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President of Iraq from 1979 to 2003, Saddam Hussein (Abd) al-Majid al-Tikriti (known in the Arab world and elsewhere simply as Saddam Hussein, or just Saddam) ruled that country with an iron fist. He is said to have caused the death of more than a million Iraqis during his years in power, some by torture and execution, some by mass killing, and others in war. He ascended to power through the ranks of the Ba’th Party, whose rule over the country began in 1968. Saddam gradually followed a careful plan to promote himself from the second place in the party and the government to the highest position within a decade.


Saddam Hussein was born in the village of al-Awja, near Tikrit, Iraq, on 28 April 1937. His father, Hussein al-Majid, died shortly before Saddam was born. Not much else is known about him, indicating—in a regime that glorified everything about Saddam and his family—that Saddam did not care much about him. Saddam’s mother, Sabha Talfah, however, was referred to by his propaganda as “the mother of the heroes.” When she died in 1982, she received an elaborate funeral and her burial place became a large shrine. After Saddam’s father died, Sabha married Saddam’s uncle, Ibrahim al-Hasan, and the couple had three sons, Barzan, Watban, and Sab’awi. Saddam went at an early age to live in Baghdad with his uncle, Khayrallah Talfah, an officer in the Iraqi military, and attend school in the Iraqi capital.

Al-Awja village, where Saddam was raised, was one of the poorest areas in Iraq. Its mud houses, scarce resources, and lack of opportunity subdued its residents’ aspirations. But for the young Saddam adversity became a driving force to defy the defeatist mind-set of his fellow villagers. His early life was full of trouble and he was known as a thug. At one point, he was about to be expelled from school, but went to the principal and threatened to kill him if he did not withdraw the order. His best friend at the time was his cousin, Adnan Khayr-allah, who was three years his junior. Saddam was envious of Adnan’s stable life, especially his having a father who provided for him, while Saddam was deprived of the most basic necessities. Decades later, Saddam recalled that he envied Adnan for having a nice pair of shoes, while he was barefoot.

The tribe of Saddam, Al Bu Nasir, was the largest in the area. It belongs to the Sunni branch of Islam and has a strict conservative tradition. Members were predominantly Arab nationalists. While many of the residents of al-Awja were farmers, a large number of them engaged in illegal activities such as smuggling, looting, theft, and attacking the vessels traveling on the Tigris River. Some of the families had sent their sons to the military to join the officer corps, taking the advantage of the government’s preference for officers recruited mainly from the Sunni population.


Name: Saddam Hussein (Abd) al-Majid al-Tikriti (Hussain, Husayn)

Birth: 1937, al-Awja, near Tikrit, Iraq

Death: 2006, Baghdad, Iraq

Family: Wives, Sajida Khayrallah Talfah and Samira Shahbandar; sons, Uday, Qusay, and Ali (the only child from the marriage to Samira Shahbandar); daughters, Raghad, Rana, and Hala

Nationality: Iraqi

Education: High school; some college. Entered law school, Cairo University, 1961, but did not graduate


  • 1959: Participates in failed attempt to assassinate President Abd al-Karim Qasim. Flees to Syria; in 1960 to Egypt
  • 1964: Returns to Iraq, is jailed
  • 1968: Takes part in Ba’th coup
  • 1969: Appointed deputy chairman, Revolutionary Command Council
  • 1979: Becomes president; gives himself highest military rank
  • 1980: Launches eight-year war with Iran
  • 1990: Invades Kuwait, inviting international response and harsh military and economic sanctions
  • 1991–2003: Gulf War led by United States forces withdrawal from Kuwait with a humiliating defeat and cease-fire agreement; harsh military and economic sanctions remain in place
  • 2003: Removed from power by U.S.-British invasion; captured by U.S. forces 13 December
  • 2006: 5 November, convicted of charges of mass murder; 30 December, executed by U.S.-installed Iraqi government

Saddam’s life in Baghdad, coupled with his uncle’s influence, introduced him to the rising wave of Arab nationalism in Iraq. Arab nationalism was one of three main political currents in a country ruled by the Hashemite monarchy installed by the British in 1921 and maintained by them as a dependency: a pro-British elite, a communist movement and an Arab nationalist movement. On 14 July 1958, Brigadier General Abd al-Karim Qasim led a military coup that ended the Hashemite monarchy and declared Iraq a republic. The young Saddam Hussein participated in a failed assassination attempt against Qasim and sustained an injury in the process. He fled to Syria and then to Egypt where he continued to be active in the Ba’th Party. The claim that Saddam had established some level of connection with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is not without merit, although he would never admit to having such connections. The government of Qasim, to which Saddam was opposed, was heavily reliant on the Iraqi Communist Party, a fact that may explain the high probability of such connections.

