His rise and fall

Published : Jan 12, 2007 00:00 IST

April 28, 1999: President Saddam Hussein attending celebrations marking his 62nd birthday. - AFP

April 28, 1999: President Saddam Hussein attending celebrations marking his 62nd birthday. - AFP

Saddam Hussein, despite his many drawbacks, will go down in history as one of the few Arab leaders who stood up to the West.

SADDAM HUSSEIN was born to a peasant family on April 28, 1937, near Tikrit, a town in central Iraq. Brought up by a stepfather in very modest circumstances, the young Saddam managed to get a belated school education. Like many other young men, he headed for the capital Baghdad for better opportunities and soon found himself embroiled in the volatile politics of the country. He joined the Arab Baath Socialist Party in 1956. The party, inspired by Arab nationalism, was finding its roots in the region. The tallest Arab leader at the time was Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser was an army officer who had overthrown a corrupt monarchy. After Nasser emerged triumphant in the Suez crisis of 1956, he was the hero of the entire Arab world. Young men like Saddam Hussein wanted to emulate him.

However, in Iraq, the dominant political party that carried out the anti-imperialist and anti-monarchical struggle was the Iraqi Communist Party. The party had played an important role in the overthrow of the monarchy in Iraq and the installation of a military man, General Abdul Karim Qassim, as Prime Minister. Qassim's close links with the Communists was not appreciated in several quarters. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was actively trying to subvert the Iraqi government at the time, sometimes with the tacit support of the Egyptian government. Nasser, too, treated the Egyptian Communists very harshly. Some biographies suggest that Saddam was in the pay of the CIA while he was in exile in Cairo in the early 1960s. The young Saddam, while still in secondary school, was involved in an abortive assassination attempt against Qassim in 1959. He escaped with a bullet in his leg and later made his way to Cairo. He was sentenced to death in absentia for his role in the assassination attempt.

Saddam continued his education in Cairo and enrolled in the College of Law there in 1962-63. But the overthrow of Qassim by a CIA-backed coup in 1963 saw Saddam back in Baghdad. The CIA had provided a list of prominent Communist Party functionaries to the Baath leadership. Many of them were arrested and killed.

The Iraqi Communist Party was the dominant force in the country until the mid-1960s, but its failure to move expeditiously to fill the political void left the field open for the Baath Party to exploit. The Communists had calculated that the region was not yet ready for a government in which they would dominate. Saddam Hussein had assumed a leadership position in the Baath Party by the end of 1963.

He was again arrested in October, 1964, and charged with waging an underground struggle against the government in Baghdad. While still in custody, Saddam was elected deputy secretary-general of the Baath Party in September 1966. He escaped from prison the next year and played an important role in the coup of July 17, 1968. He led the Baath fighters who overran the presidential palace. Saddam was formally appointed Vice Chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, but it was evident from the early 1970s that it was Saddam who called the shots in the government though Ahmed Bakr, another Tikriti, was the President.

After the Baath Party consolidated power, there was another purge of the Communists in the country. Many socialist countries and Communist Parties worldwide broke off their links with the Baath Party. It was only after the Iraqi government nationalised the Western oil companies in Iraq and took other progressive steps, including improving relations with local Communists, that fraternal ties were re-established between socialist countries and the Baath government. The nationalisation of the oil sector was a courageous decision in that period of history. In neighbouring Iran, a progressive government was overthrown in the mid-1950s with American help, for attempting to do the same.

After the oil nationalisation, Iraq established close relations with the Soviet Union. In 1972, the two countries signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation. The first foreign trip Saddam undertook after entering government was to Moscow. Saddam was an unabashed admirer of Josef Stalin, the Soviet leader. Many of Saddam's biographers claim that Saddam actually modelled himself on Stalin. Saddam, according to them, had two important qualities. He used to work 18 hours every day and was a highly organised and methodical man.

The Iraqi government used the revenues generated by the sale of oil wisely. Most of the money was funnelled into the social and health sectors. The secular Baath government spread literacy at a record rate. Women were significant beneficiaries of the government's welfare programmes. Saddam was given the highest UNESCO award for his role in promoting literacy in Iraq. He led the "National Campaign for the Eradication of Illiteracy and the Implementation of Compulsory Free Education in Iraq". Saddam also instituted comprehensive land reforms. Land reforms and combating illiteracy will be a lasting legacy of Saddam.

By the mid-1970s, the Iraqi army had become a strong fighting force. Saddam wanted Iraq to be the premier Arab nation. With this in view, he ordered his scientists to develop nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Israel is well armed with all three. The Israeli air force tried to nip Saddam's nuclear weapons programme in the bud with the raid on the Osirak reactor in 1988. According to experts, Iraq had to give up its programme after the United Nations ordered the government to cease all activities on weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) after the disastrous Gulf War.

