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Saddam’s Second Life

7 minute read
Bobby Ghosh

Perhaps it was inevitable that Saddam Hussein’s end would be accompanied by low theatrics instead of high drama. After all, he had ruled for nearly three decades by a crude medieval code that vulgarized Iraqi public life. And yet the former dictator’s final moments–the screams of “Go to hell” from spectators at the gallows, the taunts of “Muqtada, Muqtada” by guards evidently loyal to Shi’ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr–were undignified even by Saddam’s standards. As if to block out the barbs, Saddam loudly intoned his final prayer, the traditional Islamic invocation to God and the Prophet Muhammad. But that too was cut short: without warning, the hangman opened the trapdoor beneath his feet, and the tyrant was silenced forever.

For many who survived Saddam’s monstrous regime, his ignoble end was no more than he deserved. But the unseemly scenes from the gallows, captured by a clandestine camera phone and broadcast to an aghast world, were also a reminder of what has come since he was removed from power: vicious sectarian hatreds that intrude, as his brutality once did, upon every aspect of Iraqi life, including the final seconds of Saddam’s. His death did nothing to dampen those hatreds. The celebrations over his execution lasted barely a day before the Shi’ite-Sunni war resumed in earnest, with scores of Iraqis killed in bomb blasts across the country. Among Sunnis, the images of Saddam’s hanging sparked new anger at the Shi’ite-led government. In the face of growing outrage at home and abroad, the Iraqi government launched a probe into who shot the video of the execution and how it was leaked, allowing Saddam to dominate the headlines for days after his death.

Saddam once told a biographer he didn’t care what anybody said of him today; he was more interested in what people would think of him in 500 years. Like so many tyrants, he was obsessed with his place in history. When he looked in the mirror he saw a reflection of great men of the ages: Nebuchadnezzar, Hammurabi, Saladin. Even the villains to whom his enemies compared him were historic–Hulegu, Hitler, Stalin.

But the closest he came to emulating one of his heroes was in an area over which he had no control: like Saladin, he was born just outside Tikrit, an ancient town in Iraq’s dusty central plains. Saddam’s rise was due in part to his effectiveness as an administrator. After becoming Vice President of Iraq in 1969, at 32, he nationalized the country’s oil industry and used the revenues to launch a massive program to modernize the country’s infrastructure: roads, bridges, factories, universities, hospitals. By the late 1970s, Iraq was the Middle East’s most progressive state–rich, modern and thoroughly secular. A Baghdad political scientist described Saddam to me as “the world’s best Vice President–until he became the world’s worst President.”

In 24 years as dictator, Saddam undid all the progress he had achieved, leading his country into three wars that devastated Iraq’s economy and left more than 1 million dead. Hundreds of thousands more died at the hands of his henchmen and security forces. The true measure of his monstrosity, however, was not in any body count but in his subjugation of Iraqi minds. In February 2003, on the eve of the U.S. invasion, I visited a small village on the border with Kuwait. The local elder, known as Abu Mohammed, knew that when the fighting began, his tiny watermelon farm would be trampled by American tanks. I asked him if he was frightened. “Not of the Americans, but of Saddam,” he said. “If I don’t stand and fight, my entire family will have to answer to him.”

Less than two months later, Saddam was gone. By the end of 2003, when he was caught near his native Tikrit, his military and political networks had been dismantled, his ubiquitous statues and portraits had disappeared. His ruthless sons Uday and Qusay had been killed. The republic of fear had been destroyed. And Saddam’s prospects of becoming one of history’s greats–hero or villain–were dashed. Nebuchadnezzar, Hammurabi and Saladin had never cowered in a spider hole.

So what, in the end, did Saddam bequeath to his people? Some of Iraq’s new demons were spawned by him. Remnants of his regime dominate the Sunni insurgency and many jihadist groups. Some of the Shi’ite anger that fuels the current sectarian war can be traced to the mass murder of Shi’ites that the dictator ordered in the 1990s. Saddam’s malevolence indirectly begat al-Sadr, who was destined to a quiet life in the seminary of Najaf until Saddam in 1999 ordered the murder of his father and two older brothers, thrusting Muqtada into the limelight. But Iraq’s sectarian hatreds are rooted in religious, social and economic resentments stretching back over 1,000 years. Like rulers before him, Saddam exploited the Shi’ite-Sunni divide for his own purposes. The scenes from his execution suggest Iraq’s new rulers are not all that different.

Saddam’s more enduring legacies are also more mundane. By killing off anybody who might pose a threat to him, he prevented the natural emergence of new generations of leaders, so that the country is now run by political neophytes without experience or the skill to rule. The corruption that characterized every government department under his regime continues to this day. The reconstituted police force practices the same forms of torture instituted under Saddam. An Iraqi politician compared the dictator’s legacy to what the Romans did after they conquered Carthage: “He put salt in our fields, and it will be generations before we can grow anything good.”

And yet prior to his hanging, Saddam had become something of an afterthought. The nightmare of his tyranny has been replaced by the new plagues of terrorism and sectarian carnage. Many Iraqis–not all of them Sunni–hark nostalgically back to the dictatorship, pointing out that for all the terrors Saddam visited upon his people, at least there were no suicide bombers and death squads roaming the streets. But once his trial began, even his most ardent followers conceded he would never return to power. The Sunni Baathist insurgents have long since stopped fighting for him. Many have recast themselves as the “nationalist resistance,” or worse, mujahedin. Many others have abandoned Baathism for the more poisonous jihadist ideology of al-Qaeda.

The question is whether the sectarian tumult surrounding his execution will lend Saddam a new stature, allowing his loyalists to portray him not as a convicted killer but as a victim, mercilessly lynched by a vengeful, U.S.-backed Shi’ite government. Indeed, some have been planning to do so all along. One afternoon last October, I watched the televised Saddam trial in the company of Abu Hamza, a former senior officer in the Republican Guard. Watching his former boss sitting sullenly in the dock, Abu Hamza shook his head. Even a loyal follower could see no dignity there. Then, in a cool, matter-of-fact tone, he began to talk of Saddam’s death. “They will just hang him one night and announce it the next day,” he said. “They will bury him quietly and forbid his family from building a mausoleum. After that, they will try to make Iraqis believe Saddam never existed.” Abu Hamza, however, believed that in death Saddam would become an immortal martyr in the eyes of Sunnis. “When they hang Saddam, they will make him once again powerful,” he said. It bodes ill for Iraq’s future that he may well be proved right.

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