Sic Semper Tyrannis
Obituary - Saddam Hussein
December 30, 2006
April 28, 1937 - December 30, 2006
Former Iraqi dictator who ruled his country without mercy and struck fear into the heart of millions
Saddam Hussein was a tyrant whose actions brought down unimaginable catastrophe on Iraq and its peoples. From an early age, he had enjoyed inflicted suffering on those around him and, when he came to positions of political power, those whom he could not force or corrupt into submitting to his will, he maimed, murdered or made to flee.
He started two major international wars - one against Iran, the second as a result of aggression against Kuwait - which cost an estimated one million lives. He instituted genocidal campaigns against the Kurds in the north of Iraq and the Marsh Arabs in the south. Ruling through the Sunni minority of which he was a member, he ignored the claims of the country's majority Shia population.
The third war in the region - which brought him and his regime down - was not directly begun by him, but by apparent American - and British - fears of a perceived threat his arsenal of weapons posed to international security. This time Saddam misjudged the event - and certainly the American mood.
Having been let off the hook after his defeat over his Kuwait adventure, he clearly felt that the international community did not have the stomach for a fight. He may have been right in that. But a new American President, George W Bush, determined to find a scapegoat for the Muslim terrorist attacks on the US in September 2001, was in no mood to abide by the niceties of international law. In the determination of President Bush and his cabinet of advisers, Saddam at length met his match, though the internecine aftermath of the campaign that overthrew him gave his conquerors little enough satisfaction.
Saddam appeared to have psychopathic tendencies which, combined with the exacerbating circumstances of his absolute power, resulted in the killing of more fellow Muslims, possibly, than Genghis Khan and Tamberlaine had caused between them in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Yet, until he invaded the oil-rich state of Kuwait, he enjoyed the collaboration of many governments abroad - including those in the West - who had given him backing in his unprovoked assault on Iran.
His invasion of the important Kuwait oilfields in 1990, however, resulted in the formation of an international military coalition against him, which was given sanction by United Nations resolutions. US-led, it inflicted a severe defeat on his forces and administered a check to his territorial ambitions - though it made him a hero to many Muslim militants and Arab nationalists. Even with defeat staring him in the face he continued to proclaim victory to his people.
And after his expulsion from Kuwait and the massive casualties inflicted on his army, Saddam continued defiant, thwarting the efforts of UN inspectors to check on his weapons stocks and refusing to let himself be cowed by the overflying of his country by armed British and American aircraft. Meanwhile he continued with projects to develop new weapons to threaten territories outside his borders, apparently secure in his power, in spite of the sufferings of his people, which were in such painful contrast to the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by himself and his family.
A fervent admirer of Hitler on account of the latter's boldness and hatred of Jews, he told his official biographer in 1980 that he wanted Iraqis to think of Nebuchadnezzar every day. "We could march into Palestine and bring all those Jews here in Babylon with their hands tied behind their backs once more", he said.
Saddam bin Hussein was born an orphan in the small village of Auja near the town of Tikrit some 100 miles north of Baghdad when Iraq was still a young state under King Ghazi and his British advisers. His was the traditional childhood of the poor peasantry, struggling to subsist in a hot, dusty, disease-ridden land.
In addition, as a hyperactive child who seemed constantly to provoke fights with other children, he endured ill treatment at the hands of a violent stepfather, a man known as Hassan the Liar. His circumstances were somewhat softened, however, by the interventions of his maternal uncle, Khairallah Tulfah, known as Khairallah the Thief, who would one day be rewarded by his nephew with the governorship of the capital and become known as the Thief of Baghdad.
Saddam's schooling began at the age of seven in Tikrit. Such was the lawless environment around him that, on his first day at school, he carried a steel bar in his hand and a loaded revolver in his pocket, the latter bought for him by his relatives. A year later, his uncle, who had fought on the side of a pro-Nazi coup in 1941 and who had started a bus service in Tikrit, took him to Baghdad for the rest of his primary and secondary education, and Saddam acquired a surname, Tikriti.
