I figured the subject of September 11th was going to be studied and written about by everyone, and my instinct—something Inquirer editor Gene Roberts had always encouraged—was to “zig when everyone else zags.” Besides, I had read enough about Saddam to be intrigued. I wanted to try to understand what it would be like to be a tyrant, how someone like Saddam Hussein really saw himself. The “big” September 11th story that Michael had in mind became my colleague William Langewiesche’s brilliant three-part “American Ground.” This story was The Atlantic‘s cover story in May 2002, and less than a year later Michael was killed in Iraq, riding toward Baghdad with the troops that brought Saddam down.
Shakhsuh (His Person)
Today is a day in the Grand Battle, the immortal Mother of All Battles. It is a glorious and a splendid day on the part of the self-respecting people of Iraq and their history, and it is the beginning of the great shame for those who ignited its fire on the other part. It is the first day on which the vast military phase of that battle started. Or rather, it is the first day of that battle, since Allah decreed that the Mother of All Battles continue till this day.
—Saddam Hussein, in a televised address to the Iraqi people, January 17, 2002
The tyrant must steal sleep. He must vary the locations and times. He never sleeps in his palaces. He moves from secret bed to secret bed. Sleep and a fixed routine are among the few luxuries denied him. It is too dangerous to be predictable, and whenever he shuts his eyes, the nation drifts. His iron grip slackens. Plots congeal in the shadows. For those hours he must trust someone, and nothing is more dangerous to the tyrant than trust.
Saddam Hussein, the Anointed One, Glorious Leader, Direct Descendant of the Prophet, President of Iraq, chairman of its Revolutionary Command Council, field marshal of its armies, doctor of its laws, and Great Uncle to all its peoples, rises at about three in the morning. He sleeps only four or five hours a night. When he rises, he swims. All his palaces and homes have pools. Water is a symbol of wealth and power in a desert country like Iraq, and Saddam splashes it everywhere—fountains and pools, indoor streams and waterfalls. It is a theme in all his buildings. His pools are tended scrupulously and tested hourly, more to keep the temperature and the chlorine and pH levels comfortable than to detect some poison that might attack him through his pores, eyes, mouth, nose, ears, penis, or anus—although that worry is always there too.
He has a bad back, a slipped disk, and swimming helps. It also keeps him trim and fit. This satisfies his vanity, which is epic, but fitness is critical for other reasons. He is now sixty-five, an old man, but because his power is grounded in fear, not affection, he cannot be seen to age. The tyrant cannot afford to become stooped, frail, and gray. Weakness invites challenge, coup d’état. One can imagine Saddam urging himself through a fixed number of laps each morning, pushing to exceed the number he swam the previous year, as if time could be undone by effort and will. Death is an enemy he cannot defeat—only, perhaps, delay. So he works. He also dissembles. He dyes his gray hair black and avoids using his reading glasses in public. When he is to give a speech, his aides print it out in huge letters, just a few lines per page. Because his back problem forces him to walk with a slight limp, he avoids being seen or filmed walking more than a few steps.
He is long-limbed, with big, strong hands. In Iraq the size of a man still matters, and Saddam is impressive. At six feet two he towers over his shorter, plumper aides. He lacks natural grace but has acquired a certain elegance of manner, the way a country boy learns to match the right tie with the right suit. His weight fluctuates between about 210 and 220 pounds, but in his custom-tailored suits the girth isn’t always easy to see. His paunch shows when he takes off his suit coat. Those who watch him carefully know he has a tendency to lose weight in times of crisis and to gain it rapidly when things are going well.
