One day during the Iran-Iraq War a few years ago, Saddam Hussein declared a holiday in his own honor. From across the country, schoolchildren and factory workers poured into Baghdad by the thousands--aboard buses and flatbed trucks driven by army soldiers.
The office buildings in Baghdad emptied, and shoulder to shoulder the chanting throngs stood, their throaty cheers echoing across the plazas of Haifa Street to the banks of the Tigris River: "Saddam! Saddam! Saddam Hussein!"
A low-level government official turned to several Western visitors he had escorted to the demonstration and said: "You see, this is why we don't have to hold elections in Iraq. You are witnessing a referendum for the president."
Whatever the political merits of that assessment, virtually no one could have been unaware of Hussein's extraordinary presence in Iraq--or of the extraordinary way that he had wrenched the ancient nation into new paths since taking power in 1979.
His huge portraits, framed in ornate gilt, watched over the Iraqis from public squares, store fronts and hotel lobbies. His picture was on the windows of taxis, on the sides of buses, on the front page of state-run newspapers, on the face of gold watches worn by his aides. In 1983, 59 of the 64 books published by the Information Ministry were collections of presidential speeches.
He appeared, smiling or stone-faced, in Western business suits, in traditional Arab garb, in military uniform. Like an actor, he had an image to fit every occasion, an expression to mirror every national mood.
Fabled Baghdad had become a drab and cheerless city under Hussein, a Moscow of the 1950s without Marxism. It was a place of concrete canyons filled with obedient peasants and--to the visitors at the demonstration--it was difficult to grasp any sense of Iraq's splendid past.
Once, though, perhaps 5,000 years earlier, this was the Mesopotamia of the Old Testament, and here along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers the world's most advanced civilization flourished.
It was here that the Sumerians became the world's first cereal agriculturalists and developed the first form of writing based on phonogramic as well as pictorial symbols. They made the first wheeled chariot and discovered that tin and copper smelted together produced bronze, a new, more durable metal--useful in making tools but also weapons.
Mesopotamia--"the land between the rivers"--was the granary of the Near East then, full of date orchards and lush green fields. This, some said, was the site of the Garden of Eden. Singing boatmen in fishing canoes plied their way through giant reeds that laced the network of man-made irrigation canals.
Here, nearly 2,500 years before the birth of Islam, King Hammurabi devised the world's most comprehensive legal code, dealing with everything from rent to labor conditions and divorce. It was intended, he said, "to cause justice to prevail in the country, to destroy the wicked and the evil, that the strong may not oppress the weak."
Saddam (meaning "one who confronts") Hussein, a stocky, steely-eyed man of peasant origins, may not have been cut from such a distinguished mold. But his people had some cause to appreciate his contributions to Iraq when they demonstrated on that August day in the mid-1980s, for he had brought stability to a country that had endured 22 revolutions or coups between 1920 and 1979.
The Iraq that Hussein took over in 1979 during an in-house shuffling of the guard was one of the original wild-eyed Arab states, and in his early years he did nothing to soften its rhetoric or radicalism.
Iraq was among the Soviet Union's first Arab partners, and it led the movement to expel Egypt from the Arab League after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel. It offered hijackers a refuge and treated terrorists like international dignitaries. For years, you could not pick up a newspaper in Baghdad without reading about the "satanic" policies of the United States or the need to destroy Israel.
Under Hussein, an egalitarian society slowly evolved in which one saw neither abject poverty nor flaunted wealth. Official corruption in his regime, Western diplomats said, was unheard of. The literacy rate rose to 70%. The villages were electrified.
Hussein, a Sunni Muslim governing a Shiite majority, did not let the mullahs meddle in politics, but he bought peace with the religious elders by spending $200 million refurbishing the country's mosques. Small Christian and Jewish communities were allowed to operate with a degree of freedom.
But Saddam Hussein's Iraq was also a place of paranoia and fear. Hotel phones were tapped, undercover agents monitored university classes disguised as students, visitors were followed on the streets. Foreign newspapers and news magazines were banned, and Iraqis were forbidden to own typewriters, which the government worried might be used to churn out propaganda.
Cabinet ministers and others of questioned loyalty simply disappeared. One million Iraqis fled the country.
With Iraq's oil reserves second to those of only Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, Hussein had maneuvered his country into a position of Arab leadership by 1980. A massive development project was transforming Baghdad into a modern city, in preparation for hosting the Non-Aligned Summit; Iraq's army was considered among the best in the region, after those of Israel and Jordan; the country's coffers were full, and Baghdad was an important stop on the journeys of Arab leaders formulating Middle East policies.
Then, on Sept. 19, 1980, a senior delegation from the Persian Gulf gathered in Baghdad at Hussein's invitation to consider how best to contain the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Shiite revolution in Iran. Hussein kept his guests waiting for three hours.
When he finally showed up for lunch at 4 p.m., he apologized, saying that he had been in a secret meeting with his generals. He had, he said, decided what to do about Khomeini: He was going to war against Iran. Three days later, his forces invaded.
"I told him, 'Don't do it; don't go to war,' " Bahrain's minister of development, Youssef Shirawi, later recalled. "I told him, 'They've got 42 million people, and you've got 14 million. You'll just get ground down and fall under the influence of whatever foreign power is supplying you with arms.' But he was very insistent. He thought Iraq could win the war in a few weeks and finish off Khomeini."
The war lasted eight years and left Iraq with nearly 1 million dead and wounded and a foreign debt estimated at up to $70 billion.
"The ultimate American interest in the war," former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger said in its early stages, is "that both sides should lose." By the time the war ended, you could hardly find an Iraqi who remembered what the fight had been all about.
Hussein never did fall under permanent foreign influence, however. France and the Soviet Union, among others, supplied both sides with weapons, and Hussein--who refers to himself in the third person--soon started speaking with a different voice.
He told U.S. Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.): "No Arab leader has now in his policies the so-called destruction of Israel or wiping it out of existence." He quietly rolled up the welcome mat for terrorists. In 1983, the Ronald Reagan Administration, fearing an Iranian victory in the Persian Gulf war, removed Iraq from the list of terrorist states, thus making possible U.S. subsidies and loan guarantees.
Full diplomatic relations were restored with both Washington and Cairo. Hussein had, in the parlance of the Middle East, become a "moderate," indebted to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the gulf states that had bankrolled his miscalculated foray into Iran.
That so-called moderation was swept aside Aug. 2 with Iraq's invasion and annexation of Kuwait, one of its most supportive partners in the gulf war. And Hussein is talking today like the man the world knew in the 1970s.
His words are not without an Arab audience. They speak of Arab unity and reclaiming Palestine and condemning Western imperialism--irresistible topics for a people who remember the Gamal Abdel Nasser era in Egypt three decades ago and the days when Arab brotherhood seemed an obtainable goal.