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Home > News > Columnists > M K Bhadrakumar

'In my end is my beginning'

January 02, 2007

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It was exactly nine days after the Gulf War in 1991 that I found myself in Kuwait on a mission to reopen the Indian embassy and to try to repatriate some 7000 Indian nationals stranded there.

My first impression of Saddam Hussein was naturally one of great disdain. He was the dictator who let loose the dogs of war.

The oil fields were incessantly burning. There was, literally, darkness at noon in Kuwait. Kuwait was a ghost city � inconsolable and forlorn.

I heard harrowing tales of Indian housemaids who were raped repeatedly during the Iraqi occupation. Even our magnificent brand new embassy building by the seaside, built on red sandstones from Rajasthan, was vandalized.

I wandered in the lawless borderlands of Kuwait and Iraq, and saw the armour of Saddam's crack units strafed by American aircraft while fleeing from Kuwait, which was a major 'engagement' of the war.

The Gulf War embodied Karl von Clausewitz at his best � 'War is not merely a political act but a real political instrument, war is a continuation of political intercourse'. There was no fighting. Saddam's men proved to be cowardly warriors. The Anglo-American preoccupation was more about the medium-term military occupation of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikhdoms. The futility of the war was apparent.  

My disdain toward Saddam grew into revulsion over my 3-month stay in Kuwait.

Ten years passed. I must have become sadder and wiser when I began reading up on Iraq, while serving as ambassador to Turkey in 2001. I was under order of transfer to Baghdad. That was when I came to know from Noam Chomsky's writings of the 'other side' of the Saddam story. Chomsky narrated the great injustice of the Anglo-American blockade of Iraq through the 1990s, imposed with scant regard to international law.

From Chomsky's narratives I learnt of the three million Iraqi children who died of malnutrition or lack of healthcare due to the Anglo-American blockade of Iraq. The 'unilateralist' US foreign policy of the post-Cold War era after all didn't begin with George W Bush but with his controversial predecessor William Jefferson Clinton. 

For the first time, too, I came across Saddam the nation-builder.

Under Saddam on the eve of the Gulf War, Iraq scaled heights of economic advancement without parallel in the Islamic world. Iraq was on the threshold of becoming an OECD country. Saddam was a true secularist. Though a Sunni, he appointed Shias in large numbers to key positions. Tariq Aziz, his foreign minister and confidant, was a Christian.

No doubt Saddam presided over an authoritarian regime that could be mindlessly brutal. His wrath was directed not only at his people but on his neighbours too. One had to visit the memorial to the martyrs on the outskirts of Teheran to comprehend in its stark truth the magnitude of the tragedy of the Iraq-Iran war.

Yet, under Saddam Iraq also touched high levels of social formation. There was gender equality, hundred percent literacy, and an economic and social pyramid that placed primacy on merit, mobility and professional capability. Where did things go wrong for Saddam?

Clearly, Saddam posed a near-insurmountable challenge to the geopolitics of the Gulf and the Middle East. It is a saga riddled with contradictions.

In a curious way, the torch of Arab nationalism came within his reach in the post-Nasser era, although there was always a simmering rivalry on that score between the Baathists in Baghdad and Damascus.

But it is difficult to be sure how much of the 'Nasserite' role came natural to Saddam.

To be sure, he had an acute sense of the theatrical, and he was good at playing to the Arab gallery. He was gifted with that rare swagger that elevated men from mice.

But he also made it a matter of statecraft to calibrate himself with the Anglo-American regional agenda. Most certainly, he launched the eight-year war against Iran in the 1980s in pursuance of the American agenda aimed at throttling the Islamic regime in Teheran.

Now we know Donald Rumsfeld, who used to be US defence secretary then, visited him secretly. If Saddam were to have written a memoir, that would have been extremely embarrassing for the Western political class.  

Nothing could be more poignant than what Rev Jesse Jackson said Saturday, 'Saddam's heinous crimes against humanity can never be diminished, but he was our ally while he was doing it� Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth will make us blind and disfigured� Saddam as a war trophy only deepens the catastrophe to which we are indelibly linked'.

More than 400 Western companies, including 25 American companies, 15 German and 10 British have been known to have supplied chemical weapons to Saddam which he used with great abandon on the Iranian troops. Such was the hurried despair in the Western capitals to throttle Iranian nationalism that the 1979 revolution posed.  

Retired CIA operatives have written about their assignments with Saddam's regime. That phase of the Middle East's current diplomatic history holds out many morals.

While the US supplied Saddam in the war with Iran, Israel supplied the Iranians with much-needed military hardware. And millions of Shia and Sunni Muslims were set against each other in the gory war.  

Saddam, arguably, would have been prepared for an accommodation with George W Bush, too, if only the latter weren't hell-bent on the invasion in 2003.

In his republicanism, Saddam posed a great challenge to the archaic monarchs of the Gulf. Yet, he consorted with them. He took generous financial help from them. They acquiesced in his pretensions of being their Praetorian guard.

He cast himself in the role of the protector of the Arab world from the 'threat' from the Persians.

Political Islam was anathema to Saddam � through most of his life, at least, until irreversible adversities took him to realise God in his final years.    

Yet, curiously, Saddam is slowly, steadily destined to acquire the aura of a martyr in the cause of the jihad against the infidels dominating the Muslim world.

Thus, in Saddam's execution, we find Iraq and the region torn between conflicting emotions. Iran has cause to feel gratified that 'justice' has been done. Teheran has been pressing for a day of reckoning for Saddam for the atrocities of his regime.

Teheran says Saddam used chemical weapons against Iran 200 times during the war in the 1980s.

Kuwait feels justified to openly 'celebrate'. Within Iraq itself, Saddam has come to symbolize Sunni aspirations. But this is a direct outcome of the sectarian divide in the country during the past four years of American occupation.

Significantly, his mourners today include the Taliban in Afghanistan and religious figures in Indonesia.

In the wider regional context, with his departure, the last great Arab nationalist has left Middle East's political stage. Yet, the torch of Arab nationalism has never shone brighter. Saddam undoubtedly caught the imagination of the Arab street.

There is a great alienation in the Arab world today between the ruler and the masses. Can that be Saddam's final legacy in the annals of Arabia's history?

Queen Mary of Scotland said, 'In my end is my beginning', when she delicately parted her curls and held out her tender neck to the guillotine assigned to her by Queen Elizabeth of England. In the manner of his death, in our troubled times, Saddam Hussein too may have immortalized himself in the pantheon of Arab nationalism.

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Number of User Comments: 13

Sub: Saddam - Hero Or Villain...!!!

A storm in a tea cup - some of the posts here are.... And the wisdom of some of those who have passed caustic comments ...

Posted by Atty

Sub: Come-on

Yo murali - it was not indira gandhi but Mary -queen of scots that said - En ma fin est mon commencement

Posted by hari

Sub: Wrong Mary

Inaccuracy in the last line... it was not Marie Antoinette but Mary Queen of Scots who said "En ma fin est mon commencement" i.e. " ...

Posted by Murali

Sub: In the end is my begining

That shows there are two sides of the coin.Each side has its own story to tell.

Posted by vvrao

Sub: Naive Arabs vs Clever Westerners

The theme of this article seems to be "naive arabs vs clever westerners". Sunnis and Shias were hell bent on destroying each other for centuries. ...