Fresh food is flown in for him twice a week—lobster, shrimp, and fish, lots of lean meat, plenty of dairy products. The shipments are sent first to his nuclear scientists, who x-ray them and test them for radiation and poison. The food is then prepared for him by European-trained chefs, who work under the supervision of al Himaya, Saddam’s personal bodyguards. Each of his more than twenty palaces is fully staffed, and three meals a day are cooked for him at every one; security demands that palaces from which he is absent perform an elaborate pantomime each day, as if he were in residence. Saddam tries to regulate his diet, allotting servings and portions the way he counts out the laps in his pools. For a big man he usually eats little, picking at his meals, often leaving half the food on his plate. Sometimes he eats dinner at restaurants in Baghdad, and when he does, his security staff invades the kitchen, demanding that the pots and pans, dishware, and utensils be well scrubbed, but otherwise interfering little. Saddam appreciates the culinary arts. He prefers fish to meat, and eats a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables. He likes wine with his meals, though he is hardly an oenophile; his wine of choice is Mateus ros’. But even though he indulges only in moderation, he is careful not to let anyone outside his most trusted circle of family and aides see him drinking. Alcohol is forbidden by Islam, and in public Saddam is a dutiful son of the faith.
He has a tattoo on his right hand, three dark-blue dots in a line near the wrist. These are given to village children when they are only five or six years old, a sign of their rural, tribal roots. Girls are often marked on their chins, forehead, or cheeks (as was Saddam’s mother). For those who, like Saddam, move to the cities and come up in life, the tattoos are a sign of humble origin, and some later have them removed, or fade them with bleach until they almost disappear. Saddam’s have faded, but apparently just from age; although he claims descent from the prophet Muhammad, he has never disguised his humble birth.
The president-for-life spends long hours every day in his office—whichever office he and his security minders select. He meets with his ministers and generals, solicits their opinions, and keeps his own counsel. He steals short naps during the day. He will abruptly leave a meeting, shut himself off in a side room, and return refreshed a half hour later. Those who meet with the president have no such luxury. They must stay awake and alert at all times. In 1986, during the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam caught Lieutenant General Aladin al-Janabi dozing during a meeting. He stripped the general of his rank and threw him out of the army. It was years before al-Janabi was able to win back his position and favor.
Saddam’s desk is always immaculate. Reports from his various department heads are stacked neatly, each a detailed accounting of recent accomplishments and spending topped by an executive summary. Usually he reads only the summaries, but he selects some reports for closer examination. No one knows which will be chosen for scrutiny. If the details of the full report tell a story different from the summary, or if Saddam is confused, he will summon the department head. At these meetings Saddam is always polite and calm. He rarely raises his voice. He enjoys showing off a mastery of every aspect of his realm, from crop rotation to nuclear fission. But these meetings can be terrifying when he uses them to cajole, upbraid, or interrogate his subordinates. Often he arranges a surprise visit to some lower-level office or laboratory or factory—although, given the security preparations necessary, word of his visits outraces his arrival. Much of what he sees from his offices and on his “surprise” inspections is doctored and full of lies. Saddam has been fed unrealistic information for so long that his expectations are now also uniformly unrealistic. His bureaucrats scheme mightily to maintain the illusions. So Saddam usually sees only what those around him want him to see, which is, by definition, what he wants to see. A stupid man in this position would believe he had created a perfect world. But Saddam is not stupid. He knows he is being deceived, and he complains about it.
He reads voraciously—on subjects from physics to romance—and has broad interests. He has a particular passion for Arabic history and military history. He likes books about great men, and he admires Winston Churchill, whose famous political career is matched by his prodigious literary output. Saddam has literary aspirations himself. He employs ghostwriters to keep up a ceaseless flow of speeches, articles, and books of history and philosophy; his oeuvre includes fiction as well. In recent years he appears to have written and published two romantic fables, Zabibah and the King and The Fortified Castle; a third, as-yet-untitled work of fiction is due out soon. Before publishing the books Saddam distributes them quietly to professional writers in Iraq for comments and suggestions. No one dares to be candid—the writing is said to be woefully amateurish, marred by a stern pedantic strain—but everyone tries to be helpful, sending him gentle suggestions for minor improvements. The first two novels were published under a rough Arabic equivalent of “Anonymous” that translates as “Written by He Who Wrote It,” but the new book may bear Saddam’s name.
