March 2003 – March 2013. Ten years of war seen from Iraq and elsewhere on a webdocumentary that is updated daily to May, 1 – the day that George Bush declared the “Mission Accomplished”.
What do we know about Iraq? What images does it conjure up? A birthplace of writing, gold (the black sort), a primetime war, an ousted dictator and, today, the occasional blurry, blood-stained news.
The verbosity that once gushed from Western media has dried up and the lingering impression surrounding Baghdad today is one of everyday but faraway chaos. But what do we know – really – about Iraqis’ daily lives today, 10 years after the second Gulf War began? What do Shiites, Sunnites, Kurds and Christians have to say about their aspirations, sufferings, doubts and hopes? That was what we wanted to hear and see. This webdocumentary is all about what they have to say, in their video stories, their photos and their interviews.
The goal is to get the facts straight from the source and home in on an undeniably less “West-centred” perspective than usual.
Columnists from three partner European dailies – Le Monde, die Süddeutsche Zeitung and The Guardian – have contributed to this picture. International experts help to unravel its complex history and the geopolitical stakes down the road. Last but not least, we also called press photographers and newspaper illustrators to the witness stand.
At the end of the day, the goal is to understand a decade in Iraq, enlightened by the people who made it happen.
Things seen. We asked a woman director, Katia Jarjoura, to tell us about “her” Iraq in a series of “pillboxes” that captured the moment in and around Baghdad. These 10 snapshots add up to the story of her month-long stint in Iraq in 2013.
Iraq, my country. Iraq through the eyes and lenses of seasoned or starting-out young directors. They each share their own take on their country, and allow us to see common Iraqis and their remarkable testimonies.
Trip diary. A10-episode, commentary-free road movie by a French-Iraqi journalist Feurat Alani who travelled that country from North to South.
Images of Iraq. The principle is simple: 5 Iraqi photographers and 5 foreign photographers tell us about 10 snapshots from their files, providing 100 living angles adding up to a 360° perspective.
In exile. They left their country to start their lives anew across the world. We met these “Iraqis afar” and brought back 10 portraits of men and women with troubled stories.
Iraq 2.0. Did Wikileaks change the course of Iraq’s history? How is the country that invented writing living with the 2.0 revolution today? That is the question we try to answer.
The newspaper kiosk. Our partner newspapers Le Monde (France), The Guardian (UK) and Süddeutsche Zeitung (Germany) provided a series of articles spanning the decade from 2003 to 2013 in Iraq.
Pen strokes. A great drawing is worth more than a bad speech and a good old platitude beats a poor presentation. 10 caricature artists from around the world tell us about 10 years of Iraqi news.
Background. Interviews with experts, articles and letters are just about everything you need to present Iraq and its history? The goal is not to say everything there is to say: it is to provide the keys to understand a complicated picture. That is our message here.
Founded in 1821, The Guardian can no longer be described as just a newspaper. Under Guardian news and media, one of the UK’s most successful media companies, its flagship guardian.co.uk has become one of the world’s most visted news websites. In addition to the contents of the print edition, there are specialised sections on the arts, sports, travel, the media, as well as multimedia content (documentaries, podcasts) produced by staffers, offering what must be one of the most complete English-language news services. Owned by the Scott Trust, the Guardian is generally considered to be the centre-left title of reference. Though close to New Labour, it’s tradition of editorial independence means that it is often highly critical of the government.
Left-leaning Le Monde, self-proclaimed “newspaper of reference”, is the planet’s main French-language daily, with 35,000 copies distributed abroad. Despite being considered an evening paper since its foundation in 1944, it wraps daily at 10.30 a.m and is on the streets of Paris by midday. In order to widen its readership and soften its longstanding reputation for austerity, the template and contents have been modernized, made more spacious and reader friendly. With over 40 million visits monthly, lemonde.fr is the number one news website in French, featuring articles from the paper edition and hosting a large number of blogs. It also includes regular news updates, slideshows and video content.
