By Robert Windrem, Investigative producer
One of the most searing images of Saddam Hussein’s brutal reign was also one of the first: a purloined Ba’ath Party video of the new Iraqi president watching as his henchmen arrested party members at a 1979 party conference in Baghdad.
As each of their names was called out, the Ba’athists were hustled off to be tortured and executed. Saddam sat on the dais, his image alternatively sad and impassive, as if he was expressing disappointment tempered by an arrogant pragmatism: how unfortunate but how necessary.
Saddam governed with a paranoid style that belied the Middle East. His model was not, as some would have you believe, a brutal tribal chief or even an eastern despot. He was more Josef Stalin—ruthless, paranoid, and convinced he was the only thing that stood between his polyglot state and anarchy—and ultimately just as megalomaniacal.
Hundreds of thousands died in his version of Stalinism. Shi’a, Kurd or disloyal Sunni were tortured in front of their families, uprooted, driven to near extinction, gassed, shot in the head in front of mass graves or from helicopter gunships…whatever it took. Weapons of mass destruction had to be built at huge factories like Muthanna and Tarmiyah and al Hakam to defend against the Persians and Jews who would destroy the Iraqi nation, HIS nation.
Publicly, he liked to be compared to the great Mesopotamian leaders who had created the earliest cultures: Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar. But privately, he kept a portrait of the equally paranoid Stalin, the low-born Georgian thug he so resembled. If he had studied Soviet history closely though, he would have seen that arrogant miscalculation had almost undone Stalin. And in fact, it was such miscalculation that did undo Saddam: the Iran-Iraq War that killed almost a million Iranians and Iraqis, the invasion of Kuwait that led to the Gulf War and his belief that the US would never invade Iraq.
He died, no doubt, assured that by his hand alone Iraq had been held together, that Bush was reaping the whirlwind of his own arrogance, that without him, there could be no Iraq.
America has indeed learned the difficulties of trying to occupy a nation-state that became as paranoid as he, that its arrogance almost matched his in trying to mold a democracy out of the land between the two rivers and many streams of religion and that the legacy of the great experiment is likely to be a civil war leading to countless deaths.
But still, at the end of the day, Saddam passing from the scene cannot be dismissed as an afterthought, as a meaningless milestone in a mistaken military adventure. Saddam Hussein was an aberrant leader from a century that produced so many others and although his execution at the hangman’s hand will not produce closure for his nation, it did provide some justice.