Saddam Hussein's Rise to Power

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Saddam Hussein's Rise to Power

The main figure on the Iraqi side of the 1991 Persian Gulf War was Saddam Hussein (1937–; ruled 1979–2003). After becoming president of Iraq in 1979, Hussein involved his country in two major wars over the next dozen years. The story of Hussein's youth and his rise to power helps explain his aggressive behavior toward his neighbors in the Middle East.

Saddam Hussein, whose name means "he who confronts" in Arabic, was born in 1937. He grew up as a peasant near the Sunni Muslim village of Tikrit, which is located about 100 miles (161 kilometers) north of Baghdad along the Tigris River. After he came to power, Hussein invented or exaggerated many details of his early life to enhance his image as a powerful and ruthless leader. As a result, some facts about his life are uncertain.

It is known that Hussein's father either died or left the family before Saddam was born. The main influences in his young life were his stepfather and one of his uncles. Hussein has said that he endured a difficult childhood, in which he was abused and often prevented from attending school. Some historians claim that his harsh upbringing taught him to view other people with mistrust and to rely only upon himself. Hussein also realized at a young age that threats and violence would help him get what he wanted. He has claimed that he was ten years old when he first killed someone. It is known that when he was a teenager, Hussein killed his brother-in-law during a violent family argument and was sent to prison for six months.

The Baath Party

In 1957, as a twenty-year-old student, Hussein joined the Iraqi Baath Party. (Baath means "rebirth" or "renaissance" in Arabic.) Baathism was a radical political movement founded in the 1940s by Syrian revolutionary Michel Aflaq (1910–1989). The idea behind the movement was to unite the Arab world and create one powerful Arab state. The Iraqi Baath Party was a small, disorganized splinter group of this larger movement. It was made up primarily of violent and ruthless men who were willing to do anything to take control of the Iraqi government.

In 1959 Hussein was one of a group of Baath revolutionaries who tried to murder Iraq's military ruler, General Abdul Karim Qassem (1914–1963). When the assassination attempt failed, Hussein left Iraq in order to avoid capture. He fled to Syria and eventually settled in Cairo, Egypt, where he entered a university and studied law. In 1963 the Baath Party succeeded in overthrowing the Iraqi government. Hussein immediately returned to Iraq and claimed his place in the new regime. Thanks to the support of his older cousin, Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr (1914–1982), Hussein was given a position in the Baath regional command, which was the party's highest decision-making body in Iraq.

As soon as it gained control of the government, the Baath Party showed Iraqi citizens that it was willing to use violence and threats to remain in power. First, it proved that the former leaders would not be returning by showing Qassem's dead body on Iraqi television. A Baath Party official pointed out the bullet holes in the corpse and then spat into the murdered general's face. Over the next few months the Baathists turned Iraq's royal palace into a torture chamber for their enemies. Some prisoners who survived later testified that they had been questioned and tortured by Hussein himself.

The Iraqi military managed to overthrow the Baathists and regain control of the government less than a year later. The military rulers threw Hussein and several other Baath Party leaders in prison. Hussein used his time in captivity to think about why his party had failed to stay in power. He felt that party leaders had placed too much trust in the Iraqi military to support them. He decided to build his own security force within the party so that the Baathists would not have to depend on the military to regain power. Hussein escaped from prison after two years and became the security organizer for the Baath Party. He created a large force that used violence to terrify citizens and remove rival political leaders.

In 1968 the Baath Party again overthrew the Iraqi government and returned to power. Bakr became president of Iraq, and his ambitious younger cousin Hussein became deputy chairman of the party's Revolutionary Command Council. Hussein also served as the head of internal security for the Baathist government. Controlling the forces that helped the party maintain power through threats and violence, Hussein became the most powerful person in the government. He forged close relationships with other party leaders during this time, but he later betrayed many of these men to further his own career.

Although the Baathist government kept many of its violent activities secret, it also sometimes used public displays of force to keep its critics in line. For example, in January 1969 Iraq arrested a number of foreign journalists and accused them of being spies for Israel. (Israel is a Jewish state in the Middle East that has a history of strained relations with many countries in the Arab world.) Seventeen of the journalists—eleven of whom were Jewish—were convicted in public trials and put to death by hanging. The executions were carried out in Liberation Square in Baghdad in front of a crowd of thousands of Iraqis.

Despite the Baathist government's brutal reputation and its disregard for human rights, Iraq still enjoyed the support of the United States and many European nations during this time. This friendly attitude was due to the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union (along with their allies) were locked in an economic and military rivalry known as the Cold War. During the Cold War, which lasted from the 1940s until 1991, U.S. foreign policy focused on preventing the communist form of government practiced in the Soviet Union from spreading to other countries. (In communism the government controls all property and industry, and goods and money are in theory shared equally among all citizens.) The United States viewed the Baath movement, with its focus on Arab nationalism (the goal of uniting the Arab world to form one powerful nation), as a good alternative to communism. The U.S. government wanted to stay on good terms with Iraq in order to maintain its influence in the Middle East, which was located directly south of the Soviet Union.

Hussein takes control of Iraq

Hussein spent the 1970s gradually getting rid of Bakr's supporters and his own rivals within the Baath Party. In July 1979 he finally managed to force his cousin out of office and seize control of the government. Shortly after becoming president of Iraq, Hussein tightened his grip on power by carrying out a bloody rampage that resulted in the deaths of an estimated five hundred people. These included military officers, Baath Party officials, and even some of Hussein's close friends and associates. At one point, Hussein presided over an event that was broadcast on Iraqi television. He ordered twenty leading citizens to read "confessions" of crimes against the government and then had them taken outside and shot as traitors.

Hussein used these brutal acts to inspire loyalty among the Iraqi people and ensure his absolute control of the government. He realized that Iraq faced both external threats from neighboring countries and internal conflicts among its different ethnic and religious groups. Hussein responded to these tensions by using violence to maintain his hold on power and make himself appear to be a strong leader who could guide the country through its problems. "I know that there are scores of people plotting to kill me," he said shortly after becoming president in 1979, as quoted in Understanding the Crisis in the Persian Gulf by historian Peter Cipkowski. "And this is not difficult to understand. After all, did we not seize power by plotting against our predecessors [the political leaders who came before]? Fortunately, I am far cleverer than they. I know who is conspiring to kill me long before they can actually start planning to do it. This enables me to get them before they have the slightest chance of striking at me."

Another way in which Hussein tried to look like a strong leader was by placing pictures of himself all over Baghdad. For example, his portrait appeared on the sides of buses and buildings and in every village, school, hospital, and government office. He wanted Iraqi citizens to feel his presence in their daily lives and believe that there was no alternative to his rule.

The war with Iran

Hussein promised Iraqis that the 1980s would be a "glorious decade," during which they would restore the honor of their nation's historic past. He planned to make Iraq the most powerful country in the Middle East and himself the recognized leader of the Arab world. The first step in Hussein's plan involved attacking Iran, Iraq's neighbor to the east. Iran was a non-Arab state that had recently been torn apart by revolution. A group of Islamic fundamentalists (people who emphasize strict obedience to a set of religious principles) led by a religious leader called the Ayatollah Khomeini (1900–1989) had overthrown the government in 1979. (Ayatollah is a title given to respected religious leaders.) Khomeini was a Shiite Muslim and an outspoken opponent of Hussein and his Sunni Muslim government. (Sunni and Shiite are the two main branches of Islam. About 90 percent of all Muslims are Sunnis.) Although Iran was larger than Iraq and had three times as many people, Hussein believed that his highly trained armed forces could quickly defeat his enemy.

Iraq launched its invasion of Iran in September 1980. Hussein's first goal was to take control of the Shatt al Arab waterway. This important access route to the Persian Gulf begins where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers join and forms part of the border between Iraq and Iran. The two countries had signed a formal agreement to share the waterway in 1975, but they still had clashes over it. To Hussein's surprise, the Iraqi invasion met with fierce resistance. His troops were pushed back, and he was soon forced to ask the United Nations to negotiate a cease-fire agreement. But Khomeini refused to accept the cease-fire and vowed to continue fighting his Sunni enemies. The Iran-Iraq War went on for eight long years, which were marked by nearly constant fighting along the 730-mile (1,175-kilometer) border between the two countries.

International reaction to the war

U.S. President Ronald Reagan (1911–; served 1981–89) supported Iraq during the war. He and other American leaders were worried that the religious fundamentalism of Iran's government might spread throughout the Middle East. They also hoped that their support would prevent Hussein from forming a close relationship with the Soviet Union, the United States' Cold War rival. At first the U.S. government only provided secret support to Iraq. In 1984, however, the United States showed the world which side it was on by establishing full diplomatic relations with Iraq.

Kuwait, Iraq's small neighbor to the south, also sided with Iraq. Kuwait's government, like Iraq's, was controlled by Sunni Muslims who wanted to prevent Iran's Shiites from gaining too much power in the region. The Kuwaiti government loaned billions of dollars to Iraq during the war.

During the war, Hussein's troops used chemical weapons against Iranian troops on several occasions. Iraqi forces fired artillery shells containing either mustard gas (a blistering agent that can cause blindness or death) or Tabun (a deadly nerve gas) at the enemy. The use of these and other chemical and biological weapons was outlawed under a series of international treaties known as the Geneva Conventions. The conventions were developed in Geneva, Switzerland, between 1864 and 1949. They are intended to guarantee the humane treatment of enemy soldiers and prisoners and the protection of civilians (people not involved in the fighting, including women and children) during wartime.

The governments of the United States and many other countries did not approve of the fact that Iraq had broken international law by using chemical weapons. But most were reluctant to become involved—partly because some of the weapons Iraq used had been developed with the help of American and European scientists.

The end of the conflict

Toward the end of 1986 Iran announced its "last campaign," which it predicted would bring the war to an end by the following year. In December 1986 Iranian forces tried to capture a small island in the Shatt al Arab waterway. They planned to use this island to stage an assault on the city of Basra in southern Iraq. But the Iraqi forces successfully defended Basra and caused seventy thousand enemy casualties (killed and wounded soldiers) while suffering only ten thousand casualties themselves. It was a major defeat for Iran.

In early 1988 Iraq went on the offensive and launched an all-out air war against Iran. The Iraqi air force dropped bombs that destroyed several important energy-production facilities in Iran. Meanwhile, the Iraqi army fired more than one hundred Soviet-built missiles called Scuds into the Iranian capital city of Tehran. Finally, Hussein launched a ground war and captured some Iranian territory. Iranian citizens began to believe that Khomeini could not protect them, and feelings of resentment about the long war grew stronger. With his people angry and his army weakened, Khomeini finally accepted a cease-fire in July 1988.

As soon as Hussein's troops returned home, he turned them against his own people. The non-Arab Kurds of northern Iraq had spent decades struggling to gain their independence and establish a homeland. Some Kurdish groups had supported Iran during the war. Hussein viewed the Kurds as a group of rebels who posed a threat to his rule. The Iraqi army attacked Kurdish villages with chemical weapons in 1988, killing thousands of people. An estimated 250,000 Kurds fled Iraq, becoming refugees in Turkey and Iran. Although many nations criticized Iraq for using chemical weapons against the Kurds, once again they did not take any official action against Hussein for violating international law.

Though Hussein's army won the war against Iran, the eight-year conflict left the Iraqi economy in ruins. Iraq spent an estimated $500 billion to fight the war, and by the time it ended, Iraq owed $80 billion to other countries. Throughout the war years Hussein had spent massive amounts of money on modern weapons and equipment. He also recruited approximately one million troops, which gave him the fourth-largest army in the world (after the Soviet Union, China, and the United States). Finally, he built relationships with the leaders of both the United States and the Soviet Union. But while the Iran-Iraq War had left Hussein with a tough, battle-hardened, and well-equipped military, he still lacked money to help his country recover from the war. With this in mind, he decided to use his fearsome army to invade Iraq's rich neighbors, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and claim their wealth for his own.

U.S.-Iraqi relations and Hussein's miscalculations

The time between the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988 and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was filled with mixed messages and misunderstandings. As Hussein prepared to attack Kuwait, he tried to predict how the world would respond. He came to believe, given their history of inaction, that the United States and other Western powers would not get involved. At the same time, world leaders misunderstood Hussein's intentions. They never thought that he would start another war so soon after the damaging and expensive Iran-Iraq War. In an effort to maintain friendly relations with Iraq, they overlooked many signs of Hussein's plans.

For example, the United States and other countries did not approve of Iraq using chemical weapons against the Kurds. Hussein was strongly criticized in the international media, but very little was done. In fact, official U.S. policy referred to the situation as "an internal matter" for Iraq. The U.S. government also received reports from the human-rights organization Amnesty International documenting human-rights abuses in Iraq. These reports claimed that the Iraqi government routinely killed political opponents and even tortured children in order to force information from their parents. Still, the U.S. State Department sent official New Year's greetings to Iraq in January 1990 and expressed its desire to further develop the friendship between the two countries.

Threats and negotiations

Over the next few months, Hussein began making threats against other countries in the Middle East. For example, Hussein warned that he would not hesitate to use chemical weapons if Israel ever attacked Iraq. Many people around the world were outraged by Saddam's threat, and some governments considered using economic sanctions (trade restrictions and other measures designed to hurt a country's economy) to punish him for his statement. Instead the U.S. government sent a group of legislators to Baghdad in April 1990 to meet with the Iraqi leader. The group included Senator Robert Dole (1923–) of Kansas, Senator Howard Metzenbaum (1917–) of Ohio, and Senator Alan Simpson (1931–) of Wyoming.

The Iraqi government released a transcript of parts of the meeting, which later aired on American television. Based on this transcript, the meeting seemed friendly and professional. Members of the American delegation later insisted that they had expressed grave concerns about Hussein's aggressive statements, but these comments did not appear in the Iraqi record of the meeting. Instead, the transcript made it appear that the United States would remain on the sidelines if Iraq followed through on its threats.

In July 1990 Hussein threatened to use force against any Middle Eastern country that pumped excess oil. Many countries in the Middle East, including Iraq and Kuwait, contain some of the world's largest underground oil reserves. These countries make money by pumping and exporting oil (selling it to other countries around the world). In 1960 the world's major oil-producing countries formed the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in order to coordinate their oil production. OPEC sets limits, or quotas, on the amount of oil its members pump each year to ensure that oil prices remain stable. Hussein's threat was clearly aimed at Kuwait, which had been pumping more oil than was allowed under OPEC agreements. Kuwait's actions contributed to a decline in oil prices, from $20.50 per barrel in early 1990 to $13.60 per barrel in July. Every dollar drop in the price per barrel cost Iraq an estimated $1 billion per year. Hussein thus blamed Kuwait for making Iraq's financial problems worse.

On July 17 Hussein made a fiery speech in which he accused Kuwait of stealing oil from the Iraqi side of the South Rumaila oil field, which straddled the border of Iraq and Kuwait. "The oil quota violators have stabbed Iraq with a poison dagger," he declared, as quoted in Understanding the Crisis in the Persian Gulf. "Iraqis will not forget the saying that cutting necks is better than cutting means of living. Oh, God Almighty, be witness that we have warned them!"

At this point Hussein began moving Iraqi troops toward the Kuwaiti border. He also ordered that groups of missiles be aimed at Kuwait and Israel. Although U.S. government officials were concerned, they seemed to think that Hussein was bluffing. They did not strongly criticize Iraq's actions or directly state that they would protect Kuwait if it were attacked. For example, when asked about a potential Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, U.S. State Department spokesperson Margaret Tutwiler explained that the United States had no defense treaties with Kuwait. This meant that the United States was under no obligation to aid Kuwait if it came under attack.

On July 25 the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie (1942–), held a meeting with Hussein. The Iraqi government released a partial transcript of the meeting that quoted Glaspie as saying, "We [the U.S. government] have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreements with Kuwait." Glaspie later claimed that Iraqi officials had removed parts of the discussion from the transcript. She said that she had also warned Hussein that the United States would insist on the conflict being settled peacefully and would defend Kuwait against an Iraqi attack. Hussein either misunderstood or chose to ignore such statements. Although the United States repeatedly expressed concern about Iraq's aggressive behavior, Hussein came to believe that the U.S. government would not send troops to protect Kuwait. He became convinced that the only punishment he would receive for invading Kuwait would be an international scolding.

In the meantime, some of Iraq's Arab neighbors also expressed concern about Hussein's threats and troop movements toward Kuwait. President Hosni Mubarak (1928–) of Egypt and King Hussein (1935–1999; ruled 1953–99) of Jordan (no relation to Saddam Hussein) arranged diplomatic talks in an attempt to help Iraq and Kuwait resolve their differences. High-ranking Kuwaiti and Iraqi officials met in Saudi Arabia on July 31. During these talks, Iraq threatened to invade Kuwait unless the Kuwaiti government met a series of demands.

First, Iraq demanded that Kuwait forgive Iraq of its war debts. Kuwait had loaned Iraq billions of dollars during the Iran-Iraq War. Iraq argued that it should not have to repay this money because it had fought Iran in order to protect all Arab interests in the Persian Gulf. Second, Iraq insisted that Kuwait limit its future oil production to ensure high oil prices in world markets. Finally, Iraq demanded that Kuwait give up possession of the island of Bubiyan in the Persian Gulf. This large island off the southern coast of Iraq would provide Hussein with a strategic port on the Gulf.

Kuwait made some attempts to meet these demands. For example, Kuwaiti leaders agreed to limit their country's production of oil. OPEC then stepped in and announced an increase in the price its member countries would charge for oil, which would help Iraq's troubled economy. Kuwaiti negotiators indicated they were willing to continue discussing Iraq's other conditions. In the meantime, however, Hussein continued sending troops to the Kuwaiti border. Some estimates put the number of Iraqi forces gathered along the border at one hundred thousand troops. On August 2, 1990, to the shock of many people in the Middle East and around the world, Iraq announced the postponement of future peace talks and launched its invasion of Kuwait.