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Saddam Hussein was born on April 28, 1937, in the northern town of Tikrit, Iraq, to a landless family. His mother was widowed and lost Hussein’s older brother while she was pregnant with Saddam. After his mother remarried, the family moved to the tiny village of Uja, a few miles south of Tikrit, where they led an impoverished life. His mother had three more children with her new husband, and Hussein’s stepfather preferred them over him. Being fatherless, Hussein was exposed to abuse on the part of the village’s children. His parents did not want to send him to school, but when he turned ten he insisted on moving to Tikrit to stay with his maternal uncle, Khayr Allah Tilfah, and attended primary school there. In 1955 he moved with his uncle’s family to Baghdad to attend high school, but before graduating he became involved in political activities, having joined the revolutionary underground Baath Party in 1957. Later, as an exile in Cairo, he completed his secondary education and took some classes in law. As vice president of Iraq, he took private lessons in law, but he never completed his formal education.
On July 14, 1958, General Abdul-Karim Qassem (1914–1963) toppled the monarchy in Baghdad and established a semibenevolent dictatorship. Within weeks it became clear that Qassem’s approach to Arab unity was opposed to that of the Baath Arab Socialist Party, Hussein’s chosen venue for political action. With the support of Iraqi communists, Qassem objected to unification with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s (1918–1970) Egypt, and he placed a heavy emphasis on Iraqi identity and Iraqi interests, rather than on pan-Arab ideology and practice. In October 1959 Hussein participated in a failed assassination attempt on Qassem’s life. Hussein and his collaborators managed to wound the Iraqi dictator, but Hussein himself was wounded in his thigh and one of his team was killed, apparently from bullets shot by their own colleagues. Hussein managed to escape to Syria, an odyssey that became the object of a heroic myth weaved by his media after he became president. In Damascus he met the founder and chief ideologue of the Baath Party, the Syrian Christian intellectual Michel Aflaq (1910–1989). Aflaq was impressed by Hussein’s audacity and strength of character, and thereafter Hussein’s position in the party was assured. Hussein soon left Damascus for Cairo, where he lived a modest life sponsored by Nasser.
Baath Party Comes to Power
On February 8, 1963, the Baath Party, in collaboration with a few army officers, staged a coup d’état and killed Qassem. Hussein immediately left Cairo and arrived in Baghdad, where he became a midlevel internal security official. This was also when he married his maternal cousin, Sajidah Khayr Allah Tilfah. Qassem’s downfall was apparently not the exclusive result of his mistake of denying the Communists weapons, nor of the Baath Party’s talent for staging coups. According to reliable sources, the coup was supported, if not actually engineered, by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Starting in 1959, the CIA identified Qassem as a sworn enemy of the United States and a staunch ally of the Soviet Union. Over this issue there were deep disagreements between the CIA and the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. The Israeli analysts were convinced that Qassem was not a Communist, nor a Soviet satellite, and they had sufficient evidence that he was not an enemy of Israel. In fact, his rivalry with Nasser served Israel’s purpose of separating Iraq from Egypt. In 1963 the CIA, if it was indeed involved, had the upper hand. The Baath regime under General Abdul Salam Arif (1920–1966) as a titular figurehead launched a bloody campaign against Iraqi Communists who, despite deep reservations, had supported Qassem. Within six months the regime managed to slaughter around ten thousand men, real or perceived Communists. This, however, was no victory for the United States, because the Baath regime was still seeking Soviet, not American, support.
During the nine months of Baath rule (February to November 1963), Hussein aligned himself with the centrist faction in the party that was also supported by Aflaq. Hussein found it easy to join this faction because the group’s leader, General Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr (1914–1982), the prime minister under General Arif, was his distant relative and a childhood friend of Hussein’s uncle. All three were members of the Albu Nasir tribe, alBeigat section, and all originated from the Tikrit area. This connection to Bakr proved a crucial step in Hussein’s rise to power.
In November 1963 Arif and the army, with the help of some Baath officers including Bakr, toppled the civilian Baath regime and took full control of the country. After a few months of collaboration with Arif, the Baath leaders, including Hussein and Bakr, were hunted down and imprisoned. In 1964 Hussein escaped from prison. Other party members were released, which enabled them in July 1968 to stage another coup and topple the Arif regime.
