Doting Father and Feminist: The Other Side of Saddam’s Half-Brother, the Head of the Iraqi Secret Police
Some know him as Saddam Hussein’s half-brother, some remember him as the head of the Mukhabarat, the dreaded Iraqi intelligence agency, and others recall the graphic image of his decapitated head after a botched hanging in 2007. For a man whose name means prominent or famous in Arabic, Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti has left an interesting legacy. Barzan ran Iraq’s security apparatus from 1979 to 1983 and was Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations Office in Geneva from 1988 to 1997. In 2003, he was captured at his home in Tikrit and was tried by the Iraqi High Tribunal in 2005. After his death in January 2007, newspapers around the world offered a clear narrative about him: Barzan was a “thug,” a money launderer, and a war criminal.
There was a great deal of truth to this. In 1999, The Guardian described Barzan as a “feared and detested” man who turned the Iraqi secret service “into an instrument of repression and torture that has been compared to the worst [in] Nazi Germany. …” One witness at his trial claimed to have been interrogated in a facility where there was a meat grinder used for human flesh. Another described being stripped naked and kicked in the chest repeatedly by Barzan. After Barzan’s death, former employees also emerged with stories of his cruelty, such as the time he allegedly shot an agent of his for buying a bottle of duty-free wine without asking permission.
However, little has been said about Barzan’s personal life. Sections of Barzan’s unfinished and unpublished diaries, recently added to the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC) collection, offer a glimpse into this previously inaccessible part of his life and his thoughts. The first section summarizes his life from childhood to about 1990. The second and third sections consist of daily entries from October 2000 to June 2001, when he was living in Switzerland with his family. It is not clear whether Barzan was writing for his own pleasure or to one day attempt to correct the record and improve his reputation, but what the diaries do reveal is that Barzan saw himself as a Western-influenced intellectual, a critic of Saddam Hussein, and a family man who loved his children and his wife.
Saddam’s Henchman or Distrustful Critic?
As previously mentioned, Barzan was convicted and then executed in 2007 for his role in atrocities committed in 1982 in the farming town of Dujail, where the Shi’a-dominated political party al-Dawa al-Islamiya was headquartered. On July 8 of that year, Saddam travelled to Dujail, where his convoy was attacked. As Michael Newton and Michael Scharf reveal in their book on Saddam’s trial and execution, Saddam immediately sent for Barzan, who arrived later that day to “mete out a devastating retribution.” Barzan’s Mukhabarat subordinates detained hundreds of Dujail’s residents while the Iraqi military shelled local neighborhoods. After a quick investigation, almost 300 people were implicated in the attack and detained in a Mukhabarat prison. Ultimately, 148 residents were sentenced to death. Three months later, Saddam’s army destroyed 5,000 acres of farmland in Dujail, crushing the livelihoods of surviving residents. At his trial, Barzan did not deny going to Dujail, but told a different version of events:
I went to Dujail with about twenty members of the Mukhabarat. Saddam did not ask me to go there. When I arrived and saw that they had detained about eighty persons on mere suspicion, I ordered them released. And then I left. … I am being blamed only because I am the brother of Saddam.
In his diary that he entitled The Sweet Years and the Bitter Years, Barzan writes that by August 1983, he was no longer Saddam’s right-hand man. He recalls how Hussein Kamil, Saddam’s brother-in-law and a close advisor, led a “propaganda campaign” against him to plant seeds of doubt about Barzan’s loyalty. Rumors circulated that he was preparing a coup through the Mukhabarat and that saw himself more fit than Saddam to rule Iraq. Simultaneously, Saddam refused to marry his eldest daughter, Raghad, to one of Barzan’s brothers, which led Barzan to resign from public duties. The result, according to Barzan’s version of history, was his near isolation from Saddam. Barzan wrote in late 2000 about the distance between the half-brothers: “I used to talk to the President … but for a while now, and using different excuses, he has put a wall between me and him.”
Some years after their initial falling out, Saddam approached Barzan about reuniting their families through marriages between their children. One would take place between Muhammad, Barzan’s son, and Hala, Saddam’s daughter; another between Saddam’s son Uday, and Saja, Barzan’s daughter. Yet, Saddam tried to back out of the commitment several times. As another document in the CRRC shows, this moved Barzan to write Saddam in October 1992, “You should know as well that the canceling of this subject would leave a negative shadow on our family atmosphere. Do not forget that the clouds of 1983 have not dissipated completely.” As it turned out, the marriage between Uday and Saha took place, but unfortunately, just months after their marriage Uday’s notoriously violent playboy behavior drove Saja to flee to Switzerland, which renewed the frictions between the half-brothers. Saddam, perhaps in response to this embarrassing family drama, allowed Hala to end her engagement to Muhammad. These failed marriages only exacerbated the wounds of the 1980s.
