Dateline Baghdad: The Saddam Conspiracy Theory

Are things really getting back to normal in Baghdad?

September 29, 2004

Are things really getting back to normal in Baghdad?

If you still believe that the resistance against the United States of America is limited to just a few disgruntled former Ba'ath Party officials and outside agitators, you are in for a rude awakening.

A Sunni cleric in Baghdad told me that the struggle against American control of Iraq was linked to Saddam in a curious way.

In his reasoning, the CIA had created Saddam and propped him up over the years.

Why then, I asked him, would the United States turn against its old puppet?

The cleric came up with an answer: the United States had removed Saddam because they sensed that he had become weak – and was no longer useful for U.S. policy purposes.

Moreover, the cleric told me, the CIA knew that there would soon be an Islamic rebellion against Saddam in Iraq. Hence, the United States invaded and occupied the country in order to co-opt this potential Islamic revolution.

By fighting the U.S. occupation, Iraqis like my Sunni cleric interlocuter were revolting against what they considered to be a Saddam/U.S. regime.

This theory was accepted as plausible by two other clerics who joined the conversation. They were not just low-ranking functionaries. They were members of the Council of Islamic Clergy for the Baghdad and Fallujah area.

I met with them at the "Mother of All Battles Mosque" in Baghdad, the imposing modern edifice built by Saddam to celebrate what he touted as his victory over the United States in the first Gulf War. It is now a focal point for Muslim clerics and the Islamic resistance to the occupation.

Their agreement over the conspiracy theory about the Saddam/U.S. alliance — as unlikely as it might appear to most Americans — shows how deeply they mistrusted the intentions of the American presence in Iraq.

These religious leaders were often persecuted under Saddam's regime. They hated Saddam, they told me. They said that Islamic strongholds such as Fallujah did not resist the U.S. military invasion at first. They initially adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

This attitude soon soured into resistance. Iraqis such as the clerics with whom I spoke were disturbed at the occupation regime's heavy-handed U.S. military presence and the blatantly pro-American policies of the interim government in handing out business contracts to U.S. companies and keeping former administrators and soldiers out of the new regime.

The clerics were not alone in their view. Other Iraqis also had theories that questioned the United States' intentions in invading and occupying Iraq.

Many thought it was because the United States wanted to control Iraq's oil or to buttress the security of nearby Israel.

No one I talked with in Iraq thought that the United States was afraid of Saddam Hussein's power, including his alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction.

"We could have gotten rid of him ourselves," one former government official complained, explaining that the United States was mesmerized by what he called the "myth of Saddam's power."

In his view, Saddam Hussein wanted the world — and especially the Iraqi people — to believe that he had weapons of mass destruction in order to scare them. In fact, the former government official said, Saddam was quite vulnerable, as the quick victory by U.S. troops suggested.

The former official seemed almost embarrassed that Saddam's army was routed so easily. He was even more ashamed that he and the Iraqi people were not involved in Iraq's liberation.

The term "liberation" was seldom used by Iraqis, who spoke instead of a U.S. occupation.

Even those Iraqis who did not have conspiracy theories about U.S.- Saddam connections had criticisms over the way that the United States had managed its control over their country.

Among these critics were many of Baghdad's secular intellectuals and urban professionals — people who otherwise espoused America's modern values.

Though few supported the violence of the anti-American extremists, they shared the sense of resentment that led to these vicious acts.

Some described their treatment under U.S. occupation as a continuation of the kind of oppression they had experienced under Saddam. A few thought it was even worse.

"Saddam tortured and punished us physically," one middle class Iraqi told me. "But he did not try to humiliate us."

At a seminar held in Saddam's old international affairs think-tank, Bayt al-Hikma ("The House of Wisdom"), an articulate English-speaking professor of political science at Baghdad University directed some pointed remarks to me. She talked about how the inability of the U.S. military to seal Iraq's borders had made it possible for radical Islamic activists from outside to enter the country.

With her voice rising, the smartly-dressed professor with a modern hair style began cataloguing the other problems created by U.S. troops, ending with the accusation that the United States was responsible for most of the insurrection and violence occurring the last year.

"We had expected so much when Saddam was toppled," she said bitterly. "But now things are even worse."

She identified the lack of security and the economic stagnation as her primary concerns.

But she also felt that the United States was brutal in its response to what it perceived as the terrorism of insurgents in places like Fallujah and Najaf. The United States is acting "like the terrorists" that it despises, she said.

For the average citizen in Iraq, life is more precarious now than before the fall of Saddam. The U.S. invasion of Iraq went quickly, and for most Iraqis the experience of war was not felt until months later.

As rigid and dictatorial as Saddam's regime may have been, the new problems — the insecurity of public order, the looting, the bombings and the constant reminders of foreign military presence — are all features of life after Saddam.

The U.S. military incursion into Falluja and the shelling of Najaf in August of 2004 in pursuit of Muqtada al Sadr's militia were jarring enactments of a war that most Iraqis had not previously experienced.

In that sense, it is understandable that many Iraqis would not regard the entry of American troops as signaling the end of armed hostilities, but in a curious way, its beginning. They are now waiting for that war to end.