Guest Column: Saddam’s Hideous Crimes

I recently returned from a tour as a civilian in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I was surprised to find controversy still swirling through the press as to whether U.S. actions in overthrowing Saddam Hussein were morally justified. As important as this issue no doubt is, during the three months I lived and worked with Iraqis, other things preoccupied us—mainly, the still palpable presence of evil.

For me, that evil was symbolized by the one-story-tall bronze depictions of Saddam as Saladin that surmounted the Republican Palace in which we lived. Every morning I looked up to see these four giant heads with his pugnacious, minatory mug leering out over the landscape of Baghdad. It was an image as surreal as the brass inscription in the palace’s entrance hallway that commemorated Saddam’s 1991 “victory” over the United States. The reality of evil was more directly present in its effects on the lives of the regime’s victims. Two sources of that evil have now been removed with the elimination of Uday and Qusay Hussein, but the main weapon of mass destruction, Saddam, still remains at large. Saddam is supposed to have said that he wanted every Iraqi family to have a “story.” By this he meant that no family would be untouched by the terror and fear his regime instilled. My experience with Iraqis and the recent discoveries of mass graves in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq confirm that this is one objective the tyrant seems to have achieved.

Since he became vice president in 1969 until his overthrow more than five months ago, Saddam Hussein is credited with more than one million victims, not counting those lost in his senseless wars. In a nation of some 25 million, that is more than enough for every family to have a story. I listened to many stories. Iraqis tell them reluctantly. They pay a price when they do. They break down in tears when they try.

Some seem nonchalant at first. When I asked cameraman and TV director Farid Putres what happened during his nearly four years of imprisonment in the 1990s, he laughed, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “It was normal.” However, when the time came to tape his story for broadcast on the Iraqi Media Network’s radio program “At Last, I Speak,” he was barely able to get through it. The underground cells, the beatings, the sounds of executions at night were not “normal.” Another program featured Sheikh Hussein Al-Shami, who was sentenced to death but escaped in 1978. His wife and five brothers were imprisoned at that time, and he has had no word from them since. His 25-year-old son, Ali, has not seen his mother since he was six months old. The frightening thing about this story is that it, too, was typical.

Saddam was perversely intent on combining terror with humiliation, so the families of the victims had to live with both fear and shame. Families were routinely charged for the bullets used in the execution of a family member. Parents were made to watch the torture of their children. One father swore me to secrecy concerning his son’s genital mutilation. His son was strung up for days with a cord looped and tightened around his genitals. It left him impotent. Saddam’s use of rape, the filming of the rapes, and the delivery of the tapes to the families of the victims were a barometer of the depths of moral degradation to which he was willing to go to terrify and subjugate his people. General Najib Salehi, with whom I lived for two months, fled with his family from Iraq to Jordan. One day, he received a videocassette in the mail. Unwittingly, he put it in the player with his family watching in the living room. To his horror, it was a film of his niece being gang raped by the Mukhabarat—Saddam’s retaliation for the general’s defection.

Other films were surfacing in Baghdad as a result of the looting of jails. Saddam had torture and mutilation sessions filmed so that he could be sure his orders were carried out. The Iraqi Media Network obtained a tape of physicians cutting off the hands of merchants who were caught changing money after Saddam had decreed money-changing a state monopoly. Several died of the complications; others fled Iraq; a few survived in Baghdad. The general who supervised this crime is still at large.

It will take years to overcome the trauma of this evil. I first traveled to Baghdad with Hasan Al Alawi, the 70-year-old dean of Iraqi journalism. (I will never forget his reaction when he saw exhausted U.S. troops resting on the hot concrete in 110-degree temperatures: “This is what people must see, the sacrifices of these young men who came 6,000 miles to free my people.”) When Alawi fled Iraq some 25 years ago, the Mukhabarat called in his much younger sister. She was so frightened during the interrogation that she dropped dead of a heart attack. When Alawi returned to his sister’s house this May, his niece collapsed when she saw him and had to be treated. Alawi was so terribly distressed by this that he had to be hospitalized for an aggravated heart condition. From this chain of events, I clearly saw that these people have not stopped paying for Saddam’s crimes and will continue to pay well into the future.

The first step in recovery is to tell the truth about what happened and not to forget it. “At Last, I Speak” gives at least some of the survivors and families of victims a chance to tell the stories Saddam Hussein insisted they have. He could never have imagined that they would be told publicly, on a free Iraqi radio, to expose the extent of his hideous crimes. Those crimes more than morally justify what the United States and its coalition partners did in liberating Iraq. That is something not to forget as well.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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