Saddam Hussein was perfect. From first to last, perfect in every way. So perfect — and here I hope you can grasp the subtlety of the man’s self-image — that he could see and even admit to some personal flaws. How can a man who admits his own flaws be perfect? Because to be perfect he must!

After all, only Allah is completely free from error, and for a man to claim he is the equal of God would be prideful and impious; it would of all possible errors be the worst.

The Iraqi tyrant believed the world would begin to understand his true greatness only after five or perhaps even 10 centuries had passed. And even though he was only imperfectly understood in his lifetime, he told his American interrogator, 100 percent of the Iraqi people had voted for him in his last presidential election. His pride in this was understandable. One hundred percent! Out of love, each and every one.

These glimpses into Saddam Hussein’s character emerge from the 25 interviews and “conversations” with the captured dictator by FBI Special Agent George Piro, a young Lebanese American who was chosen for the job, in part, because of his fluent Arabic. Piro was interviewed on “60 Minutes” earlier this year and most of the revelations from the sessions have been widely reported, but what particularly interested me in the agent’s detailed notes was Saddam’s personality.

Years ago I made a study of Saddam for the Atlantic. My request to interview him received no response so I pieced together a portrait of him from his speeches, published interviews, and from people who had known or interacted with him personally. What emerged was a portrait of unfathomable, murderous vanity.

“Repetition of his image in heroic or paternal poses, repetition of his name, his slogans, his virtues, his accomplishments, seeks to make his power seem inevitable, unchallengeable,” I wrote. “Finally he is praised not out of affection or admiration but out of obligation. One must praise him.”

What that story sought was to show how Saddam, at the peak of his power, saw himself. Having never met him, I could only speculate about his inner life. Piro’s interviews with him in the months after his capture in December 2003, before he was turned over to Iraqi authorities, offer an invaluable glimpse inside Saddam’s head, and to some extent into the heads of such strongmen everywhere — think Kim Jong Il or Robert Mugabe.

Saddam was, at least in his own mind, a multifaceted genius. His boundless intellect displayed wisdom, courage, insight, leadership, military expertise, historical analysis, literary gifts … the list goes on and on. Part of that greatness was his generosity, which — and this says all you need to know about the man — he was even willing to extend to his enemy interrogator. In their 14th interview, on March 3, 2004, Saddam offered to instruct Piro in how to be a more effective questioner. Piro asked Saddam what he meant, and the tyrant played coy.

“A doctor does not chase people asking them what is wrong,” the tyrant said. “They come to him.”

Piro chose not to ask for Saddam’s help, but he did make a point of playing along with the 66-year-old prisoner’s illusions, treating him, within limits, with respect. The agent listened to Saddam’s poetry and praised it and cleverly used his supposed appreciation of the tyrant’s speechwriting talents to pry open a discussion of Iraq’s weapons programs — Iraq had destroyed its most dangerous weapons but continued to bluff about having them to ward off invasion or attack from Iran or the United States. Saddam said he fully intended to resume building such weapons as soon as pressure from the United Nations eased.

Piro listened to Saddam’s decidedly self-aggrandizing take on some of the more notorious episodes in his career, such as the purge of 1979. Saddam filled an auditorium with top Baath Party officials, had the doors locked, and then unmasked a supposed plot to overthrow him. Chief plotters rounded up in advance were made to confess on stage, and then Saddam began fingering alleged co-conspirators in the audience one by one — they were led off to be summarily tried and executed. He conducted this nightmare like theater, pacing the stage, smoking a cigar, visibly enjoying himself, alternately lecturing the terrified underlings and weeping — or pretending to weep — over their alleged betrayal. The session was videotaped, and copies were widely distributed.

Piro asked him whether such displays were orchestrated to spread fear rather than the “love” he insisted the Iraqi people felt for him, and from the tyrant’s response you get the sense that he really did not much differentiate between the two concepts. Both were aspects of something more important: respect. As for the theatrics, Saddam said that he tended to smoke cigars in time of stress, that fear was only one of many emotions present at that event, which he likened to a “family gathering,” and that making and distributing the video was primarily informational — “to present information to Iraqis living outside the country concerning events occurring within Iraq.”

