Ten years ago Friday, at 6:00 a.m. Baghdad time, Saddam Hussein was led up a flight of stairs in his old Istikhbarat military intelligence headquarters in Baghdad’s Kadhimiyah district.
The site was rumored to have housed torture chambers where supposed “enemies of the state” had suffered during his rule. Masked executioners led the former president toward a large noose. He followed obediently, with no visible fear, refusing to wear a hood. As pro-Shiite shouts of “Muqtada, Muqtada, Muqtada” pierced the morbid stillness, cameras whirred and flashed, creating a spectral aura.
A voice shouted, “Go to hell.”
Saddam replied, “The hell that is Iraq?”
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Midway through his recitation of the shahada, the Islamic profession of faith, the floor dropped from under Saddam, an audible crack echoing inside the warehouselike structure as his neck was broken. Within a few minutes, he was dead.
In a statement shortly after the execution, President George W. Bush said that while the execution wouldn’t immediately end the sectarian violence already tearing apart Iraq, it would mark “an important milestone on Iraq’s course to becoming a democracy that can govern, sustain and defend itself, and be an ally in the war on terror.” Saddam’s death was supposed to give birth to a new era in Iraq and the region.
But the new era didn’t last five minutes. A cluster of Shiites wildly celebrated beside Saddam’s body, creating a sense of an undisciplined lynching rather than a clinical state-sponsored operation. Within hours, at least 75 people were killed in bombing attacks across the country, in what were likely Sunni retaliatory strikes targeting Shiites. The U.S. military, meanwhile, announced the deaths of six more U.S. troops, making that December the most violent month for U.S. service members in two years.
Billowing smoke now obscures the sunrise in towns across the Middle East 10 years after Saddam’s execution, and 13 years after Bush’s promise that “a free Iraq is going to be one that will have an amazingly positive effect on its neighborhood.” The neighborhood is a now a charnel house.
At the time of the execution, the Arab Spring had yet to ignite — and be mercilessly extinguished. Though Syria and Libya remained repressive dictatorships, relations with Libya were the best they had been in decades, with the Bush administration moving to restore full diplomatic relations with Moamar Gadhafi’s regime.
Egypt, too, appeared reliably stable, though critics of Hosni Mubarak remained unsatisfied by the scope or pace of the limited reforms he had agreed to. Always-volatile Yemen remained under the control of corrupt autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh, who famously referred to the challenge of holding the fractious country together as “dancing on the heads of snakes.” The embers of violence in Iraq, already beginning to burn brighter in sectarian bloodletting that was growing worse by the day, had not yet flared into a conflagration that would spread across the borders.
They soon would, though. The region’s dictatorships would prove to be a tinderbox that, once lighted, would consume the lives of more than 400,000 in Syria, thousands in Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and eventually between 200,000 and 500,000 in Iraq itself.
Millions would flee their homes, causing a humanitarian crisis for which the world was utterly unprepared. Within a few years, refugees would pose a threat to Europe’s social fabric, and a new terrorist organization named the Islamic State, even more lethal and barbaric than al-Qaida, would be born. With Iran’s Sunni foe Saddam eliminated, the Shiite theocracy became ascendant, exercising a powerful influence over the new Iraqi government, expanding its reach into Yemen as Houthi rebels took over the capital, and positioning itself to help push Bashar al-Assad to victory in Syria.
Who can forget Donald Rumsfeld’s pronouncement — delivered with the unwavering confidence that characterized his leadership — that the Iraq War might last “five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that”?
As it turns out, the current struggle to liberate Mosul — for the third time, this time from a terrorist organization, the Islamic State, that didn’t even exist when Saddam was killed — is now projected to last longer than Rumsfeld assured us the entire war would. Just this week, the first of 1,700 soldiers from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division hugged their loved ones goodbye before deploying to Iraq. The youngest were 5 years old when the United States launched the invasion to remove Saddam.
One wonders how anyone, most notably the war’s architects, can cling to the view that delivering Saddam to the gallows was worth the trillions of dollars spent, not to mention the 4,500 service members killed, the more than 30,000 wounded, or the hundreds of thousands of violent deaths across the region since his overthrow. That doesn’t even count the millions forced to flee the violence with little more than the clothes on their backs, or the terror threats that are now a routine feature of American and European landscapes. None of the American policymakers responsible for this have been held to account as their British counterparts were in the U.K.’s damning Chilcot Report.
All this brings to mind something I learned while reporting my book on Iraq. Saddam had repeatedly expressed the same sentiment to some of the people responsible for him during his three years in captivity: You’ll wish you had me back.
It is disturbing even to entertain this notion, spoken as it was by a ruthless tyrant with so much blood on his hands. It is especially disturbing when I think about brave friends and fellow soldiers whose belief in their mission never flagged, some struck down in the prime of their lives. Yet when viewed in relation to the cataclysmic chain of events set in motion by the war to remove him from power, Saddam Hussein’s words seem perversely prophetic.
Will Bardenwerper served as an infantry officer in the United States Army and is the author of the upcoming “The Prisoner in His Palace: Saddam Hussein, His American Guards, and What History Leaves Unsaid.”