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The Thief of Baghdad

Saddam Hussein: A Biography

by Fuad Matar
Highlight, 286 pp., £12.95

Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq

by Samir al-Khalil
University of California Press, 310 pp.

Human Rights in Iraq

Middle East Watch
Human Rights Watch / Yale University Press, 160 pp., $19.95

The publications under review about the regime of Saddam Hussein have at least one thing in common: they were all written before August 2, 1990. None of the authors had foreknowledge that, in the small hours of that day, the armed forces of Iraq would invade and occupy the entire territory of the state of Kuwait. The present reviewer, writing four weeks after that event, has a strong sense that the world before it happened was a different place; but he equally has no foreknowledge of other events, perhaps no less dramatic and even more momentous, that may have occurred before these words find their way into the hands of the reader.

For a writer, such an event has the effect of raising the stakes. On the one hand, it attracts public attention to his subject, thereby possibly bringing him a much larger readership. On the other, it subjects his work to a harsh, perhaps unfair test: it will be judged by the light it throws, or fails to throw, on an event he could not know of while he was writing it. At worst, he may have exposed himself to ridicule by selective quotation.

Such is the case of Fuad Matar, a wellknown Lebanese journalist who produced a quasi-official biography of the Iraqi president in 1981. This has now been reissued in a “1990 edition,” in fact unchanged except for a glossy dust jacket on which the author’s name is spelled wrong, and a preface in which, after claiming that all but one of the predictions in the early edition have come true (the exception being the Non-Aligned Summit, which was not held in Baghdad in 1982), Matar proceeds to assert “the right of the new Arab generation to read about Saddam Hussein now, especially after guns have become silent and doves fly with the olive branch of peace above the region.”

Yet the reader would be wrong to deduce from this that Mr. Matar’s book is of no further interest. If Saddam Hussein is now to be compared with Hitler (a point I shall return to later in this article), there is bound to be a search for his Mein Kampf, and Matar’s book, based mainly on interviews with Saddam and his close associates, and published with his approval, may well be the nearest available equivalent in Western languages. For instance, while it may seem merely ironic that among the gains Iraq expected from its war with Iran was the chance “to find out once and for all who its friends were and who its enemies were” (since if any state might be supposed to have passed this test of friendship it is Kuwait), it is surely not without interest that Iraq also saw that war as a chance “to test its Army on the battlefield and evaluate its capacity to handle modern weapons” in preparation for “a national duty, the Battle with Israel” or “the war for the recovery of Palestine.” Even if such motives in fact played no part in the decision to attack Iran in September 1980, it is worth noting that this interpretation was one that Saddam Hussein was glad to sell to external as well as internal opinion. And no less interesting is Mr. Matar’s conclusion that “President Saddam is seeking to play a major role in world affairs. This role will bring about a very strong Iraq, no matter what the dangers.”

From Mr. Matar’s brief sketch of the early history of the Baath party we learn that this movement, or at any rate its Iraqi wing, acquired from its handling by successive military regimes in Syria “a profound wariness of military coups” whereas “as a result of their experiences at the hands of Abdel Karim Qassem’s regime [in Iraq after 1958], the Baathists revised their policies and decided to adopt violence as a mode of action.” This is important. Of course one may well doubt the strength of the Baathists’ previous commitment to non-violence, particularly in the case of Saddam Hussein himself, who seems to have come from a violent background. His father, a farmer, died before he was born, and he was brought up near the town of Takrit, north of Baghdad, in the family of his uncle, Khairallah Tulfah, who had taken part in the anti-British revolt of 1941. Matar tells us that even as a child, when in “his first act of rebellion against his family” Saddam decided to attend school, he was encouraged by some relatives who “gave him a pistol and sent him off in a car to Takrit.”

He joined the Baath party at the age of twenty, in 1957; and soon after the 1958 revolution, when an official in Takrit was murdered, “the authorities accused Saddam Hussein of having killed him and threw him in gaol.” But it is highly significant that the party should present itself as, on the one hand, wary of military coups because of Syrian experience, yet on the other hand committed to “violence as a mode of action” by a deliberate decision based on Iraqi experience. Whether or not we choose to think of Saddam Hussein as a “military” dictator, we should realize that that is not how he thinks of himself. In fact, although he claims to have “led the tank assault on the Presidential Palace” on July 17, 1968, “wearing a military uniform,” he did not hold military rank until, as president, he became ex-officio commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

The faction of the Baath that seized power in Iraq under Saddam’s leadership in 1968 was the faction that had opposed the military coup in Syria on February 23, 1966. It was the faction most directly influenced by the founder and “historic leader” of the party, the Syrian Christian Michel Aflaq. We learn from Samir al-Khalil, the pseudonymous Iraqi author of Republic of Fear who writes from exile, that “in the 1950s Aflaq’s influence among Ba’thists sharply declined in Syria,” whereas in Iraq it “remained dominant.” Al-Khalil also says that it was “at the instigation of Michel Aflaq” that Saddam Hussein was appointed in 1964 to the Regional Command, the highest decision-making body of the Iraqi branch of the party. (In Baathist language Syria and Iraq are always “regions,” the word “nation” being reserved for the “Arab nation” as a whole.)

