Dictators are known for certain characteristics. They encourage large cults of personality. They assuage the people with cheap or free social services, such as healthcare and education. They maintain a large apparatus to force obedience. Although the oppressed may love or resent their ruler, they cannot deny that there is unity in oppression. Different ethnic groups, religious groups or social classes may suffer different degrees of persecution, but the fact remains that no one group is really free. A collective miserableness rises. This despair can knit together society. The sudden loss of a dictator, coupled with the dawn of post-regime chaos then often leads former subject of a despot to wish for the return of a tyrant. Such is the case in post-Saddam Iraq. Some Iraqis have expressed the belief that Iraq was better under Saddam, or that, if Saddam was still in charge, Iraq would be better off today. Their sentiments have been published in outlets such as Business Insider and the Washington Post.
The most commonly held view is that despite all the killings and abuses committed by Saddam, he was able to keep the Kurdish, Shia and Sunni from fighting. The post-regime Sunni-Shia divide in Iraq is also often pointed to as the root of Iraq’s problems today. However, the divide was not born in the post-regime years but instead grew out of seeds planted during Saddam’s rule. Saddam’s government and military were both Sunni dominated, although there were some Shia, Kurdish and Christian personnel. The Sunni dominated government was responsible for directing the military to conduct reprisal killings against Kurdish and Shia areas, this was done as a form of mass punishment. One time, Saddam was almost assassinated during a visit to the town of Dujail, which had a mixed population of both Sunnis and Shia. As punishment, Saddam authorized the execution of 148 residents, all of them Shia. When sectarian warfare was instigated by Al Qaeda in 2006, the Shia were thinking not only about recent bombings but also about Saddam-era massacres.
It’s not that Iraqis now praise Saddam and wish for the Baath Party’s return. They don’t.
But it is easy to forget about Saddam-era persecution, especially because of what happened in the closing days of the initial invasion. One of the greatest tragedies of the Iraq war is the destruction of the historical record. One example of this is the widespread looting of Iraq government offices in 2003. The National Library of Iraq was set on fire by arsonists, destroying the Republican Archive, a section of the library that contained import Baath Party records, including papers documenting trials and arrests. The offices and headquarters of Iraq’s secret police were also looted by persons unknown. Possibly some of the looters were former secret police seeking to cover up their atrocities. Others were simply profiteers, as Rory Stewart, a British official working with the U.S. – led coalition, wrote, “Those who had stolen the intelligence files read them and noted the addresses and sold the contents door to door. Documents started at a few dollars a sheet. You could collect the manila envelopes like stamps and see who had reported you at school and at work, or which neighbor’s report had led them to take your father away, and where he had been held and for how long, and what he said in that time, on the official record, and what was the grounds for trial, and who sentenced him, and who carried it out, and where he was buried.” Not everything was lost, millions of documents were captured by the coalition and now are kept in the Iraq National Library. The Iraq Memory Foundation, in partnership with Stanford University, also holds over 5.4 million pages of documents from sources such as Iraqi state security agencies.
Building democracies from conflict is never easy, and sometimes the stability of a dictator may seem preferable in the face of chaos and uncertainty. After decades of Saddam as the sole decision maker, Iraqi officials must learn themselves how govern. The Sunni and Shia must now learn how to work together, or all of Iraq risks falling to ISIS. For now, it appears that Iraq has yet to overcome the ghost of Saddam.