Saddam Hussein, who ruled Iraq with ruthless force and led his people into three devastating wars while pursuing his goal of dominating the Arab world, cast a large shadow over world events and the nation that he controlled for most of the last 30 years.
Though never an army officer, he frequently wore military uniforms and styled himself as a fearless strategist and warrior. The wars he started cost more than 1 million lives, but he never won any of them and lived in constant fear, seldom sleeping in the same palace two nights in a row and employing look-alikes to foil assassination attempts.
Nearly four years after U.S.-led forces toppled his Baath Party regime and a little more than three years after he was caught hiding in a hole in the ground near his hometown, his death further shuts the door on an era of secular Arab nationalism, now being eclipsed throughout the Middle East by Islamist ideas and leaders.
Hussein took with him to the grave a trove of secrets. The former Iraqi leader allegedly ordered assassinations abroad and used his country’s vast oil wealth to curry favor with Middle Eastern governments while maintaining undercover dealings with intelligence services throughout the region and the West.
One famous photograph shows Hussein shaking hands with Donald H. Rumsfeld in 1983, who served as an informal envoy to Baghdad at a time when the United States was aiding Iraq in its eight-year war with Iran.
For his country, now convulsed in civil war, Hussein’s most lasting and damaging legacy was the way his selective patronage and brutal violence divided Iraqis along lines that continue to split them.
Hussein moved rivers to reward Sunni Arab villagers loyal to his government and drained swamps to punish Shiite Muslims who rose up against him. He moved rebellious Kurds from the northern city of Kirkuk while selling cheap land in the city to Arabs to reward loyalists and upend the ethnic balance of the country’s oil-rich north.
He imprisoned tens of thousands, ordered the killings of political enemies, real and imagined, including two of his sons-in-law, and used poison gas to wipe out whole villages in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. He granted construction contracts to favored Arab tribes, while depriving whole categories of people -- such as Shiite Kurds -- of their citizenship rights.
Such violence and manipulations may have established a semblance of stability. But they also built up a sense of entitlement by Sunnis and resentment on the part of Shiites and Kurds that fueled violence by death squads, militias and insurgents once the U.S. invasion of 2003 toppled his regime.
Hussein fostered a grotesque cult of personality around himself as the embodiment of the Iraqi state and all of Iraqi history. As he consolidated absolute power in the 1980s, his face and figure went up all over the country. Here was Hussein on horseback. There he was in Kurdish costume. His likeness adorned the walls of every cafe, bank and government office. Hussein’s initials were inscribed on the stones used to rebuild ancient archeological sites.
“With our souls, with our blood, we will sacrifice for you, Saddam,” schoolchildren, old women and office workers chanted whenever Hussein arrived.
The result was a culture of dependence and subservience to the state that has plagued efforts to rebuild Iraq. To date, other than Muqtada Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric, not a single Iraqi who suffered through Hussein’s final years of rule has emerged as a credible political leader. Perhaps the most telling illustration of Hussein’s influence on Iraq is that nearly all of post-invasion Iraq’s leadership has been culled from among exiles.
Saddam Hussein Abdul-Majid Tikriti was born April 28, 1937, to a poor family of Sunni peasants in the tiny mud-hut village of Al Auja, near the city of Tikrit on the Tigris River about 100 miles north of Baghdad. His father, Hussein Majid, died within a year of his birth, and his mother, Subha, married a man named Ibrahim Hassan.
Young Hussein earned money by selling watermelons to train passengers passing through town. When he was 10, apparently to escape his abusive stepfather, Hussein ran away from home and went to live with his uncle Khayrallah Tulfah, a former general who had been dismissed from the army for supporting a coup attempt.
By then, Tulfah was an embittered man, eking out an existence as a schoolteacher in Baghdad. He was also anti-Western, a fascist and a Sunni chauvinist. The influence he exerted over Hussein can be inferred in part from the title of a pamphlet the uncle wrote and Hussein had published years later: “Three Whom God Should Not Have Created: Persians, Jews and Flies.”
