AMONG THE MANY ironies of Saddam Hussein's execution is that, although his death seems certain to boost sectarian bloodletting between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, he always posed as an Iraqi and Arab nationalist who could unite the rivalrous sects in his country -- an attribute that initially recommended him to Washington.
Other qualities of the Iraqi dictator that appealed to U.S. policymakers included his sterling record in eliminating communists and his readiness to confront the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the militant Shiite leader of Iran.
Today of all days, the administration has no desire to be reminded of the era when the U.S. actively intervened on Iraq's side in the Iran-Iraq war, supplying credit, intelligence, helicopters and, finally, active combat assistance from the U.S. Navy.
But that is indeed what happened. Something of the flavor of the relationship is summed up in a March 1984 cable from Secretary of State George Shultz to Donald Rumsfeld, who was about to visit Baghdad for the second time as President Reagan's Middle East envoy. Although the U.S. had just publicly condemned Iraq's use of chemical weapons, Shultz told Rumsfeld that the condemnation had been more or less pro forma and that "our interests in 1) preventing an Iranian victory and 2) continuing to improve bilateral relations with Iraq, at a pace of Iraq's choosing, remain undiminished.... This message bears reinforcing during your discussions."
The key to the relationship between the U.S. and Hussein over the years was that they shared the same enemies. Hussein's early political career was as a hit man for the Baath party. In 1961, he fled into exile in Egypt after botching an assassination attempt against the then-leader of Iraq, Abdul Karim Qassim. Qassim, a leftist general who ruled with the support of the Communist Party, was regarded with extreme disfavor in Washington.
In fact, Hussein's exile ended in 1963, when his Baathist colleagues seized power with covert U.S. assistance. "We rode to power on a CIA train," the party's secretary general, Ali Saleh Saadi, admitted later.
Once in power, Hussein and his party pursued a nationalist agenda that sometimes irked Washington -- as when he masterminded the full nationalization of Iraq's oil assets. In the mid-1970s, the U.S. got so irritated with him that it briefly gave covert assistance to Kurdish insurgents. But the triumph of militant Shiism in Iran a few years later guaranteed Hussein a place among Washington's allies once again.
Initially, it wasn't clear that Hussein would have to go to war against Khomeini's Iran. That's because the Shiite religious leadership in Iraq posed little threat to Hussein's rule. But that began to change when the communists -- who had commanded the allegiance of the Shiite masses -- were crushed and liquidated. The Shiite religious hierarchy, encouraged by the success of the Islamic Revolution next door, then began asserting itself politically.
Panicked by this internal threat, Hussein decided on a preemptive attack against Iran in 1980, a move that came with covert U.S. encouragement.
Apart from the eccentric deviation of the Iran-Contra affair, Washington's support for Iraq against the militant Iranian Shiite regime remained firm during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, despite Hussein's well-publicized use of poison gas against, as President Bush likes to remind us, his own people.
That consistent support, in fact, appears to have deluded Hussein into thinking that the U.S. would grant him concessions in return for withdrawing from Kuwait after his 1990 invasion of that country. Had he any experience of the outside world beyond his exile in Egypt and brief arms-shopping trips to Moscow and Paris -- or had his advisors not been too frightened to tell him the truth -- he might have understood that, with the Soviet Union's defeat in the Cold War, Third World dictators could no longer defy the U.S. and escape unpunished.
Though he was expelled from Kuwait and his economy wrecked by sanctions, Hussein was allowed to survive because Washington for a time continued to believe that he was useful as a bulwark against Iran abroad and militant Shiism at home in Iraq. When that policy was discarded by the neoconservatives after the 9/11 attacks, the dictator's days were numbered.
Hussein was for a period the prime example of the traditional U.S. means of control in the Middle East: quiet support for a repressive leader respectful of U.S. interests. That approach has now apparently been replaced by one that induces civil discord and breakdown (deliberately or otherwise), as evidenced by recent events in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan.
In his final hours, Saddam Hussein may have derived some satisfaction from the unpleasant surprises this change has produced for his former friends in Washington.