Global Policy Forum

Saddam Hussein: The Last Great Tyrant


By Robert Fisk

December 30, 2000

When the Egyptian journalist Mohamed Heikal visited Iraq during the early years of Saddam's rule, he met the minister for industry. Heikal was impressed by the intense, hard-working, intellectual man running Iraq's dynamic industrial output. So on his next visit, Heikal asked to meet him again. Officials explained that they had no information about the minister and all enquiries should be addressed to His Excellency the President. So when at last Heikal turned up for his interview with the dictator of Iraq, he asked about the minister for industry.

"He's gone," Saddam said. "Gone?", asked Heikal. There was a pause. "We scissored his neck – he was suspected of being a traitor." But was there any evidence of this, the appalled Heikal asked. Was there any proof? "In Iraq, we don't need proof," Saddam replied, "suspicion is enough." In Cairo, he went on, Egyptians might have a white revolution. "In Iraq we have a red revolution." Heikal was horrified. But should he have been surprised?

There is about Saddam Hussein a peculiar ruthlessness, an almost calculated cruelty, perhaps even an interest in pain. It wasn't enough to order the murder of his sons-in-law after their return from exile in Jordan. They had to be dragged away with meat hooks through their eyes. It wasn't enough to order the hanging of the Observer journalist Farzad Bazoft in 1990; Bazoft was to be left unaware of his fate until a British embassy official turned up at the Abu Ghorraib prison to say goodbye. At Abu Ghorraib, women prisoners are allowed a party the night before one of them is to be hanged. Women are dispatched on Thursdays. Families are asked to bring their own coffin when a relative has been executed.

And yet we loved him. In the days when Saddam clawed his way to power, personally shot members of his own cabinet, or used gas for the first time on his recalcitrant Kurds, we loved him. When he invaded Iran in 1980, we gave him Bailey bridges and Mirage jets and radio sets and poison gas – the Mirages from France, the poison gas, of course, from Germany – and US satellite reconnaissance pictures of the Iranian front lines. I once met the Cologne arms dealer who personally took the photos from Washington DC to Baghdad. The Russians poured in their new T-72 tanks. Saddam's war against Iran – the greatest mass killing in modern Middle Eastern history until the UN sanctions of the last decade – was designed to appeal to both Arabs and the West. For the Arabs who tamely poured their millions into his armoury, Kuwait among the most prominent, his Iraqi sons were wading through anharr al-damm – literally "rivers of blood" – to defend the al-bawwabah al-sharqiyah, the "Eastern Gateway" to the Arab world and Saudi Arabia.

To the West, he was fighting off Khomeini's Islamic hordes. Asked why the Iraqis used gas against their enemies, one of his senior confidants replied: "When you weed the lawn, you have to use weed-killer." Blundering, ignorant of Western (though not Arab) history, largely uneducated, an original Tikriti corner-boy whose first political act was an attempted assassination and an escape, wounded, into the desert; how did he do it? How come the man who defied George Bush senior is still there to defy George Bush junior? How come, 10 years after the "mother of all battles" – a phrase typical of Saddam – and 10 years after UN sanctions that have killed at least a million Iraqis, Saddam is still enjoying his palaces and cigars? The French are a clue. They idolised Saddam in the late Seventies. He was feted on his arrival at Orly, dined out by the Mayor of Paris (a certain M Chirac), swamped with champagne as he watched a bull-running circus in central France.

For the French, he was a kind of Jacobin, the reformer-turned-extremist whose reign of terror had a power all its own. Saddam's "red revolution" was always rubber-stamped by the democratic mockeries of Iraq – he asked the Kurds of a northern Iraqi town if he should hang Bazoft and their cries of affirmation doomed the correspondent – but somehow, in a crazed way, it was modern and progressive. Iraq's hospitals and medical care were on a par with Europe, women's rights were rigorously enforced, religious insurrection was suppressed in blood.

And he was – and is – a very intelligent man. When I first saw him, in 1978, he was espousing the merits of nuclear power, of binary fission (technology courtesy of his beloved France). Self-confident, quoting from Arab poets and writers, replying to foreign journalists who snapped at him, with humour and history. Asked, in view of his little speech, about the danger of nuclear weapons proliferation, he replied: "Ah, you must not ask me about Israel's 250 warheads in the Negev desert – you must ask the Israelis!" He always wore a massive wrap-around jacket with too many buttons, but his shirts and shoes were always the latest in Paris fashion. I visited his abandoned palace in Kurdistan in 1991, one of the series of massive, fortified royal residences he continues to build across Iraq, evidence, according to Madeleine Albright, that sanctions haven't yet brought him low and thus must continue. In truth, they are evidence that sanctions clearly do not work – because they don't touch Saddam – and thus should not continue.

But what was so evident about his northern palace was its tawdry nature, the poor quality of the concrete round the swimming pool, the cracked pseudo-Grecian columns in the dining-room, the under-weeded flower beds. In Baghdad, the palace lawns are better tended, but the same sense of spent taste and vulgarity pervades the president's imagery. Saddam on horseback, in Kurdish clothes, embracing babies and war heroes, riding on a charger in medieval armour to confront the Persians at the Battle of Qaddasiyeh, dressed as Nebuchadnezzar, he who conquered Syria and Palestine, sacked Ashkelon and subdued all the tribes of the Arabs. Like the king of Babylonia, Saddam decided to rebuild Babylon; and so the ancient city was ripped apart and reconstructed, Disney-style, in the image of the great man.

Even the giant egg-shell monument to the Iraqi war dead of 1980-88 is a personal museum to Saddam's family. Visit the crypt and beside the names of half a million dead you find a photograph of the young, revolutionary Saddam, on the run from the royal family, of Saddam studying in Cairo (his hero was not Hitler but Stalin), of Saddam with his first wife. Now there is a second wife – the feuding between the wives' two families is one of the causes of the ferocious bloodletting within the family. His son Oday, partly crippled in an assassination attempt while on his way to a nightclub, murdered a bodyguard at a party. "My son must be tried like any other Iraqi," Saddam announced. Then the family of the dead man – surprise, surprise – forgave Oday. Unpunished, he continued to run the highest security apparatus of the state, all the while enjoying the title of head of the Iraqi Olympic committee. Greatness, for Saddam, is a simple affair. Victorious in war, the people love you. Strength is all.

In an Arab world that sadly admires power more than compassion, he was a hero for millions of Egyptians, Saudis, Kuwaitis, Lebanese, even Syrians. "He may be ruthless," a Lebanese journalist remarked to me in 1990, "but you have to admit he's strong. He stands up to people." In reality, Saddam walks tall when his enemies are beaten. He dreams like a sleepwalker. I recall huddling with Iraqi commandos in a shell-smashed city in southern Iran in 1980 when an officer announced a personal message from Saddam to all his fighting forces. They were participating, he announced, in "the lightning war". There was even a song that played continuously on Iraqi television: "The Lightning War". Like the "Mother of All Battles", it was a mockery of the truth. There were other hints in his war with Iran, had we but known it, of Saddam's behaviour in Kuwait. In 1983, after proclaiming the Iraqi-occupied Iranian city of Khorramshahr a bastion to be defended to the last man – Saddam's personal Stalingrad – he simply ordered his thousands of troops to abandon the fortress and march back to Iraq, just as he ordered his men to abandon Kuwait the moment the Western armies broke into Iraq in 1991.

If his behaviour seems irrational, it is certainly consistent. He believed that a strong Iraq must be self-sufficient. It must make its own weapons, its own tanks, its own bullets. A year to the day after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, I was prowling through the wreckage of the Iraqi army along the Basra highway when I came upon an upturned ammunition truck whose cargo of battalion and brigade notebooks had been scattered across the desert, partly buried in sand. "Message from the Supreme Commander," it said in one. And there, page after page, was the text of a secret Saddam speech to his high command. Iraq, he said, must abandon its traditional confidence in other nations; it must set up its own arms factories, invent its own secret weapons. There it all was, in blue Biro, the authentic voice of Saddam speaking from beneath the very floor of the desert. It is not so difficult to struggle into the mind of Saddam when you read this. He had invaded Iran and the West loved him. Why should they object – or fight him – when, threatened by Kuwaiti demands for the billions of dollars in "loans" used to pay off the Iran war and with the Kuwaitis apparently "stealing" Iraqi oil from beneath the Rumailah field, he invaded Kuwait? Only four months earlier, just after Bazoft's hanging, a group of American senators visited Saddam in Baghdad and assured him that "democracy is a very confusing issue – I believe that your problems lie with the Western media and not with the US government" (this from Senator Alan Simpson). Senator Howard Metzenbaum, announcing himself "a Jew and a staunch supporter of Israel", went on to tell Saddam that "I have been sitting here and listening to you for about an hour, and I am now aware that you are a strong and intelligent man and that you want peace." So what had Saddam to fear from the US? In that last fateful interview with US ambassador April Glaspie, less than a month before the invasion of Kuwait, Saddam told Ms Glaspie that Kuwait's borders were drawn in colonial days. Saddam had always been an anti-colonialist. "We studied history at school," the luckless Glaspie replies. "They taught us to say freedom or death. I think you know well that we... have our experience with the colonialists. We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait." In a post-war press interview, as the writer Christopher Hitchens has pointed out, Glaspie gave the game away. "We never expected they would take all of Kuwait," she said. The Americans were going to let Saddam bite a chunk out of the Kuwaiti border.

Saddam thought he had permission to gobble up all of Kuwait. And so we went to war with the Hitler of the Euphrates. And so he lives on in his palaces and bunkers while his people die for lack of clean water and medicines under the UN sanctions that are supposed to harm Saddam. We still bomb him every day – our war with Saddam has lasted 10 years now – and slowly, the Arabs, dismayed by the bloodshed in the Palestine-Israel war, are warming once more to the man who never gave in. Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia – almost all of them America's allies in 1991 – are now breaking the air embargo by flying into Baghdad. Saddam lives.

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