Much of what the press and biographers have written about Saddam's life is true. But it represents a one-sided story since it is limited to reports of his actions; no attempt is made to explain the background to his emergence on the world stage and to locate him in Arab and twentieth-century history. Judged absolutely and in comparison with those of his Arab contemporaries, his achievements are substantial, and some of them will outlive the current deafening noise surrounding his reputation. The possibility that he will occupy a place of honour in Arab history and condemnation elsewhere has to be understood in the context of the history of Iraq, its geopolitical position, its covetous neighbours and the major powers which believe Iraqi oil is so significant that they cannot leave the country alone.
Saddam's role and reputation must be weighed along with the unfulfilled desires of the Iraqi people, and their justified historical belief that they have been denied the right to realize the potential of their land and earn it a place among modern nations. In other words, Saddam as an individual may be unique, even demonic, but he is also a true son of Iraq. Even his use of violence to achieve his aims is not a strictly personal characteristic, but rather an unattractive trait of the Iraqi people reinforced by their history.
Thousands of years ago Mesopotamia ('the land between the rivers'), as it was known by the Greeks, was one of the great cradles of civilization. Its strategic importance on the overland route between Europe and Asia, combined with the agricultural potential of the rich fertile expanse between the Tigris and the Euphrates in an otherwise arid region, meant that it was constantly fought over. Ancient Mesopotamia is associated with dozens of kingdoms and empires: Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Hittite, Hurrian, Kassite, Elamite, Assyrian and, in more recent centuries, Arab, Persian and Ottoman. Whilst some of these entities expanded, then contracted and often disappeared of their own accord, most of them replaced each other violently, through conquest or rebellion or a combination of both.
In the fourth century BC, Alexander the Great captured Babylon and cut a swathe through the region on his eastward journey of conquest. In the eighth century AD, by then already known as Iraq, it was conquered by Arab Muslims who established the Abbasid caliphate and built the legendary Baghdad. But even this flourishing empire, with its libraries, scientific achievements and poetry, was anchored in violence: more than eighty of its ninety-two caliphs were murdered as a result of feuds over succession, corruption or palace intrigues. In the thirteenth century, in an orgy of slaughter and looting, the Mongol hordes ransacked Baghdad and destroyed the great libraries, the cultural inheritance of the Abbasids. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries both the Persians and the Ottoman Turks tried to establish dominance over Iraq and turned it into a battleground; eventually the Turks incorporated the territory into the Ottoman Empire. From the late nineteenth century the British sought to control Iraq to safeguard their route to India. After the First World War and the defeat of the Turks, Britain occupied Iraq and briefly administered it as a mandate territory. What followed was a monarchy of Britain's creation.
The violence and cruelty which accompanied every change in the governance of the country throughout its history occasionally took novel forms which left an indelible imprint on the local population. Two examples stand out. Upon entering the city of Najjaf in 694 AD, the Muslim conqueror Al Hajjaj Bin Yusuf Al Thaqafi described the Iraqis as people of `schism and hypocrisy' and declared, `I see heads ripe for cutting and verily I am the man to do it'. When in 1258 Hulagu, the grandson of Genghis Khan, laid siege to Baghdad, he bombarded the fortified inner city to rubble and ordered the breaking of the dykes on the Tigris, thus drowning most of the population. It therefore comes as no surprise that, on hearing of the killing in 1958 of the British-backed royal family, the Hashemite descendants of Mohammed, the Orientalist Freya Stark wrote, `Even the massacre of the prophet's family is no novelty on that soil.'
Leaving human violence aside, the natural environment itself has been no kinder to Iraq. Floods, earthquakes, plague, famine and the wretchedness of a land where the temperature can fluctuate by 40 degrees Centigrade within a single day have contributed to the emergence of an indigenous personality at war with nature and the rule of man. Every conqueror left people and aspects of their culture behind, and the depopulation of the original inhabitants through natural disasters, civil strife and war allowed the new arrivals to create a greater impression than would normally have been the case. The influence of the Mongols who remained after their conquest, for instance, was considerable because two-thirds of the original population had been massacred. By the twentieth century the country contained a rich ethnic and religious mix of Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans, Persians, Chaldeans, Yezedis, Sabaens and Jews, along with smaller groups of Afghans, Azeris and Hindis. Even in the 1920s, 44 per cent of the members of the chamber of commerce were Jewish. In the words of the celebrated journalists, John Bulloch and Harvey Morris, Iraq remains the least Arab of the Arab countries.
The turbulent history, harsh environment and multi-stranded culture of Iraq have produced a complex and unique conglomerate which lacks the ingredients for creating a homogeneous country and a commitment to the idea of a national community. Modern Iraq is a fractured society in which numerous clusters, tribes, ethnic and religious groups pay genuine tribute to the idea of a nation state, but one which accords paramountcy to their particular tribal, ethnic or religious background.
The schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims typifies the problem. This religious split began in AD 680 over the nature of the prophet's succession, and grew under Persian and then Ottoman Turkish rule. The Persians promoted their Shia co-religionists, while Sunni Turkey supported its own. Each group mistreated the others when in power and denied them their rights, and the cleavage eventually assumed a socio-economic nature since Turkish supremacy lasted longer than Persian it gave the Sunnis an educational and wealth advantage over the Shias which still remains. Today, most Sunni Muslims are Arab nationalists who want union or closer relations with the rest of the Arabs, whilst many Shias work towards closer ties with Iran. Thus conflicts between narrow loyalty and the larger dream of nationhood are constant, and lie behind the incoherence and habitual disorder which racks the country.
Saddam Hussein is not the first, nor is he likely to be the last, dictator of Iraq. When such a neurotic individual superimposes himself on this arena of discord, we are confronted with a ruler suffering from a patterned defect. In Saddam's case there is a morbid, dangerous preoccupation with creating a whole out of the disparate parts. I call it a patterned defect because most Iraqis suffer from it. Given the opportunity, each of them would pursue Saddam's aim of creating a unified, strong Iraq in his own way.
However, despite the cultural mélange, the character of Iraq is basically Arab. This is because the Arabs, who ruled the country for six centuries, had a religion which produced a developed culture. Their predominance was reinforced by the movement into Iraq of tribes from the Arabian peninsula. The Arabness of Iraq has been part of the search for a unifying national identity. Saddam's commitment to meld what exists on the ground under the umbrella of Arab culture was tried by many leaders before him, though in a less deliberate and brutal manner. This is why there have been many occasions when being Arab was subordinated to being Iraqi, when the latter was considered to be more of a unifying umbrella, even under Saddam Hussein.
The arrival of the British during the First World War, and their subsequent occupation of the country, compounded the legacy of the Persians and Ottoman Turks. Discovering that imposing direct rule on Iraq was unaffordable, the British sided with the more educated minority Sunnis (then, as now, around 20 per cent of the population) and used them to perpetuate the inequality that the Turks had created. (Former Iraqi cabinet member Abdel Karim Al Ozrie claims that the extensive Iraqi diplomatic service did not have one Shia ambassador until 1956.) But those who laid the foundations of modern Iraq during the past two centuries also left a lasting impression on the land which went beyond building an unsound political structure. To this day Iraqi Arabic is replete with non-Arabic words, mostly Turkish and Persian but some introduced more recently. Fasanjoon, an Iranian dish, has been claimed by many Iraqis as their own. The word for `good' is not Arabic but the Turkish equivalent, khosh. Lack of good manners is described in a phrase which also recalls the days of Ottoman Turkey, adab sis. And even a whorehouse is a kharakhanah, for it was the Turks who introduced these establishments to Baghdad and other cities. The Iraqis use the English `glass' instead of its Arabic equivalents, cass or kubaya, and the upper classes say `countryside' instead of rif.
Nevertheless, despite being the offspring of its tortured historical search for identity, Iraq does have a distinct social and economic character. This came into being in the mid-nineteenth century, when the Turks introduced the tanzimat (the concept of organization through codifying the law) and tried to turn the country into a functioning territory within the Ottoman Empire. Contrary to the claims of Orientalists, which the press adopt too readily, the country as a geographical unit was always united by the two rivers and, except for a relatively brief period towards the end of Ottoman Turkish rule, authority under them was centred in Baghdad. The legend which claims that Iraq is a country stitched together by the British from three villayats or provinces, Baghdad, Mosul and Basra, is shallow. Turkey created these villayats by decentralizing from Baghdad for a brief time before the First World War. The historian Malik Mufti refutes the claim without hesitation by stating that `Iraq [as created by Britain] was not an entirely artificial concept'.
What victorious Britain did produce after the First World War was an Iraqi government which controlled the same territory that Saddam Hussein governs today. It confirmed those borders in 1926, five years after it had established the Iraqi monarchy and imported an Arab king, Faisal I, to deputize for it while investing real authority in the British High Commissioner. It is true that the boundaries of modern Iraq were drawn in response to Western interests, in accordance first with the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, which divided the Middle Eastern spoils of the First World War between Britain and France, and later in recognition of the British desire to control the city of Mosul and its oil. But the core of Iraq as a place with a people was already in existence under the Ottoman Empire and even earlier.
The British and the new monarchy worsened the historical problems which had always bedevilled the country. The imported king had never been to Iraq before the British appointed him. He belonged to the minority Sunni sect and, above all, he ruled without governing. Faisal himself accepted the paramountcy of the High Commissioner and admitted that he was no more than `an instrument of British policy'; the Orientalist Gertrude Bell, one of the people behind Faisal, wrote to her father on 8 July 1921 to complain about how tiring `making kings' was. The opinion of the majority Shias was totally ignored. To support Faisal, the British took the easy way out and elevated to positions of power Sunnis who had served as officers under Turkey.
