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 on Saddam Hussein
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.