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

Iraq is a land of antiquity. It is called the Land of Two Rivers (the Tigris and the Euphrates); the land of Sumerian kings, Mesopotamia, and Babylon; one of the cradles of civilization. Walking the streets of Baghdad gives one a sense of continuity with things long past, of unity with the great sweep of history. Renovating and maintaining the old palaces is an ongoing project in the city. By decree, one of every ten bricks laid in the renovation of an ancient palace is now stamped either with the name Saddam Hussein or with an eight-pointed star (a point for each letter of his name spelled in Arabic).

In 1987 Entifadh Qanbar was assigned to work on the restoration of the Baghdad Palace, which had once been called al-Zuhoor, or the Flowers Palace. Built in the 1930s for King Ghazi, it is relatively small and very pretty; English in style, it once featured an elaborate evergreen maze. Qanbar is an engineer by training, a short, fit, dark-haired man with olive skin. After earning his degree he served a compulsory term in the army, which turned out to be a five-year stint, and survived the mandatory one-month tour on the front lines in the war with Iran.

Work on the palace had stalled some years earlier, when the British consultant for the project refused to come to Baghdad because of the war. One of Qanbar's first jobs was to supervise construction of a high and ornate brick wall around the palace grounds. Qanbar is a perfectionist, and because the wall was to be decorative as well as functional, he took care with the placement of each brick. An elaborate gate had already been built facing the main road, but Qanbar had not yet built the portions of the wall on either side of it, because the renovation of the palace itself was unfinished, and that way large construction equipment could roll on and off the property without danger of damaging the gate.

One afternoon at about five, as he was preparing to close down work for the day, Qanbar saw a black Mercedes with curtained windows and custom-built running boards pull up to the site. He knew immediately who was in it. Ordinary Iraqis were not allowed to drive such fancy cars. Cars like this one were driven exclusively by al Himaya, Saddam's bodyguards.

The doors opened and several guards stepped out. All of them wore dark-green uniforms, black berets, and zippered boots of reddish-brown leather. They had big moustaches like Saddam's, and carried Kalashnikovs. To the frightened Qanbar, they seemed robotic, without human feelings.

The bodyguards often visited the work site to watch and make trouble. Once, after new concrete had been poured and smoothed, some of them jumped into it, stomping through the patch in their red boots to make sure that no bomb or listening device was hidden there. Another time a workman opened a pack of cigarettes and a bit of foil wrapping fluttered down into the newly poured concrete. One of the guards caught a glimpse of something metallic and reacted as if someone had thrown a hand grenade. Several of them leaped into the concrete and retrieved the scrap. Angered to discover what it was, and to have been made to look foolish, they dragged the offending worker aside and beat him with their weapons. "I have worked all my life!" he cried. They took him away, and he did not return. So the sudden arrival of a black Mercedes was a frightening thing.

"Who is the engineer here?" the chief guard asked. He spoke with the gruff Tikriti accent of his boss. Qanbar stepped up and identified himself. One of the guards wrote down his name. It is a terrible thing to have al Himaya write down your name. In a country ruled by fear, the best way to survive is to draw as little attention to yourself as possible. To be invisible. Even success can be dangerous, because it makes you stand out. It makes other people jealous and suspicious. It makes you enemies who might, if the opportunity presents itself, bring your name to the attention of the police. For the state to have your name for any reason other than the most conventional ones—school, driver's license, military service—is always dangerous. The actions of the state are entirely unpredictable, and they can take away your career, your freedom, your life. Qanbar's heart sank and his mouth went dry.

"Our Great Uncle just passed by," the chief guard began. "And he said, 'Why is this gate installed when the two walls around it are not built?'"

Qanbar nervously explained that the walls were special, ornamental, and that his crew was saving them for last because of the heavy equipment coming and going. "We want to keep it a clean construction," he said.

"Our Great Uncle is going to pass by again tonight," said the guard. "When he does, it must be finished."

Qanbar was dumbfounded. "How can I do it?" he protested.

"I don't know," said the guard. "But if you don't do it, you will be in trouble." Then he said something that revealed exactly how serious the danger was: "And if you don't do it, we will be in trouble. How can we help?"

