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

"What are those?" Saddam asked.

"Sir, those are the greatest scientists in history," Hamza told him.

Then, as Hamza remembers it, Saddam became angry. "What an insult this is! All these great men, these great scientists! You don't have enough respect for these great men to frame their pictures? You can't honor them better than this?"

To Hamza, the outburst was irrational; the anger was out of all proportion. Hamza interpreted it as Saddam's way of testing him, of putting him in his place. But Saddam seemed somehow personally offended. To understand his tantrum one must understand the kinship he feels with the great men of history, with history itself. Lack of reverence for an image of Copernicus might suggest a lack of reverence for Saddam.

In what sense does Saddam see himself as a great man? Saad al-Bazzaz, who defected in 1992, has thought a lot about this question, during his time as a newspaper editor and TV producer in Baghdad, and in the years since, as the publisher of an Arabic newspaper in London.

"I need a piece of paper and a pen," he told me recently in the lobby of Claridge's Hotel. He flattened the paper out on a coffee table and tested the pen. Then he drew a line down the center. "You must understand, the daily behavior is just the result of the mentality," he explained. "Most people would say that the main conflict in Iraqi society is sectarian, between the Sunni and the Shia Muslims. But the big gap has nothing to do with religion. It is between the mentality of the villages and the mentality of the cities."

"Okay. Here is a village." On the right half of the page al-Bazzaz wrote a V and beneath it he drew a collection of separate small squares. "These are houses or tents," he said. "Notice there are spaces between them. This is because in the villages each family has its own house, and each house is sometimes several miles from the next one. They are self-contained. They grow their own food and make their own clothes. Those who grow up in the villages are frightened of everything. There is no real law enforcement or civil society. Each family is frightened of each other, and all of them are frightened of outsiders. This is the tribal mind. The only loyalty they know is to their own family, or to their own village. Each of the families is ruled by a patriarch, and the village is ruled by the strongest of them. This loyalty to tribe comes before everything. There are no values beyond power. You can lie, cheat, steal, even kill, and it is okay so long as you are a loyal son of the village or the tribe. Politics for these people is a bloody game, and it is all about getting or holding power."

Al-Bazzaz wrote the word "city" atop the left half of the page. Beneath it he drew a line of adjacent squares. Below that he drew another line, and another. "In the city the old tribal ties are left behind. Everyone lives close together. The state is a big part of everyone's life. They work at jobs and buy their food and clothing at markets and in stores. There are laws, police, courts, and schools. People in the city lose their fear of outsiders, and take an interest in foreign things. Life in the city depends on cooperation, on sophisticated social networks. Mutual self-interest defines public policy. You can't get anything done without cooperating with others, so politics in the city becomes the art of compromise and partnership. The highest goal of politics becomes cooperation, community, and keeping the peace. By definition, politics in the city becomes nonviolent. The backbone of urban politics isn't blood, it's law."

In al-Bazzaz's view, Saddam embodies the tribal mentality. "He is the ultimate Iraqi patriarch, the village leader who has seized a nation," he explained. "Because he has come so far, he feels anointed by destiny. Everything he does is, by definition, the right thing to do. He has been chosen by Heaven to lead. Often in his life he has been saved by God, and each escape makes him more certain of his destiny. In recent years, in his speeches, he has begun using passages and phrases from the Koran, speaking the words as if they are his own. In the Koran, Allah says, 'If you thank me, I will give you more.' In the early nineties Saddam was on TV, presenting awards to military officers, and he said, 'If you thank me, I will give you more.' He no longer believes he is a normal person. Dialogue with him is impossible because of this. He can't understand why journalists should be allowed to criticize him. How can they criticize the father of the tribe? This is something unacceptable in his mind. To him, strength is everything. To allow criticism or differences of opinion, to negotiate or compromise, to accede to the rule of law or to due process—these are signs of weakness."

