Saddam’s long shadow — even his victims miss him
In the Middle East, small talk often turns to politics. And that’s where Saddam usually comes in.
In my travels in Syria and Egypt, I have been told by many people they saw Saddam Hussein an Arab hero who faced down the
United States and Israel. Others criticised Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government as
Iranian-backed usurpers of a true Arab nationalist.
Earnest dissent from me, who was born in Iraq but grew up in east London, was often met with derision. I chalked such sentiments up to Sunni Muslim fears of Iraq’s emerging Shi’ite power or a lack of awareness of Iraqis’ suffering under Saddam.
Barring Kuwait and Iran — with whom Saddam fought wars — it has seemed almost everyone in the Middle East liked Saddam.
But what has amazed me most is to hear Iraqis voice support for him to this day.
Since coming to work in Iraq this year, it has been disheartening to see many Iraqis, fed up with years of violence and deprivation since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, long for
the relative stability of Saddam’s reign. And not just Saddam’s Sunni co-religionists, who were less likely to be persecuted by his regime.
After a failed attempt on his life in Dujail, Saddam ordered the torture and killing of 148 of the town’s men, the only crime for which he was tried, and for which he was hanged in 2006.
I had gone to Dujail hoping Saddam’s conviction had helped the town to move on and prosper. What I found was a run-down place that was reeling from a car bomb that had killed 30 people a month earlier. Some Shi’ite men, random passers-by on the town’s main high street, said life was better under Saddam’s ruthless iron rule.
More disheartening was praise for Saddam among Dujail’s boys, the next generation of Iraqis, who instead of looking ahead to a better future were looking back to a brutal past.
They sang Saddam’s praises, complained of a lack of clean water and electricity, and jokingly warned of cholera-spreading bogeymen among the town’s residents.
To me and my peers, growing up as an Iraqi in exile, Saddam Hussein had been the bogeyman. Everyone we knew had stories of killings, imprisonment and close escapes.
We joined demonstrations and carried banners through London against Saddam’s regime in the 80s and 90s. Along with other boys, I would sneak peeks at the horrific images of death and torture in material distributed by anti-Saddam activists.
A photo of my mother’s cousin has sat next to the family television set for years, a young man murdered by Saddam’s regime on accusations of being a member of an opposition group.
What we wanted was a democratic Iraq, free of tyranny, and a state that can protect all its citizens regardless of religion.
In Iraq today, aspirations for many seem reduced to a reliable electricity supply, clean water, and being able to leave your home without being randomly blown up or shot.
Many who miss Saddam say that if you kept your mouth shut and didn’t get involved in politics, you’d be fine. In a region flush with autocratic rulers, leadership expectations are low.
I’m cautiously optimistic about Iraq’s new leaders. Key laws have been passed paving the way for sectarian reconciliation and fresh elections. Violence is at four-year lows.
Still, bombings and shootings are still at levels that would traumatise most other countries. Simple political decisions are dogged by bickering and threats of violence, and state services are sorely lacking. Maybe my expectations are too low now too?