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
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
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inspectors who had been withdrawn at the behest of Bill Clinton
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
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.