Book Review: The Weight of a Mustard Seed: The Intimate Life of an Iraqi Family During Thirty Years of Tyranny (2009) by Wendell Steavenson
Wendell Steavenson’s The Weight of a Mustard Seed—the title drawn from a verse of the Qur’an about the difference between attaining heaven and hell—comprises five years of research about Kamel Sachet Aziz al-Janabi, one of Saddam Hussein’s favourite and most senior generals.
Born in 1947, Kamel Sachet joined the Iraqi police straight from school in the mid-1960s and joined the army in 1975. Sachet was soon in the Special Forces, training in mountain warfare in Germany in 1978, taking part in joint exercises with Iranian Special Forces during the time of the Shah—learning Farsi along the way—and then being part of the Iraqi Special Forces advanced party sent to invade Iran after Ruhollah Khomeini’s takeover. Sachet would later be part of the elite forces sent to secure Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait. After Saddam was evicted from Kuwait, Sachet, who had been slipping deeper and deeper into religious zeal from the early 1980s, was made governor of Maysan where he ran a de facto Salafi commune. Sachet was eventually removed from this post by regime internal intrigue, and was moved to a job in the office of the president. For reasons never definitively established, Sachet was murdered on Saddam Hussein’s orders on the first day of Operation DESERT FOX in December 1998.
Kamel Sachet’s story is an interesting one for what it says about the Saddam regime’s changing attitude toward Islamism as it ran its course, reversing the hard-secular outlook that prevailed at varying degrees of intensity from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, and transforming into an Islamist State in the last fifteen years of the regime.
Kamel Sachet came to religion in prison. In 1983, for no given reason, Sachet was thrown in Ar-Rashid Number One prison, where the only thing detainees were allowed to read was the Qur’an. While State radio was permitted, even State newspapers were banned. Sachet learned the Qur’an by rote, expressing regret he had not done so when he was young.
Sachet showed signs of a more Salafist view of Islam even at this early stage. Sachet told a prisoner he befriended that he wished his friend was not a Shi’a because the shrines were Islamically wrong. Sachet was deeply, personally offended by alcohol and the mixing of the sexes. Perhaps above all, Sachet was given to Islamic fatalism. “If I die … then it means that is the time for me to die,” Sachet said. This apolitical piety also counselled loyalty to the ruler.
In prison, under threat of death and daily torture, men began to take solace in the faith. This pattern of prisons as Islamist production facilities is repeated all throughout the region, notoriously in Syria.
In pondering why the monstrous apparatus of Saddam’s regime functioned—why didn’t the population just rise as one and refuse any longer to be ruled in this way?—Steavenson mentions the Zimbardo prison experiment. It is a good analogy and it can be pushed further.
During the war with Iran, most Iraqi officers—with the straight choice of continuing to throw young men into an inferno or be tortured and murdered—resorted to a fatalism of their own: “What could I do?” (a phrase that recurs as Steavenson meets the old Ba’athists). At all levels, some Iraqis found solace in Dutch courage, some found solace in the promise of a life to follow this one.
Anyone can see why, during the horror of the Iran-Iraq War or one of Saddam’s prisons, Islam, with its calming rituals and promise of paradise, would have an appeal. But just look at Saddam’s Iraq. From 1980 through Kuwait 1990-91, then the “armed truce” and siege of the 1990s, Iraq was at war for very nearly twenty-five years. The conditions of political terror that went along with this in Saddam’s Iraq are notorious, and the breakdown of provisions and order in the 1990s was heaped on top. In short, Iraq under Saddam was one big prison with wartime conditions. Is it any wonder religion’s appeal increased in Iraq during Saddam’s rule? Or that the aftermath should resemble the disorder and brutality of a prison riot?
The “modern” ideologies—pan-Arabism, Communism, Ba’athism—failed; nobody could be convinced that the period of trauma was going to give way to a brighter tomorrow. People gave up on the promise of this life and instead sought to compensate the misery endured in the here-and-now with the promise of a blissful life to come. Fortunately for the Islamists, as well as being well-organized and increasingly given official sanction, their message was couched in a familiar vocabulary and frame of reference.
