Baghdad, Iraq — Son of a farmer from a small town by the river Tigris, he is known today as the man who set the Gulf on fire. The once shadowy politician has elbowed his way onto the world stage by sending the world's largest oil refinery up in flames.
President Saddam Hussein assumed leadership of Irag's 13 million people only in the summer of 1979. But Mr. Saddam, as it is probably wisest to call him for various reasons, had been working in the shadows for a powerful regional role for himself and his country long before then.
In 1957, he joined the Arab Baath Socialist Party, which had been founded eight years before. In the stormy, coup-fraught years that followed for his country, he was called on by hih highly conspiratorial party to play an ever more important role.
In 1959, he took part in an assassination bid against the ruling Iraqi general. When it failed, he took refuge first in Syria and then in Egypt, before returning to work underground for the Baathists inside Iraq.
The tall, mustachioed party loyalist was rewarded for his pains in 1968, after a party militia he himself organized finally brought the party into undisputed power in Baghdad. With his father-in-law, Ahmad Hassan Bakr, leader of the party's powerful "military" wing, installed as president, Saddam Hussein was all set to consolidate his power behind the scenes.
Mr. Bakr always had the image of a faintly benign father figure, while his hawkish young protege set about tackling the problems the regime faced through the 1970s.
There was the problem of the Kurdish ethnic minority fighting for some kind of autonomy in the mountainous north, with a little, increasingly open, help from the nearby Shah of Iran.
Mr. Bakr's Soviet-supplied Army got bogged down in the fighting. So Saddam, whose main power base remained the Baath Party's tightly organized "civilian" wing, went off to negotiate the 1975 deal with the Shah of Iran, a deal he has just recently repudiated.
There was the problem of Israel, ever a threat to the kind of revivalist Arabism the Baathists propounded. But the threat was conveniently far from Iraq's immediate borders, so Saddam and his backer (Mr. Bakr) were able effectively to shelve it.
Continuing in public to refuse to negotiate with "the Zionist entity," and backing the most hard-line of the Palestinian groups, they meanwhile concentrated on building up Iraq's own industrial base.
"Iraq is the strategic depth of the Arab world," the Baathists argued. "Let's build Iraq."
And to a greater extent than in any other country of the Arab east, they were successful.
In the Iraqi oil boom, little money has been poured into glamorous prestige projects without a very specific political end in mind. Instead, it has gone into roads, hospitals, housing, steel works, and printing plants, but especially into the educational network with which the Baathists hope to mold "the new, technological Arab generation."
Saddam has shown that in recent years by edging out the Soviets, with whom Iraq signed a friendship treaty in 1972, from most of the country's vast development plans. He might resent Western support for Isreal, but he likes Western technology, and is cautiously even starting to buy from the United States.
But the French meanwhile have assumed a special place in Saddam's scheme of things. They provide nuclear know-how and a certain air of independence within the Western bloc. "If the Iraqis are the French of the Middle East, then the French are also the Iraqis of Europe," is how one Britisher sees it.
Saddam has also shown his political adroitness in his dealings with "Arab brothers." Sensing a leadership vacuum after Egypt parted with other Arabs in 1977 to make peace with Israel, he tried to edge Iraq into that vacuum by masterminding a new alliance between Arab moderates and hardliners. That bid partially failed, but he made some reluctant friends among the moderates.
So Saddam had more than won his political spurs when a new problem faced him in 1979. That was the challenge posed by the regime of the Muslim ayatollahs in Iran, with their potentially powerful appeal throughout the Arab world -- and especially to Iraq's own numerous Shiite majority.
Saddam's task was to confirm the Arab loyalties of Iraqi Shiites over and above their Shiite loyalties. He has done this by playing up their anti-Persianism -- a factor in the current fighting with Iran.