(November 20, 2002) Saddam Hussein is a dictator who leads a secular, single-party government in an Islamic country. He has a cruel and often bloody past and is largely isolated from the world community.
Saddam Hussein has often invoked the name and protection of Allah, even though he has spurned and often attacked Islam in the past. The dark-haired, mustached and portly man is feared by those ruled by him as well as his own family. Field Marshall Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti is President and Head of State, the Anointed One, Glorious Leader, Direct Descendant of the Prophet, Chairman of its Revolutionary Command Council, Field Marshal of its armies, doctor of its laws, and Great Uncle to all its peoples. Saddam Hussein has the dubious distinction of being the world's best known and most hated Arab leader. And in a region where despotic rule is the norm, he is more feared by his own people than any other head of state. Saddam has created a personality cult to make himself all things to all Iraqis.
Then again, Saddam Hussein admits that he is an admirer of Joseph Stalin, one of the most tyrannical leaders in history. His library is full of books about Stalin. And like Stalin, Saddam uses thugs and a feared security service to obtain his objectives. He had his security agents trained in Eastern Europe, particularly East Germany. He understands the value of state terror and has constructed an elaborate and massive police state apparatus with as many as 100,000 agents and paramilitary troops which effectively neutralizes all possibility of political opposition through fear.
Saddam has made himself the focus of loyalty. His images in costumed heroic poses are all over the country. The Iraqi media is focused on tributes for the Glorious Leader. His birthday is designated a national holiday. School children memorize poems and songs that worship Saddam. There is no such thing as too much when it comes to personality cults.
Saddam was born on April 28, 1937 on the outskirts of Tikrit, where he finished primary school. He eventually completed high school at the age of 24. He would later try to become an army officer but was ejected by the Baghdad Military Academy because of poor grades. According to a former personal secretary, Saddam's step father abused him and sent the young boy to steal chicken and sheep to be sold. Saddam Hussein of Iraq began his political career as an assassin. He committed his first political murder while still in his teens. A member of the underground Ba'ath Party, he took part in the attempted assassination of the Iraqi president, Abdul-Karim Kassim in 1959. When that failed, he went into exile in Egypt. There he gained a reputation for fighting in restaurants and for settling political arguments with a knife in his hand. His image was defined by those who knew him as a shaqawah, a local term denoting a sort of bully - a man to be feared.
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Saddam has built up a ruthless secret police, which he has turned on political and ethnic minorities, notably the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs. He has closed the Islamic teaching centers of Iraq and has replaced Islamic laws with his own. To Saddam, the glory of Iraq lies not in its Islamic caliphate, but its days as the center of the pagan Babylonian empire. While ignoring Islamic shrines, for example, he has lavished great wealth on reconstructing the Hanging Gardens of Babylon's warrior king, Nubuchadnezzar.
Human Rights Watch, reporting on the severity of Saddam's decrees, the number of people victimized by them, and given the history of a fundamental lack of respect for human rights in Saddam's Iraq, wrote in 1995, "Since the Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party came to power in 1968, the Iraqi government has used terror through various levels of police, military and intelligence agencies to control and intimidate Iraqis. Two decades of oppression against Iraq's Kurds culminated in 1988 with a campaign of genocide, including the use of chemical weapons attacks, against Kurdish civilians. The Ba'athist Sunni Muslim minority has repressed the Shi'a population, including the Marsh Arabs in the south. After the Gulf War, the use of state terror to control the population intensified. For example, thousands of Marsh Arabs have fled to Iran because Iraq has drained the marsh regions and sent in the military with tanks to shell and burn villages."
Until his invasion of Kuwait, Saddam paid very little attention to Islam. He has, however, often used Islam as a justification for his actions. He made the pilgrimage to Mecca and had his picture taken kissing the black stone. He then set himself up as a protector of Islam, even though his invasion of Kuwait broke many of its laws. He is also accused of idolatry for causing his likeness to be so blatantly displayed throughout Iraq. But not even Iran's ayatollahs dared to compete with the Prophet and his spiritual successors by hanging their own portraits in mosques as Saddam does. And it was following the invasion of Kuwait when he started referring to himself as a direct descendant of the Prophet.
