Tales of the Tyrant

What does Saddam Hussein see in himself that no one else in the world seems to see? The answer is perhaps best revealed by the intimate details of the Iraqi leader's daily life
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Today all these programs are a distant memory. Within two years of his seizing full power, Saddam's ambitions turned to conquest, and his defeats have ruined the nation. His old party allies in exile now see his support for the social-welfare programs as an elaborate deception. The broad ambitions for the Iraqi people were the party's, they say. As long as he needed the party, Saddam made its programs his own. But his single, overriding goal throughout was to establish his own rule.

"In the beginning the Baath Party was made up of the intellectual elite of our generation," says Hamed al-Jubouri, a former Command Council member who now lives in London. "There were many professors, physicians, economists, and historians—really the nation's elite. Saddam was charming and impressive. He appeared to be totally different from what we learned he was afterward. He took all of us in. We supported him because he seemed uniquely capable of controlling a difficult country like Iraq, a difficult people like our people. We wondered about him. How could such a young man, born in the countryside north of Baghdad, become such a capable leader? He seemed both intellectual and practical. But he was hiding his real self. For years he did this, building his power quietly, charming everyone, hiding his true instincts. He has a great ability to hide his intentions; it may be his greatest skill. I remember his son Uday said one time, 'My father's right shirt pocket doesn't know what is in his left shirt pocket.'"

What does Saddam want? By all accounts, he is not interested in money. This is not the case with other members of his family. His wife, Sajida, is known to have gone on million-dollar shopping sprees in New York and London, back in the days of Saddam's good relations with the West. Uday drives expensive cars and wears custom-tailored suits of his own design. Saddam himself isn't a hedonist; he lives a well-regulated, somewhat abstemious existence. He seems far more interested in fame than in money, desiring above all to be admired, remembered, and revered. A nineteen-volume official biography is mandatory reading for Iraqi government officials, and Saddam has also commissioned a six-hour film about his life, called The Long Days, which was edited by Terence Young, best known for directing three James Bond films. Saddam told his official biographer that he isn't interested in what people think of him today, only in what they will think of him in five hundred years. The root of Saddam's bloody, single-minded pursuit of power appears to be simple vanity.

But what extremes of vanity compel a man to jail or execute all who criticize or oppose him? To erect giant statues of himself to adorn the public spaces of his country? To commission romantic portraits, some of them twenty feet high, portraying the nation's Great Uncle as a desert horseman, a wheat-cutting peasant, or a construction worker carrying bags of cement? To have the nation's television, radio, film, and print devoted to celebrating his every word and deed? Can ego alone explain such displays? Might it be the opposite? What colossal insecurity and self-loathing would demand such compensation?

The sheer scale of the tyrant's deeds mocks psychoanalysis. What begins with ego and ambition becomes a political movement. Saddam embodies first the party and then the nation. Others conspire in this process in order to further their own ambitions, selfless as well as selfish. Then the tyrant turns on them. His cult of self becomes more than a political strategy. Repetition of his image in heroic or paternal poses, repetition of his name, his slogans, his virtues, and his accomplishments, seeks to make his power seem inevitable, unchallengeable. Finally he is praised not out of affection or admiration but out of obligation. One must praise him.

Saad al-Bazzaz was summoned to meet with Saddam in 1989. He was then the editor of Baghdad's largest daily newspaper and the head of the ministry that oversees all of Iraq's TV and radio programming. Al-Bazzaz took the phone call in his office. "The President wants to ask you something," Saddam's secretary said.