Hussein Becomes Dictator Of Iraq
There are claims that the second Baath coup was also supported by the CIA, but these claims are less credible than those regarding the 1963 takeover. Whatever the case, the July 1968 “revolution” was almost bloodless, and Arif was sent abroad. Before the coup, Hussein had been deputy secretary-general of the Iraqi “Command” of the (clandestine) Baath Party and in charge of its internal security system. By August 1968 Hussein was already the czar of domestic security. Despite his young age and minimal period of party affiliation, Hussein quickly became the power behind President Bakr. Hussein surrounded the regime’s luminaries and the senior command of the armed forces with bodyguards and internal security apparatchiks who hailed from his own town and tribe. Before they realized it, the party leaders and army officers alike, including President Bakr, became prisoners in golden cages.
In November 1969 Hussein became vice president and deputy chairman of the powerful Revolutionary Command Council. At first his internal security apparatuses destroyed the party’s real and perceived enemies: Communists, radical Islamists, Nasserists, pro-Western politicians, and pro-Syrian officers; and they even hanged in a public square helpless young Jews to demonstrate their Iraqi and Arab patriotism. The next step, however, was to gradually eliminate Hussein’s personal rivals within the party. On July 16, 1979, Hussein replaced Bakr as president. A few days later, he purged all those in the party and armed forces whom he considered a threat. Hundreds were shot by firing squads, and Hussein became an absolute dictator.
Upon taking power in 1968, the Baath Party adopted the most extreme and recalcitrant pan-Arab, anti-Israeli, and anti-imperialist (or anti-American) rhetoric and, to an extent, practice. They launched vitriolic attacks against all the Arab regimes, but mainly those that lost the Six-Day War against Israel in 1967. Animosity with Baathist Syria became a cornerstone in Baghdad’s regional policy. Iraq promised to wage war for the liberation of Palestine and the annihilation of Israel within a year. Iraq also kept some twenty thousand soldiers in Jordan and Syria. Their slogan “everything for the [Palestine] battle” reflected their view that Iraq should be ready to sacrifice everything for the pan-Arab cause of liberating Palestine, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. This position changed dramatically during “Black September” of 1970. Rather than keeping their promise to help the Palestinian armed organizations to topple the Hashemite regime, Iraq’s Baath leaders ordered the Iraqi forces in Jordan to stay put, and by July 1971 the last Iraqi soldier was withdrawn from Jordan and Syria.
Pan-Arabism, Oil, and the Police State
During the next decade, Hussein was the driving force behind an about-face in the Baghdad-based Baath Party’s definition of Pan-Arabism. From expressed readiness to sacrifice Iraq on the altar of the supreme pan-Arab causes, he steered party ideology and politics toward an Iraq-centered approach. He promised that Iraq would still liberate Palestine and unite all the Arabs, but only after it became all-powerful, and this could take a decade or two.
During the early 1970s, Hussein embarked on a secret military nuclear program. Detaching Iraq from the day-to-day struggle against Israel (with the brief exception of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War) did not change the rhetoric of the regime. With some exceptions due to overpowering political constraints, Israel and the United States served Hussein as reliable hate objects, matched only by Iran after 1980. By blaming on these three countries all the travails of the Arabs and Muslims, and by promising to rid the Arab world of U.S. influence and Israeli existence, Hussein’s regime sought to gain support and legitimacy among the Shia, as well as in the broader Arab and Islamic worlds.
In the 1970s the concept of Arab unity, too, underwent a metamorphosis. Traditional Ba‘thist doctrine was egalitarian in that it perceived all Arab states as equal, and integrative in that it visualized the united Arab world as an amalgam in which all the existing Arab states and peoples would melt together in a huge crucible. Hussein’s PanArabism, in contrast, was Iraq-centered and hegemonic. The Iraqi people and state were never to melt and disappear, and Arab unity was conceived as a large brotherly federation of Arab states and peoples, rather than a crucible. Iraq was the elder brother in the Arab family, destined to lead. By late 1978 this approach was fully formulated, and on the eve of the Gulf War of 1991, the party leadership defined the Iraqis as “the pearl of the Arab crown.” The Iraqi people were seen as having a glorious future largely because they had a glorious past. History, Hussein and his intellectuals pointed out, began in Sumer some six thousand years ago, and the modern Iraqis are the contemporary cultural heirs and genetic offspring of the glory that was Mesopotamia.
