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Patrick Cockburn: Iron man who proved to be a tin god: From gilded palaces to wretched infamy
He fancied himself as a leading player on the world stage, but posing for the cameras while butchering his own secured his downfall. By Patrick Cockburn
Published: 31 December 2006
Had Saddam Hussein never lived, the world would be a different place. But he changed the world more by his defeats than his victories.
For all his nationalist rhetoric, Iraqis never wanted to fight or die for him. After he invaded Iran in 1980, Iraqi troops surrendered en masse until Iran in turn invaded Iraq. In Kuwait in 1991, the Iraqi army again hardly fought against the US-led coalition. In 2003, the American and British armies suffered few casualties on the road to Baghdad. Only after Saddam fled did serious guerrilla warfare begin.
His nationalism was genuine: he identified Iraq wholly with himself. At his trial he presented himself as the symbol of Iraqi unity and independence, berating his judges as pawns of the US. When told he was to die this weekend, he remarked philosophically to one lawyer: "What do you expect from occupiers?"
As the standard-bearer of Arab nationalism and the opponent of Western imperialism, he was more popular outside Iraq than within. Every office, restaurant and street in Iraq bore his image. I once counted nine photographs of him in the office of a Baghdad newspaper editor. But for all that, he was liked by few Iraqis. The next time I saw the editor, he was in exile in London.
The reverence was more genuine elsewhere. Taxi drivers from Jordan to Sudan and Yemen to Bangladesh pinned up his picture in their cabs. It was only as his army fled without firing a shot, and the Sunni and Shia rose in rebellion, that they realised they had chosen an ineffective champion.
His regime was a police state, but a peculiar one. It had all the repressive apparatus of East Germany or Chile. Saddam's response to any form of dissent was repression, usually far in excess of what was needed to achieve his ends. He was executed yesterday for killing 148 people from the village of Dujail because of an attempt to kill him there in 1982, but the assassination bid was only a scattering of shots in the direction of his motorcade. The savagery of the retaliation aimed, very successfully, to spread terror.