In 1920, just before the plans for imposing the monarchy were finalized, the Shias rose up against the infidel British and their plans. Because most Iraqis wanted to be independent and free, the rebellion eventually spread to include those Sunnis outside the small, elite circle whom the British were promoting. Both Muslim sects turned against the franji, the European usurper, and the result was some two thousand British casualties including 453 dead. The strength of the uprising caused the British to resort to two elements of warfare which have been copied by Saddam in more recent times: they employed their air force against civilians and they used gas. The Christianity of the British, the lateness of their conquest, their lack of sensitivity to local conditions (which included dependence on a minority) and their willingness to resort to force and chemical warfare administered a shock to the country's social system from which it has never recovered. It was the British conquest of Iraq which set the stage for what is happening today.
Along with ignoring the Shias the British allowed the promise to grant the Kurds independence, which had been included in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, to lapse. Iraq as represented by the Shias, the Kurds and those Sunnis, mostly from the lower classes to which Saddam's tribe belonged, who sought independence in total, nearly 70 per cent of the population was now resolutely anti-British. As a result the conquerors were forced into ever heavier reliance on the Sunni aristocrats, who were allowed to control the government. There were also some Shia tribal leaders who succumbed to the enticement of land grants, former officers in the Turkish Army who were made generals and ministers and were also given land, Jews, who got special protection, and the Assyrians and other minorities who were employed in the new administration.
Operating with a shackled king who proved more astute than they had anticipated and who lamented the absence of social cohesion in his country, the British later added to the explosive situation by supporting the tribes to undermine him and by creating a special force of Christian levies to use selectively to protect their interests and oil installations. They opened a direct line of communication with the leaders of the abandoned Kurds and used them intermittently to support and undermine the central government. In fact, they dealt directly with the small ethnic and religious segments of Iraq and the leadership of the Kurds and Shias without deferring to the Sunni government that they had created among other things, they stipulated that the Minister of Finance be a Jew.
Just as the long-term history of Iraq contained and nurtured violence, the British, following short-sighted policies similar to those employed by Iraq's ancient conquerors, contributed measurably to the ethnic, religious and social divisions which beset the country. Because the average Iraqi was beyond their reach, British policies precluded the creation of a democracy and included looking the other way while supporters of Britain, even some prime ministers, murdered and imprisoned popular politicians in the tradition of the centuries-old Iraqi reliance on violence to express political opinion. The Kurds, among others, resorted to the gun to try to attain their national aspirations, and the Shias sought Iranian support to undermine the government.
That violence continues to be part and parcel of the Iraqi personality is no accident. The monarchical system, which governed Iraq until 1958 and which the 1921 Peace Conference in Cairo designed, was unsound and contained the seeds of its eventual destruction. The historian H. V. F. Winstone cites the words of Gertrude Bell, a participant in the Peace Conference, to demonstrate how little attention was paid to the long-term effects of what was being discussed and planned. Her recollections of a conversation among three of the conference delegates went like this:
First statesman: The country will be badly governed.
Second statesman: Why should it not be badly governed?
Third statesman: It ought to be badly governed.
There is no reason to suppose that they did not have Iraq in mind.
Although King Faisal was put on the throne of a country which was expected to be badly governed, he still tried his utmost to improve the situation and undertook moves, including recognition of Shia rights, to bridge the gap between his realm's diverse components. Against British resistance, he devoted a great deal of time and effort to creating a strong army to give his country pride and to serve as a nucleus for integrating its people. Interestingly, his attempts at enfranchising all segments of the population included encouraging the Tikritis, Saddam's poor and ignored relations, to enter the armed forces. King Faisal died in 1933 before he fully realized his dream and was succeeded by his incompetent and hot-headed son, Ghazi. Instead of using the Army to unite the country, by placing it above politics, Ghazi made it another instrument of division. In 1936 the semi-literate Ghazi colluded with General Bakr Sidqi and staged a coup, which ushered in a whole age of coups. The Army became a faction, a participant in the endemic violence, and politicians tried to control it and manipulate its composition.
Saddam Hussein was born about the time of Ghazi's suspicious
death in 1939. He was the product of a poor childhood which
produced bitter experiences that he has never forgotten or overcome.
In many ways he is very much like all the rulers of Iraq since
King Faisal I, but for his highly individualistic utter lack of
psychological or sociological restraints. Saddam too has tried to
unify Iraq through a strong army and, inventively, the use of the
country's diverse past. However, his lack of restraint is imported:
he has modelled himself after and adopted the ways of Joseph
Stalin and merged them with his tribal instincts. This synthesis of
Bedouin guile and Communist method, a unique combination, is
what confuses both his friends and his adversaries. Because of
regional and international factors which had nothing to do with
the fate of the people of Iraq, Saddam has been courted, supported
and eventually opposed by the West. This too has allowed him
space to operate which other Iraqi dictators did not have. Whether
or not Saddam would have managed to create a strong, independent
Iraq had the West left him alone will be addressed through the
telling of his life story. Whether the Iraq that Saddam sought to
create was what the Iraqi people wanted is another vital component
of this biography.