When the Ba’th overthrew the government of Qasim on 8 February 1963, Saddam returned to Iraq, but he was put in jail nine months later when President Abd al-Salam Arif turned against the Ba’th. Saddam fled from jail in 1966 and was selected as a member of the National (Iraqi) Command Council of the Ba’th Party. He remained working in the underground movement of the Ba’th that finally succeeded in overthrowing the Iraqi government in 1968.


At thirty years old, Saddam Hussein was a major participant in the July 1968 coup that brought the Ba’th Party to power in Iraq for the second time, riding on one of the tanks that attacked the presidential palace. The new president, General Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr, a distant relative who was also from Tikrit, took Saddam under his wing and promoted him in the party and the government. In a short time, he was the second man in the regime, next only to al-Bakr, having been appointed as deputy chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council and vice president. In the Ba’th Party, he was the deputy secretary general of the Iraqi branch of the party. This promotion was accompanied by the elimination of many objectionable personalities whose utility no longer existed after the success of the coup, both foes not belonging to the Ba’th Party and rivals of the Bakr-Saddam alliance within the Ba’th. The first purge of this kind took place two weeks after the coup, for which reason it later became known as the July 17-30 Revolution.

One of the earliest accomplishments of the Ba’th regime was the nationalization of oil in Iraq, a feat for which Saddam claimed full credit later, as he did with all other accomplishments after 1968. This reversal of the unfair deal imposed on Iraq during the British mandate was supported by the Iraqi people regardless of their views of the Ba’th Party and its members. As a consequence, a wave of prosperity began in Iraq through the 1970s. The majority of Iraqis received significant increases in their income and improvement in the services provided by the state. Also, Iraq began a campaign of construction and improvement in education, health, industrialization and agriculture.

This educational surge was advanced by two important laws: the first made the first six years of school mandatory for all boys and girls starting at age six (children who were older when the law was enacted were also required to enroll); the second law made education free of charge at all levels, from the first grade to the doctoral level. Literacy among the population increased by a remarkable rate within a few years, due in most part to the high percentage of young people in the population. A third decree made Iraq’s literacy rate one of the highest in the world: all men and women between 15 and 70 were obligated to attend literacy schools, which operated days and evenings. (In a measure possible only under an authoritarian regime, those who failed to enroll or did not make sufficient progress were threatened with jail. The sentence, it was indicated, would be as long as necessary for the prisoners to learn how to read and write proficiently.)

Oppressiveness of the Ba’th

Despite genuine achievements, however, the state grew more oppressive by the day as the Ba’th government continued a parallel campaign to consolidate its power and eliminate real or perceived domestic rivals. The most successful effort in this regard was the eradication of the communist threat, reducing the Iraqi Communist Party to a mere underground intellectual movement without any real street power. The Islamist movement—in Iraq primarily Shi’ite since the Iraqi government was supported by the Sunni community—proved stronger and more durable, both because of the strength of the Shi’a community in Iraq—a majority of 65 percent of the population—and their long history of opposing oppression. The Shi’a commemoration of Imam Hussein’s martyrdom every year was a reminder to their rulers that revolution is omnipresent in the Shi’ite mind-set, ever since the grandson of the Prophet revolted against injustice and lost his life to combat state oppression. In spite of the most brutal repression, at no time did the regime feel that it was close to eliminating the Shi’ite threat. Hence, the government adopted a twofold strategy of continuous arrests and executions of Shi’ite rivals and, at the same time, of co-opting as many Shi’ites as possible into the party to create a divide within the Shi’ite community.

In pursuit of the Ba’th slogan, “One Arab nation with an immortal mission,” the two branches of the Ba’th movement in Iraq and Syria began negotiations in 1978 to gradually unite the two countries. Joint committees were formed to coordinate the work of political, economic, and social integration; border controls were lifted so that citizens of both countries could cross without presenting their passports.