In 1958, after the overthrow of the monarchy, he was briefly imprisoned for the murder of a teacher, his uncle's Communist opponent in parliamentary elections in Tikrit, and began to develop a reputation as an assassin. For this reason, the leaders of the Socialist Arab Renaissance (Baath) Party, apparently in collusion with Egypt's Colonel Nasser, chose him to lead an attempt on the life of the country's military dictator, General Abdul-Karim Qasim.
Yet, the five-man gang bungled the ambush, even though Qasim travelled with hardly any protection, and Saddam fled to Syria, nursing a wounded leg, which was probably caused by a comrade's bullet. In Syria he stayed for six months before going on to Cairo "to study law", but in fact to work for Egyptian intelligence - and to marry his cousin Sajidah, Khairallah's daughter.
Saddam returned to Iraq after the overthrow of Qasim in a military-Baathist coup less than three years later, in February 1963, and was immediately engaged in plots against the Baathists' partners in the new regime. He also enrolled at Baghdad university's law faculty and turned up for final examinations in military uniform and carrying a pistol. He was promptly granted a degree.
During the next four years, after the military had thrown the Baathists out of the government in November 1963, Saddam was engaged in racketeering and in accumulating secret caches of arms for his Party's street fights with opponents. He rose quickly through the party by intimidating or eliminating his rivals. He also planned for the eventually successful recapture of power in July 1968, immediately upon which, he and his groups of street fighters shot or stabbed to death over a thousand shopkeepers belonging to a rival union.
In the following months, he became deputy chairman of the Command Council of the Revolution under the nominal leadership of his kinsman, president Colonel Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr. He took charge of internal security and became the chief-interrogator, effective strongman of the regime. A year later he was vice-president.
One early decision of the new government was to arrange a truce with Kurdish autonomists in Kurdistan and to align the country with the Soviet Union in order to improve the Iraqi army's equipment supply position. Another radical measure was a decree forbidding the use of surnames by citizens. Thus Saddam Tikriti, as he had until then been known, reverted to the traditional Saddam Hussein, meaning Saddam the son of Hussein.
The generally accepted explanation for the new law was that Saddam wanted to hide how many members of the Cabinet were his relatives from Tikrit. Yet another radical departure was the nationalisation of the British-owned Iraqi Petroleum Company, which had managed the northern Kirkuk oil fields. The act gave the government widespread powers in the oilfields to sack Kurdish workers and begin the ethnic cleansing of the province.
In 1972 Saddam, who had executed many leaders of the pro-Soviet Communist party, brought the remainder of the emasculated movement into the government and also gave four ministries to the Kurds, with a charter that gave most of Iraqi Kurdistan a measure of self rule. But the non-Baathist ministers had little executive power and Baghdad continued to interfere in the affairs of the Kurds, arresting unfriendly citizens wherever its troops had the power to do so.
An incident from this period of "peace" with the Kurds that typified Saddam Hussein's methods occurred when a group of Muslim clerics were urged by the government to visit the Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani in his mountain stronghold "to build goodwill between Arabs and Kurds". The secret police persuaded the clerics to conceal small cassette recorders under their robes and switch them on as soon as Barzani spoke. The devices exploded, killing the clerics and a Kurdish soldier serving them tea.
The government, as usual, denied responsibility, but by early 1974 it was clear that the two sides could not coexist. By then the Iraqi army had acquired large numbers of modern weapons and was being trained by thousands of Soviet military advisers, while the Kurds were given some military aid by Iran and the United States. Thus began the first military aggression of Saddam's career. It lasted a year and appeared to be a stalemate when, in March 1975 in Algiers for a meeting of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, Saddam struck a deal with the Shah: Iraq would share navigational rights in the Shatt al Arab waterway at the head of the Persian Gulf with Iran and promise to reduce its alignment with the Soviet Union, while Iran would immediately cut off all aid to the Kurds and close its border to them. The Kurdish movement in Iraq collapsed and an estimated 300,000 Kurds were deported to desert camps in the south. Many vanished.
