A Dictator's Arc of Power Ends in Utter Ignominy

The huge statue of Hussein in Baghdad's Firdaus Square was toppled April 9, 2003, after U.S.-led troops had occupied the capital.
The huge statue of Hussein in Baghdad's Firdaus Square was toppled April 9, 2003, after U.S.-led troops had occupied the capital. (By Jerome Delay -- Associated Press)
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 31, 2006

Saddam Hussein, an autocratic Arab nationalist who ruled Iraq for 24 years, led his nation into repeated wars with its neighbors and was overthrown by a U.S.-led invasion, was hanged early Saturday Baghdad time. He was 69.

Hussein took power as a brutal young modernizer who harnessed his nation's vast oil wealth to build roads and bridges, hospitals and schools, and was a hero to millions in the Middle East who saw him as a force for Arab resurgence. But in his latter years he squandered his legacy into one of near-constant wars.

He cultivated a climate of fear in Iraq, a place where political dissent was a capital offense. To many Iraqis, he was defined by his willful defiance -- a man whose first name could be translated as "he who confronts."

An Arab from his country's Sunni Muslim minority, Hussein had long repressed the majority Shiite Muslims and the Kurds of northern Iraq, and he remained reviled by both. In his final months, as the grim daily killings by roving militias and insurgents went on, some Sunnis vowed revenge on his behalf and many in Iraq expressed a yearning for the order and relative safety imposed by his firm hand.

After he was captured by U.S. troops three years ago, dirty and disheveled, in a hole not far from the village of his youth, Hussein mocked the tribunal set up to try him and declared himself Iraq's rightful ruler.

"I am still the president of the state," he told the judge in his first formal testimony in the year-long trial. "I am president."

To the U.S. government, Hussein was at one time an ally and bulwark in the Middle East against an Islamic government in neighboring Iran. He benefited from American weapons and funding in the 1980s before becoming a U.S. nemesis when he invaded Kuwait in 1990.

At his trial, Hussein described the Americans as "criminals" who came to Iraq "under the pretext of weapons of mass destruction and the pretext of democracy."

During Hussein's years in power, he strove to harness his country's bountiful supply of oil to build Iraq into a major power in the Middle East and reclaim the glory of past Arab civilizations. Throughout that time, he was ruthless in eliminating the political enemies of his Baath Socialist Party -- by execution, imprisonment or forced exile -- and increasingly paranoid about possible rivals or traitors.

"In the permanently beleaguered mind of Saddam, politics is a ceaseless struggle for survival," Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi wrote in their 1991 book, "Saddam Hussein, a Political Biography." "The ultimate goal of staying alive, and in power, justifies all means."

While Hussein was being held prisoner by the Americans, Adnan Pachachi, a Sunni legislator and onetime foreign minister whom Hussein had sent into exile, asked him why he had invaded neighboring Kuwait. It was a decision widely seen as a reckless miscalculation that sparked the Persian Gulf War, but Hussein portrayed it as a bid to reclaim part of his rightful domain and tap a source of funds to pay down the debts left by earlier wars.

"When I get something in my head, I act," Hussein told Pachachi, according to "My Year in Iraq," a memoir by L. Paul Bremer, who ran the U.S.-led occupation government for 14 months. "That's just the way I am."

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