NYTimes.com Article: Last Days of a Brutal Reign
khare at alumni.caltech.edu
khare at alumni.caltech.edu
Tue Apr 22 05:13:46 PDT 2003
This article from NYTimes.com
has been sent to you by khare at alumni.caltech.edu.
not with a bang, but with a whimper... so pathetic. And yet, caught in typically immediate detail by Mr. Burns...
khare at alumni.caltech.edu
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Last Days of a Brutal Reign
April 20, 2003
By JOHN F. BURNS
BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 19 - On the gilded marble tablets
posted at the gateways of a score of presidential palaces,
it was known as "The Era of Saddam Hussein."
Yet in the 26 days of American warfare it took to bring
that era down, the hallmark of Mr. Hussein's rule was
revealed not as one of grandeur, but of gangsterism and
thuggery. On the pediments of his palaces, Mr. Hussein
mounted 30-foot bronze busts of himself as Saladin, the
Mesopotamian warrior who conquered Jerusalem with his
Islamic army in the 12th century. But Mr. Hussein's legacy,
revealed with merciless clarity in his last, desperate
weeks in power and in the looting of those palaces that
followed, was not one of historical accomplishment, as he
claimed, but a chronicle of terror, greed and delusion writ
In effect, Mr. Hussein and his entourage inverted what was
said of the dying dignity of a 17th-century English king,
that nothing so became him in life as the leaving of it. Of
Mr. Hussein, who may yet be alive, perhaps hiding somewhere
in Baghdad with the last of his loyalists, a truer epitaph
would record that nothing characterized the way he ruled
Iraq, for nearly 24 years, so much as the bullying,
mendacious and cowardly way in which he and his associates
behaved as their power collapsed.
In the end, some of the closest witnesses to those last
days were 150 Western reporters, photographers and
broadcast technicians who were sequestered throughout the
war in the Palestine and Sheraton hotels on the eastern
bank of the Tigris River in the heart of Baghdad, and taken
from there by Iraqi officials on closely guided tours of
>From the hotels' upper floors, they had a panoramic view
across the muddy-green river to the government quarter, and
the palaces, ministries and security headquarters that
symbolized Mr. Hussein's grip on power.
The reporters had a grandstand seat as American bombs and
cruise missiles pulverized Mr. Hussein's heavily guarded
compounds, encompassing whole districts of Baghdad, where
he and his family enjoyed the gilded privileges of ancient
caliphs. In the war's closing stages, the hotels' balconies
gave an unimpeded view as American tanks blasted their way
from their first foothold in Baghdad, the former Saddam
International Airport, into the Republican Palace
presidential compound that was the White House of Mr.
But what the reporters saw was more than the power of
America's arsenal, and the inability, for all their boasts
about America finding the graveyard of its imperial
ambition in Iraq, of Mr. Hussein and his cronies to mount
more than a delaying action on the road to their downfall.
Mr. Hussein himself remained - remains, if still alive -
the furtive, vainglorious figure he ever was, proclaiming
from secret sanctuaries his solidarity with his people in
their hour of trial, the certain defeat of the enemy, and
his unshakable belief in Iraq.
But there were no Churchillian scenes of Mr. Hussein
visiting the wounded, or clambering atop rubble left by
airstrikes. Instead, the 65-year-old Iraqi leader appeared
on television, until cruise missiles knocked it off the
air, in videotapes recorded from a small, low-ceilinged
room, white sheet against the wall, like a leader of an
underground group taunting those hunting him down. Twice in
the last days before American troops seized Baghdad, Iraqi
television showed him on the streets, surrounded, as ever,
by adoring crowds - the leader revered by his people, but
doing nothing, at least nothing that was visible, to help
Even at the last, Mr. Hussein's priority was only himself.
In the late afternoon of Wednesday, April 9, Marine Corps
tanks entered eastern Baghdad from the south and took
control of the district by the river that encompasses the
Palestine and Sheraton hotels. Within three hours, after
attempts by Iraqi men with sledgehammers and ropes had
failed, the marines brought up an M-80 recovery tank with a
long boom to assist in hauling down a 30-foot cast-iron
statue of Mr. Hussein in Firdos Square, behind the hotels.
