ALEXANDRIA, Egypt – One can’t help but wonder whether Saddam Hussein, with 300,000 armed-to-the-teeth Dirty Harrys pointing their Magnums – and Tomahawks – at his head at this very moment, is feeling lucky. 

Even more than Clint Eastwood taking the law into his own hands, Saddam’s favorite movie character is Marlon Brando in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather – the archetypal Mafia boss. Saddam watches a lot of videos. He reads a lot of thrillers. And he watches a lot of TV: not only Iraqi but especially CNN, BBC and al-Jazeera. In his unbridled Babylonian narcissism tinged with totalitarian gangsterism, he feels like Emperor Nebuchadnezzar, but also like James Cagney in White Heat – “Look Ma, top of the world.” Indeed, much of the future direction of the whole world at this moment hinges on the fate of this Godfather on Ground Zero.

By formally inducting him into the axis of evil a year ago, George W. Bush has managed to pluck Saddam from relative obscurity and containment limbo and throw the “brutal dictator” once again into the global limelight as the ultimate menace. As Bush moves relentlessly towards war, guided by his definitive foreign policy adviser, God, Saddam has once again invoked the Holy Prophet Mohammed and appealed to the Muslim world for a jihad. He said that Iraqis will rather choose to die as martyrs so that they can reach the “paradise” of “a new life” instead of submitting to American armies.

But his and Bush’s religious fervor notwithstanding, Saddam knows very well that this is not a religious war. His envoys to recent summits in Cairo, Sharm el-Sheikh and Doha let it be known that he seems to know what he is up against. Contrary to the usual “Western intelligence reports,” echoes from Iraq keep suggesting that Saddam and the regime’s innermost circle are ready for what he calls a “battle of destiny.”

He now appears nonstop on Iraqi TV clad in finely tailored three-piece-suits and smoking US$100 cigars: but the unbounded fear of those he addresses or sermonizes is palpable even when filtered by a satellite signal. One wonders to what extent they comprehend the implications of Shock and Awe – the planned 3,000 bombs and missiles to be dropped on Iraq in the first 48 hours of war. Saddam may in a strange way be prepared for this: Saddam in Arabic means “violent shock.”

On occasional nights when Saddam, clad in Arab gear, leaves one of his 45 palaces or safe houses, some times surrounded by bodyguards, some times all by himself, and sets out to eliminate a handpicked enemy of the regime. Why? “Because he cannot go to sleep without killing somebody.”

This astonishing piece of information – which for obvious reasons could not be independently verified inside Iraq – was volunteered to this correspondent last year in Baghdad by a member of the 1st platoon of the 2nd battalion of the 1st brigade of Saddam’s Special Republican Guards. He was one of the top of the tops of the regime’s Praetorian guard: well dressed, well fed, well paid and crucially, well armed. He didn’t say so, but most certainly he came from Tikrit – Saddam’s birthplace, maybe from the same sub-clan.

Theoretically, his loyalty to the regime was rock-solid. But according to the contact who secured the meeting after a Byzantine negotiation, he was tired. He had had enough. He wanted to talk. It’s fair to assume that many Iraqi scientists arms inspectors want to interview would do the same if they had the chance.

No cameras, no tape recorders, no hidden microphones, no witnesses – and no minders. The Special Republican Guard stepped into our white-and-orange GMC Suburban for a Baghdad-by-night ride, without our driver, and then he let it rip – by official Iraqi standards anyway.

He told us how Saddam chose Qusay (the youngest son) over mama’s favorite Uday, splitting the couple into mutual hate; how the army hates Uday and supports Qusay; how Uday constantly imports foreign girls to party for a week; how on every corner of every street of every neighborhood people are paid to be informants of the regime; how the Jerusalem Liberation Army (officially with 7 million members) is just a publicity stunt; how a combination of the regime plus the UN sanctions have poisoned the whole of Iraqi society from top to bottom; and how there are no weapons of mass destruction, only conventional weapons, in bunkers located in underground mosques.

And then he disappeared into his barracks. The image that remained of Saddam was not as he is painted in an array of frescoes and murals scattered across Baghdad: Saddam the Bedouin, Saddam the horseman with scimitar, Saddam with flowers, Saddam comforting old woman, Saddam the peasant, Saddam in a chariot, and the most startling of them all, Saddam holding the scales of justice. The image that remained was of Saddam as a cold-blooded killer.