Founded in Munich in 1945, this “intellectual newspaper of German left-wing liberalism” is the one nation’s daily mainstay. The SZ, renowned for its independence, is also famed for its Streiflicht, a daily front-page column that offers an ironic take on current events, as well the main feature on page 3. Much of this broadsheet is given over to coverage and analysis of national and international news. Some of the articles on the website are enhanced with SZ-produced videos. It also devotes a special site for the younger generation: jetzt.de.
ARTE GEIE – Information department
Director: Marco Nassivera
Editors in chief ARTE Reportage: Philippe Brachet, Uwe Lothar Müller
Saddam Hussein died as he had ruled, by fire and by the sword. He is “hard to the point of cruelty”, said Yevgeni Primakov in 1990. The Soviet minister for foreign affairs, whom Mikhail Gorbachev had tasked to persuade Saddam to leave Kuwait before he was removed by force, suddenly discovered what Iraqis had known for over twenty years: Saddam Hussein was a ruthless man, for whom the end justified the means.
He was a man who, to avert his own often imaginary fears, had based his power on terror and who saw nothing in having tens of thousands of his countrymen killed to assure he kept his power. The focal point of his fear and suspicion was the Kurds and Shiites, against whom he didn’t hesitate to use chemical weapons, in 1988 for the former, and in 1991 for the latter. His cruelty was matched only by his desire for power and thirst for grandeur which caused him to take risks, leading to his disgrace and the country’s ruin.
The son of a farming family from a village near Tikrit, 150 km north of Baghdad, he “entered politics” at 18, at the Al-Kharkh college in Baghdad, when he discovered the underground Ba’ath resistance cells opposing the British colonizers. In 1956, he took part in an abortive plot against King Faisal II. Three years later, he was one of three young Ba’athists who shot the new leader of Iraq, General Qasim, at point-blank range. Injured in the leg, he fled first to Syria, then Egypt.
Returning to Iraq, he was arrested in 1964, but escaped two years later to prepare the coup d’état which, in July 1968, brought the Ba’ath party to power. He became Deputy Secretary of the Regional Command, and three years later, Vice-President of the Republic. In 1969, already the strongman of Iraq, he obtained his law degree: at gunpoint. He turned up at the exam hall in army uniform, carrying a gun and accompanied by four bodyguards armed with machine guns. “At once, the examiners knew what had to be done”, wrote British journalist Patrick Seale.
Iraq’s ancient and recent history is punctuated with violence. The coups d’état in 1958 (which overthrew the monarchy), in 1963 (which brought the Ba’athists to power), then in 1968 (which confirmed their authority) were also marked by murder and assassination. Yet Saddam Hussein took brutality to a new level.
He achieved his position at the head of the country through the use of violence, not hesitating to kill even his closest collaborators with his own hands. The staging for the inauguration of his regime, after he had “persuaded” president Ahmad Hassan Al-Bakr to resign with threats, is the example which illustrates most perfectly the methods of this man who was pathologically suspicious towards everybody, even towards his own family.
It was 22nd July 1979, and Saddam Hussein had been in power for two weeks. He called a meeting with the Ba’ath party leaders. Proceedings commenced with the reading, by Muhyi Abdel Hussein Mashhadi, Secretary General of the Revolutionary Command Council, the supreme organ of the Ba’ath party (in power since 1968), of a “confession” detailing his involvement in a “plot” aimed at overthrowing the regime and declaring a union with Syria, under the Syrian president Hafez El-Assad. El-Machadi then read out the names of those involved in the “conspiracy”. They were asked to leave the room one by one. Fifty were locked up. Twenty-two of them were executed in Saddam Hussein’s presence.
Amongst them was Abdel Khaleq Al-Samaraï, one of the most respected Ba’ath leaders, who had been under house arrest for six years, having been accused of involvement in a plot – real in this case – hatched by the chief of security, Nazem Kazzar. Al-Samaraï was actually guilty of being more popular than the Al-Bakr – Hussein duo. As for the “conspirators” of 1979, they would pay with their lives for having questioned the unorthodox manner of the rise to power of Iraq’s new number one.