In the 1970s and the early 1980s, Iraq was on a roll. Arms dealers from all over the world congregated in Baghdad. The economy was booming, given the rise in oil prices. Iraq's geopolitical role became even more crucial after the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. The West successfully stoked Saddam's ambition to become the regional strongman in the mould of Nasser. The Iraqi government also felt threatened by continuous exhortations of the new Islamic government in Iran to Iraqi Shias to rise up and overthrow the godless government in Baghdad.

Whatever be the real reasons, Saddam bit the bait offered by the West and launched his war against Iran. Initially, he had the full backing of most of the Sunni-dominated Arab governments and the West. In the first couple of years of the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war, the United States, France, Germany and the United Kingdom all liberally supplied Baghdad with the most sophisticated weapons. With Kuwait and Saudi Arabia bankrolling Iraq in its war effort, the West was handsomely compensated for its weapons supplies. The picture of Donald Rumsfeld, who went on to become U.S. Defence Secretary, paying his respects to Saddam Hussein on a visit to Baghdad is an illustration of the close relationship Washington had nurtured with the government under Saddam Hussein.

But Saddam underestimated the resilience of the Islamic government in Iran. After the early military reverses, the Iranian army and the Islamic Guards struck back with a vengeance. In the war of attrition that followed, chemical weapons were used by both sides. The Iranians call it the "imposed war" that caused them untold misery. When it became evident that the war was unwinnable for Iraq, the West and its Arab allies distanced themselves from Saddam. The Kuwaitis and the Saudis stopped underwriting the cost of the war. When Iraqis were dying on the battlefield, Kuwaiti oil companies were "side-drilling" to steal oil from Iraqi fields.

The West started highlighting alleged cases of human rights violations and genocide in Iraq, when it was still at war. The Kurds in the north were threatening to secede, and when the Iraqi government used extreme force, including chemical weapons in Hallabja, the demonisation of Saddam Hussein in the Western media started in right earnest.

After the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, the government in Baghdad found itself deep in debt and isolated in the region. Kuwait's refusal to honour its commitments made at the beginning of the war angered Saddam no end. Iraq's claim over Kuwait has been a long-standing one. As the dispute between the two countries raged, Saddam once again made a major miscalculation. He thought that he had received the tacit approval of the U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad for an invasion of Kuwait.

The U.S. Ambassador, April Glaspie, had told Saddam that her country would not interfere in a dispute between the two countries.

The invasion of Kuwait, in 1990, was an unmitigated military disaster, as the U.S. cobbled up a military alliance of 31 countries to pummel Iraq into submission. Iraq was even more isolated as a U.N.-mandated economic embargo was imposed on the country. The blockade lasted until the American invasion of 2003. More than a million Iraqis, mostly children and the aged, died as a result of it. The West had prohibited the import of basic medical and food supplies for more than a decade. There was a ban on the import of even ambulances and injection needles.

To the credit of Saddam, he not only survived the military defeat and the embargo but managed to improve marginally the standard of living of Iraqis by early 2000. He used the loopholes in the U.N.'s "Oil for Food" programme to the benefit of the Iraqi people. He may have used unorthodox methods to break the economic blockade, but by early 2000 there were signs of budding prosperity in Baghdad. An efficient rationing system saw to it that no Iraqi was denied basic necessities.

What Iraqis miss most of all is the law and order that prevailed during Saddam's time. This correspondent, during his visits to Baghdad then, could walk safely on the streets until mid-night. Sectarian strife was non-existent.

Though the Baath Party was dominated by Sunnis, the Shia community was also well represented in the government. A senior Baath official told this correspondent in Baghdad before the American invasion that sectarian issues were irrelevant. "When we sit down for a party meeting, I do not know whether the person next to me is a Sunni, a Shia or a Christian," said the official, who is now in exile.

All the same, many Shias did have a grouse against Saddam. It mainly stemmed from the happenings in the south in the wake of the first Gulf War. Encouraged by the West, the Shias in the south had risen in revolt following the withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait. The West, however, let the Shias down, by allowing the Iraqi army a free hand. Hundreds of Shias were killed in the military action that followed. This correspondent saw bullet marks inside the holy shrine of Karbala. When Saddam was in power, he never allowed clerics to play an important role in the politics of the country. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was living in exile in Najaf, was asked to leave in the mid-1970s. The father of the firebrand Shia cleric, Moqtada Sadr, was allegedly killed on Saddam's orders in 1998. Sadr City, a thickly populated suburb of Baghdad, was one of the few places where celebratory gunfire was heard after the hanging of Saddam.

When the definitive history of West Asia is written, Saddam, despite his many drawbacks, will go down as one of the few Arab leaders who stood up to the West. Before his death sentence was carried out, he exhorted the Iraqi people to maintain unity and confront the occupation forces.

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