Like his historical icon Yussuf Saladin, who recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187, Saddam was born in Tikrit. He was actually born in al-Awja, a small village near Tikrit, which in 1937 was a miserable place on the Tigris, 160 kilometers north of Baghdad. Saddam still carries his clan tattoo, three dark blue points aligned close to his fist, a symbol of his very humble origins. True to pure Bedouin tradition, Saddam is a real Tikriti: intelligent and cynical, and a clan chief loyal only to his family. The family of course became a mafia and took a whole nation as hostage.

Saddam’s dream is to be a modern Saladin. But Saladin was a Kurd. And Saddam despises Kurds with a vengeance. Saladin was a noble soul who united Arab power under a single kingdom and the banner of a true jihad – to liberate Jerusalem from the crusaders. Poets in the Aleppo bazaar in Syria still tell us of a fabulous speech in the 12th century in which Saladin was eulogized by a poet as the “sultan” of Islam. Saladin was a warrior and a gentleman. In his last Crusade battle against Richard the Lionheart in July 1192, Saladin saw that Richard was unhorsed and vulnerable. He ordered his brother to take two Arabian horses as a gift to Richard, “For a king as great as him should not fight on foot.” In Jerusalem’s old city, an inscription in a small room inside the very simple al-Khanagah mosque where Saladin lived reads, “Allah! Mohammed! Saladin!” The Godfather on Ground Zero would like nothing better than to add a “Saddam!” to the inscription. Saddam is a gambler who relishes testing the enemy. He poses as the heir of Babylon, the scion of Arab culture, and claims to be a descendant of Fatima, the daughter of the Holy Prophet Mohammed. But what will he really do when Shock and Awe brings apocalypse to Mesopotamia?

Alexandria, a city of learning on the Mediterranean, with her eyes on Europe, now proudly hosts the new high-tech, Scandinavian-designed, US$200 million version of the legendary Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Saddam, of all people, is one of the original donors for the new library project: he contributed $20 million. The bibliography on Iraq is not yet extensive but it’s improving – especially online. People in Alexandria are keen to point out how the Americans are swaggering their way to war without even considering the dizzying complexity of Iraq – a Tower of Babel of peoples, languages and faiths. Shock and Awe may act as a larger-than-life fragmentation bomb to push fractures to unprecedented dangerous levels.

Americans will arrive with their gee-whiz slang at a crucial front line between Indo-European languages – including Kurdish – and Semitic languages – which include Arabic and Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus). This language border has also been a religious border since antiquity – when Babylonians (Semitic and Polytheist), were opposed to Persians (Indo-Europeans and Zoroastrians). The linguistic-religious border remained when Shi’ite Iran separated itself from the Sunni Arab world. This absolutely crucial schism of Islam happened nowhere else than at the heart of Iraq, culminating at the battle of Kerbala in 680 AD. When this correspondent visited the sacred Shi’ite cities of Kufa and Najaf, religious officials, pilgrims and the imam of Najaf himself reminded that here – between the Tigris and the Euphrates – the partisans of the caliph and the partisans of Ali had shed their blood in the name of the Sunni and Shi’ite branches of Islam. The Shi’ite faith’s most sacred sites – Kerbala and Najaf – are not in Iran, but in Iraq: a war that so much as touches these sacred sites will fuel the anger of Iranian, Afghan, Pakistani and Gulf Shi’ites to incalculable levels.

George W. Bush may find comfort in the fact that Christendom is alive and well in northern Iraq. There’s a Christian community in every street of Mosul. There are Nestorian Assyrians – dissidents of the Council of Ephesus: for them, Mary is the mother of Jesus and not the Mother of God. There are Jacobites: for them, Jesus is really God but not totally man. There are Chaldeans (Nestorians united to Rome). There are Orthodox Byzantines. There are Armenians. There are Protestants evangelized by American preachers.

After the repression of the Ottoman empire, many of these Christians believed European powers would protect them. In 1920, the Treaty of Sevres had promised heaven on earth to Assyrio-Chaldeans in a future autonomous Kurdistan. It never happened. Today these northern Iraqis are trying to balance their Christian identity with their Arab patriotism. Most couldn’t take it any more and went into exile. The women in northern Iraq wear colored dresses and no veils – something startling when one learns that 1,700 years before the Holy Prophet Mohammed the veil was already compulsory in these lands, thanks to a series of laws attributed to Assyrian King Teglat-Phalazar the First. Now, the new American war is offering these people a stark alternative: exile or the graveyard.

The Yazidis – the so-called “devil worshippers” – are in a complex predicament. The only way out for these Kurds is to emigrate to Europe, because their faith is simply forbidden: they worship a king who placated the flames of hell with the tears of his repentance. Meanwhile, in southern Iraq, the Mandeans of Basra will try to emigrate to America or Australia. For the Mandeans, St John the Baptist is the real messiah. They must be re-baptized every day in water – but Saddam’s armies have dried their marshlands.

Iraq is the land of prophet Abraham, a Chaldean. To the peoples of the Book, Iraq gave its myths – like the deluge – and also its laws: the Torah borrows heavily from Mesopotamian codes. The area also gave the Torah its wars – such as the deportation of Jews to Babylon. History is now coming full circle: American Christian fundamentalism, allied to Zionism, is reopening very old wounds. From psalms to spirituals, from ancient tradition to American black consciousness, prophecies echo a new apocalypse in Babylon. Everyone fears that the Garden of Eden – which tradition places between the Tigris and the Euphrates – will be paradise turned into hell. Five millennia ago the story was slightly different. Uruk – the cradle of Iraq, and the superpower of the times – was opposed to Aratta. In the end there was no war, thanks to the advice of Nidaba, the Goddess of Wisdom. It’s unlikely that the UN’s Kofi Annan will replay this role. Not today, when Saddam behaves like he’s Emperor Nebuchadnezzar, and George W. Bush prays his way to war like a Crusader.

It won’t be easy for American Special Forces to get close to Saddam. There’s the 1st and 2nd battalions of the 1st brigade, and then the top operatives of the Amn al-Khas – the Special Security Service. These “rings of fire” not only offer close-to-the-bone protection, but meticulously infiltrate every state ministry and spy on every military and intelligence operative who might entertain the idea of staging a coup against Saddam. Saddam is physically protected by these concentric layers, as much as Baghdad is supposed to be defended by concentric layers of special and not-so-special Republican Guards: three armored divisions, one mechanized and one infantry. It’s history’s pull, once again: walls as an instrument of deterrence were invented in Iraq – in ancient Uruk, the superpower of the times. In Iraqi exile communities around the Middle East, all sorts of rumors abound. The bulk of Baghdad’s population will remain hostage to the security forces – with the added trauma of a severely-enforced curfew, and the certainty of power being cut off by bombing: oil lamps, lanterns and emergency cookers are the biggest-selling items in the bazaars. The Ba’ath Party has distributed rifles in most neighborhoods. Most Baghdadis fear a devastating civil war. But some are talking of guerrilla resistance against the Americans.

Jordan has closed its borders to Iraqis. Everybody in the ruling bureaucratic elite is trying to come up with an exit strategy – buying $500 exit visas to Turkey on the black market, sending money abroad – while others are hanging on a much more precarious balance. These people are trying to anticipate the exact moment when the regime will start to crumble. They can’t afford to leave now because they would be caught by the still-intact terror apparatus. But they dread to be left behind as Tommy Franks, the new MacArthur (or the new Mongol, Hulagu, according to Ba’ath officials) slouches towards Baghdad as the new conqueror.

According to echoes from Baghdad, there has been a wave of arrests of government bureaucrats, high-ranking military and Republican Guards in these past few days, all pinpointed as likely candidates for desertion. This is business as usual: as the Special Republican Guard told us, Saddam’s paranoia ensures that there is a pogrom of some sort practically on a daily basis. For all practical purposes, it appears now as if Saddam is still playing a game. Every drop of concession further shakes up the Security Council’s bottle. He has just unveiled Iraq’s drone – which looks like an old Revell model kit. He is clearly relishing how the Turks – the former oppressors, via the Ottoman Empire – are now defending the Arabs, through the Turkish parliament vote that blocked the deployment of American forces (but the vote could be taken again as early as next week). Saddam is also relishing how French President Jacques Chirac – a heir to a medieval enemy, the Franks – is now being hailed in so many capitals as the new Arab caliph.