Saddam is, of course, not alone in admiring The Godfather series. They are obvious movies for him to like (they were also a favorite of the Colombian cocaine tycoon Pablo Escobar). On the surface it is a classic patriarchal tale. Don Vito Corleone builds his criminal empire from nothing, motivated in the main by love for his family. He sees that the world around him is vicious and corrupt, so he outdoes the world at its own cruelty and preys upon its vices, creating an apparent refuge of wealth and safety for himself and his own. We are drawn to his single-mindedness, subtle intelligence, and steadfast loyalty to an ancient code of honor in a changing world—no matter how unforgiving that code seems by modern standards. The Godfather suffers greatly but dies playing happily in the garden with his grandson, arguably a successful man. The deeper meaning of the films, however, apparently evades Saddam. The Godfather saga is more the story of Michael Corleone than of his father, and the film's message is not a happy one. Michael's obsessive loyalty to his father and to his family, to the ancient code of honor, leads him to destroy the very things it is designed to protect. In the end Michael's family is torn by tragedy and hatred. He orders his own brother killed, choosing loyalty to code over loyalty to family. Michael becomes a tragic figure, isolated and unloved, ensnared by his own power. He is a lot like Saddam.

In Saddam's other favorite movie, The Old Man and the Sea, the old man, played by Spencer Tracy, hooks a great fish and fights alone in his skiff to haul it in. It is easy to see why Saddam would be stirred by the image of a lone fisherman, surrounded by a great ocean, struggling to land this impossible fish. "I will show him what a man can do and what a man endures," the old man says. In the end he succeeds, but the fish is too large for the dinghy, and is devoured by sharks before the trophy can be displayed. The old man returns to his hut with cut and bleeding hands, exhausted but happy in the knowledge that he has prevailed. It would be easy for Saddam to see himself in that old man.

Or is he the fish? In the movie it leaps like a fantasy from the water—a splendid, wild, dangerous thing, magnificent in its size and strength. It is hooked, but it refuses to accept its fate. "Never have I had such a strong fish, or one that acted so strangely," the old man proclaims. Later he says, "There is no panic in his fight." Saddam believes that he is a great natural leader, the likes of which his world has not seen in thirteen centuries. Perhaps he will fail in the struggle during his lifetime, but he is convinced that his courage and vision will fire a legend that will burn brightly in a future Arab-centered world.

Even as Saddam rhapsodizes over the rich history of Arabia, he concedes the Western world's clear superiority in two things. The first is weapons technology—hence his tireless efforts to import advanced military hardware and to develop weapons of mass destruction. The second is the art of acquiring and holding power. He has become a student of one of the most tyrannical leaders in history: Joseph Stalin.

Saïd Aburish's biography, Saddam Hussein: The Politics of Revenge (2000), tells of a meeting in 1979 between Saddam and the Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman. It was an early-morning meeting, and Saddam received Othman in a small office in one of his palaces. It looked to Othman as if Saddam had slept in the office the night before. There was a small cot in the corner, and the President received him wearing a bathrobe.

Next to the bed, Othman recalled, were "over twelve pairs of expensive shoes. And the rest of the office was nothing but a small library of books about one man, Stalin. One could say he went to bed with the Russian dictator."

In the villages of Iraq the patriarch has only one goal: to expand and defend his family's power. It is the only thing of value in the wide, treacherous world. When Saddam assumed full power, there were still Iraqi intellectuals who had hopes for him. They initially accepted his tyranny as inevitable, perhaps even as a necessary bridge to a more inclusive government, and believed, as did many in the West, that his outlook was essentially modern. In this they were gradually disappointed.

In September of 1979 Saddam attended a conference of unaligned nations in Cuba, where he formed a friendship with Fidel Castro, who still keeps him supplied with cigars. Saddam came to the gathering with Salah Omar al-Ali, who was then the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, a post he had accepted after a long period of living abroad as an ambassador. Together Saddam and al-Ali had a meeting with the new Foreign Minister of Iran. Four years earlier Saddam had made a surprise concession to the soon-to-be-deposed Shah, reaching an agreement on navigation in the Shatt-al-Arab, a sixty-mile strait formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers as they flow into the Persian Gulf. Both countries had long claimed the strait. In 1979, with the Shah roaming the world in search of cancer treatment, and power in the hands of the Ayatollah Khomeini (whom Saddam had unceremoniously booted out of Iraq the year before), relations between the two countries were again strained, and the waters of the Shatt-al-Arab were a potential flash point. Both countries still claimed ownership of two small islands in the strait, which were then controlled by Iran.

But al-Ali was surprised by the tone of the discussions in Cuba. The Iranian representatives were especially agreeable, and Saddam seemed to be in an excellent mood. After the meeting al-Ali strolled with Saddam in a garden outside the meeting hall. They sat on a bench as Saddam lit a big cigar.

"Well, Salah, I see you are thinking of something," Saddam said. "What are you thinking about?"

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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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