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

Saddam's Disputed Legacy

The former dictator may have swapped his palaces for a prison cell, but he still divides opinion amongst those he once governed.
By Ali Marzook

As Iraq’s former dictator waits to stand trial on a series of charges including crimes against humanity, diehard Saddam Hussein supporters are finding it hard to overcome 30 years of Baathist indoctrination, with many still optimistic that he will be eventually walk free and return to the political stage.


Despite the damage he undoubtedly wrought on his Iraq’s people, infrastructure and international reputation, there are some who still hold that Saddam was the best thing that ever happened to their country.


Zaid al-Tikriti, a twenty-five-year-old student at a teacher training college in Baghdad, has only known life under Baathist rule and says she was happy with the pre-war status quo.


"Saddam will be back to run the country. If he was allowed to stand for election, he would win it for sure,” she said. "We do glorify Saddam – but that’s only because he is wise and deserves it,” agreed Abu Ibrahim, a former intelligence officer from Ramadi.


For businessman Rafee al-Samarrai, Saddam is the greatest ruler Iraq has ever had. “There is an international conspiracy against him. But we love him and we’re ready to sacrifice our lives for him,” he declared.


While Saddam obviously still has supporters, his detractors are now free to voice their opinion of him. Those who suffered at his hands have no sympathy for him.


"Saddam is a criminal. He must face the death penalty for the crimes he committed, otherwise what kind of justice would there be?" said Ali al-Rubai, a teacher from Baghdad’s Sadr city.


Omar al-Bayati, a student at Baghdad University, said, “Iraqis didn’t like Saddam. He ruled by force, deprived us of our rights, and treated us like dogs. We’d like to see him hanged soon as possible.”


Intellectuals were among the many groups persecuted by the Baathists, as Saddam promoted uneducated and illiterate loyalists to run both administration and the country’s economy. Some Iraqis say they will never forgive the damage he has done to the country’s intellectual capital.


High school headmaster Mohammed al-Majdi is one of them. “Saddam is an idiot," he said. "He destroyed the infrastructure of Iraq. Most of the educated people have left the country because of him. He does not deserve to rule.”


Saddam supporters continue to display an alarming ability to ignore physical evidence and world opinion. Some claim it was his double who was captured, while the dictator himself remains at large.


“We know that Saddam wasn’t the one that was captured. He wouldn’t be caught so easily, he’s smarter than that," said Al-Samarrai.


And despite the lasting divisions Saddam’s wars against Iran and Kuwait created in the Arab world, his followers continue to claim that the invasion-prone dictator was a champion of pan-Arabism.


“Saddam did a lot for Arabs in general,” states Abdul Wahab al-Rawi, a tour company manager. “In fact, he proved himself the only one who worked for the interests of the Arab homeland.”


"He’s a national hero. He didn’t invade Kuwait - it was already an Iraqi territory which he tried to reintegrate into our country. There is nothing to blame him for,” commented Faisal Ghazi, a former general.


Saad Hilan, a chemistry teacher from Baghdad, agreed, "Iran is the eternal enemy of Iraq. Saddam tried to sweep them off the Iraqi lands they occupied. We should reward him for this rather than convict him.”


Pensioner Abu Ilaf retorted, "Saddam was the reason behind the main splits in the Arab world. His invasion of Kuwait divided Arab leaders and led to years of hostility between countries.”


Mohammed al-Mishhadani, a former colonel with the intelligence services and a Saddam apologist, accepted there had been a certain amount of repression under the Baathist government, but he added, "It was natural to suppress those who threatened the regime. Did you expect him to reward them? They were asking for it.”


Those who suffered under his reign take a very different view of his accountability for crimes against his countrymen, from the suppression of the Shia upheaval in the south and executions of thousands of innocent people to the chemical attacks on Kurdish villages in the north.


To them, Saddam is a brutal dictator who deserves the death penalty.


"If I were a judge, I wouldn’t hesitate to send Saddam to his death,” said Meethaq Abbas, a barber from Sadr city whose two brothers were killed by the Baathists.


Um Mahmood, who lives in Rahmaniy, a slum neighbourhood of the Iraqi capital, hasn’t seen or heard of her son since he was taken from his school by the secret police in 1980.


"God is just,” she said. “Saddam is finally being punished in this life. He is in prison now, alone and powerless. All Iraqis know what he did to us.”


Ali Marzook is an IWPR trainee in Baghdad.


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