This policy represented a very secular aspect of the Baath regime. At the same time, the party also introduced its version of socialism: They took more land from large landowners and gave it to more peasants than did their predecessors; they created many agricultural cooperatives in the countryside; they nationalized more institutions; and they increased substantially government spending on social projects and development. In the mid- to late 1970s, the country experienced a thrust in the development of infrastructure, industry, social security, and health and education services, and Iraqis saw a general rise in their standard of living. In that respect, Hussein’s June 1972 decision to nationalize the property of the Iraq Petroleum (Oil) Company proved a brilliant gamble: When oil prices went up in 1973 as a result of the Arab oil embargo against the West, Iraq did not participate in the embargo and its revenues quadrupled by 1975. This enabled the regime to spend huge resources on its social and economic programs.
At the same time, the regime also allowed the creation of a large stratum of new millionaires, consisting of regime luminaries and private entrepreneurs who thrived as a result of patron-client relations with the ruling elite. This situation bred widespread corruption. Another part of the regime’s understanding of socialism was the creation of a huge body of state officialdom. This new middle class, which was dependent on state salaries and thus very docile politically, gradually replaced the original Iraqi middle class of economic entrepreneurs. Another mechanism designed for the same purpose was the encouragement of tribalism, which contradicted every tenet of the Ba‘thist faith. Through the promotion of tribal shaykhs with gifts of land, money, and weapons, Hussein managed to better control the countryside. This policy was given full exposure only in the 1990s.
Above all, the 1970s and 1980s saw the mushrooming of state security apparatuses that managed to penetrate almost every corner of society. With Hussein as president, Iraq became a harsh police state characterized by severe repression of all political opponents, real and perceived. Between 1969 and 1971 and again between 1978 and 1980, the Communists were repressed, and many were executed or disappeared in Hussein’s prisons. Likewise, between 1977 and 1980, Shi’i religious activists were executed, jailed, or expelled from Iraq, and the religious universities of Najaf and Karbala were reduced to a shadow of what they had been.
War With Iran
Indeed, once Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900–1989) came to power in Tehran in 1979, the Shi’i religious threat to Hussein’s regime explains to a large extent his decision to launch an offensive against Iran on September 22, 1980. Khomeini called upon the Iraqis to rise against Hussein’s “infidel” regime, and with slightly more than 50 percent of Iraq’s population consisting of Shia, Hussein regarded the Shia as a great threat. Considerations of balance of power and international circumstances also played a role. While Khomeini had destroyed his own armed forces through purges, the Iraqi army was well equipped and well organized. In addition, the United States had abandoned Iran completely after the hostage incident of November 1979, and it was unlikely to stop Iraq. Furthermore, after mid-1979, Iraqi-American relations began slowly to improve. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December of that year, Hussein criticized it in no unclear terms, fearing similar Soviet support for Iraqi Communists. This common interest brought Iraq and the United States closer still.
But the straw that broke the camel’s back was a slight to Hussein’s sense of pride. In April 1980 a Shi’i activist made an attempt on the life of Tariq Aziz, Hussein’s closest associate. Hussein considered it an Iranian affront, and decided to go to war. Following a few months of hectic preparations on September 22, 1980, Iraq invaded Iran with eleven out of its twelve army divisions. After six days Hussein declared victory, but the war lasted for eight more years. During that war, when religious fervor proved a source of power to the Iranian regime, many secular Iraqis, Sunni and Shia alike, returned to Islam. At first the regime tried to fight this development, but by the mid- to late 1980s, the Iraqi government started to pay far more rhetorical tribute to religion than before. This rediscovery of religion was accelerated by the regime in the 1990s as it tried to harness Islam to win public support under the harsh conditions of the international embargo. During this period, Hussein initiated a faith campaign involving compulsory Qur$an classes for millions, even party members, and an increase in the number of mosques and Islamic educational institutions. Hussein himself made every effort to portray himself as a pious Muslim. Occasionally he created the impression that he had really became a devout Muslim who expected God to reward him by extricating him from the accumulating disasters in which he had landed himself. In his last meeting with his army’s high command before the American invasion of March 2003 he promised them victory because, as he put it, Iraq was the only country that was guided by true Islam.