Saddam likes to watch TV, monitoring the Iraqi stations he controls and also CNN, Sky, al Jazeera, and the BBC. He enjoys movies, particularly those involving intrigue, assassination, and conspiracy—The Day of the Jackal, The Conversation, Enemy of the State. Because he has not traveled extensively, such movies inform his ideas about the world and feed his inclination to believe broad conspiracy theories. To him the world is a puzzle that only fools accept at face value. He also appreciates movies with more literary themes. Two of his favorites are The Godfather series and The Old Man and the Sea.
Saddam can be charming, and has a sense of humor about himself. “He told a hilarious story on television,” says Khidhir Hamza, a scientist who worked on Iraq’s nuclear-weapons project before escaping to the West. “He is an excellent storyteller, the kind who acts out the story with gestures and facial expressions. He described how he had once found himself behind enemy lines in the war with Iran. He had been traveling along the front lines, paying surprise visits, when the Iranian line launched an offensive and effectively cut off his position. The Iranians, of course, had no idea that Saddam was there. The way he told the story, it wasn’t boastful or self-congratulatory. He didn’t claim to have fought his way out. He said he was scared. Of the troops at his position, he said, ‘They just left me!’ He repeated ‘Just left me!’ in a way that was humorous. Then he described how he hid with his pistol, watching the action until his own forces retook the position and he was again on safe ground. ‘What can a pistol do in the middle of battle?’ he asked. It was charming, extremely charming.”
General Wafic Samarai, who served as Saddam’s chief of intelligence during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war (and who, after falling out of favor in the wake of the Persian Gulf War, walked for thirty hours through the rugged north of Iraq to escape the country), concurs: “It is pleasant to sit and talk to him. He is serious, and meetings with him can get tense, but you don’t get intimidated unless he wants to intimidate you. When he asks for your opinion, he listens very carefully and doesn’t interrupt. Likewise, he gets irritated if you interrupt him. ‘Let me finish!’ he will say sharply.”
Saddam has been advised by his doctors to walk at least two hours a day. He rarely manages that much time, but he breaks up his days with strolls. He used to take these walks in public, swooping down with his entourage on neighborhoods in Baghdad, his bodyguards clearing sidewalks and streets as the tyrant passed. Anyone who approached him unsolicited was beaten nearly to death. But now it is too dangerous to walk in public—and the limp must not be seen. So Saddam makes no more unscripted public appearances. He limps freely behind the high walls and patrolled fences of his vast estates. Often he walks with a gun, hunting deer or rabbit in his private preserves. He is an excellent shot.
Saddam has been married for nearly forty years. His wife, Sajida, is his first cousin on his mother’s side and the daughter of Khairallah Tulfah, Saddam’s uncle and first political mentor. Sajida has borne him two sons and three daughters, and remains loyal to him, but he has long had relationships with other women. Stories circulate about his nightly selecting young virgins for his bed, like the Sultan Shahryar in The Thousand and One Nights, about his having fathered a child with a longtime mistress, and even about his having killed one young woman after a kinky tryst. It is hard to sort the truth from the lies. So many people, in and out of Iraq, hate Saddam that any disgraceful or embarrassing rumor is likely to be embraced, believed, repeated, and written down in the Western press as truth. Those who know him best scoff at the wildest of these tales.
“Saddam has personal relationships with women, but these stories of rape and murder are lies,” Samarai says. “He is not that kind of person. He is very careful about himself in everything he does. He is fastidious and very proper, and never wants to give the wrong impression. But he is occasionally attracted to other women, and he has formed relationships with them. They are not the kind of women who would ever talk about him.”