Saddam Hussein had set the tone. Whoever dared challenge his authority would suffer the same fate.
He pretended to be unaware of the brutality committed by Nazem Kazzar, who liked, it is said, to have his meals whilst watching “sophisticated” torture sessions, and who admitted having tortured to death or killed two thousand suspects, including Ba’ath dissidents, Nasserists, Kurds, Shiites and communists. “We were too busy doing other things to keep a close eye on Kazzar”, said Saddam Hussein after the betrayal of his vassal.
No-one was fooled, because he had appointed him to the post himself, and could not have remained unaware of Kazzar’s violence for five years. There were endless executions, disappearances, assassinations, “natural deaths” in prison and mysterious road and helicopter accidents.
Saddam Hussein also committed unscrupulous mass violence, forcibly moving some 300,000 Kurds to southern Iraq, in 1975-1976, after the collapse of the separatist movement. He didn’t hesitate to use gas against them in 1988, thus becoming the first statesman to resort to chemical weapons against his own people. Five thousand Iraqis died in Halabja alone, and several thousand more elsewhere. In 1970, he had led a failed attack against the son of the Kurd leader, Moustapha Barzani, whom he would try unsuccessfully to kill a year later.
Even more than the Kurds, Saddam Hussein feared the Shiites, who are the majority in Iraq. In 1979, he had several thousand arrested and the following year had their spiritual leader, ayatollah Bagher Sadr, killed in prison, as well as several members of his family, including women. At the same time, he had over 100,000 Persians deported, forcing them to abandon all their possessions within forty-eight hours and flee to neighbouring Iran.
Iran, a country which, under the Shah, aspired to police the Gulf, and which was happy to orchestrate the Iraqi Kurds against Baghdad, and which had been described as an “agent of American imperialism” in the region. It was with Iran that the Shatt al-Arab border conflict had finally been resolved in 1975 at the expense of the Kurdish rebellion, sacrificed by the Shah, and Iranian opponents, expelled by Baghdad. Yet Iran had now just fallen into the hands of a religious leadership which made no secret of its desire to export its “revolution”.
Between 1975 and 1979, Saddam Hussein had somewhat forgotten the “socialism” and “secularism” of the Ba’ath party, in order to draw closer to the neighbouring monarchies – notably Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Having crushed the Kurdish rebellion, he had also managed to eliminate all his rivals, to concentrate power in the hands of the only people he trusted, and to cover the country with an intelligence service operating at all levels. Now, he felt sufficiently at ease at home to make this overture.
This watershed was facilitated by the rise in the price of crude after the embargo imposed in 1973 by the Arab oil-producing countries. Saddam Hussein made the most of the situation to ensure the development and prosperity of Iraq. He strengthened the army in terms of numbers and equipment. Iraq, which had been linked since 1972 by a treaty of friendship and cooperation with the USSR, was no longer so dependent on help from Moscow. Saddam Hussein allowed himself the luxury of strengthening economic links with the United States, although diplomatic relations between the two countries had been interrupted since 1967.
The hostage-taking at the American embassy in Teheran, in November 1979, petrified both the Gulf countries and the West, and Saddam Hussein believed the time had come to show that he could be their protector and work his way into the big league to boot. A failed assassination attempt on 1st April in Baghdad against Vice-Prime Minister Tarek Aziz, by the Shiite Al Daawa party, convinced him of the necessity of eliminating the Iranian Shiite “danger”.
Convinced that he would make short work of the Iranian army, weakened following the revolution, Saddam Hussein took the decision alone to declare war, on 22nd September 1980, against Iran. Official propaganda baptised it “Saddam’s Qadissiya”, after a famous battle in 636 which Muslims won against the Persian empire of Sassanides. This error nearly cost him power, when the initial Iraqi victories – due to the element of surprise – were followed by the bitterness of the first defeats.