If any one moment marked the end of Mr. Hussein's rule, it
was the sight of the statue's legs cracking, its torso
tumbling, and the severed head and body being pelted with
garbage and shoes - the ultimate Arab insult - by the
hundreds of Iraqis who had gathered to celebrate their
To be in the square at that moment was to know, beyond
doubt, that Iraqis in their millions hated Mr. Hussein,
that the truth about Iraq was the diametric opposite of all
that he and his acolytes had maintained, and that all else
that was said about him in the years that went before was
the product of relentless terror.
"Good, good, Bush!" the crowds chanted. "Down, down,
Saddam!" Men and women wept, and reached out to shake the
hands of the marines, or simply touch their uniforms.
"Thank you, mister!" they cried, again and again. Hours
later, the crowds still milled about the fallen idol,
spitting and mocking.
Yet during the whole sequence, it now appears, Mr. Hussein
was barely five miles farther north in the district of
Adhamiya, one of the last safe strongholds for him in
Baghdad, in the neighborhood of Al Safina beside the Abu
Almost all who live there are, like Mr. Hussein, Sunni
Muslims, in a country with a 60 percent Shiite Muslim
majority. Adhamiya has been, for 50 years, a bastion of the
Baath Party, whose coattails Mr. Hussein rode to power.
Witnesses' accounts in the days that followed, and a
videotape released by Abu Dhabi television on Friday,
showed Mr. Hussein atop his car before the mosque, slapping
supporters' hands, pumping his arm, as always, in the
gesture of an emperor acknowledging his subjects' fealty.
Residents of Adhamiya, and old associates of Mr. Hussein
from the 1950's, said they had heard that he went from the
mosque to a simple house, probably the one from which he
made his broadcasts earlier in the war against a background
of a white sheet, and stayed there, with his closest
companions, until sometime early on April 10.
Then, just ahead of American airstrikes and advancing
American ground troops who stormed the mosque, he slipped
away, so one old Baath Party member said, without telling
many of the men who had guarded and accompanied him
throughout the war. Several of these, local residents said,
died in the American attacks that followed.
Delusions of Dominance
Apparently convinced that he could
use the Western news media to foment protests against the
American attacks, and to save himself by forcing President
Bush to call a standstill before American troops overran
Baghdad, Mr. Hussein sent his inner coterie out to hold
These became forums for illusion of an almost comical cast,
and, in the language used by many top officials, who spoke
of Mr. Bush as a "mad dog" and "garbage" and "a stupid,
ignorant man," for a street-corner vulgarity that made for
a stark contrast with the officials' frequent invocation of
the "Arab and Islamic civilization" they claimed to
Almost all of these high officials seemed divorced from the
reality that was known to the simplest Iraqi with access to
a shortwave radio or to neighborhood gossip - that Iraqi
troops were falling back almost everywhere, and that the
Americans would be at the gates of Baghdad in a matter of
Listening to these officials, it was as though they had
been immersed so long in a parallel world where truth was
routinely walled out that, even now, they could not grasp
the facts about to overwhelm them.
As members of the Revolutionary Command Council and the
Council of Ministers made their way to the microphones,
none of them appeared to have the courage, or even the
instinct, to say anything that might earn them the
opprobrium of Mr. Hussein, and, perhaps, the cruel
punishment - commonly, execution - meted out to anyone who
remotely challenged the Iraqi leader.
In this, the men of the leadership were ultimately the
prisoners of the repressive political system they had
helped to create.
Day after day, a Westerner waited in vain for any sense
that their vision of Iraq and its future extended beyond
the personality of Mr. Hussein and his family, particularly
his sons, Uday and Qusay. The Iraqi people, incessantly
invoked, appeared in this tableau to have little
significance. It was as if Mr. Hussein's cult of
personality - the portraits and the statues, the parades,
the hagiographic books and songs, the tapes of the leader
being cheered by his people - had become, at the end,
synonymous with Iraq; as if a country with a history of
civilization dating back nearly 7,000 years had been
reduced to no more than a cardboard backdrop for Mr.