Saddam is a loner by nature, and power increases isolation. A young man without power or money is completely free. He has nothing, but he also has everything. He can travel, he can drift. He can make new acquaintances every day, and try to soak up the infinite variety of life. He can seduce and be seduced, start an enterprise and abandon it, join an army or flee a nation, fight to preserve an existing system or plot a revolution. He can reinvent himself daily, according to the discoveries he makes about the world and himself. But if he prospers through the choices he makes, if he acquires a wife, children, wealth, land, and power, his options gradually and inevitably diminish. Responsibility and commitment limit his moves. One might think that the most powerful man has the most choices, but in reality he has the fewest. Too much depends on his every move. The tyrant’s choices are the narrowest of all. His life—the nation!—hangs in the balance. He can no longer drift or explore, join or flee. He cannot reinvent himself, because so many others depend on him—and he, in turn, must depend on so many others. He stops learning, because he is walled in by fortresses and palaces, by generals and ministers who rarely dare to tell him what he doesn’t wish to hear. Power gradually shuts the tyrant off from the world. Everything comes to him second or third hand. He is deceived daily. He becomes ignorant of his land, his people, even his own family. He exists, finally, only to preserve his wealth and power, to build his legacy. Survival becomes his one overriding passion. So he regulates his diet, tests his food for poison, exercises behind well-patrolled walls, trusts no one, and tries to control everything.
Major Sabah Khalifa Khodada, a career officer in the Iraqi army, was summoned from his duties as assistant to the commander of a terrorist training camp on January 1, 1996, for an important meeting. It was nighttime. He drove to his command center at Alswayra, southwest of Baghdad, where he and some other military officers were told to strip to their underwear. They removed their clothing, watches, and rings, and handed over their wallets. The clothing was then laundered, sterilized, and x-rayed. Each of the officers, in his underwear, was searched and passed through a metal detector. Each was instructed to wash his hands in a disinfecting permanganate solution.
They then dressed, and were transported in buses with blackened windows, so that they could not see where they were going. They were driven for a half hour or more, and then were searched again as they filed off. They had arrived at an official-looking building, Khodada did not know where. After a time they were taken into a meeting room and seated at a large round table. Then they were told that they were to be given a great honor: the president himself would be meeting with them. They were instructed not to talk, just to listen. When Saddam entered, they were to rise and show him respect. They were not to approach or touch him. For all but his closest aides, the protocol for meeting with the dictator is simple. He dictates.
“Don’t interrupt,” they were told. “Don’t ask questions or make any requests.”
Each man was given a pad of paper and a pencil, and instructed to take notes. Tea in a small glass cup was placed before each man and at the empty seat at the head of the table.
When Saddam appeared, they all rose. He stood before his chair and smiled at them. Wearing his military uniform, decorated with medals and gold epaulets, he looked fit, impressive, and self-assured. When he sat, everyone sat. Saddam did not reach for his tea, so the others in the room didn’t touch theirs. He told Khodada and the others that they were the best men in the nation, the most trusted and able. That was why they had been selected to meet with him, and to work at the terrorist camps where warriors were being trained to strike back at America. The United States, he said, because of its reckless treatment of Arab nations and the Arab people, was a necessary target for revenge and destruction. American aggression must be stopped in order for Iraq to rebuild and to resume leadership of the Arab world. Saddam talked for almost two hours. Khodada could sense the great hatred in him, the anger over what America had done to his ambitions and to Iraq. Saddam blamed the United States for all the poverty, backwardness, and suffering in his country.
Khodada took notes. He glanced around the room. Few of the others, he concluded, were buying what Saddam told them. These were battle-hardened men of experience from all over the nation. Most had fought in the war with Iran and the Persian Gulf War. They had few illusions about Saddam, his regime, or the troubles of their country. They coped daily with real problems in cities and military camps all over Iraq. They could have told Saddam a lot. But nothing would pass from them to the tyrant. Not one word, not one microorganism.
The meeting had been designed to allow communication in only one direction, and even in this it failed. Saddam’s speech was meaningless to his listeners. Khodada despised him, and suspected that others in the room did too. The major knew he was no coward, but, like many of the other military men there, he was filled with fear. He was afraid to make a wrong move, afraid he might accidentally draw attention to himself, do something unscripted. He was grateful that he felt no urge to sneeze, sniffle, or cough.
When the meeting was over, Saddam simply left the room. The teacups had not been touched. The men were then returned to the buses and driven back to Alswayra, from which they drove back to their camps or homes. The meeting with Saddam had meant nothing. The notes they had been ordered to take were worthless. It was as if they had briefly visited a fantasy zone with no connection to their own world.