Saddam's true feelings toward Islam can be seen from just two past actions. He once sent two mullahs to negotiate in his name with the Kurdish leaders. He had them equipped with hidden tape recorders to record the conversation. However, the recorders were instead packed with plastic explosives, which were detonated by radio. The incident known as the case of the "exploding mullahs" took the lives of the two clergymen and several Kurdish politicians. In a similar case of black humor, when he ordered the execution of one of his generals , he signed the order with the Islamic phrase, "In the name of Allah, the merciful and the compassionate."
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To maintain his power structure, Saddam relies on two pillars of support, his family from his home town of Takriti, north of Baghdad, and fellow revolutionaries who have been with him for years and who stand and fall with him. Saddam Hussein remains largely isolated from his people, keeping the company of a diminishing circle of trusted advisors.
The outbreak of war in the Gulf in 1991 following the occupation of Kuwait, was the responsibility of one man, Saddam Hussein. He has often put his own glory ahead of his faith and the well-being of his people over the years. The destruction of Kuwait in 1990-91 resulted in 1,000 Kuwaitis being killed and hundreds kidnapped and brought to Iraq. There are up to 605 missing. Most are Kuwaitis, but they also include citizens of nine other nations. They are not just young men, but also women, mothers of young children, young people and very old people. The number of Kuwaiti prisoners represent about 1 per cent of the small population of Kuwait which means that there is hardly a citizen of Kuwait who has not had a family member or friend disappear into the Iraqi prison system. Shortly after Saddam declared Kuwait the 19th province of Iraq, he installed Ali Hassan Al Majid, another cousin, as governor of the new province. As provincial governor in northern Iraq in 1988, Al Majid (nicknamed Chemical Ali) had organized the chemical weapons assault on the Kurds.
While occupying Kuwait, Kuwaiti citizens were not the only victims. Iraq's brutality toward Egyptians and other foreigners trapped in Iraq and Kuwait made further enemies. The Iraqis' savage treatment of Egyptians became a notably sore point. Iraq sent more than 80 Egyptian corpses home following the invasion of Kuwait. The remains showed the effects of bullet wounds, crushed skulls, severe bleeding, electric shock, and heart and lung failure. Iraq attributed the deaths to accidents. Egyptians believed that the deaths were the result of Iraqi brutality. Then again, during 1990, at least 995 bodies of Egyptians were sent from Iraq to Cairo. Egypt's Interior Minister, Mohammed Abdel-Halim Moussa, said that 600 of those 995 bodies had "bullet wounds and crushed skulls."
Saddam then directed the 1991 bloody suppression of the Kurdish and Shi'a insurgencies in northern and southern Iraq with at least 30,000 to 60,000 killed. He then ordered the destruction of southern marshes to extinguish the Shi'a insurgency.
Some years ago a European interviewer nervously quoted reports that the Baghdad authorities might, on occasions, have tortured and perhaps even killed opponents of the regime. Was this true? Saddam Hussein was not offended. Rather, he seemed surprised by the naiveté of the question. "Of course," he replied. "What do you expect if they oppose the regime?"
Saddam still insists that the 1991 Gulf War, which he famously described as the Mother-of-All-Battles, ended in victory for Iraq. And he still brags that Iraq can shrug off any military attack. The Iraqi people have no choice but to nod in agreement. So it will continue until the moment comes for pretentious slogans to be replaced by a brief epitaph to one of the most infamous dictators of the century. For the overwhelming majority of Iraqis and other victims of his atrocities, that moment cannot come too soon.
But if past history can serve as a guide, in regard to his future behavior, one can expect that he will use all of his resources to exact revenge against all those that defeated him in the past and who threaten him today. "Bullet wounds and crushed skulls…. Exploding mullahs… Chemical weapons attacks against Iranians and Iraqis…" Is he a dictator to be trusted by the international community? As Saddam Hussein might reply, "What do you expect if they oppose the regime."