Looking back on Saddam Hussein

Fred Halliday
9 January 2004

The images of Saddam Hussein in custody brought back to me a mixture of memories. Throughout my life as a scholar, an activist and someone with close friends from across the Middle East, the issue of Iraq has been in the forefront of discussions, meetings and campaigns. Saddam’s influence has shaped, distorted, and poisoned thinking and passions across forty years, in a way that defies straightforward narrative.

The 1958 revolution in Iraq unleashed a powerful, and often uncontrollable, set of political conflicts. These continued even after the first Ba’ath party (and anti-communist) coup of 1963, in which thousands of Iraqis were killed, and were only partly settled by the second, definitive, Ba’ath seizure of power in 1968 led by Saddam.

Around that time the Iraqi Communist Party, one of the largest in the Arab world split into two, a more cautious pro-Soviet and a more critical independent party: the latter group had representatives in the United Kingdom who worked with the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, before despatching key members to start a guerrilla war in the southern marshes of Iraq, which ended in defeat in 1969.

Fred Halliday
Fred Halliday

At that time, many Iraqi leftists regarded Saddam Hussein as obviously a ‘British agent’ (‘amil britani) and a ‘fascist’. I and those who thought like me, could not persuade our Iraqi comrades that this was perhaps not the case. We did not like Saddam, and unlike some on the British left never took his dinar or his theatrical forms of solidarity; but we felt that, given his control of a state with vast oil revenues, he was, in the language of the time, ‘relatively autonomous’ of Washington. Right from the start, the projection of Saddam as a stooge or agent disempowered those critics from dealing with their own realities.

For those in thrall to it, ‘agent’ talk was confirmed when the civil war broke out in Jordan in 1970 between King Hussein and the Palestinians. Iraq remained neutral, even though it had 12,000 troops in Jordan, posted there in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The Palestinians later claimed that Saddam had encouraged them to act against the King.

The complicity of Saddam with western imperialism was equally evident when, in 1975, he signed an agreement with the Shah of Iran ending the two countries’ six-year border war and closing down the exile operations and radios of their respective clients. Then, when he invaded Iran in 1980 and was supported by western allies like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as well as by financial and intelligence backing from the United States, everything was beyond doubt.

For some, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was the final proof of his subservience to the CIA, since it provided the US with the cast-iron excuse to deploy its forces in the region and impose even stricter control on the local satraps, emirs, and sultans.

The travails of expertise

A striking quality of the post-1958 period was the vitality and, in the Arab world, the highly influential role of the Iraqi left intelligentsia and of the artistic, theatrical, literary, musical, and architectural people associated with it. Indeed, even in a predominantly Anglophonic political and academic context in the west, it was Iraqis themselves, or other Arabs influenced by them, or people involved in the politics of the country, who wrote much of the literature of modern Iraq. Majid Khadduri, Abbas Kelidar, Sami Zubaida, Faleh Abd al-Jabar, Isam al-Khafaji, are just some of the best known.

Hanna Batatu
Hanna Batatu (1926-2000)

The most monumental social science book on any Arab country is that of the Lebanese academic, the late Hanna Batatu: The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (Princeton, 1978; reprinted in 2004 by al-Saqi books). As lecturer at the American University of Beirut, Batatu influenced a generation of Arab political scientists and intellectuals.

A vivid memory from an Exeter University conference in 1981 is of Hanna Batatu, faced by a squad of menacing Ba’athist “academics” from Iraq, refusing to be silenced by their complaints and intimidating gestures, as he detailed the vicious nature of the Ba’athist state. As one Iraqi in the front row slowly and demonstratively drew his finger across his throat, Batatu declared: “I am a free man”. This was a principle Batatu held to throughout his productive and formative intellectual life.

Hanna Batatu’s dignity is not the only memorable thing about that conference. Equally so is the participation of some United Kingdom citizens who had (perhaps) taken money from Iraq for public relations and translation work, and of others who were, to judge by their fulsome praise of Iraq’s leaders, the core members of what one can only call the English branch of the Ba’ath party. They were mainly Conservatives, old “friends of the Arabs”, but in more recent times Saddam may have sought to recruit, and reimburse, at the opposite, left-wing end of the political spectrum.

