(From Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)

Saddam Hussein

{ sah-dahm' hoo-sayn' }

Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, b. Apr. 28, 1937, d. Dec. 30, 2006, dominated Iraq from 1979 to 2003. His brutal dictatorship was ended by the Iraq War. Hussein was born into an illiterate peasant family. He joined the Baath party in 1957 and played a prominent role in the Iraqi revolution of July 1968 that ended the Iraqi monarchy. A July 17, 1968, Baath party coup made Hussein's second cousin Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr president. Hussein himself became a vice-chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council and vice-president. He built up a powerful secret police network. In 1979 he ousted al-Bakr to become president himself (on July 16). At that time he purged the Baath party of all his enemies.

As president (and prime minister too from 1979 to 1991), Hussein moved to modernize the economy while ruthlessly crushing his opponents. He launched the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) and competed with Syria's Hafez al-Assad and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak for influence in the Arab world. Hussein accumulated a record of human rights abuses, including poison-gas attacks against Iraqi Kurds in 1988. Nevertheless, he was supported by most Western powers and moderate Arab states as a bulwark against the spread of Islamic fundamentalism until 1990.

In August 1990, Hussein invaded and annexed Kuwait. This act was condemned by the international community. When he did not withdraw by a UN-imposed deadline of Jan. 15, 1991, a U.S.-led multinational coalition launched the Persian Gulf War. Iraqi forces were swiftly defeated. After the war Hussein brutally put down revolts by Kurds in the north and dissident Shiites south of Baghdad. A 1996 accord allowed Iraq to sell some oil for food and medicine, but UN sanctions imposed in 1990 were not lifted—in part because UN inspectors were unable to verify that Iraq had disposed of its weapons of mass destruction.

Hussein continued to test UN and U.S. resolve with provocative actions. On Aug. 30, 1996, his forces invaded the Kurdish safe haven in northern Iraq, provoking retaliatory U.S. military action in southern Iraq. United States and Britain subsequently kept up their military pressure on Hussein while endeavoring to find an international diplomatic solution to the humanitarian problems posed by the UN sanctions.

More than a decade after the Persian Gulf War, however, Hussein was still in power. His efforts to weaken the sanctions were having some success, particularly after the new Palestinian intifada launched in late 2000 heightened anti-American feelings among his neighbors. He was lauded by Palestinian Arabs for his support of their cause. One branch of his Baath party, the Arab Liberation Front, funneled payments from Hussein to the families of Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who were killed in the intifada. The UN sanctions were revised in May 2002 to lessen their impact on Iraqi civilians. Hussein opposed changing the sanctions, demanding their repeal instead.

Hussein's brutal regime depended for its survival on his family, his clan, and his hometown of Tikrit, in northern Iraq. His youngest son and heir apparent, Qusay, was elected to his first official post in the leadership of the Baath party in May 2001. His father also named him one of two deputy commanders in charge of the military branch of the party. Qusay usually chaired the National Security Council, which formally oversaw the activities of Iraq's various security and intelligence services. He also headed the ultraelite Special Security Organization (SSO), which superseded all other security and military organizations; its primary purpose was to protect Saddam and his sons. Qusay had the authority to order the use of chemical and biological weapons. He was in direct control of the Republican Guard, the Special Republican Guard, and the irregular Al Quds Army, which had been created after the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000 for the ostensible purpose of liberating Jerusalem.

Before being severely injured in a 1996 assassination attempt, Saddam's elder son, Uday, had dominated the routes via which large quantities of Iraqi oil were smuggled to evade UN sanctions. These illicit exports generated huge revenues for Saddam, whose net worth in early 2003 was estimated at between $2 billion and $40 billion. Uday was in charge of the Fedayeen Saadam, an ununiformed militia numbering some 60,000 that he had founded in 1995. The organization had responsibility for controlling Iraqis in urban areas outside of Baghdad, especially in the restive Shiite south. It was known for its brutality.

