In the eyes of many Arabs, Saddam Hussein, the former dictator of Iraq, was a true leader who stood up to Western imperialism, the Israeli occupation of Palestine and foreign intervention in the region.
But for most Iraqis, Saddam was a tyrant whose 25-year reign from 1979 to 2003 was marked by brutal authoritarianism, repression and injustices, especially among the country’s Shia and Kurdish communities.
Twenty years after the 2003 United States-led invasion of Iraq which, in former US President George W Bush’s words, aimed to “free Iraqi people” of their ruler’s oppression, Saddam’s memory remains divisive and polarising. But to many, the economic and political chaos unleashed by the invasion lionised Saddam and his legacy more than ever.
“Saddam embodied the image of the strongman who stood up to the US, Israel, and Iran – all the traditional ‘baddies’ in the [regional] narrative,” said Fanar Haddad, an expert on Iraq and assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen.
“This narrative deepened after the 2003 invasion as a way to be against the occupation and order that emerged. The fetishisation of Saddam was a backlash against what happened,” he told Al Jazeera.
The Palestinian cause
Before Saddam came to power in 1979, the Baath regime he was part of espoused anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist rhetoric, called for the unification of Arab countries, and nationalised Iraqi oil by taking over foreign-held shares in the early 1970s.
It also brandished the foreign policy of a regional power as it tried to diversify Iraq’s economy and develop its educational system, infrastructure and social services.
In 1969, the Iraqi-led Baath party founded the Arab Liberation Front, a small Palestinian political party that came to be headed by Saddam and join the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The party espoused a pan-Arab ideology which believed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not a particularly Palestinian issue, but rather an Arab one that Iraq must fight for.
When Saddam became president, it was not a surprise that many Arabs supported the persona he portrayed as their defender and, especially, a champion of the Palestinian cause.
In the early hours of January 18, 1991, Saddam launched several Scud missiles towards Israel – a defining moment for Saddam’s image. The Iraqi attacks, three of which landed in Tel Aviv, came a day after Bush unleashed an assault on Baghdad over its invasion of Kuwait.
“Saddam stood up for us when no Arab leader did,” said Manal Mustafa from Jerusalem, referring to the attacks. The 72-year-old said she would always remember him for that.
Saddam also provided thousands of Palestinians refuge in Iraq and gave them equal rights to Iraqi citizens at a time when Palestinian refugees in other Arab countries lived in dilapidated refugee camps and had limited access to employment, healthcare and education. With a special status, Palestinians in Saddam’s Iraq were eligible for state jobs, free education and state housing.
Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, Tunisian journalist Hadhami Khraief saw Saddam’s powerful speeches in defence of Palestinian and Arab rights as an “outlet” to the frustrations of her generation towards what she described as the impotence of Arab leaders against Western interventions.
“We weren’t concerned about how he governed Iraq,” said Khraief. “We were united by the common cause of Palestine. When Saddam declared his country’s full support of Palestinians, we considered him a voice for us,” she added.
Arab ‘strongman’ and Gulf wars
According to independent political analyst Mamoon Alabbasi, the first Gulf War, between Iraq and Iran, further boosted Saddam’s regional popularity, making him stand out for “fighting foreign intervention” by Iran while other Arab leaders were seen as “stooges installed by Western powers”.
“Had it not been for his disastrous decision to invade Kuwait, Saddam Hussein would have remained a national hero in the eyes of most Arabs,” retired Iraqi Brigadier General Sobhi Tawfiq told Al Jazeera. “And Iraq would have been spared the devastation and poverty that ensued from the inhumane [UN] sanctions and blockade.”
A UN-imposed embargo on Iraq in response to Baghdad’s invasion of Kuwait left Iraqis hungry and unable to access medicine and other basic needs. But while Iraqis suffered under the siege, Saddam’s refusal to back down glorified him in the eyes of Arabs.
Furthermore, the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Saddam’s execution in 2006 on the day of Eid al-Adha, the country’s subsequent multi-layered decline, and the outbreak of sectarian violence, political instability and rampant corruption under American occupation erased many wrongs committed by the Iraqi dictator from Arab memory.
“Contrary to what his opponents sought, the invasion of Iraq was a watershed moment that kept Saddam’s legacy alive. It revealed how much he’d stood up to the arrogance of the West,” said Khraief. “The day of his execution left us with great pain,” she added.
US claims of Iraqi WMDs to justify the war on Baghdad were disqualified, but the invasion left a trail of destruction in the region that eventually gave rise to the ISIL (ISIS) armed group.
Iraqi hate mixed with nostalgia
While many Arabs supported Saddam before and after the US-led invasion of Iraq, Iraqis mostly continued to despise him for his brutal authoritarianism which isolated Iraqi society.
“Most Iraqis still look at him as a dictator and tyrant who destroyed and impoverished Iraq, wasted its economic potential and human resources, and caused it to fall backwards for decades,” said Iraqi writer Saman Nouh.
Farris Harram, an Iraqi academic and former president of the Writers’ Union in Najaf, told Al Jazeera that while Saddam had a sectarian approach, “oppressing Shia and Kurds in a concentrated manner, he was criminal and unjust to all”.
Alabbasi agreed: “Before the invasion, most Iraqis feared Saddam. It didn’t matter whether they were Arab or Kurd, Sunni, or Shia, you hated him.”
Saddam’s most renowned atrocities against his people included killing thousands of Kurds and Shia as he suppressed uprisings in the north and south during the 1990s.
The 1980s Anfal military offensive destroyed hundreds of villages and killed at least 100,000 Kurds, mostly civilians, with some estimates suggesting 180,000 people died. During that campaign, Saddam ordered a chemical attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja, killing 5,000 people – mostly women and children – on March 16, 1988.
In 1982, Saddam allegedly ordered the killing of 148 people in the Shia village of Dujail over an assassination attempt against him during a visit.
He was later tried by an Iraqi court and hanged for the Dujail killings, after which charges against him in the Anfal Trial were dropped and the trial proceeded without him.
Although many Iraqis supported their country during the first Gulf War, the implications of the eight-year-long war came at a massive human and economic cost that left many questioning whether it was justified.
“Many Iraqis believed that Saddam Hussein was the one who initiated the war with Iran,” said Tawfiq, who rose to the rank of brigadier general in the Iraqi military during the first Gulf War before retiring in 1988.
“The loss of tens of thousands of young Iraqis [during the war] and the injury of multiples more, was reason for many Iraqis to hate Saddam,” explained Tawfiq.
For US-based Iraqi journalist Riyadh Mohammed, Saddam was not only to blame for the start of the war with Iran, but he was also the reason behind “all of Iraq’s suffering”. He sent thousands of Iraqi men to their death, created an atmosphere of fear and poverty, and sowed the first seeds of sectarianism, said Mohammed.
“That’s why Arabs’ love for Saddam offends us. They [Arabs] don’t know what Saddam did to us,” explained Mohammed, adding that he was “very happy” to see Saddam’s statue toppled in Baghdad’s Firdos Square on April 9, 2003, in a move that made worldwide headlines and came to be a symbol of Western victory in Iraq.
But 20 years on from that day, many Iraqis now feel nostalgic “about a time when Iraq was strong and respected”, said Tawfiq.
“Iraq under Saddam had global influence, a developed economy, strong dinar [local currency], welfare, housing, health, education, bridges, roads, dams, airports, self-sufficiency and a respected passport,” said Tawfiq. “Iraqis remember that and wish to go back.”
Harram agreed: “Some Iraqis now view Saddam as having preserved the state’s sovereignty. They say his corruption and violations were less compared to what we suffered under the post-2003 regime.”