Barzan’s resentment toward Saddam was not just about family marriages. Discussing his attempts to refuse a political appointment in 1999, Barzan wrote,
I do not want a party position or any other high-ranking position that would make me have constant contact with him [Saddam]. I did not want that because I disapproved of the prevailing way of thinking in politics and other aspects of life in Iraq.
Responding to news of another failed framework for Iraqi cooperation with the United Nations, Barzan wonders why Saddam pursued such a “stubborn way of thinking.” He wondered if Saddam really believed he won the Gulf War, as he claimed, “and wiped from his real memory the truth about what happened when on 02 August 1990 he made his decision to invade Kuwait. …”
The BBC later claimed that despite their falling out, he was still an advisor to Saddam as of 2003. The facts were more complicated. Barzan’s diary does mention that after his wife died in November 1998, he returned to Saddam’s side, albeit involuntarily. He hypothesized that Saddam kept him in Baghdad to better control him, rather than out of any feeling of brotherly love. Barzan’s political standing became clear in March 2002 when his Ba’ath party leadership position was revoked, and a year later when Saddam placed him under house arrest for contesting Saddam’s wish to name his youngest son Qusay as successor to the Iraqi presidency. One can only guess at the state of the brothers’ relationship when they were captured, but if Barzan’s diaries and political status are any indication, it likely was as frosty as it had been 20 years prior.
The Softer Side
The last section of Barzan’s diary is intimate. His almost daily entries from November 2000 to January 2001 sometimes discuss routine tasks of life such as picking up the children from school and reading the newspaper, and other times offers political commentary on current events. His meandering writings show a preference for “Western” ideals such as democracy and women’s rights, and Barzan places a high importance on education, especially in foreign languages. He wrote, “Education is necessary for all of mankind … even if one does not need education to gain employment, he or she still needs education for its moral and intellectual benefits.”
On women’s rights, he wrote, “I support giving women their complete rights just like men … since women make up half the society, or in some cases more than half, it is therefore not right to freeze the movement of half the population under different pretenses and claims.” Extending that through to society, Barzan recalled how Saddam once criticized the political structure of the United States and its president’s inability to make decisions because he shares power. Barzan, according to his diary, interjected and said, “[t]hat is the right thing! Otherwise it means there is an individual rule and there is no democracy … this means there is a law and the president has authorities that are agreed upon in accordance with the law and they are not unlimited.” Annoyed, Saddam dropped the subject.
One of the most difficult things to do when trying to understand someone like Barzan is to reconcile his actions, for example as head of the Mukhabarat, with his eloquent expressions of love and loss. One of the more touching passages reads like a eulogy to his wife for whom he can barely contain his grief:
… I lost a friend, a sincere counsel, and advisor. … I lost a wife and a mother who is faithful to my children, my home, my money, and my reputation. … I have lost a dignified woman who combines all qualities; thus, one can understand the magnitude of my loss.
At another point, Barzan described how his daughter Saja makes fun of him for crying so much and tells him he has a woman’s heart.
These entries by an older man struggling to find meaning after the death of his wife stand in dramatic contrast to his record as a tyrant’s henchman. While Barzan’s diaries do not absolve him of the terrible acts he committed, they do paint a more complete picture of who the man was, or at the very least, how he wanted to be perceived at home or in his own mind.
Who was this man?
Barzan’s diaries are not the first to expose the human side of a notorious criminal. Diaries of Nazi leaders Josef Goebbels, Alfred Rosenberg, and Heinrich Himmler have emerged over the years, and a six-volume diary of Al-Qaeda mastermind Abu Zubaydah hit the shelves just two years ago. While it may be disconcerting to know that Barzan al-Tikriti, a man convicted of crimes against humanity, was a doting father and devoted husband, it is important to remember that he, like all of us, was a multifaceted human being. Reducing an adversary to a one-dimensional villain may trend well on Twitter, but this oversimplification can too easily transform a complex international issue into a dichotomous “good versus evil” conflict. And at that point, crafting nuanced foreign policy becomes more difficult. If one can learn anything from the experience of Barzan al-Tikriti, it is that a bit of analytic empathy never hurts when it comes to trying to understand one’s adversaries.
Sarah R. Collins is a research assistant with the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) and helps to manage the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC). The CRRC closed its doors to researchers on 19 June 2015, but work is underway to make the collection available at a new location. The views expressed are hers alone and not those of IDA or the Department of Defense.