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THE OTHER SADDAM
Liberated Iraq

There is every possibility that Saddam Hussein will be dead before this is published. So, you might wish to read this as an obituary. On the other hand, as Saddam’s resilience for living seems to far exceed the US administration’s ardent wish to see the last of him, he might very well still be as alive and lively as The Telegraph. In which case, this might be read as a cautionary tale.

I was commercial counsellor and deputy chief of mission in the Indian embassy at Baghdad from 1976 to 1978. During the interregnum between two ambassadors, I was also for a while the Indian chargé d’affaires. This explains why I had more than one occasion to stare into Saddam’s expressionless grey-green eyes (straight out of The Day of the Jackal) while shaking his hand at various official banquets and other ceremonial occasions. He ran a brutal dictatorship. That, however, caused no concern to the hordes of Western businessmen who descended in droves on Iraq to siphon what they could of Iraq’s new-found oil wealth through lucrative contracts — for everything. Everything — from eggs to nuclear plants. Because technologically, from the end of the Turkish empire over Iraq in 1919 through the British mandate which lasted till 1932 and the effete monarchy masterminded by Anthony Eden’s buddy, Nuri es-Said, right up to the Baath party coup of 1968, there was virtually no progress at all. Iraqi latifundia gave large parties for visiting Western guests (including Agatha Christie’s archaeologist husband, who did most of his digging in Nineveh, now known world-wide to TV viewers as Mosul) while the puppet ruling establishment gave away Iraq’s most precious asset, oil, for a song. Iraq’s major export was — hold your Patriot missile — dates, the fruit of the Arab desert eaten by pious Muslims to break their daylight fast during the Muslim Lent — Ramadan. India was Iraq’s largest buyer.

It was Saddam’s revolution which ended Iraqi backwardness. Education, including higher and technological education, became the top priority. More important, centuries of vicious discrimination against girls and women was ended by one stroke of the modernizing dictator’s pen. I used to drive past the Mustansariya University on my way home from downtown Baghdad. It was miraculous — I use the word advisedly — it was nothing short of miraculous to see hundreds of girl-students thronging the campus, none in burqas or chador — the head-to-toe black cape that was, and is, the essential dress for women in most of the Islamic world — and almost all in skirts and blouses that would grace a Western university. (Not jeans though: 25 years ago, the Iraqi co-ed was still fighting shy of that, perhaps no more.)

The liberation of women — that is half the population of Iraq, as for any other country — has been the most dramatic achievement of Saddam Hussein’s regime (to understand how dramatic just look across the Iraqi border at the United States of America’s favourite Arab satrap, Saudi Arabia). These last few days, watching television footage of George W. Bush’s fireworks over Baghdad, I have been remembering pretty Samira, purchase officer at the Iraqi Cement Co., with whom India was doing a lot of business (we built their first cement plant, supplied their requirements of iron fines and had taken a contract to look after their instrumentation). She was as efficient as she was lovely, with every little detail at the tips of her delicate fingers. She was also the velvet glove protecting us from her irascible boss, managing director Adnan Kubba, a man not inclined to treat leniently the many and varied delinquencies of the Indian business enterprises it was my duty to shepherd into his presence. Between Samira and me, we got Adnan to warm to India and the Indian businessmen to mend their ways. It was a great and valued partnership.

Samira’s mother and all her female ancestors for centuries could never have left the cloistered cages of hearth and home. But here she was, under thirty, yet the motor driving the engine of the Iraqi state-owned cement monopoly. I do not know if Samira is still alive or buried under the rubble of a bombed-out Iraqi market-place. But as American missiles fall nightly on her neighbourhood or her grave, why would she not have at least some gratitude in her heart for the revolution Saddam brought into her life and those of her countrywomen, whatever the horrible things he has been doing to keep his regime going' Has Donald Rumsfeld factored the feelings of Samira into his war plans for the taking of Baghdad'

I think also of the chief engineer at the State Organization for Industrial Housing, the driving force behind the massive housing programme which turned Baghdad in the first decade of Baath rule from a dirty shanty town into a pulsating modern metropolis which provided a roof over the head of every family in the city. The chief engineer was a woman. I kick myself for having forgotten her name. But I remember her well. She was so much like Mama in Chicago! Across the road from SOIH was SOI — State Organization for Industry where my diplomatic fate obliged me to cross swords with another tough-as-they-come lady, the head of the legal division, without whose “OK” no bills were paid. This was the position of women in Iraq under Saddam a quarter century ago. One had to keep reminding oneself that this was the Middle East.

My second daughter, Yamini, was born in Medical City, Baghdad, symbol of the astonishing revolution wrought by the Baath party in healthcare. My child’s cradle is now a coffin, a purgatory which holds the mangled remains of Iraqi babies killed by a rain of terror to end a reign of terror. If I, who lived in Baghdad but two years, and that too as a foreigner and so many decades ago, feel violated in my deepest sensitivities at what is being done to my memories of the ordinary Iraqi men, women and children I knew, consider the feelings of those who have lived all their lives in Iraq, all those below 40 years of age who have known no Iraq other than the Iraq of Saddam Hussein, and now find everything they have seen grow around them going up in smoke — for their “liberation”!

Iraq is home to some of the holiest Muslim shrines, fertile ground for religious fundamentalism. Saddam would have none of it. Clerics were put firmly in their place — that is, the mosque and the madrasah — and the Iraqi believer liberated from the thralldom of the priesthood. The ethos was completely secular — we interacted every day with Iraqis of numerous religious persuasions in every position of responsibility. Few know even now that one of Iraq’s longest lasting Baath leaders, companion-in-arms to Saddam for the last four decades, is Tariq Aziz, a practising Christian notwithstanding his name. For Indians, there is a special place in our regard for Saddam who has treated with reverence a sacred spot in Baghdad where, legend has it, Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith in the 16th century, meditated on his way back to India from Mecca on the imperative of synthesizing Hindu and Muslim beliefs.

Iraq under Saddam had everything going for it — except democracy. And it was, of course, the absence of democracy that accounted for Saddam brushing aside all vested interests: his instant liberation of women, his instant dismantling of feudalism, his instant caging of the priesthood, and, therefore, his instant — and, yes, brutal — exclusion from Iraq of all forms of religious fundamentalism and religion-based terrorism. Which is, of course, what makes Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush brothers under the skin: they hate Saddam Hussein equally.

If Saddam goes — and I have already said this might be read as an obituary — not only will the brutality of the Baath party be ended, there will be a takeover of civil society by the elements sidelined over four decades of Baath rule. Therefore, along with democracy, fundamentalism and terrorism will rear their heads. Samira — if, poor thing, she has not already been killed — will lose much of her freedom and many of the privileges which Saddam ensured her. RIP.

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