By the time the Iraq-Iran War ended in a stalemate, the Iraqi economy was devastated. Iraq entered a dangerous period of economic stagnation that Hussein knew could result in serious civil disturbances. Hussein felt that his regime was again under threat, though for different reasons than in 1980, the year Iraq’s oil revenues reached an unprecedented peak. In 1980 Hussein’s regime was challenged by Khomeini’s mesmerizing influence on the Iraqi Shia, but in 1990 Iraq faced a major crisis of socioeconomic expectations on the part of the Iraq population, which expected an economic boom after the eight-year war. Here too, there were additional incentives to go to war. Kuwait was weak militarily and the Soviet-American rivalry had ended, so an occupation of a country friendly to the United States could no longer be seen as part of the cold war. Hussein even believed that he could stay in Kuwait if he would guarantee the United States its basic needs: an undisturbed flow of oil from the Gulf at reasonable prices.
Wars with the United States
Hussein, however, again allowed his hurt pride to dictate a major strategic step. He saw Kuwait’s overproduction of oil, and was offended by Kuwaiti reluctance to continue its financial support of Iraq and to lease to Iraq two strategic islands. Hussein interpreted these actions as expressions of ingratitude after Iraq had protected Kuwait and other Gulf states from Iran.
In this situation, as in 1980, Hussein was the incurable optimist. In 1980 he was certain that he could beat Iran and bring Khomeini down in a short blitzkrieg. In 1990 he was likewise convinced that the international community and the Arab world would, at worst, satisfy themselves with protests. Even with 500,000 American and international troops in Saudi Arabia, he still believed that the United States was bluffing, and that even if war broke out, Iraq’s formidable army would stop them.
Following a ceasefire agreement with the Allied forces on February 28, 1991, that sealed Iraq’s devastating defeat, a massive Shi’i revolt in the south and a Kurdish revolt in the north almost brought the regime down. The revolts were suppressed with a tremendous effort only because the United States decided to remain aloof. More than one million Kurdish refugees fled their homes for fear of a repeat of the chemical attack ordered by Hussein in 1988. The French, the British, and the United States were forced to establish for them a refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. Hussein thus lost control over much of the Iraqi north. Iraq thereafter entered into years of weapons inspections and a devastating phase of international sanctions that lasted until 2003.
Following the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, the U.S. approach to “rogue states” changed radically. Hussein was so oblivious to the change that he allowed his media to gloat over the American tragedy. Again, even with 100,000 U.S. soldiers in Kuwait, he believed that President George W. Bush was bluffing when he threatened to invade Iraq. And again, Hussein was convinced that even if the Americans attacked, his army could stop them on the outskirts of Baghdad. He did not even plan for his own escape, nor did he establish safe houses in the Sunni provinces. Hussein was captured on December 13, 2003, by American soldiers as he hid in a spider hole near the Iraqi city of Adwar, ten miles south of Tikrit, a few hundred yards from the place where he had crossed the Tigris in 1959 in his escape to Syria after the failed attempt on Qassem’s life. Following a public trial by an Iraqi court, he was found guilty of ordering the unlawful execution of 148 Shi’i inhabitants of Dujayl, a village north of Baghdad, in retaliation for an attempt on his life there in 1982. Hussein will never be tried for the mass murder of civilians in Kurdistan-Iraq in 1987 and 1988 and in the Shi’i south in 1991 because on December 30, 2006, he was hanged in Baghdad.
- Aburish, Saïd K. 2000. Saddam Hussein: The Politics of Revenge. London: Bloombury.
- Al-Khalil, Samir (Kanan Makiya). 1989. Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
- Baram, Amatzia. 1991. Culture, History, and Ideology in the Formation of Ba’thist Iraq, 1968–89. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
- Baram, Amatzia. 1996. Re-Inventing Nationalism in Ba’thi Iraq 1968–1994: Supra-Territorial and Territorial Identities and What Lies Below. Princeton Papers 5 (Fall): 29–56.
- Bengio, Ofra. 1998. Saddam’s Word: Political Discourse in Iraq. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Farouk-Sluglett, Marion, and Peter Sluglett. 2001. Iraq Since 1958: From Revolution to Dictatorship. Rev. ed. New York: Tauris.
- Marr, Phebe. 2004. The Modern History of Iraq. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview.
- Tripp, Charles. 2000. A History of Iraq. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
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