Later in 1983,
Kamel Sachet was released without charge … He had been at home with his family only a day or two when he was summoned to Saddam’s presence. Saddam gave him money and another decoration and promoted him [from Major] to full Colonel in charge of his own division. This was the recalibration of loyalty. …
Saddam … preferred rod and reward, the example of stripped and banished, followed by the prodigal relief of re-admittance. He created slaves and henchmen in one mind.
“[T]he resumption of rank and status, after being arrested, cowed a man for ever,” as Steavenson puts it. “If you went back you would live under fear and become the perfect obeyer of orders,” an old intelligence officer noted.
These are some of the cult-like tactics that the Saddam regime used as social control on its loyalists. If suspicions of independent-mindedness were growing or even just to mix things up—to combine iron rules with caprice—men will be thrown in jail or their daughters raped on video and, when it seems that the ending will be their death, Saddam intervenes to restore their rank and privilege. At-tarhib wa-targhib (terrorizing and enticement), as some called it. In this way, Saddam broke men down and then built them up in his image—and made them reliant on him. For those reprieved by Saddam, their primary aim became proving their devotion to the dictator. In later years god was mixed in, though Saddam’s placement with the heavens—whether Saddam was His shadow or the Almighty himself—was always ambiguous. These tactics have distinct echoes now in the Islamic State (ISIS).
Sachet was soon further promoted from Colonel to General, and in 1987 Sachet was promoted to Command of the Baghdad Division of the Republican Guards.
Sachet’s Saddam-ordered revival included not just promotions in rank but wealth. Sachet was given cash, cars, and a farm near Hilla that was already planted with fruit trees.
Sachet’s reaction to these inducements was atypical. Sachet liked the farm, and spent a lot of time in his orchard, but he sold the cars and used the money for charity and building mosques. Religion was becoming the centre of Sachet’s life. Among other things, Sachet convinced his wife to don the veil right around this time.
In August 1990, Saddam committed the error that would eventually undo him: he annexed Kuwait. Sachet was sent to command Special Forces and protect the occupation regime in Kuwait City. Sachet’s deputy was General Barakh Haj Hunta, a close friend of Sachet’s, who is best-remembered for inspecting the Anfal genocide against the Kurds from his helicopter, and throwing Kurds from that helicopter. Saddam installed a triumvirate of family members to run Iraq’s “Nineteenth Province“: Ali Hassan al-Majid (his first cousin), Sabawi Ibrahim al-Tikriti (his half-brother), and Aziz Salih an-Numan (another first cousin).
Sachet was unable to control al-Istikhbarat (military-intelligence), which looted, raped, and tortured in Kuwait—including nailing men’s ears to planks. But Sachet could control his Special Forces and executed a man in his unit who was accused of raping a Lebanese woman. The officer and the Lebanese woman had in fact been having an affair and the woman’s Kuwaiti husband had used the connection to traffic in stolen cars. Sachet gave the woman a chance to recant, then hanged the man from a crane and had him shot. The rigidity of procedure and the righteousness of Sachet’s Salafism was transmitting itself into his command method.
Sachet wanted to hold out in Kuwait, but he could also see the argument for an earlier withdrawal. Saddam waited too long and then—in Sachet’s view—retreated too soon. The end result was that the Iraqi army was devastated without even the chance to inflict some damage on the Coalition.
In the chaos of that retreat, the fury boiled over. In Basra, on March 1, 1991, a tank commander fired a shell through a portrait of Saddam. The shell ripped “a gaping hole in the wall of fear,” Steavenson writes. The long-repressed Shi’ite population rose in rebellion, and within a few days, the Kurdish population would (again) rebel.
Kamel Sachet was in Basra City when the Shi’ite insurrection began. Within days the insurgents would overrun Basra, except for a few of the regime’s bases and outposts. Basra was a centre of Iranian activity during the uprising (the other was Najaf), with anything up to 10,000 members of the Badr Corp pouring into Iraq. Badr is a proxy militia of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), formed in 1983, which fought on the Iranian side of the Iran-Iraq War, and now forms the largest individual part of al-Hashd al-Shabi.
