For much of the time that I wrote my biography of Saddam Hussein between 2003-2005, its ending remained unclear. Throughout the process of researching and writing the book, Saddam’s government was overthrown, and he went into hiding. In December 2003, US soldiers participating in Operation Red Dawn found him hovering in a spider hole near his hometown of Tikrit. As he was captured, Saddam said, “I am Saddam Hussein. I’m the President of Iraq, and I want to negotiate.” As it turns out, his American captors chose not to take him up on his offer. In the months ahead, Saddam was held in solitary confinement at Camp Cropper, a US military complex near Baghdad, where he wrote poetry, gardened, and developed a taste for American junk food.
Many days, I’ve woken up before dawn to watch CNN’s coverage of Saddam’s trial. He usually appeared in a dark suit and white shirt, indignant about the proceedings, defiantly pointing his finger in the air as he derided the judges, and often holding a copy of the Quran. Saddam was tried by an Iraqi court rather than an international tribunal. Several people associated with the trial were assassinated. The decision was taken that Saddam would be tried for each of his crimes separately, and his first trial was for the killing of some villagers in Dujail who had conspired to assassinate Saddam. In the reservoir of Saddam’s crimes—which have left in their wake mass graves, destroyed marshlands, ruined villages, and neighboring countries still recovering from the wars he inflicted on them—Dujail hardly stands out. Saddam was in the midst of being tried for Anfal, the mass killing of Kurds some with chemical weapons, that resulted in 100,000 dead and many more refugees. Journalists covering that trial say that the process was revealing new information about Saddam’s complicity and the involvement of foreign governments. The Anfal trial was interrupted by Saddam’s sentencing on his convictions for the Dujail killings, for which he received the death sentence. The appeals process upheld his sentence of death by hanging which will be carried out sometime in the next few days.
Saddam’s trial was supposed to set a standard for law and order in the new Iraq which was to be the linchpin for the New Middle East that the Bush Administration and his neocon advisors envisioned. As it stands now, the trial produced few historical insights into Saddam’s ruinous reign over Iraq, no admirable models for justice, no mechanisms for peace and reconciliation for a shattered Iraq.
Indeed, as I await news that Saddam Hussein has been hanged, I think back to those black and white photographs of 14 men who were hung from scaffolds in Baghdad’s Tahrir [Liberation] Square on January 27, 1969. The men were charged with treason. Nine of the men were Jewish; pinned to each body was a sheet of paper with their name, age, religion, and verdict. Hundreds of thousands of Baghdadis filled Tahrir Square to watch the macabre justice doled out by President al-Bakr. Saddam, then an underling of Bakr’s, had a front row seat to the spectacle and learned lessons about the politics of fear.
Unlike some human rights activists, I am unmoved by allegations that the trial of Saddam Hussein has been unfair. Saddam did not deserve better justice, but the Iraqi people did. What bothers me most are the erasure of history, the incomplete reckoning of Saddam’s crimes against humanity, and a lack of exposure of those individuals, corporations, and foreign governments that aided and abetted his crimes. I am troubled that his hanging resembles less the Nuremberg Trials or the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa—and more the macabre public spectacle of fear that he helped oversee in 1969 in Tahrir Square.