Villainous figures

In counting Saddam's atrocities, the coalition is employing some dodgy maths.

Josie Appleton

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Just as Saddam Hussein is a beaten man, his regime crumbling and his statues toppling, moves are underway to consecrate him in the pantheon of history’s villains.

US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld commented that he had been dumped among ‘failed, brutal dictators’ including Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and Nicolae Ceausescu. On Question Time on 9 April, Digby Jones, director general of the CBI, made the unchallenged claim that Saddam Hussein had murdered three million Iraqis.

Back at the end of March, Pentagon spokesman Victoria Clarke placed Saddam one step lower than even Hitler and Stalin, when she claimed that he was the worst ruler in history. ‘The Iraqi people will be free of decades and decades and decades of torture and oppression the likes of which I think the world has not ever seen before’, she told a news conference (1).

An article by John F Burns in the New York Times said that Saddam had murdered one million people – and that though this was far fewer than the 20million deaths attributed to Stalin, it ‘may not be far from the mark, in a country of 22million people’ (2).

The contrast between these claims and the whimper with which Saddam was ousted is striking.

Many of the figures are questionable in their own terms. But they also ignore the political context in which deaths occurred.

In John F Burns’ article, 800,000 of his figure of one million Saddam victims were the Iraqi and Iranian deaths from the Iran-Iraq war, which lasted between 1980 and 1988, a war ‘which was launched by Mr Hussein’. Strictly speaking, the war was ‘launched’ by Saddam – but it was sparked by an Iranian-supported attempt to assassinate the Iraqi foreign minister, and at its base were long-running border disputes and Cold War tensions.

It is not common practise to judge leaders by the number of war deaths under their rule (many highly esteemed leaders – Churchill, for one – could be seen as ‘responsible’ for more deaths than Saddam). And it is also worth remembering that Saddam’s war against Iran was supported by Western powers – Saddam was seen as a useful counter to the Islamic fundamentalist Ayatollah Khomeini, who rode to power on the wave of the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Once the war began, Western powers armed both sides to avoid a decisive victory by either. The West was keen to avoid Iraq or Iran emerging as a heavyweight in the region. It was this attempt at counterbalancing the two sides that helped to create the bloody stalemate and trench warfare that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

Burns also judges that up to 200,000 Iraqis may have ‘disappeared’ under Saddam’s regime. This may be true – there is no doubt that Saddam was a brutal and totalitarian ruler. But this is some way from being the worst leader in history, or Digby Jones’ claim of three million dead Iraqis.

A White House report detailing ‘Saddam’s record of repression’ was issued to great fanfare during the coalition campaign. This was the Bush regime’s attempt to cast Saddam in the worst possible light, their attempt to gather all possible evidence to indicate his barbarity. Yet even this report is pretty thin.

The report by the notes that Saddam’s terror campaign against the Kurds in northern Iraq ‘killed between 50,000 and 100,000 people and destroyed more than 2000 villages and towns’ (3). It also notes that the regime slaughtered as many as 200,000 Shia during the 1991 uprisings against the regime. What it neglects to mention is that both were attempts to stem the disintegration of the Iraqi state after the end of the Gulf War – or that the crack-down on the Kurds occurred under America’s nose. The chemical weapons attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja in 1988, which left 5000 dead, has been given far more attention by the West in recent years than it was given at the time.

The report also includes ‘the deaths of as many as 400,000 children due to malnutrition and disease directly attributable to the regime’s neglect and brutality’. These, of course, were deaths under UN sanctions. The report’s claim – that the UN had tried to make sufficient food and medicines available, but that the regime had blocked their access – is a one-sided reading of events, to say the least.

According to the report, Saddam is also culpable for ‘systematic and mass executions of prisoners, and the beheading of at least 130 women’. The beheading of at least 130 women? This is a strange footnote – it doesn’t say why they were beheaded, or whether they were alleged to have committed crimes. The figure seems to have been included for its perceived moral perversity.

What this evidence seems to suggest is that, far from being a Hitler or a Stalin, Saddam was a fairly run-of-the-mill third world dictator. Yes, he committed atrocities, and yes, he ran his country under a totalitarian grip, but so did many others in the twentieth century. And many of these ruthless leaders, like Saddam, were little more than British or American puppets backed to play their part in the Cold War. As President John F Kennedy reportedly said of the brutal Dominican dictator Raphael Trujillo, ‘Sure, he’s a bastard, but at least he’s our bastard’ (4).

Saddam is being attributed with the power and crimes of a Hitler or a Stalin in order to help justify the US-UK coalition’s war against him. A war that lacks a moral or political justification of its own gains its authority by building Saddam up into a monstrous figure, the likes of which ‘the world has not ever seen before’ – but may well see again the next time the West needs to justify invading somewhere.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) N Korea rights ‘worse than Iraq’, BBC News, 1 April 2003

(2) New York Times, 29 January 2003

(3) White House Issues New Report on Saddam’s Record of Repression, 5 April 2003

(4) See American diplomacy on the University of North Carolina website

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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