January issue 2004

By | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 20 years ago

Saddam Hussain. Photograph: AFP

Saddam Hussain. Photograph: AFP

More than eight months after the hunt began, his enemies found him in a hole dug into the floor of a hut, not very many miles from the village where he was born. They were about to throw a grenade into the hole, which is apparently standard operating procedure for whenever the occupying forces find someone hiding, when two hands appeared, followed by a barely recognisable form.

“I am Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq, and I am willing to negotiate,” said the bedraggled creature who emerged, his visage evidently bearded by necessity rather than choice. “President Bush sends his regards,” countered one of his captors. Shortly after the captive’s identity had been confirmed by virtue of a tattoo, he was bundled into a helicopter, handcuffed, with a bag over his head, and flown to a “secure location” — presumably one of his former palaces in nearby Tikrit.

The following day, the American viceroy in Baghdad made the most of a moment that lacked the element of surprise. Some weeks earlier, Paul Bremer had put up quite an act during George W’s brief foray into Baghdad airport. Much as he would have liked to, the US President did not enter Iraq’s capital like a conquering emperor; surrounded by secrecy of the highest degree, he sneaked in like a thief. The stunt was designed to appeal to American voters, who have increasingly been questioning the administration’s Iraq policies. It was about as appetising as the plastic turkey Bush posed with for the benefit of Thanksgiving audiences back home.

Finding Saddam was potentially a much bigger propaganda coup, at his press conference Bremer allowed himself to gloat as images of an evidently emotionless Saddam being checked for head lice and tooth decay played on a TV screen, prompting cheers from reporters. In the days that followed, those pictures became staple fare for networks the world over.

There was jubilation in parts of Iraq. In a country where the occupation forces’ knee-jerk response to any sense of danger is to start firing, it’s hard to believe that the few celebratory shots recycled ad infinitum on CNN were spontaneous. But a substantial number of Iraqis were pleased, or at least relieved, that their former dictator was no longer at large. In several largely Sunni towns in the north, however, the occupiers had to contend with pro-Saddam demonstrations. They reacted in the only way they know: by killing a number of the demonstrators.

Not surprisingly, the Kuwaitis were thrilled by Saddam’s fate. The reaction in the rest of the Arab world was considerably more circumspect. Not because Saddam was a popular figure (although his threats against Israel and support for the intifadas had endeared him to many Palestinians), but because the spectacle of an Arab leader being hunted down and humiliated by a military force from afar is singularly unpleasant — not least because it dredges up memories of the Middle East’s colonial past.

Similar feelings are reportedly widespread in Iraq, where a large proportion of those who heartily detested Saddam are even more distressed by the American presence. One of the reasons why violent opposition to the occupation will not decrease, let alone cease, in the wake of Saddam’s arrest, is that the Ba’athists have never been more than a relatively minor component in a disparate and only semi-coordinated movement. With the tyrant out of the way, it is perfectly possible that the resistance will gain a larger following.

When the question of Saddam’s trial came up, Bush and his Australian parrot, John Howard, did not take long to chip in with the opinion that Iraq’s former president should face execution — an opinion shared by some members of the US-chosen Iraqi Governing Council. If Tony Blair showed less enthusiasm for this extreme option, it may have been only because Jack Straw had already spoken out; one doesn’t often get the opportunity to express satisfaction with Straw’s behaviour, but it is to his credit that he unambiguously spelt out Britain’s opposition to the death penalty.

The point, however, is that it is surely inappropriate to discuss the verdict in a case that has not even gone to trial. Saddam has a lot to answer for, and in many eyes does not qualify for a presumption of innocence. For much of his life, he has been a thug and a murderer. In the latter capacity, his first victim was a brother-in-law who happened to be a communist. Not long afterwards, he was implicated in a Ba’athist plot to assassinate Iraqi nationalist leader General Abdel-Karim Qassem. He returned from exile when a CIA-supported Ba’athist coup succeeded in overthrowing Qassem in 1963, and is likely to have participated in the death squads that tracked down communists, intellectuals and scientists on the basis of lists helpfully provided by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The army ran the Ba’athists out of Baghdad later that year, but they were better prepared when they took their next shot at power five years later. The CIA was supportive once more, and Saddam’s cousin Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr was installed as the supremo. Ominously, Saddam was put in charge of internal security. He was a widely feared presence on the national scene by the time he replaced al-Bakr in 1979, when he celebrated his ascension with a ruling-party purge. At a Ba’ath gathering, as names of his detractors, rivals and potential foes were read out, they were led off one by one, never to be seen again. Not alive, at any rate.

The following year, Saddam launched a war against Iran that lasted for nearly a decade, at the cost of more than a million lives. In this he was supported by his Arab neighbours, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. And the US provided him with satellite pictures that helped his forces to choose their targets. It continued to do so even after Iran offered evidence that the Iraqis were using chemical weapons. The US knew all about those weapons, of course; it had authorised American firms to sell the necessary components to Iraq. During the 1980s Washington also took Iraq off the list of countries supporting terrorism and re-established diplomatic relations with Baghdad.

