With the trial of Saddam Hussein under way, those in the God-damn-America camp find themselves uncomfortably wedged. Should they justify their opposition to the war by downplaying Saddam's crimes while sheeting home blame for the present turmoil to the US and its allies? Or do they opt for the defence of moral equivalence, conceding that Saddam was indeed a monster but those US presidents who once backed his regime, including George H.W. Bush, are the real monsters?
The best riposte to this warped analysis is a scholarly and sober 700-page volume recently published in France, of all places. Le Livre Noir de Saddam Hussein (The Black Book of Saddam Hussein) is a robust denunciation of Saddam's regime that does not fall into the trap of viewing everything in Iraq through a US-centric prism. The writers - Arabs, Americans, Germans, French and Iranian - have produced the most comprehensive work to date on the former Iraqi president's war crimes, assembling a mass of evidence that makes the anti-intervention arguments redundant.
"The first weapon of mass destruction was Saddam Hussein," writes Bernard Kouchner, who has been observing atrocities in Iraq since he led the first Medecins Sans Frontieres mission there in 1974. "Preserving the memory of the arbitrary arrests that Saddam's police conducted every morning, the horrible and humiliating torture, the organised rapes, the arbitrary executions and the prisons full of innocent people is not just a duty. Without that one cannot understand either what Saddam's dictatorship was or the urgent necessity to remove him."
The obsession of many journalists and commentators with the fruitless hunt for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons has meant much of the evidence of Saddam's atrocities in liberated Iraq has been under-reported. Sinje Caren Stoyke, a German archeologist and president of Archeologists for Human Rights, catalogues 288 mass graves, a list that is already out of date with the discovery of fresh sites every week.
"There is no secret about these mass graves," Stoyke writes. "Military convoys crossed towns, full of civilian prisoners, and returned empty. People living near execution sites heard the cries of men, women and children. They heard shots followed by silence."
Stoyke estimates one million people are missing in Iraq, presumed dead, leaving families with the dreadful task of finding and identifying the remains of their loved ones.
Abdullah Mohammed Hussein was a soldier fighting in the mountains when Iraqi troops took the Kurdish village of Sedar and deported three-quarters of the inhabitants, including his mother, his wife and their seven children. They were taken to a concentration camp at Topzawa and from there some were taken to an execution ground near the archeological site of Hatra, south of Mosul. The remains of 192 people have been found, 123 women and children and 69 men, among them Abdullah's wife and three of their children. There is no trace of his mother and the other four children. They were victims of the genocidal Anfal campaign, which sought to exterminate the Kurds.
Between February and September 1988, 100,000 to 180,000 Kurds died or disappeared. The bombing of the Kurdish village of Halabja with chemical weapons including mustard gas, tabun, sarin and VX on March 16, 1988, which killed 3000 to 5000 civilians, was the most publicised of these atrocities because it occurred near the Iranian border and Iranian troops were able to penetrate with the assistance of Kurds, filming and photographing the victims.
Halabja was not an isolated case however. Saddam used chemical weapons at least 60 times against Kurdish villages during Anfal.
And Kurds were not the only victims of Saddam, who ordered the arrest of numerous Shi'ites. Saadoun Kassab, an engineer who helped build Abu Ghraib in 1957, a prison that was designed to hold 4000 prisoners, was later to be held there for a year. He told Chris Kutschera, the book's editor: "When I was imprisoned in Abu Ghraib in 1985, there were 48,500 prisoners. I was imprisoned for eight months in a space 1mx1.5m, a box. I was sometimes in there for a fortnight without going outside. I wanted to be interrogated to get outside, to see daylight and human beings.
All that because I said hello to Saad Saleh Jaber [son of a former Shi'ite prime minister from the time of the monarchy]. I saw people die."
Abdoul Hadi al-Hakim, a Shi'ite, was arrested with 90 members of his family on May 10, 1983, and was detained for eight years without being charged or tried. The youngest Hakim detained was only 14. His father and two brothers, together with 13 other relatives, were executed within the first weeks of detention. He and the rest were held in Abu Ghraib, 22 in a cell that measured 4mx6m. There was no running water and a hole in the corner served as a toilet. Recounting his detention in the book, Abdoul al-Hakim says: "The worst moments? It was all terrible, but the worst was the fear of being executed. Each time we heard the lock turn we were silent; it could be the moment to leave, for me, for another. I am angry with those who mix the crimes of the Americans with those of Saddam when they are not comparable."
The repression of the Shi'ites included the forced deportation of Iraqi Shi'ites into Iran, which started when the Baathists seized power. At least 40,000 were deported in a first wave in 1969-71 and a second wave of at least 60,000 were deported nine years later. Deportations continued throughout the 1980s. At the time of the fall of Saddam, 200,000 Iraqis were living in Iran, one-quarter Kurds and three-quarters Arab Shi'ites. Of these exiles, 50,000 were living in refugee camps in great poverty.