Saddam Hussein saw this project as a great threat to his goal of taking full control of the country. With al-Bakr’s advanced age and frail health, the presidency of the newly united country would have been given to Syria’s president HAFIZ AL-ASAD . Saddam had spent many years forming and personally irecting the intelligence and security organizations of Iraq, placing his own men in key positions and eliminating those whose loyalty to him was not solid. This effort paid dividends when Saddam decided in 1979 to eliminate al-Bakr and take his place. On 16 July of that year, the eve of the anniversary of the 1968 coup, al-Bakr used his annual speech to surprise the country by announcing his retirement, citing his health. He announced that he was leaving the country in the “capable hands” of Saddam Hussein. Following the speech a song written especially for the occasion was broadcast: “all the hearts of the people are with you, Saddam, but we will not forget the brave Abu Haytham” (al-Bakr was addressed by this name). Ordinary Iraqis began to realize the reason for Saddam’s excessive, and sudden, televised public appearances in the previous months, often in the form of coverage of his visits to remote areas accompanied by trucks loaded with refrigerators and TV sets. On one such occasion a man told him that he appreciated the gift, but his village had no electricity. Saddam ordered the immediate commencement of a countrywide project to bring electricity to all areas of Iraq.

Saddam as President

As president, Saddam relied on a few loyal aides and family members. All other political figures whose loyalty was questionable were eliminated without mercy. His style of rule was based on pitting a limited number of privileged groups against the rest of the people. There was no limit to the amount of violence that could be used against those who were seen as potential rivals, within or outside the regime.

With the passage of time, Iraqis were forced to live with a new reality, that the government and the whole country was in effect owned by Saddam and his immediate family. (Members of his extended family received enormous privileges, but were not immune from violent death, as the killing of his cousin, then minister of defense Adnan Kayrallah, and two sons-in-law, Hussein Kamil and Saddam Kamil, demonstrated.)

When he became president, Saddam repeated the experience of the 1968 purge by a preemptive strike at his potential rivals in the government and the higher levels of the Ba’th Party. Within a week of becoming president, Saddam called an emergency conference of the leadership of the Ba’th Party and the government as well as the members of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC). At the conference, a member of the RCC, Muhiy Abd al-Hussein al-Mashhadi, informed the unsuspecting audience that an alleged conspiracy was underway to topple the regime, but it had been discovered just in time. The alleged conspirators were all among the invited audience. After speeches blaming the conspiracy on ranking members of the party and government who were said to be acting as agents for the Syrian regime, the names of more than sixty men were read out, and they were arrested on the spot. A speedy trial was held for the accused and an execution party was organized for them; members of the party, including Saddam, took turns executing their former colleagues. By this move, Saddam accomplished two tasks: eliminating his domestic rivals and stopping the unification of Iraq and Syria, the main threat to his control over Iraq.

One of Saddam’s long-lasting grudges was caused by his humiliating surrender to the shah of Iran in the 1975 Algiers Agreement, granting Iran border concessions and more access to the Shatt al-Arab in return for Iran’s pledge to stop supporting the Iraqi Kurdish revolt. The collapse of the shah’s regime in 1979 and the ensuing establishment of the Islamic Republic made Iran temporarily vulnerable. The new regime, under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, conducted a sweeping purge in the bureaucracy and the military, eliminating all officials and officers loyal to the old regime. This was a severe blow to Iran’s power and administrative efficiency. Saddam seized the opportunity and launched an attack against Iran in September 1980, counting on a swift victory in a short-term war after which the two parties would meet and renegotiate the border. The plan went well initially and Iraq occupied a large piece of Iranian territory along the border.

What did not go according to Saddam’s plan was the Iranian determination to fight a long-term war, counting on the size of their country’s territory and population, both of which exceed Iraq’s by several times. Saddam’s multiple calls for a cease-fire were not heeded and many third-party mediations proved fruitless in light of Iran’s nonnegotiable terms, especially the demand that Saddam step down from power. As a result of this stalemate, an eight-year war was fought between the two countries, causing the death of more than a million soldiers and civilians from both sides and the near-destruction of Iraq’s economy. Although the United States role in the initial invasion is unclear, the United States certainly provided assistance during the conflict, both by proxy and directly, giving Saddam intelligence on the movement and locations of Iranian forces. When the war was over, neither party had gained or lost an inch of territory and the 1975 agreement was reinstated. Nevertheless, both sides declared victory.

