Although Saddam Hussein is dead and buried, the fascination he continues to exert on Iraq is almost palpable. He was a brutal dictator who transformed Iraq into a model police state, a serial aggressor who invaded Iran and Kuwait, an anti-Zionist who bombarded Israel with a barrage of Scud missiles during the first Gulf War in 1991, and an Arab nationalist who sent pensions to the families of “martyred” Palestinian suicide bombers.
Having been such a disruptive force, he thrust Iraq into the vortex of Middle East politics and always elicited the interest of both journalists and scholars.
Wendell Steavenson’s vivid account of Iraq during this repressive period, The Weight of a Mustard Seed: The Intimate Life of an Iraqi Family During Thirty Years of Tyranny (HarperCollins), lifts the veil off a dictatorship that brought this developing Arab nation to ruin and isolation.
A British writer, she builds her narrative around Kamel Sachet, one of Saddam’s favourite generals, and thus offers a reader an insider’s view of Iraq.
Steavenson spent five years on this project, and though she did not interview Sachet himself, she talked with his family, friends and enemies.
Sachet, whose formal name was Kamel Sachet Aziz al Janabi, was born in 1947, in a village 20 kilometres from Baghdad without electricity or an access road. His father, a poor farmer, was illiterate.
A policeman, he joined the army and its special forces to enhance his career. Volunteering for every possible course, he studied mountain warfare in Germany and learned Farsi in Iran. A thorough professional, he rose through the ranks and became an officer.
A hero during the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran War, he was promoted to general and given the command of the Baghdad division of the Republican Guard, one of the pillars of the Baathist regime. After Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, he was placed in charge of the Iraqi army in Kuwait City. He was then appointed governer of Maysan province.
In Saddam’s firmament, he was a bright and shining star. And Saddam rewarded him handsomely for his competence and loyalty. Apart from a slew of medals for bravery, he was lavished with late-model European cars, cash and a fruit farm near the town of Hilla.
At a ceremony, Saddam voiced extravagant praise for him. “Look at Gen. Sachet!” he is reported to have said. “The Iraqi soldier should be in every way like this! Look at how fit he is! Look at his courage! Look at his good manners! Kamel Sachet is a commander I treasure.”
Sachet was certainly an important cog in Saddam’s machinery of state, but he was also a straightforward person, a trait that Saddam did not appreciate. As a well-connected Iraqi official told Steavenson,“The truth is, in our culture, frankness is disrespect.”
In accordance with this Iraqi tradition, none of Saddam’s top generals bothered to dissuade him from launching a major incursion into Kuwait, which had incurred his wrath by proving recalcitrant in debt negotiations and increasing oil production to Iraq’s disadvantage.
Not consulted for his opinion, Sachet was none too pleased by Saddam’s decision, which plunged Iraq into a morass with dire consequences.
“This is mad,” he told his wife. “He has created a disaster that will destroy us all.”
Despite his misgivings, Sachet dutifully reported for duty in Iraqi-occupied Kuwait City. With the Iraqi army having been ousted from Kuwait by the United States and its allies, Sachet returned abjectly to his home in Baghdad. He was critical of Saddam, claiming that Iraq’s ignomonious retreat had been premature. “We could have held out six months!” his wife quoted him as saying.
Not long afterward, following a mutiny in the Iraq army, Sachet was relieved of his duties and forced into retirement. He drove his new Mercedes deep into the desert and burned his uniform. “Kuwait had washed any pride in it away,” she says.
But in 1992, in a development that Steavenson strangely leaves unexplained, Saddam summoned Sachet to his palace and handed him the governorship of Maysan province. Ever the patriot, he carried out his first order with dispatch, executing two senior Baathist officials who had tried to assassinate an official in front of Saddam’s children.
Yet Sachet was not a happy camper. He disagreed with Saddam’s policy of draining the life-sustaining marshes of the rebellious Marsh Arabs. Such insolence could not be tolerated by the powers-that-be. In 1994, he was demoted and given the menial task of selling used government cars.
“By the mid-1990s, the net was closing,” Steavenson writes. “The Sachets’ phone was bugged – this they took for granted – and there was often a parked car outside with two men watching. When he rose early to drive to the mosque for dawn prayers, an agent on a bicycle followed him. The surveillance permeated the house and kept the family under protracted strain.”
Steavenson describes this period as one of “fear, ever-thicker paranoia, dread and a constant unbroken tension.”
Dr. Hassan al-Qadhani, an Iraqi psychiatrist, told Steavenson that the situation had become unbearable. As he put it, “You had to lie against your principles. You had to say things you did not believe. It was a mental conflict.”
On Dec. 16, 1998, shortly before U.S. and British aircraft bombed Baghdad but soon after Saddam reorganized his general staff, Sachet was arrested.
Having investigated the circumstances surrounding his arrest, Steavenson thinks it was prompted by Sachet’s refusal to serve under a general he despised and his lapse in failing to report the receipt of a letter from a former chief of staff who defected in the mid-1990s.
Hauled into secret police headquarters, he was personally interrogated by Saddam, who slapped him across the face in raw fury.
By this juncture, Sachet was thoroughly disillusioned, Steavenson says. When his son, Ali, informed him that he wanted to study at the military academy and be a soldier, Sachet put down his foot, declaring that the army was no longer a good place for a young man.
In February 1999, Sachet’s family learned to its horror that his body could be retrieved from Abu Ghraib prison.
He had been murdered.
A year later, Ali was detained at the Iraqi border on charges of trying to enter Jordan with a false passport. He was released in a general amnesty in 2002.
The Weight of a Mustard Seed is a harrowing cautionary tale about an Arab society emasculated and crippled by a murderous regime. Sachet’s dismal fate goes a long way in explaining why Iraq’s dictatorial neighbour, Syria, is in such utter turmoil today.