Reading some of the recent coverage of the latest atrocities in Iraq, it’s hard to make who the real villain is. Is it the fanatics of ISIS, with their YouTube snuff movies showing mass executions of Iraqi soldiers?
Or is the real man to blame one Tony Blair, whose decision to help America bring down Saddam Hussein is the root cause of it all? Certainly, judging by some of the headlines from earlier this week, one could have forgiven for thinking that it was Mr Blair himself who was pulling the trigger on those hapless Iraqi troops.
Numerous articles have carried graphic images of the massacre, alongside denunciations of Mr Blair and insinuations that this barbarity is his legacy and his fault.
The former prime minister has always been a handy lightning rod for Britain’s unease over Iraq. But in this case, he incurred particular ire for having argued, via interviews and newspaper articles, that it was not just West’s fault that Iraq had gone into meltdown. He pointed out that had Saddam still been in power when the Arab Spring began, Iraq would likely have been a far bigger, scarier mess than it is.
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Like every other argument about the rights and wrongs of the Iraq war, this can, of course, be debated endlessly. Without the Iraq invasion, the Arab Spring, for better or worse, might never even happened, for example.
But one point that is not in debate is that Saddam Hussein was just as brutal a killer as ISIS’s thugs are, and had Saddam’s men had I-phones around to record their atrocities, the results would have been just as horrific. There would, however, have been one important difference. In Saddam’s case, the footage of those toppling into mass graves wouldn’t have just been a few dozen or hundred, but hundreds of thousands.
Take the sun-parched fields just outside the town of Hillah, south of Baghdad, for example, which I visited as a reporter in Baghdad in May 2003, just after the Ba’athist regime’s fall. Scattered around there were dozens of mass graves, some holding up to 2,000 skeletons at a time, all of them the victims of massacres carried out by Ba’athist troops in the aftermath of the first Gulf War in 1991. It’s estimated that Saddam killed around 300,000 people at that time – all in the name of putting down an uprising against his rule. No, one can’t be certain that he would have done the same in the event of an Arab Spring ten years later. But it does rather suggest he had it in him.
The mass graves aren’t just around the south. The Kurds, who are now fighting ISIS in the north, lost at least 50,000 people during Saddam’s Anfal campaign in the late 1980s, including 5,000 massacred in the gas attack at Halabja. And then there’s the hundreds of thousands who didn’t actually die at Saddam’s own hands, but were sent to near-certain deaths in his endless wars.
Half a million people on either side perished in the eight year war that Saddam started with neighbouring Iran, a campaign of trench warfare far more brutal and senseless than anything in World War One. Another 100,000 were killed by the Allied armies as they repelled his equally foolhardy invasion of Kuwait in 1991. And this is before you take into account all those he tortured and killed in secret.
The figures I’ve quoted above are well-known, of course. But standing in a mass grave in southern Iraq brings it home to you – as did working with my old translator, a former army colonel who had commanded of one of Saddam’s tank brigades. I hired on him on the spot one day in Baghdad shortly after Saddam’s fall, when he’d been reduced to driving a taxi rather than a tank for a living, and remembered being struck by how different our two lives were. He was only four years older than me, yet had fought in five different wars in 20 years: Iran-Iraq, the campaign against the Kurds, the invasion of Kuwait, the quelling of the post-1991 uprising and lastly, Operation Iraqi Freedom, in which he’d deserted along with the rest of his men. Occasionally he used to hint at dark things he’d done in the line of duty, never saying what they were but simply mentioning that it in the Saddam’s armies, you “followed orders and that was that”.
Like many Iraqis, he had mixed views about Saddam’s departure, describing him as “a dog” in one breath, and saying Iraq desperately needed a strongman in the other. One thing, though, always seemed clear to me: if Saddam had already directed his armies to kill a million people in the course of my translator’s 20 years’ service, he might well have done another few hundred thousand had he been left in power. And for that reason alone, we should remember that it is him, not Tony Blair, that is the real villain alongside ISIS.