Escorting Saddam’s remains with respect
TIKRIT, Iraq — In December, Chaplain (Capt.) Ray Santillano was at a battalion headquarters on Camp Speicher when he was told he was flying to Baghdad in a few hours.
This was not a typical mission. He was going to escort Saddam Hussein’s remains.
The 38-year-old native of San Antonio recalled the commander “was pretty nonchalant” with the news.
Santillano was momentarily dumbfounded.
“I think I said ‘Wow.’ I didn’t know what to think,” recalled Santillano, whose job is to escort the remains of fallen soldiers and ensure the process is handled with dignity.
At that point, no one had yet seen the bootlegged video recordings of the former Iraqi president’s execution. Santillano did not know that Hussein’s final moments were spent trading taunts with guards or that the proceedings would later be condemned by many, including the White House, as being poorly handled.
He just knew he had a job to do, Santillano said.
“I wanted to do the right thing for the deceased,” he said. “I did not think of him as Saddam Hussein the dictator. I wanted to make sure the remains were handled appropriately.”
There was, he admitted, a tension between his duty as a chaplain and his awareness of who he was charged to escort.
Santillano said he was determined to be professional, no matter his personal feelings on Hussein’s recorded acts of cruelty. The former Iraqi president had been, after all, sentenced to death after being convicted of crimes against humanity by an Iraqi court for the murder of 148 Shiites in 1982.
But there was also more at stake than his own personal feelings and sense of duty, Santillano said. He said he soon realized that any mishandling of his mission could become a flash point and spark possible retaliatory attacks that many expected in the wake of the execution.
Three hours after being informed, Santillano found himself in Baghdad waiting for the conclusion of the last-minute wrangling over what to do with the remains of Hussein.
Iraqi government ministers, U.S. military officials and members of Hussein’s clan wrestled with whether the former dictator should be placed in a secret grave site or allowed a public burial.
“There were so many people who wanted different things: (Iraqi) Prime Minister (Nouri) al-Maliki, the (U.S.) State Department, various generals, the sheik of Saddam’s clan,” Santillano recalled. “We were being appraised moment by moment, the status on the ground changed frequently.”
After several hours, the decision was reached to hand the remains to Sheik Ali al-Nida, governor of Hussein’s home province of Salah ad Din and head of the Albu Nasir tribe. Hussein was to be buried in his birthplace of Al-Awja near Tikrit.
Santillano recalled that the body was moved without ceremony but handled in a dignified way. An imam reciting prayers watched as the remains were loaded into a U.S. helicopter and flown to Tikrit.
Once back at Camp Speicher, the exchange happened quickly, Santillano said.
“I thought there might be a ceremony [but there wasn’t], I saw people that I assumed were from his clan,” he said.
Looking at the faces of the tribesmen there to claim the body, Santillano said, “there was no emotion.”
Hussein was loaded onto a caravan of cars and driven away into the night. The attacks that many expected in protest of the execution never materialized.
“Given the considerations, in this chaplain’s opinion, we did a good job,” Santillano said of his brush with history.