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The rise and fall of Saddam

Print edition : Jan 02, 2004 T+T-

SADDAM HUSSEIN always wanted to get the kind of adulation that Arabs have reserved for former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Saddam at one time was considered the natural inheritor of Nasser's legacy, but by the late 1980s he became a divisive figure among Arabs. He was not on talking terms with many of his contemporaries like Hafez al Assad, the President of Syria and a fellow Baathist. The other role model Saddam openly admired was Joseph Stalin.

Saddam started his political career early in life, without much of a formal education. The Baath Party in the 1950s was a small grouping of Iraqis, many of them hailing from the town of Tikrit. The pan-Arab ideology espoused by the Baath had already found widespread support all over the Arab world. However, in Iraq, the more popular party in the 1950s and 1960s was the Communist Party. The Iraqi military strongman, Abd al Qarim Qassem, who came to power after the overthrow of the monarchy in the mid-1950s, had a working relationship with the Communists. The Iraqi wing of the Baath Party, despite its populism, had a deeply ingrained anti-communist streak. The Baath faction in power in Syria is much more inclusive and has an alliance with the Syrian Communist Party.

Saddam shot into prominence after he participated in a botched attempt to assassinate Qassem in 1959. Saddam was injured in the attempt. He, however, escaped and found his way to Egypt where he lived under the patronage of the Egyptian state, presided over by Nasser. There were reports that Saddam was also in the pay of the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) at that time. The Americans naturally preferred the Baathists to Qassem and the Communists, in those Cold War days. The Baathists continued plotting against Qassem. Many Iraqi historians argue that the Iraqi Communist Party, on whose support the military government was dependent on, had a unique opportunity to take power. However, its leadership concluded that the time was not opportune to assume formally the trappings of power, given its limited support base.

The much smaller Baath Party had no such compulsions. With the help from the Baath, there were two military coups in the early 1960s. Qassem was overthrown in 1963. Saddam emerged as a leading player in Baath politics only later. In 1964, on returning from exile in Cairo, he was given a leading position in the party following an ideological split. The new military regime under Abd al Salam Aref soon cracked down on the Baath. Saddam was arrested after a gunfight and was incarcerated in an Iraqi jail for two years. Saddam subsequently managed a daring escape from the prison.

The Baath came to power mainly on its own steam, having staged a coup with help from sections of the Army in 1968. Saddam was the main architect of the coup. The way he dealt with his opponents also highlighted his ruthlessness, for the first time. Saddam's uncle, Hassan al-Bakr, became the new President. The nephew became his right-hand man. Many historians and Iraq-watchers believed that from then on Saddam ran the day-to-day affairs of the country. While purging more left-wingers from his own party and banning the Communists, the government also went on a modernising spree. Education was given priority and by the mid-1980s, Iraq had made tremendous strides in the literacy field. Saddam was personally bestowed the highest United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) award for spreading literacy. Land reforms were strictly implemented, eliminating landlordism. The oil sector was nationalised, earning Iraq the enmity of the West. The revenues from the oil sector helped finance the ambitious programmes that the government had undertaken. Iraqis came to enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the region. The Iraqi dinar was among the strongest currencies in the world.

The West, along with its ally, the Shah of Iran, tried to destabilise the government by provoking the Kurds in the north to secede. Saddam was given the charge to handle affairs relating to the Kurdish problem. Saddam took over formally as President in 1979. Almost from the very outset of his presidency, Iraq was in a state of war. Analysts are unanimous that the biggest blunder Saddam committed was to start the war against Iran after the fall of the Shah. A senior Indian diplomat currently posted in the region is of the opinion that the Islamic Republic of Iran was mainly responsible for that war as the Khomeini regime incessantly beamed subversive propaganda to the Shia population inside Iraq. However, it is clear that Saddam was encouraged in his venture by the Americans and the rich Gulf states, led by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which feared that an Islamic revolution would otherwise be inevitable.

The eight-year-long war devastated the Iraqi economy, besides killing more than a million Iraqis. It was during the war that the infamous use of poison gas in Halabja took place. Saddam, in captivity, has refused to apologise for the killing of the Kurdish civilians. A section of the Kurds were in alliance with Iran during the eight-year war. After the war ended inconclusively, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia refused to bail out Saddam. Kuwait was caught "slide drilling" oil from the Iraqi side of the border. While Iraq wanted higher pricing by the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Kuwait broke the OPEC quota and sold its oil cheap in the international market. Iraq was left to its own devices.

Then came the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Saddam thought that he had got the green signal to send his Army to Kuwait from the U.S. Ambassador in Baghdad, April Glaspie. "We have no opinion... Secretary (of State James) Baker has directed me to emphasise the instruction... that Kuwait is not associated with America," Glaspie said in her Congressional testimony in 1991. She has never denied the authenticity of the conversation with Saddam. Saddam could have withdrawn his Army from Kuwait at the eleventh hour and avoided a war. Cuban President Fidel Castro sent a personal envoy to convince Saddam to withdraw. Saddam refused friendly advice. He told the Cuban envoy that there was no way the Americans could subdue the Iraqi people.

After the war, Iraq was turned into a virtual basket case, mainly because of the punitive economic and political measures put in place by the international community, at the behest of the West. But Saddam managed to survive politically. He dealt mercilessly with the Shia revolt in the south immediately after the cessation of hostilities in the first Gulf War. The Shias were initially encouraged to revolt against Baghdad and then abandoned by the Americans. Many of the mass graves being currently unearthed belong to victims of this particular uprising. The Iraqi government's tough response was to an extent a reaction to the killing of many Baath Party supporters and their families in the initial days of the uprising.

Saddam, no doubt, has a soft corner for his family and extended clan. His youngest son, Qusay, was his favourite and was being groomed for succession. Even Saddam sometimes found it difficult to discipline his eldest son, Uday. He was once briefly sent to prison for beating to death his father's bodyguard. Uday had objected to the man introducing a woman to Saddam; the woman in question later became Saddam's second wife. From available indications, Saddam always remained close to his first wife, Sajida, the mother of all his children. He never forgave his two sons-in-law for betraying the country. After getting his two daughters back from Jordan along with their husbands, he let tribal justice prevail at the cost of his daughters becoming widows.

Saddam, though physically imposing, had a chronic back problem. He was mortally scared of undergoing a back operation as advised by Western doctors. Finally a Cuban doctor who fought with Che Guevara got him back into shape through rigorous physiotherapy. When the doctor met him first in the early 1970s, the back problem was so acute that Saddam could not even stand up. Saddam had to swim for an hour every day as part of his physiotherapy treatment. Life would have been indeed tough for him while he was on the run for the last seven months.

Saddam may bequeath a legacy of continued strife for the Iraqi people. The Shia majority is waiting for power on a platter from the Americans. Some Arab diplomats feel that the Shia leadership will not rock the boat so soon by resorting to large-scale insurgency.