The extermination of the Marsh Arabs, an ancient population that had been living in the marshlands of Mesopotamia, took place between 1991 and 2003. Of a population of 400,000 Arabs living in the marshes of southern Iraq 30 years ago, there are today only 83,000; 11,000 fled to Baghdad and are living there in great poverty and 80,000 have fled to Iran. Thousands were murdered by Iraqi soldiers and the marshes were drained, bringing famine and illness to those that remained.
The brutal repression of the Shi'ite uprising after the 1991 Gulf War resulted in another 300,000 deaths, most of them civilians.
In Saddam's Iraq no one, not even the dictator's closest relatives and collaborators, was safe. Tariq Ali Saleh, a former Iraqi judge and the president of the Iraqi Jurists Association, writes that during the reign of the Baath party from 1968 to 2003, the security services arrested and imprisoned people without charging them, with no access to a lawyer or contact with their family. Everyone was targeted, including women and children. Torture was systematically used to secure confessions including beating, burning, ripping out finger nails, rape, electric shocks, acid baths and deprivation of sleep, food or water.
Then there were the victims of Saddam's three devastating wars. It is estimated that more than one million people in both countries died during the Iran-Iraq conflict which has been compared by Kutschera to World WarI with its trench warfare and colossal loss of human life. The enormous cost of the Iran-Iraq war inspired Saddam to invade Kuwait to seize its assets and Saddam's refusal to comply with the UN resolutions obliging him to disarm finally led to Iraq's invasion and his downfall.
For Kouchner, these murders need to be set out one by one, in all their horror, describing their nature and affirming that which is too often forgotten: Saddam was one of the worst tyrants in history and it was urgent to rid the Iraqi people of him.
Kouchner, who was France's health minister until he was picked by UN secretary-general Kofi Annan as his special representative for Kosovo, had hoped that a united international community might be able to bring down Saddam in the way that resolute action by the international community liberated that country. He felt bitterly ashamed when the French veto in the Security Council divided the international community and made it impossible to bring about a united front to bring down the dictator. "Was there a worse way of duping those who hoped for so much from us?" he writes.
It seems surprising that such a robust denunciation of Saddam should come from France and even more so that many of the contributors of this scholarly work would be considered to be left of centre.
While Australian anti-war protesters have lauded France's obdurate opposition to the war, Le Livre Noir de Saddam Hussein charts the sorry history of France's slavish support for Saddam, from Right and Left, for 30 years, a relationship that was fundamentally based on the trade of Iraqi oil for French missiles, fighter jets and nuclear technology.
French President Jacques Chirac's friendship with Saddam goes back to the '70s when he was prime minister under president Valery Giscard d'Estaing. When Saddam came to France, he spent a private weekend with Chirac in Provence, and on another visit Chirac went to the airport to meet his "personal friend" for whom he felt respect and affection.
The only rupture in this idyll was the invasion of Kuwait, when France joined the UN coalition to restore Kuwaiti sovereignty. But in the 15 years after the Iran-Iraq war, France worked energetically to lift sanctions and normalise relations with Iraq and with Saddam to restore a lucrative trading partner.
Determined to keep Saddam in power, the French never once denounced the dictator. Yet far from preventing war, the French veto in the Security Council facilitated it. In the absence of a UN resolution authorising force against Saddam, the only possibility was a US-led coalition.
The French, like all those who opposed the war, have implicitly or explicitly argued that although Saddam had his unsavoury side, he was no worse than the leaders in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria and Egypt, or farther afield in Zimbabwe, Burma, North Korea and China.
For the French and for many opponents of the war, the argument proffered was that without Saddam there would be chaos in Iraq. One French diplomat is cited as saying: "The opposition doesn't exist. The situation in Iraq won't change for a certain amount of time. If Saddam Hussein disappears, it's the regime that will be swept away and there will be federal anarchy."
People who took this view feel vindicated by every setback the new regime in Iraq confronts and the attacks of suicide bombers.
Far from glossing over the difficulties in rebuilding Iraq, the book documents the extent to which this was inevitable after 35 years of a brutal dictatorship in which Saddam ruthlessly eliminated civil structures, political opponents and those within his party he viewed as a threat.
The repressive system put in place by Saddam was impregnable from within. There was no democratic solution to Saddam's dictatorship: no popular movement, no insurrection could have overthrown him, as the Kurds and Shi'ites found out through bloody experience.
"The American war was perhaps not a good solution for getting rid of the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. But, as this book shows, after 35 years of a dictatorship of exceptional violence, which has destroyed Iraqi civil society and created millions of victims, there wasn't a good solution," Kutschera writes.
Saddam and seven co-defendants are charged with ordering the killing of more than 140 people from the mainly Shi'ite Muslim town of Dujail, north of Baghdad, after an attempt on Saddam's life there in 1982.
Rebecca Weisser is a former Australian diplomat and specialist in Francophone affairs.
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