Reviving the myth of Saddam Hussein

Gilad Shiloach examines the proliferation of Saddam Hussein's image as defender of the Arab world, which is magnified by fear of Iranian regional influence.

Illustration of Saddam hugging a map of Iraq, shared dozens of times on social media.  From Twitter.
Illustration of Saddam hugging a map of Iraq.  From Twitter.

In late December, thousands of people across the Middle East commemorated the 10th anniversary of Saddam Hussein's death. The former Iraqi president was deposed by the American invasion in 2003, convicted of crimes against humanity, and executed by hanging on December 30, 2006. The show of support for Saddam's legacy occurred mostly on social networking sites (SNS) and was led by users from Saudi Arabia and other regional Sunni nations. This support was contextualized by the majority Shi‘ite Iraqi Army’s victory in the battle to reclaim the city of Mosul from ISIS, during one of the most decisive periods for Iraq since the country's post-Saddam descent into chaos. As relations between Sunnis and Shi‘ites, and particularly Saudi Arabia and Iran, reach a low point, evocation of the image and legacy of Sunni Saddam exposes a deep rift in the Middle East, and raises questions about Iraq’s current standing in the region. The support for Saddam on SNS shows that many still consider him a symbol of Arab nationalism, and that a decade after his death, he is still popular in some Middle Eastern circles, perhaps more so than among Iraqis.

Several thousand posts were published on Twitter and Facebook using hashtags like “a decade since the death of Saddam” and “anniversary of Saddam’s martyrdom,” primarily by users from Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries. They used the image of the deposed dictator to bait Shi‘ites and protest the spread of Iranian influence in the Middle East. Many remembered the dictator with longing and lamented the passing of “someone who protected not only his homeland, but also the entire Arab homeland from the spread of Persian Shi‘ites.” They also shared an illustration of Saddam hugging a map of Iraq and protecting its territorial integrity.[1] Others called him “Leader of the Arabs”[2] and “Hope of Arabism.”[3] Some wrote that the day Saddam was executed was also the day that Iraq was put to death”[4] and protested the fact that Americans had turned Iraq over “to the filthiest creatures of Allah – Shi‘ites.”[5] Saddam’s daughter, Raghad Hussein, who lives in Jordan and has more than 500,000 followers on Facebook, published several posts on the anniversary praising her father. She wrote, “On this day, the world lost its father, an awe-inspiring commander, the president of the Iraqi Republic, and defender of the Arab nation.”[6] Activity marking a decade since the death of Saddam occurred primarily on the Internet, although there were some reports of small memorial events held in Jordan,[7] Yemen,[8] and Mauritania.[9] The largest memorial was held in Amman, the Jordanian capital.[10] Aside from a few newspaper editorials, these events did not attract significant attention from Arab media.

Several weeks later, images of Saddam again appeared on SNS. Users from Sunni countries, again mostly Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf, used the hashtag “Save occupied Arab Iraq”[11] to protest the “Iranian conquest”[12] of parts of the country. They referred to the battles in Mosul and the expected defeat of ISIS by the Iraqi Army, Kurdish Peshmerga forces, and other Shi‘ite militias supported by Iran. Users expressed fear of Iranian influence and Shi‘ite hegemony in Iraq, warning that Iraq is on the verge of losing its “Arab” identity to its Persian neighbors. “Iraq needs someone like Saddam,”[13] wrote users. Others expressed their sorrow at the death of the admired leader with the words, “May Allah have mercy on Saddam.” Others claimed that after Saddam's death, “Iran began to bark and raise its voice”[14] and “All that remains is the Iraq of the Iranians. The noble Arab leader Saddam has gone, and with him Iraq and Arab-ness.”[15] Even if not stated explicitly, the outcry against Iranian expansion shows that at least one sector of the Middle East's population preferred the presence of ISIS in Mosul, a firm Sunni stronghold, to Shi‘ite-Iranian conquest.[16]

