Alexa

Twenty years ago, hints of the style that would come to be Saddam's hallmarks

Twenty years ago, hints of the style that would come to be Saddam's hallmarks

On a sunny, mild November morning in 1982, more than a dozen American reporters sat around a vast table in Baghdad's Republican Palace, waiting for an audience with Saddam Hussein.
The vigorous, 45-year-old Saddam had been in power for three years. His war with Iran, then in its third year, was not going well. Saddam needed all the international support he could get.
Inviting a delegation of reporters to visit Iraq was part of an Iraqi strategy of reaching out to Washington, which was alarmed at the prospect that the Iranians under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini might defeat the Iraqis and assume a dominant role in the oil-rich Middle East.
After keeping us waiting for nearly an hour, Saddam and his aides marched suddenly into the room. Saddam, dressed in military fatigues, pranced to his chair, removed his 9-mm pistol from his holster, placed it on the table and took his seat.
It was a performance meant to establish authority. As the world was to learn in the decades that followed, Saddam Hussein was a master of intimidation. And he liked being in control.
Without waiting for any formalities, Saddam glared at the assembled reporters and asked the first question: "What do you think of my country?"
It was more than an idle comment. After a few moments of stoney silence, he repeated the question. Still no response.
"If you do not answer Saddam's questions, perhaps Saddam will not answer yours," he growled through his interpreter.
That elicited a tepid question about allegations of human rights abuses, which had already dogged the regime. Saddam bristled and demanded the names of anyone whose rights had been abused.
Someone mentioned the health minister, Riyadh Ibrahim Hussein. Rumor had it that he had been executed, perhaps by Saddam himself, because he supervised the import of defective medicine that caused the deaths of some wounded Iraqi soldiers.
"If you kill, so shall you be killed," Saddam replied, paraphrasing a Quranic verse. End of discussion.
Perhaps tiring of the exchange, which labored on for perhaps 20 minutes, Saddam decided to get rid of the reporters by giving them what we all wanted, a story.
"I have news for you," he said. "Today we have achieved a great victory at Mandali," a town on the Iranian border. "You must go there immediately," he added. Hundreds of Iranians, he added, had been killed or captured.
That was the signal for the Iraqi minders to hustle us out of the room and onto a bus for Mandali, about 65 miles (105 kilometers) to the northeast over a two-lane road crowded with carts, rickety trucks and the occasional tank.
By the time we arrived, the sun was beginning to set. The town was almost deserted, except for a handful of bewildered locals who probably wondered why anyone would want to come there. A few black-veiled women hustled down the street to get home before nightfall, when the Iranians traditionally shelled the place.
In the bleak, vulnerable town, only a couple of miles (kilometers) from the front line, sandbags were piled in front of every shop. A conical sandbagged bomb shelter stood in the central square.
In the distance, we could hear the thud of mortar fire. Wispy clouds from white phosphorus shells, fired by the Iranians to mark targets, rose along the horizon. An Iraqi jeep sped by with a wounded soldier lying on a stretcher.
It was clear there had been no major battle there, perhaps only a brief raid. The Iraqis promised to show the "hundreds" of prisoners but produced only a handful of frightened youngsters who appeared no older than 14.
We could question the young prisoners but the translations by the Iraqis were all the same _ the captives were happy to be in the hands of the kindly Iraqi forces.
One reporter suggested the Iraqis had stolen one prisoner's watch. The prisoner gestured affirmatively. Back to the bus, the Iraqis ordered. Interviews over.
In Saddam Hussein's Iraq, it was best not to ask too many questions. And truth was whatever the regime said it was.


Updated : 2021-02-25 10:26 GMT+08:00