They had stepped into the world of the tyrant.
The Iraqis knew that they had the potential, but they did not know how to muster up that potential. Their rulers did not take the responsibility on the basis of that potential. The leader and the guide who was able to put that potential on its right course had not yet emerged from amongst them. Even when some had discovered that potential, they did not know how to deal with it. Nor did they direct it where it should be directed so as to enable it to evolve into an effective act that could make life pulsate and fill hearts with happiness.
—Saddam Hussein, in a speech to the Iraqi people, July 17, 2000
In Saddam’s village, al-Awja, just east of Tikrit, in north-central Iraq, his clan lived in houses made of mud bricks and flat, mud-covered wooden roofs. The land is dry, and families eke out a living growing wheat and vegetables. Saddam’s clan was called al-Khatab, and they were known to be violent and clever. Some viewed them as con men and thieves, recalls Salah Omar al-Ali, who grew up in Tikrit and came to know Saddam well in later life. Those who still support Saddam may see him as Saladinesque, as a great pan-Arab leader; his enemies may see him as Stalinesque, a cruel dictator; but to al-Ali, Saddam will always be just an al-Khatab, acting out a family pattern on a much, much larger stage.
Al-Ali fixed tea for me in his home in suburban London last January. He is elegant, frail, gray, and pale, a man of quiet dignity and impeccable manners who gestures delicately with long-fingered hands as he speaks. He was the information minister of Iraq when, in 1969, Saddam (the real power in the ruling party), in part to demonstrate his displeasure over Arab defeats in the Six-Day War, announced that a Zionist plot had been discovered, and publicly hanged fourteen alleged plotters, among them nine Iraqi Jews; their bodies were left hanging in Baghdad’s Liberation Square for more than a day. Al-Ali defended this atrocity in his own country and to the rest of the world. Today he is just one of many exiled or expatriated former Iraqi government officials, an old socialist who served the revolutionary pan-Arab Baath Party and Saddam until running afoul of the Great Uncle. Al-Ali would have one believe that his conscience drove him into exile, but one suspects he has fretted little in his life about human rights. He showed me the faded dot tattoos on his hand, which might have been put there by the same Tikriti who gave Saddam his.
Although al-Ali was familiar with the al-Khatab family, he did not meet Saddam himself until the mid-sixties, when they were both socialist revolutionaries plotting to overthrow the tottering government of General Abd al-Rahman Arif. Saddam was a tall, thin young man with a thick mop of curly black hair. He had recently escaped from prison, after being caught in a failed attempt to assassinate Arif’s predecessor. The attempt, the arrest, the imprisonment, had all added to Saddam’s revolutionary luster. He was an impressive combination: not just a tough capable of commanding respect from the thugs who did the Baath Party’s dirty work, but also well-read, articulate, and seemingly open-minded; a man of action who also understood policy; a natural leader who could steer Iraq into a new era. Al-Ali met the young fugitive at a café near Baghdad University. Saddam arrived in a Volkswagen Beetle and stepped out in a well-cut gray suit. These were exciting times for both men. The intoxicating aroma of change was in the air, and prospects for their party were good. Saddam was pleased to meet a fellow Tikriti. “He listened to me for a long time,” al-Ali recalled. “We discussed the party’s plans, how to organize nationally. The issues were complicated, but it was clear that he understood them very well. He was serious, and took a number of my suggestions. I was impressed with him.”
