Dictator let Arab world avoid reforms

Iraqi leader's stance against Israel, U.S. inspired fear, adulation

The Capture Of Saddam Hussein

December 15, 2003|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

Finally, there was a worthy leader for a people hungry for pride.

The Arab world long believed that in Saddam Hussein, it had found the person who could intimidate Israel - it was Hussein who at the height of his powers threatened to make all of Israel burn - and stand up to the United States.

It wasn't necessary to like him, and the countless people who chanted his name and waved his portrait regarded it as an asset that he was feared. It meant that the Arab world's enemies might fear him, too. Hussein's brutality against his own people could be forgiven, as could the suffocating personality cult erected around him, if he could bully the nations that the region's corrupt, authoritarian regimes swore were the cause of their own failings.

He became another excuse for not risking real reforms. Like Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s, who helped inspire him, Hussein offered bombast and self-adulation, and then violence, as solutions to every problem. The price of the region's adulation and fear of him was a decade or more of lost opportunities for change.

Even after learning of his capture, Arab officials were reluctant to criticize the leader who had brought upon himself the three latest wars in the Middle East: the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, costing the lives of at least 300,000 Iraqis and more than 500,000 Iranians; the 1991 gulf war, after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and the American invasion of Iraq that toppled him from power.

"Saddam is a dictator and the Iraqi people suffered under him, but on the other hand, it was the occupation that caught him," Mohammed Horani, a Palestinian legislator, was quoted as saying yesterday. "There will be a sense of confusion in the public." He was suggesting that the fact that it was American forces who captured him might be seen as being as much an evil as Hussein's own deeds.

In Jordan, government spokesman Asma Khader spoke just as cautiously. "What the Jordanian government cares about is the safety and security of the Iraqi people and the restoration of political stability in that brotherly Arab nation," he told wire services.

Amr Moussa, the Egyptian who is secretary-general of the Arab League, showed the same restraint. The capture of Hussein was important, he was quoted as saying, and Iraqis should decide his fate. But he said nothing of Hussein's deeds, or the devotion he had inspired.

The videos and photographs showing the captured Hussein as an exhausted figure, no better kempt than a beggar, could have as large an impact as the fact of his capture. He had fallen in every way, to living a disheveled underground life. He had not resisted capture. He was another broken idol.

Part of the revisionism among officials in the region is that people either didn't know about the murderousness of Hussein's government or that no one cared.

"I'm not saying dictators are welcome, but the Iraqis were complaining, and no was listening to them," Buthania Shaaban, a Syrian Cabinet minister, said before Hussein's capture. "The pictures we see here now are a lot worse than what we saw under Saddam."

"We never liked that man, or liked his actions" said Hani Moustada, Syria's minister of higher education. "But when it comes to who should do the changes," he said, the United States should not be acting alone.

Iraqis and their neighbors largely accommodated themselves to his regime, even when it seemed unhinged. His birthday was a national holiday. In the presence of foreigners, Iraqis would praise their president more than their children. He insisted his people's fear was love.

He was also a convenient enemy, especially in neighboring Iran. He could be blamed for problems that really lay closer to home. In Iran, Hussein was the only possible challenger to the United States and Israel as enemy No. 1.

"America is ignoring the sanctity of the holy shrines in Iraq," Ahmad Jannati, the cleric who is secretary of Iran's Guardian Council, shouted at last Friday's main prayer service in Tehran. "Americans are spending billions of dollars to promote the secularization of Muslim countries."

It was the approach Iran has taken for nearly 25 years, and one that Hussein perfected even earlier.

There, in the form of the United States, was a worthy enemy for a people hungry for pride.

Robert Ruby, The Sun's foreign editor, has just returned from a reporting trip to Syria and Iran.

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