Oddly enough this direct and presumably decisive intervention of the founder of the party at an early stage in Saddam’s career is not mentioned by Matar—presumably because it might cast doubt either on the democratic processes of the party or on the extent to which Saddam’s rise was the product of his own intrinsic merit. Matar does, however, lay great emphasis on the relationship between the two men. He quotes a fulsome telegram of congratulations sent to Saddam by Aflaq, who was still recognized in Iraq as secretary-general of the party, on July 17, 1979, when Saddam had just taken over “full responsibility for the State and the Party” in Iraq, replacing President Ahmad Hasan Bakr. The telegram refers to Saddam as having brought “the Party’s ideology and principles to fruition, making them a tangible part of life.”

Later in the same year a meeting of the National (i.e., pan-Arab) Command unanimously elected Saddam Hussein deputy secretary-general: in other words, in pan-Arab matters he was still formally only Aflaq’s deputy, a fact that Aflaq announced in a memorandum to all party bureaus in the Arab world and abroad. “It looked,” comments Matar, “as though the historic leader of the Party was laying the ground for the future leadership. Such a step, taken while Aflaq is alive and carrying out his duties, is extremely significant.” Matar then goes on to quote at some length from interviews he himself had with Aflaq, also in the autumn of 1979, giving further endorsements of Saddam’s unique leadership qualities, “the strength of his moral principles,” etc.—one of the strong points in his favor being that “he entered the Party at a very early age and has known no other surroundings than those of the Party. His education was first and foremost the Party’s philosophy.”

Aflaq remained in Baghdad until his death last year, after which he was buried with all the honors due to the founder and “historic leader.” (It was announced after his death that he had secretly converted to Islam during the 1970s.) To what extent his endorsement of Saddam’s leadership and policies in his later years was genuine and unforced, or whether he became in any sense a prisoner of the regime he had helped to found, we shall probably never know. What is significant is that Saddam continued to attach importance to Aflaq, and to his own links with him, as a major source of legitimacy for his own leadership. It is comparable to the use that Stalin made of Lenin’s name, and of a carefully doctored version of Lenin’s heritage, in legitimizing his own absolute power in the Soviet Union—except that until last year, instead of keeping his Lenin embalmed in a mausoleum, Saddam had a living Lenin who could be wheeled out on suitable occasions to ratify his decisions and above all his status as guardian of party orthodoxy against successive groups of “old Bolsheviks” whom he found it necessary to eliminate.

Like Stalin, Saddam has repeatedly purged his party and has turned it into a vehicle for ensuring his personal power and propagating his own personality cult. Like Stalin, he has thus laid himself open to the accusation (from those outside his considerable physical reach) that he has in the process deformed or distorted the party’s original ideals and message—though it is at least equally arguable, as in Stalin’s case, that all he has done is to pursue to its logical conclusion the ruthless and antihuman authoritarianism that was always at the heart of the doctrine. The latter view is forcefully argued by al-Khalil.

It would in any case be wrong to imagine that Saddam himself and all of his supporters are pure opportunists, just as it would have been wrong to imagine the same about Stalin and Soviet Communists in his lifetime—this being the great difference between Stalin’s regime and Brezhnev’s. Iraqi Baathists see themselves as faithful guardians and exponents of a doctrine that includes the supremacy of the party over society as a whole, including the armed forces. As they see it, collusion with the military may have been a necessary tactic for gaining power, but it exposed the party to great temptations and dangers, by which in Syria it was overwhelmed.

The genius of Saddam, in al-Khalil’s words, is that “he held the military at bay while cutting away at their power base, and eventually he transformed them into creatures of the party that had nurtured him and that had been the obsession of his entire mature life.” Perhaps the decisive event in this process was the ousting of Abdel-Razzaq Nayef, the senior non-Baathist participant in the coup of July 17, 1968, who immediately became prime minister but was deposed and exiled a mere thirteen days later.

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