In April 2001 I visited Iraq–then still under sanctions from the first Gulf War–to cover Saddam’s birthday for Jane magazine. (Now defunct, which is why I posted this a few years on a blog I was doing at the Atlantic.)  It’s a strange story–and another birthday party for a woman named Baida turned out to be the real story. Of course none of us knew that 9/11 and the second Iraq War were coming, but it was clear things couldn’t continue to be “on hold” in Iraq forever.

Here’s the story.

And here’s the best metric I ever invented:

I try to count Saddam portraits, but finally I give up and calculate Saddams per minute (SPM). Inside a government building it’s 32 SPM. In a car in Baghdad it’s 4 SPM. Inside the market, on foot, it’s .2 SPM. He is not quite everywhere. But one day I’m forced to spend a whole hour staring at a wall-sized portrait: his nose and eyes are hyper real, all-seeing, a world unto themselves, while the rest of the painting is like a child’s drawing-messy and abstract. This is a pretty accurate picture of what happens when Americans look at Iraq-we see a giant Saddam– and the 24 million people of Iraq fade into the background.

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