In its way that conference was a microcosm of the political and intellectual currents of the time flowing around the issue of Iraq. Its organisers even wanted to open the proceedings by having its participants send a collective telegram supporting Saddam in his recently-launched war with Iran – something the rest of us only just managed to prevent. It had also been preceded by a revealing incident involving the (dis-) invitation of a prominent American expert on Iraq, Joe Stork, then co-editor (with Jim Paul) of the influential journal Middle East Research & Information Project (MERIP), and now director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch.

After Joe had, as instructed, sent his conference paper to Exeter in advance, the professor in charge cancelled his airline ticket. This called for some gentle but persuasive solidarity. As it happened, King Khaled of Saudi Arabia was in London at the time, and in keeping with the replication of tribal mores in the jet-set age associated with his regime, had invited all his English-based clients and friends to stay with him for a week at the luxurious Claridge Hotel.

For the first time in my life, I entered Claridges to meet the responsible Exeter professor – a curious, swashbuckling character – for breakfast. He began with predictable indignation against Joe, but I was able, as the meal wore on, to warn him that the scurrilous magazine Private Eye had already been alerted to a possible scandal and were calling me about it. Of course, I had not told them anything but these things had a way of getting out…“You understand the English, and their ways”. Joe was duly reinvited.

Journey to Baghdad

The crimes of Saddam Hussein against his people, becoming well-known even in 1981, were chillingly documented in Kanan Makiya’s books Republic of Fear (1989) and Cruelty and Silence (1993). Both were widely denounced by Arab intellectuals, and some expatriate ones, for feeding western prejudice against the Arabs.

In the 1970s I had already made the acquaintance of an Iraqi diplomat, then quite active in London, who (it emerged) was given this job in recompense for his wife having been kidnapped and raped by some of Saddam’s guards. But it was a visit to Iraq in 1980 to give some lectures at Baghdad University that offers me the opportunity to add a modest charge to whatever bill of indictment may now be presented to the captured dictator.

Saddam was at that time trying to portray Iraq as the citadel of the Arab world (qala’at al-thawra al-‘arabiya). A big summit in Baghdad to that end coincided with the anniversary of the founding of the Ba’ath party, an event surrounded by elaborate ritual blended from European fascist and Soviet communist festivals. During an interview with an unctuous party “theoretician”, a group of schoolchildren arrived with much fanfare and photographers to garland him (and by extension his visitors) with bouquets of flowers.

Michel Aflaq
Michel Aflaq (1910-1989)

This man had defected to Iraq from the rival Ba’ath regime in Syria. Saddam had won a major coup in intra-Ba’ath rivalry by inducing one of the two historic founders of the party, Michel Aflaq, to live in Baghdad: Aflaq, a Syrian Christian, had argued – as many Arab nationalists still do – that the Arabs have a special link to God through Islam. Michel Aflaq was never seen in public, but as he lay dying in 1989 a rumour was diffused to suggest that, as the culmination of his life as a Ba’ath leader, he had converted to Islam. Even the slogan of the party he co-founded, “One Ba’ath Party with One Eternal Message” (…risala khalida) exploits the dual – political and religious – resonances of the word “message” (the Prophet Mohammad is the rasul).

The Syrian Ba’athis brought another element to Iraq, one that reinforced an existing prejudice which was inculcated through the nationalist school textbooks of the monarchical period: hostility to Persians. These neighbours (“Zionists of the East”) were presented as the greatest, long-term enemies of the Arabs – far more than their more recent, and less populous, counterparts in the west.

The mass expulsion of people with Persian antecedents or names from Iraq in the 1980s, no less than the making of an epic film celebrating the Arab victory over the Persians at Qadissiya in 637 CE, rested on this deep ideological morass: this is exemplified in the title of a book written by one of Saddam’s uncles, Khairallah Tulfah, and made compulsory reading in schools, Three Things Which God Should Never Have Created: Persians, Jews and Flies – note the order.

The Ba’ath party had not just borrowed rituals from Europe’s totalitarian regimes; it used their techniques of violence, fear, and the corruption of language. In April 1980, a filmed party meeting showed Saddam singling out inner-party rivals who were dragged from the room, then executed after show trials. He had learnt the most basic lesson of all dictatorships: that is one thing to kill the guilty, but what really works is to kill the innocent. Saddam and his cronies attended these executions; members of the Ba’ath party, including students in Britain, were summoned to the London embassy to view a video of the occasion.

