Magazine article The Spectator

Saddam Hussein, Countryman

Magazine article The Spectator

Saddam Hussein, Countryman

Article excerpt

CAN 'Bambi' and the `Butcher of Baghdad' find common ground? Yes, is the answer to the diplomatic question of the week: both Tony Blair and Saddam Hussein share a disdain for the traditional way of life in the countryside. This includes, apparently, a mutual hostility to fox-hunting. So, as the government braces itself for Sunday's Countryside March, it is worth asking whether New Labour - ever mindful of foreign precedents - can learn anything from the Ba'athist model of social cohesion.

Saddam's approach to the issue of fox-- hunting (like Blair's) is invested with much ambiguity. Fox-hunting has gone on in Mesopotamia since time immemorial; and, during the British mandate, Iraqis and Englishmen would don their hunting pink and ride to hounds in the palm groves near the river Tigris. Their quarry also included wild boar.

Ahmed Chalabi, now a leading figure in the Iraqi resistance, recalls that under the monarchy, hunting would take place before and after his father's annual luncheon for the king at their home in Baghdad. This was always held in the spring: the season only lasted from March to April, for by May it was too hot to hunt.

Hunt members rode both Arab horses and English thoroughbreds reared on the Jezira plain between the Tigris and Euphrates and in the Sharazur area near the Iranian border. They did so with Gazelle hounds (saluki) and Afghan hounds. (The former were so admired by Vita Sackville-West that she bought a bitch on her visit to Baghdad in 1926; according to Victoria Glendinning, it turned out to be the only really unsatisfactory dog the Nicolsons ever owned.)

All this changed after the monarchy was overthrown in 1958, and even more so when the Ba'ath party came to power ten years later. As expropriations began, even those landowners who held onto their property no longer had the money or the leisure to hunt. The old landed elite were denounced as 'bloodsuckers' by the Ba'ath, and English-style hunting was frowned upon as colonial nonsense. The Revolutionary Command Council officially banned all forms of hunting, not on grounds of Hitlerian sentimentalism, but as a bogus environmental measure to halt the depletion of numbers.

The real reason was more straightforward: the Ba'athist nomenklatura itself was keen to acquire a monopoly on hunting. After their takeover in 1968, they sought to mix with members of the Hunting Club, based in the prestigious Mansour area of Baghdad. Saddam's personal bodyguard, Sabah al-Mirza, took over and unco-operative members found their privileges suspended.

In the mid-1980s the Hunting Club was taken under the wing of the Hunting Society headed by Saddam's second son, Qusay. …

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