“The skies over Baghdad have been illuminated” announced Pater Arnett of CNN to a world audience of television viewers. The date 17 January 1991. The time 3 AM in Baghdad. The first salvo against Iraq had been fired by the coalition of 17 nations led by the United States. After 42 days of relentless air raids, a massive and continuous blitz from the air was followed by 100 hours of ground attack by the ferocious juggernaut of the allied forces. The biggest army in the Middle East had been smashed. With an estimated 110,000 soldiers killed thousands of civilians dead and the military might of Iraq humbled and humiliated, Operation Desert Storm had achieved everything it was designed to achieve – except the elimination of Saddam Hussein, the aggressor against Kuwait and the architect of the Gulf crisis. Defeated, humiliated and conclusively beaten in the mother of all battles, Saddam Hussein survived still in command of his forces and his nation.
This tall, fair Arab leader with penetrating eyes, who in the words of an Arab writer “Speaks with the language of the poet” stood proud, defiant, and haughty – and still a challenge to all the countries allied against him. Saddam Hussein of Iraq has been called many names. Cruel, despotic, ruthless, power hungry, ambitious, wily and the list could be endless when left to the journalistic and linguistic jugglery of the Western media. But the man himself remained relatively unknown to his friends and enemies both.
The area between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Iraq has been known as the birthplace of the world’s first known civilisation and early cultures. This area was called Mesopotamia by the early Greeks, which means “between two rivers.” It was in this area in the small remote village on the outskirts of the town of Tikrit, on the banks of the Tigris river, that Saddam Hussein was born on 28 April 1937. Coincidentally, the famous Arab general Sultan Salahuddin Ayubi, the Muslim hero of the Crusades, was also a native of this area.
Almost nothing or very little is known about Saddam’s early years except that he was orphaned at an early age and then taken care of by his uncle, a small farmer of watermelons. This was the traditional and ancestral profession of Saddam’s forefathers, who were devout Muslims of the Sunni sect of Islam for the last many generations. Saddam was nine years old when he started his primary education along with religious ideas according to the Sunni school of thought. At the age of 18 in 1955, he left his village for Baghdad and took admission in the Al-Karkh secondary school. Here he got his first taste of student activism and politics, which fired his political instinct and ambitions. And it was here that he came in contact with the Arab Baath Socialist Party.
In 1956, Saddam took part in a failed coup attempt against King Faisal and PM Nuri al-Said, experiencing for the first time the violent and radical Arab politics of that time. Soon after this misadventure, Saddam Hussein joined the Baath party in 1957.
In 1958, the sun-baked and blood-soaked sands of Iraq witnessed another gory and bloody drama when the Hashemite King Faisal II and his prime minister, along with their entire families, were brutally massacred and general Abd-al-Karim Qassim became the new ruler of Iraq. Soon after seizing power, Qassim started a witch hunt to eliminate all individuals and groups who were a real or perceived threat to his rule. As a beginning, he aligned himself with the Moscow-oriented Communist Party to counterbalance the forces of pan-Arabism – as in Iraq these forces had gathered under the banner of the Baath party.
In October 1959, it was decided by the Baath party to eliminate Qassim. A military-like operation was planned and Saddam was nominated as the leader of ten young men to execute the assassination plan. The plan failed. The driver of Qassim’s vehicle was killed but Qassim escaped unhurt. Saddam got a bullet wound in his left leg in the counter-fire by his bodyguards. Wounded and bleeding profusely, the young Saddam exhibited extreme courage and daring by removing the bullet with a small pen knife and then escaping across the desert on a donkey into Syria. As a result of this failed attempt on the life of Qassim, Saddam was tried and sentenced to death in absentia by a military court.
After a brief sojourn in Syria, Saddam Hussein was noticed by Nasser of Egypt, who, impressed by the daring and courage of the young man, arranged for his passage to Cairo where Saddam continued his education in the Al Qasr Al Aini secondary school, graduating in 1961. Still young and yearning for knowledge, Saddam entered the University of Cairo Law School in pursuit of higher education. He took care of the personal and educational expenses with the help of a small government stipend courtesy of Nasser.
In Egypt, the monarchy had been toppled by Nasser and his band of daring young army officers. The Suez Canal had been nationalized, resulting in a war with Britain, France and Israel –with Nasser emerging as the most popular and towering personality of the Arab world. This made him a symbol of Arab nationalism, the hero and ideal of the Arab youth. After a long period of colonial rule, shame and humiliation suffered at the hands of the old colonial masters and their Zionist allies, the Arab masses had somebody to look up to. Nasser stood out like a messiah, a knight in shining armour who would lead them to victory and glory.
Saddam Hussein, too, fell under the spell of the charismatic Nasser and his dream of an independent Arab nation “from the gulf to the Atlantic.”
General Qassim’s reign in Iraq came to an inglorious end in February 1963, after he was deposed and executed in a successful coup mounted against him. Armed with education and experience, grown in years and wisdom, Saddam ended his life of self-imposed exile and set off for home. Immediately after arrival, he plunged himself into the task of reorganising and revitalising the Baath Socialist Party which, had suffered tremendously in the time of Qassim.