The war lasted eight years as the West encouraged the master of Iraq and helped him acquire sophisticated weaponry. By the end of the war, he had a seasoned army, but the country had paid a high price: between 100,000 and 200,000 dead, 300,000 to 400,000 injured, and a debt of 70 billion, half of which was owed to the Gulf states.
The personality cult, maintained with images, songs and poems to the glory of the “Nebuchadnezzar of the 20th century” (a reference of which Saddam Hussein was particularly fond) wasn’t enough. Democratic stirrings in Eastern Europe pushed the dictator, aghast at the idea of losing control of the situation, to quickly renounce on his promises of democratisation – if they ever had been sincere.
The Iraqi president needed money to rebuild the country, relaunch the economy, buy the people’s silence – and to continue acquiring high-performance weaponry to counter Iranian and Israeli “plots”. The Isreali bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 had convinced him of the necessity of being well armed. Sure of not having to answer to anyone, having systematically exploited through terror and the concentration of power a country of seventeen millions inhabitants, the dictator was equally convinced of his complete impunity in respect of neighbouring countries and the international community. Had he not spent eight years during the Iran-Iraq war playing the “shield” for the neighbouring Sunni oil-producing monarchies, incapable of defending themselves against the Shiite Iranian militant “danger” of the neighbouring Islamic Republic?
Had he not spared the West, notably the United States, from direct intervention to protect the strategic oil reserves in the region? Since, as far as he was concerned, he has not been repaid, the man who liked to call himself the “knight” of Baghdad, or the Saladin of the 20th century, thought he could do whatever he wanted.
In his defence, people have cited the ambiguity on the part of the West, especially the United States, on the eve of the invasion of Kuwait, and the ingratitude of that latter country, which was indebted to him for protecting them from Iran. The arguments are true, but they do not explain his adventurism.
Saddam wanted his neighbours to write off the debt. He viewed the overproduction of oil by Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, which had caused the price of crude to fall, as an “economic war” directed against Iraq. He accused Kuwait of brazenly exploiting the Roumeila oil field, on the border between the two countries.
Having issued several threats, on 2nd August 1990, he sent the army into Kuwait. It was a decision he took alone.
Whilst up until 1989 the Ba’ath party, the Takriti clan to which he belonged, and the Revolutionary Command Council were still the pillars of the regime, the move towards a family, even quasi-monarchist powerbase had accelerated. There was purge after purge, and Saddam Hussein now relied entirely on a small, supposedly loyal group, all members of his family. Even for the latter, personal space was dwindling, leading to quarrels and the settling of scores. On 2nd August 1990, Saddam took just four people into his confidence.
One was his son-in-law, General Hussein Kamel Hassan, who would defect in August 1995, before returning to Baghdad several months later, after having, it is said, received assurances that his father-in-law would let bygones be bygones. He would be killed by members of his family, anxious to avenge their honour and tarnished by his treachery, according to the official version of events. No-one in Iraq believes this: everyone says the execution order came from the very top.
After invading Kuwait, Saddam Hussein was convinced that threats and sabre-rattling would be sufficient to discourage any attempt to liberate the small emirate by allied armies. Even though he was facing an armada, he did not grasp at any of the branches offered him. Nor did he back-pedal before it was too late. And, when the “mother of all battles” was lost, he failed to learn from his defeat too.
“We can live with sanctions for ten or twenty years”, he stated after the war. That may have been true for him and his entourage, but the country was literally ruined, returned to a pre-industrial era. The master of Baghdad apparently didn’t care, nor did he seem to care about the lot of his fellow citizens, whose suffering, on the contrary, served as an argument to get the international sanctions removed.
Over the years, Saddam Hussein cut himself off from the world more and more, haunted by fears of a “plot”. Prisoner of his pride, he rebuilt the damaged infrastructure by cannibalising what was left. Living in increasing isolation since the country was blacklisted in August 1990, he tightened his grip on a population crushed by the weight of international sanctions. Under the pretext of handling a situation over which he was losing control in terms of both finances and security, he selected scapegoats among the people, to whom he applied horrifyingly cruel punishments: amputation of the ears, branding with hot metal… Ever-increasing, unending terror.
