How 'Baghdad Bully' Endures

Strategic retreat fits Saddam's pattern of behavior. A look at his rise from poverty to power.

Over the 30 years he has ruled as one of modern history's most tyrannical dictators, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has managed to stay a step ahead of political disaster.

From the 1980 to 1988 conflict with Iran that cost Iraq 250,000 casualties and ravaged his country, to the 100-hour air attack in 1991 that plunged his 23 million people into destitution and hunger, Saddam has clung to power, battered but defiant, painting defeat as triumph.

The showdown over the hunt by the United Nations for his weapons of mass destruction is no different. As Saddam called for celebrations, his Revolutionary Command Council crowed over this week's accord for a resumption of UN inspections: "The will of the Iraqis was victorious over the will of evil."

Yet for all the bluster, Saddam did what he has done before when he believes he has gotten as much as he can without risking catastrophe: He retreated. This time it was in the face of an American-led military force poised to pulverize his life-support system, the ubiquitous Iraqi security machine.

But the crisis may be far from over. If Saddam stays true to his past, he will challenge anew the United States over the UN sanctions he considers a humiliating threat to his rule. He is like a gambler who risks ever-higher stakes in an obsessive drive to win all. Eventually, however, his options may run out.

Risk-taking has been a key element in Saddam's rise from a barefoot peasant born in a mud hut to the chief of a Middle East oil state who defies the world. But in gaining and keeping power, he has also relied more than many of his ilk on the tools of despotism: war, mass murder and executions, assassination, betrayal, show trials, and repression.

"In the permanently beleaguered mind of Saddam Hussein, politics is a ceaseless struggle for survival," write Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi in their book, "Saddam Hussein: a Political Biography." "The ultimate goal of staying alive, and in power, justifies all means."

Those means also include a personality cult like that of Adolf Hitler, a man Saddam has studied and praised. Like Hitler, his hagiography equates Saddam with the state itself. In this way, to his subjects, the existence of one embodies that of the other.

But unlike Hitler, Saddam believes in no ideology. He has portrayed himself during his reign according to his political needs of the moment: pan-Arab nationalist, secular revolutionary, modern Mesopotamian warrior-king. He has even claimed to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Under Iraqi law, disputing his assertions brings death.

This shape shifting also illustrates Saddam's confidence in his own uniqueness.

"I know that there are scores of people plotting to kill me," he once told an interviewer. "However, I am far cleverer than they are. I know they are conspiring to kill me long before they actually start planning it. This enables me to get them before they have the faintest chance of striking at me."

Such assertions aside, Saddam has proved an adept tactician, playing supporters off against each other, eliminating perceived and real rivals by the score, and foiling CIA-backed coup plots. His brutal purges of the Army helped tame it as a traditional Iraqi hotbed of political intrigue.

He has also exploited Iraq's ethnic and religious rifts and tensions with his neighbors.

Demonstrating his trait of retreating when necessary, he granted humiliating concessions in 1975 to rival Iran to win an end to its support for rebels of Iraq's Kurdish minority. He then launched a campaign that by 1978 had killed thousands of Kurds, driven 200,000 from their homes and fractured the uprising. The next year, he renounced the pact with Iran and invaded, igniting the war that saw his extensive use of chemical weapons.

He has also manipulated the major powers, including the US, which gave him intelligence on Iranian troop movements. When the information led to Iraqi wins, he claimed the glory as a brilliant general - losses he blamed on collusion between Iran, the US, and Israel.

At home, one of his most brilliant gambits came in 1972, when Saddam nationalized Iraq's oil industry, until then controlled by a Western consortium. With revenues from the world's second-largest oil reserves, he began building the world's fourth-largest Army and transforming Iraq into the most developed state in the Arab world.

The Iran-Iraq war ruined all of that, putting Iraq on a slide into an economic plight that prompted Saddam to invade Kuwait in 1990 in hopes of adding its oil supplies to his own. But he misjudged the reaction of the world, which lent massive support to the US-led offensive that devastated the Iraqi Army and forced it to retreat from Kuwait.

Saddam's mother, Sabha, may have foreshadowed her son's future when she named him. In Arabic, Saddam means "One who confronts."

He was born in 1938 near Tikrit, north of Baghdad in an area dominated by the close-knit clans of the Sunni Muslim minority that now make up the inner circles of Saddam's regime. Saddam, whose father died before his birth, first lived with his uncle, Khairallah Talfah, whose excessive corruption would later compel Saddam to oust him as mayor of Baghdad. It was a hard decision, as Mr. Talfah was a major influence in Saddam's life and a key to his rise to power. It was he who introduced Saddam to his cousin, Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, who in 1968 became president in a coup led by the Baath Party.

Saddam, by then a senior Baath official, effectively ran the country as Mr. Bakr's top lieutenant until forcing his patron aside in 1979.

An Iraqi Army officer, Talfah inculcated Saddam in Arab nationalism and a hatred of foreigners. In 1941, he was dismissed from the military and jailed for participating in an attempt by pro-Nazi officers to oust the British-backed monarchy.

Saddam then lived with his mother and stepfather, who forced him to steal, regularly beat him, and kept him from school. It was in these years, biographers say, that Saddam first learned the distrust and self-reliance that have marked his career.

When Talfah was freed in 1947, his nephew moved back to his home and began school. His closest friend was Talfah's son, Adnan, who he would later make his defense minister and then allegedly had killed.

In 1955, Saddam followed his uncle to Baghdad, where he enrolled in high school. It was a time of political ferment and Saddam was drawn in, joining in 1957 the Iraqi branch of the Baath Party, a Syria-based organization that extolled revolution as the vehicle for creating a pan-Arab union bound by socialism and modernizing secularism.

Saddam first served as a Baath enforcer. He was jailed for six months in 1958 for suspicion of murder and the next year participated in a failed assassination attempt against Gen. Abdul al-Karim Kassem, the country's left-leaning dictator.

Saddam was wounded - his official biography has him digging a bullet out of his leg with a penknife - and fled to Syria. There, he came to the attention of party leaders, who sent him on to Egypt, where he completed high school.

He returned to Iraq in 1963 after the Baath Party seized power, was jailed after its ouster by the military the following year, and escaped to Syria two years later. There, he began preparing a new bid for power, organizing the party militia that would become the bedrock of his own security services.

Baath's chance came in 1967, when Iraq's military regime shared the humiliation of Israel's victory in the Six-Day War. In Baghdad, the party organized strikes and protests and won the help of senior Army officers in ousting the government.

Saddam's biography puts him on a tank in the assault on the presidential palace that installed the Baath and its Army allies. While that is disputed, he was the chief architect of the elimination of the Baath's military cohorts, personally escorting one at gunpoint to the airport.

In his early 30s, as the right hand of al-Bakr, Saddam had become the second-most powerful man in Iraq and was on a trajectory toward the world stage.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to How 'Baghdad Bully' Endures
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today