Elsewhere in Iraq, the Government began a programme of rapid industrialisation, particularly in the manufacture of arms, and based mainly in the Sunni strongholds of Baathism in central Iraq. These were the years of escalating oil prices and the surplus of the Government's new revenues was spent on more arms and on raising living standards, especially among the minority Sunni Arabs from among whom the Baath party arose.
In the Arab world at large the net effect of the Baathist seizure of power was beginning to become clear: while the Baathists had denounced Qasim for his refusal to unite Iraq with Egypt, they now revealed themselves as even more narrowly jealous of Iraq's sovereignty than Qasim had been. Their forces along the Jordanian border with Israel refused to help the Palestinians in their war with King Hussein in 1970, and they became fiercely hostile to Syria, ruled by another wing of the Baath party.
Saddam became president in July 1979, after he forced the retirement of Hassan al-Bakr, and he immediately executed 22 high-ranking members of the party as punishment for opposing his elevation. He also began to plan the invasion of Iran, then in the throes of revolutionary chaos under Ayatollah Khomeini, whom, ironically, Saddam had sheltered for years prior to expelling him in the previous year to please the Shah.
Motivated by the prospect of humiliating "the ancient Persian enemy" and increasing his chances of becoming the overall leader of the Arab world, Saddam declared the agreement he had signed with the Shah in 1975 invalid, saying that he had signed it when Iraq was militarily weak. On September 22, 1980, Iraqi tanks rolled into Iran and attempted to cut the southern oil fields of Khuzistan from the rest of the country. It proved to be a costly mistake. The initial advance by Iraq came to a halt in weeks and the tide turned in favour of the Iranians to such an extent that, by the spring of 1982, the Iraqis were close to being completely expelled from the territory they had gained.
Saddam now announced a "unilateral withdrawal from Iranian territory", only to have his offer rejected by Khomeini, who continued to inspire lightly-armed young supporters seeking martyrdom for Islam to throw themselves at sophisticated Iraqi defences.
Over the next six years, small districts of southern and central Iraq were occupied by Iran, with the city of Basra, Iraq's second largest, coming close to falling several times. Saddam made heavy use of chemical weapons, clearly violating the Geneva Protocols, without any international retribution, and he resorted to the indiscriminate bombing of civilian quarters in Iranian cities, including Tehran. He also bombed Iran's oil terminals in the Gulf and used French-supplied missiles to strike at oil tankers.
The Iranians, who had closed the Gulf to Iraqi shipping from the outset of the war, retaliated by attacking all commercial vessels bound for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the financial mainstays of Iraq. This brought in the United States, which itself covertly supported Iraq. It re-flagged oil tankers bound for Arab ports and confronted the Iranian navy. Britain and other Western states sent mine countermeasures ships to the Gulf. Iran's stout resistance made the war one of the longest major conflicts this century. Some 50 small towns and thousands of villages along the border between the two countries were destroyed.
The end came in the summer of 1988, after Iraq's enhanced chemical weapons had begun to be more effective. The Fao Peninsula and the oil-rich Majnoon islands were recaptured and Iran itself became vulnerable. Ayatollah Khomeini announced that he would accept Resolution 598 of the Security Council, which was "worse than drinking from a poisoned chalice". A cease-fire came into effect in August, with the question of reparations left in the air.
Before the onset of the war, Iraq's estimated three million Kurds in the northern highlands had started another uprising in the pursuit of cultural and political rights. During the war they received military aid from Iran. Towards the end, in March 1988, the town of Halabja had just fallen to Kurdish guerrillas when Iraqi aircraft saturated it with a mixture of poison and nerve gases. Some 5,000 people died and many more were maimed. The rest of the population fled to Iran.