At his uncle’s instigation, Hussein committed his first killing while still in his teens. The victim was Saadoun Tikriti, a communist supporter of Gen. Abdul Karim Qassim, who later became Iraq’s prime minister. He also happened to be Hussein’s brother-in-law.
Hussein came of age in the late 1950s, a time of post-colonial change as Arab nationalism arose to challenge governments set up by the British and French. Like many Arabs, Hussein was inspired by the vision of a pan-Arab Middle East propagated by the charismatic Gamal Abdel Nasser, who became president of Egypt in 1956.
That year, Hussein took part in a coup against Iraq’s King Faisal II. The coup failed. But Hussein became a feared figure in the Iraqi political 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.
In Baathism, Hussein found “an ideology that both justified his violent hatreds and harmonized his inner turmoil,” according to the late Egyptian diplomat Tahseen Bashir. The party’s promise of one strong, united Arab nation was imbued with a vision of grandeur and power perfectly suited to Hussein’s ambitions. He rose quickly in the party’s ranks.
“Saddam learned early on the first rule of street politics during that time in Baghdad,” Bashir said. “In the context of Iraqi politics, survival of the fittest meant survival of the most brutal, the most cunning and, above all, the most violent.”
In 1958, the Iraqi monarchy was overthrown by non-Baathist officers led by Qassim. King Faisal II was gunned down with his family and aides. Eighteen months later, the Baathists made their first grab for power, trying to assassinate Qassim by machine-gunning his car. Hussein, a member of the hit team, was slightly wounded. He disguised himself as a Bedouin and trekked across the desert to Syria, then moved on to Egypt.
The Baathists succeeded in overthrowing Qassim in 1963. The usurpers broadcast images of his corpse on television for several nights. In Iraqi politics, one Arab diplomat noted, “losers do not get the chance to retire gracefully.”
Hussein returned to Baghdad immediately after the coup and became the new regime’s chief enforcer. As head of an infamous interrogation center known as the Palace of the End, he allegedly oversaw the torture of the nascent regime’s enemies.
But the Baathists were unable to retain power. Within months they were overthrown by the army, which jailed Hussein. Two years later, he escaped and resumed the task of building the party’s internal security apparatus, employing carefully chosen Tikriti clansmen through whom he would gradually consolidate his control over the party, the army and, finally, the country.
Coming to power
The Baathists seized power once and for all in 1968, this time with the help of the army. Gen. Ahmed Hassan Bakr, the party’s secretary-general, became president. Hussein remained in the background as deputy chairman of the new Revolutionary Command Council but presided over a reign of terror that purged non-Baathists from power and quieted almost all of Iraq’s quarrelsome clans, factions and sectarian groups.
He launched midnight raids on the homes of suspected opponents, organized show trials and staged public executions targeting select groups, including Jews, who at the time were a significant community in Baghdad.
“We do not need Stalinist ways to deal with traitors here,” Hussein would later remark of the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, whose rule of terror he admired and studied closely. “We need Baathist ways.”
The regime’s main tool to keep the country together was unbridled fear. One well-documented incident illustrates this principle.
In July 1979, Hussein eased Bakr out of office and assumed the presidency. In a meeting that was videotaped and later shown secretly to other Arab leaders, Hussein called senior Baathist officials together to listen to Muhyi Abd Husayn Mashhadi, a member of the Revolutionary Command Council, “confess” to taking part in a plot to overthrow the new government.
After the dramatic confession, Hussein lighted a cigar and, between puffs, slowly read off the names of 21 other party officials who were asked to stand and leave the room.
“Everyone knew what was happening,” said a senior Western diplomat. “Every time a name was called, the cadres in the room would begin shouting, ‘Long live Saddam!’ in the hopes that they would be spared. Every time the hysterical cheering died down, Saddam would take another puff on his cigar and call out another name.”
The officials were later killed -- the first batch of many executions that year.
Beyond fear, Hussein also employed money. During the 1970s, he and his Baath Party colleagues nationalized the oil industry. They used money from oil exports to build schools, hospitals, roads and housing, and to buy loyalty from Iraq’s many tribes and clans.
But from the beginning, Hussein mostly lavished his largess on Sunni areas while ignoring others, building up resentment and hostility in Iraq’s Shiite south and the Kurdish north.
Hussein also spent handsomely on himself and his family. He favored finely tailored suits, expensive cars and Cuban cigars. Until the war in 2003, his family lived in splendor in palaces around the country. Although his travels outside the Middle East were rare, his family members were known to take elaborate shopping vacations in Paris and New York.
Hussein was married to the same woman, Sajida, a former schoolteacher, from 1958 until the late 1980s, when they separated.
Known to be a philanderer with numerous romantic liaisons, he took a second wife, Samira Shabandar, in the mid-1980s. They had a son, Ali, who was born about 1987. His two sons from his marriage to Sajida, Qusai and Uday, were known for their ruthlessness and played key roles in their father’s rule. Hussein also had three daughters with Sajida, Raghad, Rana and Hala.
War without end
In 1980, Hussein invaded Iran, hoping to take advantage of that country’s isolation after its Islamic Revolution. The disastrous eight-year war that followed ultimately shaped Iraq’s domestic politics and crushed its promising economy. Hussein’s treatment of Iraqi Shiites and Kurds whom he considered agents of Iran sealed his fate and hardened Iraq’s divisions.
Two years into the war, Hussein’s motorcade came under fire during a visit to the Shiite town of Dujayl, a stronghold of the Iranian-backed Dawa Party.
Hussein responded brutally, signing off on the deaths of at least 148 villagers, destroying the town as part of a “development” plan and banishing hundreds of families to desert encampments. Those were the acts on which his death sentence was based.
A few years later, it was Kurds who were massacred, as Iraqi air force helicopters dropped chemical weapons, believed to have been sarin and mustard gas, on villages in northern Iraq. The death toll is believed to have been in the tens of thousands, and hundreds of villages were destroyed.
In one attack, on the town of Halabja, as many as 5,000 people were believed to have been killed and perhaps twice that many wounded.
Many in the West first became aware of Hussein’s efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction in 1981, when Israeli planes destroyed a nuclear reactor at Osirak, near Baghdad, that would have enabled Iraq to manufacture nuclear weapons. At least 25 pounds of enriched uranium was reported to have been at the site of the reactor, which was being built by Italian and French companies.
Hussein was celebrated across the Middle East for his strident stance against Israel. Through the years, he championed the Palestinian cause, providing support for the families of suicide bombers and housing and education to Palestinian refugees in Iraq.
But throughout the 1980s, his opposition to Israel remained largely rhetorical, as his army remained bogged down in the war with Iran. In 1988, Iraqi forces used poison gas to push back the Iranian army. Then, with both countries exhausted and hundreds of thousands dead on both sides, the United Nations mediated a cease-fire.
Soon, Hussein sought to restart his nuclear weapons program, but his reach for regional power was frustrated by a $70-billion war debt, including billions owed to the small, wealthy Persian Gulf nation of Kuwait, just south of Iraq.
Although most intelligence analysts missed the signals, a serious crisis was brewing between Iraq and Kuwait. Arab officials now concede they miscalculated and should have read the warnings in Hussein’s public threats against Kuwait and boasts about chemical weapons. But no one miscalculated more than Hussein when, on Aug. 2, 1990, he ordered his troops to invade.
“What stood out most clearly about Saddam was his insulation,” a Pentagon analyst later said. “He was an underground fighter with an intense suspicion of the outside world, a man who didn’t know or understand the West. His misperceptions led him to miscalculations that made him a very difficult man to predict.”
