production to raise revenues for Iraq. A bitter Saddam sent his war-weary army into Kuwait in August 1990, triggering a fresh convulsion in the Middle East.
The US assembled an unprecedented coalition of Arab and European allies to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. The second Gulf war also marked the beginning of a prolonged US military deployment in Saudi Arabia, which would later be used by Osama bin Laden to partly justify his anti-American actions, culminating in the attacks of September 11, 2001.
The crippling UN sanctions on Iraq during the 1990s, the most severe against any country in UN history, devastated an already weakened economy, but failed to bring down Saddam’s regime.
Although the 2003 US-Anglo invasion of Iraq finally ended his long tyrannical rule, its aftermath has turned Iraq into a byword of sectarian violence and bloodshed with no end in sight.
Although Saddam is dismissed by most Arabs as a tyrant who ran a regime of unmitigated brutality and greed, some regard him as a champion of Arab steadfastness against American “imperialism” and Israeli aggression. Indeed, it is a telling indicator of how badly the Americans have messed up in Iraq that the cruel, corrupt despot they removed in the name of democracy and freedom ended his days akin to a folk hero for many embittered and nervous Arab Sunnis, who resent the empowerment of Shi’ites in Iraq and fear Iran’s hegemonic designs on the Middle East. The poor, crushed and abused Palestinians have long looked up to Saddam, gratefully receiving his millions of dollars and words of support while overlooking the fact that his actions were little more than a cynical manipulation of their plight to curry popularity and burnish his Arabist credentials.
Although the main pretext for toppling Saddam was his alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, the American architects of the invasion also hoped that the Iraqi dictator’s demise would trigger a domino-effect in the Middle East, with other Arab autocracies falling to be replaced with Western-friendly democracies.
Saddam’s downfall empowered the despots of the region
But US mismanagement of occupied Iraq, the tenacity of the Iraqi insurgency and the rise of Shi’ite-Sunni hostilities has had the opposite effect, dealing a blow to the democratization project in the Middle East. Indeed, the violence has grown so bad that recent polls suggest that most Iraqis believe life was better under Saddam. The implicit message has reassured to the region’s autocrats, who can point to the chaos in Iraq to justify their own iron-fisted rule and clamp down on calls for democratic reforms.
“The downfall of Saddam and its aftershocks only empowered the regimes of the Middle East,” says Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst. “Leaders can now say, ‘Look to Iraq. This is what the Americans will bring.’”
Truly, Saddam was a monster, but given America’s failure in Iraq and the sectarian disaster it has spawned, Iraqis and other Arabs could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps there was something after all to Rafsanjani’s discouraging recognition of Saddam’s qualities as ruler.
A chip off the old block – Norbert Schiller recalls Uday Hussein
Iraq’s former leader Saddam Hussein was more than just a ruthless dictator. Like most psychopaths, he could be likable—even charming—when he wanted. Saddam Hussein was a survivor. He came from peasant stock and learned early on that in order to move up, he had to make the right friends, use them and dispose of them.
However, his eldest son and “original” heir-apparent Uday inherited none his father’s manipulative charm, and all of his ruthlessness. Uday, who was born into power, used only fear to move through life.
Whereas Saddam was omniscient figure that the average Iraqi saw only in newspapers, on street murals and on television. Uday, on the other hand, was much more visible in person, with his entourage of shady characters driving expensive cars. He appeared in public mostly at night, going from one upscale nightclub to another. He was even known to crash the weddings of women he had previously been interested in.
During my travels to Iraq over the past three decades, I came face to face with Uday on a few occasions. The first encounter was in 1990, four months after Iraq invaded Kuwait. In order to stall the imminent invasion, Iraqi authorities rounded up all the male westerners they could find in Kuwait and Iraq and held them against their will at strategic installations they believed would be targeted by the American-led coalition. As international pressure mounted to release the “Human Shields,” Iraq decided to host an international Music and Sports Peace Festival as a way of gaining sympathy for their country. The host of the festival was none other than Uday Hussein.
People from across the world flooded into the Iraqi capital. A Japanese senator arrived with an entourage of wrestlers, musicians, and kite flyers. A group came from the US, claiming to be an all-in-one basketball/volleyball team and singing troupe. Even former heavyweight boxing champion Mohammed Ali showed up with assorted peaceniks and businessmen.
Uday was the center of attention, dividing his time between listening to impassioned pleas from politicians and housewives to release the “Human Shields” and attending almost every festival event. He beamed when Iraq’s national basketball team demolished the American singing troupe.
When the festival ended, everyone nervously waited to see if the Iraqi parliament would vote in favor of releasing the hostages. Was the festival a success? Was Uday pleased by the turnout? The parliament met in an emergency session and within a few minutes declared that the Iraqi military was now strong enough to defend the ‘homeland,’ so there was no need to hold any foreigner against his will.
The years which followed the first American invasion of Iraq took a high toll on the country. The sanctions slapped on Iraq hardly affected the ruling party. Instead, it was the poor and middle classes that suffered. Those who could leave the country did and with them went the vibrancy of Iraqi society. From one visit to the next, I would see shops boarded up. Restaurants and cafes shut down, and Baghdad’s once throbbing night life was reduced to the disco in the Rasheed hotel, one of Uday’s favorite haunts.
One evening a group of friends and I headed to the disco, hoping to cheer ourselves up. By then, Saddam Hussein had put a ban on selling alcohol in public places but the Rasheed disco was left untouched. After too much Johnny Walker Black Label, we hit the dance floor. As the only nightspot still open, Baghdad’s high society was out in numbers. Men and women danced to the Arabic top 40, seemingly oblivious to the hardships the rest of society was facing. Suddenly, I awoke from my alcohol-induced daze and realized that I was dancing alone, with only a few other men scattered across the dance floor. I stumbled back towards my friends and in a loud and boisterous voice asked where all the women had gone.
An Iraqi friend motioned to me to come close and keep my voice down; then he pulled me even closer and said in my ear, “Don’t make it obvious when you turn around, but the party-pooper just arrived.”