Geopolitical analyst Robert D. Kaplan was very clear in his recent article for Foreign Policy. “It’s time to bring imperialism back to the Middle East,” he argued, stirring the criticism of many who couldn’t see past the provocative headline.
Saddam Hussein, Muammar Ghaddafi and Bashar al-Assad, whose regimes have either fallen or are in deep troubles, all had inherited rather vague geographical expressions, not functioning states, Kaplan wrote, where totalitarianism was probably the only way to control these post-colonial artificial entities. Totalitarianism’s collapse, Kaplan concluded, is now the root of Middle Eastern chaos.
In the West, Saddam Hussein is known as “the monster” who fought a long war with Iran, attacked Kuwait, gassed the Kurds and finally was toppled and executed by George W. Bush.
But who was Saddam Hussein really, behind the known facts? And were he not dead, what role would he play in Iraq today? To find out more about Saddam, the personality and his system, I contacted Sameer in Dubai. Sameer was born in Baghdad in 1972. He now resides in the UAE, working as a civil engineer.
Sameer knows a great deal about Saddam Hussein because his father Thabit Aldulaimi was a personal friend of the president. Aldulaimi got the attention of Saddam when he published an article in an Iraqi newspaper entitled “the role of secularism in making Iraq an industrial power in the region“. Saddam contacted Sameer’s father and wanted him to join the Baath party but to Saddam’s astonishment he declined. He didn’t want to take sides in Iraq. However, Saddam Hussein and Thabit Aldulaimi remained in contact in the years that followed.
“Saddam Hussein’s system is described as ‘Iraqi totalitarianism‘,“ I first asked Sameer. “How was this felt in daily life?“
“Of course Saddam’s Iraq was a dictatorship, a one man show,“ Sameer replied. “But when you just minded your business, going to the office every day, when you didn’t interfere with the political system, you were on the safe side.“
“But there were victims in Saddam’s Iraq,“ I said. “Who were they?“
“There were three types of casualties under Saddam,“ Sameer explained. “Firstly people who wanted him removed and replaced. Most of these people had ties with political entities outside Iraq, either in the West or in Iran.“
“Secondly people who agreed with Saddam’s course but wanted improvements. Barzan al-Tikriti, Saddam’s half brother, was such a person. He was an advisor to Saddam and brought a kind of Western point of view into the discussion. He asked for more democracy. However, Barzan's ideas were not welcomed by Saddam and he asked to be transferred to Geneva as Iraq’s UN ambassador.“
“And thirdly,“ Sameer went on, “people who already had a share of the Iraqi cake but wanted a bigger piece. Of course these people were seen as a threat to the regime as well.
“In the end, nobody dared to speak out anymore.“
Iraq under Saddam had everything going for it – except democracy. Saddam’s road map for Iraq was set on a reform path. Education became the top priority, and the discrimination against girls and women was eliminated. The results were so positive that Iraq was awarded the UNESCO prize for eradicating illiteracy in 1982.
These days, the education level has fallen dramatically in Iraq, Sameer regretted. “Even with a PHD an Iraqi cannot necessarily qualify as being educated.”
“When did Saddam turn bad?“ I then asked Sameer. “What was his breaking point?“
“Saddam Hussein broke bad after invading Kuwait,“ Sameer told me. “After the invasion of Kuwait, the south of Iraq turned against Saddam Hussein. He was surprised and very disappointed. Sleeping cells rose up against his regime. Shia militias entered Iraq from Iran and killed every Iraqi somehow related to the Baath party.“
“Saddam felt betrayed by his own people,“ Sameer continued. “Those sleeping cells were Iraqi Shia wanting Iraq to be governed by Ayatollah Khamenei. Saddam went into a shell. He basically quit practicing politics after 1991. He began to delegate and became very stubborn. Saddam started to threaten the USA, Israel, everybody.“
Some experts like Saïd K. Aburish, who has written extensively about Saddam, place his breaking point even earlier in time. “In the early 1980s,“ Aburish said in an interview with PBS Frontline, “the balance tipped. Saddam’s criminality increased and his ability to deliver to the Iraqi people and to the Arab people decreased. Eliminating people became more frequent, and imprisoning people became more frequent too.“
Aburish had business ties with Saddam Hussein in the 1970s. In his book about Saddam, he described him as methodical and organized. But for Aburish, Saddam was also a daydreamer.
“Methodical and organized: that’s true,“ Sameer agreed. “Saddam was always on time and he disliked when people were late. He was also regularly swimming and took good care of his health. Throughout his career, he maintained his weight.“
“Was he a daydreamer?“, Sameer repeated my question. “Saddam liked to drink tea; he always drank Lipton’s tea and always had extra bags in his pockets.“
I laughed. Regularly drinking tea doesn’t make you a daydreamer, I said. Half of the Brits would be daydreamers then.
“Yet I know for a fact,“ Sameer proceeded, “that Saddam was a daydreamer. Take the Israel–Palestine struggle for instance. Saddam truly believed that he could liberate Palestine during his term. Although the facts on the ground clearly proved that it was not possible.“
Another time when Saddam was dreaming was during the international embargo, in the 1990s. Saddam thought that the embargo would dissolve over time even if Iraq maintained its positions and its foreign policy. Iraq’s leader was betting on global media coverage showing the suffering of Iraqi children. He was wrong.
Saddam’s infatuation with Palestine particularly resonated well on the Arab street. He sent money to Palestinian families in need, and in Iraqi universities, students from Palestine enjoyed special treatment, favoring them over Iraqi students. Palestinians grew up loving Saddam Hussein. Iraqis began to hate Saddam for his love of the Palestinians.
Surely the Kurds must detest Saddam, I thought. The Anfal campaign that the Iraqi regime led in 1988 against Iraqi Kurdistan had cost the lives of thousands of Kurdish people. It was during this operation that the chemical attack on Halabja took place.
I called Shakhawan, a doctor of Kurdish origin who had left his hometown of Erbil fifteen years ago. He now lives in Europe. Shakhawan’s assessment of Saddam was more balanced than I had expected.
“Kurds don’t really hate Saddam,“ Shakhawan told me. “There were Kurds who were pro Saddam and there were Kurds who were against Saddam. But all Kurds love strong personalities, strong leaders. Saddam was portrayed as almighty and for us he seemed like God.“
“But he killed many of your people,“ I said.
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“That’s true,“ said Shakhawan. “However when Iraqi Kurdistan became an autonomous region in 1991, we dreamed of peace and security. And then it was the opposite! 23,000 people were killed in our civil war from 1994 to 1998, and 5,000 persons are still missing. The Kurdish autonomy was a huge disappointment for everybody.“
“You know,“ Shakhawan explained, “violence coming from your enemy, that’s one thing. But violence coming from your friends, your fellow Kurds, that was a shock. Until today, many Kurds think that life was better under Saddam.“
“There were Kurds who were pro Saddam and there were Kurds who were against Saddam"
With Sameer, I tried to enter even more into the psychology of Saddam. “According to some, Saddam had a split personality“, I told him. “One foot was in the 17th century in his home village of al Ajwa near Tikrit, the other foot was is in the 20th century making a nuclear bomb.“
“I have spoken to Saddam only once,“ Sameer answered. “When he came to our house, I wasn't scared. He was tall, charismatic, he would shake your hand and you’d forget that he was the president. He was not the monster as that he is depicted now.“
On a personal level, Saddam would listen to you. But don’t tell him to be softer with Israel, or to allow US oil companies investing in Iraq. That was non negotiable. Not even for his sons. “His eldest son Uday had a newspaper once and wrote an article in the mid 1990s that Iraqi children suffered from the embargo. He suggested that US companies should establish joint ventures with the Iraqi oil industry,“ Sameer remembered. “Saddam shut down the newspaper for three months.“
Saddam Hussein’s power base was where he came from: Tikrit, the family, the clan, the tribe. To his disadvantage, Saddam didn’t have personal ties with Western politicians. He was cautious and looked at them as being colonialists.
Today, Bashar al-Assad, educated in Syria and in the UK, speaks to the Western media with words that are familiar to a Western ear. Saddam, the man from al Ajwa, educated in Iraq and in Egypt, spoke to Western media as if speaking to an Iraqi from the countryside.
Shakhawan, the doctor, offered an alternative perspective of Saddam’s state of mind. “Saddam grew up with no father, only his mother and his stepfather. In school, he was bullied. This left him psychologically injured. I truly believe that Saddam’s narcissism was hurt.“
In his analysis, Kaplan made the point that the imperial borders of Syria and Iraq did not configure with ethnic or sectarian ones. “The dictatorial regimes of Saddam and Assad required secular identities in order to span communal divides,“ Kaplan wrote.
Like the Assad regime in Syria, Saddam’s rule over Iraq was a secular regime associated with a religious identity. However, the Sunni domination in a country that is majority Shia had started long before Saddam’s time.
