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.
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 (1914–1963). 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 (1918–1970).
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 (1918–1981) signed the Camp David agreements with Israel's prime minister, Menachem Begin (1913–1992).
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 (1902–1989) 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.