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In Saddam's Iraq, the Past Guides the Future

(January 6, 2003) To understand what drives Saddam Hussein, it is important to understand the long, at times glorious and often terrible history of Iraq. Iraq is a land of great resources and diverse peoples but lacking natural and defensible borders. For more than eight millennia it has been both the cradle and the abattoir of civilization.

The Cradle of Civilization
Eight thousand years of civilization in Iraq and an extremely fertile plain that the Greeks named Mesopatamia, literally the land between the two rivers, has been settled since at least 6000 BC. The people of the lands fed by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers developed organized agriculture, irrigation, brick making, the wheel and writing. Some 3,800 years ago, one of the rulers, Hammurabi, gave the world its first set of codified laws. They also gave the world its first empires in the states of Sumer, Akkad, Babylon and Assyria. (1, 2, 3)

A Birthplace of Empire, Law and Science
Sargon the Great of Akkad was the world's first recorded empire-builder. In the 23rd century before Christ, his huge armies struck out from Egypt, went almost to India and marched south to Ethiopia. By 1800 BC his monarchy, now known as by the name of its capital at Babylon, was much more than a military empire. It had become the commercial and intellectual center of the world. From Hammurabi's legal codes to the science of astronomy, the gifts imparted by the ancient Babylonians continue to affect the modern world. (1, 2, 3)

Devastation, Rebirth and Devastation: The Terrible Cycle
Like so many empires throughout history, Babylon eventually succumbed to outside pressures. Barbarian invaders, most notably the Hittites, swept through the land for over 500 years. Not until the rise of the Assyrians in the Ninth Century BC did order and civilization return to the land between the rivers. (1, 2, 3)

This time civilization and empire came at a high price. "The barbarous and unspeakable cruelty of the Assyrians," as the ancient chroniclers put it, succeeded in welding the diverse peoples into a force that could impose its rule throughout the Middle East. Ashurbanipal, Tiglath-Pileser and Sennacherib are remembered more for the savagery of their rule than for their accomplishments as nation builders. (1, 2, 3)

The greatest of the Assyrian monarchs was Nebuchadnezzar. This king, whom modern-day Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein seeks to imitate, was the fiercest and most ruthless ever. Conqueror of Jerusalem, enslaver of the Israelites and builder of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, this Sixth Century king brought Assyria to importance as the greatest power of the time. That period, however, was short-lived. Within several years of his death, the very name Assyria was expunged, and Nebuchadnezzar's homeland became a province of the Persian Empire. (1, 2, 3)

The Richest Prize of Empire and Home of the Arabian Nights
For much of the next 1,200 years the land now known as Iraq existed merely as the province of other empires. The Persians, Alexander the Great and his successors, the Parthians, Sassanids and Arabs all at one time ruled over the rich land between the two rivers. (1, 2, 3)

For one rather brief but glorious period the people of Iraq controlled their own destiny. The Abbassid Caliphs chose the small village of Baghdad as the capital of their Islamic empire. By 750 AD (118 years after the death of Muhammed, the founder of Islam), the world center of religion, culture, learning and science was once again found on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates. (1, 2, 3)

Within 50 years Baghdad grew to become the second largest city west of India. Only Constantinople, seat of the Byzantine Empire, was larger. Within 100 years much of what had once been ruled from Constantinople was governed by the orders of those who sat in the palace in Baghdad. This was the time of the Arabian Nights, the era of Harun Al-Rashid and the storytellers, philosophers and scientists who made Islam the greatest intellectual power the world had yet witnessed. (1, 2, 3)

The glories of the era of the famed Arabian Nights were soon concealed. Weakened by civil wars and religious divisions, the Abbassids were soon beleaguered by the very slaves they imported to fill their armies. The Turkish Mamluks, like the Praetorian Guards of ancient Rome, appointed and deposed caliphs at their will. The Iranian Shi'ite Buwayhid dynasty soon made the weakened caliphate its puppet. (1, 2, 3)

The Light Goes Out
The Seljuk Turks flooded in from Central Asia to make Baghdad their own capital in 1055. Nine Seljuk caliphs ruled from Baghdad. Their empire was so unsteady that only one of them died from natural causes. All of the infighting became moot, however, when the Mongols swept through the land in 1258. Hulagu Khan, grandson of the great Genghis Khan, did not simply seize Baghdad, he obliterated it. For 40 days the Mongol men ravaged the city. Over 80,000 of its citizens were slaughtered. The heads of their leaders were severed from their bodies and stacked in a great "Pyramid of Skulls" in the center of Baghdad. (1, 2, 3)

Following 100 years under the rule of the Mongols, the Jalayirids of Iraq created a new kingdom. The rebuilt Baghdad just in time for it to be conquered and sacked by yet another Mongol invader, Tamurlane, in 1401. (1, 2, 3)

Four Centuries Under the Ottomans
With the passing of the Mongols, the Turkish Ottoman Empire took back the Middle East. Conquerors of Constantinople, in the Sixteenth Century the Ottomans made Baghdad the military center of their eastern advances. They retained that role for 300 years, first as a barrier against the Persians and later, in World War One, as a fortress to guard the back door of the empire from the British. (1, 2, 3)

The Ottomans were not harsh rulers, but the "Turkification" of Iraq eventually inspired Arab nationalists to rise against them. It was with the help of an Arab revolt that the British Army took Baghdad in 1917. (1, 2, 3)

Fifty Years Under British Rule
At first welcomed as liberators, the British soon became detested as yet another rule by conquerors. The infamous Skyes-Picot Treaty, which carved up the Ottoman Empire between Britain and France, left Iraq a British mandate. In response to a revolt against their rule in 1920, the British formed a "one-question plebiscite" which led to the "election" of the Hashemite heir, Prince Faisal, as king of Iraq in 1921. (1, 2, 3)