The party seized control in 1968, and Saddam immediately became the real power behind his cousin Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, the president and chairman of the new Revolutionary Command Council. Al-Ali was a member of that council. He was responsible for the north-central part of Iraq, including his home village. It was in Tikrit that he started to see Saddam’s larger plan unfold. Saddam’s relatives in al-Awja were throwing their newly ascendant kinsman’s name around, seizing farms, ordering people off their land. That was how things worked in the villages. If a family was lucky, it produced a strongman, a patriarch, who by guile, strength, or violence accumulated riches for his clan. Saddam was now a strongman, and his family was moving to claim the spoils. This was all ancient stuff. The Baath philosophy was far more egalitarian. It emphasized working with Arabs in other countries to rebuild the entire region, sharing property and wealth, seeking a better life for all. In this political climate Saddam’s family was a throwback. The local party chiefs complained bitterly, and al-Ali took their complaints to his powerful young friend. “It’s a small problem,” Saddam said. “These are simple people. They don’t understand our larger aims. I’ll take care of it.” Two, three, four times al-Ali went to Saddam, because the problem didn’t go away. Every time it was the same: “I’ll take care of it.”
It finally occurred to al-Ali that the al-Khatab family was doing exactly what Saddam wanted them to do. This seemingly modern, educated young villager was not primarily interested in helping the party achieve its idealistic aims; rather, he was using the party to help him achieve his. Suddenly al-Ali saw that the polish, the fine suits, the urbane tastes, the civilized manner, and the socialist rhetoric were a pose. The real story of Saddam was right there in the tattoo on his right hand. He was a true son of Tikrit, a clever al-Khatab, and he was now much more than the patriarch of his clan.
Saddam’s rise through the ranks may have been slow and deceitful, but when he moved to seize power, he did so very openly. He had been serving as vice-chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, and as vice president of Iraq, and he planned to step formally into the top positions. Some of the party leadership, including men who had been close to Saddam for years, had other ideas. Rather than just hand him the reins, they had begun advocating a party election. So Saddam took action. He staged his ascendancy like theater.
On July 18, 1979, he invited all the members of the Revolutionary Command Council and hundreds of other party leaders to a conference hall in Baghdad. He had a video camera running in the back of the hall to record the event for posterity. Wearing his military uniform, he walked slowly to the lectern and stood behind two microphones, gesturing with a big cigar. His body and broad face seemed weighted down with sadness. There had been a betrayal, he said. A Syrian plot. There were traitors among them. Then Saddam took a seat, and Muhyi Abd al-Hussein Mashhadi, the secretary-general of the Command Council, appeared from behind a curtain to confess his own involvement in the putsch. He had been secretly arrested and tortured days before; now he spilled out dates, times, and places where the plotters had met. Then he started naming names. As he fingered members of the audience one by one, armed guards grabbed the accused and escorted them from the hall. When one man shouted that he was innocent, Saddam shouted back, “Itla! Itla!”—”Get out! Get out!” (Weeks later, after secret trials, Saddam had the mouths of the accused taped shut so that they could utter no troublesome last words before their firing squads.) When all of the sixty “traitors” had been removed, Saddam again took the podium and wiped tears from his eyes as he repeated the names of those who had betrayed him. Some in the audience, too, were crying—perhaps out of fear. This chilling performance had the desired effect. Everyone in the hall now understood exactly how things would work in Iraq from that day forward. The audience rose and began clapping, first in small groups and finally as one. The session ended with cheers and laughter. The remaining “leaders”—about 300 in all—left the hall shaken, grateful to have avoided the fate of their colleagues, and certain that one man now controlled the destiny of their entire nation. Videotapes of the purge were circulated throughout the country.
It was what the world would come to see as classic Saddam. He tends to commit his crimes in public, cloaking them in patriotism and in effect turning his witnesses into accomplices. The purge that day reportedly resulted in the executions of a third of the Command Council. (Mashhadi’s performance didn’t spare him; he, too, was executed.) During the next few weeks scores of other “traitors” were shot, including government officials, military officers, and people turned in by ordinary citizens who responded to a hotline phone number broadcast on Iraqi TV. Some Council members say that Saddam ordered members of the party’s inner circle to participate in this bloodbath.
