Friday, January 05, 2007

Saddam: From monster to martyr?

By Patrick Cockburn

It takes real genius to create a martyr out of Saddam Hussein. Here is a man dyed deep with the blood of his own people who refused to fight for him during the United States-led invasion three-and-a-half years ago. His tomb in his home village of Awja is already becoming a place of pilgrimage for the five million Sunni Arabs of Iraq who are at the core of the uprising.

During his trial, Saddam himself was clearly trying to position himself to be a martyr in the cause of Iraqi independence and unity and Arab nationalism. His manifest failure to do anything effective for these causes during the quarter of a century he misruled Iraq should have made his task difficult. But an execution which vied in barbarity with a sectarian lynching in the backstreets of Belfast 30 years ago is elevating him to heroic status in the eyes of the Sunni - the community to which most Arabs belong - across the Middle East.


When Saddam fell Iraqis expected life to get better. They hoped to live like Saudis and Kuwaitis. They knew he had ruined his country by hot and cold wars. When he came to power as president in 1979, Iraq had large oil revenues, vast oil reserves, a well-educated people and a competent administration. By invading Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990, he reduced his nation to poverty. This was made worse by the economic siege imposed by 13 years of UN sanctions.

But life did not get better after 2003. Face-to-face interviews with 2,000 Iraqi adults by the Iraq Centre for Research and Strategic Studies in November revealed that 90 per cent of them said the situation in their country had been better before the US-led invasion. Only 5 per cent of people said it was better today. The survey was carried out in Baghdad, in the wholly Sunni Anbar province and the entirely Shia Najaf province. It does not include the Kurds, who remain favourable to the occupation.


It could get worse yet. The so-called "surge" in US troop levels by 20,000 to 30,000 men on top of the 145,000 soldiers already in the country is unlikely to produce many dividends. It seems primarily designed so that President George Bush does not have to admit defeat or take hard choices about talking to Iran and Syria. But these reinforcements might tempt the US to assault the Mehdi Army.

Somehow many senior US officials have convinced themselves that it is Mr Sadr, revered by millions of Shia, who is the obstacle to a moderate Iraqi government. In fact his legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary Shia Iraqis, the great majority of the population, is far greater than the "moderate" politicians whom the US has in its pocket and who seldom venture out of the Green Zone. Mr Sadr is a supporter of Mr Maliki, whose relations with Washington are ambivalent.

An attack on the Shia militia men of the Mehdi Army could finally lead to the collapse of Iraq into total anarchy. Saddam must already be laughing in his grave.

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