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Biography of Saddam Hussein

Name: Saddam Hussein
Bith Date: April 28, 1937
Death Date:
Place of Birth: Tikrit, Iraq
Nationality: Iraqi
Gender: Male
Occupations: president
Saddam Hussein

Saddam Hussein (born 1937), the socialist president of the Iraqi Republic beginning in 1979 and strongman of the ruling Baa'th regime beginning in 1968, was known for his political shrewdness and ability to survive conflicts. He led Iraq in its long, indecisive war with Iran beginning in 1980. He was defeated in the six week Persian Gulf War in 1990 which was a result of his invasion of Kuwait. In 2002, he was facing a U.S.-led invasion after President George W. Bush accused Iraq of attempting to build weapons of mass destruction.

Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti was born in 1937 to a peasant family in a village near Tikrit, a town on the Tigris River north of Baghdad. His father died before his birth and his mother died in childbirth. He was raised by his uncles, particularly his maternal uncle Khairallah Talfah, a retired army officer and an avid Arab nationalist who influenced his political leanings and served as a role model for Hussein. (In 1963 Saddam married Talfah's daughter Sajida.) In 1956 he moved to his uncle's house in Baghdad, where he was caught up in the strong Arab nationalist sentiments sweeping Iraq in the wake of the Suez war that year. In 1957 he joined the Arab Baa'th Socialist Party, founded in Syria in 1947 and dedicated to Arab unity and socialism. The party spread to neighboring Arab countries in the 1950s (including Iraq where it was an underground party) and was especially popular with students. From 1957 on Saddam's life and career were inextricably bound up with the Baa'th Party.

In 1959 Saddam Hussein was one of the party members who attempted to carry out the unsuccessful assassination of the Iraqi dictator, Major General Abdul Karim Qasim (Kassem). Although wounded, he was subsequently able to stage a daring escape to Syria and then Egypt, where he remained in exile until 1963. In Egypt he continued his political activities, closely observing the tactics and movements of Gamal Abdel Nasser and his politics.

In February 1963 a group of Nasserite and Baa'thist officers in Iraq brought down the government of Qasim, and Saddam returned to his country. However, this Baa'thist government did not survive in power past November of the same year, and Saddam was once again forced underground. Between 1963 and 1968 he was involved in clandestine party activities and was captured and jailed, although he later escaped. In 1966 he became a member of the Iraqi branch's regional command and played a major role in reorganizing the Baa'th Party in preparation for a second attempt at power. It was during this period that he formed a close alliance with Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr--a retired officer, a distant relative, and a leading spokesman of the party. It was in this period, too, that Saddam acquired his reputation as a tough, daring Ba'th Party partisan.

The Dual Rule: Bakr and Hussein

In July 1968, after two coups d'etat in short succession--in both of which Saddam played a key role--the Ba'th came back to power in Iraq, temporarily governing through the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC). Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr was elected president of the republic by the RCC and Saddam was elected vice president of the RCC in 1969. Between 1969 and 1979 Iraq was ruled outwardly by al-Bakr and behind the scenes by Saddam. Saddam proved to be a shrewd manipulator and survivor. No major decisions in this decade were taken without his consent.

In domestic affairs the Baa'th regime implemented its socialist policy by bringing virtually all economic activity under the control of the government. In 1972 Iraq nationalized the foreign-owned oil company IBC, the first Middle Eastern government to do so. Minorities were given cultural rights, generally modeled on the Yugoslav experiment in this field, and the Kurdish area of northern Iraq was given some self-rule in 1974.

Saddam Hussein also oversaw the rapid economic and social development of Iraq which followed the oil price increases of the 1970s. The country received major infusions to the infrastructure, especially schools and medical facilities. A major campaign to wipe out illiteracy was started in 1978 and compulsory schooling was effectively implemented. The status of women was substantially improved through legislation. Petrochemical and iron and steel industries were built.

In international affairs, Iraq improved relations with the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc, signing a treaty of friendship with the U.S.S.R. in 1972; at the same time Iraq distanced itself from the West, except for France. Iraq took a hard line on Israel and attempted to isolate Egypt after Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David agreements with Israel's Menachem Begin.

Between 1974 and 1975 Saddam was involved in a major Kurdish insurrection in northern Iraq; the Kurds were seeking more autonomy and were receiving support from the Shah of Iran. In an effort to bring the conflict to a close, in March 1975 Saddam signed an agreement with Iran, arranged by Algeria, which ended Iranian support for the Kurds in return for rectification of the border with Iran.

Saddam Hussein as President

Iraq was the country most affected by the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. Iraq needed more energetic leadership than that provided by the aging and ailing President Bakr. On July 16, 1979, al-Bakr resigned and Saddam was elected president of the Iraqi Republic. One of the first things he ordered were posters of himself scattered throughout Iraq, some as tall as 20 feet, depicting himself in various roles: a military man, a desert horseman, a young graduate. He carefully concocted an image of himself as a devoted family man. All in order to win the trust and love of the Iraqi people. He held the titles of Secretary General of the Ba'th party and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.

Throughout 1979 and 1980 relations with Iran had deteriorated, as Ayatollah Khomeini called on Iraq's Shi'ites to revolt against Saddam and the secular Baa'thist regime. (Iraq is about equally divided between members of the Shi'ite and Sunni branches of Islam.) Secret pro-Iranian organizations committed acts of sabotage in Iraq, while Iranians began shelling Iraqi border towns in 1980. In September 1980 the Iraqi army crossed the Iranian border and seized Iranian territory (subsequently evacuated in the course of the war), thus initiating a long, costly, and bitter war, which continued into the late 1980s.

With the continuation of the war, Saddam adopted a more pragmatic stance in international affairs. Relations with conservative countries such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt improved since they provided Iraq with either financial or military aid. Diplomatic relations with the United States, cut in 1967 in protest against U.S. support for Israel in the Six-Day War, were restored in November 1984. However, Iraq did not change its friendly relations with the U.S.S.R. which, together with France, was the main source of its arms. In 1987 the United Nations formally called for a cease-fire, but the fighting continued.

Saddam Hussein was a man with the reputation for ruthless suppression of opposition. When he assumed power, he purged his party of officials and military officers due to an alleged Syrian plot to overthrow his government. He executed another 300 officers in 1982 for rebelling against his tactics in the war with Iran. In order to protect himself, Saddam surrounded himself with a coterie of family and friends in positions of trust and responsibility in the government. This however did not ensure that these individuals were safe from his rages. After Saddam had a much publicized affair with another woman, his brother-in-law, first cousin and childhood companion, and Minster of Defense Adnan Talfah was killed in a "mysterious" helicopter crash for standing by his sister (Saddam's wronged wife). He ordered the murders of his sons-in-law after they defected to Jordan in 1996. His image of a devoted family man was shattered with these acts.

On several occasions (1969, 1973, 1979, 1981, 1995, 1996) the regime uncovered plots against it, and at least seven unsuccessful assassination attempts were made against Saddam. The main opposition came from the Kurds, the Communists, pro-Khomeini Shi'ites, and, on occasion, elements within the Baa'th Party itself.

In 1990, Saddam Hussein brought the wrath and combined power of the West and the Arab world down upon Iraq by his unprovoked invasion of Kuwait. The Persian Gulf War lasted for six weeks and caused Iraq's leader worldwide condemnation. However, there are still a great many proponents of Saddam scattered throughout the world. They see him as "someone who is shaking an unacceptable status quo." Despite the sanctions imposed upon Iraq in the years subsequent to the war, Saddam maintained absolute power over his country. In 1997, citizens of Baghdad feared to overtly criticize Saddam and rumors abounded that he had put his wife under house arrest after his son Uday was shot. Whatever the case, Saddam Hussein remained a powerful strongman, in spite of an imposed embargo of his country's oil, goods and services.

The 1991 cease-fire ending the Persian Gulf War stipulated that Iraq must destroy all of its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs. For the next eight years, Saddam's weapons designers reportedly attempted to conceal their work from U.N. weapons inspectors. Nevertheless, large quantities of chemical weapons were destroyed, and by 1995 it appeared that the inspections would soon be drawing to a close. But that year, Saddam's son-in-law, who had overseen Iraq's special weapons program, defected to Jordan where he described a massive effort underway in Iraq to conceal such weapons from view.

Two reportedly CIA-assisted coups against Saddam were subsequently put down--one in 1995 and another in 1996. By late 1998, the United Nation's weapons inspectors had reached an impasse. Saddam was refusing to let them inspect the presidential palaces. Iraq ultimately refused to permit any further inspections.

In October 1998, Republicans in Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act, which committed the U.S. to overthrowing Saddam. President Clinton then signed the act into law. Meanwhile, the weapons inspectors withdrew from Iraq that December, when Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair ordered several days of bombing against selected targets in Iraq.

When President George W. Bush took office in 2001, he was apparently already committed to ousting Saddam. Bush immediately dispatched Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Middle East to attempt to resurrect sanctions against Iraq. But because previous economic sanctions had mainly led to massive malnutrition and lack of medical care for the Iraqi population, world opinion was set against Bush's plan and it was not enacted.

Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States--which were never linked to Iraq--the Bush administration became concerned that terrorists equipped with Iraqi weapons of mass destruction might target the U.S. Bush argued before the U.N. that Saddam had almost certainly pursued his weapons program after the inspectors left his country.

With the U.S. further alleging that Iraq still had chemical and biological weapons that had been missed during 1990s inspections, Bush was threatening to go to war in 2002 if Iraq did not co-operate with new U.N. weapons inspections. Saddam, for his part, maintained that Iraq no longer has such weapons and permitted the U.N. inspectors back in the country.

Associated Organizations

Associated Events

Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988

Further Reading

  • Majid Khadduri, Socialist Iraq, A Study in Iraqi Politics Since 1968 (1978); Phebe Marr, The Modern History of Iraq (1985); Christine Helms, Iraq, Eastern Flank of the Arab World (1984); and Fuad Matar, Saddam Hussein, the Man, the Cause and the Future (London, 1981) provide information on Saddam's role in the leadership of Iraq. Stefoff's Saddam Hussein: Absolute Ruler of Iraqprovides valuable insight into the operation of Iraq since the Persian Gulf War. Bob Simon's Forty Daysis an excellent memoir of the war. For more recent events, see Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, December 3, 2002.

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