While he served as vice-chairman, from 1968 to 1979, the party’s goals had seemed to be Saddam’s own. That was a relatively good period for Iraq, thanks to Saddam’s blunt effectiveness as an administrator. He orchestrated a draconian nationwide literacy project. Reading programs were set up in every city and village, and failure to attend was punishable by three years in jail. Men, women, and children attended these compulsory classes, and hundreds of thousands of illiterate Iraqis learned to read. UNESCO gave Saddam an award. There were also ambitious drives to build schools, roads, public housing, and hospitals. Iraq created one of the best public-health systems in the Middle East. There was admiration in the West during those years, for Saddam’s accomplishments if not for his methods. After the Islamic fundamentalist revolution in Iran, and the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, Saddam seemed to be the best hope for secular modernization in the region.
Today all these programs are a distant memory. Within two years of his seizing full power, Saddam’s ambitions turned to conquest, and his defeats have ruined the nation. His old party allies in exile now see his support for the social-welfare programs as an elaborate deception. The broad ambitions for the Iraqi people were the party’s, they say. As long as he needed the party, Saddam made its programs his own. But his single, overriding goal throughout was to establish his own rule.
“In the beginning the Baath Party was made up of the intellectual elite of our generation,” says Hamed al-Jubouri, a former Command Council member who now lives in London. “There were many professors, physicians, economists, and historians—really the nation’s elite. Saddam was charming and impressive. He appeared to be totally different from what we learned he was afterward. He took all of us in. We supported him because he seemed uniquely capable of controlling a difficult country like Iraq, a difficult people like our people. We wondered about him. How could such a young man, born in the countryside north of Baghdad, become such a capable leader? He seemed both intellectual and practical. But he was hiding his real self. For years he did this, building his power quietly, charming everyone, hiding his true instincts. He has a great ability to hide his intentions; it may be his greatest skill. I remember his son Uday said one time, ‘My father’s right shirt pocket doesn’t know what is in his left shirt pocket.’”
What does Saddam want? By all accounts, he is not interested in money. This is not the case with other members of his family. His wife, Sajida, is known to have gone on million-dollar shopping sprees in New York and London, back in the days of Saddam’s good relations with the West. Uday drives expensive cars and wears custom-tailored suits of his own design. Saddam himself isn’t a hedonist; he lives a well-regulated, somewhat abstemious existence. He seems far more interested in fame than in money, desiring above all to be admired, remembered, and revered. A nineteen-volume official biography is mandatory reading for Iraqi government officials, and Saddam has also commissioned a six-hour film about his life, called The Long Days, which was edited by Terence Young, best known for directing three James Bond films. Saddam told his official biographer that he isn’t interested in what people think of him today, only in what they will think of him in five hundred years. The root of Saddam’s bloody, single-minded pursuit of power appears to be simple vanity.
But what extremes of vanity compel a man to jail or execute all who criticize or oppose him? To erect giant statues of himself to adorn the public spaces of his country? To commission romantic portraits, some of them twenty feet high, portraying the nation’s Great Uncle as a desert horseman, a wheat-cutting peasant, or a construction worker carrying bags of cement? To have the nation’s television, radio, film, and print devoted to celebrating his every word and deed? Can ego alone explain such displays? Might it be the opposite? What colossal insecurity and self-loathing would demand such compensation?
The sheer scale of the tyrant’s deeds mocks psychoanalysis. What begins with ego and ambition becomes a political movement. Saddam embodies first the party and then the nation. Others conspire in this process in order to further their own ambitions, selfless as well as selfish. Then the tyrant turns on them. His cult of self becomes more than a political strategy. Repetition of his image in heroic or paternal poses, repetition of his name, his slogans, his virtues, and his accomplishments, seeks to make his power seem inevitable, unchallengeable. Finally he is praised not out of affection or admiration but out of obligation. One must praise him.
Saad al-Bazzaz was summoned to meet with Saddam in 1989. He was then the editor of Baghdad’s largest daily newspaper and the head of the ministry that oversees all of Iraq’s TV and radio programming. Al-Bazzaz took the phone call in his office. “The president wants to ask you something,” Saddam’s secretary said.
