So much propaganda surrounds President Saddam Hussein of Iraq that it has become almost impossible to distinguish it from the truth. A German scientist, after a laborious comparison of facial features, has detected at least three Saddam doubles, some of whom were used to greet minor heads of foreign states and had not been detected before.
What is certain, however, is that - by any definition and in whatever guise - 'Saddam Hussein' is a psychopath. He wishes to be known as The Anointed One, Glorious Leader, Direct Descendant of the Prophet, Chair of the Revolutionary Command Council, Field Marshal, Doctor of Law and (by way of tribute to his acknowledged role model, Stalin) Great Uncle. He commissioned a six-hour film about himself entitled The Long Days, directed by Terence Young, who also made three Bond movies. A 19-volume official biography is mandatory reading for all government officials.
He is, however, a worried man. His hats are all lined with bullet-proof Teflon. A double for Uday, his loathsome favoured son, escaped to the West and reported that he himself had suffered at least eight assassination attempts. To confuse his enemies, every day lavish meals are prepared for Saddam - and screened for poison - in each of his 20 giant palaces.
Born of 'humble origins' in the rural Tikrit district of Iraq in 1937, Saddam was a lonely child whose only companion was an iron bar he carried with him everywhere. This, together with his imposing physical frame and quick intelligence, elevated him to the position of local 'strong man' - a familiar figure in rural Iraq. The local allegiances of 'blood' and 'clan' that he formed then have intensified ever since.
His political ideas derived initially from the pan-Arab nationalism of President Nasser in Egypt, a country he visited as a young man, where he is thought to have begun his long association with the US intelligence services. The chosen vehicle for his ambitions was the pan-Arab Ba'ath Party, which espoused a variant of the revolutionary socialist rhetoric that was fashionable at the time. He first came to prominence as a reliable hit-man and fixer in 1958, when he was accused of complicity in the assassination of a supporter of Iraqi ruler Abdul-Karim Qassim.
Saddam set about working his way up through the Ba'ath Party machine until he took complete control. By the time the party came to power in 1968 Saddam was its vice-chair. He was instrumental in implementing a draconian literacy programme - failure to attend was punishable by three years in jail. UNESCO gave him an award as a result. Schools, roads, public housing and one of the best public-health systems in the Middle East followed. Real improvements in the lives of ordinary Iraqis during this brief period account for at least some of the support for Saddam today.
Two rather different things combined to fix the course of Saddam's subsequent career. The first was the Islamic revolution in neighbouring Iran in 1979, which was met with extreme hostility in the West. Saddam's power depended upon a secular state, so he had to prevent Iraq from following the Iranian example. The second was oil - or, more particularly, the violent greed induced by the wealth of oil wherever it appears. The US and European oil giants would go to any lengths to prevent the huge reserves of the Middle East from falling into the hands of 'fundamentalist' Islam.
So Saddam was able to seize power and launch a war on Iran in 1979 with the support of both the US and Europe. He famously arranged to have a video film made of the Revolutionary Command Council meeting in Baghdad on 18 July 1979. Here, waving one of the large cigars supplied to him personally by Fidel Castro, he tearfully accused all his potential rivals of hatching a 'Syrian plot' and consigned them, one by one, to their deaths.
There followed an utterly calamitous war that cost hundreds of thousands of lives on each side and bankrupted both countries. Almost all the equipment in the hands of Saddam today - including the materials and expertise for weapons of mass destruction - was supplied to Iraq by US, British, European and Russian companies during this period.
When the bloodletting finally created stalemate in 1989, Saddam immediately claimed victory. He expected financial compensation from the West and from other insecure, oil-rich Arab states - notably Saudi Arabia. It was refused. His invasion of Kuwait in 1991 was the result. Defeat in the Gulf War and the slaughter of 250,000 Iraqi people did not remove him from power. The US, fearful of the 'instability' that might follow the disintegration of Iraq, sat on its hands when insurrections followed. Saddam consolidated his brutal power, playing on the hatred of the West that economic sanctions and continued bombing could induce in the Iraqi people.
Seen from their point of view, after all they have endured, the prospect of more bombing and an invasion in their name - by the same people who helped to install their persecutor in the first place - must be beyond all belief.
If infamous or not-so-famous big shots are beating up
© Copyright 2003 New Internationalist
Publications Ltd. All rights reserved.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7