Saddam the martyr

saddam husseinJohn F. Burns of The New York Times has a compelling story to tell about Saddam Hussein's burial place. The article includes religious elements that one would expect in a story dealing with life and death -- the fact that Saddam's buried head faces Mecca, personal prayer beads, the words "God is Great" in his handwriting -- but little is said of Saddam's religious faith or lack thereof, which is a significant hole in the story. There is a good amount of discussion that Saddam was a thug who abused his country, but what about his ruling over one of the most religiously significant countries in the world?

Saddam Hussein's burial place, in his native village on the banks of the Tigris, may be the only public space in Iraq where the former ruler, hanged in December at the age of 69, is openly extolled. Under a decree dating from the American occupation in 2003, still in force under the new Iraqi government, all paintings, photographs and statues of Mr. Hussein are forbidden, as are public protests in his support. At least in terms of public hagiography, he remains, everywhere else in Iraq, a nonperson.

But in Awja, Mr. Hussein's legend lives on, though only as a pale shadow of what it was. The old reception center where he lies -- renamed "Martyrs' Hall" by the family members who manage it -- has none of the grandeur of the palaces he built during his 24-year rule. The trickle of visitors drops on some days to twos and threes, and only rarely reaches double figures, far short of making Awja a pilgrimage site on the scale of Iraq's religious shrines.

That last sentence is effective in telling the reader that Saddam isn't exactly a beloved Iraqi, but it does little to inform about his lack of religious conviction. Saddam was one of the leaders of the secular pan-Arab movement and drew the ire of many when he modernized the country along the lines of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, which included abolishing most of the country's Sharia law.

But the NYT doesn't let us forget that Saddam was a very bad man who was not liked by his people:

Mr. Hussein was far from the beloved figure his propagandists depicted, even among the people of his home region. Not far into many conversations, people here speak of the ruthless killing that characterized his rule, of Sunnis as well as of his principal victims, Shiites and Kurds.

And they point to the 128-building palace complex Mr. Hussein built on a rise above the Tigris in Tikrit. For three years an American military command complex but largely abandoned now, the complex is cited by locals as proof of how Mr. Hussein used Iraq's oil wealth to benefit himself, his family and a coterie of loyalists, not the ordinary people of Awja or Tikrit.

"Saddam Hussein led the country into destruction, and in doing so destroyed himself and his family, and led us into the present chaos," said Abdullah Hussein Ejbarah, the 50-year-old deputy governor of Salahuddin Province. Like many senior officials here, Mr. Ejbarah is a former high-ranking member of Mr. Hussein's Baath Party, and was a fast-rising officer in the Special Republican Guard, an elite military unit, until members of Mr. Ejbarah's Jabouri tribe tried to assassinate Mr. Hussein in 1993. Mr. Ejbarah was lucky to escape the purge that followed.

Perhaps it's appropriate that a story about Saddam's tomb included little about religion, since it had little to do with his rule. But it would have been helpful to at least mention that he ruled as a secularist.

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