Al-Bazzaz thought nothing of it. He is a short, round, garrulous man with thinning hair and big glasses. He had known Saddam for years, and had always been in good odor. The first time Saddam had asked to meet him had been more than fifteen years earlier, when Saddam was vice-chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council. The Baath Party was generating a lot of excitement, and Saddam was its rising star. At the time, al-Bazzaz was a twenty-five-year-old writer who had just published his first collection of short stories and had also written articles for Baghdad newspapers. That first summons from Saddam had been a surprise. Why would the vice-chairman want to meet with him? Al-Bazzaz had a low opinion of political officials, but as soon as they met, this one struck him as different. Saddam told al-Bazzaz that he had read some of his articles and was impressed by them. He said he knew of his book of short stories, and had heard they were very good. The young writer was flattered. Saddam asked him what writers he admired, and after listening to al-Bazzaz, told him, “When I was in prison, I read all of Ernest Hemingway’s novels. I particularly like The Old Man and the Sea.” Al-Bazzaz thought, This is something new for Iraq—a politician who reads real literature. Saddam peppered him with questions at that meeting, and listened with rapt attention. This, too, al-Bazzaz thought was extraordinary.
By 1989 much had changed. Saddam’s regime had long since abandoned the party’s early, idealistic aims, and al-Bazzaz no longer saw the dictator as an open-minded man of learning and refinement. But he had prospered personally under Saddam’s reign. His growing government responsibilities left him no time to write, but he had become an important man in Iraq. He saw himself as someone who advanced the cause of artists and journalists, as a force for liberalization in the country. Since the end of the war with Iran, the previous year, there had been talk of loosening controls on the media and the arts in Iraq, and al-Bazzaz had lobbied quietly in favor of this. But he wasn’t one to press too hard, so he had no worries as he drove the several miles from his office to the Tashreeya area of Baghdad, near the old Cabinet Building, where an emissary from the president met him and instructed him to leave his car. The emissary drove al-Bazzaz in silence to a large villa nearby. Inside, guards searched him and showed him to a sofa, where he waited for half an hour as people came and went from the president’s office. When it was his turn, he was handed a pad and a pencil, reminded to speak only if Saddam asked a direct question, and then ushered in. It was noon. Saddam was wearing a military uniform. Staying seated behind his desk, Saddam did not approach al-Bazzaz or even offer to shake his hand.
“How are you?” the president asked.
“Fine,” al-Bazzaz replied. “I am here to listen to your instructions.”
Saddam complained about an Egyptian comedy show that had been airing on one of the TV channels: “It is silly, and we shouldn’t show it to our people.” Al-Bazzaz made a note. Then Saddam brought up something else. It was the practice for poems and songs written in praise of him to be aired daily on TV. In recent weeks al-Bazzaz had urged his producers to be more selective. Most of the work was amateurish—ridiculous doggerel written by unskilled poets. His staff was happy to oblige. Paeans to the president were still aired every day, but not as many since al-Bazzaz had changed the policy.
“I understand,” Saddam said, “that you are not allowing some of the songs that carry my name to be broadcast.”
Al-Bazzaz was stunned, and suddenly frightened. “Mr. President,” he said, “we still broadcast the songs, but I have stopped some of them because they are so poorly written. They are rubbish.”
“Look,” Saddam said, abruptly stern, “you are not a judge, Saad.”
“Yes. I am not a judge.”
“How can you prevent people from expressing their feelings toward me?”
Al-Bazzaz feared that he was going to be taken away and shot. He felt the blood drain from his face, and his heart pounded heavily. The editor said nothing. The pencil shook in his hand. Saddam had not even raised his voice.
“No, no, no. You are not the judge of these things,” Saddam reiterated.
Al-Bazzaz kept repeating, “Yes, sir,” and frantically wrote down every word the president said. Saddam then talked about the movement for more freedoms in the press and the arts. “There will be no loosening of controls,” he said.
“Okay, fine. Now it is all clear to you?”
With that Saddam dismissed al-Bazzaz. The editor had sweated through his shirt and sport coat. He was driven back to the Cabinet Building, and then drove himself back to the office, where he immediately rescinded his earlier policy. That evening a full broadcast of the poems and songs dedicated to Saddam resumed.