"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Operation Iraqi Freedom started early because CIA director George Tenet told the president that his intelligence sources said they knew where Saddam Hussein was sleeping that night. It was officially announced at 10:16 EST last Wednesday night when President George W. Bush came on our TVs and told us the bombs were dropping — and shortly afterward, coalition leaders began to hint they may have hit their target. Since that time, Saddam Hussein has appeared on Iraqi television five times.
After his first broadcast, however, U.S. intelligence officials suggested it was likely the individual appearing on TV was not actually Saddam, but rather, one of his myriad look-alikes. On Monday, after his second speech (his fifth actual appearance on Iraqi TV), the U.S. and British governments reported that, again, Saddam’s televised appearance — which was presented as a live event — wasn’t proof that he’s still alive and well. Despite apparent references Saddam makes in the address to battles that have taken place in just the past few days, coalition leaders insist it may have been taped long ago.
“Those pictures were not live,” British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon told reporters hours after the tape ran on Iraqi TV. “There is still the possibility of Saddam Hussein’s people issuing tape recordings. We are well aware that he spent many hours recently tape-recording various messages.” White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said he wouldn’t be “surprised if Saddam Hussein has some time ago put in the can numerous statements designed to be released later.”
A review of Saddam’s second speech, however, reveals that while Fleischer and Hoon’s theory is possible, it’s unlikely. Meanwhile, as the coalition tries to deny Saddam is still in charge, it’s ignoring the messages that he’s been sending with his speeches to both domestic and international audiences.
The proponents of the theory that Saddam’s speech was prerecorded haven’t yet accounted for the fact that in it, the Iraqi leader refers to towns that coalition forces have been attacking recently — since Thursday at the earliest and Saturday at the latest — and lists 14 Iraqi military officers whom he says have performed bravely in recent combat. He also refers quite specifically to a difficult battle at Umm Qasr that continues to be fought as of this writing, even though U.S. soldiers thought it had been won on Saturday.
“The one thing in the speech that smacks of not having been pre-recorded is his mention of Umm Qasr,” says James Carafano, a 24-year Army veteran and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank. U.S. forces invaded the port town of Umm Qasr on Friday morning, and reported securing it on Saturday. But they were attacked by around 120 Iraqi Republican Guards on Sunday, after which they called in tanks and airstrikes. As of Monday afternoon, that difficult battle continued, and U.S. soldiers were awaiting assistance from British marines.
Also on the tape, Saddam asks “our dear people in Basra to be tolerant. God’s victory is coming. Victory is imminent.” Coalition forces have been bombing the southern town of Basra since Saturday morning. A day later, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammad Said al-Sahhaf claimed that 77 civilians had been killed and 366 others injured. On Monday, Iraqi TV showed Saddam meeting with Yahya al-Ubudi, the official in charge of the Basra organizations of the Baath party.
The Iraqi despot also mentions An Nasiriya, a crossing point over the Euphrates River 230 miles southeast of the capital of Baghdad, where U.S. soldiers have been encountering fierce resistance since Friday. “The people of civilization,” Saddam calls the population of An Nasiriya, “you all know that the enemy will concentrate his raids and bombardment whenever you concentrate your fighting on him on the ground.” An Nasiriya is where Iraqi troops pretended to surrender, and then attacked U.S. Marines. It is also where a six-vehicle Army convoy took a wrong turn and was ambushed, after which U.S. soldiers were killed and captured.
When asked about the “contemporary events” referred to on the tape, Hoon argued that “the contemporary events did not appear to me to be unambiguously contemporary.”
“The reference to the ‘fierce battle at Umm Qasr’ makes me question whether this could have been done ahead of time,” says Warren Bass, a senior fellow of Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former associate editor of Foreign Affairs. “But then again, that would be a port that the U.S. would definitely go for. And if he really wants to gloat about taking POWs at An Nasiriya why doesn’t he just come out and say it? He’s not a particularly subtle character.” Bass says he doesn’t “see a smoking gun either way,” though he says it would be safest to assume Saddam remains alive.
Wearing his familiar olive green military uniform, Saddam reads from prepared remarks while sitting, as he’s done in each of his appearances, lending credence to intelligence that he was injured in one of the attacks.
Other Iraqi leaders whom U.S. intelligence officials claimed had been killed have popped up in Saddam’s videos, and in their own. Saddam’s right-hand man, Ezzat Ibrahim — the deputy chairman of the ruling Revolution Command Council famous for yelling, “Shut up, you monkey!” at the Kuwaiti minister of state for foreign affairs earlier this month — appeared on TV on Sunday chairing a meeting of aides from northern Iraq. Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan showed up at a press conference that same day to warn coalition soldiers that the worst was yet to come. Saddam’s son Qusay Hussein has been spotted in at least two of the appearances, according to Agence France Presse.