I have visited some unsavoury regimes – from Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran (where I saw 100,000 people march by shouting “Death to Liberalism” and realised that, among others, they meant me) to Ethiopia’s Red Terror; but never have I sensed such fear as in Iraq. One could cut it with a knife. A professor said to me, resignedly: “When I open the paper in the morning I do not know if I have been appointed ambassador to the UN or condemned to death. In either case I would not know why”.

In that spring of 1980, the rising tension with Iran led to the expulsions of tens of thousands of people across the Iranian border. In the bazaar, people were concerned about the impact of the Iranian revolution next door and its calls to Iraqis to rise up against the Yazid (that is, Saddam – a reference to one of the early Sunni rulers who oppressed the Shi’a). I asked one man why Iraq could not have a more friendly attitude to Iran and he replied: “Look, I am happy they had a revolution. But why do they have to shout so much? We were Shi’a before they were. We had a revolution before they did. They should quieten down”.

On the day we were supposed to meet Tariq Aziz, the perennial frontman for Saddam’s regime, an alleged Iranian agent had tried to assassinate him while he visited Baghdad’s Mustansariya University. Saddam appeared on television the next night to promise revenge: “Blood will be answered with blood”. He denounced his enemies as “cowards and dwarfs” and in typical style proclaimed that “the Iraqis will dance merrily on the wings of death”.

Saddam’s rhetoric put the eclecticism of any other modern leader to shame. It mixed 20th century demagogy with invocations of knights on horseback, the interpretation of dreams and evocations of the battles of early Islam. (In the wars of 1991 and 2003, he denounced George Bush, father and son, as “Hulagu” – the name of the Mongol leader who captured Baghdad in 1258). An image he used a lot, which English translators usually got wrong, was to call his enemies ‘bats’. This did not mean he thought they were mad (as in the English idiom) but that they were indeed like bats – beasts of the night who would be scattered to the four corners of the earth once the light, in this case the Ba’ath party, had broken over them.

In September 1980, Saddam launched the Iran-Iraq war by invading Iran. It lasted for eight years and cost an estimated one million lives. This was by far the most destructive war in the modern Middle East (in the five Arab-Israeli wars, plus Israeli incursions into Lebanon and two Palestinian intifada, the total deaths are estimated at 70-80,000); and the second longest inter-state war of the 20th century, only two months short of the 1937-1945 Sino-Japanese conflict.

Leaving Baghdad at the end of that 1980 visit presented a problem. At every meeting I attended, the Iraqi host would give me a two-volume set of Saddam’s speeches. It was too risky to do what one normally does and chuck them into the waste-paper basket. So I carried six pairs, twelve books, in my suitcase – intending to find them a suitable home in London university libraries. (Much later, I met a linguistics student in Oman, Abdullah al-Harrasi, who had written a fascinating and, in a macabre way, funny doctoral thesis on the speeches of Saddam – Metaphor in Arabic-into-English Translation, with Special Reference to the Metaphorical Concepts and Expressions in Political Discourse – a great read, which puts all the irony, metonymies and deconstruction of the postmodernists to shame). Arriving in the early morning at Heathrow airport, somewhat befuddled by the flight, I foolishly lent far over the luggage carousel to grab my bag. The disc slipped, the pain of this encounter with Ba’athism ran up my spine, and for a month I was flat on my back.

This, too, must be counted among Saddam’s crimes.

Between the Mafia and Joseph Stalin

What was, is, Saddam Hussein like? It is worth recalling, as he languishes in jail, some of what those who met Saddam reported. An Australian journalist in Baghdad was once woken in the middle of the night for an interview with the president. After stumbling unprepared via a translator through a number of banal questions, he resorted to asking Saddam what was his favourite film. The answer came in English: The Godfather.

It was said without irony, and may be corroborated by the ways in which Saddam, born in Tikrit in northern Iraq, modelled himself on another moustachioed mass murderer, born incredibly only 450 miles (720 kilometres) away in Gori, Georgia: Joseph Stalin. Said Aburish’s perceptive biography of Saddam contains a revealing anecdote about a visitor to Saddam’s home who witnessed the dictator in an austere spare room lined with fourteen books about the Soviet leader. (I suspect that Stalin’s sinisterly measured way of shifting from one foot to the other while delivering a speech was copied by his Iraqi admirer).

