Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Comment: How Saddam Betrayed Us

All the sacrifices Iraqis made in the hope that things would get better were for nothing, says former navy officer.
By Adnan K. Karim

Once upon a time, we thought Saddam Hussein was a strong man - ruthless, for sure, but a man who could make hard decisions.

 

This was back in the 1970s, when Saddam was still just the deputy to President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr. We all knew that Saddam was the real power behind the throne: the man behind such dramatic decisions as the nationalisation of the oil industry, and the man who built up Iraq's international prestige by fostering ties with Western Europe and the Soviet bloc as well as joining the Non-Aligned Movement.

 

When Saddam pushed aside Bakr to seize power in 1979, career military officers like me simply saw him as a young leader who would be able to haul Iraq into a new era.

 

We had second thoughts a year later, when Saddam took us into a war with revolutionary Iran.

 

In the military, we are taught that war should be the last resort, not the first. But Saddam convinced us that Iran wanted to export its revolution to the rest of the world, starting with Iraq. That would have taken us - and a lot of other people as well - backwards to a new dark age, instead of forward to a bright future. To prevent that, we were willing to put up a fight.

 

After two years of offensive warfare, Saddam made the curious decision to switch to the defensive. The Iranians took the initiative, and Iraqi morale declined. According to a grim joke that circulated among military officers, Saddam kicked Ayatollah Khomeini up the rear, but the Iranian leader retorted, "You got me - but I'm not giving your foot back."

 

But Saddam could still inspire loyalty in us, even though we knew he was no military genius. He went to the front, and fired artillery at the enemy. We dismissed as enemy propaganda or uneducated gossip the rumours that these frontline visits were made by Saddam's body-doubles.

 

I remember the first time I met Saddam in person, shortly after a group of officers and I had saved the body of a comrade lost at sea while under fire from Iranian warships just two kilometres away. I was one of several hundred officers whom Saddam met as a group, yet - after listening to me for just 15 minutes - he remembered my name. Yes, such things inspire loyalty.

 

In 1987, Iraq went back on the offensive, and a year later Khomeini sued for peace. We knew that Saddam had used the war as cover to commit many crimes against fellow Iraqis. We also knew that he was weakening the army in favour of politicised formations like the Republican Guard, stripping away the regular military's best equipment and handing it over to his loyalists.

 

Even so, we were ready to forgive, forget and move on.

 

But instead of progress, we got Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. Even at the time we knew this was absolutely foolish, and that the whole world was against us. When the disaster broke, and 60,000 Iraqi soldiers were captured and another 250,000 deserted, we thought that Saddam would surely resign, as Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser had offered to do after the defeat inflicted by Israel in 1967.

 

However, that was not Saddam's style. Instead, he dispatched his Republican Guard and other special units to quell revolts in the south. Soon afterwards we entered the era of United Nations sanctions.

 

In 1995, a comrade of mine was executed in a public square in Baghdad after attempting to leave Iraq. He had decided that his current life offered him nothing, and planned to go to Iran, where he had relatives, and start a new life. Saddam's people caught him at the border, executed him and delivered his dead body to his family, who were ordered not to mourn him.

 

We suspected that war with the United States was coming as early as 2000, and it became a virtual certainty after September 11, 2001.

 

None of us in the armed forces thought we could win militarily. Our soldiers were nonetheless shoved into their trenches like prisoners. Our equipment was outdated and in poor repair. However, we still went on believing. We suspected that Saddam might have some political trick up his sleeve - perhaps he could sway France, Germany or Russia to stop the US.

 

I was in Basra during the war. On the sixth day, I remember calling my family from my brother's house. I wept for 15 minutes. "It's finished," I said. "The Iraqi army is finished. Saddam is finished. The Iraqi republic is finished. All this history is finished. My life as a military man is finished. My decorations are all finished. Why did I devote all this time to a losing job?"

 

At 10 in the morning on April 6, British troops came within 200 metres of my headquarters. At that time, there were perhaps just 100 diehard fedayeen [Saddam's militia], Ba'athists and others still left fighting.

 

I didn't see any point in using a Kalashnikov against tanks. I called my brother and asked him whether the streets of Basra were clear. They were. So I left the headquarters to go to his house. My life in the military had suddenly come to an end.

 

Now, eight months later, we see Saddam allowing himself to be captured. He could have worn an explosive suicide belt. But he was taken alive.

 

Soon, perhaps, the Governing Council will hang him. But his surrender is self-serving. It shows that he values the little bit of time left to him more than his honour. This shows that he values his life above anything else. His sons were braver than him. This is the action of a cheap man.

 

Now I feel that all the sacrifices we were required to make over these past 30 years have come to nothing - and I believe I am right in thinking this.

 

We knew as early as the 1980s that Saddam was prone to making errors. But now we know that this failure was not due to mistaken policies, but to Saddam's love of himself. It is ironic that Saddam convinced many Iraqis to hate the opposition, to think badly of exiles and believe they were willing to sell Iraq to America for a few dollars.

 

But we must put aside all of those thoughts now. All of us must now start over again. We must revise our views about who it was that loved Iraq, and who loved only himself.

 

Adnan K Karim is a former rear admiral in the Iraqi navy, and is now an IWPR contributor.

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