Reporter's Notebook: Death of a Dictator

I was on an embed last Friday when the first hints filtered through that Saddam Hussein would be put to death.

The embed was a return visit to 1-23 Stryker Battalion, soldiers I was embedded with before just a few months ago. I was setting up a story with cameraman Kris about combat medics, when my producer Iva called with some news. Saddam’s attorney had apparently been summoned by U.S. authorities to collect the former dictator’s personal belongings. I haven’t previously covered any death sentences, but when a prisoner has no more use for his earthly possessions, it probably doesn’t mean a reprieve is on the cards.

But Iraq is a country where people don’t just enjoy gossip and rumors, they positively thrive on them. For so many years the regime tried to control all information, which means people are inclined to believe any whispers they hear on the street. I came across a prime example of this two weeks ago with U.S. forces in the town of Tarmiyah, north of Baghdad. At a meeting between American commanders and local Sheikhs, word got around that US forces had shot dead an innocent man as he lay in his bed. The Sheikhs were angry, and demanded an apology and compensation. It was only when the army produced photographs of the dead man, who had snatched a weapon from a U.S. soldier and was then killed by Special Forces, that the Sheikhs started to change their minds. Solid proof won out over speculation and idle gossip.

Very quickly, the decision was taken to finish our embed and return to the Baghdad bureau. Our newsroom became the gathering point for all the various stories – some outrageous – about Saddam’s fate.

Soon after the first speculation about Saddam trickled through, more information followed. An Iraqi politician said he’d been handed over by the Americans to Iraqi authorities and the execution would be over by nightfall. The State Department in Washington denied this. More Iraqi sources confirmed Saddam was in Iraq custody. Other sources at the State Department confirmed to my colleague James Rosen in DC that this wasn’t true. In a country where so many rumors and counter-rumors are the norm, what should we believe?

We’ve got a bank of televisions in the newsroom: many tuned to Arab television stations. To be honest, it’s tough to separate the wood from the trees with so many competing channels trying to analyze the story. Was Saddam in American hands or Iraqi hands? Had he already been executed? Would Iraq’s anti-death penalty President sign the death warrant? Where would the hanging take place? Would the media be allowed access? Who would be witnesses? Would there be a video? The only thing that became crystal clear is that we had more information than we could confirm, and not all the rumors and allegations could be true.

I was talking live with Greta Van Susteren at 6:08am Baghdad time on Saturday morning when my producer said in my earpiece “al-Arabiya reporting Saddam is dead”. I pretty much repeated those words verbatim to Greta and her audience. Looking back at the tape, Greta is talking to me and we’re both on screen when I got the news. You can see my eyes go wide for a second and I think I swallowed hard. Gulp. And that’s when I realized this story was only half-way done. Saddam was dead, executed for his part in the brutal torture and murders of 148 Shiite men and boys in the town of Dujail back in 1982. But now the viewers – and more importantly Iraqis – would want to know the details of his death. Those came through while I was getting some much needed sleep. First came the officially sanitized Iraqi Government video. Then came the grainy cell phone footage which told a very different story. Even as he stepped up to the gallows, with a noose around his neck, Saddam was still an angry, hated man. He was jeered and taunted by a vengeful audience even as he dropped to his death and his neck snapped. The video of his execution has already been passed around like a viral marketing campaign among Iraqi cell phone users.

Saddam Hussein was probably the most charismatic and divisive leader in the Arab world. Loved and hated, respected and vilified – depending who you ask. Those long hours standing in front of the camera waiting for his execution is a night I won’t forget in a hurry. In the Middle East dictators seem to be a dime a dozen, yet justice is a scarce commodity. We’re told changes are coming to this part of the world, and after the death of Saddam, maybe it’s more than just a rumor repeated to a neighbor, whispered in a café, overheard on the way to work... .

David Mac Dougall is a freelance reporter for FOX News in Baghdad.