The perception that the top positions in the government and the army were reserved for the Sunnis was greatly reinforced under Saddam. In 2003, Patrick Cockburn, Iraq correspondent for The Independent, reported about a meeting he had with Iraqi army deserters near Kirkuk. Although they came from different units, Cockburn wrote, not one of the soldiers had met a Sunni who was a private soldier or a Shia who was an officer.
“Was Saddam Hussein a secularist or a sectarianist in disguise?“ I asked Sameer.
Sameer’s answer surprised me. “The notion that Iraq under Saddam was a Sunni project is wrong,“ he said. “Do you remember the US most wanted list in 2003, the playing cards? 38 persons out of 55 on that list were Shia! The fact that some Shia clerics were assassinated when Saddam governed doesn’t mean that Saddam’s regime was pro Sunni or anti Shia. His ideology was simply secular.“
“But the disaster in Kuwait made Saddam discover his faith,“ I insisted.
“Prior to 1990, Saddam Hussein was a secularist,“ Sameer explained. “Quran is not my business, he would say, I evaluate the Iraqis based on Michel Aflaq’s Baath party book. But then came the aftermath of the Kuwait invasion and Saddam felt like having a near death experience. He had quit drinking alcohol before and now he started to pray. He tried to integrate Islamic values into the Baath ideology. He also started to build mosques. Nightclubs were shut down and nightlife in Baghdad came to a halt.“
Saddam and Michel Aflaq, founder of the Baath party, meet here in 1979
For Sameer, Saddam’s motivation was obvious. “When you have limited options, you turn to God. This is the Arab nature. Saddam turned to God and hoped that God would come to Iraq’s rescue.“
“If you want to rule an Arab country,“ Shakhawan said, “you can only do it by ‘instrumentalizing‘ Islam. Islam is seen as a source of authority and legitimacy. Even communist politicians in Iraq quoted from the Quran so people granted authority to them. Being secular in the Middle East doesn’t work in the long run.“
“And that’s why Saddam turned more religious after 1991,“ Shakhawan finished his analysis. “After the Kuwait adventure Saddam had lost much of his authority. Now he wanted to regain his power by invoking Islam.“
“How would the situation in Iraq be today if Saddam had ruled beyond 2003, maybe even until today?“ I asked Sameer, starting to conclude our conversation.
“Saddam would not live in 2015,“ he said. “Saddam would have stepped down quite some time ago, physically worn out. Let’s suppose that Iraq had kicked out the Americans in 2003. Maybe he would have introduced reforms. Reforms like freedom of speech, sharing the cake, even trying a pluralistic system.“
“But fighting the Americans surely would have toughened his stance,“ I said.
“Let me quote Arthur Schopenhauer,“ Sameer said: “there is nothing like a near death experience that can humanize you.“
I was not totally convinced. But one thing became clear for me: Saddam must have been an unhappy person in his professional life. There were just too many near death experiences paving his road. There were just too many people who had disappointed him.
“I know that the Americans were in favor of having Qusay, Saddam’s younger son, as Iraq’s new face prior to 2003,“ Sameer kept going. “How things would have worked out I cannot say. Qusay’s older brother Uday was very intelligent, very determined and ruthless. I can’t imagine him to accept that Qusay would be the president.“
Saddam and French PM Jacques Chirac
Three Iraqis - Saddam, Sameer, Shakhawan - one story: Iraq. Reflecting on their experiences made me realize once again that the truth is a beast with many faces.
Sameer grew up being influenced by his father who was an intellectual and a thinker, a secularist and a patriot. Sameer’s mother kept a photo of Saddam Hussein’s mother at home, as many Iraqis do with persons they are fond of.
Shakhawan grew up in Kurdistan in opposition to Saddam and yet admiring him in a way, while one of his brothers was a high-ranking officer in Iraq’s army.
Saddam was a man of his world, he was outstanding, but neither an outsider nor an alien. He acted in the tradition of the unwritten rules of his society.
“The Iraqi mentality loves dictators,“ said Shakhawan when we quit. “There are no compromises in Iraq. It’s either this or that. Pluralism is unknown; cooperation, or even the offer to cooperate, is perceived as weakness.“
Sameer agreed with most of Shakhawan’s points. “Iraq is not ready for pluralism,“ he said before hanging up the phone, disillusioned. “Only a one man or a one party ‘show‘ will be able to unite the country, provided his or their program is secular and Iran stops meddling in Iraq. Unfortunately today, we are very far from this.“
Any views expressed are the author's own and do not represent those of Your Middle East.