Commemoration of Saddam's death is not a new phenomenon. In past years, users commemorated the dictator on the Gregorian date of his death, on Eid al-Adha, the Islamic calendar date of his death, and in response to terror attacks on Iraq.[17] Small groups in the region occasionally hold rallies in his memory, supporting his legacy. From the perspective of these users, “ISIS would not have come about under Saddam,” and his mortal enemies from neighboring Iran are the main beneficiaries of his ousting.[18] There are Facebook pages devoted to “the hero martyr Saddam Hussein,”[19] with more than 100,000 followers, and several dozen other groups where users can find Saddam’s famous quotes, video clips and pictures. Within ISIS, there is also commemoration of Saddam, with posters of him displayed in the organization's explosives factories[20] and command posts in Sunni strongholds like Falluja.[21] This symbolism indicates that many senior officers in ISIS are exiles from Saddam’s regime, army and Iraqi Baath party, who joined ISIS for utilitarian, ethnic, and ideological reasons.

The events that occurred in the Middle East following Saddam Hussein's ousting in 2003 led to his centrality in a number of myths. The most prevalent narrative in posts published by Sunni users represents Saddam as the ultimate defender of Arabism against Iranian-Shi‘ite expansionism. These users laud Saddam's capacity to maintain the region's and Iraq's Arab identity and territorial integrity. There is no disputing that Baghdad, currently under Shi‘ite leadership, no longer serves as a counterbalance to Tehran's influence. As Iran strives to achieve regional hegemony, Iraq has ceased to play a central role in the Arab world and Persian Gulf. Instead, Iraq has become a failed state, succumbing to Sunni-Shi‘ite conflict and jihadist terrorism, from ISIS to al-Qaeda (led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi). As such, although expressions of support for Saddam are not a new phenomenon on Middle Eastern SNS, they were more extensive this year. This increase seems to be linked to the campaign for Mosul and fear of Iranian control over Iraq following ISIS' defeat.

[1] @ALblagi, Twitter, January 2, 2017. 

[2] @mustafatofe1, Twitter, December 30, 2016. 

[3]‏ ‏@rehoumabenncer, Twitter, December 31, 2016.

[4] @sqahtan1, Twitter, December 30, 2016. 

[5] @brq_y1, Twitter, December 31, 2016.  ‏

[6] Facebook, December 30, 2016. 

[7] Watanserb, January 1, 2017. 

[8] Youtube, "جمعية كنعان لفلسطين و منظمة أمة عربية واحدة تُحيي الذكرى العاشرة لإستشهاد الرئيس صدام حسين", January 4, 2017. 

[9], January 10, 2017. 

[10], January 6, 2017.

[11] #أنقذوا_العراق_العًربي_المحتل

[12] @mohamdbnakeel, Twitter, January 11, 2017.

[13] Twitter, rakanalrbe3an1/status/81890857701215027

[14] @abo_shded_s, Twitter, January 11, 2017. 

[15] @CR_1412, Twitter, January 11, 2017. 

[16] Gilad Shiloach, “Iraqis Blame Al Jazeera For ‘Promoting ISIS Interests’ In Fight For Fallujah”, Vocativ, 31 May 2016. Available at /.

[17] Gilad Shiloach, “Iraqis Irate Over Dire Security Situation Long For Days Of Saddam”, Vocativ, 4 July 2016.

[18] Gilad Shiloach, “ISIS Would Never Have Happened Under Saddam, Say Arabs”, Vocativ, 24 September 2015.

[19] @The.hero.martyr.Sddam.Hussein, Facebook

[20] Gilad Shiloach, “Saddam Hussein Posters Purportedly Found In ISIS Bomb Factory”, Vocativ, 13 July 2016.

[21] Gilad Shiloach, “Saddam Hussein Allegedly Found In ISIS Headquarters”, Vocativ, 29 May 2016.