The perfect villain

When U.S. leaders decided it was time to despise Saddam Hussein, he made the perfect villain.

He was cocky and cunning. He looked dangerous and deranged standing at rallies firing a gun into the air, conduct unbecoming a head of government.

He was “Hitler revisited,” as the first President Bush put it, lacking the endless armies, but close enough for U.S. purposes. He had a history of atrocities. His black mustache heightened the aura of menace.

America’s quarter-century entanglement with the Iraqi leader ended Friday at the gallows.

His hanging closed the books on a man who dealt with and benefited from the United States, then defied it, then ran like a rabbit into a hole in the ground, reduced to his own army of one.

Saddam’s capture Dec. 13, 2003, was a rare day of triumph for the United States after the Iraq invasion. In contrast, his execution brought worries that violence would spike beyond its usual chaotic level.

Scores more people were killed in attacks Saturday, but those are daily occurrences in Iraq and there was no sign of a feared Sunni uprising in retaliation for the execution.

Saddam was vilified by the U.S. government probably more than any dictator since Adolf Hitler.

And this is a country with a long and still-active tradition of personalizing its enemy, making conflicts less about competing interests than about specific madmen and loose cannons — Manuel Noriega, Slobodan Milosevic, Moammar Gadhafi, Fidel Castro, the wanted-dead-or-alive Osama bin Laden.

While others cry “death to America,” America assembles a rogues gallery.

Colin Powell, writing in his memoirs about the lead-up to the first Gulf War, objected to the portrayal of Saddam as the “devil incarnate” by the elder President Bush and aides.

“President Bush has taken to demonizing Saddam in public just as he had Manuel Noriega,” said Powell, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Gulf War, then secretary of state for the Iraq war. He suggested U.S. officials “cool the rhetoric. Not that the charges were untrue, but the demonizing left me uneasy.”

Yet a decade later, in the words of the younger President Bush and aides, including Powell, the case for war was about “Saddam’s chemical weapons business,” “his weapons of mass destruction,” “his terrorist associations,” his “massive clandestine nuclear weapons program,” “his evil mind.”

U.S. officials were never comfortable with Saddam but treated him as a useful counterweight to the hostile theocracy in Iran after the U.S.-supported shah fled the country in 1979.

Iraq was at least a partly westernized and secular presence in a time of rising anti-American sentiment in the region, and had relations with the Soviets that Washington wanted to restrain.

In the long war between Iran and Iraq, the Reagan administration helped Saddam get international loans, restored formal relations in 1984 and secretly provided Iraq with intelligence and military support.

It sent Donald H. Rumsfeld, who had served in the Nixon and Ford administrations, on a tour in December 1983 that included a stop in Baghdad and meetings there with Saddam and his foreign minister, Tariq Aziz.

Worried about Syria and oil supplies as well as Iran, Rumsfeld suggested relations between the two countries had “more similarities than differences,” according to his report from the meetings. An equally accommodating Saddam suggested his part of the world had more in common culturally with Washington than Moscow.

In his meeting with the foreign minister — but not Saddam — Rumsfeld parenthetically raised subjects that hindered the U.S. from doing more for Iraq in its war with Iran. Two decades later, with Rumsfeld as defense secretary, these subjects would be used to summon rage against the Iraqi leader.

“I made clear that our efforts to assist were inhibited by certain things that made it difficult for us, citing the use of chemical weapons, possible escalation in the Gulf, and human rights,” Rumsfeld wrote back then.

By 1991, the United States was at war with Iraq, assembling a coalition to force Saddam to reverse his annexation of Kuwait. Saddam was the target of U.S. denunciation from then on, as a sponsor of terrorism, a seeker of weapons of mass destruction, and a ruthless murderer of Kurds, opponents of his rule and inconvenient family members.

Left in power after his forces retreated from Kuwait, Saddam was a volcanic presence in U.S. affairs for another decade, capped but toxic. It was a time of convoluted sanctions, fitful weapons inspections and no-fly-zone confrontations.

A fuzzy Iraqi TV picture captured the 1983 handshake between Saddam and Rumsfeld the envoy on a day when the two men agreed it was too bad a generation of Americans and Iraqis had grown up without knowing each other.

The future would bring the next generations together on bloody streets in a conflict neither side imagined then. And the man who shook Saddam’s hand would direct the costly war that drove him from power, into the hole and to the executioner.


AP Diplomatic Writer Barry Schweid contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press