When, in June 1979, all was set for him to depose and succeed the ailing Bakr, he could have accomplished it with bloodless ease. But he wilfully, gratuitously chose blood in what was a psychological as well as a symbolic necessity. He had to inaugurate the "era of Saddam Hussein" with a rite whose message would be unmistakable: there had arisen in Mesopotamia a ruler who, in his barbaric splendour, cruelty and caprice, was to yield nothing to its despots of old.
Only now did he emerge, personally and very publicly, as accuser, judge and executioner in one. He called an extraordinary meeting of senior party cadres. They were solemnly informed that "a gang disloyal to the party and the revolution" had mounted a "base conspiracy" in the service of "Zionism and the forces of darkness", and that all the "traitors" were right there, with them, in the hall. One of their ringleaders, brought straight from prison, made a long and detailed confession of his "horrible crime".
Saddam, puffing on a Havana cigar, calmly watched the proceedings as if they had nothing to do with him. Then he took the podium. He began to read out the "traitors'" names, slowly and theatrically; he seemed quite overcome as he did so, pausing only to light his cigar or wipe away his tears with a handkerchief. All 66 "traitors" were led away one by one.
Thus did the new president make inaugural use of that essential weapon of the ultimate tyrant, the occasional flamboyant, contemptuous act of utter lawlessness, turpitude or unpredictability, and the enforced prostration of his whole apparatus, in praise and rejoicing, before it. Those of the audience who had not been named showed their relief with hysterical chants of gratitude and a baying for the blood of their fallen comrades.
Saddam then called on ministers and party leaders to join him in personally carrying out the "democratic executions"; every party branch in the country sent an armed delegate to assist them. It was, he said, "the first time in the history of revolutionary movements without exception, or perhaps of human struggle, that over half the supreme leadership had taken part in a tribunal" which condemned the other half. "We are now," he confided, "in our Stalinist era."
But in one way he had actually surpassed his exemplar. Upon entering the Kremlin, the former Georgian streetfighter had at least kept himself fittingly aloof from his "great terror". Not Saddam. Newly exalted, he was to remain down-to-earth too; new caliph of Baghdad, but, direct participant in his own terror, very much the Tikriti gangster, too.
As Christopher Hitchens writes:
Nobody who has seen that footage — of terrified men dragged by goons from the room, while the survivors weep with fear and relief and Hussein indulges in a luxurious cigar — is likely to forget it.