The American flag was lowered for last time today from Saddam Hussein’s main Republican Palace on the Tigris River in Baghdad.The Palace is empty now, but not long ago over 1,000 Americans worked in this 1.7 mile complex.
It served as the headquarters for Paul Bremer when he ruled the nation as the “U.S. Administrator for Iraq.” It was also the U.S. Embassy and it will soon become the office of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
The United Nations mandate for Iraq expired yesterday at midnight and today a new bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Iraq went into effect. The agreement calls for all U.S. combat troops to leave Iraqi cities by next June, with complete withdrawal in 2011. Control of Baghdad’s government center or Green Zone, and Iraq’s airspace was also handed over today, and a few hours ago the British vacated Basra airport.
At the height of his power, Saddam Hussein controlled a one million man Army, sent rockets into space, and came close to developing an atomic bomb. His vast purchases of armaments were strictly curtailed after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and his subsequent spending sprees focused on the construction of palaces.
With the turn over of the Republican Palace, all of these buildings are now under Iraqi control. The various palaces include over 1000 buildings and huge land areas. A 1999 report from the Clinton Administration described the billions of dollars Saddam spent on these edifices, and 48 of the 52 palace complexes were constructed while Iraq was under international sanctions imposed by the United Nations. The importation of luxury items was forbidden but smuggling and the black market trade made this possible. The funding came from diversions out of the UN “Oil for Food” program. Iraq was allowed to sell oil to feed its population but vast amounts of money were instead diverted and squandered by the leadership of the Ba’ath Party.
Many dictators have expensive tastes, and the Saddam era palaces feature tons of marble, gold fixtures, crystal chandeliers, priceless art work, over stuffed throne rooms, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, man made lakes, dolphin ponds, as well as personal zoos and hospitals. Unique features included bunkers to withstand both chemical attacks and bazookas, and torture chambers. These chambers included hooks for hanging people by the hands during beatings, devices for electrical shock and the burning of skin.
Some of the palaces were bigger than Versailles, and the main building at the Lake Tharthar compound is five times larger than the White House and includes over 50 marble mansions.
Saddam had one of the largest yachts in the world, and his son Uday had over 1,200 exotic luxury cars. If Uday admired anyone’s car he just took it. He did the same thing with women. He even abducted a bride from her wedding. According to Human Rights Watch, he was responsible for hundreds of rapes and many of the victims were murdered.
Uday shot and killed an Iraq Army officer who failed to salute to him. In the middle of a packed reception at the Republican Palace for Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Uday horrified the guests by beating his father’s valet to death.
Saddam’s palaces are quickly fading from memory, but the tremendous human rights violations of his regime will not be fully understood if the luxury building boom is forgotten. Many critics of Operation Iraqi Freedom believe the Bush Administration made a mistake by not giving UN sanctions more time to work.
Sanctions went into effect at the time of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and they lasted until his down fall in 2003. Despite the success of the surge and an 86% reduction in American combat casualties this year, the critics also believe the Iraq mission was not worth it because of the cost and civilian casualties.
These casualties fell by two-thirds in 2008, but past civilian casualties were high. The anti-war group Iraq Body Count (IBC) maintains a data base demonstrating over 90,000 civilian casualties since 2003. The IBC ignores Iraqi civilians killed during the Saddam Hussein era, and they make no discernment between those killed intentionally in terror attacks, or the far smaller number killed collaterally by security forces trying to stop the terrorists.
The IBC openly lays the blame for each death on the U.S. A Defense Department study concluded that the number of civilians killed in Iraq from American collateral damage to be between 1 and 2% of the overall count.
The critics ignore the large number of people, especially children, who were dying every day during the sanctions period. Sanctions were maintained after the 1991 Gulf War because of Saddam Hussein’s refusal to allow weapons inspectors into Iraq. His refusal to comply with the UN remains a mystery, but the result is not. During the sanctions period, Iraq’s GDP declined by 75%.
According to the World Health Organization, during the next decade over 500,000 Iraqi children needlessly died of malnutrition. Their story is told in two powerful documentaries, “Genocide by Sanctions” (1999) which claimed the total the number was 1.25 million, and “Killing the Children of Iraq—A Price Worth Paying” (2000).
Iraq obviously had the available funds to feed those children, and if a problem developed, international humanitarian organizations would have gladly made food assistance donations. The children died because they were being used for political propaganda purposes, and palace construction was a far higher priority. Saddam Hussein could have prevented any child from suffering simply by meeting his obligations.
In a 1996 “60 Minutes” interview, Lesley Stahl questioned our then UN Ambassador, Madeleine Albright, about the sanctions policy. Stahl said “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?
Albright responded: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.” It was this comment that led to the title of the documentary I already mentioned.
In her book, “Madam Secretary”, Albright regretted the tone of her comment and said: “I must have been crazy; I should have answered the question by reframing it and pointing out the inherent flaws in the premise behind it. Little effort was made to explain Saddam’s culpability, his misuse of Iraqi resources, or the fact that we were not embargoing medicine or food. . . . Religious and human rights groups may be well-meaning [but] they need to understand who the real villain is. The villain is Saddam Hussein. It is not the international community that is keeping the Iraqi children and people from eating. It is Saddam Hussein. . . . He is the one that can pick up the key and let himself out of the sanctions box. He knows how to do it.”
All of this is important to remember as a new Iraqi government today moves into the Republican Palace. The squandered money is regrettable, but the great crime is what the late dictator did to own people.
Organizations such as Iraq Body Count do not provide complete figures. They do not mention:
The over 1 million dead during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980’s.
The over 500,000 children who died during the 1990 – 2003 sanctions period.
The over 300,000 victims who died because of torture and other human rights violations during the Saddam era.
The over 60,000 Kurds who died during the Al-Anfal campaign of 1988.
The 85,000 casualties of 1991 Gulf War.
The 30,000 Kurds and 70,000 Shi’ites who died because of Saddam’s retribution after losing the 1991 Gulf War. 270 mass graves were discovered and exhumed after Saddam’s downfall.
If sanctions had remained in effect from 2003 to 2009 perhaps another 500,000 children would have perished.
On the positive side, there are no longer any political prisoners, no executions, no torture at Abu Ghraib Prison and no limit on the freedom of expression. The terrorists have not abandoned Iraq, but the large scale inhuman carnage and suffering has stopped, and 27 million people will have a better life.