There was nothing to do but try. Qanbar dispatched Saddam's men to help round up every member of his crew as fast as they could—those who were not scheduled to work as well as those who had already gone home. Two hundred workers were quickly assembled. They set up floodlights. Some of the guards came back with trucks that had machine guns mounted on top. They parked alongside the work site and set up chairs, watching and urging more speed as the workers mixed mortar and threw down line after line of bricks.

The crew finished at nine-thirty. They had completed in four hours a job that would ordinarily have taken a week. Terror had driven them to work faster and harder than they believed possible. Qanbar and his men were exhausted. An hour later they were still cleaning up the site when the black Mercedes drove up again. The chief guard stepped out. "Our Uncle just passed by, and he thanks you," he said.

Walls define the tyrant's world. They keep his enemies out, but they also block him off from the people he rules. In time he can no longer see out. He loses touch with what is real and what is unreal, what is possible and what is not—or, as in the case of Qanbar and the wall, what is just barely possible. His ideas of what his power can accomplish, and of his own importance, bleed into fantasy.

Each time Saddam has escaped death—when he survived, with a minor wound to his leg, a failed attempt in 1959 to assassinate Iraqi President Abd al-Karim Qasim; when he avoided the ultimate punishment in 1964 for his part in a failed Baath Party uprising; when he survived being trapped behind Iranian lines in the Iran-Iraq war; when he survived attempted coups d'état; when he survived America's smart-bombing campaign against Baghdad, in 1991; when he survived the nationwide revolt after the Gulf War—it has strengthened his conviction that his path is divinely inspired and that greatness is his destiny. Because his world view is essentially tribal and patriarchal, destiny means blood. So he has ordered genealogists to construct a plausible family tree linking him to Fatima, the daughter of the prophet Muhammad. (This ancestry is an honor he shares, perhaps, with everyone in the hated West. See "The Royal We," by Steve Olson, in this issue.) Saddam sees the prophet less as the bearer of divine revelation than as a political precursor—a great leader who unified the Arab peoples and inspired a flowering of Arab power and culture. The concocted link of bloodlines to Muhammad is symbolized by a 600-page hand-lettered copy of the Koran that was written with Saddam's own blood, which he donated a pint at a time over three years. It is now on display in a Baghdad museum.

If Saddam has a religion, it is a belief in the superiority of Arab history and culture, a tradition that he is convinced will rise up again and rattle the world. His imperial view of the grandeur that was Arabia is romantic, replete with fanciful visions of great palaces and wise and powerful sultans and caliphs. His notion of history has nothing to do with progress, with the advance of knowledge, with the evolution of individual rights and liberties, with any of the things that matter most to Western civilization. It has to do simply with power. To Saddam, the present global domination by the West, particularly the United States, is just a phase. America is infidel and inferior. It lacks the rich ancient heritage of Iraq and other Arab states. Its place at the summit of the world powers is just a historical quirk, an aberration, a consequence of its having acquired technological advantages. It cannot endure.

In a speech this past January 17, the eleventh anniversary of the start of the Gulf War, Saddam explained, "The Americans have not yet established a civilization, in the deep and comprehensive sense we give to civilization. What they have established is a metropolis of force ... Some people, perhaps including Arabs and plenty of Muslims and more than these in the wide world ... considered the ascent of the U.S. to the summit as the last scene in the world picture, after which there will be no more summits and no one will try to ascend and sit comfortably there. They considered it the end of the world as they hoped for, or as their scared souls suggested it to them."

Arabia, which Saddam sees as the wellspring of civilization, will one day own that summit again. When that day comes, whether in his lifetime or a century or even five centuries hence, his name will rank with those of the great men in history. Saddam sees himself as an established member of the pantheon of great men—conquerors, prophets, kings and presidents, scholars, poets, scientists. It doesn't matter if he understands their contributions and ideas. It matters only that they are the ones history has remembered and honored for their accomplishments.

In a book titled Saddam's Bombmaker (2000), Khidhir Hamza, the nuclear scientist, remembers his first encounter with Saddam, when the future dictator was still nominally the vice-chairman. A large new computer had just been installed in Hamza's lab, and Saddam came sweeping through for a look. He showed little interest in the computer; his attention was drawn instead to a lineup of pictures that Hamza had tacked to the wall, each of a famous scientist, from Copernicus to Einstein. The pictures had been torn from magazines.

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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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