The apotheosis came with the appearance, a few days into
the war, of the interior minister, Muhammad Diab al-Ahmed.
His job established him as one of the more sinister figures
in the regime, responsible for many of its detention
centers and prisons, and thus for many of the outrages now
open to investigation.
With a worldwide television audience, Mr. Ahmed might have
been expected to favor a style that was at least somewhat
benign. Instead, he showed up waving a Kalashnikov rifle
ominously in the direction of the reporters, his finger
rarely off the trigger. In his combat vest, he carried four
magazines of bullets; at his belt, a hunting knife.
His message? That he was ready to fight for Iraq, for its
independence, for its long history of resisting foreign
invaders? No. "If you are asking me why I am here with my
machine gun," he said, "it is to show that the Iraqi people
are committed to fighting to the last, that we are ready to
sacrifice ourselves; I myself have an 18-year-old son, and
he, too, stands ready to die, like me, for President Saddam
Hussein and his family."
Days later, a man who had left the Baath Party many years
ago, Wamidh Ladhmi, a professor of political science at the
University of Baghdad, said that watching Mr. Ahmed that
day was, for him, the final nail in the political coffin of
Mr. Hussein. "On that day, we saw what it had all come down
to - nothing to do with Iraq, nothing to do with the
people, only the cult of the leader, and of his two
miserable sons," he said. "We knew then that the entire
system was bankrupt, that there was nothing that in any way
could save it."
Much the most frequent of the visitors to the Palestine
Hotel was the information minister, Muhammad Said
al-Sahhaf, whose performances were so far removed from
reality that reporters flocked to see if he could top his
own extravagant inventions with yet more fantastical
accounts of Iraqi battlefield triumphs. The more dire the
situation facing the Iraqi forces, the more triumphalist
Mr. Sahhaf became.
Even when the combat moved into the Iraqi capital, and
could be seen from the Palestine Hotel, the minister, in
battle dress and beret, stuck to his rose-tinted versions,
giving a spectacular new dimension to the spin doctor's
art. To reporters who suggested that his accounts were at
odds with known American successes, his answer, in effect,
was that they were hallucinating.
By the early morning of April 7, American tanks could be
seen parked on the Tigris embankment two-thirds of a mile
away, with American infantrymen firing at fleeing Iraqi
fighters dressed only in boxer shorts who plunged into the
river and swam away upstream. Mr. Sahhaf hastened to the
hotel to renew his assurances that American troops were
everywhere in headlong flight, and that those who had
seized the airport on Friday, April 4, had been driven out.
The following day, acknowledging that Americans were indeed
at the airport, he offered a new spin. "I can say, and I am
responsible for what I am saying, that they have started to
commit suicide under the walls of Baghdad."
By the time American tanks were in plain view from where he
spoke to reporters, he had resorted to a sort of magician's
art, of now you see it, now you don't. "I am here to inform
you that you are too far from reality," he said.
But perhaps the most revealing of his statements had to do
with truth, a commodity always in short supply under Mr.
Hussein. At the Information Ministry, destroyed by American
cruise missiles about halfway through the war, the most
mendacious and corrupt officials were often the ones most
intent on offering lectures about truth. Come the war, and
Mr. Sahhaf was the unquestioned champion. "Lying is
forbidden in Iraq," he said at one news conference.
"President Saddam Hussein will tolerate nothing but
truthfulness, as he is a man of great honor and integrity."
Mr. Sahhaf, like most top government officials, disappeared
on the day American troops closed in on the Palestine
hotel. Along with his burnished, almost cherubic optimism,
there was much about him that was chilling. One theory was
that, as an information minister in a totalitarian regime,
his job, by definition, was always to construct alternate
versions of the truth.
In this view, the moment when the whole edifice of power
was crumbling presented him with his greatest challenge -
the opportunity to tell the biggest lies of all. Doing this
before a television audience of millions, he radiated the
satisfaction of a performer who had finally made the big
time, a small-time vaudevillian who found himself, for a
brief season, on a global stage, with an immediate audience
of western reporters who - captive as any audience as could
be - were not disposed to challenge him too abruptly on his
excursions from the truth.