Isolated from the world, unable to see the error of his ways, he thought he could fool the United Nations and lie about his armament programme, to recover at minimum cost and restart a war machine whose size no-one would suspect. He also believed he could indefinitely guarantee allegiance through terror, corruption and money. In short, he had not considered the weight bearing down on Iraq.
At heart, he was not a statesman, but rather a caricature, a third-world soldier who came to power by force and was convinced terror would keep him in power. It has to be said that up until the invasion of Kuwait, his methods had been successful.
The defection of his son-in-law Hussein Kamel Hassan in 1995 is a case in point. There are many others. His eldest son, Oudai, a violent psychopath, took it upon himself to settle scores with those his father spared. Oudai didn’t hesitate to beat to death his father’s right-hand man, whom he accused of having been a go-between by introducing Saddam Hussein to his second wife. Nor did Oudai hesitate to shoot one of his uncles, Wathban El-Takriti; he was also behind the tension between Saddam Hussein and one of his half-brothers, Barzan, who was, until November 1998, the Iraq representative at the United Nations in Geneva.
In recent years, opponents have reported attempted coups d’état which have been thwarted by the dictator, all unverifiable. One, however, supported by the CIA, was indeed crushed in 1995. What is certain is that Saddam Hussein had hundreds of officers and opponents executed and sent thousands of others to prison if they were suspected of having stepped out of line.
It was this iron grip, together with the absence of a strategy on the part of the international community in relation to Iraq, which helped the dictator remain in power. He made the most of everything, including truncated sovereignty, after the imposition by the United States, Great Britain and France of two no-flight zones in the north and south Iraq. In September 1996, he closed the book on the part of Kurdistan north of the 36th parallel, withdrawing his troops and his administrative and paramilitary apparatus in order to shield them from the Kurdish rebels, hardened after decades of fighting.
Knowing “his” Kurds and their history of internecine infighting, he maintained fluctuating relationships with their leaders, always trying to bring them back into the fold. This was not an unconsidered or unsuccessful course of action, and in September 1996 he was called upon for help by one of the groups, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (PDK), against another, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (UPK). This intervention led to the embarrassing withdrawal of CIA agents in the region and the dismantling of the embryonic structures that some of the opposition groups had started to put in place.
In one sense, the CIA helped Saddam Hussein. In creating, financing and betting – or pretending to bet – on an opposition coalition which was divided and which didn’t carry weight on a national scale, the CIA undermined the credibility of the opposition and portrayed them as pawns of the United States. Their lack of a clear strategy regarding Iraq and their intransigence over sanctions tarnished their image amongst Iraqis.
Paradoxically, Saddam Hussein, at least until 1998, owed his longevity to the various American administrations, who were never sure if an exhausted Iraq was preferable to an invigorated Iraq and who had no precise plans for the country post-Saddam. It is a question that is still in the air, since even though when George W. Bush became President he made his intentions clear, stating that the regime must be overthrown, Iraq’s future remains uncertain.
The dictator’s fate was sealed in Washington after the anti-American attacks on 11th September, 2001. Once the Afghan Taliban regime had been routed, the American President’s determination to eradicate “evil”, in his own words, focussed on Saddam Hussein. Nothing would stop the American war spirit: not the United Nations weapons inspections, not divisions within the UN Security Council on the subject of war, not the hostility of public opinion worldwide. On 20th March, the war to remove Saddam Hussein was launched. The dictator fell on 9th April 2003.
The viewpoint of Gérard Chaliand, an expert in geostrategy.
Posted on 08.03.2013
Saddam Hussein was not a statesman but rather a caricature, a third-world soldier who came to power by force and was convinced terror would keep him in power. From 1979 on, he ruined the country and kept an iron grip on the population.