An Odyssey of Power and Ruin

Times Staff Writer

Saddam Hussein, who ruled Iraq with ruthless force and led his people into three devastating wars that cost more than 1 million lives, was in the end a docile captive who displayed none of the bravado that was his despotic trademark.

After the fall of Baghdad, he spent almost eight months evading capture by U.S.-led coalition forces but was finally found Saturday hiding near his hometown of Tikrit.

Feared at home during his 24-year rule, Hussein was celebrated by many in the Middle East for his unyielding confrontational stance toward the United States and Israel. He was viewed as a man of contradictions, wily and calculating but prone to making catastrophic mistakes in dealing with foes, including the United States.

The Iraqi leader’s miscalculations in invading two neighbors -- Iran and Kuwait -- resulted in more than 1 million deaths in the region over two decades.


At home, he brooked no opposition, mercilessly ravaging his people, particularly Shiite Muslims and Kurds. He built the world’s fourth-largest army and, according to the Bush administration, tried to amass an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons.

He never won a war and may have never felt secure, even at his many palatial homes. He seldom slept in the same bed two nights in a row, and he used look-alikes to foil assassins.

Although adversaries castigated him as the “Butcher of Baghdad,” Hussein, a secular Muslim, cast himself as a latter-day Arab hero. In recent years, he tried to gain favor throughout the Middle East by giving tens of millions of dollars to Palestinian families who lost relatives in the fight against Israel.

Saddam Hussein Tikriti was born April 28, 1937, to a poor farming family in the tiny mud-hut village of Al Auja, near the town of Tikrit on the Tigris River, about 100 miles north of Baghdad. The charged political atmosphere during which Hussein came of age in late-1950s Baghdad was marked by violence, coup attempts and sectarian and tribal conflicts.

In 1956, Hussein participated in a coup attempt against Iraq’s King Faisal II. The coup failed, but Hussein was well on his way to becoming a feared figure in the Iraqi underground. In 1957, at age 20, he joined the Iraqi branch of the Baath Party, a secular, pan-Arab political movement founded in Syria in the 1940s that combined elements of socialism and Nazism.

The Baathists made their first grab for power in 1959, when they tried unsuccessfully to assassinate Iraqi strongman Gen. Abdul Karim Qassim by machine-gunning his car. Hussein, a member of the hit team, was slightly wounded. He escaped by disguising himself as a Bedouin tribesman. He trekked across the desert to Syria, then moved on to Egypt.

In 1963, the Baathists finally succeeded in overthrowing Qassim, whose bullet-riddled corpse was displayed for several nights on Iraqi television. Hussein, by reliable accounts, became the new regime’s chief torturer as head of an infamous interrogation center known as the Palace of the End.

During that period he laid the foundation of his secret-police power base, from which he would eventually rise to the top ranks of the party.

Still few in number, the Baathists were unable to retain the power they had seized, and within months they were overthrown by the army. Hussein was imprisoned, but escaped two years later and went into hiding.

In 1968, the Baathists struck again, seizing power a second time with the help of the army and installing Gen. Ahmed Hassan Bakr, the party’s secretary-general, as president.

Although Hussein remained in the background as deputy chairman of the new Revolutionary Command Council, he expanded his power base and presided over a reign of terror that eventually would cow all of Iraq’s quarrelsome clans, factions and sectarian groups.

Even Iraqis who opposed Hussein acknowledged that he was more effective than any leader before him in holding the competing forces in check. In constructing the edifice of the modern Iraqi state, the mortar Hussein used to hold it together was fear.

In one incident, after Hussein became president in 1979, he had 21 senior Baathist officials murdered. Not even his family was immune. Altogether, Hussein has had 53 of his relatives killed, according to Mustafa Alani, an Iraq expert at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense, a London-based think tank.

Other incidents came to light in the late 1980s that illustrated the extent of Hussein’s ruthlessness. Iraqi air force helicopters dropped chemical weapons on areas of northern Iraq that were heavily populated by Kurdish separatist rebels.

The chemical agents are thought to have been cyanide and mustard gas, and the death toll is believed to have reached the thousands.

Over the last few years, the dictator tried to burnish his Islamic credentials at home and abroad. But efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction were a constant theme in his long rule.

