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Saddam Hussein

Saddam enthroned
Saddam in an iconic image designed by him to show him as a quasi-monarch, the natural leader of the Arab world.

Saddam Hussein (or Husayn) 'Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti (صدام حسين) (born April 28, 1937) was the President of Iraq from 1979 - 2003 and Prime Minister of Iraq from 1979 - 1991 and 1994 - 2003. While largely viewed as an autocratic despot in the West, in the Arab World he is viewed with mixed emotions; on the one hand he is favorably regarded for his support and espousal of nationalistic pan-Arabism, his steadfast refusal to submit to American-led international pressure, and for his role in the economic modernization in Iraq while on the other hand he is widely despised for particular policing tactics used by his Baath regime, for his prohibition of many Islamic practices and his treatment of minorities and political or perceived political enemies.

Table of contents

Early years He was born in the village of Al-Awja[?], in the Tikrit District of Iraq, to a family of sheep-herders. His mother tried to abort her pregnancy but failed and named her newborn "Saddam" which means "one who confronts" in Arabic. Later in his life, relatives from his hometown would be some of his most influential and powerful advisors and supporters, and would gain the nickname "Tikriti mafia" as a result.

He never knew his father, Hussein al-Majid, who died or disappeared before Saddam was born. His mother, Subha Tulfah al-Mussallat, remarried, and Saddam gained three half-brothers through this marriage. His stepfather, Ibrahim al-Hassan, treated Saddam harshly, and forced young Saddam to steal for him. His mother had three sons from this marriage. Barzan Ibrahim Hasan was the former chief of the Iraqi secret police and ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva. Sabawi Ibrahim Hasan is the former head of Iraqi intelligence. Watban Ibrahim Hasan is the former Iraqi interior minister. Barzan and Watban have been arrested by coalition forces.

Shaping Saddam's political consciousness At the age of 10, Saddam moved to Baghdad to live with his uncle, Khairallah Tulfah, a devout Sunni. Saddam learned from his uncle, and took to heart, the lesson of never backing down to his enemies, no matter how superior their force or capabilities. In 1955, he attended the nationalist secondary school in Baghdad and joined the Ba'ath Party quickly earning a reputation for brutality; he committed his first murder at age 19.

The collapse of Ottoman rule over the region following the First World War, and later the withdrawal of British colonialists, combined with the floodgate of social change opened up by urbanization and modernization, contributed to a great deal of revolutionary sentiment, which shaped the mindset of young Saddam. Although heralded by the ouster of the corrupt civilian government in Syria by the military in March 1949, the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt in 1952 foreshadowed the wave of revolutions throughout the Arab world in the fifties and sixties, which would saw the monarchies of Iraq, Egypt, and Libya toppeled. The 1958 ouster of the monarchy in Iraq was a milestone for the new urban classes in Iraq, which eased the strangehold of the old imperialist collaborationist elites, namely the conservative monarchists, established families, and merchants.

Nasser’s populist pan-Arab nationalism in Egypt, along with the revolutionary turmoil in Iraq, would profoundly influence Saddam Hussein until the very final days of his regime. Nasser challenged the the British and French, nationalized the Suez Canal, and strove to modernize Egypt and unite the Arab world politically.

Saddam joined the Ba'ath Party in 1957. A year later in 1958, a non-Baathist group led by General Abdul Karim Qassim overthrew the king. But the more committed nationalists continued to fight the new regime. In 1959, Saddam was involved in the attempted assassination of Prime Minister Kassim. The bold guerilla was shot in the leg, but managed to flee on foot by removing the bullet from his leg by himself to Syria, from where he would later flee to Nasser’s Egypt. He was sentenced to death in absentia.

In exile Saddam received his higher education at the University of Cairo[?] law school. Saddam also gained a degree in law from the University of Baghdad[?] in 1968.

Rise to power Saddam first came to power in Iraq amid the Ba'atist revolution of 1963. However, the new regime was ousted quickly, within seven to eight months torn by rife factionalism. On his return to Iraq following the 14th of Ramadhan revolution[?] (February 8, 1963) he was imprisoned in 1964 following a change in power, but escaped from jail in 1967. Saddam, according to many biographers, never forgot the tensions within the first Ba’athist regime, namely party unity and the ruthless resolve to maintain power and programs to ensure social stability.

In 1968 he helped lead the successful and non-violent Ba'athist coup. Saddam was appointed vice-chairman of the Revolution Command Council and Vice President of Iraq. In 1973 he was appointed a General in the Iraqi armed forces.

Complicating Saddam's consolidation of power since 1968, Iraqi society is an ethnic and religious polyglot divided between often hostile Arab Sunni, Kurdish Sunni, and Arab Shiite camps. Tribal conflicts, conflict between secular nationalists and religious fundamentalists, class conflict, and conflict between the rural tribes and the popular urban sectors had also been pervasive. Saddam's government drew its support base from middle- to working-class Arab Sunnis from the center of the country, especially the urban popular sectors, who are nationalistic and modern in their outlooks. This segment of Iraqi society, however, accounts for around a fifth of the population.

Under the second Ba'athist government, the prerequisites for stable rule in a country torn by political factionalism, tribalism, class conflict, regional conflict, and religious conflict would be the improvement of living standards. Thus, the new regime promoted modernization along with the creation of a strong security apparatus to prevent coups within the power structure and insurrections apart from it. Saddam, a rising star in the new regime, aided party attempts to strengthen and unify the party. The Kurdish has been an enduring poverty not yet solved. But the regime made great strives in alieviating poverty through the nationalization of oil to build schools, hospitals, import technology, and strengthen security services.

Always promoting himslef as a Ba'athist who dreams of unifying the Arab World as a single modern state, Saddam, on June 1, 1972, led the process of nationalizing western oil companies which had had a monopoly on Iraq's oil. Saddam actively fostered the modernization of the Iraqi economy, urging the construction of various developed industries and following their administration and execution. He also supervised the modernization of the Iraqi countryside, the mechanization of agriculture and the distribution of land to farmers. He effected a comprehensive revolution in energy industries as well as in public services such as transport and education. He also initiated and led the National Campaign for the Eradication of Illiteracy and the implementation of Compulsory Free Education in Iraq. At the same time he was securing his position by purging members of the Baath party that could possibly oppose him.

Under Saddam's Ba'ath Party government, the state provided social services to Iraqi people unprecedented in other Middle Eastern countries. Under Saddam's auspices, the government established universal free schooling up to the highest education levels, supported families of soldiers killed in war; granted free hospitalization to everyone, and gave subsidies to farmers. Earlier, Saddam's government had broken up the large landholdings in the first place and redistributed land to peasant farmers.

The modernizing, socialistic nature of his government also explains Iraq's progressive development, at least before the Iraq-Iran War, the Gulf War, and the ensuing 12 years of United Nations-imposed economic sanctions[?]. Since the nationalization of oil fields and refineries, electricity has been brought to nearly every city in Iraq, including many communities in far outlying areas. The government has made great progress in building roads, establishing mechanized agriculture on a large scale, promoting mining and other industries to diversify the oil-dependent economy.

As vice-president Saddam slowly began to consolidate his power over Iraqi's government and the Ba'ath party structure. Relationships with fellow Ba'athists were carefully cultivated, and Saddam soon gained a powerful circle of support within the party. As Iraq's weak and elderly President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr became increasingly unable to execute the duties of his office, Saddam began to take a much more prominant role as the face of the Iraqi government, both internally and externally. He soon became the sole architect of Iraq's foreign policy and represented the nation in all diplomatic situtations, including a state visit to France in 1976. By the late 1970s Saddam had emerged as the undisputed de facto leader of Iraq.

In 1979, President al-Bakr began to make treaties with Syria that would lead to a unification between the two countries. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad would become deputy leader in a union, and ths would drive Saddam to obscurity. He forced Bakr to resignand became full leader of Iraq.

General Saddam in full uniform
An iconic image designed to show Saddam, the military commander, drawing parallels with past Arab military leaders.

One of his first acts as President was to convene an assembly of Ba'ath party leaders on July 22, 1979 and have one of them read out the names of members that Saddam thought could oppose him. These members were labelled "disloyal" and were removed from the room one-by-one to face a firing squad. After the list was read, Saddam congratulated those still seated in the room for their past and future loyalty. The room erupted in applause and shouting in support of Saddam.

Saddam Hussein and Social Change Aside from landownership, the Saddam Hussein era oversaw other examples of a social revolution. Saddam, to the consternation of Islamic fundamentalists and the Islamic Republic of Iran, gave women added freedoms and offered them high level government and industry jobs. Saddam provided both Arab and Western style banking systems to give the people a choice between these interest-bearing and non-interest-bearing accounts, created a western style legal system (Iraq is the only country in the Persian Gulf region which is not ruled according to Islamic law), and abolished the old Mosaic law[?] courts except for personal injury, small court claims. At the same time, human rights groups have documented cases of state-sponsored rapes of women and systemic acts of torture for political ends.[1] (http://www.hrw.org/wr2k1/mideast/iraq)

However, domestic and international conflict were long an impediment to his modernizing aims. Iraq is a highly fragmented society; according to some, it is tantamount to a Middle Eastern Yugoslavia (an analogy used often by Thomas Friedman). Over the past three decades, however, Saddam's authoritarian rule kept the lid on pervasive tribal, class, religious, factional, and ethnic conflicts, and destabilizing forces externally, such as hostile powers like Iran and the United States. The cost, though, resulted in one of the more autocratic of the Middle East's many autocracies. Islamic fundamentalists, suppressed through classic carrot and stick tactics, and won over eventually by and co-optation and coercion, tended to reject the direction in which Saddam led the country. And the region's traditional aristocracies, both Sunni and Shiite (the kinds of aristocracies that still rule the other Arab Persian Gulf states with an iron grip), rejected the populist nature of his policies which undermined and largely eroded aristocratic privilege. In short, large segments of Iraq's population tended to reject modernization even though it dramatically raised living standards in the aggregate.

In response, his efforts to construct mosques and portray himself as a devout Muslim in more recent years have been seen as measures to co-opt more religious segments of society. These measures have seemed to worked, considering that Iraq has avoided the bloody fundamentalist insurgencies seen in other secular states, such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria.

Saddam's image appeared everywhere in Iraq

An image constructed to show Saddam the hard man, to whom every Iraqi should show absolute loyalty.

Since Iraq is a fragmented society and a fragile state, many have linked this to Saddam's attempts to forge an Iraqi and Arab national identity for his conflict-torn country. Saddam has espoused the ideas of the Ba'ath Party: Arab unity, the belief that that the Arab world was divided into 22 countries that should be united to serve the interests of the Arab people. But Saddam has also espoused Iraqi patriotism, expressing the belief that Iraq has played a unique role in the history of the Arab world. As president, Saddam has made frequent references to the Islamic period, especially the Abbasid period (when the Baghdad was the political, cultural, and economic capital of the Arab world). Moreover, he is known to refer to the glorious pre-Islamic past, not failing to note Mesopotamia’s role as an ancient cradle of civilization. Saddam alluded to pre-Islamic historical figures such as Nebuchadrezzar and Hammurabi. And to his credit, he has devoted great resources to archeological explorations. Saddam, in his speeches, envisages and Arab world united and led by Iraq.

The highly questionable results of the 2002 referendum are one of the many examples of Saddam's vast state-driven personality cult. During his reign as president, extensive use of propaganda was employed to make Saddam appear synonymous with Iraq.

Many scholars have noted how Saddam’s personality cult reflects change and tradition in Iraqi society. Known to wear the costumes of the bedouin, the traditional clothes of the peasant, and even Kurdish clothing, Saddam is often photograph in Western suits, projecting the image of an urbane and modern leader respectful of his past. Framed portraits, enormous statues, and vast murals began to appear all over the country, depicting the Iraqi leader in a variety of different costumes, situations, and emotions. Sometimes he would be portrayed as a dedicated Muslim, wearing full headress and robe, praying to Mecca. Other times, he would be shown wearing a western business suit and sunglasses, brandishing a rifle high above his head. Some examples of Saddam's different images can be found on the right. The prevalence of the leader's image was quite unparalled in modern history, leading one western commentator to joke that Saddam's efforts made Stalin look like he had a case of "low self-esteem."

The Iran-Iraq war The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran threatened to divert Iraq from this progressive path of development. In addition, Shiites, many of whom were sympathetic to Iran's Ayatollahs, accounted for the majority of Iraq's population. The pretext for the bloody, protracted Iran-Iraq War was a territorial dispute, but most attribute the war as an attempt by Saddam, supported by both the US and the USSR, to have Iraq form a bulwark against the expansionism of radical Iranian-style revolution. During the war Saddam received international condemnation after he ordered the use of chemical weapons on Iranian troops. The war ended in a bloody stalemate with no gain to either side. The people of Iran and Iraq both lost heavily, with a total death toll of about 1.7 million. Both economies, previously healthy and expanding, were left in ruins.

Iraq has, nearly from its founding, had to deal with Kurdish separatists in the northern part of the country, which took a tragic turn during the Iraq-Iran War. Saddam Hussein's answer to this ethnic conflict was seen as brutal to many observers and included the systematic use of chemical weapons on Kurdish troops and population centers. The worst such single incident occurred on March 16, 1988 when Iraqi troops, on orders from Saddam to stop a Kurdish uprising, attacked the Kurdish town of Halabjah[?] with mix of poison gas and nerve agents killing 5000 mostly women and children. Also, according to anti-Saddam opposition groups, around 100,000 other Kurds have been exiled since 1991.

The war with Iran left Iraq bankrupt. Faced with rebuilding its infrastructure destroyed in the war, Iraq needed money. No country would lend it money except the United States and borrowing money from the US made Iraq its client state. According to some, the costs of the Iran-Iraq War would later explain Iraq's confrontation with Kuwait and the United States.

Conflict with Kuwait, Persian Gulf War Iraq had borrowed a tremendous amount of money from other Arab states, including Kuwait, during the 1980s to fight its war with Iran. Saddam Hussein felt that the war had been fought for the benefit of the other Gulf Arab states as much as for Iraq, and so all debts should be forgiven. Kuwait, however, did not forgive its debt and further provoked Saddam by slant drilling oil out of wells that Iraq considered within its disputed border with Kuwait.

In 1990 Saddam Hussein complained to the United States Department of State about Kuwaiti slant drilling. This had continued for years, but now Iraq needed oil money to pay off its war debts[?] and avert an economic crisis. Saddam ordered troops to the Iraq-Kuwait border, creating alarm over the prospect of an invasion. After talks with April Glaspie, the United States ambassador to Iraq, assured him that the US considered the Iraq-Kuwait dispute an internal Arab matter, Saddam sent his troops into Kuwait.

According to many historians, Iraq has always been hostile to Kuwait, because Kuwait was created by the British from land that was originally part of Iraq and Saddam needed the seaport Kuwait occupied. Kuwait had already offered the use of its seaport to Iraq, and it was using Iraq's fleet of oil tankers to transport its own oil abroad, as were many other oil countries. This gave them an indigenous industry, independent of outside European and American tankers which demanded higher fees. Thus Kuwait and Iraq were in the oil tanker business together, Iraq furnishing the tankers, Kuwait furnishing the port.

The US and Britain, two of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, convinced the Security Council to give Iraq a deadline to leave Kuwait. Eventually a reluctant Security Council declared war on Iraq, which President George Bush declared was "for the New World Order." Saddam ignored the deadline and by the end of the Gulf War Iraq had lost an estimated 20,000 troops and had been expelled from Kuwait. Other sources—like the ex-minister for defense Ramsey Clark—speak of more than 100,000 on Iraqi side.

Prior to that point, however, Iraq's stance in the international community had alarmed Western powers. Iraq was the leading country in forming the Arab League similar to the European Economic Community, an alliance of European countries. All oil nations would share and work together and plan their own army that would include no Europeans. Iraq at the time had compiled a huge foreign debt and was striving to pay off the debts accumulated during the Iraq-Iran War. Perhaps in response, Saddam was pushing oil-exporting countries to raise oil prices and cutback production. Westerners, however, remember the very destabilizing effects of the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s.

Following the war popular uprisings erupted in the north and south parts of the nation. These uprisings were switftly and ruthlessly repressed and thousands of Iraqis were killed. A United Nations trade embargo[?] was placed on Iraq following the war and since then Saddam tightened his control over Iraq.

According to some official reports, Saddam appeared to have enjoyed great popularity within Iraq. A 2002 referendum, asking whether he should continue to lead Iraq, claimed 100% of voters thought he should, and that the turnout was 100%, with international media releasing pictures of Iraqi women voting in their own blood. However, he was the only presidential candidate on the ballot and voting was mandatory.

The 2003 war

Hussein in the US military's "most wanted" playing cards, an image meant to undermine Saddam's previous hard man image. (magnify)
By April 9, 2003 Saddam Hussein was not in the public eye, with some reports indicating he had been killed or wounded in air strikes in a restaurant where he reportedly had been holding a meeting. By this date, coalition (American and British) forces occupied much of Iraq, and several presidential palaces were in coalition hands. The large bronze statue of Saddam in a roundabout in central Baghdad had been torn down to the cheers of a a crowd of around 200 Iraqi citizens, many of which went on to remove or deface many posters and other likenesses of Saddam. Icons and other Saddam Hussein-bearing articles were beaten with shoes and slippers—an action that is a grave insult in the Arab culture. Images were broadcast around the world of Iraqis defacing the numerous ubiquitous portraits and murals of the dictator and dragging broken statues through the streets.

From all this, it appears that Saddam had lost control of Iraq and was at the least in hiding. The population did not rise up in response to his repeated calls to do so, shedding more doubts on the accuracy of his popularity as represented by government-run Iraqi news and radio. However the sudden loss of all Iraqi governmental controls on April 9th left a power vacuum that was followed by widespread looting of governmental buildings including Iraq's Olympic headquarters, which dissidents allege was used by Saddam's eldest son, Uday, to torture athletes and others that displeased him. The looting quickly spread to civilian properties and many observers feared a looming humanitarian crisis[?] as a result of the toppling of Saddam's government. Embedded reporters[?] interviewed many Iraqis in the capital and other parts of the nation and found that the general relief that the Saddam Hussein government was gone was tempered by worries over the possibility of a prolonged American occupation.

Saddam's whereabouts remained in question in the weeks following the toppling of Baghdad and the conclusion of the major fighting in the war. Nearly two weeks after the fall of Hussein's regime, a video was released showing Hussein purportedly on the day Baghdad fell, April 9. Various citings of Saddam were also reported throughout Baghdad in the weeks following the war. Regardless of his location and health, he remains one of the U.S. military's "Iraqi 55 Most Wanted". As the ace of spades in the "most wanted" playing cards, he is at the top of the list.


A Lebanese demonstrator holding up another iconic portrait of Saddam during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The widespread availability of such images in the Arab world (in this one Saddam as the embodiment of Iraq) showed the clever 'visual marketing' of Saddam, where demonstrators had access to pre-packed imagery rather than producing their own amateur images of the Iraqi leader.
Saddam has been married three times. His first marriage to his first cousin Sajida Talfah, a former teacher, occurred in 1963. This union with the eldest daughter of Khairallah Talfah, the uncle who raised Saddam, produced two sons, (Uday Saddam Hussein and Qusai Hussein) and three daughters, Rana, Raghad and Hala. Sajidah was put under house arrest in early 1997, along with daughters Raghad and Rana, because of suspicions of their involvement in an attempted assassination on Uday in December 12, 1996. Sajidah's brother, Saddam Hussein's boyhood friend General Adnan Khairallah Tuffah[?], was allegedly executed because of his growing popularity.

Saddam Hussein also married two other women: Samira Shahbandar, whom he married in 1986 after forcing her husband to divorce her (she is rumoured to be his favourite wife), and Nidal al-Hamdani, the general manager of the Solar Energy Research Center in the Council of Scientific Research, whose husband apparently was also persuaded to divorce his wife. There apparently have been no political issues from these latter two marriages. Saddam has a son, Ali, by Samira.

In August 1995, Rana and her husband Hussein Kamel Majid[?] and Raghad and her husband, Saddam Kamel Majid[?], defected to Jordan, taking their children with them. They returned to Iraq when they received assurances that Saddam Hussein would pardon them. Within three days of their return in February 1996, both Hussein Kamel Majid and Saddam Kamel Majid were executed. Raghad and Rana are said to be estranged from their father, refusing to speak to him for several years. The Majid brothers were cousins of Saddam Hussein.

Saddam's daughter Hala is married to Jamal Mustafa[?], the deputy head of Iraq's Tribal Affairs Office. Neither has been known to be involved in political plots.

Another cousin was Ali Hassan al-Majid, also known as "Chemical Ali", who was accused of ordering the use of poison gas to slaughter Kurds in 1988. Ali has been reported killed in a bombing raid.

See also: Saddam International Airport, Saddam's Dirty Dozen, Possible death of Saddam Hussein

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