Though the Shi’ite revolt was a thoroughly indigenous affair and Iran never did fully commit to the rebellion, the presence of the Badr Corp, the atrocities they committed against “anti-Islamic” people and property, and their ostentatious displays of pictures of Khomeini would help drive away support for the insurgents during the rebellion and would help write the myths—such as that the rebellion was an Iranian incursion—in the aftermath. Interestingly, Saddam—not unlike ISIS now—said that the revolt was a darker conspiracy: an American-Iranian plot aided by internal traitors.
As the desperate revolt was being crushed at the end of March 1991, Sachet arrived home. Where Sachet had been is not clear: some say he was trapped in Basra the entire time (until the regime freed him when it retook the city on March 17); others say Sachet went to Amara to put down the uprising in that area. At all events, the day after Sachet returned home he went to Mosul to help crush the Kurdish insurrection. Saddam repressed the Shi’a revolt on March 28 and on April 5 the regime announced “the complete crushing of acts of sedition“.
After Kuwait, Sachet’s pride and identity as a military man and a patriot died. Sachet was bitter against Saddam for destroying the army he had helped lead through the Iran-Iraq War. Saddam had always been afraid of the army and began his career by subordinating it to the party, carefully removing capable and popular military commanders so that, as he put it in 1971, “there is no chance for anyone who disagrees with us to jump on a couple of tanks and overthrow the government.” Saddam now had the additional weight of knowing that the senior military brass had near-unanimously opposed his suicide dive across the Kuwaiti border. Rather than offer any kind of apology, Saddam executed any senior military official who criticized his decision to pull out of Kuwait. Saddam then disbanded the Special Forces and throughout the 1990s systematically weakened the army, lavishing funds on his elite Republican Guards and the hyper-loyal militias, notably the Fedayeen Saddam. Sachet was one of the lucky ones: he was given retirement.
Kamel Sachet was pleased with this outcome. Sachet burned his uniform in the desert and took to wearing a dishdasha and spending time on his farm in Hilla, usually alone, though sometimes with his sons, pruning the fruit trees, walking by the river, and above all immersing himself in his religion. Sachet visited the mosque he had built near his farm frequently and applied, unsuccessfully, for an exit visa to go on the haj. But this idyll was quickly ended.
On Army Day 1992 (January 6), which marks the founding of the Iraqi Armed Forces in 1921, Sachet was called in to see Saddam; on April 28, 1992, Sachet arrived in Amara to take up the governorship of Maysan. From now on provincial governors would be military governors. Maysan was—and is—a ravaged province on the Iranian border, devastated during the Iran-Iraq War and deliberately under-repaired after the Shaaban Intifada. In 1992, Maysan was also the centre of the shadow war Iran was waging—much of it through the Badr Corp—against Saddam.
The regime was unable to reassert control of the marshes for some time—it would eventually drain and burn them to remove the operating environment for the insurgents. But in early 1992, in addition to Badr’s infiltration and the ordinary smuggling and banditry across the border and on the highways, “the prince of the marshes” Abdul Qareem Muhamadawi was still carrying out guerrilla attacks on Saddam’s regime. The regime kept it under wraps, but numerous Ba’athist officials fell to assassinations; some political, some of foreign origin, some for simple bounty or revenge.
In Maysan, Sachet set up an Islamist enclave. Sachet personally had replaced his nationalism and Ba’athism with the Qur’an, and his rule in Maysan came at a time when the regime was doing the same.
After the imposition of the sanctions in 1990 and the Kuwait defeat in 1991, Saddam’s deputy, Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, oversaw the effort to evade the sanctions and replace lost public sector incomes via State-directed corruption—smuggling and other criminal activity. Ad-Douri’s grey economy funded a patronage network to try to buy some popular support to hold off against another Shi’a revolt, and also to foster dependency.
Saddam’s patronage was increasingly devoted to the Faith Campaign—mass-producing Qur’ans, funding a new ulema and promoting them to being community leaders, and the mass-building of mosques. In Maysan, Sachet followed the track of the nascent Faith Campaign, building giant mosques and patronizing tribal and religious leaders rather than the local party. Saddam deputized certain (Shi’a) tribes to protect the border with Iran; some of them were in Sachet’s province.
