Saddam’s ruthless pursuit of power left his nation a shambles

Citizens, neighbors suffered long reign of terror

Dec. 15, 2003

BY CHRISTINE SPOLAR/Tribune foreign correspondent

Saddam Hussein sought immortality by ordering a Koran to be written with his own blood, commanded fealty by cutting out the tongues of citizens who spoke against him and raised heroic statues and portraits of himself as omnipresent reminders of his power.

But the image that flashed around the world Sunday was of a haggard and defeated man whose legacy is a ruined and isolated nation furrowed with mass graves.

Deserted by his father and later inspired by the examples of Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler, Hussein built a regime of cruelty and torture. He ordered the use of poison gas against Kurdish civilians in northern Iraq, killing and maiming thousands. He drained the life- sustaining marshes of southern Iraq to punish rebellious Shiites. He withheld precious medicines from Iraqi children stricken with cancer, then blamed international economic sanctions for the children's suffering.

The 66-year-old dictator also was audacious and fearless in his quest to dominate the Middle East. He invaded Iran when he thought internal strife had rendered it weak, and raced over Iraq's southern border into Kuwait when he saw a chance to plunder its oil riches.

During his 24-year hold on power, defeat never curbed Hussein's ambitions. After he was overwhelmed by U.S.-led coalition forces in the 1991 Persian Gulf war and forced out of Kuwait, Hussein defied the United Nations, shrugged off retributive bombings by the West and almost persuaded the world that sanctions against his outlaw regime should be lifted.

"The only meaningful life for Saddam Hussein [was] power," said Jerrold Post, a psychiatrist who analyzed Hussein's personality for the CIA and directs a political psychology program at George Washington University. Chemical, biological and nuclear weapons were essential parts of his plan, Post said.

"At some point, world-class leaders have the need for world- class weapons. ... He had his eye on history," Post said. "The weaker he became in conventional weapons, the more intent he was in holding onto other kinds."

Yet coalition forces have failed to uncover evidence of such weapons caches since American and British troops invaded Iraq in March.

Within days of taking control of Iraq, U.S. and British soldiers destroyed thousands of huge portraits and statues that Hussein had commissioned of himself. His opulent palaces became offices for coalition leaders.

U.S. forces inflicted a still sharper blow in late July, when they killed Hussein's two sons and political heirs, Udai and Qusai, in a firefight in the northern city of Mosul.

Forced into hiding, the man who once wielded absolute power in Iraq was reduced to communicating with Iraqis by rudimentary means-- poor-quality audiotapes released periodically to Arabic-language television stations. Yet those communications were enough to inspire his most ardent followers, tribal kin and foreign Islamic mercenaries to wage a mounting guerrilla campaign that has killed scores of American soldiers and their coalition partners.

A signature move

Hussein's reign was an exercise in perfecting tyranny, and it began with a signature display of terror.

On July 18, 1979, two days after he assumed power, Hussein called a meeting of the Baath Party to announce that he had discovered a plot against him. As video cameras recorded the scene, Hussein dramatically pronounced that the conspirators were among the crowd, according to the account detailed in author Said Aburish's 1999 biography, "Saddam Hussein: The Politics of Revenge."

During the next excruciating hours, Hussein methodically read the names of dozens of men supposedly involved in the plot, each of whom was then dragged from his chair by security guards.

Those left in their seats quickly understood. When Hussein wept about the alleged deceptions, they wept. When he laughed in relief at the collapse of the purported coup, they laughed. And when, in the following days, 22 Baath Party members were executed, 40 others imprisoned and 500 more detained, no one mustered a serious complaint.

Hussein had tapes of the episode distributed as his new calling card to the world.

Later, tales of torture at the hands of state security forces surfaced with stunning regularity. Murders, rapes and beatings of remarkable cruelty were routinely taped and distributed as macabre warnings. Members of the Republican Guard, the Special Republican Guard or the irregular Fedayeen Saddam militia who targeted Hussein's enemies were rewarded with new cars, better homes and bigger paychecks for their loyalty.

There were several internal security forces, many trained by the East Germans during the Cold War, spying on one another as well as on Iraqi citizens.

In the days and weeks after his ouster, mass graves were uncovered near prisons and in desert plots. Human Rights Watch estimates that, by conservative measure, at least 290,000 Iraqis went missing during Hussein's rule.

"The answer to their whereabouts likely lies in these graves," Human Rights Watch senior researcher Peter Bouckaert said shortly after Hussein's regime was toppled.

Humble origins

The man who saw himself as a modern-day Nebuchadnezzar and leader of the Arab world had the most humble of beginnings.

Hussein was born into a small Sunni Muslim tribe in a village outside Tikrit, in north central Iraq, on April 28, 1937. His name, Saddam, means "the one who confronts" or "the one who shakes up."

By all accounts, Hussein's childhood was dismal. His father disappeared after his birth. His mother, Subha, remarried a cousin, a man known in the neighborhood as "Hassan the Liar." The family survived off petty thievery in a mud hut they shared with farm animals. Hussein was put out to work by age 6. At age 10, he left to live with a maternal uncle.

That uncle, Khairallah Tulfah, served as a father figure to Hussein and sparked his political interests, according to Aburish and other biographers. A former army officer, Tulfah was a teacher with political aspirations who wrote a book titled "Three Whom God Should Not Have Created: Persians, Jews and Flies."

Hussein reveled in the heady talk of Arab unity in the 1950s, and particularly the pan-Arab vision offered by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. He eventually joined the Iraqi Baath Party, which was imbued with the idea of Arab states banding together as a counterweight to the West.

Within a year of the 1958 overthrow of the British-enforced monarchy in Iraq, Hussein joined a plot to kill the new prime minister, Abdel Karim Qassem, who favored communist alliances.

That assassination was botched in part because Hussein shot badly. The young revolutionary fled to Syria and then Egypt until the Baath Party overthrew Qassem in 1963.

Through the tumultuous days that followed, Hussein worked hard to gain notice within the party. Indeed, when Baath rule was overthrown for a time, Hussein was thrown in jail. After another coup returned the party to power in 1968, Hussein was tapped to head its dreaded security force.

Former CIA analyst and author Kenneth Pollack, in his 2002 book "The Threatening Storm," described Hussein, then in his 30s, as a kind of "eminence grise" waiting behind President Ahmad Hassan al- Bakr.

Rise to presidency

By 1977, Hussein forced al-Bakr to hand over the Defense Ministry to him. Two years later, he was president. Baath Party rule, once devoted to improving the lot of the Iraqi people, soon lost any semblance of ideology. Loyalty to Hussein and his system became the rule.

As he became the target of coups and assassination plots, Hussein turned his regime into a tribal and family affair. His most trusted aides headed the security forces. Later his sons Udai and Qusai and sons-in-law and cousins formed the links in a brutal chain of control.

The family circle bristled with violence. Udai, in particular, often repaid perceived slights with sprays of machine gun fire, even at family parties.

"He wouldn't believe anybody but family. They are the only trusted commodity he [had] in the Middle East," said Khidhir Hamza, a scientist who once guided Iraq's nuclear weapons program.

Within a year of becoming president, Hussein invaded Iran and launched one of the longest and costliest conventional wars in the 20th Century.

Hussein was fixated on Iran's oil fields in the southwest, a mother lode he knew could make Iraq the world's largest petroleum supplier. He also was worried that Iran's Shiite revolution could provoke unrest among Iraq's Shiite population.

In the end, the eight-year Iran-Iraq war was a devastating experience for the dictator and the Iraqi people. Iraq ostensibly won but at breathtaking cost: An estimated 200,000 soldiers were killed and 500,000 wounded. The nation borrowed heavily to finance the war, its infrastructure collapsed and personal incomes shriveled.

Iraq's minorities found that they, too, were vulnerable. Toward the end of the war, in 1987 and 1988, Hussein turned his focus to the resistant Kurdish population in Iraq's north.

"The entire military, security and civilian apparatus of the Iraqi state was deployed" to "bring the Kurds to heel," according to Human Rights Watch. An estimated 2,000 villages and at least a dozen larger towns were destroyed; thousands of Kurds disappeared or were made homeless in state-run operations.

The town of Halabja and dozens of other Kurdish villages were attacked with mustard gas and nerve agent, according to the accounts of survivors, human-rights groups and Western officials.

The slaughter did not go unnoticed by the U.S. or Europe. But through much of the 1980s, Washington had supported Hussein with money and intelligence-sharing as the Reagan administration sought to weaken the fundamentalist Iranian regime. France, encouraged by the U.S., increased its arms exports to Hussein's regime.

One famous photo, taken in 1983, shows Hussein shaking hands with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who at the time was a special envoy in the Reagan administration.

But the U.S. and Europe's view changed in 1990, when Hussein invaded Kuwait--a nation critical to Western oil supplies. Then- President George Bush likened Hussein to Hitler and sent U.S. troops to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait.

The 1991 Persian Gulf war to expel Iraq from Kuwait shocked Hussein. He had ignored every opportunity to back down. He had miscalculated sympathy from his Arab brethren. And he had mistakenly shrugged off a system of UN economic sanctions, first imposed in August 1990 after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, that would remain in place until his ouster.

Quick defeat, deadly outburst

Iraq lost the war in a little more than 40 days. Yet Hussein, even after surrendering, retained power. He launched a ferocious attack to put down Iraqi Shiite rebels in the south, killing tens of thousands; some human-rights experts and Western intelligence agencies put the number as high as 100,000.

Then, within months, Hussein balked at the terms of cease-fire.

UN weapons inspectors poured into Iraq to verify that Hussein had abandoned chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs. They never got much cooperation. Instead they were routinely flummoxed by games of concealment. Their most important discoveries, which verified that Hussein was pursuing an illegal arsenal, came largely by chance.

In 1991, inspectors received a tip about a cache of documents in a chemical plant that detailed a broad and ongoing nuclear program. Among the stunning discoveries was a list of students, paid by the regime, who had been sent to sift atomic bomb information from Western institutions and libraries.

Four years later, as inspectors nearly were ready to proclaim Iraq disarmed, Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel al-Majid, a son-in-law of Saddam Hussein who had been in charge of the weapons-concealment program, fled to Jordan along with his brother, another Hussein son- in-law.

Al-Majid's defection triggered a curious revelation from Iraq. Within days of his departure, top UN inspectors were invited by Iraqi officials to inspect a chicken farm the defector owned. There they found more than half a million documents, as well as microfiche files, computer disks and photographs, detailing a vast secret program to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

Al-Majid, his brother and their families later were lured back to Iraq with promises of forgiveness. The men were promptly killed in a shootout, apparently orchestrated by Udai Hussein.

The two Hussein sisters were widowed and their nine children left fatherless by the act of familial revenge. In July they fled to Jordan, where the government granted them asylum. Meanwhile, the whereabouts of other Hussein family members--including the sisters' mother, Hussein's first and most loyal wife--remain a mystery.

A 2nd Bush encounter

The chicken farm revelations in 1995 gave UN inspectors hard proof of an international threat: that Iraq not only had succeeded in manufacturing biological weapons but had loaded them into bombs and warheads. Still, it would take several more years and another President George Bush--the son of the U.S. leader who first wrestled with Hussein--to push the world to try again to disarm the dictator.

Propelled by the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington, Bush bluntly declared he would not tolerate dangerous regimes holding weapons of mass destruction.

Late in 2002, Bush persuaded the UN Security Council to unanimously command Hussein to disarm once and for all, setting up the endgame for the tyrant. Hussein tried again to evade the demand, arguing that Iraq no longer possessed any weapons of mass destruction. But the White House was not convinced, and Bush ordered an invasion.

In the months after the fall of his regime, Hussein figured he could evade U.S. forces by seeking refuge inside the country he so long abused.

It was his last miscalculation.