Donald Rumsfeld says that when he met Saddam in the 1980s as Ronald Reagan’s emissary, he brought up the matter of chemical weapons. But transcripts of their conversations offer no evidence of this — and Rumsfeld isn’t a man who can be taken at his word. Nor, of course, is Saddam, who also used those weapons against Iraqi Kurds, killing an estimated 50,000 children, women and men in one attack. Hallabja was the site of that particular atrocity, and a Kurdish leader has suggested that is where Saddam’s trial should take place.

It’s an appropriate suggestion. After all, mass murder in Hallabja should have pride of place in any chargesheet against Saddam. But domestic repression on a Nazi-like scale is not why Iraq was attacked. Saddam, we were told, had to be eliminated because he posed a threat to western civilisation: not only did he have stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, he was also keen to share them with al-Qaeda. At one point, 75 per cent of the Americans believed that Iraq had something to do with the attacks of September 11.

If those are the sorts of charges Saddam faces, an unbiased tribunal may well be inclined to acquit him. There is, on the other hand, much that he is guilty of. But, like any other human being, he deserves a fair trial. Summary justice would be tantamount to an endorsement of his own methods. Yet the question of a fair trial in Iraq simply does not arise for as long as the country is under foreign occupation.

That occupation, which has thus far proved to be a miserable failure in innumerable ways, is scheduled to end in June. However, the transitional government that is expected to replace Bremer’s colonial administration will not be directly elected by the Iraqis, nor is the US military presence likely to diminish significantly in the next six months. That means, in effect, that the occupation will continue, notwithstanding a subtle change of guise.

Observers of US tribulations in Iraq are occasionally inclined to categorise the fiasco as a symptom of inexperience. There may be an element of truth in that, insofar as the aggression was undertaken without any coherent plan of action beyond the fall of Baghdad. As someone aptly put it, it’s been a case of the deaf playing it by ear. Blame it, if you like, on a lethal combination of hubris and ignorance. Not inexperience. The US has been engaged in military conquests and interventions for more than a hundred years.

Their conquests were confined to geographically contiguous or proximate territories. Much of the southern United States was annexed by virtue of American military superiority vis-a-vis Mexico. Puerto Rico was a prize of the Spanish-American War. Success in that gratuitously instigated war also yielded Cuba — which was briefly colonised, and then allowed to administer itself, as long as it put US interests first — an arrangement that stayed in place until 45 years ago. Another much-coveted booty was the Philippines. Given to believe that the US was interested only in assisting their liberation from the Spanish yoke, Filipino nationalists cooperated with the new conquistadors, only to be bitterly disappointed. The slaughter of an estimated 200,000 men, women and children prompted the dedicated American anti-imperialist Mark Twain to proclaim that the stars and stripes on the victorious banner ought to be replaced with skulls and crossbones.

Much the same could be said today, particularly after the utterly unforgivable slaughter last month of Afghan children long after the war is supposed to be over.

George W. Bush. Photograph: AFP

George W. Bush. Photograph: AFP

However, although the assault on Afghanistan and the conquest of Iraq were ostensibly part of the same “war against terror”, there are significant differences in the nature of the two occupations. Afghanistan falls more readily into the historical pattern of US interventions: a military rout of the targeted foe in association with local collaborators, followed pretty quickly by the institution of a puppet regime that can more or less be guaranteed to give precedence to US demands — at the expense, if necessary, of the national interest. That has been the customary pattern in much of Central and South America, from El Salvador and Nicaragua to Colombia and Chile.

In Iraq, the underlying economic agenda of the conquest has been accentuated by the announcement, shortly before Saddam’s capture, that firms based in countries that had not supported the US aggression could forget about competing for reconstruction contracts. An agenda geared towards controlling Iraq’s resources is perfectly in keeping with the motivations behind the colonial conquests of yore.

The invasion of Iraq was planned as an investment. And the US expects healthy returns. Or at least companies closely associated with the Bush administration, such as Halliburton and Bechtel, do. Hence Paul Bremer’s decision to privatise Iraqi state-owned concerns and his decree that Iraqi concerns can wholly be owned by foreign firms, which are allowed to repatriate every cent of their profits. According to No Logo author Naomi Klein, Bremer’s reforms “clearly violate the international convention governing the behaviour of occupying forces, the Hague regulations of 1907, as well as the US army’s own code of war.” This means, she notes, that: “If every last soldier pulled out of the Gulf tomorrow and a sovereign government came to power, Iraq would still be occupied: by laws written in the interest of another country; by foreign corporations controlling its essential services; by 70 per cent unemployment sparked by public sector layoffs.”

A truly sovereign government could, of course, opt for renationalisation. Which means Iraq is unlikely to get a truly sovereign government in the foreseeable future. In the past the US found it relatively easy to subvert governments that posed a potential threat to American profits. Direct invasion could symbolise the new, improved, 21st-century strategy.

However, notwithstanding the distraction provided by Saddam’s emergence, the Iraqi experience thus far serves as a useful reminder of the fact that such a strategy is untenable. To put it in words that even Bush would have no trouble understanding: It is not going to work.

Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.