A major motivation for Sachet’s Islamist regime was atonement; this was a common feature of the Faith Campaign. Saddam himself, who became a kind of “born-again” Muslim before the end, believed that his Islamization steps would “win him grace in the eyes of God“. As the mosques got busier, regime officers were sent to infiltrate them.
“Most of the officers who were sent to the mosques were not deeply committed to Baathism by that point, and as they encountered Salafi teachings many became more loyal to Salafism than to Saddam,” Joel Rayburn, a former intelligence officer and adviser to David Petraeus, writes in his history of Iraq. “Baathist officers who had been involved in the regime’s human rights abuses were particularly attracted to the Islamic teaching of yetoob, the idea of confessing one’s crimes to God and receiving absolution for them.”
Sachet’s search for redemption led him to setting up a regime in Maysan that was modest to the point of ostentation. Sachet lived in the downscale Kut, rather than the provincial capital of Amara, and Sachet now eschewed, whenever possible, military uniform and wore a simple dishdasha and traditional tribal headgear.
Sachet would personally tend to cripples at the side of roads, providing a pension and a wheelchair. Sachet went to Amara hospital to visit patients after-hours when their families had left. After a flood, Sachet personally dug out the main storm drain. A traffic policeman who, recognizing the governor’s car, waved them through at an intersection ahead of their turn, was roundly upbraided by Sachet and reported to the traffic commission with a recommendation to fine him a month’s wages.
Sachet “practiced mercy on a Shia saboteur sent from Iran who handed himself in” and “went to pay his respects at the funerals of the poor and insignificant. He gave money to the needy,” Steavenson writes. Sachet found out about a long-abandoned leprosy hospital and drove to it. Told of a woman in a contagious state, he pushed open the door and went into her room, to the horror of his staff.
Sachet diverted profits from the big farms into refurbishing mosques and zakat (the Islamic poor tax). An office where women could complain of domestic abuse was set up.
Among his own staff, Sachet’s enforcement of his faith was rigorous, even if indirect; those in his orbit felt the pressure to comply. Sachet kept a prayer mat in his office so he could perform the five daily prayers, even if they interrupted meetings (not unlike Saddam). Sachet did not employ women and would not shake their hands. Anyone thought to be mocking religion could cause sufficient anger that Sachet would punch them. “Even one of [Sachet’s] staff appointed by the Mukhabarat [Iraqi Intelligence Service] as an internal spy, was careful to pretend to be especially devout.”
With these good works for the poor and the needy, and the stern enforcement of the faith, Sachet hoped for forgiveness and to draw closer to god. “Here I may have rank but with god there are no ranks,” Sachet once told a colleague who asked if these stories of his public humility were true.
Sachet became known as “Abu Omar” in reference to Omar ibn Abd al-Aziz, the Umayyad Caliph between 717 and 720, known to some as the fifth Rightly Guided Caliph. Sachet was said to share Omar II’s qualities of piety, fostering harmony between the Sunni and Shi’a in service of Islam, disinterest in personal wealth, and caring for the poor.
Sachet’s governance style did not, to say the least, please the Baghdad Ba’athists—the impious retainers of the dictator who used their power for personal enrichment, whoring, and drinking—and Sachet more than returned the sentiment. Whenever possible Sachet would avoid meeting the Baghdad Ba’athis, but there were occasions he could not get out of it, and none of the meetings went well.
Arshad Yassin, a brother-in-law of Saddam’s and former chief of the presidential guards, made a semi-official visit to Maysan. “Abu Omar; you’ve created a mini Islamic State here!” Yassin chided. Yassin implored Sachet to keep open the last bar in the province. Sachet replied that he had not known about this bar but would shut it down with haste.
Aziz Salih an-Numan was another Baghdad Ba’athi whom Sachet had come to hate from their time in Kuwait. An-Numan grovelled before the dictator and avenged himself and his battered pride on helpless Shi’ites. Sachet refused to give contracts to an-Numan’s relatives, instead putting them to public competition, so an-Numan spread rumours in Baghdad that Sachet was a “Wahhabi” and wrote reports saying Sachet showed leniency to those who cursed the president. Still, Saddam backed Sachet.