Could Hussein Really Vanish?
Ordinary Iraqis, in the main, never had the difficulty of
distinguishing fact from fiction that became a hallmark of
their rulers. For all the secrecy of the regime, for all
the cruel punishments Mr. Hussein and his security agencies
inflicted, anybody who spent a few weeks or months in Iraq
in recent years understood that here, as in the former
Soviet Union, China and other countries subjected to
totalitarian repression, the truth about the horrors of the
system lay just beneath the surface. Getting to know any
Iraqi enough to establish a basis for trust meant that some
of this truth would eventually begin seeping out.
>From this, many Westerners who knew Iraq assumed that
American forces, once the war began, would be helped by
local uprisings, or at least by mass defections from the
Iraqi forces, and that this would help bring a speedy
King Abdullah II of Jordan, who came to Iraq as a young man
with his father, King Hussein, told a group of American
reporters a few weeks before the war began that the
conflict could be over in seven days. In the end, it took
nearly four times that long, and American troops, at almost
every step of their 350-mile drive from Kuwait, met
resistance from Hussein loyalists, and reluctance to assist
on the part of Shiites who felt betrayed by the lack of
American support for their uprising in 1991.
Partly, the explanation for the stronger-than expected
Iraqi defenses lay in Mr. Hussein's decision to rely on
paramilitary formations largely recruited from the families
of regime hard-liners. Meeting reporters, Iraqi political
and military leaders made only passing reference to the
Iraqi Army, and not much to the supposed crack troops, the
Republican Guard. Even the defense minister, Sultan Hashem
Ahmed, spoke of Iraqi defenses being led by the Fedayeen
Saddam, the militias of the Baath Party, tribal units and
The Iraqi leaders' judgment seemed to be that when the
critical moment came, the army and Republican Guard would
surrender or desert. Indeed, on April 9, the day that most
of Baghdad fell to the Americans, the highways into the
capital from the south were littered with abandoned
Republican Guard tanks and artillery guns, along with
camouflage uniforms and combat boots hastily abandoned
along the roads.
But of popular resistance to Mr. Hussein, until the end,
there was virtually no sign. Reporters taken out to see
American bombing targets found crowds gathered beside
blasted telephone exchanges, in neighborhoods where
bunker-busting bombs had left 60-foot craters, and at two
marketplaces where dozens of civilians died. At a
marketplace in the western Shuala district of Baghdad,
where officials said 62 people were killed, many of them
women and children, there were signs that the weapon might
have been an Iraqi antiaircraft missile gone astray, or an
American missile lured by placing an Iraqi air defense
In these places, there was genuine anger against the
Americans who inflicted casualties, even if at least some
of the ire was orchestrated by Baath Party officials who
organized chants of "Saddam, Saddam!" Moving among the
crowds, almost no ordinary Iraqis, unless prompted by
direct questioning about Mr. Hussein, had anything to say
about him. And among those who did, there was barely a
whisper of dissent. Fear of retribution remained pervasive.
The change came on April 9, and it was a tidal wave. That
morning, reporters left the Palestine Hotel for the eastern
suburbs, where Marine units had been reported on the move
overnight. At the Canal Expressway, they found themselves
staring at the barrel of an M1/A1 Abrams tank. Marines
dismounting from the tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles
moved quickly into abandoned Iraqi bunkers. Told there were
no Iraqi military units anywhere between them and the city
center, they relaxed. "Love it!" said Lt. Geoff Orazem, a
Marine company commander.
"Yes, love it! Love it! Love it!" replied youths streaming
past the tank.
What followed, with disastrous consequences for Baghdad's
museums and libraries, for some of its hospitals, and for
virtually all government ministries, was an orgy of
looting. For many Iraqis, this blunted, even eradicated,
much of the gratitude to the Americans. Especially among
the middle class, many of whom had found ways to live
comfortably under Mr. Hussein, the mood shifted.
