Not many days go by in Baghdad without a claimed sighting of Saddam Hussein, recklessly turning up in close proximity to the American forces, or rallying the faithful in his old haunts, depending on who is spinning the story.
The multiplicity of sightings is all the more strange given that there was very little chance of ever seeing Saddam in the flesh while he was in power. In the run-up to the war I don’t recall ever meeting anyone who could claim to have met the Iraqi leader.
So it is not entirely surprising that as long as the real Saddam has remained tantalisingly close and yet so elusive, the US-led occupation authority holed up among the dubious splendours of his Republican Palace remains less than charitably inclined towards things created in his image.
Next week that familiar moustachioed face will begin to disappear from the Iraqi dinar following the issue of new banknotes by the occupation authority. Last week headteachers presiding over the start of the new term were told to encourage students to rip the once-obligatory photo of Saddam from their textbooks.
A more substantial assault on Saddam’s legacy is under way in the Republican Palace, where the occupation authority is making preparations to dismantle the food distribution system which gave free rations of flour, rice, cooking oil and other staples to every Iraqi.
Described by the UN as the world’s most efficient food network, the system still keeps Iraqis from going hungry. But the US civilian administrator of Iraq, Paul Bremer, views it as a dangerous socialist anachronism. The coalition provisional authority (CPA) is planning to abolish it in January, despite warnings from its own technical experts that this could lead to hunger and riots.
Such haste in obliterating all traces of Saddam is disconcerting for many Iraqis, especially the educated elite who were part of his bureaucracy. Many say the US has yet to appreciate how that bureaucracy functioned, and they fear that their national history is being replaced with another, without their consent.
“I don’t want absolutely everything then to be portrayed as negative,” said one former bureaucrat. “If they portray everything then as bad, then the world they will portray now is that just because Saddam is gone we are happy.”
Since returning to Baghdad I have received several lectures from CPA officials and Washington lobbyists on what it was like in Iraq under Saddam and under America’s bombardment. They bear no relation to anything I experienced during my weeks in Iraq at that time. The lobbyists insist it is the truth.
So it is easy for me to understand the disorientation of Iraqis as they try to sort out which truths will be relegated, and which will survive. It is also difficult to decipher the intentions of an occupation authority which, while seemingly intent on obliterating the symbols of Saddam, shows little compunction in rehabilitating the real instruments of his brutal control.
After months of chaos and confusion, it appears that the CPA has come around to the view that it cannot rule effectively without the security and intelligence services. Its readiness to deal with members of the former regime - particularly those in the intelligence services - is a departure from its earlier practice.
In essence, it began by decapitating the bureaucracy which ran the Iraqi government and state-controlled enterprises, lopping off the top tiers of administration which were viewed as too closely linked to the Ba’ath party.
But while tens of thousands lost their jobs, and scores of statues fell, Saddam’s presence lingers throughout Baghdad. Although his features have been chipped out of the official portraits on street corners, the familiar outline of his face is still visible.
So is the skeleton of the system Saddam used to keep himself in place: the Ba’ath party and the security services. A graffito in a complex built for high-ranking members of Saddam’s military expressed it best: “The Iraqi faith in Saddam is burning the hearts of the Americans and British,” it said, before someone crossed out “Saddam” and put the name of a Shia cleric; then that too was struck off, and Saddam restored to his place.
One of the last confirmed sightings of Saddam happened in the final hours of the war on April 9, when a black Mercedes and two outriding vehicles pulled up to a Sunni shrine in the Adhamiya quarter and the Iraqi leader emerged for a final walk around the Abu Hanifa mosque. The neighbourhood is an island of Ba’ath party support north of the city centre.
The day I visited, nearly six months later, people were claiming that he had been back just the day before. Behind the mosque five American military vehicles rumbled through a narrow lane, scattering children and women, and announcing through loudspeakers that demonstrations in support of Saddam were banned. Leaflets fluttered to the ground behind them. “Freedom = Responsibility”, the headline said. A man with a baby in his arms stooped to pick one up and, staring straight at the US troops, ripped it in half.
In a flat upstairs I met a former colonel in the Iraqi military intelligence. Given its extensive links to the Ba’athist regime his family has not done too badly. A brother, also a high-ranking army officer, has been elected to the town council. The officer himself is thinking of going back to work - this time for the Americans. “We were watching everyone,” he says. “Now they ask us to visit them at the main military base to fill in forms, and say we are no longer loyal to the Ba’ath party. That’s so easy.”
Diplomats and other officers of the former Ba’athist intelligence apparatus claim that the return to active duty of members of Saddam’s security services extends to the former head of the mukhabarat himself, Tahir Jalil Haboosh.
They are not the only apparatchiks deemed worthy of rehabilitation. Almost all of the bureaucrats at the information ministry have done very nicely for themselves since the war. The government minders who spent their days reporting to the intelligence services on foreign reporters or doing their best to obstruct their work have gone on to well-paid jobs - for the same foreign news organisations they once hounded.
The second-in-command at the information ministry, who spent his days reading the reports the minders wrote about visiting foreign journalists, has been employed by Fox News.
Other former servants of the security service have found jobs in the police where, it is widely believed, they are indulging in the same brutal practices they employed before the war; the only change being that they feel freer to extort bribes.
The revival of the security structures has been watched with interest, particularly by those who once exercised control over the Ba’athist state.
In a living room decorated in the style favoured by the former elite, the Iraqi army general Qasim al-Jawani holds forth on power and control. He was one of the creators of the Quds brigades, formed soon after the start of the Palestinian intifada. Officially, they were volunteer forces dedicated to liberating Jerusalem from Israel, but Mr Jawani frankly admits their real purpose was control and intimidation.
On the wall beside the front door hangs a picture taken at one of the palaces now occupied by the US army. In it Mr Jawani crouches in the front row, directly at the feet of Saddam. He says he sees no reason to be ashamed of the picture.
“The affairs of Iraqi society cannot be managed without a great deal of violence and power,” he says. “Iraqi society cannot be controlled by someone who treats them in a nice way. It cannot be run by someone open minded. It needs someone all-powerful, ready to use force or violence to get the people to do what he wants.”
Courtesy of the London-based Guardian newspaper.