By 1994 the complaints against Sachet from the well-connected piled too high, and he was removed as Governor of Maysan. Sachet was moved into a post in the president’s office selling government cars—likely cars brought in through Jordan by ad-Douri via his stolen car rings in Europe. Saddam thus “sidelined this recalcitrant and independent extremist,” removing him from contact with an officer corps that revered him, “while keeping him occupied in a useful position, close by.” Sachet’s incorruptibility was also helpful to Saddam; the regime might have been running a criminal economy but there can still be corruption within corruption.
Sachet sold cars for the regime by day but spent most of his time building mosques. The religious space is one of the few that even the harshest autocracy cannot completely control. As Bernard Lewis has explained, while “dictators can forbid parties, they can forbid meetings—they cannot forbid public worship, and they can only to a limited extent control sermons.”
Sachet’s first mosque, built not far from his home in Saidiya, Baghdad, was in the whitewash, Wahhabi style, without windows or a shoe rack inside—Sachet believed shoes should be banished from mosques altogether, not simply taken off at the entrance. The mosque was a plain cube. Sachet named the mosque after one of his victories, the same name as one of the divisions he commanded: Masjid as-Sadiq. Sachet personally cleaned the mosque on a Thursday evening and refused to have it associated with pastoral work or community projects, such as sponsoring a football team. A mosque was for prayer and rote learning the Qur’an only, Sachet said. Sachet set up his second mosque near his farm in Hilla and had been set to formally open his third mosque in the evening of the day he was arrested.
As the decay of the 1990s deepened, so did Sachet’s religiosity. While fasting and praying at the right times, he deplored those who did extra as indulging in non-Islamic mysticism. Sachet did not attend the funeral of his father, seeing such gatherings as distasteful and too close to idolatry for true Islam. Sachet’s Sadiq Mosque hosted a radical preacher during Ramadan 1993, who had not long before denounced Saddam. Sachet continued to receive regime sanction.
While Sachet remained loyal to the regime—selling its cars by day and devoting himself to his mosques by night—the regime’s noose was closing on him.
Sachet was being followed—for his own protection, it was explained. Sachet’s neighbours were replaced with spies, close family friends were recruited as informants by al-Amn al-Amm (the secret police), and the house was bugged. But the final straw came when al-Amn raped Sachet’s daughter, Amani, who must have been about fourteen-years-old at the time. This practice of “breaking the eye” was widespread under Saddam.
Between throwing out the inspectors in August 1998 and allowing them back in in November 1998, Saddam had reorganized his security forces in preparation for expected airstrikes, which came in December 1998 when Saddam again expelled the inspectors.
In this reshuffle, Sachet was appointed to an advisory role to Ali Hassan al-Majid in the south, a job Sachet never took, remaining in Baghdad, and attending the strategy meetings as required. Whether Sachet disobeyed a direct ordered to take the job, or whether it was more a “suggestion,” is simply unknown.
On December 16, 1998, as the U.S. and Britain began Operation DESERT FOX, targeting with airstrikes Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and the headquarters of his security agencies in Baghdad, Kamel Sachet was murdered by the regime on a garbage heap and stuffed into an abandoned refrigerator. Sachet’s body was eventually moved to a morgue—the killers had second thoughts about whether someone like Sachet could just “disappear”.
Sachet’s family were allowed to hold a very quiet funeral in February 1999 under threat of retribution if they made Sachet’s death into a spectacle. In March 1999, Saddam gave the Sachet family blood money and essentially reframed the incident as an unfortunate mistake.
There seems to be a general consensus that Sachet had a stormy meeting with Saddam and Qusay on the morning of December 16, and that soon after Sachet left to pray, security agents under Qusay’s command arrested him. Whether Saddam had finally confronted Sachet about his foot-dragging in becoming al-Majid’s deputy and Sachet finally had flatly refused will likely never be known.
Other theories suggest Sachet’s religion got too much for the Saddam regime, and Saddam executed Sachet as a “Wahhabi”. Another theory says Sachet received a note from oppositionist-in-exile Nizar Khazraji as part of the letter-writing campaign and had not reported the letter, which was taken as evidence he was conspiring against the regime. Khazraji was Sachet’s former commander in the Special Forces and the Chief of Staff of the army during Anfal, who defected to Jordan in the mid-1990s.
