Saddam Hussein's Record of Infamy Ends
Friday, December 29, 2006; 11:04 PM
Over more than two decades of authoritarian rule, Saddam Hussein led his nation toward modernity and then to ruin by invading two neighboring countries, attacking his own citizens with chemical munitions and brutally repressing all who opposed him.
He defied United Nations weapons inspectors, presided over the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, pitted his Sunni Muslim Arab minority against the country's majority Shiites and demanded the cultish celebration of his own image.
It was a record of infamy that ended today with his execution by hanging for crimes against humanity -- a punishment carried out by Iraq's U.S.-backed, Shiite-led government after a lengthy trial.
From humble origins north of Baghdad, Hussein rose to become a political enforcer in the pan-Arab Baath Socialist Party, a top party official and coup leader, the strongman in a government headed by an older cousin and, ultimately, the president of Iraq -- a title he held from July 1979 until April 2003, when he was driven from power by U.S. invasion forces.
By controlling the world's third-largest proven oil reserves, Hussein sought to recapture Iraq's ancient glory and turn the country into a major Middle East power. He launched a devastating war against neighboring Iran, in 1980 in an ill-fated effort to seize an oil-rich region inhabited by a sizable Arab minority, and he occupied Kuwait in 1990 in a similar quest to expand his country's oil reserves.
The bloody eight-year Iran-Iraq war ended in stalemate in 1988, and his annexation of Kuwait was reversed by a U.S.-led assault in early 1991 that routed Hussein's vaunted army -- then the world's fourth largest -- and restored the Persian Gulf sheikhdom to independence.
Despite the debacles, Hussein kept a firm grip on power, brutally crushing uprisings by ethnic Kurds in northern Iraq and by Shiite Arabs in the south, while also ruthlessly eliminating political rivals. By the end of his rule, human rights groups estimated, he had presided over the killing of at least 300,000 Iraqis and the torture and imprisonment of tens of thousands more.
Although widely reviled, Hussein had a strong following in Iraq among fellow members of the Sunni Muslim Arab minority, especially those from his home area around the town of Tikrit. He also won popularity among many Arabs in other Middle Eastern countries for his implacable opposition to Israel and his resistance to the United States.
During his long rule, Hussein used Iraq's oil money to provide unprecedented social services and infrastructure improvements to his country. He launched literacy and education campaigns, provided free schooling up to the university level and created one of the most modern public health systems in the Middle East, featuring free hospitalization for Iraqi citizens. The government built roads and bridges, developed industries and modernized agriculture.
Yet, despite hardships brought on by the Iran-Iraq war, the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the punitive U.N. sanctions that followed, Hussein also built dozens of opulent palaces and homes for himself and his family, sparing no expense for his comfort and security.
Indeed, Hussein was possessed of a stunning megalomania, and he fostered a pervasive personality cult. He built statues and monuments to himself, his likeness appeared on portraits, posters and murals all over the country, as well as on the national currency. Places such as the country's airport and a sprawling Shiite neighborhood in the capital were named in his honor.
He fancied himself as an heir to Saladin, the Islamic warrior from Tikrit who battled the Crusaders in the 12th century, and to pre-Islamic rulers in ancient Mesopotamia such as Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar.