Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Saddam Busters

The trial of Saddam Hussein has resumed this week in Baghdad without the presence of the former Iraqi leader who is ill. He was taken to hospital on Sunday as a result of a hunger strike in protest at the murder of his lawyer. Saddam and seven co-defendants are on trial charged with crimes against humanity but the entire defence team is also boycotting the trial. The court heard a statement from a court-appointed lawyer representing Saddam’s former intelligence chief and half-brother, Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti. It said he refused to accept the lawyers nominated by the court. The judge adjourned the case until Wednesday, when he hoped lawyers for the defendants would come to present their case. The 68 year old former leader is being force-fed in hospital and in "good condition".

The former leader's full name is Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti. Saddam is Arabic for “stubborn one” and Hussein is a patronymic rather than a surname. It means the stubborn one is the son of Hussein. Abd al-Majid is his grandfather’s name and al-Tikriti means he is from the town of Tikrit. Saddam is not quite a townie. He was born of peasant stock in 1937 (though this date has been questioned) in the village of Al-Awja which is eight kms outside of Tikrit. He never knew his father, Hussein 'Abd al-Majid, who disappeared 6 months before Saddam was born. His mother remarried when he was three years old and he was treated harshly by his new stepfather. Aged 10, he fled to live with relatives in Baghdad. There he lived with his uncle Kharaillah Tulfah who was a prominent leader in the failed 1941 Nazi backed coup of Iraq.

The British occupied Iraq during the Second World War to ensure its own wartime oil supplies. The pre-war Hashemite monarchy was reinstalled in 1945 and lasted until the 14 July Revolution of 1958. By now Saddam was 21. He had left school and joined the Ba’ath Party. The Ba'athists started their party in Syria in 1947. They were a radical, secular Arab nationalist political party. The Arabic word Ba'th means "resurrection" or “renaissance”. Because it was a pan-Arab party, it quickly became popular in Iraq also. In 1958, the Ba’athists opposed the new army-led government of Iraq which overthrew the Hashemite regime. A year later, new Prime Minister Qasim took Iraq out of the anti-Soviet Baghdad Pact. Saddam was involved in the attempted CIA-backed plot to assassinate him. One former CIA official said that the 22-year-old Saddam lost his nerve and began firing too soon, killing Qasim's driver and only wounding Qasim in the shoulder and arm. Saddam escaped back to Tikrit then crossed into Syria and was transferred by Egyptian intelligence agents eventually to Cairo. There he studied law and lived on expenses paid by both Egypt and the US.

Army officers with ties to the Ba'th Party overthrew Qassim in a another coup in 1963 and Saddam returned home. His freedom was short-lived. A year later an anti-Ba’thist coup took power and imprisoned many opponents including Saddam. He escaped prison in 1967 and was now considered to be a leading party member. The Ba’thists regained power in 1968 and General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr became president. He appointed fellow Tikriti and his cousin Saddam as his vice-president. The al-Bakr regime nationalised the Iraqi Petroleum Company which brought in major revenues after the 1973 oil crisis. It also strengthened Iraq's ties with the Soviet Union. Hussein moved quickly to usurp more power from the older president and by the mid 1970s he was the de facto ruler. In 1979 Saddam formalised the relationship and forced Al-Bakr to resign on “health grounds”. Saddam used the country’s oil revenues to invigorate education, health and industry. Iraq became wealthy and attracted many guest workers from poorer countries to serve the economy. His allies in the modernisation of Iraq were the minority Sunni Muslims. The majority Shia and the Kurds were mostly hostile to his regime.

When the Shah was overthrown in 1979, Saddam feared that revolutionary Shi’ite Islam would spread to Iraq. Ayatollah Khomeini had lived in exile in the Iraqi Shi'ite holy city of An Najaf. There he incurred Saddam’s suspicions for fomenting a strong, political and religious following with Iraqi Shia. After Khomeini gained power in Iran, Saddam attacked Tehran International airport and invaded the oil-rich border province of Khuzestan. After initial gains which were encouraged secretly by the Jimmy Carter administration, the sheer numbers of Iranian troops pushed them back at the cost of very heavy casualties. The conflict settled into a long, intractable defensive war of attrition. During the war, Iraq used chemical weapons against Iranian forces and Kurdish separatists. On March 16, 1988, the Kurdish town of Halabja was attacked with a mix of mustard gas and nerve agents, killing 5,000 civilians, and maiming, disfiguring, or seriously debilitating 10,000 more. Thousands died of horrific complications, debilitating diseases and birth defects in the years that followed.

The 8 year Iran-Iraq war ended in a stalemate with over a million deaths shared equally by both sides. The two countries’ economies were left in ruins. The war left Saddam with a post-war debt of roughly $75 billion. Saddam encouraged Kuwait to forgive its $30 billion share of the debt due to his role in “saving” Kuwait from Iranian domination. Kuwait refused and also turned down his request to cut back oil production to raise prices. The situation escalated as the US gave conflicting responses to an Iraq-Kuwait boundary dispute. In August 1990, Saddam invaded Kuwait. Although the US president George Bush snr initially wavered on a response, their hand was forced by British PM Margaret Thatcher. Britain was a close ally of Kuwait. Thatcher’s famous reaction the day after the invasion was “Don’t go wobbly on me, George”. Saddam ignored a Security Council resolution on a withdrawal. The US responded with air strikes on Iraq in January 1991. Ground forces from a US-led coalition invaded Kuwait in February and the war was over by early March. Although the Americans encouraged the Iraqi population to “rise up” against Saddam, they offered no substantial aid other than enforce no-fly zones. Turkey opposed Kurdish independence and the Saudis did not want to see another Iranian-style Shia revolution on their border. The UN placed sanctions on Iraq before the war blocking oil exports and they remained in place after the war.

Saddam was repeatedly charged throughout the 90s of violating the ceasefire by developing chemical weapons. After September 11, 2001, the new George W Bush administration increased its focus on Iraq and attempted to document what were, at best, tenuous links between Saddam and Al-Qaeda. The US “coalition of the willing” (which did not have as many willing participants as Gulf War 1) invaded without UN approval in March 2003 and the Iraqi government collapsed three weeks later. Hussein went into hiding and played a game of cat-and-mouse with American authorities for the remainder of the year. He was finally captured in his hometown of Tikrit in December. He was held at the high-security Camp Cropper detention centre near Baghdad airport until his trial.

The first legal hearing took place in July 2004. Seven preliminary charges were read out. Saddam was combative and referred to himself as “Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq”. The Iraqi Tribunal formally charged him a year later with the mass killings of the inhabitants of the village of Dujail in 1982 after a failed assassination attempt against him. The trial proceeded slowly through 2005 punctuated by the slaying of two of his lawyers and complaints from Saddam about the lack of a fair trial. In June this year, Iraqi prosecutors recommended that he receive the death penalty. In his final appearance on July 26, Saddam seemed to accept this outcome when he told the court “"I ask you, being an Iraqi person, that if you reach a verdict of death, execution, remember that I am a military man and should be killed by firing squad and not by hanging as a common criminal.” The verdict will be laid down on October 16. A second trial starts next week and the US has not ruled out a posthumous trial in the event he is executed for the Dujail charges.

1 comment:

Broadband said...