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Iraqi cartoonist skewers Hussein

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2003

AMMAN, Jordan -- While most editorial cartoonists in the Arab world are busy skewering President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, one has aimed his pen at a different target: Saddam Hussein.

And he's an Iraqi artist, no less.

From exile in Jordan, 58-year-old Amer Rashad draws devastating caricatures of the Iraqi leader for newspapers in Kuwait, London and Tunisia.

One recent cartoon shows Hussein romping through a field, plucking petals from a daisy. Instead of "Love me? Love me not?," he's saying, "Am I finished? Am I not?"

Another shows Hussein as a plucked chicken, about to be plopped into a pot of boiling water by a U.S. soldier.

It's tough stuff from a man Hussein once gave a gold watch.

A self-trained artist, Rashad used to work for As Sawra, the official newspaper of Hussein's Baath Party. The editor-in-chief was Tariq Aziz, who went on to become Iraq's foreign minister and Hussein's chief spokesman to the world.

Rashad and Hussein met twice. The first time was in 1979 -- a few months before Hussein formally took the title of president -- when Rashad was instructed to come to work unusually early one day. Two heavily armed soldiers entered his office and positioned themselves in opposite corners of the room.

"When Saddam came, they said, 'Don't shake hands with him -- put your hands on the table.' After half an hour, we were still sitting there with our hands on the table."

Hussein looked at a cartoon Rashad had drawn of him, then commented "Don't worry, we'll solve all the problems."

On another occasion, Hussein arrived at the newspaper with one of his ministers, who announced that the Iraqi leader was going to present Rashad with a gold watch.

"I took it home and flushed it down the toilet. I gave my son my own watch, and since that time I haven't worn any watch."

Altogether, Hussein gave Rashad gifts "four or five times," culminating with 500 dinars, then a small fortune. "The next day, the chief of journalists said, 'Our president is very generous but he kindly asks you not to draw his caricature anymore."'

As Hussein brutally exercised his power, Rashad chafed under the constraints imposed on journalists working for a government-controlled newspaper. Some of his friends were killed; others left the country or simply disappeared. Rashad made his break shortly after the 1991 Gulf War, when he fled to Jordan, then moved to Tunisia.

There he illustrated literary magazines, did posters for the Ministry of Culture and published two books of drawings that showed the suffering of the Iraqi people. But Iraq's embassy in Tunis began to harass him, so he returned to Jordan three years ago.

Now he and a grown son share a two-room apartment so tiny it doesn't even have a kitchen or bathroom. (They use a neighbor's.) Rashad draws his cartoons on a wobbly table, then scans them on a friend's computer and e-mails them to foreign newspapers.

With his bushy eyebrows, baggy eyes and jowly chin, Hussein is ideal fodder for caricature."Even if you make the mustache only, people would understand it's Saddam," Rashad says.

He often draws the Iraqi leader with worms or snakes crawling out of his head, and on close inspection Hussein's trademark black beret turns out to be a crow -- a bird that Arabs consider a symbol of evil.

The cartoons are popular in Kuwait, which Iraq invaded in 1990, and with Iraqi opposition groups based in London. Papers here won't run the drawings; Jordan has a large Palestinian population that supports Hussein because he once attacked Israel and gives money to the families of suicide bombers.

Rashad is a prolific oil painter, whose portraits of nudes and erotic subjects decorate his room and fill several large suitcases. On one suitcase, though, he has painted an airplane -- a reminder that he hopes one day to resettle in Canada or the United States.

Even if Saddam Hussein leaves power, Rashad has no desire to return to Iraq.

"There will still be many people around from the old system," he says. "I don't know how they would react to my art. Besides, I don't have any relatives left. There's nobody waiting for me."

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at .

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