Al Jazeera correspondent Imran Khan looks at the conflicts that led to millions fleeing their homes in the Middle East.
In a darkened theatre in London, the curtain raises and for the next couple of hours, a man pretending to be Saddam Hussein, the former dictator of Iraq, struts the stage.
The play is called Dinner with Saddam. In Baghdad, I open a web page reviewing the play.
My Iraqi colleagues read the review with much interest. One says, “What is this? Saddam is a good guy now?”
I haven’t seen the play so I have no idea how Saddam comes off.
In Iraq, though, I begin to wonder how people see the former dictator. Randomly, I decide to ask around.
Khalid Ahmed is 55 years old. He is a bus driver for a local school. He is not shy when it comes to talking about Saddam.
“Of course I prefer his era,” Ahmed says. “There was security and stability. Look at our democracy now. High prices. War. Car bombs. No electricity. That’s our democracy. I used to be able to drive from Erbil in the north to Basra in the south without being stopped, once. Now you get stopped every five kilometres.”
What Saddam did was control his society in a way that left most ordinary folk alone. Nadhim Hassoun owns a small barber shop in suburban Baghdad street. “Saddam wouldn’t let us have cell phones or satellite TV dishes. He controlled everything. But as long as you didn’t oppose him or were political, your life was pretty good. Now we live in a world of endless terror. “
The evidence of Saddam’s brutality against those who opposed him and his war with Iran and the invasion of Kuwait has been well documented.
His regime is remembered for that brutality. Iraqi people have open eyes and are not longing for a return to a dictatorship.
“I don’t want Saddam’s regime to come back for even an hour,” says Jalal Hussien, the owner of a menswear shop in Baghdad. “He was brutal man, but he united Iraq and provided security and stability. Now the country is the verge of breaking up. Sunnistan, Kurdistan, Shia’istan. Our corrupt officials are tearing this country apart.”
I get the sense that what people in Iraq miss about the dictator are things that many who opposed him and paid in blood and exile for that opposition don’t miss.
It seems if you were not in Saddam’s world then your life was quiet, not ideal, but it was still quiet and secure.
Sameera Shahib is a 57-year-old housewife. “I admit there was poverty and desperation in Saddam’s time. Because of the international sanctions children would die in hospital. But at least things were secure. We had to make do with what we had. Now we have freedom and democracy. But what does that mean? We can’t walk in the streets for fear of bombs. We can’t taste the joy of life. Our lives are painted black.”
There are plenty of Iraqis for whom Saddam was a nightmare they never want to see again. His legacy here, though, is complicated. It’s not as simple as “Dictator Bad, Democracy Good,” as the architects of the Iraq war would have you believe.
I stand in Firdos Square in the heart of Baghdad. In 2003 a statue of Saddam stood here, a giant symbol of his omnipresent power. When it fell on April 9 of that year it was a symbol of the dictator himself, falling.
Today, the square lies in ruins. No one looks after it. It has not been turned into urban paradise for families to go on picnics in. As a symbol of what has happened to Iraq, the state of the square is powerful and obvious.
I didn’t do a representative, scientific survey about the attitudes of people in Iraq toward Saddam. We just canvassed the kind of people we see every day on their views.
The London play, Dinner with Saddam, has them laughing heartily, according to the reviews. When I ask about Saddam in Baghdad no one laughs.