Patrick Cockburn: Iron man who proved to be a tin god: From gilded palaces to wretched infamy

He fancied himself as a leading player on the world stage, but posing for the cameras while butchering his own secured his downfall. By Patrick Cockburn

Share

Had Saddam Hussein never lived, the world would be a different place. But he changed the world more by his defeats than his victories.

For all his nationalist rhetoric, Iraqis never wanted to fight or die for him. After he invaded Iran in 1980, Iraqi troops surrendered en masse until Iran in turn invaded Iraq. In Kuwait in 1991, the Iraqi army again hardly fought against the US-led coalition. In 2003, the American and British armies suffered few casualties on the road to Baghdad. Only after Saddam fled did serious guerrilla warfare begin.

His nationalism was genuine: he identified Iraq wholly with himself. At his trial he presented himself as the symbol of Iraqi unity and independence, berating his judges as pawns of the US. When told he was to die this weekend, he remarked philosophically to one lawyer: "What do you expect from occupiers?"

As the standard-bearer of Arab nationalism and the opponent of Western imperialism, he was more popular outside Iraq than within. Every office, restaurant and street in Iraq bore his image. I once counted nine photographs of him in the office of a Baghdad newspaper editor. But for all that, he was liked by few Iraqis. The next time I saw the editor, he was in exile in London.

The reverence was more genuine elsewhere. Taxi drivers from Jordan to Sudan and Yemen to Bangladesh pinned up his picture in their cabs. It was only as his army fled without firing a shot, and the Sunni and Shia rose in rebellion, that they realised they had chosen an ineffective champion.

His regime was a police state, but a peculiar one. It had all the repressive apparatus of East Germany or Chile. Saddam's response to any form of dissent was repression, usually far in excess of what was needed to achieve his ends. He was executed yesterday for killing 148 people from the village of Dujail because of an attempt to kill him there in 1982, but the assassination bid was only a scattering of shots in the direction of his motorcade. The savagery of the retaliation aimed, very successfully, to spread terror.

There have been other states ruled by fear - most Middle East countries are controlled by corrupt and parasitic ruling élites, backed by ferocious security services - but Saddam's grip on power was also sustained by kinship and tribal links. In so far as he ever trusted anybody, it was relatives. He came from the al-Bejat clan, part of the Albu Nasir tribe from around the city of Tikrit on the Tigris river. "Do you want to know how we run Iraq?" said one of his lieutenants in the 1990s. "Exactly the same way as we used to run Tikrit."

Saddam had highly educated advisers to balance Ba'ath party loyalists and tribal allies. But there was always something archaic about his regime - for all the trouble he had taken to invade and hold Kuwait, the Iraqi occupiers behaved as if they were on a Bedouin raid, looting everything from bulldozers to museum artefacts.

Saddam was a man of intelligence, but also arrogance so great that it led to catastrophic blunders. Iraq was a growing power in 1980, but to wage war on revolutionary Iran, a country with three times Iraq's population, was the height of foolishness. Ten years later Saddam once again miscalculated his strength in invading Kuwait. Tragically for Iraqis, these blunders were matched by great skill on Saddam's part in retaining power. A natural-born conspirator himself, he had a secret policeman's instinct for smelling out conspiracies against his regime.

His appeal was always to Iraqi unity. Iraqi nationalism can be a powerful force, but it is also true that Iraq was historically far more divided between Sunni, Shia and Kurd than most Iraqis admit. Although Iraq is a country created by the state, this is not so peculiar as some who see Iraq as "an artificial state" suppose, since the same is true of the United Kingdom. But under Saddam the state had been overstrained by war and 13 years of economic sanctions, until it dissolved at the time of the capture of Baghdad in 2003.

For the division of Iraq, Saddam bears some, but not all, the responsibility. He was part of the Sunni community, as were his senior lieutenants. Towards the Kurds he never adopted any policy but repression. He made war on the Shia religious parties, but tried to conciliate ordinary Shia during the war with Iran. After the Shia uprising in 1991, however, he viewed them - 60 per cent of the population - as potential rebels.

Saddam was a convenient enemy, as the US and Britain found. Few opponents could have been as easy to demonise, because in many ways he was a real demon. His physical appearance was threatening, and so was his rhetoric. In 1990 he appeared with a young British hostage sitting on his knee, like the wicked king in a fairy tale.

Doubly convenient for Washington and London, his menacing rhetoric was far from reality. The "Mother of all Battles" he promised foreign invaders in 1990 never happened. Instead, there was an embarrassing rout. The allies later boasted of destroying 2,000 Iraqi tanks, but most of them were empty, their crews having sensibly fled before they were hit.

If Iraqis had really identified with Saddam - as so many Germans identified with Hitler - then the task of the US and Britain in Iraq might have been easier. But to the surprise of the invaders, the serious fighting began after his flight. When he was captured by US troops in December 2003, it had no dampening effect on the insurgency, which grew steadily in strength.

This was hardly surprising. No Iraqis, not even the Sunni community from which he came, wanted Saddam back in power. Only the US generals, at their ludicrous press conferences in Baghdad's Green Zone, pretended that he played a central role in the war against the occupation. As his lieutenants pictured on the US Army's notorious pack of cards were killed or captured, it became increasingly evident that none was at the centre of the war of resistance.

The US made every effort to portray the trial of Saddam as an Iraqi-run affair, but the former leader was right in seeing it as orchestrated by Washington. If confirmation of this were needed, it came when the date for announcing his death sentence was moved to 5 November, so it could be the leading item on the news the day before the US midterm elections. In the event, the reality of 25,000 US soldiers killed and wounded in Iraq made more impression on American voters.

Many Iraqis will rejoice at the death of Saddam. While some will accept his estimate of himself as a symbol of his country, making the final patriotic sacrifice, he is only one of 4,000 Iraqis who will die violently this month. The war has its own momentum, and Iraqis are too worried about staying alive themselves to lament or rejoice very long at the execution of the man who ruled them for a quarter of a century.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of 'The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq' (Verso)

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Geography Teacher

£130 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Secondary Geography Teacher Lo...

Do you want to work in Education?

£55 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Are you a dynamic and energeti...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: SEN TAs, LSAs and Support Workers needed...

Private Client Senior Manager - Sheffield

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Pro-Recruitment Group: The Sheffield office of this...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Arts Editor: The Great Character Actors of Football

David Lister
 

What I saw on the night my husband was hit by a car

Rebecca Armstrong
How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit