Had Saddam Hussein never lived, the world would be a different place. But he changed the world more by his defeats than his victories.
For all his nationalist rhetoric, Iraqis never wanted to fight or die for him. After he invaded Iran in 1980, Iraqi troops surrendered en masse until Iran in turn invaded Iraq. In Kuwait in 1991, the Iraqi army again hardly fought against the US-led coalition. In 2003, the American and British armies suffered few casualties on the road to Baghdad. Only after Saddam fled did serious guerrilla warfare begin.
His nationalism was genuine: he identified Iraq wholly with himself. At his trial he presented himself as the symbol of Iraqi unity and independence, berating his judges as pawns of the US. When told he was to die this weekend, he remarked philosophically to one lawyer: “What do you expect from occupiers?”
As the standard-bearer of Arab nationalism and the opponent of Western imperialism, he was more popular outside Iraq than within. Every office, restaurant and street in Iraq bore his image. I once counted nine photographs of him in the office of a Baghdad newspaper editor. But for all that, he was liked by few Iraqis. The next time I saw the editor, he was in exile in London.
The reverence was more genuine elsewhere. Taxi drivers from Jordan to Sudan and Yemen to Bangladesh pinned up his picture in their cabs. It was only as his army fled without firing a shot, and the Sunni and Shia rose in rebellion, that they realized they had chosen an ineffective champion.
His regime was a police state, but a peculiar one. It had all the repressive apparatus of East Germany or Chile. Saddam’s response to any form of dissent was repression, usually far in excess of what was needed to achieve his ends. He was executed yesterday for killing 148 people from the village of Dujail because of an attempt to kill him there in 1982, but the assassination bid was only a scattering of shots in the direction of his motorcade. The savagery of the retaliation aimed, very successfully, to spread terror.
There have been other states ruled by fear – most Middle East countries are controlled by corrupt and parasitic ruling élites, backed by ferocious security services – but Saddam’s grip on power was also sustained by kinship and tribal links. In so far as he ever trusted anybody, it was relatives. He came from the al-Bejat clan, part of the Albu Nasir tribe from around the city of Tikrit on the Tigris river. “Do you want to know how we run Iraq?” said one of his lieutenants in the 1990s. “Exactly the same way as we used to run Tikrit.”
Saddam had highly educated advisers to balance Ba’ath party loyalists and tribal allies. But there was always something archaic about his regime – for all the trouble he had taken to invade and hold Kuwait, the Iraqi occupiers behaved as if they were on a Bedouin raid, looting everything from bulldozers to museum artefacts.
Saddam was a man of intelligence, but also arrogance so great that it led to catastrophic blunders. Iraq was a growing power in 1980, but to wage war on revolutionary Iran, a country with three times Iraq’s population, was the height of foolishness. Ten years later Saddam once again miscalculated his strength in invading Kuwait. Tragically for Iraqis, these blunders were matched by great skill on Saddam’s part in retaining power. A natural-born conspirator himself, he had a secret policeman’s instinct for smelling out conspiracies against his regime.
His appeal was always to Iraqi unity. Iraqi nationalism can be a powerful force, but it is also true that Iraq was historically far more divided between Sunni, Shia and Kurd than most Iraqis admit. Although Iraq is a country created by the state, this is not so peculiar as some who see Iraq as “an artificial state” suppose, since the same is true of the United Kingdom. But under Saddam the state had been overstrained by war and 13 years of economic sanctions, until it dissolved at the time of the capture of Baghdad in 2003.
For the division of Iraq, Saddam bears some, but not all, the responsibility. He was part of the Sunni community, as were his senior lieutenants. Towards the Kurds he never adopted any policy but repression. He made war on the Shia religious parties, but tried to conciliate ordinary Shia during the war with Iran. After the Shia uprising in 1991, however, he viewed them – 60 per cent of the population – as potential rebels.
Saddam was a convenient enemy, as the US and Britain found. Few opponents could have been as easy to demonize, because in many ways he was a real demon. His physical appearance was threatening, and so was his rhetoric. In 1990 he appeared with a young British hostage sitting on his knee, like the wicked king in a fairy tale.
Doubly convenient for Washington and London, his menacing rhetoric was far from reality. The “Mother of all Battles” he promised foreign invaders in 1990 never happened. Instead, there was an embarrassing rout. The allies later boasted of destroying 2,000 Iraqi tanks, but most of them were empty, their crews having sensibly fled before they were hit.
If Iraqis had really identified with Saddam – as so many Germans identified with Hitler – then the task of the US and Britain in Iraq might have been easier. But to the surprise of the invaders, the serious fighting began after his flight. When he was captured by US troops in December 2003, it had no dampening effect on the insurgency, which grew steadily in strength.
This was hardly surprising. No Iraqis, not even the Sunni community from which he came, wanted Saddam back in power. Only the US generals, at their ludicrous press conferences in Baghdad’s Green Zone, pretended that he played a central role in the war against the occupation. As his lieutenants pictured on the US Army’s notorious pack of cards were killed or captured, it became increasingly evident that none was at the centre of the war of resistance.
The US made every effort to portray the trial of Saddam as an Iraqi-run affair, but the former leader was right in seeing it as orchestrated by Washington. If confirmation of this were needed, it came when the date for announcing his death sentence was moved to November 5, so it could be the leading item on the news the day before the US midterm elections. In the event, the reality of 25,000 US soldiers killed and wounded in Iraq made more impression on American voters.
Many Iraqis will rejoice at the death of Saddam. While some will accept his estimate of himself as a symbol of his country, making the final patriotic sacrifice, he is only one of 4,000 Iraqis who will die violently this month. The war has its own momentum, and Iraqis are too worried about staying alive themselves to lament or rejoice very long at the execution of the man who ruled them for a quarter of a century.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, published by Verso in October.