However, the Soviet Union and France continued to sell weapons to Baghdad, while Britain doubled Iraq's export credit guarantees. The Senate in Washington voted to impose sanctions on Baghdad, but the measure ran out of time in the House of Representatives when President Reagan said he would veto it.
By now Saddam was convinced that all international protests about human rights were designed solely to extract commercial concessions, and that no atrocity of his risked serious punishment. He believed that Western powers would not oppose his acquiring of nuclear weapons, since they had allowed him to buy chemical weapons technology and had apparently turned a blind eye to his agents buying nuclear triggers and fissile material, often with money borrowed from themselves under such guises as credit for agricultural products.
But his ambitions were secretly causing concern to some Western strategic thinkers. They could not understand why Iraq, with a population of only 17 million and an estimated foreign debt of $70 billion, needed "the fourth largest army in the world". In December 1989 Saddam declared that his country had launched its first space rocket. Another of his projects included a "super-gun", secretly designed and built in Britain and other European countries by a Canadian projectile specialist, Gerald Bull, that could target Israel with chemical or nuclear warheads. Bull was later assassinated in Europe, apparently by Israel.
In March 1990 Saddam turned down pleas by many foreign statesmen and executed an Iranian-born journalist working for The Observer, Farzad Bazoft, who had investigated an explosion at a missile manufacturing plant near Hilla in central Iraq.
But Saddam's next outrage was on a quite different scale. His new victim was the oil-rich state of Kuwait. On July 18, 1990, Iraq accused Kuwait of "stealing $2.4 billions' worth of oil" from it by drilling in a border region, and demanded prompt compensation, even though Baghdad had received more than that sum in gifts from Kuwait and owed it some $15 billion more in interest-free loans received to help it against Iran. A visit by Egypt's President, Hosni Mubarak, to Baghdad six days later did not result in a change of position, nor did a meeting the next day with the American ambassador April Glaspie, who, reportedly, told Saddam that "the United States had no view regarding inter-Arab disputes". On August 1, talks in Jeddah between Iraqi and Kuwaiti representatives broke down. Soon after midnight, Iraqi tanks invaded Kuwait and its rulers fled to Saudi Arabia. Iraq looted Kuwait's gold reserves and declared the country to be its 19th province.
Western governments immediately froze Kuwait's substantial assets in their territories to prevent them from falling into Saddam's hand, and the United States began to send fighter and ground attack aircraft to Saudi Arabia to defend it against Iraq. The world was gripped by a crisis of a degree unheard of since the Arab-Israeli war of 1973. Iraq had its supporters. Jordan, Yemen and the Palestine Liberation Organisation said they understood its motives, while Arab nationalists everywhere celebrated the "first step towards the unification of the Arab homeland". The Soviet Union, China and India pressed for a negotiated settlement.
In the following months, the United States and Britain worked to build a coalition of 29 countries, including Egypt and Syria, that would go to war to prevent the oilfields of the Arabian peninsula becoming Saddam's property. Meanwhile several retired Western statesmen, including Edward Heath and the Willy Brandt, travelled to Baghdad to mediate, but appeared only to be paying homage at the court of the new Caliph of Islam. They failed to persuade Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait, but won the release of the Western hostages he had imprisoned at strategic sites in Iraq to thwart Western bombing.
Every twist of the drama, with Saddam and the United States President, George Bush - father of the President who was to attack Saddam 12 years later - as its protagonists, was watched on the world's television screens by spellbound audiences. While Iraqi spokesmen held out the prospect of a peaceful withdrawal, and mediation efforts reached a high pitch, the coalition countries, led by the United States, Britain, France and Saudi Arabia, built up a formidable force of more than half-a-million troops and over 500 combat aircraft in the region.
Still, Saddam Hussein did not withdraw by the United Nations deadline of midnight, January 15, 1991. The next evening, the coalition airforces began the bombing of strategic targets in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, relying on the new breed of cruise missiles, laser-guided bombs and stealth fighters. The Iraqi air force was eliminated on the first day of the battle, many of its aircraft escaping to Iran to seek refuge in the former enemy state. But Iraq's Soviet-supplied Scud missiles did manage sometimes to reach Israel and Saudi Arabia. Saddam displayed his few captured British pilots on television.
Such was the devastation inflicted on the Iraqi army in Kuwait and southern Iraq by allied bombing that some experts argued a land invasion might not be necessary. In the event, an armoured invasion was needed to repossess Kuwait. It was launched on February 24 and halted 100 hours later, with allied forces within 150 miles of Baghdad. It was a totally humiliating defeat, though Saddam managed to dub it "The Mother of all Victories".
In the months to come, it became clear that the Western powers had ended the war prematurely and had even allowed substantial cadres of Saddam's most loyal troops to escape with their armour. Furthermore, the cease-fire treaty, signed by the coalition's commander, General Norman Schwarzkopf, allowed Iraq to fly its helicopter gunships within its territory. "I was suckered", said the general later.
Thus the Shia and Kurdish revolts that broke out in the south and north in the spring of 1991 were brutally put down by Saddam and a major Kurdish refugee exodus into Turkey embarrassed the West, forcing the United States, Britain and France to declare flight exclusion zones in the south and north of the country and send troops into the north to enable the Kurds to return to their homes.
The cease-fire treaty permitted the sale of Iraqi oil abroad to the value of $1.5 billion each six months to allow the importation of food, medicines and other humanitarian materials for the population. Yet Saddam refused to co-operate, saying that it violated Iraq's national sovereignty and demanding that all sanctions against his government be removed. The stalemate continued for several years and resulted in much suffering, until Saddam concluded that the strategy did not work. At the same time, the ceiling for permitted oil exports was lifted to $5.25 billion each six months.
Nevertheless, in June 1999, when Forbes Magazine placed Saddam among the richest men in the world with an estimated personal fortune of $6 billion US dollars, the United Nations reported that over half of all food and medicines it had allowed to be purchased by Iraq were perishing in warehouses in the country. While malnutrition and disease ravaged Iraqis, members of the regime seemed able to import any luxury product they desired and Western reporters found some of the medicines bearing the United Nations label on sale in Jordan and Iran.
Other examples of Saddam's malfeasance after the Gulf War of 1991 included a plot to kill the former President George Bush during a visit to Kuwait; a systematic attempt to frustrate the work of the United Nations arms inspectors in finding and destroying Iraq's stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons as demanded by a UN resolution; a partial invasion in August 1996 of the Kurdish enclave in the north; and the refusal to recognise the validity of the two flight exclusion zones in the north and the south. Reports also spoke of continued research on banned weapons involving tests on Iranian and Kurdish prisoners of war in underground laboratories.
In answer to some of these violations of the cease-fire treaty of 1991, American and British airforces based in the Gulf mounted heavy punitive operations against military targets in Iraq. The heaviest example was Desert Fox in December 1998, after Saddam had finally expelled the UN arms inspectors. For the first time since the Gulf War, some of the main instruments of his grip over Iraq, such as the Republican Guards, were heavily struck, after which Saddam seemed to offer less resistance to the allies.
To many countries in the international community it therefore seemed strange that from the autumn of 2001 there was a sudden and powerful demand from the West, led by America and President George W Bush and seconded by Britain personified by its Prime Minister Tony Blair, that Saddam destroy his "weapons of mass destruction" - or face attack again. This time there was to be no dependence on a military coalition. American anger at the destruction of the New York World Trade Center by al-Qaeda terrorists with no proven connection with Iraq would brook no new UN resolutions - which France, anyway, swore to veto - as a sanction for invasion.