In spite of a heavy work load along with tremendous psychological and physical pressures, Saddam continued his law studies at the Al-Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad. Saddam’s life still had more trials and tribulations for him. After the fall of the new government, he had to go underground once again in 1963.
Once again, he was a hunted fugitive with a price on his head. After he was tracked down by the state security forces in late 1964, a gun battle ensued. Saddam fought like a man possessed and had to give up only when his ammunition had been completely exhausted. He was arrested, tried and thrown into prison, where he had to spend a greater part of two years. Even during his time of custody, he continued his law studies and kept in touch with his political comrades all over Iraq. In 1965, while still in jail, he was elected to the leadership of the Baath Party’s eighth national congress and in 1966 he was elected to the post of deputy secretary of the party’s regional leadership.
Immediately after regaining his freedom, Saddam Hussein used all his talents and abilities to organise the party’s militia and the militant element of his organization. His untiring efforts finally bore fruit when the Baath Party seized control of the government of Iraq in July 1968.
After the July 1968 coup, General Hassan Al-Bakr became the head of state and chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council. Saddam Hussein maintained a low profile, but in reality, he was the real power behind the throne and for all practical purposes the de facto ruler of the country. His career now took off in real earnest. In 1973, he was given the rank of lieutenant general and Iraq’s highest military decoration, the Rifidain order. Three years later, he was made a full general and awarded an honorary MS degree in military science. Strangely enough, all these ranks and honours were for a man with no military training or education in military subjects, who had been rejected by the military academy of Cairo on account of low academic grades.
In 1972 all oil companies belonging to the USA, Britain and the Netherlands were nationalised under the personal guidance of Saddam Hussein. Iraq now became the biggest oil producer in the Middle East, second only to Saudi Arabia. This was the time of the rapid increase in oil prices after the Arab-Israel war of 1973. Oil revenues of the country now multiplied at an astonishing speed, which made way for a gigantic development program in health, education, communications, housing and defense.
Saddam Hussein’s most trumpeted foreign policy achievement was his visit to the USSR in February 1973, where he signed A 15-year treaty of friendship in Moscow, making the USSR the biggest supplier of military hardware and weapons to Iraq. In 1973, there was an unsuccessful coup attempt by the chief of national security and Saddam cracked down hard with mass arrests, torture and execution of all suspected of having any part in the coup. Now Iraq was classified as the worst violator of human rights by Amnesty International.
Saddam’s honeymoon with the Communist Party ended in 1975 with another bloodbath, initiated with the arrests and killings of 21 communist leaders and some armed forces personnel on charges of sedition. On 16 July 1979, Bakr made way for Saddam Hussein, presumably on account of ill health. Saddam now became President, Chairman of the Revolutionary Command council, supreme commander of the armed forces and chairman of the Baath Party. Iraq now became a classical dictatorship and a complete totalitarian state in all forms and manifestations. Repression, cruelty and complete disregard of human values now became the hall mark of the Saddam dictatorship. Saddam started acting like his idol Stali. Both came from rustic rural societies and believed in the personality cult of their own creation.
June 1980 saw the establishment of the 250-member assembly, which in fact was nothing but a rubber-stamp parliament. All legislation had to be ratified by the Revolutionary Command Council of which Saddam Hussein was Chairman, and no law could be implemented without his blessings. And he had the authority to dissolve the assembly at his whim.
In a dramatic and emotional speech on national television, Saddam Hussein tore up the treaty of Algiers in 1980 and declared that the Shatt Al Arab belonged to Iraq – and the result was a long bloody war of eight years with another Muslim, i.e. Iran. This war resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties in the Iraqi army. Thousands more were crippled for life and Iraq suffered enormous economic and political losses. During this eight-year war with Iran, Saddam became the blue-eyed boy of the Western democracies led by the USA.
The West took great pains to inflate the ego and military might of the Iraqi dictator because he was perceived as the only effective counter force to the Iranian supreme leader Ayatullah Khomeini, who had dared to confront and challenge the might of the Western powers.
The West got a rude shock when, on 02 August 1990, Saddam Hussein’s army crossed the border to occupy the state of Kuwait. This paved the way for Operation Desert Shield and then Operation Desert Storm. Saddam and his army were successfully kicked out by the forces of the coalition countries, but Saddam remained in power in Baghdad.
Like many dictators in history, Saddam Hussein also ended up on the dust heap of history and met with an inglorious and tragic end. His downfall began when the USA started military operation against Iraq to bring about a regime change in 2003. After the defeat of the Iraqi armed forces, Saddam Hussein did not surrender but disappeared into the Iraqi countryside and remained in hiding and on the run until 13 December 2003, when he was captured alive hiding in a hole in the ground in the small town of Ad-Dawr. This capture was achieved by Operation Red Dawn, named after the 1984 American film Red Dawn.
He was subsequently tried in an Iraqi court sentenced to death. He had been sentenced to death by hanging, after being convicted of crimes against humanity by the Iraqi special tribunal for the Dujail massacre – the killing of 148 members of the Iraqi Shia community in the town of Dujail in 1982, as retaliation for an assassination attempt against him.
The execution of Saddam Hussein took place on 30 December 2006.