Searching for Saddam
A five-part series on how the U.S. military used social networking to capture the Iraqi dictator.
Who should the coalition have been going after? A careful study of Iraq's tribal structure, particularly around the Tikrit region where most of Saddam's top men were from, would have uncovered an entirely different cast of troublemakers. Most were high-ranking bodyguards, many of them related to Saddam, who lived in opulent houses and farms outside Tikrit. Some had served in Saddam's alphabet soup of security forces, but their influence with the president derived from their personal connections, not the contents of their résumés.
Information about Iraq's social fabric was easy to find before the war. In 1997, Iraq expert Amatzia Baram, now a professor at the University of Haifa, published perhaps the most influential paper on Saddam's tribal policies. The study described how, by the mid-1990s, Saddam had incorporated powerful tribal leaders into his government and granted them a certain autonomy, leading some of these sheikhs to overstep their authority. The paper got the attention of weapons inspectors as well as then-Iraqi U.N. representative Nizar Hamdun, who sent it to Baghdad. (Baram believes Saddam read it himself; about five weeks after the paper came out, Saddam issued a decree reasserting that the government's laws superseded tribal ones.)
Nor was there a scarcity of information on Saddam's peculiar personality. Jerrold M. Post, who formerly headed the CIA's Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior, published a long analysis of the dictator in 1991. From his youngest days, Post notes, Saddam was a consummate survivor who made sure to keep himself protected at all costs. When the war began, Saddam knew coalition forces were going after his top lieutenants; Post guesses that Saddam figured his odds of surviving were better if he ditched his government allies and went on the lam.
But to whom would he turn instead? Twenty-four years of murderous rule, punctuated by repeated coup attempts, had made Saddam understandably paranoid. "His conspiratorial mindset had wheels within wheels," Post says. Now that Saddam lacked the muscle to bully his associates into submission, he had to turn to those he felt he could trust most. As anyone familiar with The Godfather knows—and, as Post notes, Saddam was a huge fan of that film—in times of crisis one turns to family for trust and support.
If the deck of cards had been drawn up based on this understanding of how Saddam operated, it would have included the families in Tikrit who had strong ties to the regime. It's possible that even the fat man in the brown-striped shirt—the bodyguard tailing Saddam through the streets of Baghdad—would have made the cut. Even if Saddam and his sons had perished on the first day of the war, these were the kind of people who could carry on an insurgency in his stead.
On one point, however, the Americans guessed right. After Baghdad fell, Saddam went where he always did when he was in trouble. He went home.
The nine months Saddam spent in the womb were devastating for his mother Sabha. First, her husband—a member of Tikrit's Majid family in the Abu Nasir tribe—died, most likely of cancer. (Some accounts say he just disappeared.) A month before Saddam was born in 1937, her elder son died of cancer as well. According to one scholarly account, Saddam's mother went so far as to try to abort him before a Jewish family took her in and nurtured her to health. As soon as he was born, Saddam was sent to live with his mother's brother, Khayrallah Talfah Msallat, a radical Iraqi nationalist and the author of the charming pamphlet Three Whom God Should Not Have Created: Persians, Jews, and Flies.
Sabha would remarry a man named Ibrahim Hasan, with whom she would have three sons, Saddam's half-brothers. Saddam lived with them for several years before returning to his uncle, who would become his political mentor. Six decades after his unstable upbringing, Saddam would again bounce from house to house. The families that surrounded his childhood—Msallat, Hasan, Majid—would be the same ones he returned to as a man on the run.
There were two American units set up in Tikrit by the time Saddam reached his hometown. A small, secretive special operations team working out of one of Saddam's palaces focused on hunting down major fugitives. The much larger 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division was in charge of maintaining peace and stability in the entire Tikrit region. Catching Saddam would be a large step in that direction, but it was never explicitly part of the 1st BCT's mission.
Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.
Photograph of Col. James Hickey by Getty Images.