But Saddam’s Monday address was more than just a “Hey, I’m still here,” wave to the crowds. He also addressed some practical, tactical matters. He thanked the 11th Infantry Division “and its brave and mujahedin men, the men of Qadissiya and the ‘Mother of All Battles’ whose attitude was distinguished with sacrifice that deserved to be proud of by any Iraqi.”
“Qadissiya” is a reference to a 7th century battle with what is now Iran, and it is how Saddam refers to the Iran-Iraq war — in which the U.S. backed Iraq, not incidentally. The “Mother of All Battles” is of course a reference to the last Persian Gulf War, in 1991.
Experts say that it is unusual for Saddam to mention conscripted soldiers like those from the 11th Infantry Division; he is far more likely to address the elite unites like the Fedayeen. “Most of his regular army are much less well trained, much less enthusiastic and much less ideological” than the elite soldiers who usually earn Saddam’s public thanks — “the gangs run by his son Uday and the Republican Guard division,” Bass says. Bass doubts that Saddam is counting on the regular army to “be much more than a speed bump.” But he sees Saddam’s mention of them as an “attempt to buck up the morale of the regular army units,” whom he wants to use to wear out American forces “as much as they can,” before they face the more dangerous Republican Guard in Baghdad.
Carafano said he’s struck by Saddam’s call for civilians to rise up against U.S. soldiers. “You Iraqis are in line with what God has ordered you to do, to cut their throats and even their fingers. Strike them and strike evil so that evil will be defeated,” Saddam exhorts. “Strategically this sounds to me like he’s trying to do a Tet [Offensive] II,” Carafano says, referring to the North Vietnamese assault from a different war. “He wants the main force units moving in urban areas trying to demonstrate that they can stand against U.S. soldiers combined with a popular uprising.”
Most significantly, perhaps, experts were struck by Saddam’s ratcheted-up Islamic rhetoric, with his six references to jihad and 28 references to Allah. He begins the 25-minute address by quoting from the Quran, after which he says, “To the great Iraqi people, the mujahedin in our brave armed forces, peace be on you.”
“I’ve never seen that before, references to Iraqi ‘mujahedin,’” Carafano says. Saddam promises that those who fight the “disbelievers” will “reap stability and glory and our martyrs (will receive) a reward of paradise.” He concludes his speech by exclaiming, “Long live Palestine, free and Arab, from the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea.” After he’s mentioned Palestine he says, “Long live Iraq, the country of jihad and virtue, and long live Iraqis, symbol of jihad, glory, hope and humanity.”
Carafano is struck by Saddam evoking Palestine — long a rallying cry for the Muslim world — even before he evokes Iraq. Also missing from the speech is the degree of nationalistic rhetoric — as in “the mother of all battles” — that he’s used in the past.
“I don’t think he’s really a fundamentalist, but he does occasionally play one on TV,” Bass says. Saddam, after all, began as what Bass calls a “very secular sort of Stalin-esque political leader, coming from the Socialist Baath party with a real contempt for religion, some of which was exacerbated during the eight-year war with Iran.” Since the first Gulf War, however, Saddam has been “self-consciously adopting Muslim tropes.”
“The Islamic fundamentalists hate Saddam. He’s a secular tyrant as far as they’re concerned,” Carafano says. “For him to steal their language must probably turn a few fundamentalists’ stomachs.”
All of this is evidence of the speech’s secondary audience: the Muslim world, which is largely opposed to the war.
Muslim leaders who have expressed support for the war have been on the defensive lately. Faced with increasing dissent from other leaders in his country, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai had to issue a statement on Monday explaining his support for the U.S.-led war. “Saddam Hussein in the past two decades with his cruel and un-Islamic actions, including invasion on two neighbouring Islamic countries, has led Iraq towards destruction,” Karzai said. He went on to say that “At the period of jihad … [Saddam] supported the Soviet invaders and communists instead of supporting the mujahed nation of Afghanistan. He supported unbelievers and invaders.”
Because of the increasingly violent protests against the war in Pakistan, Karzai canceled a Saturday visit there. Demonstrations throughout Pakistan slam “Bush and Mush,” a reference to the American president and the Pakistani president, General Pervez Musharraf.
Islamists have seized upon this war, of course, as a new rallying cry against the West, often portrayed in the stark language of the Crusades. Taliban spokesman Mujahid Mullah Mohammad Mukhtar sent an e-mail on Monday to the News Web site in Islamabad, saying that “like the Iraqi Muslims, we the Taliban are also resisting the Crusaders. Iraq is a victim of aggression by the Crusaders and the attack on Iraq is an offensive against Muslims world-wide.”
Also on Monday, according to the Monday edition of the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat, the new spokesman for al-Qaida, Thabit Bin-Qays, announced a new upgraded Web site for the terrorist group and said that the war on Iraq was a new “Crusade against Muslims.”
Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.More Jake Tapper.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)