Even as the administration of President George H.W. Bush assembled a massive force to drive his army out of Kuwait, Hussein appeared to have no conception of what a modern military force could do. As his commanders later told U.S. officials, he had mastered the technology of a rifle but didn’t understand the capabilities of a laser-guided bomb.
“The great duel, the mother of all battles, has begun,” Hussein declared Jan. 17, 1991, on government radio after the U.S. air campaign began. “The dawn of victory nears as this great showdown begins.”
Operation Desert Storm, a campaign led by the U.S. and generally supported by the Arab world, devastated Baghdad and Iraqi military facilities.
After a 100-hour ground war, the Kuwaiti monarchy was restored, with 175,000 Iraqi troops surrendering and an estimated 85,000 dead, one of the most lopsided defeats in modern military history.
In the following months, uprisings by Shiite forces in the south and Kurdish rebels in the north put added pressure on Hussein’s regime. With Americans watching, the Shiite rebellion was put down brutally by elements of Hussein’s Republican Guard. But a “no fly” zone over northern Iraq enforced by U.S. and British pilots allowed Kurds to establish a largely autonomous region over the next several years.
U.N.-imposed sanctions on Iraq’s oil devastated its economy, impoverishing the once-proud middle-class country. Iraq slid into further ruin, with hunger widespread, children dying for lack of medicine and the per capita income cut in half, to $1,200 a year.
During the next decade, Hussein turned to religion to bolster his regime. Although his Baathist ideology was socialist and secular, he built gargantuan mosques and put up billboards around Baghdad showing himself kneeling on a prayer mat.
Far from learning any lessons from his defeat in the war, Hussein continued to play cat-and-mouse with U.S. forces and the international community.
He manipulated an “oil for food” program set up by the United Nations, using it to accumulate cash for weapons and patronage. His forces engaged in sporadic military incidents, many sparked by Hussein’s refusal to give U.N. weapon inspectors full access to sensitive sites.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, neoconservative policymakers in Washington, who viewed Iraq as the primary stumbling block to U.S. interests in the Middle East, consolidated their hold on the U.S. foreign policy apparatus. President George W. Bush labeled Iraq as part of an “axis of evil,” arming to threaten the world.
Hussein called the Sept. 11 attacks “God’s punishment” of the Americans, though there is no evidence he was involved. “The United States reaps the thorns its rulers have planted in the world,” he said the day after the attacks.
As diplomatic efforts to get Hussein to agree to U.N. inspections resumed, Hussein’s government denied that he had any weapons of mass destruction to show U.N. inspectors.
After the war, those denials proved to have been true. Iraq’s weapons programs had deteriorated under the pressure of sanctions. But as Hussein’s commanders told U.S. investigators after the invasion, their president had bluffed, not wanting to let the world, or his own generals, know that he lacked chemical or biological weapons out of fear the news would embolden his enemies, particularly Iran.
It also became clear that Hussein never believed the Americans would oust him. He expected a repeat of a 1998 bombing campaign, which had damaged his regime but not overthrown it.
But he hinted that even if he were toppled, that would not be the end of the fight.
“The battle will not be over until ... the guns stop, when the national will of the people completely succumbs to all that the aggressor wants to see done,” Hussein told CBS News anchor Dan Rather in an interview shortly before the U.S. invasion.
“Air supremacy and missile supremacy are not enough,” he said. “In the final analysis, guns will continue to tell the tale of a courageous people, defending itself with its own fighters.”
On March 17, 2003, Bush gave Hussein 48 hours to leave Iraq. Two days later, U.S. warplanes began bombing targets where Hussein and top aides were believed to be sleeping.
U.S. and British troops entering from Kuwait took ground rapidly. Hussein, defying his military commanders’ advice, devised a strategy that ensured quick defeat. His military commanders later told U.S. investigators that until the very end, Hussein was far more afraid of Iranian-backed Shiite rebels rising up against him in the south than of American troops seizing his capital.