A Palestinian economist, Yusuf Sayigh, was attending a conference on economic development in Baghdad in 1974, when his party was marshalled late one night into a bus and driven to an unknown destination. A youngish man, with a moustache and a pistol, joined them around a table, professing a desire to learn about economic development. But his only question was how to use economic power to strengthen his state. Saddam had no education; talking to him, Sayigh soon realised, was a waste of time.

A leading Iraqi economist, Mohammad Salman Hassan, once told me never to forget that in the economic relations and agreements of the Arab world, there were never state-to-state relations, only person-to-person. Yet even here there are strange counter-currents. An Iraqi friend in London in the 1960s – an Arab nationalist of the Nasserist rather than Ba’athist persuasion, a wahdawi (‘unionist’) – had been studying in Cairo a decade earlier, and was asked to help a man who was on the run from Iraq. My friend let the man sleep on his sofa for a few weeks.

A few years on, he discovered it had been Saddam. When the latter came to power he called my friend to give thanks for the refuge. Saddam also said that while he expected other academics to join the Ba’ath party and follow its line, my friend should feel free not to do so, and even occasionally to publish limited criticisms of the government – something he did indeed do. I have a sense that when the war with Iran came, my friend’s two sons, by then of military age, were not sent to the front.

I have also recently heard that my friend, resorting to the unexpurgated nationalist myths of his youth, has explained the United States occupation of Iraq as “the revenge for Nebuchadnezzar” (that is, for the captivity of the Jews in 586 BCE). I hope this report is untrue.

A republic of jokes

It is a curious fact that the last surviving original signatory of the UN charter in 1945 was an Iraqi, Fadhel al-Jamali, later prime minister and star of a theatrical show trial after the revolution in 1958 when he denounced all the judges and his accusers in ringing tones and was spared the firing squad.

I once met him walking in north London’s Highgate woods with his two sons. He was on a visit from Tunis, where he worked as an adviser to the then president, Habib Bourguiba. His interesting autobiography, still unpublished, contains a long section on the Palestine issue at the UN and Iraq's role. The distance from his diplomatic (and sartorial) era to the current one is illuminated by the reports from Iraq on openDemocracy.net by Mary Kaldor and Yahia Said which observes the rise in tribalism in Iraq, with people adopting flowing robes in preference to western clothes (one, when asked where he was from, said Ealing, the west London suburb and home of British cinematic comedy).

Indeed, for all the horrors and conflicts of the Middle East, it is a rich ground for political jokes – a fact I have tried over the years to instil into my students. Among my recommendations was the book Arab Political Humour by Iraqi author Khalid Kishtainy (a worthy companion to the volume by Steven Lukes and Itzhak Galnoor, No Laughing Matter: a collection of political jokes). Khalid, a noted translator and novelist, writes a daily column in one of the main Arab newspapers, published as they nearly all are outside the region, in London. My Arab, Turkish and Iranian students all liked Khalid’s book; so did the Israelis. But for the Europeans and Americans it was impenetrable, and in a certain way far too serious.

One Iraqi story Khalid told me involved a conversation between God and the Archangel Gabriel. Gabriel wanted to please God; what could he do? God replied that, following George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” speech, he wanted Gabriel to go down to earth, find Saddam and assassinate him. Gabriel duly set off, but at the first armed checkpoint near Saddam’s palace, he was seized, taken to prison and badly tortured by Saddam and his guards. When Gabriel finally returned to heaven, he told God what had happened, and God replied: “I am glad you made it back here, but I hope you didn’t tell Saddam who sent you”.

Khalid has himself just returned from Baghdad with a new stock of Saddam Hussein jokes; they are, like many such stories in the region, unprintable. But with exact timing, he has produced a children’s book on the Ba’athist terror, Tomorrow is Another Day: a tale of Saddam’s Baghdad. It is about a man released from jail who, failing to find an employment, discovers that if he marries a woman widowed by the war with Iran, he will be awarded a grant of money and a Chevrolet. In the end, he marries four widows at the same time…and this is only the beginning of his troubles.

One last thought from an Iraqi recently returned from Baghdad. Asked about the security situation in Iraq, he replied: “Well, the overall security situation is terrible. You know, even the president got himself arrested!”

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