Oh how we lapped it up. It was just before Christmas 2003, and I’m sure the US administration felt it deserved a lovely present. I know the British tabloids did.
‘Eight months after Baghdad fell, US soldiers found the dishevelled former leader of Iraq six feet under, hiding in a hole in the ground.’ claimed CNN. ‘He wasn’t very tough…he had a pistol but didn’t use it…in fact he didn’t put up any fight at all.’
The perfect humiliation of the butcher of Babylon, looking stark staring bonkers, a cross between Catweazle and Charles Manson, culminated in his being examined like a farm animal in front of the cameras. ‘No way could he fight back…he was caught like a rat.’ said another ‘eye witness’. With the pictures of Saddam’s capture flashing around the world the bloody occupation was legitimised, the coalition’s invasion of Iraq somehow justified: even if we didn’t find any WMDs, the argument ran, at least we got the cowardly, sub-human Kurd-killing, beret-wearing dictator.
Except…it now transpires that the whole thing was a monstrous fraud. To be precise, a publicity stunt. A former US Marine, ex-Sergeant Abou Rabeh, an American of Lebanese descent, has been quoted in the Saudi Arabian newspaper al-Medina this week shedding light on what turns out to have been yet another dark little CIA initiative. The real capture of Saddam Hussein had all happened 24 hours before.
‘We found him in a modest home in a small village, and not in a hole….We captured him after fierce resistance’ claimed Abou Rebeh, during which fight another marine was killed, and Saddam himself apparently fired at them with a gun from a room on the second floor. Later a military production team arrived to fabricate the film of his capture in a ‘hole’, which was actually a deserted well, dressed like any proper film set with convincing props and ‘litter’, which on second thoughts might have been more carefully chosen: Mars bar wrappers and empty mineral water bottle would have been more at home in a Manhattan parking lot than the back streets of Dour, the village near Tikrit where they shot this epic.
What does this say about George W. Bush’s confidence at the time? And what does it say about Rumsfeld, now proved to have been lying through his teeth on live television when he claimed Saddam had been taken into custody ‘in a surprisingly peaceful manner’.
Well, in some ways we shouldn’t get too upset, because I suspect the reason for it, the target of this piece of trickery, wasn’t primarily the American and British public, but was instead all about how Saddam was portrayed in the Islamic media, from Casablanca to Karachi. It was done to demystify the demon, and to neutralise any risk of him gaining the heroic or iconic status of a martyr. It was also to underline the point that Bush was a gritty adversary, and as determined as the Lone Ranger to bring his quarry to justice. Funny how the term ‘cowboy’ has become one of abuse, when it used to conjure a romantic image of freedom from responsibility via the healthy, cow-poking life.
So Saddam doesn’t get captured in combat, he’s found skulking in a hole. He’s not allowed the dignity of a former statesman and, as he sincerely believed (and probably still believes) his nation’s elected President. Instead he’s treated like a lice-ridden refugee, an outlaw apprehended at the end of his tether, deserted by his family and his army, good for nothing, inspected for AIDS and hidden cyanide capsules. I bet his medical was fun.
‘What’s the matter with the prisoner, doctor?’
‘Whatever you like, Sir. Just name it.’
To see the press manipulated with quite such blatant cynicism fair takes my breath away. You’ve got to hand it to those PR guys in the Land of the Free.