Saddam’s Cold Comforts

Al-Dwar, Iraq.

There was a kind of satisfaction, lying inside Saddam’s last hole in the earth. Seven months ago, I sat on his red velvet presidential throne in the greatest of all his marble palaces. And so there I was yesterday, lowering myself into the damp, dark and grey concrete interior of his final retreat, the midget bunker buried beside the Tigris–all of eight feet by five– and as near to an underground prison as any of his victims might imagine.

Instead of chandeliers, there was just a cheap plastic fan attached to an air vent. Ozymandias came to mind. This, after all, was where the dreams finally crumbled to dust. And it was cold.

He had food, of course–tins of cheap luncheon meat and fresh fruit–and I found his last books in a hut nearby: the philosophical works of Ibn Khaldun and the religious–and pro-Shia -doctrines of the Abbasid theorist Imam al-Shafei and a heap of volumes of Arab poetry. There were cassettes of Arabic songs and some cheap pictures, of sheep at sunset and Noah’s Ark crowded with animals.

But this was no resistance headquarters, no place from which to run a war or start an insurgency.

To climb inside this most famous of all bolt-holes–and this, remember, was no F?hrer-bunker with SS guards and switchboards and secretaries taking down last words for posterity–I had to sit on the wooden entrance ledge and swing my legs into a narrow aperture and find my footing on four stairs made of earth. You use your arms to lower yourself into this last remnant of Iraqi Baathist history.

Then you are sitting on the floor. There is no light, no water, only the concrete walls, the vent and a ceiling of wooden boards. Above the boards is earth and then a thick concrete floor which, up above, is covered by the thick concrete yard of a dilapidated farm hut.

It must have taken a long time to build–weeks at least to construct the concrete hiding-place beneath the yard–and I suspect there are many other bolt-holes along the reed banks of the Tigris. Yet above this sullen underground cell was a kind of paradise, of thick palm fronds and orange trees dripping gold with mandarins, of thickets of tall reeds, of the sound of birds buried in the treetops. There was even an old ,blue-painted boat tucked away behind a wall of fronds, the last chance of escape across the silver Tigris if the Americans closed in.

Of course, they closed in from two directions on Saturday night, from the river and down the muddy laneway along which soldiers of the American 4th Infantry Division led me yesterday. As Captain Joseph Munger of the 4th Battalion, 42nd Field Artillery, pointed out, Saddam was easy to ambush, but it was equally easy fo Saddam to hear them coming. He must have rushed from the hut where he ate his food, spilling a plate of beans and Turkish Delight on to the mud floor, I noticed, and squirreled his portly self down the hole. When the Americans searched the hut, they found nothing suspicious, except a pot plant oddly positioned on top of some dried palm fronds, placed there presumably by the two men later seized while trying to escape. Underneath, they found the entrance to the hole.

The soldiers mooching around the “site”–their word, as if it was a Sumerian city rather than a fraudulent, muddy Baathist playpen–were indifferent to the point of tiredness. They asked me to translate the Arabic inscription over Saddam’s bedroom–it began with the Koranic words, “In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful”–and they lent me their torches to prowl round the Saddam kitchen. A female soldier had written her sister’s name in Arabic on her helmet. She wouldn’t say why. In Arabic, it read “Christine.”

So what was Saddam like, they asked? And I said the things that we scribes always say when people want to hear things we have said many times over many years.

Saddam was ruthless, brutal, cruel — these words are easy, of course–but also intelligent in a peasant kind of way, shrewdly understanding the arrogance and the greed of us, the West, America, and our preparedness to support him in his evil wars. Captain Munger was a very cool customer, noting that there had been no demonstrations in the village of Al-Dwar “hostile, friendly or indifferent” and admitting that there was no sign of a presidential lavatory at the “site”.

In the village, there were some interesting new graffiti. “Congratulations to the Iraqi Civil Defence Corps for capturing Saddam”, announced one scribe.

No one could find any evidence that the new American-paid militia had helped to capture Saddam, but I saw them on the Tigris dam a few hours later, all anxious to protect their identities, all wearing hoods or face masks–just as Saddam’s militiamen did scarcely a year ago. “Your name, Saddam, shakes America”, a new graffiti said close by.

So what could we learn of Saddam yesterday in this, his very last private residence in Iraq. Well, he had chosen a hide only two hundred metres from a shrine marking his own famous retreat across the Tigris river in 1959, on the run as a wounded young guerrilla after trying to assassinate an earlier president of Iraq.

Here it was that he dug the bullet out of his body, and on a low hill within eyesight of this palm-grove is the mosque that marks the spot where, in a coffee shop, Saddam vainly pleaded to his fellow Iraqi tribesmen to help him escape. Saddam, in his last days as a free man, had retreated into his past, back to the days of glory that preceded his butcheries.

He had the use of a tiny generator, which I found wired up to a miniature fridge. The fridge was in one half of the hut–which stands only 10 feet from the hole–and contained water bottles and a bottle of medicine with a label marked Dropil. There was a tube of skin cream on the top, a tub of moisturising cream, a sewing kit in a cellophane bag and–how Saddam must have been plagued by mosquitoes unimpressed by Baath party punishments–a can of Pif-paf. There were two old beds and some filthy blankets.

In the little kitchen constructed next door, there were sausages hanging to dry, bananas, oranges and, near a washing-up bowl, tins of Jordanian chicken and beef luncheon meat, heaps of Happy Tuna. Flies swarmed beneath the roof of corrugated iron and I wasn’t surprised to discover the bottles of vegetable and fruit steriliser liquid in the cupboard. Only the Mars bars looked fresh.

So what did Saddam discover here in the last days? Peace of mind after the years of madness and barbarity? A place to reflect on his awesome sin, how he took his country from prosperity through foreign invasion and isolation and years of torture and suppression into a world of humiliation and occupation? The birds must have sung in the evening, the palm fronds above him must have clustered against each other in the night.

But then there must have been the fear, the constant knowledge that betrayal was only an orchard away. It must have been cold in that hole. And no colder than when the hands of Washington-the-all-Powerful reached out across oceans and continents and came to rest on that odd-looking pot plant and hauled the would-be Caliph from his tiny cell.

Robert Fisk is a reporter for The Independent and author of Pity the Nation. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s hot new book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared.