Hussein, Saddam

views updated May 18 2018

Hussein, Saddam 1937-2006







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 Husseins 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 Husseins stepfather preferred them over him. Being fatherless, Hussein was exposed to abuse on the part of the villages 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 uncles 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 (19141963) toppled the monarchy in Baghdad and established a semibenevolent dictatorship. Within weeks it became clear that Qassems approach to Arab unity was opposed to that of the Baath Arab Socialist Party, Husseins chosen venue for political action. With the support of Iraqi communists, Qassem objected to unification with Gamal Abdel Nassers (19181970) 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 Qassems 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 (19101989). Aflaq was impressed by Husseins audacity and strength of character, and thereafter Husseins position in the party was assured. Hussein soon left Damascus for Cairo, where he lived a modest life sponsored by Nasser.


On February 8, 1963, the Baath Party, in collaboration with a few army officers, staged a coup détat 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. Qassems downfall was apparently not the exclusive result of his mistake of denying the Communists weapons, nor of the Baath Partys 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 Israels 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 (19201966) 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 groups leader, General Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr (19141982), the prime minister under General Arif, was his distant relative and a childhood friend of Husseins uncle. All three were members of the Albu Nasir tribe, al-Beigat section, and all originated from the Tikrit area. This connection to Bakr proved a crucial step in Husseins 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.


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 regimes 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 partys 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 Husseins 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 Baghdads 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, Iraqs 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.


During the next decade, Hussein was the driving force behind an about-face in the Baghdad-based Baath Partys 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, Husseins 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 Bathist 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. Husseins Pan-Arabism, 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, Husseins 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 regimes 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 Bathist 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 Husseins prisons. Likewise, between 1977 and 1980, Shii 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.


Indeed, once Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (19001989) came to power in Tehran in 1979, the Shii religious threat to Husseins 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 Husseins infidel regime, and with slightly more than 50 percent of Iraqs 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 camels back was a slight to Husseins sense of pride. In April 1980 a Shii activist made an attempt on the life of Tariq Aziz, Husseins 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 Qurʾan 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 armys 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 Iraqs oil revenues reached an unprecedented peak. In 1980 Husseins regime was challenged by Khomeinis mesmerizing influence on the Iraqi Shia, but in 1990 Iraq faced a major crisis of socio-economic 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.


Hussein, however, again allowed his hurt pride to dictate a major strategic step. He saw Kuwaits 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, Iraqs formidable army would stop them.

Following a ceasefire agreement with the Allied forces on February 28, 1991, that sealed Iraqs devastating defeat, a massive Shii 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 Qassems life. Following a public trial by an Iraqi court, he was found guilty of ordering the unlawful execution of 148 Shii 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 Shii south in 1991 because on December 30, 2006, he was hanged in Baghdad.

SEE ALSO Arab-Israeli War of 1967; Arabs; Black September; Central Intelligence Agency, U.S.; Dictatorship; Gulf War of 1991; Iranian Revolution; Iran-Iraq War; Iraq-U.S. War; Islam, Shia and Sunni; Khomeini, Ayatollah Ruhollah; Nasser, Gamal Abdel; Pan-Arabism; Personality, Cult of; September 11, 2001; Union of Soviet Socialist Republics


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 Bathist Iraq, 196889. New York: St. Martins Press.

Baram, Amatzia. 1996. Re-Inventing Nationalism in Bathi Iraq 19681994: Supra-Territorial and Territorial Identities and What Lies Below. Princeton Papers 5 (Fall): 2956.

Bengio, Ofra. 1998. Saddams 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.

Amatzia Baram

Hussein, Saddam

views updated Jun 27 2018

Hussein, Saddam

Excerpt from a transcript of his July 25, 1990, meeting with U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie

Transcript obtained by British journalists on September 2, 1990

On July 25, 1990, a week before Iraq launched its military invasion of Kuwait, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein held a meeting with April Glaspie, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. This meeting marked the last official high-level contact between the Iraqi and American governments before the invasion. During his meeting with Glaspie, Hussein outlined a long list of complaints against Kuwait. He discussed the ongoing border disputes between the two countries, for example, and also accused Kuwait of pursuing policies that were intended to harm Iraq's economy. Glaspie listened to Hussein's concerns and expressed sympathy for Iraq's financial problems. She also emphasized the U.S. government's wish to maintain friendly relations with Iraq.

The Iraqi government released a transcript (written copy) of the meeting to British journalists on September 2, 1990, a month after Iraq invaded Kuwait. The transcript created a huge controversy when it became public. After reviewing it, some people felt that Hussein had informed Glaspie of his intention to attack Kuwait. They also claimed that Glaspie had led the Iraqi leader to believe that the United States would not get involved in his dispute with his neighbor. Of course, the United States and most other countries around the world strongly objected to Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and eventually went to war to force Iraq to withdraw.

Disagreements over war debts and oil prices

Many of Hussein's complaints about Kuwait stemmed from the eight-year Iran-Iraq War (1980–88). Hussein argued that he had fought this war against Iran, a non-Arab nation located directly east of Iraq, in order to protect the Arab world from the Islamic fundamentalists (people with extreme beliefs) who had taken over Iran. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and many other wealthy Arab nations sided with Iraq and loaned Hussein billions of dollars during the war.

The United States also supported Iraq during the war against Iran. American leaders worried that Iran's religious fundamentalism might spread and increase the turmoil in the Middle East. The United States established diplomatic relations with Iraq in 1984 and began sending shipments of grain and other goods to the country. By 1990 Iraq was America's third-largest trading partner in the Middle East, behind Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The eight-year war against Iran left the Iraqi economy in ruins. Iraq spent an estimated $500 billion to fight the war and owed $80 billion to other countries when it ended. By 1990 Hussein desperately needed money to help his country recover from the effects of the war. He felt that his Arab neighbors should forgive Iraq's debts (not require repayment of loans) since Iraq fought to defend all Arab interests in the Persian Gulf region. Some countries did forgive Iraq's war debts, though Kuwait refused to do so.

Iraq's financial problems grew worse in 1990 because of a steep decline in oil prices. 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). The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) sets limits, or quotas, on the amount of oil its member countries pump each year in order to ensure stable oil prices in world markets. Hussein believed that some OPEC countries, particularly Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, were involved in a conspiracy to reduce Iraq's power in the Middle East. He argued that they pumped more oil than was allowed under OPEC agreements in a deliberate attempt to lower world oil prices and harm Iraq's economy. He considered these actions by his fellow Arab states to be "economic war" against Iraq.

Finally, Iraq and Kuwait were involved in a longstanding dispute over the border between the two countries and the ownership of offshore islands in the Persian Gulf. Hussein claimed that Kuwait was trying to expand into Iraqi territory and was stealing oil from underground oil fields on the Iraqi side of the border.

Mixed messages and misunderstandings

The time leading up to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, was filled with mixed messages and misunderstandings. Hussein came to believe that the United States and other Western powers would not get involved if he invaded Kuwait. At the same time, world leaders never thought that Hussein would start another war so soon after the conclusion of the damaging and expensive Iran-Iraq War. In an effort to maintain friendly relations with Iraq, these countries overlooked or ignored many signs of Hussein's aggression.

For example, Iraq used chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War and afterward against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq. Western governments also received reports about human-rights abuses in Iraq. These reports claimed that Hussein's government routinely tortured and killed its political opponents. Hussein's regime also used violence and terror to control the media in Iraq. In March 1990, for instance, the Iraqi government executed Farzad Bazoft, a reporter for the London Observer. Hussein argued that his government was justified in hanging the foreign journalist because it had evidence that he was a spy. In April 1990 Hussein threatened to use chemical weapons against Israel, which Iraq and many other Arab nations considered to be an enemy.

Iraq as the "Cradle of Civilization"

Modern-day Iraq covers most of the area that was once known as Mesopotamia. This great ancient civilization developed in the fertile plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers between six thousand and seven thousand years ago. The people of Mesopotamia originated many things that have since become fixtures of modern civilization. For example, Mesopotamia was the site of the world's first cities and first legal systems. It saw the earliest use of written language and the earliest practice of organized religion. Mesopotamians were also the first to use wheeled vehicles, to tame livestock, to build canals and dams for irrigation, and to practice the science of astronomy. Such remarkable contributions help explain why Mesopotamia is often referred to as the "cradle of civilization."

The modern nation of Iraq is filled with relics from this ancient civilization. In fact, experts estimate that Iraq contains one hundred thousand sites of historic significance. Only about ten thousand of these sites have been discovered and explored. Many Iraqi cities feature monuments, museums, and other places of cultural or religious importance. For example, the ancient city of Ur in southern Iraq is the biblical birthplace of Abraham, who is considered the father of the world's three major religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). It also contains one of the world's oldest temples, called a ziggurat, dating from 2100 b.c.e. The ancient city of Ninevah in northern Iraq contains palace ruins of Assyrian kings dating back to the seventh century b.c.e. One of these palaces held the first known work of written literature. The city of Samarra, about 100 miles (160.9 kilometers) north of Baghdad, is home to a spectacular mosque with a 150-foot-tall (45.72 meters) spiral minaret (a tower with balconies for calling Muslims to prayer) that was constructed in 850 c.e. The major city of Basra is located near where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet, a spot that according to legend held the biblical Garden of Eden.

Many historians around the world grew concerned for the safety of these precious sites during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. They worried that bombing campaigns and troop movements in Iraq might lead to massive destruction of ancient artifacts. The United States military employed a team of archaeologists to help them identify historic places so that they would not become targets in the war. But Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein recognized that the American military was trying to protect historic sites from damage, so he sometimes used ancient ruins to hide Iraqi tanks and other military equipment. In addition, many sites were difficult to find and may have suffered accidental destruction.

Following Iraq's defeat in the Persian Gulf War, looters smuggled thousands of priceless artifacts out of the country. Such smuggling continued for the next ten years, as the Iraqi people suffered many hardships under international trade restrictions. Some items regularly appeared on the Internet auction site eBay, while others were sold to private collectors in the huge worldwide market for antiquities.

Sources: Creager, Ellen. "Irreplaceable: Fighting Imperils Priceless Relics of the World's First Civilizations." Detroit Free Press, April 8, 2003; "Iraq: The Cradle of Civilization at Risk." Available online At (last accessed on April 6, 2004); "Iraq War on Ancient Artifacts of Mesopotamia: What's at Stake in the Iraq War for Lovers of Ancient History." Available online at (accessed on March 9, 2004); Mazurkewich, Karen. "Ancient Treasures Imperiled in Iraq." Available online at (last accessed on April 6, 2004).

All of these incidents convinced many people that Hussein was dangerous and unpredictable. He received a great deal of criticism in the international media, and some governments around the world considered using economic sanctions (trade restrictions and other measures designed to hurt another country's economy) to punish him. In the end, however, very little direct action was taken. In fact, U.S. President George H. W. Bush opposed economic sanctions and expressed a desire to expand the friendship between Iraq and the United States. He even sent official greetings to Iraq on July 17, 1990, the anniversary of Hussein's rise to power.

It was around this time that Hussein began preparing to invade Kuwait. He made a fiery speech on July 17 in which he accused Kuwait of stealing oil from the Iraqi side of the Rumaila oil field that straddled the border between the two countries. He also began moving Iraqi troops toward the Kuwaiti border. Although U.S. government officials were concerned about these developments, they did not strongly criticize Iraq's actions or directly express their intention to protect Kuwait.

On July 25 Hussein held a meeting with April Glaspie, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. The Iraqi government released a transcript of this meeting, which is excerpted here. According to the transcript, Glaspie expresses U.S. concern about the Iraqi troops gathered near the Kuwaiti border. But she also says that the U.S. government has no official position on border disputes in the Middle East and no special defense commitments with Kuwait. Partly on the basis of this conversation, Hussein apparently came to believe that the U.S. government would not send troops to protect Kuwait.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from the meeting between Saddam Hussein and April Glaspie:

  • The transcript of the meeting between Saddam Hussein and April Glaspie was prepared by the Iraqi government. Glaspie claimed that the Iraqis edited her comments in a misleading way in order to make her seem supportive of Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. For example, Glaspie said that the Iraqis had removed strongly worded warnings she issued to Hussein about the American reaction to an invasion of Kuwait. According to Peter Cipkowski in Understanding the Crisis in the Persian Gulf, Glaspie later told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee that she warned Hussein that "we would support our friends in the Gulf, we would defend their sovereignty [independence] and integrity," and that "we would insist on settlements being made in a nonviolent manner, not by threats, not by intimidation, and certainly not by aggression." When the transcript surfaced and created a controversy, according to the Christian Science Monitor, Glaspie called it a "fabrication" and expressed "astonishment" that anyone would pay attention to "a document issued by a president whose credibility [honesty] is surely not in high repute [regard]."
  • In his meeting with Glaspie, Hussein complains that the American media has launched a negative campaign against him. He is referring to print articles and television reports that focused on his use of chemical weapons and history of human-rights abuses. One example was a report by broadcast journalist Diane Sawyer that aired on the television program "Prime Time Live." It included an interview with Hussein, as well as footage of Kurdish villages in Iraq that had been attacked by the Iraqi army. Glaspie sympathizes with Hussein's complaints about the American media, explaining that they often air critical reports about U.S. political leaders as well. She suggests that he appear on American television to tell his side of the story and help the American people understand his goals.

Excerpt from the transcript of the meeting between Saddam Hussein and April Glaspie

Saddam Hussein: I havesummoned you today to holdcomprehensive political discussions with you. This is a message to President Bush.... Iraq came out of the [Iran-Iraq] warburdened with $40 billiondebts, excluding the aid given by Arab states, some of whom consider that too to be a debt although they know—and you know too—that without Iraq they would not have had these sums and the future of the region would have been entirely different.

We began to face thepolicy of the drop in the price of oil. Then we saw the United States, which always talks of democracy but which has no time for the other point of view. Then the mediacampaign against Saddam Hussein was started by the official American media.... We were disturbed by this campaign but we were not disturbed too much because we had hoped that, in a few months, those who are decision makers in America would have a chance to find the facts and see whether this media campaign has had any effect on the lives of Iraqis. We had hoped that soon the American authorities would make the correct decision regarding their relations with Iraq. Those with good relations can sometimes afford to disagree.


Summoned: Called for or demanded.


Comprehensive: All-inclusive or wide-ranging.


Burdened: Loaded down.


Debts: Money owed.


Policy: Plan or course of action.


Campaign: Series of related operations designed to bring about a particular result.


Deliberate: Well thought out.


Commercial: Business-related.

Economic war

Economic war: Actions intended to harm a nation's economy, or its ability to produce goods and services and care for its citizens.


Depriving: Withholding or taking away from.

But when planned anddeliberate policy forces the price of oil down without goodcommercial reasons, then that means another war against Iraq. Because military war kills people by bleeding them, andeconomic war kills their humanity bydepriving them of their chance to have a good standard of living. As you know, we gave rivers of blood in a war that lasted eight years, but we did not lose our humanity. Iraqis have a right to live proudly. We do not accept that anyone could injure Iraqi pride or the Iraqi right to have high standards of living.

Kuwait and theU.A.E. were at the front of this policy aimed at lowering Iraq's position and depriving its people of higher economic standards. And you know that our relations with the Emirates and Kuwait had been good. On top of all that, while we were busy at war, the state of Kuwait began to expand at the expense of our territory.

You may say this ispropaganda, but I would direct you to one document, the Military Patrol Line, which is the borderline endorsed by theArab League in 1961 for military patrols not to cross the Iraq-Kuwait border.

But go and look for yourselves. You will see the Kuwaiti border patrols, the Kuwaiti farms, the Kuwaiti oilinstallations —all built as closely as possible to this line to establish that land as Kuwaiti territory....

We believe that the United States must understand that people who live in luxury and economic security [like Kuwait and the U.A.E.] can reach an understanding with the United States on what are legitimate joint interests. But the starved and the economically deprived [like Iraq] cannot reach the same understanding.

We do not accept threats from anyone because we do not threaten anyone. But we say clearly that we hope that the U.S. will not entertain too manyillusions and will seek new friends rather than increase the number of its enemies.

I have read the American statements speaking of friends in the area. Of course, it is the right of everyone to choose their friends. We can have no objections. But you know you are not the ones who protected your friends during the war with Iran. I assure you, had the Iranians overrun the region, the American troops would not have stopped them.... So what can it mean when America says it will now protect its friends? It can only meanprejudice against Iraq. This stance plusmaneuvers and statements which have been made has encouraged the U.A.E. and Kuwait to disregard Iraqi rights....

We are hurt and upset that such disagreement is taking place between us and Kuwait and the U.A.E. The solution must be found within an Arab framework and through directbilateral relations. We do not place America among the enemies. We place it where we want our friends to be and we try to be friends. But repeated statements last year make it apparent that America did not regard us as friends....


U.A.E.: United Arab Emirates, a small Middle Eastern country located southeast of Iraq, near the entrance to the Persian Gulf.


Propaganda: Spreading ideas or information with the intention of helping a certain cause.

Arab League

Arab League: A political, economic, and military alliance of twenty Arab nations and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).


Installations: Facilities.


Illusions: Mistaken ideas.


Prejudice: Hostile attitudes or negative opinions formed without sufficient knowledge or experience.


Maneuvers: Plans or schemes.


Bilateral: Two-sided.

April Glaspie: Mr. President, you mentioned many things during this meeting which I cannot comment on on behalf of my government.But with your permission, I will comment on two points. You spoke of friendship and I believe it was clear from the letters sent by our President to you on the occasion of yourNational Day that he emphasizes....

Saddam: He was kind and his expressions met with our regard and respect.

Glaspie: As you know, he directed the United States Administration to reject the suggestion ofimplementing tradesanctions.

Saddam: There is nothing left for us to buy from America. Only wheat. Because every time we want to buy something, they say it is forbidden. I am afraid that one day you will say, "You are going to make gunpowder out of wheat."

Glaspie: I have a direct instruction from the President to seek better relations with Iraq....

Saddam: Your stance is generous. We are Arabs. It is enough for us that someone says, "I am sorry, I made a mistake." Then we carry on. But the media campaign continued. And it is full of stories. If the stories were true, no one would get upset. But we understand from its continuation that there is adetermination.

Glaspie: I saw theDiane Sawyer program ["Prime Time Live"] onABC. And what happened in that program was cheap and unjust. And this is a real picture of what happens in the American media—even to American politicians themselves. These are the methods theWestern media employs. I am pleased that you add your voice to thediplomats who stand up to the media. Because your appearance in the media, even for five minutes, would help us to make the American people understand Iraq. This would increasemutual understanding. If the American President had control of the media, his job would be much better.

Mr. President, not only do I want to say that President Bush wanted better and deeper relations with Iraq, but he also wants an Iraqi contribution to peace andprosperity in the Middle East. President Bush is an intelligent man. He is not going to declare an economic war against Iraq.... I admire your extraordinary efforts to re-build your country. I know you need funds. We understand that and our opinion is that you should have the opportunity to rebuild your country. But we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait....

National Day

National Day: July 17, an Iraqi holiday recognizing the date in 1979 that Saddam Hussein became president.


Implementing: Establishing or putting in place.


Sanctions: Trade restrictions designed to punish a country for breaking international law by harming its economy; in this case, the sanctions were proposed to punish Iraq for human-rights abuses.


Determination: A firm or definite decision.

Diane Sawyer

Diane Sawyer: An American broadcast journalist who interviewed Saddam Hussein and presented a special report on human-rights abuses in Iraq under his government.


ABC: American Broadcasting Company, a U.S. television network.


Western: The noncommunist countries of Western Europe and North America.


Diplomats: Officials that are skilled in negotiation.


Mutual: Joint or shared.


Prosperity: Wealth or wellbeing.


Deployed: Moved into battle formation.

Frankly, we can only see that you havedeployed massive troops in the south. Normally that would not be any of our business. Butwhen this happens in the context of what you said on your National Day, then when we read the details in the two letters of theForeign Minister, then when we see the Iraqi point of view that themeasure taken by the U.A.E. and Kuwait is, in the final analysis,parallel to military aggression against Iraq, then it would be reasonable for me to be concerned. And for this reason, I received an instruction to ask you, in the spirit of friendship—not in the spirit ofconfrontation —regarding your intentions.

I simply describe the concern of my government. And I do not mean that the situation is a simple situation. But our concern is a simple one.

Saddam: We do not ask people not to be concerned when peace is at issue. This is a noble human feeling which we all feel. It is natural for you as a superpower to be concerned. But what we ask is not to express your concern in a way that would make an aggressor believe that he is getting support for his aggression. We want to find a solution which will give us our rights but not deprive others of their rights. But at the same time, we want the others to know that our patience is running out regarding their action.... I told the Arab Kings and Presidents that some brothers are fighting an economic war against us. And that not all wars use weapons and we regard this kind of war as a military action against us.... Before this, I had sent themenvoys reminding them that our war had included their defense. Therefore the aid they gave us should not be regarded as a debt. We did not more than the United States would have done against someone who attacked its interests....

Glaspie: Mr. President, it would be helpful if you could give us anassessment of the effort [at finding a peaceful resolution of the situation] made by your Arab brothers and whether they have achieved anything.

Foreign Minister

Foreign Minister: Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, who was present at this meeting.


Measure: Action.


Parallel: Similar.


Confrontation: Argument or conflict.


Envoys: Official messengers or representatives.


Assessment: Estimate or opinion.

Saddam: [Iraqi and Kuwaiti officials have agreed to meet in Saudi Arabia, in the presence of Saudi officials and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.] Then the meeting will be transferred to Baghdad for deeper discussion between Kuwait and Iraq. We hope we will reach some result. We hope that the long-term view and the real interests will overcome Kuwaiti greed.... Brother President Mubarak told me [the Kuwaitis] were scared. They said troops were only 20 kilometers north of the Arab League line. I said to him that regardless of what is there, whether they are police, border guards, or army, and regardless of how many are there, and what they are doing, assure the Kuwaitis and give them our word that we are notgoing to do anything until we meet with them. When we meet and when we see that there is hope, then nothing will happen. But if we are unable to find a solution, then it will be natural that Iraq will not accept death, even though wisdom is above everything else. There you have the good news.

[The conversation concludes when Glaspie agrees to return to Washington, D.C., and deliver Saddam Hussein's message to President Bush.]

What happened next...

A few days after the meeting between Saddam Hussein and U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie, high-ranking Iraqi and Kuwaiti officials met in Jedda, Saudi Arabia. During these talks, Iraq threatened to proceed with an invasion of Kuwait unless the Kuwaiti government met a series of demands.

Iraq demanded that Kuwait forgive its war debts, limit future oil production, and give Iraq control over the disputed island of Bubiyan in the Persian Gulf. Kuwaiti leaders agreed to limit their country's production of oil, and they also expressed a willingness to continue discussing Iraq's other concerns. In the meantime, however, Hussein continued sending troops to the Kuwaiti border. 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.

A month later, British journalists obtained the Iraqi transcript of the meeting between Hussein and Glaspie. It created a major controversy, as people around the world accused Glaspie of encouraging Iraq's aggression. In April 1991, following the U.S.-led coalition's victory in the Persian Gulf War, Glaspie was asked to testify before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She answered a series of questions about her meeting with Hussein. She told the committee members that the transcript did not reflect the true nature of her comments, and claimed that she was the victim of "deliberate deception" by the Iraqi government. In 1992 her claims received some support from Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, who had been present at the meeting between Hussein and Glaspie. According to the Christian Science Monitor, Aziz said that Glaspie "just listened and made general comments. We knew the United States would have a strong reaction [to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait]."

Did you know...

  • April Glaspie was the first woman ever to serve as U.S. ambassador to an Arab country.
  • This famous meeting marked the first time Glaspie had ever spoken directly with Saddam Hussein during her three years of service as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. She only learned that she would be meeting with the Iraqi president a few minutes before being taken into his office.
  • At the time Iraq invaded Kuwait, the United States imported 52 percent of its oil, the highest percentage to that point in U.S. history. More than 11 percent of this total came from the Persian Gulf region. Some people argued that America's dependence on foreign oil helped explain why the U.S. government tried so hard to maintain friendly relations with Hussein, as well as why it eventually went to war to liberate Kuwait.

For More Information

Cipkowski, Peter. Understanding the Crisis in the Persian Gulf. New York: John Wiley, 1992.

Cole, Carlton. "Whatever Happened to U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie?" Christian Science Monitor, May 27, 1999. Available online at (accessed on March 2, 2004).

"Excerpts from Iraqi Document on Meeting with U.S. Envoy." New York Times International, September 23, 1990. Available online at (accessed on March 2, 2004).

King, John. The Gulf War. New York: Dillon Press, 1991.

Ridgeway, James, ed. The March to War. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1991.

Hussein, Saddam

views updated May 23 2018

Saddam Hussein

Born April 28, 1937

Tikrit, Iraq

President of Iraq, 1979–2003

"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!"

Saddam Hussein as quoted in Understanding the Crisis in the Persian Gulf.

Saddam Hussein served as the president of Iraq from 1979 to 2003. During his twenty-four years in power, he gained a reputation as a brutal dictator who used intimidation and violence to eliminate all opposition to his rule. Hussein aspired to make Iraq the dominant nation in the Middle East. He built an impressive army and used it against neighboring countries as well as rebellious groups within Iraq.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Hussein set in motion a series of events that led to the 1991 Persian Gulf War. After months of diplomatic negotiations and military buildup, the U.S.-led coalition went to war to force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. Although Hussein suffered a humiliating defeat in the war, he remained in power. He continued to defy world opinion over the next dozen years, as he refused to honor the United Nations agreement that ended the Persian Gulf War. In 2003 the United States launched a military invasion of Iraq that finally succeeded in removing Hussein from power. After nine months in hiding, the former Iraqi leader was captured by U.S. forces in December 2003.

A difficult childhood

Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti was born on April 28, 1937. He always preferred to be called by his given name, Saddam, which means "he who confronts" in Arabic. Hussein 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. He lived in a mud hut with no electricity or running water.

During his rise to power, Hussein changed or exaggerated many details of his early life in order to build 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, Hussein al-Majid, either died or left the family before he was born. He was raised by his mother, Subha Talfa al-Majid, and his stepfather, Ibrahim Hassan.

Hussein has said that he endured a difficult childhood in which he was abused and prevented from attending school. His stepfather forced him to steal sheep and chickens to sell in the local market. Some historians claim that his harsh upbringing taught him to view other people with mistrust and to rely only upon himself. Hussein also decided at a young age that intimidation and violence were effective tools to help him get what he wanted.

Hussein's early life improved in 1947, when he was sent to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad to live with his uncle, Khairallah Talfah. Khairallah was a retired army officer who supported the idea of Arab nationalism, a belief that the Arab world should be united to create one powerful Arab state. Hussein learned a great deal about politics while under his uncle's care. He was also encouraged to attend school for the first time.

Joins the Baath Party

In 1957, as a twenty-year-old student, Saddam joined the Iraqi Baath Party. Baathism was a radical Arab nationalist movement founded in the 1940s. Baath means "rebirth" or "renaissance" in Arabic. 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 government.

In 1959 Hussein was part of a group of Baath revolutionaries who tried to murder Iraq's military ruler, General Abdul Karim Qassem. When the assassination attempt failed, Hussein left Iraq in order to avoid punishment. He fled to Syria and eventually settled in Cairo, Egypt, where he entered Cairo 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, Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, Hussein received a position in the Baath regional command, which was the party's highest decision-making body in Iraq. Also in 1963, Hussein married his first cousin, Sajida Khairallah Talfah. They eventually had two sons, Uday and Qusay, and three daughters, Raghad, Rina, and Hala.

The Baathists maintained control of the government for just nine months before the Iraqi military overthrew them. The new military rulers put Hussein and several other Baath Party leaders in prison. Hussein used his time in prison to think about why his party did not hold on to power. He felt that party leaders had placed too much trust in the Iraqi military. He decided to build his own security force within the party to help the Baathists regain power. Hussein escaped from prison after two years. He then became the security organizer for the Baath Party. He created a large force that used violence in order to intimidate citizens or eliminate rival political leaders.

In 1968 the Baath Party 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. By controlling the forces of violence and terror that helped the party maintain power, Hussein held the most influential position in the government. He forged close relationships with other party leaders during this time. But he later betrayed many of these men in order to further his own career.

Becomes president of Iraq

Hussein spent the 1970s gradually eliminating Bakr's supporters and his own rivals within the Baath Party. On July 17, 1979, he finally managed to push his cousin out of office and seize control of the government. Shortly after becoming president of Iraq, Hussein took violent steps to ensure that he would remain in power. He carried out a bloody rampage that resulted in the deaths of an estimated five hundred people, including military officers, Baath Party officials, and even some of his close friends and associates.

Hussein used these brutal actions as a way to inspire loyalty among the Iraqi people and ensure his absolute control of the government. He recognized that Iraq faced both external threats from its neighbors and internal tension between its different ethnic and religious groups. Hussein responded to this situation by using violence to make his hold on power seem more solid and legitimate. Hussein also used propaganda (the spreading of information to further a cause) to make himself appear to be a strong leader. He placed pictures of himself all over Baghdad, for example, and ordered songs and poems to be written about him. He wanted Iraqi citizens to feel his presence in their lives and understand that there was no alternative to his rule.

Goes to war against Iran

Hussein promised the Iraqi people that the 1980s would be a "glorious decade." 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 strictly adhere to the basic principles of Islam) under a religious leader called the Ayatollah Khomeini had overthrown the government. Khomeini was a Shiite Muslim and an outspoken opponent of Hussein and his Sunni Muslim government.

Although Iran was larger than Iraq and had three times as many people, Hussein felt that his highly trained armed forces could quickly defeat his enemy. Instead, the bitter conflict lasted for eight long years. Hussein's forces used chemical weapons against Iranian troops on several occasions during the war. The two sides finally declared a cease-fire in 1988.

As soon as Hussein's troops returned home from the Iran-Iraq War, the Iraqi leader turned them against his own rebellious citizens. 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 defiant people who posed a threat to his rule. The Iraqi army attacked Kurdish villages with chemical weapons, killing thousands of people. An estimated 250,000 Kurds fled from Iraq after the attacks and became refugees in Turkey and Iran.

Increasing tension with Kuwait

During the Iran-Iraq War, Hussein developed a tough, battle-hardened military. But the costs of the conflict left the Iraqi economy in ruins. In fact, by the time the war ended Iraq owed $80 billion to other countries. Hussein desperately needed money to help his country recover from the effects of the war.

The Iraqi leader argued that he had fought the war against Iran in order to protect the Arab world from the Islamic fundamentalists who had taken over Iran. He felt that his Arab neighbors should forgive Iraq's debts (not require repayment of loans) since Iraq fought to defend all Arab interests in the Persian Gulf region. Some countries did forgive Iraq's war debts, though Kuwait, a small but very wealthy country located to the south of Iraq, refused to do so.

Iraq's financial problems grew worse in 1990 because of a steep decline in world oil prices. Hussein accused Kuwait of pumping more oil than was allowed under international agreements. He claimed that Kuwait deliberately attempted to lower world oil prices in order to harm Iraq's economy. He considered these actions by his fellow Arab state to be an "economic war" against Iraq.

Iraq and Kuwait also were involved in long-standing disputes over ownership of land along the border between the two countries and on offshore islands in the Persian Gulf. Hussein claimed that Kuwait was trying to expand into Iraqi territory and was stealing oil from underground oil fields on the Iraqi side of the border. On July 17, 1990, Hussein made a fiery speech in which he threatened to use force against 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!" Hussein also began sending military troops south to the Kuwaiti border.

Iraq invades Kuwait

Iraq launched a military invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990. The powerful Iraqi military successfully overran its smaller neighbor in a matter of hours. Nations around the world condemned the invasion and demanded that Iraq immediately withdraw its troops from Kuwait. The United Nations also placed economic sanctions on Iraq, meaning that Iraq was forbidden from selling its oil to other countries or buying goods from other countries. Still, Hussein refused to remove his forces and instead began threatening nearby Saudi Arabia. The United States and many other countries began sending troops into the Middle East to defend Saudi Arabia and, if necessary, force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.

Hussein was surprised by the strong negative response to his invasion of Kuwait. He had misread signals from U.S. government officials and convinced himself that the international community would not interfere with his plans. He never expected the countries of the world to come together against him. Hussein reacted angrily to the foreign military buildup in Saudi Arabia and to the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations.

Over the next six months, a number of world leaders tried to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the crisis. In the meantime, Hussein continued to provoke outrage by annexing Kuwait (formally making it a part of Iraq) and refusing to release foreign citizens who had been in Iraq or Kuwait at the time of the invasion. In November 1990 the United Nations Security Council established a deadline of January 15, 1991, for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait or face war. Hussein declared the day of the UN deadline to be a national "day of challenge." He ordered Iraqi citizens to march through the streets of Baghdad in defiance of the U.S.-led coalition.

The 1991 Persian Gulf War

The following day the U.S.-led coalition launched a series of air strikes against military targets in Iraq. The air war lasted for nearly six weeks and caused a great deal of destruction in Iraq. But Hussein seemed unmoved by the bombing raids. He frequently appeared on Iraqi television and insisted that his troops would eventually defeat the American invaders.

A few days after the war began, Hussein ordered his forces to fire Scud missiles at Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel is a Jewish state in the Middle East that has a long history of conflict with its Arab neighbors. Hussein wanted to provoke Israel into retaliating and joining the fight against Iraq. He believed that the Arab countries would leave the coalition, and perhaps even switch sides and support Iraq, rather than fight alongside their bitter enemy.

On February 22 U.S. President George H. W. Bush (see entry) established a deadline of noon the following day for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait or face a ground assault by coalition troops. Hussein responded by saying that Iraq welcomed a ground war. He knew that his troops had prepared strong defensive positions in Kuwait over the preceding months, and he believed that they would inflict massive casualties (killed and wounded soldiers) on the coalition forces.

The coalition ground assault began on February 24. To the surprise of many military experts, the coalition forces met with very little resistance from the Iraqi troops. In fact, thousands of exhausted and hungry Iraqi soldiers surrendered to the approaching coalition forces. The ground war succeeded in liberating Kuwait from Iraqi occupation after only four days of fighting.

Iraq suffered terrible destruction during the war. Coalition bombing destroyed buildings, roads, and bridges in most major cities. The country's water, sewer, and electrical systems were destroyed as well. The total cost of rebuilding Iraq was estimated at $100 billion. The Iraqi army lost 75 percent of its tanks, and thousands of Iraqi soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured. Still, Hussein insisted that Iraq had claimed a great victory by resisting an attack by forty nations for six weeks. He viewed himself as a hero for standing alone in defiance of the United States and its allies.

But Iraq's humiliating defeat left Hussein's government in a weakened position. Some of his opponents tried to take advantage of the opportunity to remove him from power. In the days after the war ended, Shiite Muslims who lived in the southern part of Iraq launched a major revolt against Hussein's government. Kurdish rebels in the northern part of the country also launched a major uprising. The U.S. military encouraged the rebellions but did not provide any direct support. As a result, Hussein was able to use the remains of his army to crush his enemies and remain in power.

Hussein continues to defy the world

Over the next few years, Hussein did not behave like someone who had suffered a terrible military defeat. He continued to make threatening statements toward his neighbors, for example, and he plotted to assassinate former U.S. President George Bush when the American leader visited Kuwait in 1993. Hussein also refused to honor the terms of the United Nations (UN) agreement that had officially ended the war. Part of the UN agreement required Iraq to destroy or remove all of its biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. But Hussein consistently failed to cooperate with the UN weapons inspectors sent to monitor Iraq's progress and ensure its compliance. In fact, he kicked the inspectors out of Iraq in 1998.

Hussein claimed that Iraq did not possess any weapons of mass destruction. But many experts believed that Iraq did hold such weapons. They felt that Hussein was reluctant to destroy them because it would reduce his power over his own people as well as Iraq's strength in the Middle East.

Hussein's attitude did not please the United States or other members of the international community. Since Iraq did not meet the terms of the UN agreement, the United Nations kept the economic sanctions in place against Iraq. Instead of weakening Hussein, however, the trade restrictions mostly created hardships for the Iraqi people, who suffered from malnutrition and a lack of medical care.

American and British leaders also launched bombing campaigns against Iraq on several occasions in response to Hussein's actions. Once the last of these military operations concluded in December 1998, however, the international community made little further effort to enforce the UN agreement that had ended the 1991 war.

Hussein removed from power

In September 2002 U.S. President George W. Bush (son of the former president who had held office during the 1991 Persian Gulf War; see entry) challenged the United Nations to take action against Iraq. He argued that the United Nations should force Iraq to honor the agreement that had ended the Persian Gulf War eleven years earlier. He claimed that the United Nations would lose its authority if it allowed Hussein to continue ignoring the agreement. Bush also told the United Nations that Iraq posed a significant threat to world security. He claimed that Hussein still possessed weapons of mass destruction and could provide such weapons to terrorists.

In November the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1441. This resolution declared Iraq to be in violation of earlier UN resolutions, authorized a new round of weapons inspections, and promised that Iraq would face serious consequences if it failed to comply. The UN inspectors returned to Iraq on November 18, 2002. Their reports over the next few months contained mixed results. Sometimes Iraqi authorities were very cooperative. At other times, however, they seemed to be hiding information from the inspectors.

Bush was not satisfied with the results of the inspections and threatened to take military action against Iraq. The Bush administration began talking about the importance of a "regime change" (removing Hussein's government from power) in Iraq and pressured the UN Security Council to authorize the use of force. Although Bush received support from Great Britain and some other countries, most other nations wanted to give the inspections more time.

Bush, however, was determined to proceed with military action despite the lack of UN support. On March 17, 2003, he gave Hussein and his sons two days to leave Iraq or face an American military invasion. But Hussein remained defiant and refused to leave Iraq. Some historians claimed that he did not believe a U.S. military invasion would succeed. Others said that power meant everything to Hussein, and that he viewed death as a better alternative than giving up his power.

On March 19 (March 20 in Iraq) the American and British forces went to war against Iraq. Some of the first missile strikes were aimed at senior Iraqi government leaders, including Hussein. Although it appeared that Hussein survived this first round of attacks, he disappeared following later attacks and was presumed dead. American forces moved into Baghdad after only a few weeks of fighting. On May 1, 2003, President Bush declared that major combat operations were over and Iraq had been freed from Hussein's rule. American troops remained in Iraq to search for Hussein and other members of the former government, hunt for weapons of mass destruction, and help the Iraqi people rebuild the country and form a democratic government. As time passed, however, the U.S. forces came under increasingly violent attacks from angry Iraqis and foreign fighters determined to resist the occupation.

Despite a massive search, Hussein's whereabouts remained a mystery for the next nine months. He was finally captured by U.S. forces two weeks before Christmas. Responding to a tip from an informant, the Raider Brigade of the U.S. Army's Fourth Infantry Division searched a farm near the town of Adwar, about ten miles from Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. They found Hussein hiding in an eight-foot-deep "spider hole," concealed with dirt and bricks, outside a mud hut on the property. The fallen Iraqi leader, who was found with a pistol and $750,000 in cash, surrendered peacefully. He appeared shaggy and disheveled and seemed confused. The coalition released pictures of Hussein taken during a medical exam and after he was cleaned up and shaved.

U.S. civil administrator L. Paul Bremer (see entry) announced the capture to the world in a press conference. "Ladies and gentlemen, we got him," he stated, as quoted in Time magazine. "Iraq's future, your future, has never been more full of hope. The tyrant is a prisoner." Iraqi journalists attending the news conference stood up and cheered or cried. Some screamed "Kill him! Kill Saddam!" When the people of Baghdad heard the news, some of them threw candy in the streets or fired guns into the sky in celebration. But others expressed sadness or anger at seeing the longtime leader of Iraq humiliated.

President Bush was pleased at the capture of Hussein, and he hoped that it might convince former regime members to end their resistance against the U.S. occupation forces. But Bush also warned that "the capture of Saddam Hussein does not mean the end of violence in Iraq," according to the Detroit Free Press. "We still face terrorists who would rather go on killing the innocent than accept the rise of liberty in the heart of the Middle East." Interviews with Hussein following his capture yielded little evidence that he was involved in planning the attacks against coalition forces. Although some insurgents may have been motivated by a desire to see Hussein return to power, most seemed to be acting primarily out of hatred for the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Despite the postwar security problems, however, Iraq continued to make progress toward forming a new government.

Where to Learn More

Cipkowski, Peter. Understanding the Crisis in the Persian Gulf. New York: John Wiley, 1992.

Claypool, Jane. Saddam Hussein. Vero Beach, FL: Rourke Publications, 1993.

"Face of Defeat." Detroit Free Press, December 15, 2003.

Gibbs, Nancy. "Ladies and Gentlemen, We Got Him." Time, December 22, 2003.

Karsh, Efraim, and Inari Rautsi. Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography. New York: Free Press, 1991.

McGeary, Johanna. "Inside Saddam's Head." Time, March 31, 2003.

Miller, Judith, and Laurie Mylroie. Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf. New York: Times Books, 1990.

"Saddam Hussein." Biography Today. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1992.

"Saddam Hussein." Current Leaders of Nations, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2003.

"Saddam Hussein." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2003.

Sciolino, Elaine. The Outlaw State: Saddam Hussein's Quest for Power and the Gulf Crisis. New York: John Wiley, 1991.

Hussein, Saddam

views updated May 18 2018

Saddam Hussein

BORN: April 28, 1937 • Al-Awja, Iraq

DIED: December 30, 2006 • Baghdad, Iraq

Iraqi president

Saddam Hussein was a leading member of the Iraqi Baath Party and played a key role in the 1968 coup (military takeover) that brought the party to power. Saddam served as vice president in the Iraqi government for eleven years before becoming president of Iraq in 1979. In this position, Saddam was also chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. His reign spanned the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) and the Gulf War (1991) before he was deposed (forced to leave his position) by the United States and its allies during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Saddam faced a war crimes tribunal (a special court established to try those accused of violating international laws of war) after his capture by U.S. troops. He was charged with numerous crimes, including genocide (the deliberate destruction of a

"Just as your beautiful skyscrapers were destroyed and caused your grief, beautiful buildings and precious homes crumbled over their owners in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq because of American weapons …"

racial, religious, or cultural group), for the death of potentially thousands of ethnic Kurds in the 1980s.

Baathist beginnings

Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti was born into a Sunni Arab family in Al-Awja, near the town of Tikrit in northern Iraq. Almost all Muslims (those who follow Islam religion) belong to the two major sects or branches of Islam, Sunni and Shiítes. The Sunnis and Shiítes originally split over a dispute about which person should rightfully succeed the prophet Muhammad at his death in 632 ce.

Hussein's father, Hussein al-Majid, was a poor and landless peasant who disappeared. He was presumed dead six months before Saddam was born. His mother was Subha Tulfah al-Mussallat. She named her son Saddam, meaning "one who confronts" or, "the stubborn one." He was given his father's personal name of Hussein, also spelled Husayn, or Hussain. Abd al-Majid was his grandfather's personal name and al-Tikrit refers to one who was born and raised in or near Tikrit. Tikrit is located on the northern bank of the Tigris River. It had once been the location of a fortress that was a center of defense against foreign invaders. By the twentieth century, Tikrit had fallen into decay and was notable only for the castle ruins overlooking the town.

Saddam's official birth date is listed as April 28, 1937. Because precise records were not kept in the region where he was born, particularly in peasant families, it is possible the date is inaccurate by several years either way. When Saddam was born Iraq was politically unstable. A constitutional monarchy (rule by a single person) had been established in 1932 when Iraq became an independent state. Britain administered the country until that time and had two military bases in Iraq. It upheld a variety of treaties that allowed the British special political status. To achieve true independence, Iraq nationalists (those seeking independence from foreign influence) wanted to eliminate the British presence and influence in Iraq and other Arab lands of the Middle East. World War II (1939–45) brought the two sides into armed conflict in 1941 in what was known as the Rashid Ali Coup. The failed coup resulted in the defeat of the nationalists. The authority of the British-supported monarchy in Iraq was strengthened by their victory. Many nationalists who participated in the uprising were either jailed or executed.

Saddam's maternal uncle, Khairallah Talfah, was an army officer and an avid supporter of Arab nationalism. He participated in the ill-fated uprising and was jailed for five years after being discharged from the army. Saddam had been living with his uncle, who was his foster father in his earliest years. When Khairallah was imprisoned, three-year-old Saddam was sent back to a small village near Tikrit to live with his mother. She had remarried in the meantime and Saddam had three half-brothers through their union. His stepfather was a brother of Saddam's late father. He treated the young boy harshly on his return. His stepfather took great pleasure in humiliating Saddam and would send the boy out to steal for him. He beat Saddam for any failure. Saddam was also bullied by the local village boys and often mocked for being fatherless. His only true pleasure was in the company of a horse that he truly loved. Saddam's own circumstances and the jailing of his uncle left him with deep resentments against the monarchy and its foreign influences.

The revolution

Saddam ran away from home at the age of ten and returned to live with his uncle after his release from prison in 1947. Khairallah would have a lifelong influence on Saddam both personally and politically. Khairallah's own son Adnan was three years younger than Saddam and soon became his best friend. Saddam began attending school for the first time, but he was not an able student. He graduated from primary school in 1955 and moved with his uncle to Baghdad at the age of eighteen. Saddam was enrolled at Karkh high school, a secondary school in the city.

When Saddam arrived in Baghdad in the mid-1950s, national fervor (intense feeling) and conspiracies, or plots, against the established government were still very much alive in the streets. Revolutionary sentiment (belief in the righteousness of rebellion) was further heightened throughout the Middle East with the Suez Crisis in 1955. Egypt seized complete control of the Suez Canal, a vital waterway for world trade connecting the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea, from Britain. Now Egypt blocked all Israeli shipping from reaching its destination. Israel and its allies immediately launched an attack defeating Egyptian forces. Despite Egypt's quick defeat at the hands of British, French, and Israeli forces, Egypt's actions were seen as a heroic act against the West. A wave of revolutions followed in the coming decades as the Arab world moved to unite politically. The Suez Crisis brought a passionate response in Baghdad that resulted in anti-West and Israeli riots in the fall of 1956. Wide public dissatisfaction with the Iraqi government grew since it did not join other Arab countries. Critics assumed that it was merely a puppet government (one controlled by a foreign country) of the West. The capital city, which Saddam now called home, plunged into turbulent competition over control of Iraq.

The Baath Party

The Baath Party was established in Damascus, Syria, in the early 1940s but remained a minor political influence until the late 1950s. Also spelled Bàth or Bàath, the word can be translated as meaning revival, resurgence, or renewal. The party's pan-Arab motto is "One Arab Nation with an Eternal Mission." Seeking Arab unity in a single nation, the party's ultimate goal was to promote the spiritual rebirth of Arabs. However, divisions arose over ideology (guiding principles) and personal rivalries. Ultimately, the party accepted unity of purpose among Arab leaders rather than the actual unification of all Arab countries into a single country.

The birth of the Baath Party can be traced to the early twentieth century when Middle East boundaries were established by the world's great powers. These boundaries served the particular interests of each power at the time and kept the Arab world divided. In the mid-twentieth century, Arab nations decided to eliminate all traces of colonialism (control by foreign nations) and restore Arab pride. In particular, Baathists believed the creation of Israel in 1948 was specifically designed to keep the Arab world fragmented. They vowed that Israel must not be allowed to exist.

All party branches are combined to form the party's Congress. It elects the regional representatives from branches in the various Arab countries and they comprise the international council known as the National Command. It is the supreme decision-making body in the Baath Party. It was the dominant party in Iraq for several decades from 1963 until 2003 when it was outlawed by the occupying Western forces.

Saddam applied to the prestigious Baghdad Military Academy where his uncle had graduated. However, he failed the entrance examinations. In 1957, at the age of twenty, he joined the Baath Party (see box). The Baath Party was a revolutionary, pan-Arab (represents all Arabs) political party which Khairallah supported. Its motto was "One Arab Nation with an Eternal Mission." Finally, in 1958, army officers in Iraq overthrew the monarchist government and established the Republic of Iraq. Baathists opposed the new government and planned to assassinate the new prime minister. However, the plot failed and the conspirators, including Saddam, fled the country into exile. Saddam escaped to Syria and from there to Egypt. In Egypt, he studied law at Cairo University but left before earning a degree. While in Egypt, Saddam married his maternal (on his mother's side) first cousin, Sajida Khairallah Tulfah. They had five children.

Rise to power

In 1963, another regime change resulted and Iraq was now placed into the hands of army officers who had ties to the Baath Party. The new government, however, was deeply divided politically and lasted just nine months before being overthrown. During this time when the Baath Party was in power, Saddam returned to Iraq with other exiled Iraqis. Before long, they were forced underground (into secret operations) because of the political tensions. He became a member of the regional command of the Baath Party. In this capacity, Saddam played a major role in organizing the party to stage a second coup. This coup took place in July of 1968 and successfully brought the Baathists back to power. In payment for his contributions, Saddam was named vice-chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council and vice president of Iraq.

Saddam served as vice president from 1969 until 1979, when the aging ruling president Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr (1914–1982) resigned due to failing health and being pressured by Hussein. On July 16, 1979, Saddam became the president of Iraq, chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He quickly moved to eliminate any challengers to his authority and implemented policies that brought social and economic sectors under government control. Saddam's government programs included compulsory (required) primary education, the founding of new universities, and a socialized (government controlled and operated) medical program. Among Middle Eastern countries, Iraq became a leader in providing social services, such as healthcare, to its people. Saddam sought to combine pan-Arabism with Iraqi nationalism. He saw himself in the role of leader in the united Arab world.

During the 1970s, Iraq invested much of its oil profits into industrial expansion in order to help expand the economy. At the same time, Iraq built strong ties with the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc of European nations. It distanced itself from Western governments, such as Western Europe and the United States. Despite his pan-Arab policies, Saddam created a Western-style legal system which gave women freedoms and rights to high-level jobs in government and industry. This made Iraq the only country in the Persian Gulf region whose legal system was not ruled according to traditional Sharia (Islamic) law. Unlike women in Western-style society, under Sharia law women may not be allowed to vote or participate in politics, to freely mix socially with others, or to wear what clothes they choose.

Claiming Kuwait

Iraqi society has long been divided along lines of ethnicity, language, and religion. Saddam's political efforts of modernization under the Baath Party leadership depended on the support of Sunni Muslims. Sunnis comprised roughly 20 percent of the population of Iraq. Shiíte Muslims were the majority religion and regarded Sunnis as enemies of the faith. As a result, Saddam's government was met with resistance due to its secular (not related to religion) policies.

Iraqi Kurds in northern Iraq brought a special challenge to Hussein. They are Sunni Muslims but not Arabs. They wanted self-determination, which meant having their own country. The Kurds had seen some success in gaining independence from the Iraqi government, in large part due to help from neighboring Iran in their separatist struggle. In 1975, Saddam negotiated the Algiers Agreement with the shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi Shah (1919–1980). This agreement resulted in Iran's withdrawal of support for the Kurds.

Tensions between Iraq and Iran increased greatly following the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902–1989; see entry) helped depose the shah of Iran and established the Islamic Republic of Iran. He called for Islamic revolutionaries across the Muslim world to follow Iran's example. Tensions across the Middle East escalated. Border clashes between Iran and Iraqi forces were followed by assassination attempts on top Iraqi officials. Saddam responded by attacking the oil-rich, Iranian-held land of Khuzestan in southwest Iraq, along the Persian Gulf, in September 1980. The area had a sizable Arab minority and Saddam declared it a new province of Iraq. The invasion marked the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War which lasted eight years. The Islamic, Arab, and international communities were divided over their response to the war. However, sentiment shifted toward Iran when it was learned that Iraq had used chemical weapons against Iranian forces and Kurdish separatists (people seeking to form a new nation from a part of one currently existing). The Iran-Iraq War became one of the longest and most brutal and destructive wars of the twentieth century.

One of the greatest atrocities of the war was an Iraqi army attack on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja in March 1988. Halabja is located 150 miles northeast of Baghdad and less than 10 miles from the Iranian border. Iran had been supplying Kurdish rebels with arms to fight for independence from Iraq. Hussein and Ali Hassan al-Majid (1941–), who commanded Iraq forces in northern Iraq, were regularly directing attacks on the Kurdish populations in the region from 1986 to 1989 in a strategy known as the Al-Anfal Campaign. On March 16 and 17, Iraq war planes continuously dropped bombs containing various poisonous toxic agents including mustard gas and cyanide. The devastation was so complete that information on the attack did not reach the outside world for several days. Journalists visiting the area soon afterwards reported that life ended suddenly in the town with many people dying almost instantly, left in the positions they were when the poisonous gas engulfed them. Many others died a slow agonizing death as the poison deteriorated their lungs. It was the largest-scale chemical weapons attack against a civilian population in modern history. Estimates of deaths ranged up to five thousand Kurds as reported by the U.S. State Department. Another ten thousand people were blinded or severely injured by the gases.

Investigations over the next few years by various organizations including Human Rights Watch indicated the Iraqi army was to blame for the mass killing of civilians at Halabja. They also estimated that approximately 180,000 Kurds died during the Al-Anfal Campaign overall. However, Western powers, including the United States, which backed Hussein in the war against Iran, tried to shift the blame on Halabja to Iran at the time.

Gulf War

Only two years after battling Iran, Hussein initiated another conflict. This time, his actions attracted the attention of the international community. On August 2, 1990, Hussein's Iraqi forces invaded the neighboring nation of Kuwait. Kuwait is a small Arab monarchy located on the coast of the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia lies to the south and Iraq to the north. Iraq had long-standing claims to the oil-rich country of Kuwait but the Iraqi Baathist regime had recognized its independence since 1963. Tensions over the exact border location, oil pricing, and the claim that Kuwait was illegally slant-drilling petroleum under Iraq's border prompted the invasion. Slant drilling refers to drilling at an angle from the surface wells to reach pockets of oil below the earth's surface. With the invasion, Iraq doubled its control of the world's crude oil reserves to 20 percent.

The United Nations (UN) Security Council, the part of the international organization that makes decisions aimed at maintaining peace between nations, gave Hussein a deadline to withdraw from Kuwait. It also approved the use of force if Iraq did not comply. Meanwhile, international troops gathered along the Saudi Arabian border with Kuwait and Iraq to block any further advances of the Iraqi army while UN negotiations proceeded. Early in 1991, a coalition (of many countries) of forces led by the United States and Britain liberated Kuwait, but not before Hussein's forces torched the oil wells across Kuwait as they retreated.

Following his defeat, Hussein was faced with UN economic sanctions (restrictions) that included blockades of its oil exports. He agreed to abandon all chemical and biological weapons and submit to inspections within the country by UN observers. The economy and state infrastructure broke down as Iraqi citizens faced food rationing and the difficulties of living under strict military control. Those who could, fled to live abroad. The war had further divided the ethnic and religious factions in Iraq. Any uprisings were quickly repressed by Hussein in order to maintain control. The death toll due to the violence in the aftermath of the war was estimated at around thirty thousand persons.

The U.S. government accused Hussein of continuous violations of the terms of the Gulf War's ceasefire agreement. It also suspected Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and other banned weaponry. In December 1996, the deteriorating economic situation in Iraq prompted UN officials to adopt a program known as Oil-for-Food to feed its people. The program was intended to allow Iraq to sell its oil on the world market in exchange for food, medicine, and other humanitarian needs for ordinary Iraqi citizens without allowing Iraq to rebuild its military. However, increased tension over weapons inspections resulted in American and British missile strikes on Iraq between 1997 and 1998. By early 2001, their war planes were striking harder at suspected weapons sites near the capital city of Baghdad.

UN weapons inspections considered inconclusive by the United States and Britain in January 2003 led to a buildup of military forces around Iraq. Most governments and the UN Security Council did not back military intervention and counseled for continued inspections. On March 17, 2003, the United States issued an ultimatum (final demand) to Iraq, calling for regime change (change in government leadership) within twenty-four hours. The ultimatum was rejected and air attacks on Baghdad began three days later. U.S. and British forces entered Iraq from Kuwait on April 9, 2003. They deposed Saddam as president of Iraq. Saddam and his aides went underground, but Saddam was eventually captured in a small town south of Tikrit on December 13 of that year.

Following his capture, Hussein and other members of the Baath Party became the key subjects of the Iraqi Special Tribunal. The tribunal was established to try Iraqi citizens charged with various serious crimes between 1968 and 2003 including crimes against humanity (murder of large groups of people), war crimes (those which violated international laws of war), and genocide (a deliberate destruction of a political or cultural human group). The trials involved hearings before five judges, no jury. Security became a major issue as one of the judges and two defense lawyers were assassinated in 2005 and 2006. Some world leaders, including top UN officials, believed Hussein could not receive a fair trial based on international standards (ability to offer a defense in front of a jury) in Iraq. For example, the judges included Shiite Muslims and other long-standing enemies of Hussein. The UN officials believed the International Criminal Court at The Hague, Amsterdam, or a UN war crimes court such as established in Rwanda would be more appropriate. However, Hussein's trial remained in Iraq allowing the new Iraq government to seek justice for past crimes in its country.

The first legal hearing in Saddam's case was held on July 1, 2004. Hussein was accused of the 1988 poison attack at Halabja, the 1982 massacre of 148 Shiite Muslims in Dujail, invading Kuwait, ethnic cleansing by the removal of thousands of Kurds from the town of Kirkuk, and various actions against Kurds and other political opponents. On November 5, 2006, the court convicted Hussein and two other defendants of the 1982 massacre at Dujail and sentenced them to death by hanging. Saddam Hussein was hanged before dawn on December 30, 2006 in Baghdad, Iraq.

For More Information


Anderson, Dale. Saddam Hussein. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications, 2004.

Balaghi, Shiva. Saddam Hussein: A Biography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006.

Black, George. Genocide in Iraq: The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds. New York: Human Rights Watch, 1993.

Potter, Lawrence G., and Gary G. Sick, eds. Iran, Iraq, and the Legacies of War. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004.

Shields, Charles J. Saddam Hussein. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2005.


"Crimes Against Humanity: Iraqi Special Tribunal." Human Rights First. (accessed on December 11, 2006).

"The Iraqi Baath Party." Aljazeera. (accessed on December 11, 2006).

"Saddam's Chemical Weapons Campaign: Halabja, March 16, 1988." U.S. Department of State. (accessed on December 11, 2006).

Hussein, Saddam

views updated Jun 11 2018

Hussein, Saddam

April 28, 1937 Tikrit, Iraq

Former president of Iraq

Beginning in the 1970s, Saddam Hussein ruled the Republic of Iraq with a tight grip. His supporters maintained that through his many social and economic programs he effectively brought the country into the modern age. His many critics, however, claimed that Saddam was a ruthless dictator who would stop at nothing in his endless push for power. Regardless, the charismatic leader retained control of his country during countless military conflicts, including an eight-year war against Iran in the 1980s and the Persian Gulf War in 1991. He also survived a slew of assassination attempts throughout the course of his presidency, and at times he seemed almost invincible. But in March of 2003, U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq and deposed the defiant leader. Saddam escaped capture, but after a nine-month manhunt, he was caught, imprisoned, and faced multiple charges relating to war crimes and human rights abuses. Many speculated that the once-invincible ruler would ultimately face the death penalty.

A troubled beginning

The ex-president of Iraq had a troubled childhood. Saddam Hussein was born on April 28, 1937, in the village of Al-Awja, near Tikrit, a town just north of the city of Baghdad, in central Iraq. His father, Hussein 'Abd al-Majid, was a peasant sheepherder who by various accounts either died or disappeared before his son's birth. His older brother, who was twelve, died of cancer shortly thereafter. The combined tragedies had a devastating effect on Saddam's mother, Subha Tulfah al-Mussallat, who became extremely depressed during her last months of pregnancy. After her new son was born, she named him Saddam, which means "one who confronts" or "the stubborn one." Because of her depression, however, she was unable to care for him, and young Saddam was sent to live in Baghdad with his uncle, Khairallah Talfah, a retired army officer and Arab nationalist.

"We are ready to sacrifice our souls, our children, and our families so as not to give up Iraq. We say this so no one will think that America is capable of breaking the will of the Iraqis with its weapons."

When he was three years old Saddam returned to live with his mother, but she had remarried and family life was not pleasant. His new stepfather was abusive and treated him harshly over the next several years. As a result, when he was ten years old Saddam ran away to the safety of his uncle's home. Khairallah Talfah served as a role model for his nephew, especially influencing his political beliefs. After Saddam graduated from the al-Karh Secondary School in Baghdad, he officially joined his uncle's political party, the Arab Baa'th Socialist Party, which had been formed in Syria in 1947 with the goal of promoting unity among the various Arab states in the Middle East. In Iraq and neighboring countries the Baa'th Party had become an underground revolutionary force.

In 1959, when Saddam was just twenty-two years old, he played a major part in the assassination attempt of Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul Karim Qassim by the Baa'th Party. He was shot in the leg but managed to escape, first to Syria and then to Cairo, Egypt. While in Egypt he studied law at the University of Cairo. In 1963, after a military overthrow of Qassim's government, Saddam was allowed to return to Iraq. That same year he married his first wife, Sajida, the daughter of his mentor, Khairallah Talfah. His return was short-lived, however, since internal squabbling within the new Baa'th regime led to its downfall. Once again Saddam was forced into hiding, but he was caught in 1964 and imprisoned for the next two years. Although in jail, he remained involved in party politics. Escaping from prison in 1966, Saddam became a rising star in the Baa'th organization, forming close ties with key party officials who were planning a second attempt at taking control of Iraq.

In July of 1968 the Baa'ths organized a successful takeover of the Iraqi government. Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, a retired general and prominent party spokesman who was a distant relative of Saddam, assumed the role of chairman of the Baa'th Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) as well as the presidency of Iraq. Saddam, who had become an integral part of the organization, was named vice president.

Second in command

Although Ahmed Hassan was officially the president of Iraq from 1969 through 1979, it was Saddam Hussein who truly held the reins. And thanks to Saddam, the country enjoyed its most stable and productive period in recent history. After oil prices soared in the 1970s (oil is Iraq's primary natural resource and export), he used the revenues to institute a major system of economic reform and launched an array of wide-ranging social programs. Roads were paved, hospitals and schools were built, and various types of industry, such as mining, were expanded. In particular, Saddam focused attention on the rural areas, where roughly two-thirds of the population lived. Land was brought under the control of the Iraqi government, which meant that large properties were broken up and parcels distributed to small farmers. Saddam also funneled revenues into modernizing the country's agriculture industry. For example, he brought electricity into even some of the most remote communities.

Saddam's social programs benefited both rural and city dwellers. In an effort to wipe out illiteracy, he established free schooling for children through high school and made it a government requirement that all children attend school. Saddam's government also provided free hospitalization to all Iraqis and gave full economic support to families of Iraqi soldiers. Such large-scale social programs were unheard of in any other Middle Eastern country.

When he created his massive reforms, Saddam may have had the benefit of his people in mind, but he was also a shrewd politician. In order to maintain a stable government and to assure that his party would remain in power, it was necessary to gather as much support as possible. By the late 1970s the Baa'th regime enjoyed a widespread following among the working classes, and the party was firmly unified around its second-in-command. Saddam also served as the outward face of the Iraqi government, representing the nation on both the domestic and international fronts. On July 22, 1979, when an ailing Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr decided to step down as president, it came as no surprise that Saddam Hussein stepped into his shoes.

The cult of Saddam Hussein

Support for Saddam Hussein was not universal. The conservative followers of Islam (the national religion of Iraq) did not agree with many of Saddam's innovations, which they felt were directly opposed to Islamic law. This included legislation that gave women more freedoms and the fact that a Western-style legal system had been installed. As a result, Iraq became the only Arab country not ruled by the laws of Islam. Major opposition also came from the Kurds who occupied the northern region of the country. The Kurds are a nomadic people who are concentrated in areas of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. They are Muslim but not Arabic, and they strongly disagreed with the Baa'thist push for a united Arab front.

Saddam even faced resistance within his own party, and he made it a policy to weed out anyone he viewed as a threat. On July 22, 1979, just days after taking over the presidency, he organized an assembly of Baa'th leaders and read aloud the names of suspected spies; these people were taken from the room and publicly executed by firing squad. A few years later, in 1982, he ordered the execution of at least three hundred officers who had supposedly questioned his military tactics. Once in control, Saddam surrounded himself with a tightly-knit group of family and friends who assumed high levels of responsibility within the government. These individuals, however, were not necessarily immune to Saddam's paranoia. At one point, Adnan Talfah, Saddam's brother-in-law and childhood friend, was killed in a "mysterious" helicopter crash. And in 1996 Saddam had his sons-in-law murdered for being disloyal.

Although he ruled with an iron fist, Saddam also was preoccupied with winning the devotion of the Iraqi people. He promoted himself as a hero of the nation who was dedicated to making Iraq the leader of the Arab world. Images of Saddam were plastered throughout the country. Some of them depicted the ruler as a dedicated Muslim wearing traditional robes and headdress; others featured Saddam in a Western-style business suit, wearing sunglasses and holding a rifle over his head. All were efforts to make a connection at every level of society and to solidify his role as an all-powerful president. Such tactics, however, also solidified his reputation as an insecure and unstable leader. He became known for his paranoia, which was not unjustified, considering he had survived at least seven assassination attempts. As a result he rarely appeared in public. He also slept only a few hours a night, at secret locations, and all of his food was carefully prepared and inspected by official food tasters.

Conflicts with Iran and Kuwait

Outside of Iraq, especially in the West, Saddam was seen as a dictator whose quest for dominance in the Middle East was viewed with particular concern. In 1980 Saddam proved that such fears were founded when he attacked Iran, an invasion that led to an eight-year bloody conflict. Relations between Iran and Iraq had been deteriorating for years, and came to a head in 1979 when the Ayatollah Khomeini (c. 19001989) overthrew the government of Iran during an Islamic uprising. Saddam worried that Khomeini would set his sites on spreading his radical religious rule to the secular (nonreligious) state of Iraq. Disputes over territorial boundaries led to skirmishes throughout late 1979 and into 1980, and on September 22, 1980, Iraqi forces crossed the Iranian border and officially declared war.

Over the next eight years, both countries suffered almost irreparable damage, and the healthy economy that Saddam had created during the 1970s was in ruins. Billions of dollars were borrowed from countries such as the United States, Kuwait, the U.S.S.R., and France, to support the war effort. The United States alone gave the Iraqi government nearly $40 billion in food supplies and arms. And both sides suffered a tremendous loss of human life. It is estimated that approximately 1.7 million people were killed during the conflict. In one battle on March 16, 1988, Iraqi troops attacked the Kurdish town of Halabja, using poison nerve gas. Nearly five thousand people died, most of whom were women and children. Various reports claimed that chemical weapons were used by both Iran and Iraq, but these tactics continued to raise the alarm that Saddam Hussein was a military threat who could not be trusted.

In 1989 the war ended in a stalemate, with no side claiming a real victory. Conflicts between Saddam and other nations, however, were just beginning. Faced with the prospect of rebuilding his country, Saddam tried to pressure the neighboring country of Kuwait to forgive the $30 billion loan he had been given. The reason he gave was that the war with Iran had effectively protected Kuwait from an Iranian invasion. Tensions were also sparked between the two countries over territorial boundaries that were especially important because they involved the control of oil reserves in the area. When negotiations failed, Saddam invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990.

The unprovoked attack was denounced by governments throughout the world, especially the United States. The administration of Ronald Reagan (19112004) in the 1980s may have seen Saddam as a potential ally, but after the invasion of Kuwait, President George H. W. Bush (1924) essentially severed all ties between the United States and Saddam Hussein. As a result, when the Iraqi leader refused to leave Kuwait, a combined force of U.S. and United Nations (UN) troops stepped in. Fighting lasted a mere six weeks, but after the Persian Gulf War came to an end, casualties topped over eighty-five thousand. Saddam was successfully evicted from Kuwait, but the tensions were not over. Bush ordered U.S. troops to protect Kuwaiti borders, and in his March of 1991 State of the Union address he told the American people, "We all realize that our responsibility to be the catalyst for peace in the region does not end with the successful conclusion of this war." He called Saddam a brutal dictator "who will do anything, will use any weapon, will commit any outrage, no matter how many innocents suffer."

The United States versus Iraq

In an effort to control Saddam, the cease-fire agreement drawn up between the United Nations and Iraq required the country to destroy all of its chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons. The agreement also stipulated that Saddam had to let UN inspectors oversee the efforts. If Iraq did not comply with the agreement, economic sanctions would be imposed, meaning that all trade with the country would be cut off. Throughout the 1990s the Iraqi leader reportedly concealed the manufacture of weapons from inspectors, and the sanctions continued. Cut off from the world, the people of Iraq suffered. Unemployment rose, agricultural production declined, and the majority of the population suffered from severe malnutrition and lack of medical care. There was increased unrest among the many factions in the country, which prompted Saddam to increase his tactics of repression.

When George W. Bush became president of the United States in 2001, one of his first acts upon taking office was an attempt to reinstate economic sanctions, which had been lifted by the United Nations in the late 1990s. World opinion opposed the effort as inhumane; the Iraqi people had suffered far too much. Anti-Saddam sentiment only escalated, however, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Although the attacks were never linked to Saddam Hussein, Bush insisted that terrorists armed with Iraqi weapons could at any time target the United States. In his State of the Union address in January of 2002, the U.S. president called Iraq part of an "axis of evil," and claimed that the country "continue[d] to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror."

Time and again Bush publicly accused Saddam of concealing weapons, and by 2002 he threatened to invade Iraq if UN inspectors were not allowed back into the country. Saddam countered that there were no weapons, and opened his doors. Although UN inspectors found nothing, Bush maintained that inspectors had simply not found the well-hidden weapons yet. By early 2003, war with Iraq was looming. In January of 2003 Bush gave Saddam an ultimatum: either totally disarm his country or voluntarily leave Iraq. If neither step was taken, the United States would attack.

In February of 2003, in an unprecedented move, Saddam Hussein appeared on television, having agreed to be interviewed by CBS newsman Dan Rather (1931). The interview was broadcast worldwide, even in Iraq, which meant that the Iraqi people were given a rare glimpse of their reclusive leader who was rarely seen in person. Saddam accused the Bush administration of being part of a "bandwagon of evil," and continued to insist that Iraq did not have concealed weapons and that it had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks. He also explained that he would not leave Iraq and that Iraqis would fight to protect their country if provoked. "We will die here in Iraq," he told Rather. "We will die in this country and we will maintain our honor."

The Saddam regime is toppled

Despite massive international opposition, hundreds of thousands of U.S. and British troops stormed Iraq on March 20, 2003. Several air strikes specifically aimed at assassinating Saddam Hussein were unsuccessful, and ground troops pushed through the country, heading toward Baghdad, the capital of Iraq. In early April, just three weeks after the invasion, the Saddam regime was toppled. When Baghdad fell, however, the Iraqi president was nowhere to be found. Saddam managed to elude capture throughout the remainder of the year. Reports of Saddam sightings popped up occasionally, but proved to be false. In addition, audiotapes by the ousted leader were released to Arab television networks. Whether they were truly from Saddam remained in question.

High-ranking members of the Iraqi government were caught one by one, but Saddam remained at the top of the most-wanted list. In July of 2003 his two sons and political heirs, Uday and Qusay, were killed by U.S. forces. It was thought that perhaps Saddam's capture would be imminent, but the elusive leader remained on the run for the next five months. Finally, on December 13, 2003, Saddam Hussein was located just nine miles outside of his hometown of Tikrit, hiding in an underground cavern known as a "spider hole." Disheveled and dirty, with a graying beard and matted hair, he surrendered without resisting. According to commander of U.S. forces Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, as quoted on, "He was a tired man. Also, I think, a man resigned to his fate."

The deposed leader was taken into custody by U.S. forces and held in Baghdad until June 30, 2004, when he was officially handed over to acting Iraqi government officials. On July 1 he faced his first legal hearing before an Iraqi Special Tribunal. During the twenty-six minute hearing he was charged with multiple crimes, including the 1988 attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja, the 1991 invasion of Kuwait, and the killings of political and religious leaders during his thirty years in command. Throughout the accusations Saddam remained defiant, claiming that the tribunal was a farce. He also maintained that he was still the true leader of Iraq. "I am Saddam Hussein al-Majid, the President of the Republic of Iraq," he announced, as quoted in England's Guardian. "I am still the president of the republic and the occupation cannot take that away."

Following the hearing Saddam remained in custody, where he reportedly spent time writing poetry, reading the Koran (the sacred writings of Islam), and tending to a small garden within the walls of his Baghdad prison. There were also reports that the sixty-seven-year-old former president was in poor health and that perhaps he had suffered a stroke. Such reports were denied by doctors. It seemed that Saddam would be well enough to face his accusers in a trial set to begin in January of 2005. Many speculated on the trial's outcome, but people in Iraq voiced their clear expectations. Shortly after U.S. forces turned Saddam Hussein over to Iraqi officials, the Iraqi government reinstated the death penalty, which had been temporarily suspended under U.S. occupation. Hamid al-Bayati, the deputy foreign minister of Iraq, was quoted in the Guardian as saying, "Everyone who lost loved ones to Saddam will want to see this."

For More Information


"Saddam Hussein." In Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1998.

Web Sites

McCallester, Matthew. "A Day in the Life of Saddam Hussein." Indian Express (July 27, 2004). (accessed on August 3, 2004).

McCarthy, Rory. "I am Saddam Hussein, the President of Iraq." Guardian (England) (July 2, 2004).,,1252291,00.html (accessed on August 3, 2004).

"President George H. W. Bush's Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union, January 29, 1991." CSPAN. (accessed on Augst 3, 2004).

"President George W. Bush's State of the Union Address to the Joint Session of Congress, January 29, 2002." CSPAN Web site. (accessed on August 3, 2003).

Rather, Dan. "Interview with Saddam Hussein." CBS News (February 24, 2003). (accessed on August 3, 2004).

"The Rise and Fall of a Dictator." World (December 14, 2003). (accessed on August 2, 2004).

"Saddam Caught Like a Rat in a Hole." World (December 15, 2003). (accessed on August 2, 2003).

Hussein, Saddam

views updated May 11 2018

Saddam Hussein

Born on April 28, 1937 (Al-Awja, Iraq)

President of Iraq

Long before Saddam Hussein came to the world's attention with his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, his determined resistance to United Nations' resolutions in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and his capture by U.S. troops in 2003, the Iraqi president was known throughout the Middle East as an especially cunning and ruthless dictator. Using a combination of careful planning, cruelty, and violence, Hussein rose through the ranks of Iraq's Baath Party. He became president in 1979 and held that role for twenty-four years, despite taking his country into a costly, unproductive war against neighboring Iran from 1980 to 1988, and into clashes with U.S.-led multinational forces in 1991 and again in 2003. Hussein's rule ended in 2003, when U.S. troops invaded Iraq and removed Hussein from power. In 2005, the former leader awaited trial in an Iraqi prison.

"God is on our side, and Satan is on the side of the United States."

Rose from difficult beginnings

Saddam Hussein was born on April 28, 1937. Many of the circumstances of Hussein's early life are unclear. For example, little is known about Hussein's father, Hussein Abdel Majid. A peasant sheepherder, he either died or abandoned his family before his son was born, and never played a role in Hussein's life. Since men draw status from the role of their fathers in Arab cultures, Hussein's lack of a father was a continuing source of shame for him. Hussein also claimed the nearby town of Tikrit, 100 miles north of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, as his birthplace, instead of the poverty-ridden village of al-Awja where he was born.

Hussein was raised by his mother, Subha, and a stepfather who treated him poorly, according to the major biographies of Hussein. They lived in a mud hut without electricity or running water, and his stepfather beat Hussein and forced him to steal to help the family. In 1947 Hussein went to live with his uncle, Khairallah Talfah, first in Tikrit and later in Baghdad. As a retired army officer, Khairallah had status in Iraqi society, and Hussein enjoyed the prestige that living with his uncle gave him. He also became friends with his cousin, Adnan, who would later become his minister of defense. Hussein attended school for the first time in Tikrit when he was about ten years old. Though the younger children at first teased him for his ignorance, Hussein later won them over.

Pan-Arabism and the Baath Party

Arab countries had long been frustrated with the power that Great Britain and France had in the Middle East, but that frustration came to a head in 1948 with the creation of the Jewish state of Israel, which the European powers supported. After that date, Arab leaders became organized and vocal supporters of Pan-Arab nationalism, the idea that Arab nations should join together to create one powerful Arab state. In Egypt, the region's leading power, Pan-Arabism was promoted by President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970; see entry). In Syria and Iraq, similar ideas were promoted by a new political party, the Baath Party, whose name means "rebirth" or "renaissance" in Arabic.

The Baath Party was founded in 1947 by two Syrians, Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar. Their ideas were based on socialism (a theory or system of social organization in which the major means of production and distribution are owned, managed, and controlled by the government, an association of workers, or the community as a whole) and sought freedom from foreign rule. The Baath Party, a small organization in Iraq during the 1950s and early 1960s, urged its followers to seek a single Arab nation, independent of European interference, as well as the destruction of the nation of Israel. They sought power through assassinations and intimidation, and slowly grew in size and strength. On July 17, 1968, the Baath Party took power in a coup (the sudden overthrow of a political leader), and remained in power in Iraq for the next thirty-five years. First under Ahmad Hassan al Bakr (1914–1982; reigned 1968–79), and then under Saddam Hussein, the Baathists established control over all areas of Iraqi life, systematically eliminating their political rivals, frequently by force.

One important fact to know about the Baath Party was that it promoted a secular, or non-religious, government. This put the Baathists in conflict with Islamic fundamentalists who wanted to see Islamic holy law, called Sharia, as the basis of government in Muslim nations. The ideology for a secular state conflicted with that of neighboring countries Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of which had made religion the center of the their political and legal systems.

When he finished his primary education at age eighteen, Hussein applied to the Baghdad Military Academy, hoping to become a soldier like his uncle. He failed the entrance examination, however, and forever after harbored a deep distrust of military men. By this time, however, Hussein had also found another passion: politics. His uncle was a fervent Arab nationalist, which meant that he believed all Arabs should unite to create one powerful Arab state, free from foreign rule. Hussein soon embraced this idea and became interested in the Baath Party, an emerging force in Middle Eastern politics.

Embraces Baath Party

In 1957 Saddam Hussein joined the Baath Party, and in 1959 he was one of several Baathists who tried to assassinate Iraqi ruler General Abdul Karim Qassem (1914–1963). When the attempt failed, Hussein and his co-conspirators fled to Cairo, Egypt.

For the next several years, Hussein lived in exile in Egypt, finishing high school there in 1961, when he was twenty-four years old. He then studied law at the University of Cairo. During that time he honed his political skills, making both friends and enemies in the process. In 1963, when the Baath Party in Iraq succeeded in overthrowing the Iraqi government, Hussein's powerful cousin, Ahmad Hassan al Bakr, gave him a position in the Baath regional command. That year Hussein also married his cousin, Sajida Khairallah Talfah. Over the years they would have five children: sons Uday and Qusay, and daughters Raghad, Rina, and Hala. Family ties and political loyalty provided Hussein with a web of connections that he would cleverly make use of over the coming years.

The Baath rise to national dominance was not easy. Just nine months after taking power, its rule was overthrown by the Iraqi military. Hussein and several others were thrown in prison and the party was declared illegal. While in prison, Hussein became determined to defy the military and build a security force of his own. He escaped from prison after two years, and when he emerged again in 1968 it was as the leader of a security force known for its brutality and willingness to use any means necessary to remove its political enemies. On July 17, 1968, the Baath Party and the military joined together to take control of the Iraqi government. Hussein's cousin Bakr was named president and Hussein served as his right-hand man. Hussein used his security forces to eliminate those in the military who endangered Bakr's rule, and in 1969 Hussein was named deputy chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, the Baath Party's ruling body. At the age of thirty-two, Hussein had become the second-most powerful man in Iraq.

For the next ten years, Hussein methodically eliminated his enemies within the Baath Party and the military, gaining a reputation as a ruthless leader who would do anything to maintain power, including the torture and murder of his political opponents. A special target of Hussein's brutality were Iraqi Jews. Many Jews were publicly hanged in 1969, and many more fled the country.

As president, Hussein goes to war

On July 17, 1979, Hussein became the president of Iraq. Some sources say that Bakr stepped aside, while others claim that Hussein pushed him aside. Shortly after taking office, he ordered the murder of an estimated five hundred military officers, Baath Party officials, and even some others who had been considered his friends. Over the course of his reign, such actions became commonplace. Hussein also used propaganda to cement his power. Propaganda is information spread to support a cause or leader. He placed statues and murals of himself throughout the country, and had songs and poems written about him. He created stories about his past to make it seem natural that he was Iraq's leader.

Despite his ruthless methods, during Hussein's rule Iraq became a prosperous, even progressive Arab country, with a more secure economy and greater rights for all of its citizens. The Iraqi government controlled oil production, and oil revenues paid for the construction of schools, roads, and hospitals, and for quality systems of education and medical care. In Iraq, unlike some Muslim countries, women were allowed to hold jobs, drive cars, and get an education. Women even served in Iraq's legislature, the National Assembly.

In 1980 Hussein led his country into a long and costly war with neighboring Iran. In 1979 Iran had been transformed by an Islamic revolution. The country embraced Islamic law under its new leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (c. 1900–1989; see entry). Khomeini took a number of steps that Hussein perceived as hostile. Khomeini was openly critical of Hussein. He called on Shiite Muslims within Iraq to lead a revolution there; he supported ethnic Kurds in northern Iraq who wished for independence; and he sent assassins on an unsuccessful mission to kill Iraq's deputy foreign minister. Hussein could not ignore these challenges.

Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq

The religion of Islam is split into two major branches: Shiites and Sunnis. (Similarly, Western Christianity is divided among Catholics and Protestants). Shiites and Sunnis disagree over who is the successor to the Prophet Muhammad, the main religious figure in the Islamic religion, but they often live in harmony in Muslim nations. In Iraq, however, Sunnis and Shiites have frequently clashed. Shiites are in the majority, making up about 60 percent of the population. Yet Sunnis have traditionally held most of the wealth and power in the nation, thanks in large part to the rule of Saddam Hussein. Though not very religious, Hussein himself comes from a Sunni family.

The differences between Sunnis and Shiites played a large role in the Iran-Iraq War and in the Gulf Wars. Iran is a predominately Shiite nation, and it encouraged Shiites within Iraq to support Iran during the war between the two countries. During the first Gulf War, the United States urged Shiites to rise up against Saddam, and when the United States withdrew its forces, Hussein brutally punished many Shiite communities. In early 2005, the Shiite community gained some political power in Iraq when it won close to 50 percent of the seats in the newly formed Iraqi National Assembly during the elections held after Saddam Hussein was removed from power. These election results increased the number of Sunni-led attacks against the Iraqi interim-government officials that had been occurring since Hussein's government was overthrown in 2003. A return to a lasting peace between these religious factions may consume much of Iraq's politics in the next few years.

The Iran-Iraq War lasted from 1980 to 1988 and was in many ways a disaster for Iraq. Iraq had many advantages in the war: it had a much more powerful army than Iran, and received weapons and supplies from the United States, the Soviet Union, and other Arab countries fearful of Islamic revolution. Iran, however, had a large and devoted population to draw on, and it sacrificed many soldiers in the war, doing much to balance the struggle. Hussein went so far as to use chemical weapons against Iranians and against Kurds within Iraq, and he threatened the use of nuclear weapons as well (this threat was removed in 1981 when Israel bombed Iraq's nuclear reactor). Finally, the stalemate between the two countries came to an end with a cease-fire proposed by the United Nations.

Wars in the Gulf

Iraq's economy was devastated by the long war with Iran. By 1990 Iraq owed more than $80 billion to other countries. Hussein tried to convince other Arab nations to give him money and to forgive Iraq's debts, arguing that he alone had been willing to stand up to Islamic fundamentalism. Though some Arab nations provided monetary assistance, the rich country of Kuwait, just to the south of Iraq, refused. In retaliation, Hussein claimed that Kuwait was stealing oil from Iraqi oilfields, and that Kuwait was actually a province of Iraq. On August 2, 1990, Iraq's still powerful military invaded Kuwait. Hussein proclaimed that he was freeing Kuwait from the oppressive rule of the al-Sabah family. But world opinion soon turned against him.

Around the world, politicians denounced Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. U.S. president George H. W. Bush (1924–; served 1989–1993) led a call for Hussein to remove his troops. Hussein did not believe the United States was willing to go to war over Kuwait. He dared the United States to attack, promising them the "mother of all battles." To Hussein's surprise, Bush led a coalition of nations against Iraq. Though many expected a long and bloody conflict, the war with Iraq, called the Persian Gulf War, ended very quickly. Coalition air strikes paralyzed the Iraqi air force, and ground forces quickly subdued the once-feared Iraqi army. By February 27, 1991, after just a few days of fighting, Iraq submitted to the demands of the coalition, and the war was over.

As part of the agreement to end the war, Hussein agreed to allow United Nations' weapons inspectors to enter the country to be sure that Iraq had destroyed all of its biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, and to ensure that Iraq was no longer a threat to its neighbors. For nearly ten years Hussein played a cat-and-mouse game with inspectors, alternately allowing and impeding their inspections, and accusing the United States of wanting to dominate the Middle East. Sanctions or penalties imposed by the United Nations made it difficult for Iraq to provide enough food or medical care for its people, and in the eyes of many world observers, Hussein was leading his country into more trouble.

During the 1990s U.S. and British forces conducted air strikes in Iraq in response to Hussein's actions, but did little else to encourage his compliance with the agreement that ended the first Gulf War. But relations between the United States and Iraq changed dramatically in the 2000s for two reasons: the election of George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–) to the presidency in the United States, and the terrorist bombings of September 11, 2001. George W. Bush wanted the United Nations to increase pressure on Hussein to allow weapons inspections. He insisted that Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction. Following the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration stepped up pressure on Iraq, accusing it of supporting terrorism. By September 2002, Bush urged the United Nations to take action against Iraq for resisting weapons inspections. The United Nations, however, felt that even though Hussein had hindered investigations in the past, he was finally allowing United Nations weapons inspectors to do their jobs. Soon after, information (that was later proved to be flawed) was gathered that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and intended to use them against the United States. On the basis of this information Bush ordered an attack on Iraq. His stated goal was "regime change," the removal of Saddam Hussein from power.

Hussein, however, did not back down in the face of the growing threat. He went on television and denied that he had weapons of mass destruction. He also refused to step down from power, as Bush demanded. U.S. forces—this time operating with far less support from the international community—launched a ferocious attack on Iraq, beginning on March 20, 2003, and within a few weeks American and British soldiers had captured the capital city of Baghdad. Both of Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusay, were killed in raids, but Saddam Hussein himself disappeared from view. On May 1, 2003, when President Bush declared the end to major combat operations in Iraq, many believed that the dictator had been killed.

Across Iraq, many people celebrated the removal of Hussein from power. Especially among Shiite and Kurdish communities, long the victims of Hussein's violence, the relief was profound. Soon, however, rumors circulated that Hussein was alive and helping to organize the insurgency, or armed uprising, that continued to challenge the Americans and their allies. Those rumors were quelled on December 13, 2003, when, after a long manhunt, Hussein was found hiding in an eight-foot-deep "spider hole" on the outskirts of his hometown of Tikrit.

Hussein was held by U.S. forces for several months before being turned over to Iraqi officials on June 20, 2004. Iraqi officials charged him with a number of crimes, including attacks on Kurdish civilians, the illegal invasion of Kuwait, and numerous murders. Hussein's response was defiant: he claimed that he was "still the president of the republic and the occupation cannot take that away." As of early 2005, Hussein remained in Iraqi custody in Baghdad, where the world awaits his trial. Few details about Hussein's captivity have emerged, though he is reportedly spending his time writing poetry, reading the Koran, and gardening.

For More Information


Aburish, Said K. Saddam Hussein: The Politics of Revenge. New York: Bloomsbury, 2000.

Claypool, Jane. Saddam Hussein. Vero Beach, FL: Rourke Publications, 1993.

Coughlin, Con. Saddam: King of Terror. New York: Ecco, 2002.

Henderson, Simon. Instant Empire: Saddam Hussein's Ambition for Iraq. San Francisco: Mercury, 1991.

Karsh, Efraim, and Inari Rautsi. Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography. New York: Free Press, 1991.

Marr, Phebe. The Modern History of Iraq. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2003.

Miller, Judith, and Laurie Mylroie. Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf. New York: Times Books, 1990.

Moore, Robin. Hunting Down Saddam: The Inside Story of the Search and Capture. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2004.

Munthe, Turi, ed. The Saddam Hussein Reader. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2002.

Stefoff, Rebecca. Saddam Hussein. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1995.


Gibbs, Nancy. "Ladies and Gentlemen, We Got Him." Time (December 22, 2003).

McGeary, Johanna. "Inside Saddam's Head." Time (March 31, 2003).

Web Sites

Butt, Gerald. "Saddam Hussein Profile." BBC News. (accessed on January 13, 2005).

"The Saddam Hussein Sourcebook." National Security Archive. (accessed on January 13, 2005).

Hussein, Saddam

views updated Jun 27 2018

Saddam Hussein

Born: April 28, 1937
Tikrit, Iraq

Iraqi president

Saddam Hussein, the socialist president of the Iraqi Republic beginning in 1979, is known for his political sharpness and ability to survive conflicts. He led Iraq in its long, indecisive war with Iran beginning in 1980. He was defeated in the six-week Persian Gulf War in 1990 at the hands of the United States after his invasion of Kuwait.

Early life

Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti was born in 1937 to a peasant family in a village near Tikrit, Iraq. His father died before his birth and his mother died in childbirth. He was raised by his uncles, particularly Khairallah Talfah, a retired army officer who served as a role model for Hussein. (In 1963 Saddam married Talfah's daughter Sajida.) In 1956 he moved into his uncle's house in Baghdad, where he became involved in the strong Arab nationalist movement sweeping Iraq in the wake of the Suez war that year. In 1957 he joined the Arab Ba'th Socialist Party, founded in Syria in 1947 and dedicated to Arab unity and socialism (a social system where goods and services are distributed by the government). From 1957 on Saddam's life and career were tied to the Ba'th Party.

In 1959 Saddam Hussein was one of the party members who attempted to carry out the unsuccessful assassination of the Iraqi dictator, Major General Abdul Karim Qasim (19141963). Although wounded, he was able to escape to Syria and then Egypt, where he remained until 1963. In Egypt he continued his political activities, closely observing the tactics, movements, and politics of Gamal Abdel Nasser (19181970).

In February 1963 a group of Nasserite and Ba'thist officers in Iraq brought down the government of Qasim, and Hussein returned to his country. However, this Ba'th party did not remain in power for long. In 1966 Hussein became a member of the Iraqi branch's regional command and played a major role in reorganizing the Ba'th Party in preparation for a second attempt at power. It was in this period that Hussein acquired his reputation as a tough and daring member of the Ba'th Party.

The dual rule: al-Bakr and Hussein

In July 1968, after two attempts to overthrow the government, the Ba'th came back to power in Iraq, temporarily governing through the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC). Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr was elected president of the republic by the RCC and Hussein was elected vice president of the RCC in 1969. Between 1969 and 1979 Iraq was ruled outwardly by al-Bakr and behind the scenes by Hussein, who was a good manipulator and survivor.

In domestic affairs the Ba'th regime applied its socialist policy by bringing almost all economic activity under the control of the government. In 1972 Iraq nationalized (brought under government control) the foreign-owned oil company IBC, the first Middle Eastern government to do so. Hussein oversaw the rapid economic and social development of Iraq which followed the oil price increases of the 1970s. The country began to prosper, especially schools and medical facilities. A major campaign to wipe out illiteracy (the inability to write or read) was started in 1978 requiring children to attend schools. Women's social status was also greatly improved.

In international affairs, Iraq improved relations with the Soviet Union, a former country made up of Russia and other smaller states that are now nations, and signed a treaty of alliance in 1972. At the same time Iraq distanced itself from the West, except for France. Iraq took a hard line on Israel and attempted to isolate Egypt after Anwar Sadat (19181981) signed the Camp David agreements with Israel's prime minister, Menachem Begin (19131992).

Saddam Hussein as president

On July 16, 1979, al-Bakr resigned and Hussein was elected president of the Iraqi Republic. One of the first things he ordered were posters of himself scattered throughout Iraq, some as tall as twenty feet, depicting himself in various roles: a military man, a desert horseman, a young graduate. He carefully created an image of himself as a devoted family man, all in order to win the trust and love of the Iraqi people. He held the titles of secretary general of the Ba'th party and commander in chief of the armed forces.

Throughout 1979 and 1980 relations with Iran had fallen apart, as Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini (19021989) called on Iraq's Shi'ites, a large branch of Islam, to revolt against Hussein and the Ba'thist regime. Secret pro-Iranian organizations committed acts of destruction in Iraq, while Iranians began shelling Iraqi border towns in 1980. In September 1980 the Iraqi army crossed the Iranian border and seized Iranian territory thus beginning a long, costly, and bitter war that continued into the late 1980s.

With the continuation of the war, Hussein adopted a more practical stance in international affairs. Relations with conservative countries such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt improved since they provided Iraq with either financial or military aid. Relations with the United States, cut in 1967 in protest against U.S. support for Israel in the Arab-Israeli conflict, known as the Six-Day War (June 1967), were restored in November 1984. However, Iraq did not change its friendly relations with the Soviet Union which, together with France, was the main source of its arms.

Tightening his grip

Saddam Hussein is a man with the reputation for ruthless crushing of his opposition. When he assumed power, he rid his party of officials and military officers due to an alleged Syrian plot to overthrow his government. He executed another three hundred officers in 1982 for rebelling against his tactics in the war with Iran. In order to protect himself, Saddam surrounded himself with family and friends in positions of trust and responsibility in the government. After a family dispute, his brother-in-law "mysteriously" died in a helicopter accident. He ordered the murders of his sons-in-law after they fled to Jordan in 1996. His image of a devoted family man was shattered with these acts. On at least seven occasions unsuccessful assassination attempts were made against Hussein.

In 1990 Hussein brought the wrath and combined power of the West and the Arab world down upon Iraq by his invasion of Kuwait. The Persian Gulf War, which Iraq fought against U.S. military forces, lasted for six weeks and caused Iraq's leader worldwide criticism. However, there are still a great many supporters of Hussein scattered throughout the world.

Since the Persian Gulf War, the United Nations (UN; a multinational body aimed at world peace) lowered many sanctions (laws) upon Iraq, including letting UN weapons inspectors into certain areas of Iraq to check for illegal possession of chemical warfare items. Despite the pressure by the UN (and Saddam's reluctant acceptance of the sanctions), he has maintained absolute power over his country. In 1997 citizens of Baghdad feared to criticize Hussein, and rumors circulated that he had put his wife under house arrest after his son Uday was shot.

In autumn 1997 Hussein accused UN inspectors of being spies and forced them to leave the country. The situation improved in early 1998, but then after Iraq once again refused to let the inspectors do their jobs, the United States and Great Britain began four days of air strikes against the country. Hussein then stated that Iraq would no longer cooperate with UN inspectors. The air strikes continued throughout 1999 because Iraq continued to fire on planes that were patrolling no-fly zones that had been put in place by the UN.

In September 2001, after terrorist attacks on the United States, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of people in America, Hussein stated that he refused to offer his sympathy to U.S. president George W. Bush (1946) because he did not agree with U.S. policy toward Iraq. Early in 2002 Hussein made an offer to openly discuss the sanctions with the UN. He later claimed that Iraq was no longer producing weapons that were made for the purpose of mass destruction. Many people believed that Hussein's comments were made in an effort to gain support from countries as President Bush indicated that Iraq could become one of the enemies in the U.S.-led war against terrorism.

Saddam Hussein remains a powerful strongman, in spite of an ongoing embargo (stoppage of trade) of his country's oil, goods, and services.

For More Information

Aburish, Saïd K. Saddam Hussein: The Politics of Revenge. New York: Bloomsbury, 2000.

Karsh, Efraim, and Inari Rautsi. Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography. New York: Free Press, 1991.

Munthe, Turi, ed. The Saddam Hussein Reader. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2002.

Shields, Charles J. Saddam Hussein. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2002.

Saddam Hussein

views updated Jun 27 2018

Saddam Hussein

Saddam Hussein (born 1937), the socialist president of the Iraqi Republic beginning in 1979 and strongman of the ruling Ba'th regime beginning in 1968, was known for his political shrewdness and ability to survive conflicts. He led Iraq in its long, indecisive war with Iran beginning in 1980. He was defeated in the six week Persian Gulf War in 1990 which was a result of his invasion of Kuwait.

Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti was born in 1937 to a peasant family in a village near Tikrit, a town on the Tigris River north of Baghdad. His father died before his birth and his mother died in childbirth. He was raised by his uncles, particularly his maternal uncle Khairallah Talfah, a retired army officer and an avid Arab nationalist who influenced his political leanings and served as a role model for Hussein. (In 1963 Saddam married Talfah's daughter Sajida.) In 1956 he moved to his uncle's house in Baghdad, where he was caught up in the strong Arab nationalist sentiments sweeping Iraq in the wake of the Suez war that year. In 1957 he joined the Arab Ba'th Socialist Party, founded in Syria in 1947 and dedicated to Arab unity and socialism. The party spread to neighboring Arab countries in the 1950s (including Iraq where it was an underground party) and was especially popular with students. From 1957 on Saddam's life and career were inextricably bound up with the Ba'th Party.

In 1959 Saddam Hussein was one of the party members who attempted to carry out the unsuccessful assassination of the Iraqi dictator, Major General Abdul Karim Qasim (Kassem). Although wounded, he was subsequently able to stage a daring escape to Syria and then Egypt, where he remained in exile until 1963. In Egypt he continued his political activities, closely observing the tactics and movements of Gamal Abdel Nasser and his politics.

In February 1963 a group of Nasserite and Ba'thist officers in Iraq brought down the government of Qasim, and Saddam returned to his country. However, this Ba'thist government did not survive in power past November of the same year, and Saddam was once again forced underground. Between 1963 and 1968 he was involved in clandestine party activities and was captured and jailed, although he later escaped. In 1966 he became a member of the Iraqi branch's regional command and played a major role in reorganizing the Ba'th Party in preparation for a second attempt at power. It was during this period that he formed a close alliance with Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr—a retired officer, a distant relative, and a leading spokesman of the party. It was in this period, too, that Saddam acquired his reputation as a tough, daring Ba'th Party partisan.

The Dual Rule: Bakr and Hussein

In July 1968, after two coups d'etat in short succession—in both of which Saddam played a key role—the Ba'th came back to power in Iraq, temporarily governing through the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC). Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr was elected president of the republic by the RCC and Saddam was elected vice president of the RCC in 1969. Between 1969 and 1979 Iraq was ruled outwardly by al-Bakr and behind the scenes by Saddam. Saddam who proved to be a shrewd manipulator and survivor. No major decisions in this decade were taken without his consent.

In domestic affairs the Ba'th regime implemented its socialist policy by bringing virtually all economic activity under the control of the government. In 1972 Iraq nationalized the foreign-owned oil company IBC, the first Middle Eastern government to do so. Minorities were given cultural rights, generally modeled on the Yugoslav experiment in this field, and the Kurdish area of northern Iraq was given some self-rule in 1974.

Saddam Hussein also oversaw the rapid economic and social development of Iraq which followed the oil price increases of the 1970s. The country received major infusions to the infrastructure, especially schools and medical facilities. A major campaign to wipe out illiteracy was started in 1978 and compulsory schooling was effectively implemented. The status of women was substantially improved through legislation. Petrochemical and iron and steel industries were built.

In international affairs, Iraq improved relations with the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc, signing a treaty of friendship with the U.S.S.R. in 1972; at the same time Iraq distanced itself from the West, except for France. Iraq took a hard line on Israel and attempted to isolate Egypt after Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David agreements with Israel's Menachem Begin.

Between 1974 and 1975 Saddam was involved in a major Kurdish insurrection in northern Iraq; the Kurds were seeking more autonomy and were receiving support from the Shah of Iran. In an effort to bring the conflict to a close, in March 1975 Saddam signed an agreement with Iran, arranged by Algeria, which ended Iranian support for the Kurds in return for rectification of the border with Iran.

Saddam Hussein as President

Iraq was the country most affected by the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. Iraq needed more energetic leadership than that provided by the aging and ailing President Bakr. On July 16, 1979, al-Bakr resigned and Saddam was elected president of the Iraqi Republic. One of the first things he ordered were posters of himself scattered throughout Iraq, some as tall as 20 feet, depicting himself in various roles: a military man, a desert horseman, a young graduate. He carefully concocted an image of himself as a devoted family man. All in order to win the trust and love of the Iraqi people. He held the titles of Secretary General of the Ba'th party and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.

Throughout 1979 and 1980 relations with Iran had deteriorated, as Ayatollah Khomeini called on Iraq's Shi'ites to revolt against Saddam and the secular Ba'thist regime. (Iraq is about equally divided between members of the Shi'ite and Sunni branches of Islam.) Secret pro-Iranian organizations committed acts of sabotage in Iraq, while Iranians began shelling Iraqi border towns in 1980. In September 1980 the Iraqi army crossed the Iranian border and seized Iranian territory (subsequently evacuated in the course of the war), thus initiating a long, costly, and bitter war, which continued into the late 1980s.

With the continuation of the war, Saddam adopted a more pragmatic stance in international affairs. Relations with conservative countries such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt improved since they provided Iraq with either financial or military aid. Diplomatic relations with the United States, cut in 1967 in protest against U.S. support for Israel in the Six-Day War, were restored in November 1984. However, Iraq did not change its friendly relations with the U.S.S.R. which, together with France, was the main source of its arms. In 1987 the United Nations formally called for a cease-fire, but the fighting continued.

Saddam Hussein was a man with the reputation for ruthless suppression of opposition. When he assumed power, he purged his party of officials and military officers due to an alleged Syrian plot to overthrow his government. He executed another 300 officers in 1982 for rebelling against his tactics in the war with Iran. In order to protect himself, Saddam surrounded himself with a coterie of family and friends in positions of trust and responsibility in the government. This however did not ensure that these individuals were safe from his rages. After Saddam had a much publicized affair with another woman, his brother-in-law, first cousin and childhood companion, and Minster of Defense Adnan Talfah was killed in a "mysterious" helicopter crash for standing by his sister (Saddam's wronged wife). He ordered the murders of his sons-in-law after they defected to Jordan in 1996. His image of a devoted family man was shattered with these acts.

On several occasions (1969, 1973, 1979, and 1981) the regime uncovered plots against it, and at least seven unsuccessful assassination attempts were made against Saddam. The main opposition came from the Kurds, the Communists, pro-Khomeini Shi'ites, and, on occasion, elements within the Ba'th Party itself.

In 1990, Saddam Hussein brought the wrath and combined power of the West and the Arab world down upon Iraq by his unprovoked invasion of Kuwait. The Persian Gulf War lasted for six weeks and caused Iraq's leader worldwide condemnation. However, there are still a great many proponents of Saddam scattered throughout the world. They see him as "someone who is shaking an unacceptable status quo." Despite the sanctions imposed upon Iraq in the years subsequent to the war, Saddam maintained absolute power over his country. In 1997, citizens of Baghdad feared to overtly criticize Saddam and rumors abounded that he had put his wife under house arrest after his son Uday was shot. Whatever the case, Saddam Hussein remained a powerful strongman, in spite of an ongoing embargo of his country's oil, goods and services.

Further Reading

Majid Khadduri, Socialist Iraq, A Study in Iraqi Politics Since 1968 (1978); Phebe Marr, The Modern History of Iraq (1985); Christine Helms, Iraq, Eastern Flank of the Arab World (1984); and Fuad Matar, Saddam Hussein, the Man, the Cause and the Future (London, 1981) provide information on Saddam's role in the leadership of Iraq. Stefoff's Saddam Hussein: Absolute Ruler of Iraq provides valuable insight into the operation of Iraq since the Persian Gulf War. Bob Simon's Forty Days is an excellent memoir of the war. □

Hussein, Saddam

views updated Jun 08 2018

Hussein, Saddam (1937–2006), Iraqi dictator. Born on 28 April 1937 in Tikrit, Hussein became the vice president of Iraq following the seizure of power by the Ba'ath national‐socialist party in a military coup in July 1968. After a decade of ruthless elimination of civilian officials and military officers, he forced out his predecessor and benefactor, Gen. Ahmad Hasan al‐, became president in July 1979, killed most of his opponents, and established himself as dictator. Using Iraq's growing oil wealth to support development, grandiose public works, and massive arms purchases, Saddam invaded Iran, whose militant Islamic regime he considered a threat. After the death of one million Iranians and Iraqis, the Iran-Iraq war ended in a stalemate in August 1988. Hussein's forces then killed tens of thousands of Iraq's Kurdish minority, which had rebelled or supported Iran during the war.

With Iraq nearly bankrupt, despite loans of $80 billion (nearly half from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait), Hussein sought to bully Kuwait into bailing him out. Then, on 2 August 1990, he invaded and conquered the emirate. Hussein was accustomed to taking calculated risks, but he had overreached and found confronted by almost unified opposition from the West and the rest of the Arab world. In January–February 1991, a US-led Coalition army liberated Kuwait in the Persian Gulf War.

Since the international coalition did not attempt to topple Saddam and even refrained from supporting Iraqi uprisings, his regime continued, brutally suppressing Kurds and Shiites. Although Saddam survived attempted coups in 1992 and 1993, and a major defection in 1995, UN sanctions hurt Iraq and prevented its resurgence as a major military threat in the Gulf.

Yet the UN failed to compel Saddam to comply with a string of special resolutions obliging Iraq to destroy, unconditionally and under international supervision, all its nuclear, chemical and biological stockpiles and research facilities. During the 1990s, Saddam repeatedly challenged the Security Council over the implementation of these resolutions, never giving an inch strategically but always leaving enough wriggle room for last-minute tactical concessions when confronted with the threat of force.

Things came to a head after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Though the US administration refrained from linking Saddam directly to the atrocity, it nevertheless made the Iraqi leader, who applauded the attacks as a heroic act, a central target of President Bush's “war on terrorism.” In November 2002 the UN passed Resolution 1441, which charged Iraq of violating preceding Security Council resolutions regarding non-conventional disarmament and warned that Iraq “will face serious consequences as a result of its continued violation of its obligations.” As Saddam remained unimpressed, in March‐April 2003 a lightning attack by a US-led international coalition crushed the Iraqi army and toppled the Ba'ath regime. Saddam himself managed to escape and to remain in hiding for some time, but was eventually captured and put in prison pending a war crimes trial by the first democratically elected government in Iraq's history. He was found guilty by an Iraqi Court of crimes against humanity in November 2006 and was executed on 30 December 2006.
[See also Bush, George; Middle East, U.S. Military Involvement in the; United Nations.]


Efraim Karsh and and Inari Rautsi , Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography, 2003.
Samir al‐Khalil , Republic of Fear, 1991.
Anthony H. Cordesman , Iran and Iraq: The Threat from the Northern Gulf, 1994.

Efraim Karsh

Hussein, Saddam

views updated May 21 2018

Hussein, Saddam (1937) Iraqi statesman, president of Iraq (1979–2003 ). In 1959, he was forced into exile for his part in an attempt to assassinate the Iraqi prime minister. In 1963 Saddam returned home, and he was imprisoned in 1964. After his release, he played a prominent role in the 1968 coup led by the Ba'ath Party. A Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) replaced the civilian government. In 1979, Saddam became chairman of the RCC. His invasion of Iran marked the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88). At home, Saddam ruthlessly suppressed all internal opposition. His 1990 invasion of Kuwait provoked worldwide condemnation. In the Gulf War (1991) a multinational force expelled the Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Further uprisings by Kurds and Iraqi Shi'ites were ruthlessly suppressed and Saddam survived punitive economic sanctions. In April 2003, Saddam was deposed by US and British troops and disappeared into hiding. In December 2003, he was captured by US forces and placed under arrest.