Accessibility links

Iraq: The Rise And Fall Of Saddam Hussein, Iraq's 'Great Uncle'

  • Kathleen Moore

Saddam Hussein rose from an impoverished background to become one of the world's most feared leaders. But with Iraqis cheering coalition troops in Baghdad and other cities, his nearly 25-year rule appears over. RFE/RL takes a look at the rise -- and fall -- of Iraq's so-called "Great Uncle."

Prague, 11 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In the early 1960s, Hussein al-Rikaby was jailed in Iraq following one of that period's many coups.

His neighbor in the next cell was a man named Saddam Hussein, a generally polite prisoner who would occasionally brew coffee for other inmates. But as al-Rikaby recalls, this courteous man was not afraid to threaten his jailers.

One day, there was a fight between prisoners from rival factions of the Ba'ath Party, which had been ousted from government just months after a 1963 coup brought it to power. The warden gathered some of the troublemakers together and demanded an explanation. No one replied. Al-Rikaby recalled: "The warden asked why no one was answering. Then they all said in one voice, 'Comrade Saddam will reply to you!' Saddam spoke and said: 'We are the revolutionaries of Ramadan [the 1963 coup]. You used to kiss the feet of [former Iraqi leader] General Abd-al-Karim Qasim, but we saved you and made you raise your head high. But we will return and soon everyone will have to be accountable for what they have done.'"

On another occasion, the prison warden called al-Rikaby to his office and accused him of trying to stir up trouble by forging allegiances with the jailed Ba'athists. Al-Rikaby said he had done no such thing and returned to his cell. "Saddam asked me, 'What did they do to you?' I told him someone had informed on me. Saddam started to laugh. 'That was me! I did it!' He said he'd assigned one of the Ba'athists to pretend to be an informer and to tell the warden. This was the informer's way of gaining the warden's trust and getting information about what was going on with the prison management."

Saddam may have been generous with his coffee, but he was also willing to use his fellow prisoners to his own advantage.

Al-Rikaby's two anecdotes are an early inkling of Saddam Hussein the future leader, the man who went on to rule Iraq through fear, torture, and executions. But that rule has now collapsed, with U.S. tanks in the center of Baghdad and his lavish presidential palaces looted by ordinary Iraqis. Saddam himself, meanwhile, is nowhere to be found.

So who was the ruthless dictator who ruled Iraq for nearly a quarter of a century?

Officially, Hussein was born in April 1937 to a poor family in a village near Tikrit, north of the capital. His father died before he was born and his stepfather appears to have treated him badly.

His political life began in Baghdad in the 1950s, when he joined the new Ba'ath or Renewal Party, a socialist party that aimed at unifying the Arab world.

In 1959, he took part in an assassination attempt on Iraqi leader General Abd-al-Karim Qasim, who had overthrown the British-installed monarchy the year before. That attempt failed, and Saddam escaped -- apparently by swimming across the Tigris River. But it marked him as a future strongman.

When the Ba'ath Party seized power in 1963, Saddam returned from exile in Egypt. But in another reversal of fortune, he soon found himself in jail when another coup toppled the Baathists. That's when he met al-Rikaby.

Several years later, Hussein escaped from jail and began his rise to power. A relative, Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, was Ba'ath Party leader. When al-Bakr became president in yet another coup in 1968, he made Hussein his vice president.

This period saw some successes for Iraq. Literacy soared under a compulsory reading program, earning Hussein an award from UNESCO, the UN's Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. The country's public-health system was among the best in the Middle East. Iraq's standard of living rose on the back of high oil prices.

Hussein's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, said of this time that Hussein served al-Bakr patiently and honestly. In reality, though, he was gradually firming his grip on power, putting key allies in important positions.

In 1979, Saddam Hussein seized his chance, staging a palace coup by forcing the ailing al-Bakr to resign "for health reasons."

Shortly afterward, Hussein called a meeting of several hundred top party officials. The new president said there had been a plot against him. Names were read out, and the accused were taken out of the hall one by one and shot. Videotapes of the meeting were distributed throughout the country. The message was clear -- Hussein's rule would be absolute and any dissent crushed.

A personality cult grew around Saddam. He had a Koran written in his blood, an attempt to show he was directly descended from the prophet Muhammad. He is attributed to having written a romantic novel that was turned into a lavish musical. He had a film made of his youthful assassination attempt on Qasim. He was known in Iraq as "Great Uncle" or "the Anointed One."

The same year he took power, the Islamic revolution in neighboring Iran swept the Western-backed Shah from power and replaced him with the radical regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Relations between the two neighbors soured. The next year, Iraq invaded, sparking a costly eight-year war that impoverished the country.

Hussein's ties to the West, meanwhile, improved. The big worry was that Tehran's Islamic revolution would spread beyond Iran and destabilize the region. The U.S. and Britain supported Iraq in the hope that Baghdad could contain Iran -- casting a blind eye to some of Hussein's worst excesses, like his gassing of Iraqi Kurds and Iranian soldiers.

John Moberly met Saddam Hussein on several occasions when he was British ambassador to Iraq in the early 1980s. "Immediately, you don't feel this is a loathsome person. He doesn't come across in that way, and he's quite good in talks where he's talking to other visiting officials or ministers. But you can't get out of your mind what you know about his ruthlessness and the way that he does not give much care to human life," Moberly told RFE/RL.

The disastrous war with Iran -- in which hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians were killed on both sides -- was followed by another ill-fated campaign, one that put an abrupt end to Saddam Hussein's time as a Western ally: the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Iraq was roundly defeated in that, the first Gulf War, when a U.S.-led coalition evicted Iraqi forces. Not that you'd know it from this speech by Hussein to mark the 10th anniversary of the start of hostilities: "Iraq has achieved victory over the enemies of the Arab nation. Iraq will achieve victory in all remaining courses of action, with God's will. That is because Iraq has already achieved victory within its conscience, heart, and mind."

Under Hussein's rule, more than 1 million people lost their lives -- through wars, ethnic cleansing, or simply by his efforts to get rid of opponents.

The merest whiff of dissent could get someone jailed or executed. Torture was common. Some detainees had their fingernails pulled out. Others were hung by their limbs for long periods of time or beaten with metal rods.

Hussein launched campaigns against the Kurds, destroying villages and gassing thousands. An uprising at the end of the Gulf War in 1991 was crushed. The marshlands of southern Iraq were drained, destroying the livelihoods of the Marsh Arabs.

There was no mercy for family members either. In 1996, two of Hussein's sons-in-law left Iraq and asked for asylum in Jordan. Hussein promised to guarantee their safety if they returned. Amazingly, they did -- only to be killed within days.

After his defeat in the 1991 Gulf War, it's something of a mystery why Hussein set himself up for another battle by refusing to fully cooperate with UN weapons inspectors.

Moberly said Hussein was skilled in his own political backyard but ignorant about the outside world. And maybe, he said, it's partly self-delusion -- Saddam Hussein actually believed in his own greatness. "He certainly had the ambition to be the great Arab leader of the new century, outrivaling [former Egyptian President Gamel Abdul] Nasser and perhaps trying to compare himself with Saladin in the Middle Ages, fighting the crusaders. He had the kind of ambition to be regarded as a great national heroic figure," Moberly said.

Today, Saddam's whereabouts are unknown. He may have been killed or injured in U.S. air strikes. Initial rumors said he had fled with his two sons to Tikrit or that he was hiding in the Russian Embassy in Baghdad. Whatever the case, Saddam's ambitions, like his rule, appear certain to have come to an end.

(Kamran al-Karadaghi of Radio Free Iraq contributed to this report.)