"Tell Mr. Bush that he promised to liberate the Iraqi
people, but that this is no liberation," said Raid Abdul
Ridhar Muhammad, an archaeologist standing amid the
shattered, emptied showcases of the National Museum. "Tell
him, if we had stayed under the rule of Saddam Hussein, it
would have been much better."
But there were few misgivings in the ruins of Mr. Hussein's
bombed palaces, where those who arrived to plunder, by car,
on motorcycles, with handcarts and even with double-decker
buses, came from every walk of life. For them, picking out
a chair or a sofa from the rubble, or even a cut-crystal
ashtray, was not so much an act of lawless self enrichment
as a gesture of self assertion, a chance to strike back, a
moment to stand up after years of subjugation.
A woman who said she was a pharmacist paused for a moment
outside the Sajida Palace, named for Mr. Hussein's wife,
with her husband, an orthopedic surgeon, and their two
daughters. "I feel no shame," she said, gesturing to a few
bags filled with tokens from the palace. "We paid for these
things a hundred times over." She paused. "Not a hundred
times," she said. "A thousand times."
Just then, a middle-aged man passed by, and asked, like so
many Iraqis in recent days, for assurance that Mr. Hussein
was truly gone. "Hello mister," he said in broken English.
"Saddam not come another time? Saddam go, stay away? Tell
me, mister, please, Saddam gone?"
Secrets and Lies
A rigorous system for controlling and monitoring Western
journalists has been in place in Iraq for decades, based on
a wafer-thin facade of civility. As the strains of the war
mounted, that facade progressively slipped away, revealing
the realities of threat and extortion that Iraqis
confronted almost every day under Mr. Hussein.
Long before the war, many reporters had adjusted to the
pressures by seeking the approbation of the Information
Ministry officials who approved visas, assigned minders and
controlled special favors. Bribes were endemic, with some
officials demanding sums in the thousands of dollars for
visa approvals and extensions, or obtaining exemptions from
the AIDS tests required for any reporter remaining in
Baghdad for more than 10 days.
A tacit understanding, accepted by many visiting
journalists, was that there were aspects of Mr. Hussein's
Iraq that could be mentioned only obliquely. First among
these was the personality of Mr. Hussein himself, and the
fact that he was widely despised and feared by Iraqis,
something that was obvious to any visitor ready to listen
to the furtive whispers in which this hatred was commonly
The terror that was the most pervasive aspect of society
under Mr. Hussein was another topic that was largely taboo.
Every interview conducted by television reporters, and most
print journalists, was monitored; any Iraqi voicing an
opinion other than those approved by the state would be
vulnerable to arrest, torture and execution. But these were
facts rarely mentioned by many reporters.
Some reporters bought expensive gifts for senior ministry
officials, submitted copies of their stories to show they
were friendly to Iraq, or invited key officials like Uday
al-Ta'ee, director general of information, for dinners at
the expensive restaurants favored by Mr. Hussein's elite.
Mr. Ta'ee, in his early 50's, previously worked at the
Iraqi Embassy in Paris where, French intelligence officials
said, he ran a network of Iraqi agents in Western Europe.
Eventually, he was expelled from France, a subject that
still rankled years later.
Before the war, this reporter was already on a blacklist
Iraqi officials maintained for journalists considered
hostile to Iraq, mainly because of articles about the
system of terror that sustained the power of Mr. Hussein
that appeared from Baghdad in the closing months of last
For two months, in January and February, the Information
Ministry blocked my visa requests. Eventually, through
contacts in Amman, Jordan, I obtained a Foreign Ministry
visa that allowed me to enter Iraq to cover the "peace
movement," as represented by Western protesters then
gathering in Baghdad. The visa came without Information
On arrival in Baghdad, I sought a meeting with Mr. Ta'ee,
the Information Ministry director. After three days, he met
me in his office, and immediately referred to stories
printed in The New York Times in previous months that
chronicled the torture and killing in Iraq's jails. Mr.
Ta'ee's opening remarks were remarkable. "You have written
a great deal about killing in Iraq, and this is good," he
said. "This is a shame for Iraq. But now America will be
killing Iraqis. Will you write about that?" Assured that I
would, he shook my hand, and said I would be issued the
accreditation necessary to work in Iraq.
