DUJAIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Saddam Hussein was hanged for killing 148 Shi‘ite men and boys in Dujail in 1982. But today, some people in this town on the Tigris say they miss life under the Iraqi dictator because they felt more secure.
Even some of those from Dujail whose family members were murdered and imprisoned during Saddam’s iron-fisted rule seemed seduced by the idea of a strong leader after years of chaos, bloodshed and deprivation since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
“If someone like Saddam came back, I’d not only support him, I’d invite him to dinner. My uncle was killed in 1982 in the Dujail incident. Still, life then was a million times better than now,” said Saad Mukhlif, a Shi‘ite.
Nostalgia for Saddam and his Sunni-led government in this largely Shi‘ite town mirrors a country-wide sense of frustration despite a drop in attacks and killings.
U.S. military officials say violence in Iraq is at four-year lows but militant groups stepped up attacks for the holy month of Ramadan, and the country still suffers chronic shortages of water, power and other basic services.
“(Prime Minister) Nuri al-Maliki is sitting in (Baghdad’s fortified) Green Zone, what’s he doing to protect us? What’s the point of this government?” said Mohammed Mehdi, a Shi‘ite, whose cousin was jailed in 1982 and whose brother was killed in a car bomb in Dujail last month.
“Saddam Hussein is the only noble leader we’ve had,” he added, before shouting “God bless Saddam 1,000 times,” within earshot of U.S. troops accompanying reporters visiting the town, 50 km (30 miles) north of Baghdad.
Mehdi and Mukhlif’s views were echoed elsewhere as Reuters spoke to around 15 passers-by and shopkeepers in Dujail’s high street.
A crowd of men and boys gathered to sing Saddam’s praises, and boys on their way home from school chanted: “After Saddam, came the destroyers” and complained of a lack of electricity, clean water and money for school books.
“Saddam didn’t kill anyone without a reason,” said 14-year-old Ahmed Ali Ahmed. “Now these bombs just attack everybody. Everyone says it, Sunni or Shi‘ite. Life was better under Saddam.”
Some residents said such comments did not necessarily indicate admiration for Saddam, who ruthlessly repressed Shi‘ites, Kurds and anyone even vaguely related to those who opposed him, as well as conducting a ruinous war with Iran in the 1980s which cost around 1 million lives.
“They’re speaking like that because they’re angry. People here haven’t seen their lives improve,” said Hussein Yassin, an interpreter for the U.S. military.
“I could never say that Saddam’s time was better, even if we were living in hell. Members of my family were killed in 1982.”
The U.S. military and Iraq’s new leaders had hoped Saddam’s execution in 2006 would allow the country to move on.
But in Salahuddin province, where Dujail lies, Saddam still casts a long shadow. He was born and buried there, and drew most of his inner-circle from the province.
“Every person has his own opinion. They are either fans of Saddam Hussein, or the opposite,” said provincial Governor Hamad al-Qaisi, speaking at a ceremony on a U.S. military base to mark the start of a business initiative to train unemployed Iraqis.
“The people who are here now have not created anything better than Saddam created. In Saddam’s time, the best thing we had was security. We don’t have that now,” said Muthanna Ibrahim, Qaisi’s secretary and spokesman.
For some people in Dujail, it appears the horrors of the past five years have superseded the atrocities of 1982.
After he escaped an assassination attempt that year while driving through the town, Saddam ordered his commanders to hunt down, torture and kill 148 men.
Women and children were allegedly taken and imprisoned and later sent to a desert internment camp where many disappeared. Dujail’s farmlands, rich date palm and fruit groves on the banks of the Tigris, were salted and laid to waste.
Ahmed Jawad, a policeman with both Sunni and Shi‘ite relatives, lost 27 members of his tribe in 1982, including an uncle. But he too feels nostalgic for the Saddam-era.
“Before we could visit any province. Now you could get killed,” he said. Asked whether he would want the return of someone like Saddam, he said: “I wish. A leader who could provide security? I wish.”
New York-based Human Rights Watch estimates some 290,000 people disappeared under Saddam, who ruled Iraq for almost a quarter of a century.
Saddam’s campaign against northern Iraq’s ethnic Kurds in the 1980s killed tens of thousands, including 5,000 gassed with chemical weapons in the village of Halabja.
On Wednesday, relatives of some of his victims marched in the southern Shi‘ite city of Najaf, demanding compensation and DNA tests after thousands of bodies were found in mass graves.
Some in Dujail also see Saddam’s legacy in recent killings.
“Who do you think sets these car bombs off? These are all Saddam’s people. You think Shi‘ite clerics go around blowing themselves up?” said grocer Kadhem Darwish. Many of the bombings in Iraq in recent years are blamed on Sunni Islamist insurgents.
Shopkeeper Seif al-Zubaidy said his life had improved since Saddam’s fall. His business was doing well, and his family, which opposed Saddam, was no longer persecuted.
“Whatever happens in Iraq, from north to south, life is still better than under Saddam. He killed 10 members of my family in 1982. I was only 11 months old, but I was told what happened and I remember it like I remember my own name.”
Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile