1937 - 2006
A leading member of the revolutionary Ba'ath Party, which
espoused secular pan-Arabism, economic modernization, and Arab
socialism, Saddam played a key role in the 1968 coup that
brought the party to long-term power. As vice president under
the ailing General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, Saddam tightly
controlled conflict between the government and the armed forces
— at a time when many other groups were considered capable of
overthrowing the government — by creating repressive security
forces. In the early 1970s, Saddam spearheaded Iraq's
nationalization of the Western-owned Iraq Petroleum Company,
which had long held a monopoly on the country's oil. Through the
1970s, Saddam cemented his authority over the apparatuses of
government as Iraq's economy grew at a rapid pace.
As president, Saddam maintained power during the Iran–Iraq War
(1980–1988) and the first Persian Gulf War (1991). During these
conflicts, Saddam repressed movements he considered threatening
to the stability of Iraq, particularly Shi'a and Kurdish
movements seeking to overthrow the government or gain
independence, respectively. Whereas some Arabs looked upon him
as a hero for his aggressive stance against foreign intervention
and for his support for the Palestinians, United States leaders
continued to view Saddam with deep suspicion following the 1991
Persian Gulf War. Saddam was deposed by the U.S. and its allies
during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Captured by U.S. forces on December 13, 2003, Saddam was brought
to trial under the Iraqi interim government set up by U.S.-led
forces. On November 5, 2006, he was convicted of charges related
to the executions of 148 Iraqi Shi'ites suspected of planning an
assassination attempt against him, and was sentenced to death by
hanging. Saddam was executed on December 30, 2006.
Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti was born in the town of
Al-Awja, 13 km from the Iraqi town of Tikrit, to a family of
shepherds from the al-Begat tribal group. His mother, Subha
Tulfah al-Mussallat, named her newborn son Saddam, which in
Arabic means "One who confronts." He never knew his father,
Hussein 'Abid al-Majid, who disappeared six months before Saddam
was born. Shortly afterward, Saddam's thirteen-year-old brother
died of cancer. The infant Saddam was sent to the family of his
maternal uncle, Khairallah Talfah, until he was three.
His mother remarried, and Saddam gained three half-brothers
through this marriage. His stepfather, Ibrahim al-Hassan,
treated Saddam harshly after his return. At around ten, Saddam
fled the family and returned to live in Baghdad with his uncle,
Kharaillah Tulfah. Tulfah, the father of Saddam's future wife,
was a devout Sunni Muslim and a veteran from the 1941
Anglo-Iraqi War between Iraqi nationalists and the United
Kingdom, which remained a major colonial power in the region.
Later in his life, relatives from his native Tikrit would become
some of his closest advisors and supporters. According to
Saddam, he learned many things from his uncle, a militant Iraqi
nationalist. Under the guidance of his uncle, he attended a
nationalistic high school in Baghdad. After secondary school,
Saddam studied at an Iraqi law school for three years, prior to
dropping out in 1957, at the age of twenty, to join the
revolutionary pan-Arab Ba'ath Party, of which his uncle was a
supporter. During this time, Saddam apparently supported himself
as a secondary school teacher.
Revolutionary sentiment was characteristic of the era in Iraq
and throughout the Middle East. In Iraq progressives and
socialists assailed traditional political elites (colonial era
bureaucrats and landowners, wealthy merchants and tribal chiefs,
monarchists). Moreover, the pan-Arab nationalism of Gamal Abdel
Nasser in Egypt would profoundly influence young Ba'athists like
Saddam. The rise of Nasser foreshadowed a wave of revolutions
throughout the Middle East in the 1950s and 1960s, which would
see the collapse of the monarchies of Iraq, Egypt, and Libya.
Nasser inspired nationalists throughout the Middle East for
standing up to the British and the French during the Suez Crisis
of 1956, and for striving to modernize Egypt and unite the Arab
In 1958, a year after Saddam had joined the Ba'ath party, army
officers led by General Abdul Karim Qassim overthrew Faisal II
of Iraq. The Ba'athists opposed the new government, and in 1959,
Saddam was involved in the attempted United States-backed plot
to assassinate Qassim.
Rise to power
Army officers with ties to the Ba'ath Party overthrew Qassim in
a coup in 1963. Ba'athist leaders were appointed to the cabinet
and Abdul Salam Arif became president. Arif dismissed and
arrested the Ba'athist leaders later that year. Saddam returned
to Iraq, but was imprisoned in 1964. Just prior to his
imprisonment and until 1968, Saddam held the position of Ba'ath
party secretary. He escaped prison in 1967 and quickly became a
leading member of the party. In 1968, Saddam participated in a
bloodless coup led by Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr that overthrew Abdul
Rahman Arif. Al-Bakr was named president and Saddam was named
his deputy, and deputy chairman of the Baathist Revolutionary
Command Council. According to biographers, Saddam never forgot
the tensions within the first Ba'athist government, which formed
the basis for his measures to promote Ba'ath party unity as well
as his resolve to maintain power and programs to ensure social
Various U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials have asserted
that Saddam was strongly linked with the CIA, and that U.S.
intelligence, under President John F. Kennedy, helped Saddam's
party seize power for the first time in 1963.
Saddam Hussein in the past was seen by U.S. intelligence
services as a bulwark of anti-communism in the 1960s and 1970s.
His first contacts with U.S. officials date back to 1959, when
he was part of a CIA-authorized six-man squad tasked with
ousting then Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul Karim Qassim.
Although Saddam was al-Bakr's deputy, he was a strong
behind-the-scenes party politician. Al-Bakr was the older and
more prestigious of the two, but by 1969 Saddam Hussein clearly
had become the moving force behind the party.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as vice chairman of the
Revolutionary Command Council, formally the al-Bakr's
second-in-command, Saddam built a reputation as a progressive,
effective politician. At this time, Saddam moved up the ranks in
the new government by aiding attempts to strengthen and unify
the Ba'ath party and taking a leading role in addressing the
country's major domestic problems and expanding the party's
After the Baathists took power in 1968, Saddam focused on
attaining stability in a nation riddled with profound tensions.
Long before Saddam, Iraq had been split along social, ethnic,
religious, and economic fault lines: Sunni versus Shi'ite, Arab
versus Kurd, tribal chief versus urban merchant, nomad versus
peasant. Stable rule in a country rife with factionalism
required both massive repression and the improvement of living
Saddam actively fostered the modernization of the Iraqi economy
along with the creation of a strong security apparatus to
prevent coups within the power structure and insurrections apart
from it. Ever concerned with broadening his base of support
among the diverse elements of Iraqi society and mobilizing mass
support, he closely followed the administration of state welfare
and development programs.
At the center of this strategy was Iraq's oil. On June 1, 1972,
Saddam oversaw the seizure of international oil interests,
which, at the time, dominated the country's oil sector. A year
later, world oil prices rose dramatically as a result of the
1973 energy crisis, and skyrocketing revenues enabled Saddam to
expand his agenda.
Within just a few years, Iraq was providing social services that
were unprecedented among Middle Eastern countries. Saddam
established and controlled the "National Campaign for the
Eradication of Illiteracy" and the campaign for "Compulsory Free
Education in Iraq," and largely under his auspices, the
government established universal free schooling up to the
highest education levels; hundreds of thousands learned to read
in the years following the initiation of the program. The
government also supported families of soldiers, granted free
hospitalization to everyone, and gave subsidies to farmers. Iraq
created one of the most modernized public-health systems in the
Middle East, earning Saddam an award from the United Nations
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
To diversify the largely oil-based Iraqi economy, Saddam
implemented a national infrastructure campaign that made great
progress in building roads, promoting mining, and developing
other industries. The campaign revolutionized Iraq's energy
industries. Electricity was brought to nearly every city in
Iraq, and many outlying areas.
Before the 1970s, most of Iraq's people lived in the
countryside, where Saddam himself was born and raised, and
roughly two-thirds were peasants. But this number would decrease
quickly during the 1970s as the country invested much of its oil
profits into industrial expansion.
Nevertheless, Saddam focused on fostering loyalty to the
Ba'athist government in the rural areas. After nationalizing
foreign oil interests, Saddam supervised the modernization of
the countryside, mechanizing agriculture on a large scale, and
distributing land to peasant farmers. The Ba'athists established
farm cooperatives, in which profits were distributed according
to the labors of the individual and the unskilled were trained.
The government's commitment to agrarian reform was demonstrated
by the doubling of expenditures for agricultural development in
1974–1975. Moreover, agrarian reform in Iraq improved the living
standard of the peasantry and increased production, though not
to the levels for which Saddam had hoped.
Saddam became personally associated with Ba'athist welfare and
economic development programs in the eyes of many Iraqis,
widening his appeal both within his traditional base and among
new sectors of the population. These programs were part of a
combination of "carrot and stick" tactics to enhance support in
the working class, the peasantry, and within the party and the
Saddam's organizational prowess was credited with Iraq's rapid
pace of development in the 1970s; development went forward at
such a fevered pitch that two million persons from other Arab
countries and even Yugoslavia worked in Iraq to meet the growing
demand for labour.
In 1976, Saddam rose to the position of general in the Iraqi
armed forces, and rapidly became the strongman of the
government. As the weak, elderly al-Bakr became unable to
execute his duties, Saddam took on an increasingly prominent
role as the face of the government both internally and
externally. He soon became the architect of Iraq's foreign
policy and represented the nation in all diplomatic situations.
He was the de-facto leader of Iraq some years before he formally
came to power in 1979. He slowly began to consolidate his power
over Iraq's government and the Ba'ath party. Relationships with
fellow party members were carefully cultivated, and Saddam soon
accumulated a powerful circle of support within the party.
In 1979 al-Bakr started to make treaties with Syria, also under
Ba'athist leadership, that would lead to unification between the
two countries. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad would become
deputy leader in a union, and this would drive Saddam to
obscurity. Saddam acted to secure his grip on power. He forced
the ailing al-Bakr to resign on July 16, 1979, and formally
assumed the presidency.
Shortly afterwards, he convened an assembly of Ba'ath party
leaders on July 22, 1979. During the assembly, which he ordered
videotaped, Saddam claimed to have found spies and conspirators
within the Ba'ath Party and read out the names of 68 members
that he alleged to be such fifth columnists. These members were
labelled "disloyal" and were removed from the room one by one
and taken into custody. After the list was read, Saddam
congratulated those still seated in the room for their past and
future loyalty. The 68 people arrested at the meeting were
subsequently put on trial, and 22 were sentenced to execution
Saddam saw himself as a social revolutionary and a modernizer,
following the Nasser model. To the consternation of Islamic
conservatives, his government gave women added freedoms and
offered them high-level government and industry jobs. Saddam
also created a Western-style legal system, making Iraq the only
country in the Persian Gulf region not ruled according to
traditional Islamic law (Sharia). Saddam abolished the Sharia
law courts, except for personal injury claims.
Domestic conflict impeded Saddam's modernizing projects. Iraqi
society is divided along lines of language, religion and
ethnicity; Saddam's government rested on the support of the 20%
minority of largely working class, peasant, and lower middle
class Sunnis, continuing a pattern that dates back at least to
the British colonial authority's reliance on them as
The Shi'a majority were long a source of opposition to the
government's secular policies, and the Ba'ath Party was
increasingly concerned about potential Shi'a Islamist influence
following the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The Kurds of northern
Iraq (who are Sunni Muslims but not Arabs) were also permanently
hostile to the Ba'athist party's pan-Arabism. To maintain power
Saddam tended either to provide them with benefits so as to
co-opt them into the regime, or to take repressive measures
against them. The major instruments for accomplishing this
control were the paramilitary and police organizations.
Beginning in 1974, Taha Yassin Ramadan, a close associate of
Saddam, commanded the People's Army, which was responsible for
internal security. As the Ba'ath Party's paramilitary, the
People's Army acted as a counterweight against any coup attempts
by the regular armed forces. In addition to the People's Army,
the Department of General Intelligence (Mukhabarat) was the most
notorious arm of the state security system, feared for its use
of torture and assassination. It was commanded by Barzan Ibrahim
al-Tikriti, Saddam's younger half-brother. Since 1982, foreign
observers believed that this department operated both at home
and abroad in their mission to seek out and eliminate Saddam's
Saddam justified Iraqi nationalism by claiming a unique role of
Iraq in the history of the Arab world. As president, Saddam made
frequent references to the Abbasid period, when Baghdad was the
political, cultural, and economic capital of the Arab world. He
also promoted Iraq's pre-Islamic role as Mesopotamia, the
ancient cradle of civilization, alluding to such historical
figures as Nebuchadrezzar II and Hammurabi. He devoted resources
to archaeological explorations. In effect, Saddam sought to
combine pan-Arabism and Iraqi nationalism, by promoting the
vision of an Arab world united and led by Iraq.
As a sign of his consolidation of power, Saddam's personality
cult pervaded Iraqi society. Thousands of portraits, posters,
statues and murals were erected in his honor all over Iraq. His
face could be seen on the sides of office buildings, schools,
airports, and shops, as well as on Iraqi currency. Saddam's
personality cult reflected his efforts to appeal to the various
elements in Iraqi society. He appeared in the costumes of the
Bedouin, the traditional clothes of the Iraqi peasant (which he
essentially wore during his childhood), and even Kurdish
clothing, but also appeared in Western suits, projecting the
image of an urbane and modern leader. Sometimes he would also be
portrayed as a devout Muslim, wearing full headdress and robe,
praying toward Mecca.
In foreign affairs, Saddam sought to have Iraq play a leading
role in the Middle East. Iraq signed an aid pact with the Soviet
Union in 1972, and arms were sent along with several thousand
advisers. However, the 1978 crackdown on Iraqi Communists and a
shift of trade toward the West strained Iraqi relations with the
Soviet Union; Iraq then took on a more Western orientation until
the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
After the oil crisis of 1973, France had changed to a more
pro-Arab policy and was accordingly rewarded by Saddam with
closer ties. He made a state visit to France in 1976, cementing
close ties with some French business and ruling political
circles. In 1975 Saddam negotiated an accord with Iran that
contained Iraqi concessions on border disputes. In return, Iran
agreed to stop supporting opposition Kurds in Iraq. Saddam led
Arab opposition to the Camp David Accords between Egypt and
Saddam initiated Iraq's nuclear enrichment project in the 1980s,
with French assistance. The first Iraqi nuclear reactor was
named by the French Osirak. Osirak was destroyed on June 7, 1981
by an Israeli air strike (Operation Opera).
Nearly from its founding as a modern state in 1920, Iraq has had
to deal with Kurdish separatists in the northern part of the
country. (Humphreys, 120) Saddam did negotiate an agreement in
1970 with separatist Kurdish leaders, giving them autonomy, but
the agreement broke down. The result was brutal fighting between
the government and Kurdish groups and even Iraqi bombing of
Kurdish villages in Iran, which caused Iraqi relations with Iran
to deteriorate. However, after Saddam had negotiated the 1975
treaty with Iran, the Shah withdrew support for the Kurds, who
suffered a total defeat.
In 1979 Iran's Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown by the
Islamic Revolution, thus giving way to an Islamic republic led
by the Ayatollah Khomeini. The influence of revolutionary
Shi'ite Islam grew apace in the region, particularly in
countries with large Shi'ite populations, especially Iraq.
Saddam feared that radical Islamic ideas — hostile to his
secular rule — were rapidly spreading inside his country among
the majority Shi'ite population.
There had also been bitter enmity between Saddam and Khomeini
since the 1970s. Khomeini, having been exiled from Iran in 1964,
took up residence in Iraq, at the Shi'ite holy city of An Najaf.
There he involved himself with Iraqi Shi'ites and developed a
strong, worldwide religious and political following. Under
pressure from the Shah, who had agreed to a rapprochement
between Iraq and Iran in 1975, Saddam agreed to expel Khomeini
After Khomeini gained power, skirmishes between Iraq and
revolutionary Iran occurred for ten months over the sovereignty
of the disputed Shatt al-Arab waterway, which divides the two
countries. During this period, Saddam Hussein publicly
maintained that it was in Iraq's interest not to engage with
Iran, and that it was in the interests of both nations to
maintain peaceful relations. However, in a private meeting with
Salah Omar Al-Ali, Iraq's permanent ambassador to the United
Nations, he revealed that he intended to invade and occupy a
large part of Iran within months. Iraq invaded Iran, first
attacking Mehrabad Airport of Tehran and then entering the
oil-rich Iranian land of Khuzestan, which also has a sizable
Arab minority, on September 22, 1980 and declared it a new
province of Iraq. With the support of the Arab states, the
United States, the Soviet Union, and Europe, and heavily
financed by the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, Saddam Hussein
had become "the defender of the Arab world" against a
revolutionary Iran. Consequently, many viewed Iraq as 'an agent
of the civilized world'. The blatant disregard of international
law and violations of international borders were ignored.
Instead Iraq received economic and military support from its
allies, who conveniently overlooked Saddam's use of chemical
warfare against the Kurds and the Iranians and Iraq's efforts to
develop nuclear weapons.
In the first days of the war, there was heavy ground fighting
around strategic ports as Iraq launched an attack on Khuzestan.
After making some initial gains, Iraq's troops began to suffer
losses from human wave attacks by Iran. By 1982, Iraq was on the
defensive and looking for ways to end the war. At this point,
Saddam asked his ministers for candid advice. Health Minister
Riyadh Ibrahim suggested that Saddam temporarily step down to
promote peace negotiations. Pieces of Ibrahim’s dismembered body
were delivered to his wife the next day.
Iraq quickly found itself bogged down in one of the longest and
most destructive wars of attrition of the twentieth century.
During the war, Iraq used chemical weapons against Iranian
forces fighting on the southern front and Kurdish separatists
who were attempting to open up a northern front in Iraq with the
help of Iran. These chemical weapons were developed by Iraq from
materials and technology supplied primarily by West German
Saddam reached out to other Arab governments for cash and
political support during the war, particularly after Iraq's oil
industry severely suffered at the hands of the Iranian navy in
the Persian Gulf. Iraq successfully gained some military and
financial aid, as well as diplomatic and moral support, from the
Soviet Union, China, France, and the United States, which
together feared the prospects of the expansion of revolutionary
Iran's influence in the region. The Iranians, demanding that the
international community should force Iraq to pay war reparations
to Iran, refused any suggestions for a cease-fire. Despite
several calls for a ceasefire by the United Nations Security
Council, hostilities continued until August 20, 1988.
On March 16, 1988, the Kurdish town of Halabja was attacked with
a mix of mustard gas and nerve agents, killing 5,000 civilians,
and maiming, disfiguring, or seriously debilitating 10,000 more.
(see Halabja poison gas attack) The attack occurred in
conjunction with the 1988 al-Anfal campaign designed to reassert
central control of the mostly Kurdish population of areas of
northern Iraq and defeat the Kurdish peshmerga rebel forces. The
United States now maintains that Saddam ordered the attack to
terrorize the Kurdish population in northern Iraq, but Saddam's
regime claimed at the time that Iran was responsible for the
attack and US analysts supported the claim until several years
The bloody eight-year war ended in a stalemate. There were
hundreds of thousands of casualties with estimates of up to one
million dead for both sides total. Both economies, previously
healthy and expanding, were left in ruins.
Iraq was also stuck with a war debt of roughly $75 billion.
Borrowing money from the U.S. was making Iraq dependent on
outside loans, embarrassing a leader who had sought to define
Arab nationalism. Saddam also borrowed a tremendous amount of
money from other Arab states during the 1980s to fight Iran.
Faced with rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure, Saddam desperately
sought out cash once again, this time for postwar
Tensions with Kuwait
The end of the war with Iran served to deepen latent tensions
between Iraq and its wealthy neighbor Kuwait. Saddam saw his war
with Iran as having spared Kuwait from the imminent threat of
Iranian domination. Since the struggle with Iran had been fought
for the benefit of the other Persian Gulf Arab states as much as
for Iraq, he argued, a share of Iraqi debt should be forgiven.
Saddam urged the Kuwaitis to forgive the Iraqi debt accumulated
in the war, some $30 billion, but the Kuwaitis refused.
Also to raise money for postwar reconstruction, Saddam pushed
oil-exporting countries to raise oil prices by cutting back oil
production. Kuwait refused to cut production. In addition to
refusing the request, Kuwait spearheaded the opposition in OPEC
to the cuts that Saddam had requested. Kuwait was pumping large
amounts of oil, and thus keeping prices low, when Iraq needed to
sell high-priced oil from its wells to pay off a huge debt.
On another compelling level, Saddam Hussein and many Iraqis
considered the boundary line between Iraq and Kuwait, cutting
Iraq off from the sea, a historical wrong imposed by British
imperial officials in 1922. Saddam was not alone in this belief.
For at least half a century, Iraqi nationalists were espousing
emphatically the belief that Kuwait was historically an integral
part of Iraq, and that Kuwait had only come into being through
the maneuverings of British imperialism. This belief was one of
the few articles of faith uniting the political scene in a
nation rife with sharp social, ethnic, religious, and
The colossal extent of Kuwaiti oil reserves also intensified
tensions in the region. The oil reserves of Kuwait (with a
population of a mere 2 million next to Iraq's 25) were roughly
equal to those of Iraq. Taken together Iraq and Kuwait sat on
top of some 20 percent of the world's known oil reserves; as an
article of comparison, Saudi Arabia holds 25 percent.
Furthermore Saddam argued that the Kuwaiti monarchy had slant
drilled oil out of wells that Iraq considered to be within its
disputed border with Kuwait. Given that at the time Iraq was not
regarded as a pariah state, Saddam was able to complain about
the slant drilling to the U.S. State Department. Although this
had continued for years, Saddam now needed oil money to stem a
looming economic crisis. Saddam still had an experienced and
well-equipped army, which he used to influence regional affairs.
He later ordered troops to the Iraq – Kuwait border.
As Iraq-Kuwait relations rapidly deteriorated, Saddam was
receiving conflicting information about how the U.S. would
respond to the prospects of an invasion. For one, Washington had
been taking measures to cultivate a constructive relationship
with Iraq for roughly a decade. The Reagan administration gave
Saddam roughly $40 billion in aid in the 1980s to fight Iran,
nearly all of it on credit. The U.S. also sent billions of
dollars to Saddam to keep him from forming a strong alliance
with the Soviets. Saddam's Iraq became "the third-largest
recipient of US assistance".
U.S. ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie met with Saddam in an
emergency meeting on July 25, where the Iraqi leader stated his
intention to continue talks. U.S. officials attempted to
maintain a conciliatory line with Iraq, indicating that while
George H. W. Bush and James Baker did not want force used, they
would not take any position on the Iraq – Kuwait boundary
dispute and did not want to become involved. Whatever Glapsie
did or did not say in her interview with Saddam, the Iraqis
assumed that the United States had invested too much in building
relations with Iraq over the 1980s to sacrifice them for Kuwait.
Later, Iraq and Kuwait then met for a final negotiation session,
which failed. Saddam then sent his troops into Kuwait.
On August 2, 1990, Saddam invaded and annexed Kuwait, thus
sparking an international crisis. Just two years after the 1988
Iraq and Iran truce 'Saddam Hussein did what his Gulf patrons
had earlier paid him to prevent.' Having removed the threat of
Iranian fundamentalism he 'overran Kuwait and confronted his
Gulf neighbors in the name of Arab nationalism and Islam.'
The U.S. had provided assistance to Saddam Hussein in the war
with Iran, but with Iraq's seizure of the oil-rich emirate of
Kuwait in August 1990 the United States led a United Nations
coalition that drove Iraq's troops from Kuwait in February 1991.
The ability for Saddam Hussein to pursue such military
aggression was from a 'military machine paid for in large part
by the tens of billions of dollars Kuwait and the Gulf states
had poured into Iraq and the weapons and technology provided by
the Soviet Union, Germany, and France.'
U.S. President George H. W. Bush responded cautiously for the
first several days. On one hand, Kuwait, prior to this point,
had been a virulent enemy of Israel and was the Persian Gulf
monarchy that had had the most friendly relations with the
Soviets. On the other hand, Washington foreign policymakers,
along with Middle East experts, military critics, and firms
heavily invested in the region, were extremely concerned with
stability in this region. The invasion immediately triggered
fears that the world's price of oil, and therefore control of
the world economy, was at stake. Britain profited heavily from
billions of dollars of Kuwaiti investments and bank deposits.
President Bush was perhaps swayed while meeting with the tough
British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who happened to be in
the U.S. at the time.
Co-operation between the United States and the Soviet Union made
possible the passage of resolutions in the United Nations
Security Council giving Iraq a deadline to leave Kuwait and
approving the use of force if Saddam did not comply with the
timetable. U.S. officials feared Iraqi retaliation against
oil-rich Saudi Arabia, since the 1940s a close ally of
Washington, for the Saudis' opposition to the invasion of
Kuwait. Accordingly, the U.S. and a group of allies, including
countries as diverse as Egypt, Syria and Czechoslovakia,
deployed massive amounts of troops along the Saudi border with
Kuwait and Iraq in order to encircle the Iraqi army, the largest
in the Middle East.
During the period of negotiations and threats following the
invasion, Saddam focused renewed attention on the Palestinian
problem by promising to withdraw his forces from Kuwait if
Israel would relinquish the occupied territories in the West
Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Gaza Strip. Saddam's proposal
further split the Arab world, pitting U.S.- and
Western-supported Arab states against the Palestinians. The
allies ultimately rejected any linkage between the Kuwait crisis
and Palestinian issues.
Saddam ignored the Security Council deadline. Backed by the
Security Council, a U.S.-led coalition launched round-the-clock
missile and aerial attacks on Iraq, beginning January 16, 1991.
Israel, though subjected to attack by Iraqi missiles, refrained
from retaliating in order not to provoke Arab states into
leaving the coalition. A ground force comprised largely of U.S.
and British armoured and infantry divisions ejected Saddam's
army from Kuwait in February 1991 and occupied the southern
portion of Iraq as far as the Euphrates.
On March 6, 1991, Bush announced: "What is at stake is more than
one small country, it is a big idea — a new world order, where
diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve
the universal aspirations of mankind: peace and security,
freedom, and the rule of law."
In the end, the over-manned and under-equipped Iraqi army proved
unable to compete on the battlefield with the highly mobile
coalition land forces and their overpowering air support. Some
175,000 Iraqis were taken prisoner and casualties were estimated
at over 85,000. As part of the cease-fire agreement, Iraq agreed
to scrap all poison gas and germ weapons and allow UN observers
to inspect the sites. UN trade sanctions would remain in effect
until Iraq complied with all terms. Saddam publicly claimed
victory at the end of the war.
Iraq's ethnic and religious divisions, together with the
brutality of the conflict that this had engendered, laid the
groundwork for postwar rebellions. In the aftermath of the
fighting, social and ethnic unrest among Shi'ite Muslims, Kurds,
and dissident military units threatened the stability of
Saddam's government. Uprisings erupted in the Kurdish north and
Shi'a southern and central parts of Iraq, but were ruthlessly
The United States, which had urged Iraqis to rise up against
Saddam, did nothing to assist the rebellions. The Iranians, who
had earlier called for the overthrow of Saddam, had lost all
interest in removing him from power after the disastrous war
ended, and when Khomeini died his successor Ayatollah Khamenei,
who promised he would remove Saddam from power once and for all,
did little and simply sat back and watched. U.S. ally Turkey
opposed any prospect of Kurdish independence, and the Saudis and
other conservative Arab states feared an Iran-style Shi'ite
revolution. Saddam, having survived the immediate crisis in the
wake of defeat, was left firmly in control of Iraq, although the
country never recovered either economically or militarily from
the Gulf War. Saddam routinely cited his survival as "proof"
that Iraq had in fact won the war against America. This message
earned Saddam a great deal of popularity in many sectors of the
Arab world. John Esposito, however, claims that 'Arabs and
Muslims were pulled in two directions. That they rallied not so
much to Saddam Hussein as to the bipolar nature of the
confrontation (the West versus the Arab Muslim world) and the
issues that Saddam proclaimed: Arab unity, self-sufficiency, and
social justice.' As a result, Saddam Hussein appealed to many
people for the same reasons that attracted more and more
followers to Islamic revivalism and also for the same reasons
that fueled anti-Western feelings. 'As one U.S. Muslim observer
noted: People forgot about Saddam's record and concentrated on
America...Saddam Hussein might be wrong, but it is not America
who should correct him.' A shift was, therefore, clearly visible
among many Islamic movements in the post war period 'from an
initial Islamic ideological rejection of Saddam Hussein, the
secular persecutor of Islamic movements, and his invasion of
Kuwait to a more populist Arab nationalist, anti-imperialist
support for Saddam (or more precisely those issues he
represented or championed) and the condemnation of foreign
intervention and occupation.'
Saddam, therefore, increasingly portrayed himself as a devout
Muslim, in an effort to co-opt the conservative religious
segments of society. Some elements of Sharia law were
re-introduced, and the ritual phrase "Allahu Akbar" ("God is
great"), in Saddam's handwriting, was added to the national
Relations between the United States and Iraq remained tense
following the Gulf War. The U.S. launched a missile attack aimed
at Iraq's intelligence headquarters in Baghdad June 26, 1993,
citing evidence of repeated Iraqi violations of the "no fly
zones" imposed after the Gulf War and for incursions into
Kuwait. Some speculated that it was in retaliation for Iraq's
sponsorship of a plot to kill former President George H. W.