By April 9, Baghdad had fallen to U.S. forces. Hussein and his sons, taking as much as $1 billion in cash, escaped into the Sunni homelands of northwest Iraq and began rallying tribesmen and former loyalists.
In July, Uday and Qusai were killed in a shootout in Mosul. Hussein continued to evade capture, issuing occasional tape-recorded messages that called on Iraqis to resist the U.S.-led forces.
As the year wore on, a dramatic rise in insurgent attacks lent an air of urgency to finding Hussein. The U.S. government offered a reward of $25 million for information leading to his capture. Then, on Dec. 13, 2003, American forces caught him, secreted in an underground hide-out at a farmhouse near Tikrit.
During the last three years of his life, Hussein, along with former aides, was housed at Camp Cropper, the U.S. prison for important detainees, not far from one of his opulent former palaces. In 2005, he and seven others were placed on trial for the killings of the Dujayl villagers.
Neither Hussein’s capture nor his trial slowed the country’s descent into civil war. The number of U.S. troops and Iraqis killed continued to accelerate. Hussein himself, long despised and mistrusted by the rest of the Arab world, became a cause celebre worldwide as he condemned the trial as a farce and the U.S.-backed government of Iraq as a puppet.
“I am the president of Iraq,” he declared forcefully during an early session of the trial. “I will not answer to this so-called court.”
After a contentious, chaotic trial during which three defense lawyers were gunned down and a judge was removed for being too lenient toward the defense, the court, on Nov. 5, 2006, convicted and sentenced Hussein to hang along with his half brother Barzan Ibrahim Hasan and former judge Awad Hamed Bandar.
Despite criticism by rights groups that said the trial was unfair, the verdict was upheld Tuesday, three weeks after the start of the appeals process.
Through his lawyers, Hussein released a letter, one he said he would have preferred to have read aloud in court. He called upon warring Iraqis to set aside their differences and depicted himself as gracefully resigned to his death.
“Here I am presenting myself as a sacrifice” he wrote. “If God wants this, he will take my soul up in heaven with martyrs and believers. And if not, he is the most merciful. He created us and we all will return to him.”
Daragahi is The Times’ Baghdad Bureau chief and Lamb is a freelance writer.
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Key moments in his life
Saddam Hussein rose from humble beginnings to a seat of ruthless power:
April 28, 1937: Saddam Hussein born to a family of peasants in village of Al Auja, near the town of Tikrit on the Tigris River, about 100 miles north of Baghdad
1957: Joins Iraqi branch of the Arab
socialist Baath Party.
July 17, 1968: Baath Party takes power. Hussein becomes deputy chairman of the new Revolutionary Command Council.
July 16, 1979: Takes full power; later that summer has 22 leading party members executed on charges of plotting a coup.
September 1980: Orders invasion of Iran.
1982: Hussein signs off on the deaths of at least 148 villagers in Dujayl after he comes under fire during a visit.
March 1988: Iraqi forces use chemical weapons against Kurdish villages in and around Halabja, killing as many as 5,000 people.
Aug. 20, 1988: U.N.-brokered cease-fire ends Iran-Iraq war, estimated to have killed as many as 1 million.
Aug. 2, 1990: Orders invasion of Kuwait.
Jan. 16, 1991: U.S. attacks Iraq.
March 3, 1991: Cease-fire ends war.
April 1991: U.N. Security Council orders Iraq to surrender all chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and establishes monitoring program.
Nov. 8, 2002: Security Council unanimously approves Resolution 1441 calling on Iraq to disarm or face “serious consequences.”
March 20, 2003: U.S. begins bombing Baghdad.
April 9, 2003: Baghdad falls to U.S. forces.
Dec. 13, 2003: Hussein captured by American forces.
October 2005: Hussein goes on trial before Iraqi High Tribunal on charges of ordering the 1982 killing of Shiite villagers in Dujayl. Trial lasts until July 2006.
Nov. 5, 2006: Sentenced to death.
Sources: Times reports, Associated Press, Encyclopedia Britannica