In the European Union, France and Germany were opposed to attacking Iraq, Italy lay low and only the British and Spanish prime ministers pledged support. From early 2003, another mighty armament was assembled, this time in Kuwait, since Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries were resolutely set against the adventure. As before it was preponderantly American, with the difference that Britain alone provided a substantial supporting component.
Saddam, though deriving encouragement from worldwide anti-war protests, so far bowed to this show of force as to allow the return of UN weapons inspectors. At the same time he, not surprisingly, made their work of verification and destruction as difficult as possible. But American patience was running out. Such large and highly technical land and air forces could not be kept indefinitely in the sweltering heat of the desert. Their merely having been assembled gave the impetus to war its own relentless momentum. When the blow fell it did so with irresistible force.
The prolonged air assault on Iraqi military assets which had been a feature of the coalition's 1991 campaign was dispensed with in the attack which was launched in March 2003. After a few "surgical" strikes on Baghdad and other targets, US forces forged across the border towards Baghdad, while the British invested Basra. In little more than a fortnight the military campaign was all but over. After a remarkable advance of more than 250 miles US Army and Marine units penetrated Baghdad and carried the war into the Iraqi capital's streets. Saddam was targeted in precision air strikes which supported the troops on the ground and, at the same time, attempted to eliminate members of the Iraqi leadership wherever they could be found.
On May 1, 2003 President Bush pronounced that the war was over and the month of July saw an American-backed Iraqi Governing Council meet for the first time. By October a new currency was adopted to replace the one on which Saddam had been displayed. But until November he was still visible on numerous broadcasts which sought to encourage Iraqis to increase their resistance. After the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers, as well as international officials including the UN Special Representative to Iraq, it was a coup for the American military when Saddam was captured near Tikrit in December. His sons Uday and Qusay had already been killed in an American strike on a safe house where they were hiding.
He was at first held in custody by US forces at Camp Cropper in Baghdad. But it was the American intention that Iraqis themselves should try their former leader for his crimes against his people. In July 2004, the first legal hearing in his case was heard before an Iraqi Special Tribunal. In July the following year he was charged with the mass murder of the inhabitants of the village of Dujail in 1982.
But the trial, conducted against a background of rising violence in Iraq as the country disintegrated into its Shia, Sunni and Kurdish components, swiftly degenerated into chaos. In November a defence lawyers on the team representing one of Sadam's co-accused was murdered. He was to be the first of several. On December 5, Saddam and his lawyers contested the authority of the court, Saddam himself telling the judge to "go to hell". The chief judge Rizgar Amin, a Kurd, resigned complaining of government interference and an interim appointment was made in his stead.
When, March 15, 2006, Saddam took the stand, he refused to answer questions, instead delivering a tirade of political pronouncements, declaring himself to be still President of Iraq and calling on his people to stop fighting each other and turn on the Americans. In June Khamis al-Obeidi, the chief defence lawyer was kidnapped and killed. In protest, Saddam began - and ended - a hunger strike, and later embarked on a second. The trial became increasingly chaotic with judges replacing each other with a rapidity that completely undermined any remaining plausibility that might have accrued to the proceedings.
Yet in the end, on November 15, Saddam was found guilty of crimes against humanity in ordering the deaths of 148 Shia inhabitants of the town of Dujail, and was sentenced to death by hanging. Saddam's response was to shout in open court: "God is great! Long live Iraq Long live the Iraqi people! Down with the traitors!" His lawyers appealed against the sentence, but Iran's highest appeal court confirmed it on December 26, with the rider that sentence should be carried out within 30 days.
Saddam Hussein married, in 1963, Sajida Khairalla Talfah, and they had two sons and three daughters. But he also had a long-standing mistress, Samira Shahbandar, whom he married in 1986 after forcing her husband, the head of the Iraqi Airways, to divorce her. They had a son. There was a third marriage, to Nidal al-Hamdani.
Saddam Hussein, President of Iraq since 1979, was born on April 28, 1937. He died on December 30, 2006, aged 69.
Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.