After the Iran-Iraq War

Saddam spent the postwar era building his alliances in the Arab world. This was best illustrated by his initiative toward an alliance with Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen. The leaders of the four countries held several summits and took a few steps toward economic and political integration. At the same time, Saddam found the time to raise with Kuwait a claim that it unfairly exploited the oil in the fields shared by the two countries. Saddam resented Kuwaiti demands to repay the money it had given to Iraq to help finance the war. The Kuwaitis considered the aid to be loans, while Saddam claimed that he was fighting on behalf of the Gulf States against the Iranian threat and that therefore the money was their fair share of the burden. The negotiation process turned into a propaganda war between the two countries. As Saddam recalled in his first court appearance, the Kuwaitis indicated to him their intentions of destroying the Iraqi economy to the point where “Iraqi women would sell their bodies for ten dinars each.” The Kuwaiti method to achieve this end was to flood the oil market, driving prices down and making it impossible for Iraq to emerge from the war-related economic hardship.

On 2 August 1990, Saddam ordered some of the Iraqi military’s elite Republican Guard units to occupy Kuwait, which they did overnight. This invasion, and Saddam’s rejection of the international demand that he withdraw unconditionally, precipitated a series of catastrophic events for the Iraqi people. First, there was the United Nations (UN) sanctioned, American-led coalition war against Iraq—the Gulf War of 1991—that destroyed much of the infrastructure of Iraq and ended in February 1991 with a humiliating defeat of Iraqi forces in Kuwait. The cease-fire agreement left Iraq virtually without sovereignty or infrastructure. Bridges, factories, power stations and roads were destroyed by a relentless air campaign that was designed to set Iraq back many decades into the past. Saddam’s coveted nuclear and chemical weapons programs were dismantled, as were his conventional military capabilities. The Iraqi military was downsized and the UN-imposed sanctions on Iraq remained in place pending verification of its disarming.

Immediately following the Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait and the end of the war, on 28 February 1991, a popular uprising began in the Shi’ite regions of southern Iraq and another one in the Kurdish areas in the north, mainly in response to the suggestion of President George H. W. Bush, who encouraged Iraqis “to take matters in their own hands.” A few weeks later fourteen out of Iraq’s eighteen provinces were out of the control of Saddam’s regime and the situation was evolving in favor of the insurgents. However, the Americans decided not to provide aid for the uprising and enabled Saddam to crush it by allowing him to use armed helicopters and long-range weaponry to capture the south. The underlying motive for the U.S. position was the fear that a successful Shi’ite uprising would empower Iran. In April 1991, Saddam was again in full control of Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shi’ites were summarily killed or arrested, their bodies found in mass graves after the collapse of the regime. Millions of other Iraqis fled and became refugees in the neighboring countries.


Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr (1914–1982) was the president of Iraq before Saddam Hussein. Unlike Saddam, who never served in the military, al-Bakr was an officer with an Arab nationalist ideology. He had a special appetite for conspiracies that led him to participate in virtually all the coups and political conspiracies in his lifetime. He was involved in the anti-British 1941 coup, led by Rashid Ali al-Gaylani, and went to prison after it was crushed. He participated in the 1958 coup that toppled the Hashemite monarchy. A year later, he participated in a failed coup against President Abd al-Karim Qasim and was forced into retirement for the second time. He then participated in the 1963 coup that ended the Qasim regime and was appointed prime minister in the new government. He was purged ten months later when the new president, Abd al-Salam Arif, decided to eliminate the Ba’th Party members of his government because of their abuse of power. In 1968, al-Bakr organized another coup that led to the second seizure of power by the Ba’th. He became Iraq’s president until forced to retire by his protégé and successor, Saddam Hussein, on 16 July 1979. He remained under house arrest until his death on 4 October 1982.

Sanctions and Invasion

The following twelve years witnessed a reversal in the trend of the 1970s. Iraq’s economy was destroyed by the UN sanctions and the country’s brainpower was drained by the migration of the educated to look for work elsewhere. The UN sanctions destroyed more than just the economy of Iraq; they also affected the will of the Iraqi people to resist the brutality of the regime. The demoralizing effects of the sanctions on a starving society caused the Iraqis to turn against one another in a “survival of the fittest” kind of competition. The era of the 1990s was an era of corruption, broken social cohesion, and general decay in Iraq. Iraq’s best and brightest population migrated to neighboring countries and from there to the West, by legal or illegal means, to look for a better life. Meanwhile, the sanctions continued to be enforced by corrupt UN officials; the magnitude of UN corruption related to the sanctions has yet to be fully determined. As for the regime of Saddam Hussein, the sanctions were a convenient excuse to justify shortcomings, which were blamed on the international community. The regime compensated for lost revenue by resorting to oil smuggling. School enrollment fell to its lowest levels in decades, undermining the literacy rate; Iraq became perhaps the only country where mothers are more educated than their adult daughters. The Iraqi health-care system, which used to be the envy of the region, was destroyed by the sanctions. Most equipment and materials were not allowed into Iraq, because they were designated by the UN oversight officials as materials of “dual use.” The result was the death and suffering of millions of Iraqi patients, especially children. The callous attitude of the international community was articulated by then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who said that “it is worth it” to contain Saddam’s regime at the expense of thousands of innocent Iraqi lives.

