Vol. 5 Num 923 Sun. December 31, 2006  

The final hours of a tyrant

Saddam Hussein's death warrant was signed last night. It happened as the nightly curfew brought Baghdad, the city where he exercised supreme power over Iraq for a quarter of a century, to a standstill. The leader who launched two disastrous wars that reshaped the politics of the Middle East and ruined his country waited to be hanged by the Iraqi authorities who had replaced him.

Saddam's principal lawyer, Khalil al-Dulaimi, said US officials who have been holding him at Fort Cropper near the airport outside Baghdad had asked him to pick up Saddam's possessions and those of his half-brother, Barzan al-Tikriti, also facing execution. His two other half- brothers, Watban and Sabawi, visited him on Thursday and he gave them his will.

I first saw Saddam Hussein making a speech on a distant platform in Baghdad in 1978. He was already known as "The Strong Man of Iraq" and the following year he executed several leaders of the ruling Baath party who were opposed to him becoming the all-powerful president.

Criticism of the leader and his family was highly dangerous. People in cafés in Baghdad were nervous if they accidentally spilled their coffee on their newspaper. They feared they might be accused of deliberately defacing the picture of Saddam Hussein that invariably appeared on the front page.

He wanted to be a world historical figure and in a way he achieved his ambition. He compared himself to the great heroes of the Iraqi past, such as Sargon of Akkad, Nebuchadnezzar and Saladin. At the height of the Iran-Iraq War, when resources were strained in Iraq, he rebuilt part of ancient Babylon with ugly yellowed bricks, on each of which was printed his name.

Surprisingly he succeeded in making the world ring with his name. But he did so through defeat and not victory. In 1980 he invaded Iran and started an eight-year-long war in which one million Iraqis and Iranians were killed and wounded. In 1990 he occupied Kuwait and was defeated by US-led forces.