But Saddam could be misinterpreting the stance of the current Franco-German-Russian axis of peace. He might think that they are behaving this way because all three have made a lot of business – including arms business – with his regime. But Saddam might not understand that their opposition to war is a matter of principle. They are against the fact that Washington decided on a preemptive war a long time ago, and treats legitimation by the UN as a mere formality. The Franco-German-Russian axis of peace is denouncing that having unilaterally declared itself in a state of permanent self-defense, Washington feels that it can designate any enemy and wage any war at will.

The “game” at the UN will soon turn into an endgame – as early as this Friday. If there aren’t nine votes in favor of a second UN resolution, war could start as early as next week. Saddam won’t capitulate in Arabic on Iraqi TV – as the British would like it. As a UN ambassador remarked this week, “I think the British want Saddam to go on television and swallow a liter of anthrax to prove he is getting rid of it.” Saddam may soon find that he has his aching back totally against the wall. That’s when he may engineer a totally unpredictable reaction. He wants a bloody replay of the siege of Stalingrad. He wants to turn Baghdad into a Grozny, Chechnya’s battered capital. For that, he may have to go underground. He does move around, but not as often as one imagines, hitting his 45 palaces and safehouses all ready to greet him at the drop of a hat – or a bullet. When war breaks out he may likely use nondescript homes of Ba’ath Party officials as a refuge: it has been done before. He is fond of seafood and fresh steaks, and drinks good wine and cognac – everything imported from the Gulf twice a week and duly tasted to prevent poisoning. But life during wartime may not be so sweet. Some Westerners might be tempted to portray him as Macbeth. Wrong. Saddam’s psychology is not of a Western tragic hero. So will he choose to be Gilgamesh? Will he choose to be the last caliph? Will he choose to be Samson – bringing the whole temple down on him and anyone who may be around?

Twenty-six centuries before Jesus Christ, and five generations after the deluge, King Gilgamesh ruled over the city of Uruk – the superpower of the times. The “Gilgamesh” is the first epic drama in the history of humanity. Bush might be interested to know that the oldest book in the world, written around 2300 or 2200 BC, was widely imitated and thoroughly pillaged, especially by the copywriters of the Bible, as well as Greek authors. The Gilgamesh epic is the foundation of all Western imagination – it already contains the adventures of Jason, Ulysses and Celtic legends. The wandering king battles giants, falls in love with the goddess Ishtar (thus our word “star”), kills a heavenly bull, invokes the wrath of the gods, goes on a quest to find the essence of immortality, visits the realm of the dead. He meets a Sumerian Noah who tells him how he built an ark, embarks a couple of each animal species and escapes the destruction of the world (this is probably a reference to a catastrophic flood of the Euphrates in the 4th millennium BC.) The Sumerian Noah reveals to the king of Uruk the secret of immortality: a plant that must be found at the bottom of the sea. Gilgamesh finds the plant, but it is later stolen by a serpent. Gilgamesh finally grasps the meaning of life and understands that the real hero is the one who accepts the human condition.

Although he evoked Gilgamesh in a long speech last January, it’s unlikely that Saddam will embark on such a transcendental journey in search of wisdom. Which leaves us with the fate of the last Abbasid caliph – very much alive in the minds of Iraqis, who are drawing many parallels between the Mongols and the Americans and worrying about what may happen to them in the beginning of the 21st century.

In the mid-13th century, the Abbasid empire was being menaced by the devastating Mongol hordes, which had already conquered Central Asia, northern China, Russia, Poland, Silesia and Hungary. Hulagu, Genghis Khan’s grandson, raises hell in Anatolia and Persia. In January 1258, Hulagu’s armies arrive at the gates of Baghdad. The city falls after a furious battle lasting two weeks (contemporary American military planners may consider it too long). Caliph Muztasim is assassinated by the Mongols. The Mongols – either Buddhist or Nestorian – commit a real holocaust in the political capital of Islam. Buildings are destroyed, libraries are burned, corpses of Baghdadis are thrown into the Tigris. Horrified – and hyperbolic – Arab historians wrote that Hulagu ordered the building of a pyramid of 800,000 skulls. This horror show was not only the end of the Abbasid empire – which spread from Andalucia in Spain to the Indus – but the end of Baghdad as the supreme metropolis of the Muslim world. It was the end of a long process not totally dissimilar to the fall of the Roman empire.