Hussein was the only Arab leader who did not condemn the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. After the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in December of that year, Iraq appeared to become the most likely next target of the U.S.-led war on international terrorism launched in the wake of the attacks. In October 2002 the Iraqi government announced that 100% of the country's eligible voters had voted in favor of a referendum extending Hussein's rule for an additional seven years—up from 99.6% in 1995, when he was also the only candidate.

In November 2002, as U.S. pressure for a regime change in Iraq intensified, Hussein finally agreed to allow UN weapons inspectors into the country. In December he provided a 12,000-page declaration of his weapons programs; it said that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction or programs to create them. Nevertheless, it failed to answer many outstanding questions about Iraq's weapons. A Jan. 27, 2003, report to the United Nations by the head of the UN weapons inspectors said that while no "smoking gun" had been uncovered, it appeared that Iraq had still failed to genuinely accept the idea of disarmament. In particular, Hussein had failed to account for significant quantities of chemical and biological weapons that the country had once possessed. Pressure on Hussein to fully comply with the disarmament resolution intensified. By early March 2003 he had destroyed many of the banned al-Samoud II missiles that had been uncovered by the UN inspectors. Some believed that his cooperation was simply a delaying tactic rather than genuine compliance. Meanwhile, worldwide opposition to unilateral U.S.-led military action increased as the U.S. military buildup in the area continued.

The United States failed to convince the UN Security Council to pass a new resolution that would authorize war if Iraq did not swiftly account for and destroy its weapons of mass destruction. On Mar. 17, 2003, U.S. president George W. Bush issued Hussein an ultimatum: he and his two sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours or face a U.S.-led military invasion. Hussein defiantly rejected the U.S. ultimatum, and the war began. By April 9, U.S. forces proclaimed themselves largely in control of Baghdad and Iraqi resistance appeared to crumble. On April 13 coalition forces entered Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.

As Iraqis toppled statues and tore down posters of their former leader, it was clear that Hussein's regime had come to an end. His sons Qusay and Uday were killed by U.S. forces on July 22, 2003, in the northern city of Mosul. Saddam himself remained at large. On Dec. 13, 2003, he was captured alive by U.S. troops while hiding in an underground crawl space on an isolated farm near Tikrit.

On June 30, 2004, the U.S.-led coalition turned legal custody of Hussein over to the new interim Iraqi government, although he physically remained in coalition custody. On July 1 he and 11 of his former top aides were arraigned before a 5-member special Iraqi war-crimes tribunal. His preliminary charges included his role in the murders of political activists between 1974 and 2003; a 1974 Baath party purge of religious leaders; Kurdish ethnic cleansing in 1987-88; the use of chemical weapons to kill some 5,000 Kurdish villagers in Halabja in 1988; the 1990 invasion of Kuwait; and the suppression of Kurdish and Shiite rebellions following the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The Iranian government later said that it wished to add alleged crimes against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War to the list of charges. Saddam insisted that he was still the legal president of Iraq and defiantly rejected the court's jurisdiction.

In June 2005 the Iraqi court established to try Hussein and his aides agreed to accelerate its proceedings. Hussein was charged with just 12 fully documented crimes against humanity. Genocide charges associated with his 1988 Anfal campaign against the Iraqi Kurds in which some 180,000 civilians died were added in April 2006. His trial began in October 2005. On Nov. 5, 2006, Hussein was sentenced to death by hanging for crimes against humanity related to the 1982 killing of 148 people in a predominantly Shiite town in retaliation for an attempt to assassinate him. The decision was immediately submitted to an appellate court for review. Hussein lost his appeal and was hanged. He remained defiant to the end; an unauthorized video of his execution inflamed sectarian tensions.

Further Reading:

Cockburn, Andrew and Patrick, Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein (1999).

Coughlin, Con, Saddam: King of Terror (2002).

Mackey, Sandra, The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein (2002).

Newton, Michael A., and Scharf, Michael P., Enemy of the State: The Trial and Execution of Saddam Hussein (2008).