As the discussions proceeded it became clear that Saddam was the star in the truly epic tale of his own life, and that everyone else was just a bit player. He was the all-wise, all-loving center of the world’s oldest and greatest nation, the true center of human civilization, albeit a bit down on its luck in recent centuries, but certain to prevail ultimately.

Any evidence of disparity between the brutal way his regime conducted business and his own flowery and benign conception of it was either a lie, a forgery, a consequence of some “simpleton” down the chain of command, or, in cases like the wholesale displacement of the Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq (Saddam had the marshes drained) or the gassing of the Kurds, a matter of majestic imperative. There was no place in his worldview for sympathy or regret. Shown a video of a woman from the Marsh Arab culture complaining pitifully that because of Saddam’s actions she and her family had lost everything, the tyrant laughed and scoffed, “What did she have before? Reeds?”

It also seems Saddam was not wedded to any normal concept of cause and effect, at least where he was concerned. Asked why he invaded Kuwait, for instance, his answer would differ from one day to another: because Kuwaitis were draining Iraq’s economy dry by stealing oil or because a Kuwaiti official had met a peace initiative with an insult. On another day it was because the United States and Kuwait were secretly conspiring to attack Iraq; on another because the Kuwaiti people, whom he considered historically Iraqi, had “invited him” to invade.

When you are all powerful, it seems, you don’t need any one reason, or any reason, for that matter. You act because you wish to act, because fate moves through your fingertips.

When you are all-powerful you are unconstrained by logic or fairness, which are principles for lesser mortals. When Piro asked Saddam about mistreatment of prisoners during the first Gulf War, Saddam “did not deny that others may have ‘behaved in a bad manner,’ ” but said he had not been informed of it. “He stated that he subscribes to a document much older than the Geneva Convention, the Koran. The Koran and Arab tradition believe that it is ‘noble’ to treat a prisoner well.”

This piety is, of course, laughable coming from one of the most brutal dictators in modern times, whose prisons were notorious for routine torture and summary execution. “We assigned responsibility to who was going to handle the situation,” he said in explaining his innocence of widespread executions when his regime crushed the Shia uprising in 1991, and he grew indignant when Piro suggested that in some cases he might not have known of atrocities because he did not want to be informed of his underlings’ methods. “Who says that I did not want to know?” Saddam asked. Piro informed him that he had.

The bottom line is, Saddam was not terribly concerned about consistency, moral or otherwise. He loved platitudes and saw himself as a model leader, but there was nothing he would not do to retain power. If ruling meant being brutal on occasion, so be it: “The sins of a government are not few,” he said.

“He must know that it will end badly for him,” I wrote in 2002. He certainly knew it two years later, when the United States had invaded Iraq, overthrown him, hunted him down, and, after gently questioning him for months, handed him back to his countrymen. He was executed on Dec. 30, 2006.

His American imprisonment must have been a brief and bittersweet sojourn for Saddam on his road to retribution. After his capture he was cleaned up, fingerprinted, fed, and housed like an important prisoner. All his adult life he was used to people doing things for him, and here, confined alone in the Baghdad Operations Center, his basic needs were all covered. He grew plants. He wrote. He ate regular meals and received good medical care. Piro listened to him and complimented his verses. After eight months hiding in a hole, it must have been a pleasant respite.

At least compared with his own harsh world, where his many local enemies waited. His death was a horror, but a fitting final scene for the saga that was his life, and an end he had foreseen. He once predicted that his enemies, if they ever got hold of him, would tear him apart. As Saddam stood brave and defiant on the scaffold, exchanging insults and taunts with those who had come to see him hang, his final moments would have merely confirmed what he already knew. He was leaving a world ruled by brute force, by cruelty and cunning and vengeance, where, for a time, he had prevailed.

Mark Bowden is a former staff writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer and is now national correspondent for the Atlantic. E-mail: [email protected]


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