In the spring of 1991- with the regime of Saddam Hussein reeling from it’s catastrophic defeat at the hands of the United States in Kuwait and a rebellion in both the North and South of Iraq- Kurdish officials met with Saddam’s cousin, Ali Hasan al-Majeed, to try to negotiate autonomy for the Kurdish regions of Northern Iraq. It was a tense meeting because, to the Kurds, al-Majeed was no ordinary regime official. Four years earlier al-Majeed became the regime’s enforcer for Northern Iraq and launched the Anfal campaign, the massive use of chemical weapons against the Kurds. When confronted with these crimes and accused of killing 182,000 people in the Anfal, “Chemical Ali” al-Majeed came to his feet and shouted, “What is this exaggerated figure of 182,000? It couldn’t have been more than 100,000!”
Stories like this abound from the era of Saddam and this story comes from Kanan Makiya. Makiya has collected videos showing Saddam’s henchmen beheading prisoners, experimenting with different types of execution styles using hand grenades, throwing prisoners off buildings, and a procedure in which a prisoner’s hand is amputated and his forehead marked. There is also footage of fingers being severed and tongues being cut out. The videos were shown on Iraqi television and can now be found on the internet (WARNING: They are extremely graphic.). Recognized as the “Iraqi Solzhenitsyn,” Makiya is dedicated to keeping the cruelty of Saddam’s regime from being forgotten.
Looking at Makiya’s task objectively, it hardly seems controversial. Taking the Anfal campaign as an example, it should be noted that it occured from 1987-1988. Yet, in that short time, Saddam killed as many or more Iraqis than were killed in the entirety of the 2003-2011 war in Iraq- the cost of which was “a hundred thousand dead Iraqis, more than four thousand Americans killed, and a bill for a trillion dollars,” according to the New Yorker‘s Dexter Filkins.
Yet the fact that Iraq was liberated by the United States, and particularly by the administration of George W. Bush, drives people to try to erase or minimize the horror of Saddam’s regime. A good example is a 2016 interview with the former regime official Muzhir Numan Al-Duri. When the interviewer mentioned the massacres committed by Saddam, the following exchange happened:
Al-Duri: Where? Where? Against whom?
Interviewer: Against the Kurds! There was ethnic cleansing of the Kurds!
Al-Duri: And the sectarian massacres since 2006- what should we call them?
Interviewer: Look, Halabja, the Al-Anfal campaign, the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds- all these are crimes. Many mass graves have been uncovered.
Al-Duri: Madam, go see the mass graves that are being found now.
Interviewer: Go see the million and a half people who were massacred (by Saddam)
Far more troubling, is that comments like Al-Duri’s, which show complete disregard for the horrors of totalitarianism, are not restricted to disgruntled old Saddam loyalists. For all the opposition he faces, Makiya is ceaselessly polite and soft-spoken. At one event, however, his patience ran out when a student denounced the United States as the equivalent of Saddam Hussein and expressed her desire that Makiya be tried as a war criminal. His response was as follows:
“It is a terrible, terrible thing that the left- from which I come, from which my whole history comes- parts of the left, out of an antipathy to the person of George Bush or whatever the complex reason, but always it’s a reason that has nothing to do with the people of Iraq, and always it’s a reason against them- that act against them- takes a position objectively of supporting fascism. When that happens, you know that the defeat, the various defeats that have happened to the American left, to the Democratic center over the years have really gone home. You know something truly rotten has taken place. This is deeply sad. I say this of my own tradition, of where I come from, my own friends, formally.
When you cannot tell the difference any longer – the way you can’t – between a fascist and a non-fascist – however unlikable and awful in other ways this person may be, however mistaken their policies may be, however erroneous their particular tactics were, whatever – then you no longer are able to think. Then you are truly entering a dangerous world. A purely ideological world. And I just urge you to think about that.”
The late Arab intellectual Fouad Ajami supported the liberation of Iraq, and was unapologetic about it for the rest of his days. When his fellow Arabs would challenge him, he would recall “the massacres and tragedies” of Saddam’s regime, and tell them, “You know that if George Bush had not come along, you would have moved from the rule of Saddam Hussein to the rule of his son Qusay, and then to the rule of his grandson Mustafa. The Ba’th Party would have ruled for a thousand of years.”
Ayad Allawi, Iraq’s first post-liberation prime minister said, “We Iraqis are grateful to you, America, for your leadership and your sacrifice for our liberation and our opportunity to start anew.” The cost in blood was high, but tens of millions of Iraqis now have something they did not have 15 years ago: hope for a better tomorrow.
God Bless our Troops. God Bless America.