THE CAPTURE OF SADDAM HUSSEIN: Saddam Wanted to Leave His Mark on History. This He Did, as the Man Who Destroyed Iraq

Article excerpt

IRAQ IS littered with battered portraits of Saddam Hussein. At the entrance to every Iraqi town is a plinth with the picture of the Iraqi leader, his face now pock-marked with bullet holes or half- smashed by rifle butts, as he looks down on his ruined and occupied country.

In one respect only did Saddam succeed. He wanted to leave his mark on history, to make his name ring out across the world. Through the absurdities of his own personality cult at home and the sometimes equally exaggerated demonisation of his rule by his enemies abroad, the Iraqi leader's name will never be forgotten.

He destroyed Iraq. When he became president in 1979 he gained total control of a country with a well-educated population, an efficient administration and extensive oil reserves. In a quarter of a century, he impoverished his people, drove many of them into exile and left the Iraqi oilfields in the hands of foreign troops.

He was not without intelligence, but it was the intelligence of the secret policeman and at crucial moments it was almost always overwhelmed by his arrogance. His actions so dramatically affected Iraq, the Middle East and the world that it is easy to forget that he was in many ways a small- time operator whose political base within Iraq was always narrow.

An element of fantasy always surrounded Saddam, but it was a fantasy in which he steadfastly believed. Just before the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, he announced he was raising an army of one million men. I remember watching disconsolate Sudanese waiters being drilled in a dusty field in Baghdad as Iraq's answer to American armoured divisions. How did a man of such cruelty and violence come to rule Iraq? He purported to have risen solely by his own efforts but in fact he was brought up in a family, city and community which were already making their bid for power. Born in 1937 near the city of Tikrit, he came from a clan and tribe which were acquiring important positions in the army while he was a teenager. He was a Sunni Muslim in a country in which Sunni Muslims had always been, in effect, in control under the Ottomans and the British.

Brought to power by a military coup d'etat in 1968, the ruling Ba'ath party never gained a mass base, though at one moment it claimed 1.5 million members. Three quarters of the Iraqi population were Kurds or Shias who always feared and disliked the regime. It was not military government, with the ultimate security of possessing overwhelming armed strength, but was dependent on the security services whose grip was maintained by cruelty and terror.

It was a tribal regime. Saddam was a member of the Baijat clan, one of six clans belonging to the Albu Nasir tribal confederation from around the city of Tikrit. But there were further subdivisions. It was through the Albu Ghafar lineage, to which Saddam belonged, that the Iraqi leader ruled, giving his close relatives control of important security jobs. This tribal rule was concealed by the Ba'ath party's official policy of opposing tribalism and ordering people not to use names which would signal their tribal affiliations.

The weakness of Saddam's government was evident in the three wars he fought. He invaded Iran in 1980, but within two years the Iranians had thrown him back and Iraq lost 70,000 prisoners. In 1991, much of the Iraqi army in Kuwait deserted or did not fight. The "mother of all battles" promised by Saddam never happened.

Saddam prepared carefully for the war against the US and Britain this year. Security services, Fedayeen Saddam and Ba'ath party militants were deployed to stop desertions at the point of a gun. For a moment, this seemed to work. But as the US army approached Baghdad, the vaunted Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard divisions evaporated. The number of Iraqis prepared to die for Saddam - and die knowing that defeat was inevitable - turned out to be small. …