Was this really the man with whom I shook hands almost a quarter of a century ago? I’ve spent 24 hours looking again and again at those videotapes. The more I look, the more Saddam turns into a wild animal. An American interviewed by the Associated Press said he’d gone straight to church to pray for him. The face I remember from my meeting with him almost a quarter of a century ago was chubby in an insolent sort of way, the moustache so well trimmed that it looked as if it had been stuck on his face with paste, the huge double-breasted suit the kind that Nazi leaders used to wear, too empty, too floppy on the shoulders.
So I went back again to those video pictures. True, the haunted creature in them could not rewind the film. His days were, as they say, over. Or supposed to be. There was a kind of relief in his face. The drama had ended. He was alive, unlike his tens of thousands of victims. Was a volume of memoirs in his fatigued mind? Having found his little library beside his last Tigris bolt-hole yesterday, I wouldn’t be surprised. During his long and terrible reign, he would deluge us journalists with treatises on foreign affairs and women’s rights and he ended his rule by deluging his own people with cheap women’s romances. Yesterday, I found the philosophy of Ibn Khaldun among his books.
Back in the late seventies, I had stood next to him at the “Confrontation Front” summit when Baghdad led the resistance to Anwar Sadat’s peace initiative to Israel. Hafez Assad of Syria was there and King Hussain and a host of now dead Gulf luminaries. How are the mighty fallen.
I recall how, when he smiled–which he did far too much–his lips would slide back from his teeth too far, so that his warmth turned into a kind of animal leer. It didn’t look like this on television. But when you were there, next to him, breathing the same bit of air, that is what you saw.
This was the occasion when Saddam drove my colleague Tony Clifton into central Baghdad in his own Range Rover and challenged him to find a single man who opposed his rule. Needless to say, every quivering serf brought before my friend for interrogation offered to give both his blood and his soul for the father figure of the Baathist revolution standing beside him.
In those days, we called him an autocrat–the Associated Press used to call him “the Iraqi strongman”–because he was a friend of America. But we knew all about him, the raping rooms, the tooth extractors, the knives and the concrete hanging chambers with their clanging doors, and the execution pits. His suits were finer now, French made, better cut, grey rather than brown. He had even learned how to smoke a Havana–between two fingers rather than four fingers and thumb.
In the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq this year, we journalists–and all praise to Paul Wood of the BBC for his part in this–got our hands on videos of some of the most pornographic violence any of us would be able to stomach. For 45 minutes, Saddam’s security police whipped and beat half naked Shiite prisoners in the courtyard of their “Mukhabarat” headquarters. They are covered in blood, screaming and whimpering. They are kicked and their testicles crushed and pieces of wood forced between their teeth as they are pushed into sewers and clubbed on the face.
The videos show that there were spectators, uniformed Baathists, even a Mercedes parked in the background under the shade of a silver birch tree.
I showed a few seconds of these films at lectures in Ireland and America this summer and some members of the audience left, nauseated by the evidence of Saddam’s perverted nature. Who, after all, were these videos made for? For Saddam? Or for the victims’ families to watch, so that they may re-suffer the torture of their loved ones?
And it’s easy, looking at these images of Saddam’s sadism, to have expected Iraqis to be grateful to us this week. We have captured Saddam. We have destroyed the beast. The nightmare years are over. If only we could have got rid of this man 15 years ago–20 years ago–how warm would be our welcome in Iraq today. But we didn’t. And that is why his capture will not save America’s soldiers. He lives on. Just as Hitler lives on today in the memories and fears of millions. And it is in the nature of such terrible regimes to replicate themselves in the mind.
Last night, driving back from Saddam’s home city of Tikrit, the highway was blocked by thousands of Sunni Muslims, screaming Saddam’s name, brandishing his portrait, firing automatic rifles into the sky. “Saddam has just broadcast another tape,” a young man shrieked at me. “He is still with us. The Americans captured his double!”
I could find no-one who had actually heard this tape, but I understood what it meant. Dictators remain in the mind, to poison again, to torture once more. Saddam has gone. Saddam lives. And we think the war is over.