Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Requiem for Saddam Hussain

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Requiem for Saddam Hussain

Article excerpt

THE FIFTH TOUR of my foreign service career was spent partly in Washington, DC and partly in Beirut studying Arabic. Two instructors had collaborated on designing a course to examine the several ideologies prevalent in the Middle East at that time.

My memory is that virtually all of the 15 students agreed that if they were Arabs, they would all be Ba'athists. The party called for unity, freedom and socialism-all of which were extremely appealing to people throughout the Arab world. So what happened to make the Ba'ath Party repulsive in real life? In this writer's opinion, it was Saddam Hussain who so distorted his party's goals that he transformed himself into the monster he became.

But let's start at the beginning. Saddam was born on April 28, 1937, in the town of al-Awja, about 10 miles from the town of Tikrit. His father disappeared six months before he was born. Saddam was raised by an uncle in Tikrit. When his mother remarried he was brought home, but his stepfather was abusive. Saddam found this life intolerable, and went to live with his uncle Tulfah in Baghdad.

Saddam went on to study law, supporting himself by teaching secondary school in Baghdad. In 1957 he joined the Ba'ath Party, co-founded by Michel Aflaq, a Christian whose mother may or may not have been Jewish, and Salah al-Din al-Bitar, a Muslim, who were both based in Syria. This was in the era of Egypt's Gamal Abdul Nasser, who, in 1956, had nationalized the Suez Canal. All of this was a strong influence in the life of Saddam Hussain.

One year after Saddam joined the Ba'ath Party a group of Iraqi officers overthrew the pro-Western democracy of King Faisal II, killing the monarch's family and an extremely influential longtime army officer, Nuri al-Said. While the Ba'athists supported the coup, they soon realized that its new leader, Abd al-Karim Qasim, did not seem to plan on sharing power with the Ba'athists.

As a result, Saddam Hussain was deeply involved in a 1959 assassination attempt against Qasim. The attempt failed and Saddam was wounded. According to legend, he dug a bullet out of his arm as he escaped to Syria. There Saddam sought to enroll at Damascus University, but its president turned down his application. Saddam argued that he was, as he put it, "connected" to Nasser, to which the university president replied, "Then let him accept you at Cairo University."

Saddam then went to Egypt. While there, he was sentenced to death in absentia in Iraq. Saddam was acquiring the reputation of a political brawler-a reputation he never sought to alter. Eventually Qasim was overthrown in a bloody 1963 coup, and Saddam returned to Baghdad. The new Iraqi president, Abdul Salam Aref, was a Nasserite. After he was killed in a helicopter accident during a characteristically sudden dust storm, his brother, Abdul Rahman Aref, also a Nasserite, took over and continued in his brother's stead.

In 1968 the Ba'athists overthrew Abdul Rahman Aref and appointed Ahmad Hasan al Bakr as president. Al-Bakr was a cousin of Saddam Hussain, and the protégé of Ba'ath co-founder Aflaq. In 1969 Aflaq visited Baghdad, eventually moving there from his base in Damascus.

Saddam was rewarded for his 11 years of underground activity with the post of vice president and the deputy chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council. President Al-Bakr became only a figurehead, and it was clear that Saddam was Iraq's de facto ruler. He finally assumed full power in July, 1979.

A decade earlier the British Embassy in Baghdad had reported that Saddam was a "presentable young man" and indicated that it would be possible to do business with him. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs Alfred L. Atherton described Saddam as "rather a remarkable person," adding that "he is running the show; ....and he's very ruthless...and pragmatic."

Shortly before I retired from the U.S. foreign service I visited Iraq to see if it was possible to reopen a U. …

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