By M.J. Akbar, firstname.lastname@example.org
Saddam Hussein is more powerful in his grave than he ever was in his palace. Alive, he was a dictator. Dead, he is a martyr. The evil inherent in arbitrary power is in the process of being interred with his bones.
Strong men like to be associated with iron. Hence, an Iron Duke, or Iron Chancellor, or Iron Fist, an Iron Will. It is ironic that all it needs is an extra letter to turn iron into irony. If Saddam was full of iron when he ruled Iraq, his legacy is replete with irony.
To take the most obvious instance, in death he has become a symbol of justice denied. The inexplicable haste, and the brutal shoddiness with which he was hanged has become, thanks to a grainy video and millions of television screens, the final testimony in the first example of victor’s prejudice masquerading as law in this century. This is not an arbitrary interpretation. Louise Arbour, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani, to stop Saddam’s execution because of doubts about the fairness of the trial.
Alive, Saddam Hussein was helpless against George Bush. Dead, Saddam could leave Bush helpless. His memory will pour fresh fuel on a hundred existing fires. The defeat and death of Saddam is a narrative with one author: George Bush. Saddam was the quarry, Bush was the hunter. The hunter changed the rules of this jungle when every reason was exposed as an excuse. When the quarry was trapped, all rules were abandoned in the pursuit of death.
Spin, passed on to the world’s most famous “embedded” reporters, the White House press corps, now seeks to distance Bush from the crude trial, premeditated judgment and barbaric execution. It is unconvincing. Bush’s formal statement welcomed the death of Saddam as an “important milestone on Iraq’s course to becoming a democracy that can govern, sustain and defend itself”.
There is an implicit admission in that sentence, that a “democratic” Iraq needs a dead Saddam.
Why was Saddam, in prison and unlikely to get out, considered so dangerous for Iraqi democracy? Is there a semi-hidden fear that the consuming anarchy in Iraq is breeding nostalgia for the stability and order of Saddam’s regime? Nostalgia can so easily turn into votes.
It is inconceivable that the White House was not informed about every step on the way to the noose. State-owned media like the Voice of America had begun preparing obituaries and reactions a day before the execution. Baghdad and Washington did not do themselves any favors by hanging Saddam during Eid Al-Adha, while millions were bowing their heads before the Kaaba during Haj, an event redolent with the spirit of sacrifice for a higher cause. Bush and his one-eyed coterie do not understand either Islam or Muslims, and will not fathom the anger that injustice generates on the street. The bars of Saddam’s cramped jail would not have melted in thirty days.
In death, Saddam has become a symbol of resistance to American hegemony. This is perhaps the height of irony, since, for most of his time in power, his enemies accused Saddam of being an American pawn in the region. Facts tell a story. Saddam Hussein was trained by the CIA during his years in exile in Cairo, after the failed coup of 1959. It has been mentioned, in more than one account, that his mentors were privately pleased when he seized power from an ailing Ahmad Hassan Al-Bakr in July 1979. They were certainly delighted when Saddam purged communists from the loose coalition in Iraq that was drifting towards the Soviet bloc at a time of heightening Cold War confrontation (the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan would take place in December that year).
Saddam Hussein did America an incalculable favor when on Sept. 22, 1980 he escalated border skirmishes into a full-scale war by bombing ten Iranian air bases. The planes in his air force were not MiGs from the Soviet Union. They were brand new Mirages from France. America maintained an official distance from that war, but there was much unofficial help as well as massive funding from American allies in the region. In December 1983, President Ronald Reagan sent a special envoy to Saddam, Donald Rumsfeld, the same man who launched the current Iraq war and who resigned last November. American arms to fight Iran came through third party routes, and American credit more visibly. Britain’s Margaret Thatcher took the lead in re-supplying military hardware to Saddam under the cover of lies, which were exposed in the 1996 Arms to Iraq report.
Paradoxically, Saddam occupied Kuwait because of war debts, and his conviction that the Arab regimes whose interests he had served by going to war against Iran had become stingy with their check books once the conflict had ceased. He had overplayed a very weak hand. But his faith in Washington was surely restored when the senior George Bush refused to remove him from power after an international coalition had defeated his armies on the battlefield in 1991.
There is a great deal hidden in Saddam’s grave. Was this one reason why he was denied a trial at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, a privilege granted to the Serbian butcher Slobodan Milosevic? Saddam and his lawyers would surely have had the freedom to assert a wider argument at The Hague, in a court devoid of kangaroos.
That kangaroo court in Baghdad is now an indelible America-inflicted scar across the face of the Middle East. A few lines from an editorial in the New York Times are appropriate: “Saddam Hussein deserves no one’s pity. But as anyone who has seen the graphic cell phone video of his hanging can testify, his execution bore little resemblance to dispassionate, state-administered justice... For the Bush administration, which insists it went to war in Iraq to implant democracy and justice, those globally viewed images were a shaming embarrassment. Unfortunately, all Americans will be blamed...”
It is not the defeat of Saddam, or his death, that has driven Iraq into chaos. It is a myth that Iraq needs despotism to keep it united. The Hashemite family of King Faisal ruled Iraq with a mild hand from 1921, when the state was formalized, to 1958. There was no talk of disintegration during the soft, albeit compromised, monarchy. Nor was there chaos during the two Baathist decades till 1979. The present havoc is a direct consequence of occupation, an inevitable insurrection against foreign troops on Iraqi soil, and a polity fractured by ethnic interests. The full account of this malfeasance will be written, but only after the occupation is over in a few years. “The enemies forced strangers into our sea/And he who serves them will be made to weep/Here we unveil our chests to the wolves/And will not tremble before the beast.”
As poetry that might not be the most memorable lines in Arabic, but these lines from Saddam Hussein’s last poem, written in jail, will resonate. Saddam’s grave in Tikrit has already become a memorial, where Iraq’s Sunnis are offering a prayer from wounded hearts. “I sacrifice my soul for you and for our nation,” he wrote. “Blood is cheap in hard times.” Blood flows, and each drop becomes a seed of future war.
Sunday, January 7, 2007
By M.J. Akbar, email@example.com