Magazine article Geographical

In Pursuit of Power: To Coincide with the Release of His New Book, Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood, Justin Marozzi Revisits the Beginning of the Dictatorship That Would Come to Define Modern Iraq and Its Capital City

Magazine article Geographical

In Pursuit of Power: To Coincide with the Release of His New Book, Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood, Justin Marozzi Revisits the Beginning of the Dictatorship That Would Come to Define Modern Iraq and Its Capital City

Article excerpt

In the closing decades of the eighth century, during Baghdad's earliest years, the Abbasid caliph Al Mansur built himself the Kasr al Khuld, the magnificent Palace of Eternity, whose luxuriant gardens evoked the Koran's famous Garden of Eternity, which was to be the believers' lasting reward for their faith. It became Mansur's favourite royal residence, praised for its architectural grandeur and 'superior planning'.

It was perhaps appropriate, then, given Mansur's well-documented history of bloodletting, that in 1979, the latter-day Khuld Hall should be the stage for one of the most chilling episodes in Baghdad's recent history. It was masterminded by the man who had been steadily taking control of all the levers of power in the Iraqi state since 1968, and in its ruthless execution bore all the hallmarks of his own 'superior planning'. It also demonstrated the same complete lack of concern for eliminating his rivals that had characterised Mansur's caliphate 1,200 years earlier.

On 17 July--after considerable encouragement from his vice president, Saddam Hussein-Ahmed Hassan al Bakr announced that he was stepping down from the presidency for 'health reasons'. Saddam was made president. Five days later, having successfully ousted his former patron, protector and relative, Saddam convened an extraordinary conference of around 1,000 senior Baath Party members from across Iraq.

None knew what was about to unfold. Since Saddam had the entire proceedings filmed pour encourager les autres, it's still possible to watch the putsch (the film is available on YouTube for viewers of a robust disposition) and observe the very moment when Baath Party rule succumbed to the will of one man, when an authoritarian regime crossed the line into total dictatorship.

COMMAND PERFORMANCE

The grainy black-and-white film opens with Saddam sitting coolly on one side of the stage, puffing away on a large Cuban cigar, alongside Taha Yassin Ramadan, the new vice president and head of the Popular Army, the Baath Party's militia; Izzat al Douri, Saddam's deputy in the party and deputy secretary-general of the Revolutionary Command Council; foreign minister Tarik Aziz; and Saddam's cousin and chief-of-staff, General Adnan Khairalla. To the delegates' surprise, Ramadan announces 'a painful and atrocious plot'. You can sense the sudden terror when he adds that all of the plotters are in the room.

Saddam rises to his feet, sleek in a tailored suit. Supremely calm, he puts his cigar to one side and starts addressing the conference hall without notes. 'We used to be able to sense a conspiracy with our hearts before we even gathered the evidence,' he says. 'Nevertheless, we were patient and some of our comrades blamed us for knowing this but doing nothing about it.' He invites Muhie Abdul Hussein Mashhadi, who only days earlier was secretary-general of the Revolutionary Command Council, to reveal the 'horrible crime'. Again, the sense of unfolding dread is palpable.

Haggard from his prison torture--he had been threatened with having his wife and daughters raped and murdered in front of him if he didn't confess-Mashhadi launches into an expose of the so-called plot against the regime. He says that since 1975, he has been part of a Syrian conspiracy to overthrow Saddam and Bakr in order to promote union with Syria. He gives names, places and dates of meetings. While he speaks, the camera shows Saddam puffing away on his cigar again, looking profoundly bored.

BLACKLISTED

Saddam returns to the podium. After explaining his attempts to understand the conspirators' motives--'they had nothing to say to defend themselves, they just admitted their guilt'--he ends his speech with a short declaration. 'The people whose names I am going to read out should repeat the party slogan and leave the hall.'

As the names of the conspirators are read out, men in wide-lapelled suits stand up and are quickly bundled out of the conference centre by armed Baath Party security personnel. …

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