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A Dictator's Arc of Power Ends in Utter Ignominy

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."

Formative Years

Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti was born on April 28, 1937, in the village of Auja, a cluster of mud-brick huts outside Tikrit, north of Baghdad. His father, Hussein Majid, was a peasant who disappeared before his son was born. His mother, who remarried, entrusted Hussein to the care of an uncle, Khayrallah Tulfah, an army officer and opponent of the British-backed monarchy then ruling Iraq.

Hussein started elementary school when he was about 10. At 18, he moved to Baghdad with Tulfah and enrolled at the Karkh high school. Soon after, he joined the Baath (or Renaissance) Party, the Arab nationalist movement founded by a Syrian Christian in the 1940s. Its members were angered by what they saw as the subservience of Arab peoples under European colonialism, and they yearned to create a single socialist Arab state.

Hussein carved a niche for himself as a party strongman, and in 1959, at age 22, he participated in an attempt to assassinate Gen. Abdul Karim Qassem, the Iraqi ruler who had overthrown the monarchy with other military officers the year before.

The Baathist account of this coup attempt would later play up Hussein's role; according to one tale taught in Iraqi schools, he carved a bullet out of his own leg after being wounded. He then retreated to Syria and Egypt, returning to Iraq in 1963. While still in exile in Egypt, Hussein married a cousin, Sajida Khayrallah Tulfah, the daughter of his uncle. They had two sons -- Uday and Qusay, who were killed in a shootout with U.S. troops in July 2003 -- and three daughters, Rana, Raghad and Hala.

The Baath Party seized power in Iraq in 1968, under the leadership of Hussein's relative, Gen. Ahmed Hassan Bakr. Hussein used such family connections to help maneuver himself into position as the ruling government's No. 2 man, in charge of intelligence and security services.

Over time he developed a reputation as a man willing to go to brutal lengths to silence opposition and repress the Shiites and Kurds, as well as those within his own party he considered a threat. Charismatic and intimidating, he was known as "the deputy" but served in the role of a prime minister.

In 1975, a time when his associates said he had mellowed into middle age, Hussein struck Washington Post reporter Jim Hoagland as a man who "still moves with the tightly coiled violence and fluid grace of Vince Lombardi's best linebackers at Green Bay. Wariness flickers in his dark, expressive eyes throughout a meeting with a visitor."

Reins of Power

Hussein's formal ascension to absolute rule occurred in 1979, when he pushed Bakr aside and simultaneously assumed the titles of president, prime minister, chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, secretary general of the Baath Party's regional command and commander in chief of the armed forces.

"And he was only 42 years old," Karsh and Rautsi wrote. "Here was a man in his prime, full of ambitious plans and, above all, grim determination to keep his hold on the levers of power at all costs."

To solidify his position, Hussein presided over a firing squad that killed more than 20 officials for alleged disloyalty. Many of those executed were Hussein's close associates.

Hussein's rule brought a series of wars to Iraq, but also a period of relative internal stability, free from the frequent military coups that had characterized earlier decades. He created a secular Middle Eastern state known for its vibrant university and public health systems and relatively open to Western values, compared with countries in the region governed by strict religious codes. He also built roads and bridges, launched literacy campaigns and provided free hospital care for Iraqis.

To cultivate his image, Hussein lavished oil money on opulent palaces, sprawling monuments, statues and portraits. One painting depicted him wearing a business suit and smoking a cigar. Others showed him as a military commander in fatigues and a beret, as a devout Muslim praying in a mosque, or as an interlocutor of Nebuchadnezzar, king of ancient Babylonia, whom Hussein claimed as an ancestor.

In 1980, Hussein tried to take advantage of instability in neighboring Iran, where Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution had recently ousted the shah, by bombing Iranian airfields and sending his troops over the border. The eight-year Iran-Iraq war that ensued cost hundreds of thousands of lives on each side and left Iraq staggering under a debt estimated at $75 billion. It was in this war that Hussein first used the chemical weapons he would later turn on his own people in Kurdistan.

Over the course of the war, the U.S. government under presidents Ronald Reagan and later George H.W. Bush sought to weaken Iraq's bonds with its rival, the Soviet Union, as well as to prevent Iran from expanding its power in the region. It provided Iraq with hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies, along with weapons and military intelligence.

Near the end of the war, Hussein inaugurated another bloody campaign, this time against the Kurds in northern Iraq, who were aligned with Iran. During the 1987-88 Anfal campaign, a systematic effort to destroy rural Kurdish life, the Iraqi military dropped poison gas on villages, bulldozed homes and killed, tortured and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. The Kurdish government estimated that 182,000 people died in the campaign.

To carry out these exploits, Hussein built an army, including the elite Republican Guard, that became one of the world's largest.

War and Retribution

After the financial and military strain of the Iran-Iraq war, Hussein decided to invade oil-rich Kuwait in August 1990. The invasion was immediately condemned by the United Nations, and in January 1991 a coalition led by the United States attacked Iraq. The coalition quickly liberated Kuwait and defeated Iraq but stopped short of removing Hussein from power.

Shiites and Kurds rebelled after the Gulf War in an attempt to overthrow Hussein. But in the absence of U.S. military support, they were brutally crushed. His forces killed thousands of Shiites in southern Iraq and forced waves of Kurds to flee north into the mountains of Turkey, where many died of exposure.

"Saddam's retribution was swift and terrible," former ambassador Peter W. Galbraith wrote. "Republican Guard tanks blasted apart ancient city centers. Shiite shrines became battlegrounds and then slaughterhouses as rebels, clerics, and unlucky civilians were massacred. The Republican Guard attached nooses to the gun barrels of their tanks, hanging Shiite men -- several at a time -- by elevating the gun."

Iraq entered a period of more than a decade of U.N. sanctions that restricted imports of sensitive materials and further impoverished the Iraqi people. The country's economy worsened, and shortages of food and medicine reportedly caused widespread suffering and malnutrition.

In the 1990s, U.S. and British aircraft enforced no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq and bombed military targets in repeated attempts to destroy Hussein's weapons arsenal.

Endgame

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States moved again to attack Iraq, this time citing Hussein's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, which U.S.-led forces failed to find after they invaded in March 2003.

The first salvo of the second Iraq war aimed straight at Hussein. Aircraft dropped cruise missiles and powerful bombs onto a group of houses in southern Baghdad where intelligence reports had suggested he was hiding. He survived that attack and eluded a massive manhunt for 38 weeks, until U.S. troops found him Dec. 13 in a cramped burrow on a farm near Dawr, a hamlet not far from his birthplace.

"I am Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq," he said in English upon emerging, according to Bremer's account. "I want to negotiate."

Hussein went on temporary hunger strikes while in custody and remained defiant during his first trial, on charges of crimes against humanity for orchestrating the killings of 148 Shiite Muslim men and boys in an Iraqi village in the 1980s.

On the day he was convicted and sentenced to death, Hussein wrote a letter to the Iraqi people, according to his attorneys.

In the document, he asked Iraqis not to hate the foreign peoples who had invaded their country, just their leaders, because hatred "will blind your vision and close all doors of thinking."

"I say goodbye to you, but I will be with the merciful God who helps those who take refuge in Him, and God won't disappoint any honest believer," the letter said.

Hussein was hanged early Saturday Baghdad time, the start of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, while his country remained at war.

Staff researcher Robert E. Thomason contributed to this report.

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