The UN sanctions placed upon Iraq when it invaded Kuwait were
not lifted, blocking Iraqi oil exports. This caused immense
hardship in Iraq and virtually destroyed the Iraqi economy and
state infrastructure. Only smuggling across the Syrian border,
and humanitarian aid ameliorated the humanitarian crisis. On
December 9, 1996 the United Nations allowed Saddam's government
to begin selling limited amounts of oil for food and medicine.
Limited amounts of income from the United Nations started
flowing into Iraq through the UN Oil for Food program.
U.S. officials continued to accuse Saddam of violating the terms
of the Gulf War's cease fire, by developing weapons of mass
destruction and other banned weaponry, and violating the
UN-imposed sanctions and "no-fly zones." Isolated military
strikes by U.S. and British forces continued on Iraq
sporadically, the largest being Operation Desert Fox in 1998.
Western charges of Iraqi resistance to UN access to suspected
weapons were the pretext for crises between 1997 and 1998,
culminating in intensive U.S. and British missile strikes on
Iraq, December 16-19, 1998. After two years of intermittent
activity, U.S. and British warplanes struck harder at sites near
Baghdad in February, 2001.
Saddam's support base of Tikriti tribesmen, family members, and
other supporters was divided after the war, and in the following
years, contributing to the government's increasingly repressive
and arbitrary nature. Domestic repression inside Iraq grew
worse, and Saddam's sons, Uday Hussein and Qusay Hussein, became
increasingly powerful and carried out a private reign of terror.
They likely had a leading hand when, in August 1995, two of
Saddam Hussein's sons-in-law (Hussein Kamel and Saddam Kamel),
who held high positions in the Iraqi military, defected to
Jordan. Both were killed after returning to Iraq the following
Iraqi co-operation with UN weapons inspection teams was
intermittent throughout the 1990s. It now appears more likely
that Iraq was playing a game of bluff, hoping to convince the
Western powers and the other Arab states that Iraq was still a
power to be reckoned with, than that Iraq was hiding significant
stockpiles of prohibited materials.
2003 invasion of Iraq
The U.S. continued to view Saddam as a bellicose tyrant who was
a threat to the stability of the region. Saddam, meanwhile, was
embittered by the aftermath of the Gulf War, which he viewed as
a betrayal by a nation that once considered him an indispensable
ally. During the 1990s, President Bill Clinton maintained
sanctions and ordered air strikes in the "Iraqi no-fly zones"
(Operation Desert Fox), in the hope that Saddam would be
overthrown by political enemies inside Iraq.
The domestic political equation changed in the U.S. after the
September 11, 2001 attacks, which bolstered the influence of the
neoconservative faction in the presidential administration and
throughout Washington. In his January 2002 state of the union
address to Congress, George W. Bush spoke of an "axis of evil"
consisting of Iran, North Korea, and Iraq. Moreover, Bush
announced that he would possibly take action to topple the Iraqi
government, because of the alleged threat of its "weapons of
mass destruction." Bush claimed, "The Iraqi regime has plotted
to develop anthrax, and nerve gas, and nuclear weapons for over
a decade." "Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward
America and to support terror," said Bush.
As the war was looming on February 24, 2003, Saddam Hussein
talked with CBS News reporter Dan Rather for more than three
hours — his first interview with a U.S. reporter in over a
decade. CBS aired the taped interview later that week.
The Iraqi government and military collapsed within three weeks
of the beginning of the U.S.-led 2003 invasion of Iraq on March
20. The United States made at least two attempts to kill Saddam
with targeted air strikes, but both failed to hit their target,
killing civilians instead. By the beginning of April, U.S.-led
forces occupied much of Iraq. The resistance of the
much-weakened Iraqi Army either crumbled or shifted to guerrilla
tactics, and it appeared that Saddam had lost control of Iraq.
He was last seen in a video which purported to show him in the
Baghdad suburbs surrounded by supporters. When Baghdad fell to
U.S-led forces on April 9, Saddam was nowhere to be found.
Capture and incarceration
In April 2003, Saddam's whereabouts remained in question during
the weeks following the fall of Baghdad and the conclusion of
the major fighting of the war. Various sightings of Saddam were
reported in the weeks following the war but none was
authenticated. At various times Saddam released audio tapes
promoting popular resistance to the U.S.-led occupation.
Saddam was placed at the top of the U.S. list of "most-wanted
Iraqis." In July 2003, his sons Uday and Qusay and 14-year-old
grandson Mustapha were killed in a three-hour gunfight with U.S.
On December 14, 2003, U.S. administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer
announced that Saddam Hussein had been captured at a farmhouse
in ad-Dawr near Tikrit. Bremer presented video footage of Saddam
Saddam was shown with a full beard and hair longer than his
familiar appearance. He was described by U.S. officials as being
in good health. Bremer reported plans to put Saddam on trial,
but claimed that the details of such a trial had not yet been
determined. Iraqis and Americans who spoke with Saddam after his
capture generally reported that he remained self-assured,
describing himself as a 'firm but just leader.'
According to U.S. military sources, following his capture by
U.S. forces on December 13, Saddam was transported to a U.S.
base near Tikrit, and later taken to the U.S. base near Baghdad.
The day after his capture he was reportedly visited by longtime
opponents such as Ahmed Chalabi. It is believed he remained
there in high security during most of the time of his detention.
Details of his interrogations remain unclear.
British tabloid newspaper The Sun posted a picture of Saddam
wearing white briefs on the front cover of a newspaper. Other
photographs inside the paper show Saddam washing his trousers,
shuffling, and sleeping. The United States Government stated
that it considers the release of the pictures a violation of the
Geneva Convention, and that it would investigate the
The guards at the Baghdad detention facility called their
prisoner "Vic," and let him plant a little garden near his cell.
The nickname and the garden are among the details about the
former Iraqi leader that emerged during a March 27, 2008-tour of
prison of the Baghdad-cell where Hussein slept, bathed, and kept
a journal in the final days before he was executed on December
On June 30, 2004, Saddam Hussein, held in custody by U.S. forces
at the U.S. base "Camp Cropper," along with 11 other senior
Baathist leaders, were handed over legally (though not
physically) to the interim Iraqi government to stand trial for
alleged "crimes against humanity" and other offences.
A few weeks later, he was charged by the Iraqi Special Tribunal
with crimes committed against residents of Dujail in 1982,
following a failed assassination attempt against him. Specific
charges included the murder of 148 people, torture of women and
children and the illegal arrest of 399 others. Among the many
challenges of the trial were:
* Saddam and his lawyers’ contesting the court's authority and
maintaining that he was yet the President of Iraq.
* The assassinations and attempts on the lives of several of
* Midway through the trial, the chief presiding judge was
On November 5, 2006, Saddam Hussein was found guilty of crimes
against humanity and sentenced to death by hanging. Saddam's
half brother, Barzan Ibrahim, and Awad Hamed al-Bandar, head of
Iraq's Revolutionary Court in 1982, were convicted of similar
charges as well. The verdict and sentencing were both appealed
but subsequently affirmed by Iraq's Supreme Court of Appeals. On
December 30, 2006, Saddam was hanged.
Saddam was hanged on the first day of Eid ul-Adha, December 30,
2006, despite his wish to be shot (which he felt would be more
dignified). The execution was carried out at "Camp Justice," an
Iraqi army base in Kadhimiya, a neighbuorhood of northeast
The execution was videotaped on a mobile phone, showing Saddam
being taunted before his hanging, and he and his captors
insulting each other. The video was leaked to electronic media
and posted on the Internet within hours, becoming the subject of
global controversy. It was later claimed by the head guard at
the tomb where his body remains that Saddam's body was stabbed
six times after the execution.
Not long before the execution, Saddam's lawyers released his
last letter. The following includes several excerpts:
“To the great nation, to the people of our country, and
Many of you have known the writer of this letter to be faithful,
honest, caring for others, wise, of sound judgment, just,
decisive, careful with the wealth of the people and the state
... and that his heart is big enough to embrace all without
You have known your brother and leader very well and he never
bowed to the despots and, in accordance with the wishes of those
who loved him, remained a sword and a banner.
This is how you want your brother, son or leader to be ... and
those who will lead you (in the future) should have the same
Here, I offer my soul to God as a sacrifice, and if He wants, He
will send it to heaven with the martyrs, or, He will postpone
that ... so let us be patient and depend on Him against the
Remember that God has enabled you to become an example of love,
forgiveness and brotherly coexistence ... I call on you not to
hate because hate does not leave a space for a person to be fair
and it makes you blind and closes all doors of thinking and
keeps away one from balanced thinking and making the right
I also call on you not to hate the peoples of the other
countries that attacked us and differentiate between the
decision-makers and peoples. Anyone who repents - whether in
Iraq or abroad - you must forgive him.
You should know that among the aggressors, there are people who
support your struggle against the invaders, and some of them
volunteered for the legal defence of prisoners, including Saddam
Hussein ... some of these people wept profusely when they said
goodbye to me.
Dear faithful people, I say goodbye to you, but I will be with
the merciful God who helps those who take refuge in him and who
will never disappoint any faithful, honest believer ... God is
Great ... God is great ... Long live our nation ... Long live
our great struggling people ... Long live Iraq, long live Iraq
... Long live Palestine ... Long live jihad and the mujahedeen
Additional clarification note:
I have written this letter because the lawyers told me that the
so-called criminal court — established and named by the invaders
— will allow the so-called defendants the chance for a last
word. But that court and its chief judge did not give us the
chance to say a word, and issued its verdict without explanation
and read out the sentence — dictated by the invaders — without
presenting the evidence. I wanted the people to know this.
— Letter by Saddam Hussein
A second unofficial video, apparently showing Saddam's body on a
trolley, emerged several days later. It sparked speculation that
the execution was carried out incorrectly as Saddam Hussein had
a massive gaping hole in his neck.
Saddam was buried at his birthplace of Al-Awja in Tikrit, Iraq,
3 km (2 mi) from his sons Uday and Qusay Hussein, on December
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