Wednesday, December 17
Blood feud ends in the spider hole

The transformation of all-powerful president to cornered wild man is the stuff of parables and will echo forever

Jonathan Freedland. The Guardian, December 17, 2003

I know that we are all meant to have moved on, that we are supposed to focus now on high-minded matters of justice and international jurisprudence, but I'm not quite there yet: I am still stuck on the pictures.

The transformation of a man, last glimpsed in a suit or in military uniform, from president into Monty Python hermit is just too shocking to forget. When last we saw him, he was on a presidential platform, waving to the masses below, unsheathing a sword or firing a ceremonial rifle. Now we see him as a wild man, dirty and mangy as a stray dog. And we have to keep reminding ourselves: it is the same person.

It makes sense that the news networks keep playing that footage of his medical examination, over and over in a loop. It remains fascinating each time you see it, prompting new questions. Is Saddam Hussein being pushed and prodded, or is the US military doctor handling him with the gentleness he might show a child or feeble geriatric? What can that experience have been like for the doctor, to touch so intimately a man identified only with wickedness?

But the power of the current crop of images goes rather deeper than that. Taken together - the bearded Saddam and his underground living grave - they are almost mythic, redolent of legends and fables that are hard-wired into the human mind. With this twist, the Saddam story has become a blend of Bible parable, folk tale, Greek and Shakespearean tragedy - and it is unexpectedly powerful.

The tale of a once-mighty leader who evades a conquering army by hiding in a hole certainly has a Biblical ring to it: " ... and the King of Mesopotamia fled unto the city of Tikrit and from there to the village of Ad Dawr which he knew, for nearby was al-Awja where he had been born more than three score years before. And he came to his cook and said: 'Keep me, here,' and it was done. And the King dug a hole eight cubits by six cubits, and there he was tormented by many rats and many mice and his beard grew long ... "

In our own time, dictators do not cower in caves, bedding down with the creatures of the earth. Slobodan Milosevic was taken into custody wearing a blue suit; he testifies in the Hague looking the same as he always did. Saddam and his dugout seem to belong to a much earlier era, the age when David was on the run from Saul, or, many centuries later, the prophet Mohammed was chased out of Mecca - both finding refuge in a cave. (Both men are also said to have been saved by a divinely sent spider, who weaved a web across the cave's entrance: when their pursuers saw the web intact they assumed no one could be inside. How fitting that the US military immediately described Saddam's hideaway as a "spider hole".)

The former dictator's capture should also draw to a close a family feud that is the stuff of Greek drama. Since the first Gulf war in 1990, the stand-off between the US and Iraq has also been a battle of dynasties. Saddam's hatred for George Bush Snr was transferred to the man he called the "son of the viper" or "little Bush".

For the American president too, Operation Iraqi Freedom was, in part, a family affair. Last year he reminded an interviewer of Saddam's 1993 assassination attempt on his father: "There's no doubt he can't stand us. After all, this is a guy that tried to kill my dad." Now the Bushes have their revenge: Saddam's sons are slain and he is their captive. As one Bush family associate told the New York Times yesterday: "It's a psychologically nice moment." A theatre full of ancient Greeks would understand that perfectly.

And what would Shakespeare have done with the scene played out on Sunday afternoon in a US military base, when Saddam awoke on his metal army cot to find he had four visitors: opponents, some of whom had paid a desperate price for their dissent, now installed as leaders of the new Iraq?

The men had been brought there formally to confirm the identity of the prisoner, but rather than simply peer at him through a window, they demanded the right to see him up close - and confront him.

One, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, had been in Saddam's torture chamber in 1979. Now he faced his persecutor with not a bodyguard between them. He asked what Saddam would say on the day of judgment. How would he account for the lives lost in the Iran-Iraq war, for the gassing at Halabja, for the mass graves? "What are you going to tell God?" Apparently, Saddam's response was defiant and foul-mouthed.

Everything about this story seems designed to endure, even as a parable that future generations might teach their children.

What better illustration of the cowardice of the bully than the story of Saddam Hussein, who strutted and threatened - only to surrender meekly?

In the end, when there were no henchmen at his side, he showed none of the bravery of the Arab heroes he had so frequently invoked but put his hands in the air and asked to cut a deal. He had a pistol, but did not fire a single shot, neither at his pursuers nor at himself.

For months, the Iraqi rumour mill had spoken of a Saddam of seven masks, secretly directing the resistance, disguised sometimes as a Muslim woman, sometimes as a taxi driver, sometimes as a nomad. Peasants would take him in for the night; when they awoke they would find their guest vanished and a vast bundle of cash under the bed.

Now, though, we know the truth: Saddam was cowering, saving only his own skin. So listen well, children, and learn the moral of the story.
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