But other Information Ministry officials warned me that
this was a ruse, and that I would henceforth be "under the
control" of the intelligence agencies, not of the
Information Ministry. A senior intelligence agent, who gave
his name as Sa'ad Muthanna, was assigned as my minder. Mr.
Ta'ee distanced himself, calling out, often in the presence
of other Iraqi officials and Western reporters, what was
either a black joke or a threat. "Ah," he would say, "the
most dangerous man in Iraq!"
None of this made much practical difference until eight
days before the tanks of the Third Battalion of the First
Marine Expeditionary Force drove from southern Baghdad to
take control of the two hotels.
At midnight on April 1, without warning, a group of men led
by Mr. Muthanna, identifying themselves as intelligence
agents, broke into my room at the Palestine Hotel. The men,
in suits and ties, at least one with a holstered pistol
under his jacket, said they had known "for a long time"
that I was an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency,
that I was from that moment under arrest, and that a
failure to "cooperate" would lead to more serious
"For you, it will be the end," Mr. Muthanna said. "Where we
will take you, you will not return."
The men gathered up all the equipment belonging to me and
to Tyler Hicks, a staff photographer of The New York Times,
including four laptop computers, a satellite telephone, two
cameras and a printer, and then demanded money, taking
$6,000 from a plastic zip-lock bag. Then they left,
ordering me to remain in my room until "more senior"
intelligence men arrived.
>From that moment until the arrival of the American tanks, I
lived a clandestine existence, using darkened hotel
stairwells in place of elevators, sleeping and working in
other reporters' rooms.
The fact that the men never returned - and never broke into
other rooms where they must have known I was hiding -
suggested, in the end, that the break-in of April 1 was a
shakedown. Some missing equipment turned up later in a room
at the Palestine Hotel that had been abandoned by
intelligence agents. The rest, excepting the two cameras,
was returned by an Iraqi man with links to the mukhabarat,
the principal intelligence agency, who led me to his home
and handed the equipment over. The money remains missing.
To many Iraqis who heard of the experience, it was
unexceptional, save for the fact that I suffered no
physical harm. For years, Mr. Hussein's security agents had
been breaking into Iraqis' homes, arresting people at will,
and taking them away to the gulag of torture centers and
prisons. Some emerged weeks, months, or years later, many
of them disfigured, with eyes gouged out, hands and fingers
mangled. But tens of thousands never returned, dying under
torture, or being summarily executed.
The anguish of their families, lining up to wave
photographs and shout names at American troops guarding the
now abandoned interrogation centers and prisons, has been
among the most distressing scenes since the fall of Mr.
Hussein. For them, there is unlikely to be any of the
catharsis that came at the Palestine Hotel in the 12 hours
before the marines arrived.
Mr. Ta'ee, in the hours before midnight, toured the rooftop
positions of Western television networks, demanding
immediate cash payment, in dollars, of the exorbitant fees
imposed by the ministry on all Western journalists.
Offering no receipts, he gathered a hefty sum - estimated
by some of the networks to be in excess of $200,000 - then
One of his underlings, a Mr. Mohsen, the Information
Ministry's press center director, known for his lugubrious
manner, delayed his getaway until the following morning.
His ambitions were set on the property of a group of
Italian journalists who had driven into southern Iraq after
the war began without visas. They were arrested, brought to
Baghdad, and placed under guard in the Palestine Hotel,
with their vehicles and all their equipment confiscated,
along with the vehicles' keys.
Early on the morning of April 9, with the marines less than
three miles from the hotel, one of the Italians spotted Mr.
Mohsen loading booty into one of the confiscated vehicles.
Thinking quickly, the Italian used his penknife to slash
the vehicle's tires. Other Italian journalists described
Mr. Mohsen fleeing on foot, up the Tigris embankment to the
north, pursued by the men he hoped to rob. After a few
hundred yards, exhausted, he stopped, turned to face his
pursuers, and, as if to establish that he was done with Mr.
Hussein and all his works, reached into his pocket for his
Information Ministry identification card. After ripping it
to shreds, he set off again, to what fate nobody knows.
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