The story began in 1964. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi enjoyed a friendship with a colleague named Abdul Karim Al-Shaikhli, who had returned to the College of Medicine in Baghdad after a long break, due to his involvement in the assassination attempt against Iraqi leader Abdul Karim Qasim in 1959.
One day, a skinny young man came to the college, and Al-Shaikhli introduced him to Allawi. His name was Saddam Hussein. Saddam will repeat these visits and will always ask Allawi: “Where is my twin brother?” Allawi would answer that he was attending a lecture and would come after it ended, and the two would exchange conversations over a cup of coffee, then Al-Shaikhli would join them.
A friendship developed between the three, who would later be held in the same prison in 1964. But their paths would then converge, when Saddam became the undisputed master of the Baath party and the country.
In 1978, Saddam attacked Allawi with an axe, but he luckily escaped with his life. However, hostility did not prevent him from acknowledging his opponent’s qualities and characteristics. I asked him to describe Saddam during the first half of the 1960s, he replied: “When we met for the first time, he did not have an important role in the party. But he was a man of nobility and strong will, and was considered one of the party’s fighters and committed to its ideology.”
Allawi admitted that after the fall of Saddam, his government conducted investigations “and did not find a single property in his name, including the presidential plane.” While he blamed the young man he met in medical school for the disasters and tragedies that befell Iraq, he did not deny the qualities he possessed that helped him advance in the party. But he stressed that power turned the young fighter into a tyrannical ruler without a partner or anyone to keep him in check.
I asked Allawi about Saddam’s cruelty, and he told me a story:
“I have never seen cruelty like Saddam’s. Here I can mention an important incident. Among the Baathists was a person from Karrada named Hussein Hazbar, who defected and worked with the Syrian wing of the Baath Party in Iraq. One day, a group of Baathists and I were sitting having dinner in the garden of a restaurant. Saddam and Saadoun Shaker came to us. They were cheerful and laughing... They said that they had set a trap for Hazbar, on the suspension bridge, adding that the man was beaten with the butt of pistols, and that he was taken to a hospital...”
“We were appalled by the incident and formed a delegation to go to the hospital to check on the man, and acquit the party of this act, which we saw as cruel and a kind of treachery. I was not part of the delegation, but I knew that five people had attacked Hazbar. He was alone crossing the bridge, so they surrounded him and beat him.”
A feast of surprises
Allawi also recounted how Saddam’s regime dismissed Al-Shaikhli from his post as foreign minister and member of the Baath part on the same evening as his engagement. He recalled:
“The story of Al-Shaikhli’s dismissal from his position in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs deserves to be mentioned. The man proposed to a girl to marry her. Saddam invited him to dinner with his fiancée, and also invited the Minister of Interior, Vice President of the Republic, Saleh Mahdi Ammash, and his wife. During the dinner, Baghdad Radio broadcast that Al-Shaikhli and Ammash were both relieved of their positions. Al-Shaikhli called me and asked me: Have you heard the news? [...] As I was taking my fiancée to her home, my driver asked me, ‘Did you hear the news?’ I replied: What news? He said: You will be relieved of all your posts and positions in the party and the state.”
Allawi continued: “Al-Shaikhli had participated, along with Saddam, in the attempt to assassinate Qasim. They both fled the country to Egypt, where they lived like brothers. Al-Shaikhli was an Arab nationalist and held senior roles within the party. Years later, the man was put under house arrest. The regime deliberately cut off the electricity to his home under the pretext of unsettled bills. When he went to the Electricity Corporation headquarters, they shot him dead in front of his wife. That was in 1980. Unfortunately, he did not take my advice not to return to Iraq when he was outside the country.”
In prison with Saddam and his companions
Allawi recounted the circumstances of his imprisonment, along with Saddam, in 1964.
“In the fall of 1964, the party decided to launch a coup attempt to restore power. For this purpose, a special body was formed under the name of ‘Jihaz Hanin’, and was led by Saddam, Al-Shaikhli, and Mohammad Fadel. In early September, the coup attempt was uncovered and the authorities launched a massive arrest and persecution campaign. I was among those arrested at that time, along with Saddam, Al-Shaikhli, Salah Omar Al-Ali, Imad Shabib, and Hamid Jawad.”
“Saddam and Al-Shaikhli escaped from prison through a pharmacy in the Al-Saadoun area. They usually returned from court to the prison, but on that day, they claimed that they needed to buy some medicine. They entered the pharmacy with some guards and fled through another entrance, where a car was waiting for them. They laid low until Abdul Rahman Al-Bazzaz, then-prime minister, pardoned them and others, through an official decision. This helped speed up the process of rebuilding and restoring the party, and revived talks about the means to change the regime in Iraq through a military coup.”
“I graduated from medical school in the summer of 1970 and left Iraq to live in Lebanon in October 1971, determined to reach an agreement with others to modify some of the party’s paths by changing the leaders and returning the party to its true spirit. The reasons for me leaving party work were many, most importantly restrictions on freedoms...”
Among those who advised Allawi to leave Iraq was a friend named Nazim Kazar, a famous member of what was known as the “Cruelty Club.”
The man was the director of Public Security and attempted in 1973, along with others, to assassinate Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr and Saddam together at Baghdad airport, in protest against their control over the party and the state. But when Al-Bakr’s plane was late in arriving, the conspirators thought that the plan had been uncovered. Kazar fled towards the border with Iran, but the army arrested him and quickly liquidated him.
Allawi said: “Kazar was executed quickly. They shot him in the back of the head. No one could confront him even though he was detained. He is the most daring man I have ever met. He knows no such thing as fear. We worked together in the party’s student office. He had unlimited boldness and absolute commitment to the party’s goals. He was as violent as Saddam. Violent, strong and fair. There is no doubt about his integrity.”
At the conclusion of the interview, I asked Allawi about the factors that made Saddam take control of the Baath Party. He replied: “There are two main reasons: the first was his extreme audacity, and the second was the support provided to him by Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr. Later, Saddam felt that he had control over the party and turned against Al-Bakr... Saddam’s slide into dependence on the family and the Tikrit elements started two months after the Baath Party regained power.”
Allawi’s story is valuable, long and thorny. It cannot fit into a handful of pages. His narration sheds light on some of the features of that stage, especially since he had a direct relationship with the most prominent players in the “Cruelty Club.”