Faisal was as much as a foreigner as were the British who maneuvered him and ran the country and its oil industry. Although recognized as an independent and sovereign state in 1932, Iraq remained occupied and dominated by British forces. (1, 2, 3)

Iraqi nationalists of the Free Officers Movement worked to overthrow the British-installed monarchy. In 1941 former Prime Minister Rashid Ali and his generals took power in a coup. The British, then at war with Nazi Germany, claimed the Iraqis were planning to join the Axis. The Germans sent advisors, weapons and aircraft to Iraq. The British sent an army, spearheaded by the Arab Legion. Iraq was then returned to British control and remained so until 1958. (1, 2, 3)

From Qasim to Saddam
In 1958 Iraqi General Abd al Karim Qasim led a brief but bloody coup in which the last Hashemite king was executed. Qasim declared Iraq a republic. He created an alliance with Moscow and the Iraqi communists to defeat a challenge to his rule by Kurdish separatists. When he defeated the Kurds, he then turned on the communists. Qasim survived an assassination attempt on him in 1959 when a clumsy gunman, Saddam Hussein, missed his target. (1, 2, 3)

Qasim's difficult rule came to an end during a 1963 coup. The nationalist Ba'ath Party led by Ahmad al-Bakr and Ali Salih Saadi took over the rule of Iraq. Among the political exiles they invited to return to Iraq was their errant gunman, Saddam Hussein. (1, 2, 3)

The Ba'ath were unable to maintain power, and for five years several governments surfaced, only to fade away in the instability of civil war and political power struggles. In 1968, however, the Ba'ath once again took over, with Al-Bakr as its leader. For the following 11 years Al-Bakr worked brutally to eliminate all opposition and to consolidate his rule. The principal weapon Al-Bakr exerted in that silent but deadly struggle was his chief of internal security, Saddam Hussein. (1, 2, 3)

In 1979 Saddam forcibly persuaded the ailing Al-Bakr that he should retire from public life. And in July Saddam convened the Revolutionary Command Council. He opened the meeting with a warning that traitors working for Syria had betrayed the nation. (3, 4, 5)

A government minister whom Saddam himself had personally arrested and tortured came to the podium to name 60 of those traitors, all of whom were in the room. All 60 were led away by Saddam's personal guard. Those who tried to speak had their mouths taped shut. By nightfall 22 of them, including the man who had denounced them on Saddam's orders, were dead. The others would not live much longer. (3, 4, 5)

Saddam Hussein continued to build up his power with murder. Hundreds of military officers, politicians and intellectuals were murdered during the first weeks of his rule. Within a year of taking power, Saddam invaded Iran. Saddam's initial gains in the war were wiped out by Iranian counterattacks. Eight years later he had little choice but to accept a cease-fire. The conflict had drained the national treasury and had taken the lives of almost 500,000 men - roughly one of every 34 people in Iraq. (3, 4, 5)

In 1990 Saddam sought to make good his losses and restore his reputation by invading and annexing Kuwait, which he claimed was in reality the "19th province" of Iraq. Iraq's borders, like those of Kuwait and other Gulf States, were but "lines drawn in the sand" by the British. An international coalition of more than 22 nations disagreed and under the United Nations' banner expelled the Iraqis and liberated Kuwait. (4, 5, 6)

Saddam again accepted a cease-fire, but he demanded that his generals negotiate it - and to take the blame. Uprisings by the Kurds and Shi'ites almost toppled him from rule, and the United Nations sanctions continue to damage his economic and military base. Despite many internal and external challenges, however, Saddam Hussein remains the ruler of Iraq, at least for the present. (4, 5, 6)

The Near Future: Ancient Legacy, Modern Applications
Saddam Hussein is more than just aware of Iraq's past, he is possessed with it. He misses no opportunity to portray himself as a modern-day Nebuchadnezzar. Portraits of the two rulers are often shown side by side in paintings, laser light shows, sculpture and frescoes on the sides of government buildings. That the Sixth Century BC Babylonian ruler conquered Jerusalem only reinforces Saddam's desire to copy the ancient king. (5)

During the midst of the war with Iran, he siphoned off men, machines and materials to reconstruct Nebuchadnezzar's palace. Each of the many millions of bricks used in that project is marked with the inscription "The Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar was reconstructed in the era of Saddam Hussein." (5)

Like the great but terrible kings of Iraq's past, Saddam is not moved or dissuaded by the huge cost of fulfilling his dreams. As one of Saddam's recent biographers, Muslim journalist Said K. Aburish, explains, Saddam took power in 1979 determined to take Iraq into the 20th century. Aburish, who interviewed the Iraqi dictator many times, says Saddam will spare no effort to reach his goals, and "if that means eliminating 50 percent of the population of Iraq, he is willing to do it." (7, 8,)
Khadim Anwar

1. New Internationalist, Issue 316, 09/99 (A History of Iraq)
2. ArabNet, 11/22/01 (Iraq History and Culture From Noah to Present)
3. Country Reports, 05/88 (History of Iraq)
4. Atlantic Monthly, 05/02 (Tales of the Tyrant)
5. Miller, Judith and Mylroie, Laurie. Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf. Random House, New York. 1991.
6. 03/12/02 (Saddam Hussein: The Most Powerful Man of the Middle East)
7. Aburish, Said K. Saddam Hussein: The Politcis of Revenge. Bloomsbury, London. 2001
8. Frontline PBS, 09/17/02 (The Survival of Saddam)
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