Many men who knew Sachet testify that he would not have conspired against Saddam. Sachet had a strong belief in the Islamic precept of obedience to the ruler, these men point out, and, apart from that, Sachet would never agree to be the figurehead for a grubby political compromise that would inevitably result if some cabal of officers could have removed Saddam Hussein.
The main reason to think that Sachet might have been planning something—other than the irreversible breach with the regime after it sexually attacked his daughter—is that, as one Mukhabarat colonel put it, “We all knew the status quo couldn’t last.” The Saddam regime was crumbling; Sachet had strong military, social, and religious credentials and independence of mind. “He must have had something up his sleeve,” says the Mukhabarat officer.
The likelihood is that Saddam’s regime could read those tea leaves, too, and, in the best traditions of the KGB that trained Saddam’s military-intelligence apparatus, pre-emptively liquidated a man who fit the profile of a serious potential threat to the regime.
Though Sachet was a servant of the regime, he had personally moved away from it and his religious activity was apart from the regime. Saddam’s Faith Campaign effectively created a religious movement, which can be termed “Ba’athi-Salafism,” but Sachet was a “pure” Salafist. Steavenson doesn’t show Sachet having any direct connections to the underground Salafi networks. Still, Sachet is a good example of the Salafization of the regime’s security sector, and of the fact that Saddam’s moves against the non-governmental Salafi Trend were not ideological.
Saddam never made any serious effort to check the growth of the Salafi Trend; in Sachet’s case Saddam even gave him control of a key border province, and kept him in place over the objections of senior officials who disliked Sachet’s Islamism. The Salafi Trend returned the compliment by largely ceasing to agitate for Saddam’s overthrow, reconciling themselves to the regime, and even—as Sachet showed—serving in its administration. Any Saddamist moves against the Salafi Trend were simply a reflection of Saddam’s perennial approach to power. The Salafi Trend was seen as a helpful complement to Saddam’s Faith Campaign, but that did not mean there were not limits, that they would not be infiltrated and manipulated, and enemies real and imagined among the “pure” Salafis would not be eliminated.
Had Sachet lived, it is likely—despite the fact he was in many ways revolted by the regime because of its destruction of the military and its rape of his daughter—he would have remained at his post until the end. Sachet’s Salafism instructed obedience to the ruler, and there is no convincing evidence he broke with that. It is also likely Sachet would have joined the insurgency in the aftermath of the regime, and Sachet would surely have been drawn to the Qaeda-linked elements within the insurgency, rather than the Ba’athist-Salafist insurgents. This is a pattern seen in several of ISIS’s leaders, including Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr), who was key in ISIS’s expansion into Syria, and his deputies in managing this dominion like Fadel al-Hiyali and Adnan as-Suwaydawi.
Showing how it might have gone for Sachet are his four male children—Omar, Ali, Ahmed, and Mustafa (in that age order). Sachet’s Saidiya Mosque became a citadel of the “mujahideen,” and Saidiya itself became a centre of the sectarian violence. The three oldest boys had certainly joined the insurgency by 2004, and Mustafa probably had. Ali provided logistical support to Syrian Salafi-jihadists in his area during the invasion. Omar had a nasty falling out with the Islamic Army of Iraq—one of the more Ba’athist-associated Islamist militias, which opens the possibility that Omar had defected because of IAI’s “impiety”. By 2007 Omar and another brother (it is unclear which) had been arrested by the Iraqi government, and Ali was dead. Where the Sachets are now is anyone’s guess; they had, by the time Steavenson was concluding her research, ceased to want to be found.
In Sachet’s life-story one can see flashes of how Saddam, by commission and omission, prepared the ground for ISIS. Abu Musab az-Zarqawi was “pleasantly surprised” to find a much more extensive Salafi underground, with connections to higher places, than he had expected—something partly allowed and even encouraged by the regime, and something which resulted from the breakdown of regime control as the edifice crumbled in the 1990s. Saddam’s Islamization reduced the antagonism between the regime and the Sunni Islamists and the structural changes begun in the 1980s and intensified by the Faith Campaign meant the Iraqi population, including those in the security sector, were much more religious and sectarian by the time the regime fell. Many of these Salafized former regime elements put their military and intelligence skills at the service of the insurgency.