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Iraq After Saddam: A Nation Soaked in Blood Tears Itself Apart
I first saw Saddam Hussein making a speech on a distant platform in Baghdad in 1978. He was already known as "The Strong Man of Iraq" and the following year he executed several leaders of the ruling Baath party who were opposed to him becoming the all-powerful president.
Criticism of the leader and his family was highly dangerous. People in cafés in Baghdad were nervous if they accidentally spilled their coffee on their newspaper. They feared they might be accused of deliberately defacing the picture of Saddam Hussein that invariably appeared on the front page.
He wanted to be a world historical figure and in a way he achieved his ambition. He compared himself to the great heroes of the Iraqi past, such as Sargon of Akkad, Nebuchadnezzar and Saladin. At the height of the Iran-Iraq War, when resources were strained in Iraq, he rebuilt part of ancient Babylon with ugly yellowed bricks, on each of which was printed his name.
Surprisingly he succeeded in making the world ring with his name. But he did so through defeat and not victory. In 1980 he invaded Iran and started an eight-year-long war in which one million Iraqis and Iranians were killed and wounded. In 1990 he occupied Kuwait and was defeated by US-led forces.
Saddam destroyed his own country. When he came to power it had oil, money, a competent administration and a well-educated population. He left it in ruins. He inflicted on his people years of war that still show no sign of ending. UN sanctions from 1990 to 2003 so weakened the Iraqi state that it disintegrated with Saddam's overthrow.
He was cruel by nature. But he was also the product of a violent, deeply divided country. A Sunni himself, he always represented the minority of Iraq's population who only held power by force. Although he portrayed himself as a soldier, his real skills were as a secret policeman, tightening security measures against potential plotters. Even at the height of his power, tank brigades around Baghdad were issued with only a few rounds of ammunition to prevent them mounting a coup against him.
The Iraq Saddam ruled was a bizarre mixture of ancient and modern. The formal mechanism of the state resembled that of eastern Europe under communism. There was an inner circle of rulers and numerous security agencies. But he also held power through manipulating tribal politics. He came from the al-Bejat clan, part of the Albu Nasir tribe, which was strong in the town of Tikrit, north of Baghdad. His most trusted lieutenants were either closely related to him or came from Sunni tribes with close links to his own.