Tyrant or martyr?

Khaleej Times Online
Thursday, January 4, 2007

NOTHING became the Saddam Hussein era like his leaving of the stage. If he had died the day he was dug up from a hole, the collective memory of the Arabs — the only audience that ever mattered to him — would have been different. Instead, they will recall his astonishing sangfroid before a kangaroo court. The first judge resigned in protest at American interference. The second one was sacked by the US-installed puppet regime for refusing to obey orders.

A 20-minute time delay had to be introduced into the televising of the proceedings so the censor’s scissors could trim back the ever more effective sallies against the claque on the bench opposite the accused.

Saddam’s riposte to the jeering of the prosecution lawyers: ‘Let the monkeys laugh in their trees, the lion walks on,’ was cheered in every coffee house in Arabia. It is this Saddam whose memory will live on.

When the extrajudicial murder of Che Guevara took place in 1967, the authorities made the fatal error of photographing the cadaver of a man who until then had been in world terms a relatively small thorn in their side.

The image of the slain Guevara would encourage others to take up the sword in the decades to come. Saddam Hussein is no Che Guevara, but the foolishly videotaped pictures of Saddam twisting on a rope fashioned by the illegal occupiers who overthrew him will return to haunt those who directed them. Of course, there are those for whom even to mention such points is tantamount to apologia.

I well remember the fury directed at my Mail on Sunday interview with Saddam in August of 2002, in particular, my observation that he exuded an ‘almost Zen-like calm’. It is with that calm that he faced his accusers.

For Saddam’s captors, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. When he was caught we were told this was a turning point in the occupation (remember those?). He was supposed to collapse into a pitiful wreck, rave dementedly, play the pantomime villain our government desperately needed him to be.

But the cliches of Saddam as ‘evil’, ‘mad’ and ‘a monster’ fail to explain anything of his motivation.

He fervently maintained that he had been treated unjustly by the West. A baseless delusion? Well, not entirely. I recall in 2002 appealing to Saddam to invite in Hans Blix and the weapons inspectors who had been withdrawn at the behest of Bill Clinton in 1998.

He looked me directly in the eye and said: ‘We don’t have any weapons of mass destruction. I am telling you in all honesty — we don’t have any.’ It turns out that the ‘evil despot’ was telling the truth about that and he felt betrayed.

Now, in the determined demonisation of the man, there is little time devoted to rehearsing what he brought to Iraq as a leader and achieved as a statesman. But in the Seventies, Saddam framed himself as a father to the nation. At a time of high energy prices and with the oil industry nationalised, such paternalism meant genuine advances in Iraqi society.

By the standards of dictatorships, Iraq in the Seventies was a modernising society. The electricity grid brought power to 4,000 villages. The state distributed free fridges and televisions. There was a minimum wage, women entered the workforce in record numbers and he tried to eradicate illiteracy. Looming ever greater was Saddam’s desire to be seen as a hero of the Arab world. When he rose within the Ba’ath Party in the late Sixties, that dream could still take the form of seeking pan-Arab unity. By 1990, it had become sadly threadbare. Now it was Saddam the Arab hero acting against ‘the Persians’, but as a cat’s paw for American interests.

Those who knew him say that he was convinced that he had, if not the support, then at least the declared neutrality of America when he occupied Kuwait in August 1990. The invasion turned out to be a colossal error of judgment. But it came after he had enjoyed US and British support for invading Iran in 1980 and at critical moments throughout the eight-year war.

In March 1988, his forces used chemical weapons against the Kurdish village of Halabja. The victims came, after the 1991 war, to symbolise his crimes: the man who gassed his own people. Yet at the time there was no international outcry over Halabja.

It was the militarisation of Iraq that threw Saddam’s authoritarian features into sharp relief. His ruthlessness was turned against Iraq society. At the same time, his family’s riches reached Croesus-like proportions, while sanctions threw the country back decades.

It is testimony to the calamitous Bush/Blair policy that they have succeeded in awakening among so many Iraqis warm memories of life under Saddam compared with the hell that is Iraq today. With each day that passes, the full magnitude of the Iraq folly will become clear. Already it has brought about what Ayatollah Khomeini could not in the Eighties: a pivotal role for Iran in the south of Iraq and, by extension, into the rest of the region. Could it possibly achieve what Saddam so dismally failed to in life — his status as an Arab hero?

The images of his final hours look so ordinary, as ordinary as he did on the two occasions that I met him.

But the fact that he was executed at the start of the festival commemorating the deliverance of Ismael from sacrifice at the hands of Abraham will fuel the perception of Saddam as something more than ordinary: a martyr, killed at the behest of Washington.

I had imagined it would be only hardened opponents of the war such as myself who would feel a deep sense of foreboding on news of the execution. But — in the hours since that final drop — that already seems to be a much more general sentiment.

Yes, a man who ended up squandering his country lies dead. But he was never the heart of the matter.

George Galloway is a British MP for Bethnal Green and Bow who had visited Iraq before the invasion. This comment first appeared in the Mail on Sunday.



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