Saddam looks back on early days in autobiography
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
BAGHDAD (Reuters - 6 March) - Saddam Hussein fondly remembers how his mother used to run her fingers through his hair and tell him children's stories during a poverty-stricken upbringing.
"Men and a City", a new autobiography of Iraq's president, tells the story of a shepherd boy growing up close to his mother with no qualms about using force to achieve his objectives.
It also strays into the present, expressing frustration with corruption that has crept into Iraqi society since the 1991 Gulf War and describes in detail the tribes and terrain that make Iraq difficult to govern from the centre.
The book is the third in a series that started two years ago and signed as "a book by its writer", Saddam's nom de plume. The last two books were fiction and one of them, "Zubaiba and the King", was made into a musical.
"This is his best book yet," said one housewife. "It is easy to read. The president has changed the names of few persons in his life. It is easy to identify them though."
A bookshop owner said he had sold out of the few copies that were made available but the book, released in recent weeks, is being distributed to government workers.
COOL UNDER FIRE
In his book, the Iraqi leader appears cool in a crisis, such as the failed assassination attempt he took part in against the populist military ruler Abdel Karim Qassem in 1959.
Although Saddam was shot in the leg by Qassem's guards, he does not appear to have ever faced a situation as dangerous as the massed U.S. forces preparing to invade Iraq to try to remove him from power.
The book ends in 1959 when the author was 22. Saddam says he had pulled out his gun several times before trying to kill Qassem, including once to control unruly passengers on a train.
Two figures loom large in his early days: his mother Sabha, whom Saddam says was a good manager of meagre family resources, and his uncle Khairallah, who inspired him to go into politics.
Saddam's father Hussein died before he was born in 1937 in the village of Oja, part of the Tikrit district on the Tigris. Sabha remarried but his stepfather gets little mention.
"My mother used to hug me and tell me about my ancestors. She was my school and my mentor. She told me stories while her loving hands played with my hair," Saddam writes.
Saddam says the Iraq in which he grew up in the 1940s was poor and backward, and it was common for people to die from preventable diseases, especially in the countryside.
"Abject poverty and backwardness was everywhere, including Baghdad. This was the general condition of Iraq, despite the richness of its water and land, its heritage and deep civilisation," Saddam writes.
"Most people got sick then because of malnutrition and lack of the minimum requirements for living," he adds.
Social and infrastructure projects were introduced by Qassem, whose coup removed the British installed monarchy in 1958. Saddam's Baath party built on these programmes when it took power in 1968.
Ironically, some of the most significant achievements of Saddam -- first-class infrastructure, an advanced health care system and an efficient bureaucracy -- were destroyed in the 1991 war and its aftermath.
Iraq in some ways returned to the days of the monarchy that Saddam detested.
"After the foreigner stole the wealth of Iraq, the Iraqis began to treat the public purse on the same basis," Saddam says, in reference to corruption under the monarchy, which was eradicated but returned after the Gulf War.
"We have been suffering from this background since the embargo and aggression (the Gulf War) until the time these lines are being written," Saddam says.
"Men and a City" concentrates on Saddam's early years. He broke his hand falling from a donkey at the age of five but mastered horse riding a few years later.
Saddam says one of the disappointments in his life was failing to join the military academy because he was underweight. He appointed himself field marshal when he officially became president in 1979.
Saddam writes about how he learnt to swim in the Tigris and Euphrates, the great rivers which engulfed the ancient world of Mesopotamia. He describes a lively cafe scene in Baghdad, a Jewish textile seller in the street where he lived and the cosmopolitan nature and deep-rooted culture of Iraq.
He substitutes only a few names. Saddam calls himself Saleh. His cousin and would be wife Sajeda is Abeda. His mother retains her name as does his cousin Adnan, whom he appointed defence minister and was killed in a helicopter crash in the 1989.
Saddam's uncle Khairallah was one of few from Tikrit to get a relatively advanced education. Khairallah gave his nephew a gun as a gift when Saddam was a teenager -- a U.S.-made Smith & Wesson.
Guns were and remain a symbol of free men in tribal regions such as Tikrit, whose support was key for Saddam's consolidation of power and maintaining effective control over Iraq for three decades.
Saddam tells a story about the shifting allegiances of the tribal country, showing how unreliable the power base of an Iraqi ruler could be.
A chieftain in southern Iraq went to the post office to send a telegram congratulating Rashid Ali al-Kilani, an Arab nationalist who led a coup against the monarchy in 1941. It was raining and the roads turned into mud. It took the chief two days to reach the post office.
By the time the chief got there, the monarchy had pushed back the rebels, most of whom were from the army.
The telegraph operator told the chief that the revolt had failed and Kilani had fled Iraq. Unperturbed, the tribal leader directed him to send the same congratulatory text to the crown regent in support of the monarchy.