Saddam Hussein started as he meant to go on.
When he came to power in 1979, the new President of Iraq instigated a purge of senior Ba’ath Party officials. The aim was to eliminate potential rivals and exert his total control over the regime. The method foreshadowed the barbarism that guided Hussein’s blood-soaked political career.
Gathering several hundred colleagues to hear the new leader, Hussein proceeded to read out the name of every man in the room. After each name, he would declare whether they were loyal or disloyal to the party and the country. Those deemed faithful got to resume their seat. Those denounced were swiftly removed from the auditorium by Hussein’s henchmen and shot dead.
As functionary after functionary was escorted out, followed soon after by a crack of gunfire, those left behind became hysterical, leaping to their feet and proclaiming loyalty to Hussein and giving thanks for his alacrity in dispatching the traitors. Hussein, sitting in judgment on a stage at the front of the hall, remained calm throughout the proceedings. He smoked a cigar in between announcing those who would live and those would would die.
It was a bloody inauguration for the new president and marked the beginning of a savage and merciless reign that would target the Kurds, Iraqi Shiites, and even members of Hussein’s own family.
The Butcher of Baghdad would come to the world’s attention a year later when he launched an invasion of Iran. The eight-year conflict that followed cost the lives of more than a million Iranians and Iraqis and introduced the words “chemical warfare” into the nightly news schedules. Saddam had championed Iraq’s offensive chemical programme and repeatedly ordered it to be used against Iranian military and civilian targets.
But when Hussein’s chemical warfare is recalled 100 years from now, the first word to cross the lips will be Halabja. A Kurdish town in the north of Iraq, Halabja became the scene of Saddam’s most notorious mass murder. In 1988, at the height of his Al-Anfal campaign, Hussein directed his forces to turn mustard gas and sarin on the residents of Halabja. Five thousand were killed and 10,000 injured in an atrocity now recognised as an act of genocide.
If the episode seized the world in horror at its depravity, it was simply of a piece with Hussein’s wider Anfal against the Kurds and other Iraqi minorities. After three years of carefully planned and coldly executed gassings, shootings, and mass starvations, Hussein had claimed the lives of 180,000 victims.
As well as a chemical weapons capability, Saddam also pursued a nuclear programme but his efforts were frustrated when Israel destroyed his Osirak reactor in a surprise aerial attack in 1981. At the time, the international community lustily denounced Menachem Begin for the strike but in the years that followed, as Hussein’s psychopathic behaviour became clearer, it was obvious the Israelis had done the world a favour.
It took the same international community longer to challenge Saddam’s brutality but his 1990 invasion of Kuwait proved the catalyst for Western and some Arab powers. The first Gulf War pushed Ba’athist forces out of Kuwait but the US stopped short of deposing the regime in Baghdad, a grave error of judgement for which history will not reflect kindly on George H W Bush’s military leadership. Twelve years later, George W Bush would finish the job his father started.
Although his mass killings claimed many more lives, Saddam’s penchant was for torture, retribution and Makarov-powered score-settling. Amnesty International has recorded the obscenities visited on political opponents and dissidents by Saddam’s henchmen:
“Torture victims in Iraq have been blindfolded, stripped of their clothes and suspended from their wrists for long hours. Electric shocks have been used on various parts of their bodies, including the genitals, ears, the tongue and fingers. Victims… have been beaten with canes, whips, hosepipe or metal rods and how they have been suspended for hours from either a rotating fan in the ceiling or from a horizontal pole often in contorted positions as electric shocks were applied repeatedly on their bodies. Some victims had been forced to watch others, including their own relatives or family members, being tortured in front of them.
“Other methods of physical torture described by former victims include the use of Falaqa (beating on the soles of the feet), extinguishing of cigarettes on various parts of the body, extraction of finger nails and toenails and piercing of the hands with an electric drill. Some have been sexually abused and others have had objects, including broken bottles, forced into their anus. In addition to physical torture, detainees have been threatened with rape and subjected to mock execution… Detainees have also been threatened with bringing in a female relative, especially the wife or the mother, and raping her in front of the detainee. Some of these threats have been carried out.”
When documented in sober and factual tones, the premeditated cruelty of Saddam’s dictatorship can begin to be glimpsed. Yes, he was a military strongman, a tyrant, and terrorised an entire country with his brand of revolutionary Arab nationalism. But above all else, Hussein was a connoisseur of human suffering, an aficionado of screams and broken bones and futile pleas for compassion. It was as if history, having already delivered Vlad the Impaler and the Marquis de Sade, conspired to return them in a single form.
Those Iraqis who escaped the visceral attentions of Saddam and his enforcers still suffered the violence he visited on the country’s economy. Iraq under Saddam was run as a kleptocracy, and corruption was an accepted feature of governance. Those who found favour with the Ba’ath Party were able to enjoy a comfortable, and often extravagant lifestyle. The great mass of ordinary Iraqis had to make their own luck in this oil-rich nation.
The rights and wrongs of the Iraq War will be rehearsed once again today. In truth, no report will ever put these differences to rest. Positions on both sides are simply too entrenched for minds to be changed. But the wisdom or otherwise of the US-led military action does not alter the gory history of one of the 20th century’s most evil men. His grisly death — strung up on a scaffold, final moments captured on pixelly mobile phone video by a joyful mob — may have turned our liberal stomachs but to many Iraqis it was blessed relief. The era of Saddam Hussein was over.
Stephen Daisley is STV’s digital politics and comment editor. You can contact him at [email protected].