The Capture of Tehran, 1983
By Chris Oakley
Summary: In the previous ten chapters of this series we remembered the circumstances leading to the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War; the course of the war itself; the breakdown in Iraq’s relations with its coalition allies and with the United States in the war’s aftermath; the chain of events leading to the Gulf War; the start of the Gulf War itself; Saddam Hussein’s desperate efforts to maintain power as his military forces disintegrated in the face of coalition military pressure during Desert Storm; the ultimate collapse of his regime in the final days of the war; and the beginning of the manhunt for the fallen tyrant. In this segment we’ll look at Saddam’s arrest, trial, and eventual execution.
It was about 2:21 AM Baghdad time on the morning on June 25th, 1990 when General Schwarzkopf’s field headquarters received the new provisional Iraqi government’s request for cease-fire terms to end the Gulf War. By then, the search for Saddam Hussein had been going on for more than four hours and already turned up three leads, the most credible of which had the fallen Baathist dictator trying to reach the Iraqi-Jordanian border disguised as an ordinary regular army soldier so that he could slip through the coalition’s battle lines undetected and enter Jordan to gain passage to a third country where he might obtain political asylum for himself and his sons. His first choice was Switzerland, where many a previous dictator had also found refuge when overthrown from power; he had also considered taking shelter in Libya, whose ruler Muammar Khadafy was known to despise the coalition powers-- the United States in particular --and might, with the proper approach, be convinced to allow Saddam to claim asylum in Tripoli or Benghazi.
So while they might have taken a long while to iron out their differences on other matters, coalition diplomats and representatives of the provisional Iraqi government quickly came to unanimous accord on one crucial point: finding and arresting Saddam as soon as possible was an absolute necessity if peace were going to be restored to the Persian Gulf. With that in mind, the provisional administration in Baghdad formed a temporary truce with the U.S.-backed coalition in order to facilitate Saddam’s capture; historians would later credit this action with having helped clear the way for improved relations between Iraq and the West in the post-Desert Storm era. Indeed, some of the Iraqis who participated in the eventual capture of Saddam would later serve on the diplomatic staff at the postwar Iraqi embassy in Washington.
Patience is said to be a virtue, and that was certainly the case when it came to tracking down Saddam Hussein. On June 29th, five days after anti-Saddam rebels had seized his presidential palace and four days after U.S. and allied combat forces reached the outskirts of Baghdad, persistent hunches that the deposed Baathist dictator was trying to reach the Jordanian border were proven right when the CIA station chief in Amman received a tip that a man resembling Saddam’s description had been seen getting out of a truck in the village of Ar Rutbah. Given that Ar Rutbah was less than two hours’ drive from the Iraq-Jordan frontier, that left a very short window of opportunity to arrest him before he reached Jordanian soil.
So the SEAL team which had been airlifted into Iraq a few days earlier was picked up by helicopter and flown to the Ar Rutbah area to join Iraqi provisional government security personnel in setting up a roadblock to catch the ex-dictator. The roadblock did its job almost perfectly; although Qusay managed to escape the snare, Uday and Saddam were captured with only minimal resistance. And even Qusay didn’t have very long to enjoy his liberation-- he was shot and killed by a Saudi patrol the next day.
While some Iraqis in Saddam’s old hometown of Tikrit might have mourned Qusay’s death or Uday and Saddam’s arrest, for most citizens of Iraq those events were cause for celebration. In Baghdad, secular and religious anti-Baathists alike thronged the streets to cheer as a Saddam statue was toppled in the heart of the Iraqi capital, in Mosul Iraqi Kurds held a mock funeral for the ousted tyrant; in Karbala, the city’s oldest mosque hosted a special thanksgiving prayer service by Iraqi Shiite Muslims whose faith had been marginalized and suppressed for years by Saddam’s largely Sunni-backed regime.
Outside of Iraq, the prevailing reaction to the news of Saddam Hussein’s capture was one of joy and relief. This was particularly the case in Saudi Arabia, whose shipping and oil supplies had been greatly threatened by the Iraqis even before the Persian Gulf War began, and in Israeli, whose civilian population had been subjected to attacks by Iraqi Scud missiles in the war’s final days. In Iran, which had been suffering under Baathist occupation for almost seven years, the arrest was viewed as a hopeful sign that the Iranian people were on the verge of finally regaining control of their own country.
The peace accord that officially ended the Persian Gulf War was signed by Iraqi and coalition diplomats in Riyadh on July 3rd, 1990, just thirty-one days after the first shots of the war had been fired along the Iraq-Kuwait border. On July 6th what was left of the Iraqi occupation garrison in Iran withdrew from Iranian soil under the supervision of UN peacekeepers, who would themselves leave Iran in the spring of 1991.
