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

Yet no man is without contradictions. Even Saddam has been known to grieve over his excesses. Some who saw him cry at the lectern during the 1979 purge dismiss it as a performance, but Saddam has a history of bursting into tears. In the wave of executions following his formal assumption of power, according to Saïd Aburish's biography, he locked himself in his bedroom for two days and emerged with eyes red and swollen from weeping. Aburish reports that Saddam then paid a brazen though apparently sincere condolence call on the family of Adnan Hamdani, the executed official who had been closest to him during the previous decade. He expressed not remorse—the execution was necessary—but sadness. He told Hamdani's widow apologetically that "national considerations" must outweigh personal ones. So on occasion, at least, Saddam the person laments what Saddam the tyrant must do. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln drew a sharp distinction between what he personally would do—abolish slavery—and what his office required him to do: uphold the Constitution and the Union. Saddam ought to feel no such conflict; by definition, the interests of the state are his own. But he does.

The conflict between his personal priorities and his presidential ones has been particularly painful in his own family. Two of his sons-in-law, the brothers Saddam and Hussein Kamel, fled to Jordan and spilled state secrets—about biological, chemical, and nuclear-weapons programs—before inexplicably returning to Iraq and their deaths. Uday Hussein, Saddam's eldest son, is by all reports a sadistic criminal, if not completely mad. He is a tall, dark-skinned, well-built man of thirty-seven, who in his narcissism and willfulness is almost a caricature of his father. Uday has all his father's brutal instincts and, apparently, none of his discipline. He is a flamboyant drunk, and famous for designing his own wild apparel. Photographs show him wearing enormous bow ties and suits in colors to match his luxury cars, including a bright-red one with white stripes, and one that is half red, half white. Some of his suit jackets have a lapel on one side but not the other.

Ismail Hussain, the hapless Iraqi soldier who lost his leg in the Kuwaiti desert, attracted Uday's attention as a singer after the war. He became the First Son's favorite performer, and was invited to sing at the huge parties Uday threw every Monday and Thursday night. The parties were often held at a palace, which Saddam built, on an island in the Tigris near Baghdad. The opulence was eye-popping. All the door handles and fixtures in the palace were made of gold.

"At the parties," says Ismail, who now lives in Toronto, "I would be performing, and Uday would climb up on the stage with a machine gun and start shooting it at the ceiling. Everyone would drop down, terrified. I was used to being around weapons, bigger weapons than Uday's Kalashnikov, so I would just keep on singing. Sometimes at these parties there would be dozens of women and only five or six men. Uday insists that everyone get drunk with him. He would interrupt my performance, get up on stage with a big glass of cognac for himself and one for me. He would insist that I drink all of it with him. When he gets really drunk, out come the guns. His friends are all terrified of him, because he can have them imprisoned or killed. I saw him once get angry with one of his friends. He kicked the man in the ass so hard that his boot flew off. The man ran over and retrieved the boot and then tried to put it back on Uday's foot, with Uday cursing him all the while."

Uday's blessing paves the way for a singer like Ismail to perform regularly on Iraqi television. For this service Uday demands a kickback, and he can unmake a star as quickly as he can make one. The same is true in sports. Raed Ahmed was an Olympic weightlifter who carried the Iraqi flag during the opening ceremonies of the Atlanta games, in 1996. "Uday was head of the Olympic Committee, and all sports in Iraq," Ahmed told me early this year, in his home in a suburb of Detroit. "During training camp he would closely monitor all the athletes, keeping in touch with the trainers and pushing them to push the athletes harder. If he's unhappy with the results, he will throw the trainers and even the athletes into a prison he keeps inside the Olympic Committee building. If you make a promise of a certain result, and fail to achieve it in competition, then the punishment is a special prison where they torture people. Some of the athletes started to quit when Uday took over, including many who were the best in their sports. They just decided it was not worth it. Others, like me, loved their sports, and success can be a stepping-stone in Iraq to better things, like a nice car, a nice home, a career. I always managed to avoid being punished. I was careful never to promise anything that I couldn't deliver. I would always say that there was a strong possibility that I would be beaten. Then, when I won, Uday was so happy."

Ahmed sat like a giant in his small living room, his shoulders nearly as wide as the back of the couch. The world of Saddam and Uday now strikes him as a bizarre wonderland, an entire nation hostage to the whims of a tyrant and his crazy son. "When I defected, Uday was very angry," he said. "He visited my family and questioned them. 'Why would Ahmed do such a thing?' he asked. 'He was always rewarded by me.' But Uday is despised."

