A new HBO miniseries plumbs the mind of the Iraqi leader, and stirs memories of my own time on his hit list.
HBO’s House of Saddam is a Sopranos-like miniseries set inside the Iraqi regime during a quarter century of bloody rule. For America viewers, who can see the second part of the two-part series on December 14, it will be an intriguing look at the despot’s worldview, beginning with Saddam’s wresting of power from President Ahmad Hassan Al-Bakr in the late 1970s.
For me, screening the series was a more personal experience that brought back memories of my own little war with Saddam Hussein. As a journalist in my native Jordan, I spent much of my career exposing the brutal nature of Saddam and the collusion of several Arab governments with his regional machinations. This all came to a head in 1995, when I reported—in Al Hayat, the London-based international Arab daily, and on the BBC Arabic Service—the extent to which Iraq had penetrated and co-opted Jordan’s political and economic establishment.
When Saddam Hussein began a campaign of assassinating Iraqi dissidents living in Jordan, I was added to the hit list.
I was arrested and thrown in jail until Jordan’s King Hussein (who passed away two years later) ordered my release. I then endured a six-month trial on charges tantamount to treason before the court dismissed the case, convinced—thanks to courageous witnesses—of the credibility of my reports.
Less than a year later, when Saddam Hussein began a campaign of assassinating Iraqi dissidents living in Jordan, I was added to the hit list. A senior Jordanian intelligence official, who happened to be a friend, told me I was the only non-Iraqi targeted, and he pleaded with me to leave the country. But to his credit, King Hussein ordered security patrols around my office in Amman, and around my home, and I stayed until another message from a top security official informed me: “You better leave the country now. We can’t protect you.”
The publisher of Al Hayat, Prince Khaled Bin Sultan, instructed that I be relocated outside Jordan. I moved to London, and then, in 2003, to Washington, D.C., arriving less than three weeks before the war started, and six weeks before Saddam’s regime fell.
Needless to say, I supported the effort to topple the Iraqi dictator. I argued that Saddam himself was a weapon of mass destruction, whether any others were found or not. My own suffering at his hands was nothing compared to the deaths of more than a million and a half people in the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq and the incursion into Kuwait, as well as the ongoing agony of millions more families destroyed or displaced by the current war.
But it was enough for me to watch House of Saddam, with intense interest. And I was only disappointed in one regard: The series ignores some of the important international elements that helped Saddam maintain an iron grip on his own country and exert such destructive power throughout the region.
For example, when Saddam decided, in 1980, to invade Iran and nip the Islamic revolution in the bud before it spread to Iraq’s Shiite majority, the US was content to let the two biggest powers in the oil-rich region exhaust each other. The Reagan administration backed both sides simultaneously—the Iranians with weapons (remember the Iran-Contra Affair?) and Iraq with military intelligence (remember Donald Rumsfeld’s visit to Baghdad?). As a junior reporter for the Jordan Times, the country’s only English-language daily, I wrote my first op-ed, in the mid-'80s, condemning Iraq’s use of chemical weapons in that war.
The HBO movie was conceived more as a depiction of “how Saddam Hussein perceived the world, rather than how the world viewed him and Iraq,” the series’ writer and director, Alex Holmes, told me in an interview this week.
Holmes started out with the idea of filming the siege of Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004, which sowed the seeds of insurgency against the US occupation. But in discussions with the BBC, the project morphed into an exploration of Saddam’s mind as it was shaped by the dramas of the 1980s and '90s. Saddam declared “victory” over Khomeini’s Iran and set his sights on Kuwait, which he invaded in 1990, triggering the first Gulf War in 1991. But the US armed forces stopped short then of toppling Saddam’s regime, which convinced him of his invincibility. That partly explains why, in 2003, he did not believe the US would make a full-scale assault on Baghdad. But he also appeared to be rooting for war.
“Saddam believed leaders become great with war,” said Holmes. “Bush seems to have had a similar view—that to be a great leader and have a role in the world, he needed to reassert American global power.”
House of Saddam was shot in 11 countries, including Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, and Morocco, with a cast of Arab, Iranian, and Israeli actors who speak English with heavy Middle Eastern accents. True to its premise, it offers an inside view of the regime, which, given the impenetrable paranoia and secrecy of Saddam’s inner circle, is an impressive feat. It is by no means the whole story, nor does it claim to be. But it does shed some light on how one man’s warped worldview brought the Middle East to where we are today.
Saddam’s family features prominently in the film, particularly his two sons, Uday and Qusai. Uday exploited Saddam’s absolute power through wild and reckless excesses such as raping a waitress in a palace bathroom. Qusai was the quiet brother with the brutal discipline. I later learned that he is the one who ordered my killing.
Salameh Nematt is the International Editor of The Daily Beast. He is the former Washington Bureau Chief for Al Hayat International Arab daily, where he reported on U.S. foreign policy, the war in Iraq, and the U.S. drive for democratization in the broader Middle East. He has also written extensively on regional and global energy issues and their political implications.
HOUSE OF SADDAM PARTS I – II: SUN., DEC. 7, 9 P.M. PARTS III – IV: SUN., DEC. 14, 9 P.M.