Many observers in the West first became aware of these efforts in 1981, when Israeli warplanes destroyed a nuclear reactor near Baghdad that would have enabled Iraq to manufacture nuclear weapons. At least 25 pounds of enriched uranium was reported to have been on site at the reactor, which was being built by Italian and French companies.

The bombing occurred a year after the first of Hussein’s monumental military blunders -- the invasion of Iran. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had come to power in Iran in 1979, was attempting to incite Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority to revolt against its Sunni Muslim rulers and the secular Baathist Party credo.

Despite the fact that he never served in a conventional armed force, Hussein believed himself to be a great military strategist. He ordered his troops into Iran in the belief that the war would be won within weeks. But Iraqi gains were quickly lost when Hussein shifted to a defensive posture. As many as 45,000 Iraqis are believed to have been killed in the war’s first two months.

The Iran-Iraq war lasted eight years, claimed more than 1 million lives and exhausted the economic resources of both nations. It also marked Hussein’s first use of chemical weapons against a foe.

A team of United Nations experts visited Iran to investigate Tehran’s claims of poison gas attack and concluded that Iraq had used mustard gas and the nerve agent Tabun on Iranian troops in 1984.

Iraq probably would have lost the war had it not been for billions of dollars in Arab aid to Hussein and, toward the end, copious intelligence data and military advice provided by the United States.

The other Arab nations of the Persian Gulf region, principally Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, supported Hussein against Iran because their regimes felt even more vulnerable to the Islamist revolution Khomeini was trying to spread across the Mideast. As loathsome as the Baathists in Baghdad were to them, Iraq was the only defender capable of driving the Iranians back from the Arab world’s eastern gate.

Iraq emerged from the ordeal with the largest army in the Middle East. With Hussein’s 1 million troops, power in the region was, for the first time in years, dangerously out of balance.

On Aug. 2, 1990, he ordered his troops to invade Kuwait.

The invasion led to Operation Desert Storm, the U.S-led attack that began on Jan. 17, 1991, with massive air assaults on Baghdad and Iraqi military facilities. It ended with a 100-hour ground war.

With Kuwait liberated and the Iraqi army decimated -- 175,000 troops surrendered and an estimated 85,000 were killed -- President George H.W. Bush signed a cease-fire agreement, handing Iraq one of the most lopsided defeats in modern history.

In the months following the war, uprisings by Shiite forces in the south and Kurdish rebels in the north put pressure on the still-intact Hussein regime. But “no-fly” zones established in northern and southern Iraq, enforced by the American and British air forces, failed to control Hussein. The rebellions were brutally put down by the Republican Guard, which had performed so poorly against the U.S.-led coalition.

But Iraq, once one of the most prosperous Arab countries, continued its slide into economic ruin, exacerbated by U.N. sanctions. Hunger became widespread, children were dying from lack of medicine and the per-capita income was cut in half, to $1,200 a year.

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Washington’s stance toward the Iraqi regime stiffened. In early October of last year, President Bush delivered a nationally televised address in which he called Hussein a “murderous tyrant” who must disarm or risk invasion.

Efforts by France and Russia to prevent a war to oust Hussein came to an end March 17, when Bush gave Hussein 48 hours to leave Iraq. A U.S.-led coalition began bombing targets in Baghdad, where Hussein and top aides were believed to be sleeping, on March 20, just hours after the deadline passed without the Iraqi leader’s compliance.

The ensuing war progressed rapidly, with American and British troops, who had entered the country from Kuwait, taking ground with impressive speed. By April 9, Baghdad had fallen to American troops and commanders declared that Hussein’s government no longer ruled the city.

Responding to the resistance, the U.S. offered rewards of $25 million for information leading to the capture of Hussein and $15 million each for similar information about his sons Uday and Qusai.

On July 22, acting on information from a “walk-in informant,” American forces surrounded a villa in the northern city of Mosul. Four Iraqis inside the home were killed during a six-hour firefight. They were identified as Hussein’s sons, Qusai’s 14-year- old son, Mustafa, and an unidentified bodyguard.

Nearly five months later, the man who once held absolute power in Iraq was captured in an underground hide-out at a farmhouse near Tikrit.