Gilgamesh or Abbasid caliph, Saddam still may refuse to think about his demise because in his psychopathic vanity he is still too busy immersed in his folly of grandeur- as an heir to the great Babylonian Emperor Nebuchadnezzar or as a heir to the great liberator of Jerusalem, Saladin.

In the streets of Moscow one can buy matrioshkas – Russian nesting dolls – of Russian supremos old and new. The larger doll is a Vladimir Putin, enclosing Boris Yeltsin, Mikhael Gorbachev, Leonid Brezhnev, Nikita Krushchev, Josef Stalin, Tzar Nicholas and finally a mini-Peter the Great. A Saddam matrioshka would consist only of Saddams. Iraqi TV still broadcasts back-to-back poems and chants to his glory: “You are the salt of the earth, the fountain of life, the sword of death.” He is compared to the sun and the moon, and to the water of the two rivers – the Tigris and the Euphrates. One brick in 10 at the restored temple of Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon – ordered by Saddam – is engraved with Saddam’s name. Narcissus drowns in ecstasy in his totalitarian pool.

He has told his official Iraqi biographer that he dreams of nothing short of imprinting his image in the coming centuries. He wants to be Saladin reborn. He wants to be enshrined forever in Arab mythology – even in death, surrounded by the bodies of his enemies. So it’s unlikely that he would engineer a humanitarian disaster of apocalyptic proportions, directed against the Iraqis themselves, because he would not be remembered as a hero. No replay of the 1988 gassing of the Kurds in Halabja.

It’s also out of the question that he will go into exile. He’s done that before, in his younger days. In 1959, as a 22-year-old uneducated radical with a poor peasant background, injured in an attempt by the Ba’ath Party to kill Iraqi revolutionary leader Abdel Karim Kassem, Saddam fled to Syria. Syria at the time was joined to the Egypt of nationalist hero Gamal Abdel Nasser in the short-lived United Arab Republic. From Syria Saddam went to Egypt. He enrolled in the Qasr al-Nil high school in Cairo. He became a law student in Cairo University, but then he dropped out – to breathe and think politics.

In The Long Days, his official biography, which can be bought in Baghdad’s book souk for $5, Saddam says that he “emulated Nasser by playing chess and was not distracted by social life.” Said Aburish, a Palestinian writer, says that Saddam basically spent his time with his bawab – the doorman of his building; reading his favorite book, a biography of Stalin; and even meeting with an intelligence man at the American embassy in Cairo. Saddam left Cairo for Baghdad in 1963 and immediately started his fulminating career as an insider in the Ba’ath Party on the road to total power. Saddam’s intellectual master is Syrian Michel Aflak, a Greek Orthodox Christian professor who in 1940 co-founded the Ba’ath Party as a nationalist, socialist and pan-Arab party. Saddam would later betray the egalitarian ideology of the Ba’ath. Aflak thought that “an idea does not exist by itself: it is incarnated in the physical person who must be physically eliminated so the idea will also disappear.”

In this context, the American war plan might have been conceived by Aflak: to eliminate Saddam is to eliminate the Ba’ath system. Egyptian historian Abdel Aziz Ramadan laments that Saddam’s wars and totalitarian system “turned a country with a promising future back some 80 years, when Iraqis were trying to restore their flourishing past. Saddam pushed it into the abyss.”

It may not be the end of the abyss. There’s a remote possibility that he might survive the American invasion. Taking a cue from Osama bin Laden – who despises him as an infidel – Saddam might become a ghost, a specter sending periodical tapes to al-Jazeera.

In the end, we come back full circle to Saddam’s innermost circle. Last act. Final scene. Baghdad in flames. A bunker in a palace. Enter a Special Republican Guard. In his hand he carries a poisoned dagger, the light dancing off its sharpened edge. Then there’s blood on the floor. The final curtain drops.

Saddam Hussein might become a tragic hero after all – in spite of himself.

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