Profile: Saddam Hussein; the Last Great Tyrant

By Fisk, Robert | The Independent (London, England), December 3, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Profile: Saddam Hussein; the Last Great Tyrant


Fisk, Robert, The Independent (London, England)


When the Egyptian journalist Mohamed Heikal visited Iraq during the early years of Saddam's rule, he met the minister for industry. Heikal was impressed by the intense, hard-working, intellectual man running Iraq's dynamic industrial output. So on his next visit, Heikal asked to meet him again. Officials explained that they had no information about the minister and all enquiries should be addressed to His Excellency the President. So when at last Heikal turned up for his interview with the dictator of Iraq, he asked about the minister for industry.

"He's gone," Saddam said. "Gone?", asked Heikal There was a pause. "We scissored his neck - he was suspected of being a traitor." But was there any evidence of this, the appalled Heikal asked. Was there any proof? "In Iraq, we don't need proof," Saddam replied, "suspicion is enough." In Cairo, he went on, Egyptians might have a white revolution. "In Iraq we have a red revolution." Heikal was horrified. But should he have been surprised?

There is about Saddam Hussein a peculiar ruthlessness, an almost calculated cruelty, perhaps even an interest in pain. It wasn't enough to order the murder of his sons-in-law after their return from exile in Jordan. They had to be dragged away with meat hooks through their eyes. It wasn't enough to order the hanging of the Observer journalist Farzad Bazoft in 1990; Bazoft was to be left unaware of his fate until a British embassy official turned up at the Abu Ghorraib prison to say goodbye. At Abu Ghorraib, women prisoners are allowed a party the night before one of them is to be hanged. Women are dispatched on Thursdays. Families are asked to bring their own coffin when a relative has been executed.

And yet we loved him. In the days when Saddam clawed his way to power, personally shot members of his own cabinet, or used gas for the first time on his recalcitrant Kurds, we loved him. When he invaded Iran in 1980, we gave him Bailey bridges and Mirage jets and radio sets and poison gas - the Mirages from France, the poison gas, of course, from Germany - and US satellite reconnaissance pictures of the Iranian front lines. I once met the Cologne arms dealer who personally took the photos from Washington DC to Baghdad. The Russians poured in their new T-72 tanks. Saddam's war against Iran - the greatest mass killing in modern Middle Eastern history until the UN sanctions of the last decade - was designed to appeal to both Arabs and the West. For the Arabs who tamely poured their millions into his armoury, Kuwait among the most prominent, his Iraqi sons were wading through anharr al-damm - literally "rivers of blood" - to defend the al-bawwabah al-sharqiyah, the "Eastern Gateway" to the Arab world and Saudi Arabia. To the West, he was fighting off Khomeini's Islamic hordes. Asked why the Iraqis used gas against their enemies, one of his senior confidants replied: "When you weed the lawn, you have to use weed-killer."

Blundering, ignorant of Western (though not Arab) history, largely uneducated, an original Tikriti corner-boy whose first political act was an attempted assassination and an escape, wounded, into the desert; how did he do it? How come the man who defied George Bush senior is still there to defy George Bush junior? How come, 10 years after the "mother of all battles" - a phrase typical of Saddam - and 10 years after UN sanctions that have killed at least a million Iraqis, Saddam is still enjoying his palaces and cigars?

The French are a clue. They idolised Saddam in the late Seventies. He was feted on his arrival at Orly, dined out by the Mayor of Paris (a certain M Chirac), swamped with champagne as he watched a bull-running circus in central France. For the French, he was a kind of Jacobin, the reformer- turned-extremist whose reign of terror had a power all its own. Saddam's "red revolution" was always rubber-stamped by the democratic mockeries of Iraq - he asked the Kurds of a northern Iraqi town if he should hang Bazoft and their cries of affirmation doomed the correspondent - but somehow, in a crazed way, it was modern and progressive.

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