I was commercial counselor and deputy chief of mission at the Indian Embassy in Baghdad from 1976 to 1978. During the interregnum between two ambassadors, I was also for a while the Indian charge d'affaires. This explains why I had more than one occasion to stare into Saddam's expressionless grey-green eyes -- straight out of "The Day of the Jackal" -- while shaking his hand at various official banquets and other ceremonial occasions.
Saddam ran a brutal dictatorship. That, however, caused no concern to the hordes of Western businessmen who descended in droves on Iraq to siphon what they could of Iraq's newfound oil wealth through lucrative contracts for everything. Everything -- from eggs to nuclear plants. Because technologically, from the end of the Turkish Empire over Iraq in 1919 through the British mandate, which lasted till 1932, and the effete monarchy masterminded by Anthony Eden's buddy, Nuri es-Said, right up to the Baath Party coup of 1968, there was virtually no progress at all.
Iraqi latifundia -- the vast country house estates of the tiny privileged elite -- gave large parties for visiting Western guests, including Agatha Christie's archaeologist husband who did most of his digging in Nineveh, now known worldwide to TV viewers as Mosul, while the puppet ruling establishment gave away Iraq's most precious asset, oil, for a song. Iraq's major export was -- hold your Patriot missile -- dates, the fruit of the Arab desert eaten by pious Muslims to break their daylight fast during the Muslim Lent -- Ramadan. India was Iraq's largest buyer.
It was Saddam's revolution that ended Iraqi backwardness. Education, including higher and technological education, became the top priority. More important, centuries of vicious discrimination against girls and women was ended by one stroke of the modernizing dictator's pen.
I used to drive past the Mustansariya University on my way home from downtown Baghdad. It was miraculous -- I use the word advisedly -- it was nothing short of miraculous to see hundreds of girl-students thronging the campus, none in "burkhas" or "chador" -- the head-to-toe black cape that was, and is, essential dress for women in most of the Islamic world -- and almost all in skirts and blouses that would grace a Western university.
The liberation of women -- that is half the population of Iraq, as for any other country -- has been the most dramatic achievement of Saddam's regime. To understand how dramatic just look across the Iraqi border at America's once-favorite Arab satrap, Saudi Arabia.
These last few days, watching television footage of President George W. Bush's fireworks over Baghdad, I have been remembering pretty Samira, Purchase Officer at the Iraqi Cement Co., with whom India was doing a lot of business. She was as efficient as she was lovely, with every little detail at the tips of her delicate fingers. She was also the velvet glove protecting us from her irascible boss, Managing Director Adnan Kubba, a man not inclined to treat leniently the many and varied delinquencies of the Indian business enterprises it was my duty to shepherd into his presence. Between Samira and me, we got Adnan to warm to India and the Indian businessmen to mend their ways. It was a great and valued partnership.
Samira's mother and all her female ancestors for centuries could never have left the cloistered cages of hearth and home. But here she was, under 30, yet the motor driving the engine of the Iraqi state-owned cement monopoly. I do not know if Samira is still alive -- or buried under the rubble of a bombed-out Iraqi marketplace. But as U.S. missiles fall nightly on her neighborhood or her grave, why would she not have at least some gratitude in her heart for the revolution Saddam brought into her life and those of her countrywomen, whatever the horrible things he has been doing to keep his regime going? Has U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld factored the feelings of Samira into his war plans for the taking of Baghdad?
I think also of the chief engineer at the State Organization for Industrial Housing, the driving force behind the massive housing program, which turned Baghdad in the first decade of Baath rule from a dirty shantytown into a pulsating modern metropolis that provided a roof over the head of every family in the city.
The chief engineer was a woman. I kick myself for having forgotten her name. But I remember her well. She was so much like Mama in "Chicago"! Across the road from SOIH was SOI -- State Organization for Industry where my diplomatic fate obliged me to cross swords with another tough-as-they-come lady, the head of the Legal Division, without whose OK no bills were paid. This was the position of women in Iraq under Saddam a quarter century ago. One had to keep reminding oneself that this was the Middle East.
My second daughter, Yamini, was born in Medical City, Baghdad, symbol of the astonishing revolution wrought by the Baath Party in health care. My child's cradle is now a coffin, a purgatory that holds the mangled remains of Iraqi babies killed by a rain of terror to end a reign of terror. If I, who lived in Baghdad but two years, and that too as a foreigner and so many decades ago, feel violated in my deepest sensitivities at what is being done to my memories of the ordinary Iraqi men, women and children I knew, consider the feelings of those who have lived all their lives in Iraq, all those below 40 years of age who have known no Iraq other than the Iraq of Saddam, and now find everything they have seen grow around them going up in smoke - for their "liberation!"
Iraq is home to some of the holiest Muslim shrines, fertile ground for religious fundamentalism. Saddam would have none of it. Clerics were put firmly in their place -- that is, the mosque and the madrasa -- and the Iraqi believer liberated from the thralldom of the priesthood. The ethos was completely secular: we interacted every day with Iraqis of numerous religious persuasions in every position of responsibility.
Few know even now that one of Iraq's longest lasting Baath leaders, companion-in-arms to Saddam for the last four decades, is Tariq Aziz, a practicing Christian notwithstanding his name. For Indians, there is a special place in our regard for Saddam who has treated with reverence a sacred spot in Baghdad where, legend has it, Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith in the 16th century, meditated on his way back to India from Mecca on the imperative of synthesizing Hindu and Muslim beliefs.
Iraq under Saddam had everything going for it -- except democracy. And it was, of course, the absence of democracy that accounted for Saddam brushing aside all vested interests: his instant liberation of women, his instant dismantling of feudalism, his instant caging of the priesthood, and, therefore, his instant -- and, yes, brutal -- exclusion from Iraq of all forms of religious fundamentalism and religion-based terrorism. Which is, one thing at least that Osama bin Laden and Bush III share: they hate Saddam equally.
If Saddam goes, the brutality of the Baath party will finally be ended.
But other things not wonderful either will take its place. There will be a takeover of civil society by the elements sidelined over four decades of Baath rule. Therefore, along with democracy, fundamentalism and terrorism will rear their heads. Samira -- if, poor thing, she has not already been killed -- will probably lose many of the privileges which Saddam ensured her. RIP.
Mani Shankar Aiyar is a member of the Indian parliament representing the Congress Party. His column is published weekly.