Between 1991 and 2003, Saddam acted in defiance of the international community and continued his reign of terror over an exhausted population. UN weapons inspectors charged with verifying Iraq’s compliance with the UN Security Council resolutions were frustrated by Saddam’s lack of cooperation and finally departed in 1998 without being able to certify that Iraq no longer possessed any weapons of mass destruction. The sanctions and inspectors were used as political tools to serve the agenda of the United States, using their access to gather information for agencies related to the United States and other Western countries, but not to the UN.

In 2003, after the al-Qaeda attacks of 11 September 2001 and the initiation of the United States-led “war on terror” by President George W. Bush, the United States decided to invade Iraq, initially claiming that Saddam had failed to destroy his weapons of mass destruction. Saddam was given a chance to leave Iraq in order to avoid the war, but refused to do so. Saddam’s regime was toppled and after nine months in hiding, he was captured. He was found in a spider-hole near his hometown, Tikrit, and a lengthy, high-profile trial began. Saddam was going to be tried for more than ten cases where crimes against humanity were committed during his thirty-five years in power. The first of these crimes was the massacre in the Shi’ite town of Dujail, where an attempt to assassinate Saddam took place as he was visiting. Saddam ordered his forces to impose collective punishment on the town’s population. One hundred and forty-eight men were executed after a quick trial, and hundreds of other people—mostly women and children—were imprisoned in the desert while their orchards were leveled. Saddam, his half-brother Barzan, and the Dujail judge Awwad al-Bandar were found guilty and executed. Another deputy, Taha Yasin Ramadhan, was initially sentenced to life in prison, but the High Court rejected the sentence because it did not match the nature of Ramadhan’s crimes and ordered the trial court to consider the death penalty. Ramadhan was sentenced to death by hanging and was executed shortly thereafter.

The execution of Saddam Hussein on 30 December 2006 was widely criticized. First, because it occurred on the first day the Sunnis in Iraq celebrated the Eid al-Adha, one of the two major holidays in Islam. (The Iraqi government justified the decision to execute him by saying that the Shi’a and other Sunnis did not consider the day of Saddam’s execution as the first day of the holiday, but the next day.) The second, and worse, problem was the leaking of a tape showing Saddam’s execution, which resembled a mob lynching rather than an official execution.


If the ruler, any ruler, finds a latent energy in him and in his people, which he can unleash, but he is unable to envision what is better, such as the elements and meanings of creation and goodwill, he often unleashes it for causes contrary to what is good, amity, fairness and creation.



The world’s perspective on Saddam Hussein is split asymmetrically between a few groups and personalities who supported him in his heyday and even after his demise, perhaps to appear consistent or grateful for his previous patronage. Among his supporters are many Arabs who saw in him a hero for his anti-American rhetoric and his symbolic attack on Israel with Scud missiles during the 1991 Gulf War. There are also the Iraqis who prospered during his rule because of his favoritism toward a few loyal cities at the expense of the vast majority. Generally, most of the sympathy for Saddam is derived from anti-Americanism rather than love for Saddam and his tyrannical politics. But he was also supported by the people who benefited from his regime, including the people of Tikrit and other Sunni cities, the Ba’th elite and the high-ranking officer corps in the military and security forces. They also supported the regime because their lives were tied strongly to the survival of Saddam Hussein in power. Most of the world’s public opinion, however, has come to realize that Saddam was a tyrant whose brutality and incompetence caused his people and Iraq’s neighbors unbearable suffering, death, and destruction.


After his execution on 30 December 2006, Saddam Hussein went into history as one of the most oppressive tyrants in the history of Iraq, a country that has seen many such rulers. His most lasting legacy will be one connected to a long trail of crimes against humanity such as the use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians in Kurdistan in 1988 and the killing of hundreds of thousands whose bodies were later found in mass graves across the Shi’a provinces of southern Iraq.

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