Saddam tolerated Uday's excesses—his drunken parties, his private jail in the Olympic Committee headquarters—until Uday murdered one of the Great Uncle's top aides at a party in 1988. Uday immediately tried to commit suicide with sleeping pills. According to the Cockburns, "As his stomach was being pumped out, Saddam arrived in the emergency room, pushed the doctors aside, and hit Uday in the face, shouting: 'Your blood will flow like my friend's!'" His father softened, and the murder was ruled an accident. Uday spent four months in custody and then four months with an uncle in Geneva before he was picked up by the Swiss police for carrying a concealed weapon and asked to leave the country. Back in Baghdad, in 1996, he became the target of an assassination attempt. He was hit by eight bullets, and is now paralyzed from the waist down. His behavior has presumably disqualified him from succeeding his father. Saddam has made a show in recent years of grooming Qusay, a quieter, more disciplined and dutiful heir.

But the shooting of Uday was a warning to Saddam. Reportedly, a small group of well-educated Iraqi dissidents—none of whom has ever been apprehended, despite thousands of arrests and interrogations—carried it out. The would-be assassins are rumored to be associated with the family of General Omar al-Hazzaa, the officer whose tongue was cut out before he and his son were executed. This may be true; but there is no shortage of aggrieved parties in Iraq.

As Saddam approaches his sixty-sixth birthday, his enemies are numerous, strong, and determined. He celebrated the 1992 electoral defeat of George Bush by firing a gun from a palace balcony. Ten years later a new President Bush is in the White House, with a new national mission to remove Saddam. So the walls that protect the tyrant grow higher and higher. His dreams of pan-Arabia and his historical role in it grow ever more fanciful. In his clearer moments Saddam must know that even if he manages to hang on to power for the remainder of his life, the chances of his fathering a dynasty are slim. As he retreats to his secret bed each night, sitting up to watch a favorite movie on TV or to read one of his history books, he must know it will end badly for him. Any man who reads as much as he does, and who studies the dictators of modern history, knows that in the end they are all toppled and disdained.

"His aim is to be leader of Iraq forever, for as long as he lives," Samarai says. "This is a difficult task, even without the United States targeting you. The Iraqis are a divided and ruthless people. It is one of the most difficult nations in the world to govern. To accomplish his own rule, Saddam has shed so much blood. If his aim is for his power to be transferred to his family after his death, I think this is far into the realm of wishful thinking. But I think he lost touch with reality in that sense long ago."

This, ultimately, is why Saddam will fail. His cruelty has created great waves of hatred and fear, and it has also isolated him. He is out of step. His speeches today play like a broken record. They no longer resonate even in the Arab world, where he is despised by secular liberals and Muslim conservatives alike. In Iraq itself he is universally hated. He blames the crippling of the state on UN sanctions and U.S. hostility, but Iraqis understand that he is the cause of it. "Whenever he would start in blaming the Americans for this and that, for everything, we would look at each other and roll our eyes," says Sabah Khalifa Khodada, the former Iraqi major who was stripped and decontaminated for a meeting with the Great Uncle. The forces that protect him know this too—they do not live full time behind the walls. Their loyalty is governed by fear and self-interest, and will tilt decisively if and when an alternative appears. The key to ending Saddam's tyranny is to present such an alternative. It will not be easy. Saddam will never give up. Overthrowing him will almost certainly mean killing him. He guards his hold on the state as he guards his own life. There is no panic in his fight.

But for all the surrounding threats, Saddam sees himself as an immortal figure. Nothing could be more illustrative of this than the plot of his first novel, Zabibah and the King. Set in a mythical Arabian past, it is a simple fable about a lonely king, trapped behind the high walls of his palace. He feels cut off from his subjects, so he sets out on occasion to mingle. On one such outing, to a rural village, the king is struck by the beauty of the young Zabibah. She is married to a brutish husband, but the king summons her to his palace, where her rustic ways are at first scorned by the sophisticated courtiers. In time Zabibah's sweet simplicity and virtue charm the court and win the king's heart—although their relationship remains chaste. Questioning his own stern methods, the king is reassured by Zabibah, who tells him, "The people need strict measures so that they can feel protected by this strictness." But dark forces invade the kingdom. Infidel outsiders pillage and destroy the village, aided by Zabibah's jealous and humiliated husband, who rapes her. (The outrage occurs on January 17, the day in 1991 when the United States and allied powers began aerial attacks on Iraq.) Zabibah is later killed; the king defeats his enemy and slays Zabibah's husband. He then experiments with giving his people more freedoms, but they fall to fighting among themselves. Their squabbles are interrupted by the good king's death and their realization of his greatness and importance. The martyred Zabibah's sage advice reminds them: the people need strict measures.

And so Saddam champions the simple virtues of a glorious Arab past, and dreams that his kingdom, though universally scorned and defiled, will rise again and triumph. Like the good king, he is vital in a way that will not be fully understood until he is gone. Only then will we all study the words and deeds of this magnificent, defiant soul. He awaits his moment of triumph in a distant, glorious future that mirrors a distant, glorious past.

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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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