Al-Bazzaz thought nothing of it. He is a short, round, garrulous man with thinning hair and big glasses. He had known Saddam for years, and had always been in good odor. The first time Saddam had asked to meet him had been more than fifteen years earlier, when Saddam was vice-chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council. The Baath Party was generating a lot of excitement, and Saddam was its rising star. At the time, al-Bazzaz was a twenty-five-year-old writer who had just published his first collection of short stories and had also written articles for Baghdad newspapers. That first summons from Saddam had been a surprise. Why would the vice-chairman want to meet with him? Al-Bazzaz had a low opinion of political officials, but as soon as they met, this one struck him as different. Saddam told al-Bazzaz that he had read some of his articles and was impressed by them. He said he knew of his book of short stories, and had heard they were very good. The young writer was flattered. Saddam asked him what writers he admired, and after listening to al-Bazzaz, told him, "When I was in prison, I read all of Ernest Hemingway's novels. I particularly like The Old Man and the Sea." Al-Bazzaz thought, This is something new for Iraqa politician who reads real literature. Saddam peppered him with questions at that meeting, and listened with rapt attention. This, too, al-Bazzaz thought was extraordinary.

By 1989 much had changed. Saddam's regime had long since abandoned the party's early, idealistic aims, and al-Bazzaz no longer saw the dictator as an open-minded man of learning and refinement. But he had prospered personally under Saddam's reign. His growing government responsibilities left him no time to write, but he had become an important man in Iraq. He saw himself as someone who advanced the cause of artists and journalists, as a force for liberalization in the country. Since the end of the war with Iran, the previous year, there had been talk of loosening controls on the media and the arts in Iraq, and al-Bazzaz had lobbied quietly in favor of this. But he wasn't one to press too hard, so he had no worries as he drove the several miles from his office to the Tashreeya area of Baghdad, near the old Cabinet Building, where an emissary from the President met him and instructed him to leave his car. The emissary drove al-Bazzaz in silence to a large villa nearby. Inside, guards searched him and showed him to a sofa, where he waited for half an hour as people came and went from the President's office. When it was his turn, he was handed a pad and a pencil, reminded to speak only if Saddam asked a direct question, and then ushered in. It was noon. Saddam was wearing a military uniform. Staying seated behind his desk, Saddam did not approach al-Bazzaz or even offer to shake his hand.

"How are you?" the President asked.

"Fine," al-Bazzaz replied. "I am here to listen to your instructions."

Saddam complained about an Egyptian comedy show that had been airing on one of the TV channels: "It is silly, and we shouldn't show it to our people." Al-Bazzaz made a note. Then Saddam brought up something else. It was the practice for poems and songs written in praise of him to be aired daily on TV. In recent weeks al-Bazzaz had urged his producers to be more selective. Most of the work was amateurish—ridiculous doggerel written by unskilled poets. His staff was happy to oblige. Paeans to the President were still aired every day, but not as many since al-Bazzaz had changed the policy.

"I understand," Saddam said, "that you are not allowing some of the songs that carry my name to be broadcast."

Al-Bazzaz was stunned, and suddenly frightened. "Mr. President," he said, "we still broadcast the songs, but I have stopped some of them because they are so poorly written. They are rubbish."

"Look," Saddam said, abruptly stern, "you are not a judge, Saad."

"Yes. I am not a judge."

"How can you prevent people from expressing their feelings toward me?"

Al-Bazzaz feared that he was going to be taken away and shot. He felt the blood drain from his face, and his heart pounded heavily. The editor said nothing. The pencil shook in his hand. Saddam had not even raised his voice.

"No, no, no. You are not the judge of these things," Saddam reiterated.

Al-Bazzaz kept repeating, "Yes, sir," and frantically wrote down every word the President said. Saddam then talked about the movement for more freedoms in the press and the arts. "There will be no loosening of controls," he said.

"Yes, sir."

"Okay, fine. Now it is all clear to you?"

"Yes, sir."

With that Saddam dismissed al-Bazzaz. The editor had sweated through his shirt and sport coat. He was driven back to the Cabinet Building, and then drove himself back to the office, where he immediately rescinded his earlier policy. That evening a full broadcast of the poems and songs dedicated to Saddam resumed.

Hadafuh (His Goal)

You are the fountain of willpower and the wellspring of life, the essence of earth, the sabers of demise, the pupil of the eye, and the twitch of the eyelid. A people like you cannot but be, with God's help. So be as you are, and as we are determined to be. Let all cowards, piggish people, traitors, and betrayers be debased.

—Saddam Hussein, addressing the Iraqi people, July 17, 2001

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Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. His most recent book is The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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