The next order of business was to establish a proper legal framework for the war crimes trial of Saddam and his top surviving henchmen. Initial sentiment on this score favored setting up a multi-national tribunal along the lines of the panel which had tried the surviving members of the Nazi hierarchy after World War II. But the new Iraqi government, wanting to demonstrate that it was serious about calling Iraq’s former rulers to account for the atrocities committed during the Baathist era, insisted on prosecuting Saddam and his top surviving deputies in an Iraqi court. Eventually, after some days of delicate negotiations, a compromise was reached whereby the presiding judge in the trial would be an Iraqi citizen but representatives from other countries would be permitted to sit on the jury alongside Iraqi nationals.
The first indictments handed down by the Iraqi war crimes tribunal came in early August of 1990. Other than Saddam Hussein himself, the highest-ranking defendant from Saddam’s regime to be indicted during the opening week of the trials was Iraqi general Ali Hassan al-Majid, the erstwhile director of Saddam’s chemical weapons program-- better known to the Western press as "Chemical Ali". Even by the infamously ruthless standards of the fallen Baath dictatorship, al-Majid was an exceptionally cruel man; not only had he sanctioned poison gas attacks on Iranian troops during the Iran- Iraq War, he had also authorized the use of chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurdish villages that dared to protest Saddam’s oppression of the Kurds. Coalition troops had even turned up evidence suggesting al-Majid had been working with Iraqi intelligence officials on a plan to smuggle nerve gas canisters into the United States and Great Britain for terror attacks on those countries’ largest urban areas.
Next was ex-Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz; as Saddam’s point man in Iraqi relations with the rest of the world during the Baathist era, he was regarded as a major accomplice in Saddam’s acts of aggression against foreign countries. He was deemed to bear a particularly substantial measure of responsibility for starting the Gulf War, since it had been partly on his advice that Saddam had made the original ill-advised decision to plan and attempt an invasion of Iraq’s southern neighbor Kuwait. There was no love lost for Aziz as far as most of the people in the courtroom were concerned; at least one spectator in the public gallery could be distinctly heard yelling "Hang the bastard!" when security guards brought the deposed Baathist foreign minister to the witness stand.
That reaction was relatively mild, however, compared to the near-riot which ensued within the courtroom when Saddam himself was indicted two days after Aziz’s arraignment. It took the combined efforts of Iraqi provisional government security agents and coalition military MPs to keep order in the court that day; years of pent-up hatred and grief over the horrendous atrocities Saddam and his regime had perpetrated against his own people were erupting like a volcano as he was finally called to account for his barbaric actions during his years in power. Saddam, never one to pass up an opportunity to lash out at his enemies, hurled a few harsh words of his own at the spectators in the court before the tribunal’s presiding judge warned him that a further such outburst would result in a summary judgment against him.
The phrase "banality of evil" was invoked more than once during Saddam’s trial. When questioned about the numerous atrocities he had committed himself or sanctioned his deputies to commit in his name, he justified them in the same kind of casual tone one might use to make comments about the weather or ask for the time of day. For his warped perspective, the real crime was not the evil actions his regime had perpetrated for the sake of retaining its grip on power, but rather the international community’s quest to hold him accountable for those actions. He viewed himself as a heroic and unifying modern-day Saladin rather than the megalomaniacal thug his domestic and foreign foes had long deemed him to be.
Unsurprisingly, the tribunal wasn’t impressed by Saddam’s self- serving testimony. Neither was its chief prosecutor, who relentlessly chipped away at the deposed dictator’s alibis in a cross-examination that would have left Jack the Ripper pleading for mercy. Between that cross-exam, and the eyewitness accounts of Iraqis who had personally experienced the barbarism Saddam was capable of, his fate was all but sealed. His last hope for avoiding the hangman’s noose collapsed in early September of 1990 when the former regional commander-in-chief of Iraqi army troops in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq gave detailed testimony to the court regarding the atrocities Iraqi regular forces and Republican Guard units had engaged in against Kurdish civilians in the years between the fall of Iran’s Islamic regime and Desert Storm.
The fallen dictator was convicted on all but one of the 110- plus criminal counts brought against him by the tribunal. Once the guilty verdict had been rendered, the only issue left to be settled was the matter of his sentence...
....which would turn out to be the harshest possible penalty the tribute could exact on him. In December of 1990 he was condemned to the death by hanging; on January 16th, 1991 he was executed at Abu Ghraib while huge crowds outside the prison walls chanted anti-Saddam slogans and burned him in effigy. The execution was televised live throughout the Middle East and led the evening newscasts on most TV networks in the West-- particularly in the United States, where Saddam had been public enemy number one for months. While the dictator’s body was being cremated and the post-Gulf War Iraqi government was getting on with the business of building a more stable society for Iraq, over in Iran the Iranian people were engaged in a passionate-- sometimes fiery --debate about their own nation’s political and social future...
To Be Continued