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Born: April 28, 1937 at Ouja, near Tikrit, Iraq
Died: Executed December 30, 2006 in Baghdad, Iraq
Ruled: Fifth President of Iraq, July 16, 1979 to April 9, 2003
Saddam Hussein endured childhood abuse and later torture as a political prisoner. He survived to become one of the most ruthless dictators the modern Middle East has seen. His life began with despair and violence and ended the same way.
Saddam Hussein was born to a shepherd's family on April 28, 1937 in northern Iraq, near Tikrit. His father disappeared before the child was born, never to be heard from again, and several months later, Saddam's 13-year-old brother died of cancer. The baby's mother was too despondent to care for him properly. He was sent to live with the family of his uncle Khairallah Talfah in Baghdad.
When Saddam was three, his mother remarried and the child was returned to her in Tikrit. His new stepfather was a violent and abusive man. When he was ten, Saddam ran away from home and returned to his uncle's house in Baghdad. Khairallah Talfah had recently been released from prison, after serving time as a political prisoner. Saddam's uncle took him in, raised him, allowed him to go to school for the first time, and taught him about Arab nationalism and the pan-Arabist Ba'ath Party.
As a youth, Saddam Hussein dreamed of joining the military. His aspirations were crushed, however, when he failed the military school entrance exams. He attended a highly nationalistic secondary school in Baghdad instead, focusing his energy on politics.
Entry into Politics
In 1957, the twenty-year-old Saddam formally joined the Ba'ath Party. He was selected in 1959 as part of an assassination squad sent to kill the Iraqi president, General Abd al-Karim Qasim. However, the October 7, 1959 assassination attempt did not succeed. Saddam had to flee Iraq overland, by donkey, moving first to However, the October 7, 1959 assassination attempt did not succeed. Saddam had to flee Iraq overland, by donkey, moving first to Syria for a few months, and then going into exile in Egypt until 1963.
Ba'ath Party-linked army officers overthrew Qasim in 1963, and Saddam Hussein returned to Iraq. The following year, due to infighting within the party, he was arrested and imprisoned. For the next three years, he languished as a political prisoner, enduring torture, until he escaped in 1967. Free from prison, he began to organize followers for yet another coup. In 1968, Ba'athists led by Saddam and Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr took power; Al-Bakr became president, and Saddam Hussein his deputy.
The elderly Al-Bakr was nominally the ruler of Iraq, but Saddam Hussein really held the reins of power. He sought to stabilize the country, which was divided among Arabs and Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, and rural tribes versus urban elites. Saddam dealt with these factions through a combination of modernization and development programs, improved living standards and social security, and brutal suppression of anyone who caused trouble despite these measures.
On June 1, 1972, Saddam ordered the nationalization of all foreign-owned oil interests in Iraq. When the 1973 energy crisis struck the following year, Iraq's oil revenues shot up in a sudden windfall of wealth for the country. With this flow of money, Saddam Hussein instituted free compulsory education for all Iraq children all the way through university; free nationalized medical care for all; and generous farm subsidies. He also worked to diversify Iraq's economy, so that it would not be utterly dependent on volatile oil prices.
Some of the oil wealth also went into chemical weapons development. Saddam used some of the proceeds to build up the army, party-linked paramilitaries, and a secretive security service. These organizations used disappearances, assassination, and rape as weapons against perceived opponents of the state.
Rise to Formal Power
In 1976, Saddam Hussein became a general in the armed forces, despite having no military training. He was the de facto leader and strongman of the country, which was still supposedly ruled by the sickly and aged Al-Bakr. Early in 1979, Al-Bakr entered into negotiations with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad to unite the two countries under al-Assad's rule, a move that would have marginalized Saddam from power.
To Saddam Hussein, the union with Syria was unacceptable. He had become convinced that he was the reincarnation of the ancient Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar (r. 605 - 562 BCE) and destined for greatness.
On July 16, 1979, Saddam forced Al-Bakr to resign, naming himself president. He called a meeting of the Ba'ath party leadership and called out the names of 68 alleged traitors among those assembled. They were removed from the room and arrested; 22 were executed. In the following weeks, hundreds more were purged and executed. Saddam Hussein was not willing to risk party in-fighting like that in 1964 that had landed him in prison.
Meanwhile, the Islamic Revolution in neighboring Iran put the Shiite clergy in power there. Saddam feared that Iraqi Shiites would be inspired to rise up, so he invaded Iran. He used chemical weapons against the Iranians, tried to wipe out Iraqi Kurds on grounds that they might be sympathetic to Iran, and committed other atrocities. This invasion turned into the grinding, eight-year-long Iran / Iraq War. Despite Saddam Hussein's aggression and violations of international law, much of the Arab world, the Soviet Union, and the United States all supported him in the war against Iran's new theocracy.
The Iran/Iraq War left hundreds of thousands of people dead on both sides, without changing the borders or governments of either side. To pay for this expensive war, Saddam Hussein decided to seize the oil-rich Gulf nation of Kuwait on grounds that it was historically part of Iraq. He invaded on August 2, 1990. A US-led coalition of UN troops drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait just six weeks later, but Saddam's troops had created an environmental catastrophe in Kuwait, setting fire to the oil wells. The UN coalition pushed the Iraqi army back well inside Iraq but decided not to roll on to Baghdad and depose Saddam.
Domestically, Saddam Hussein cracked down ever harder on real or imagined opponents of his rule. He used chemical weapons against the Kurds of northern Iraq and tried to wipe out the "marsh Arabs" of the delta region. His security services also arrested and tortured thousands of suspected political dissidents.
Second Gulf War and Fall
On September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda launched a massive attack on the United States. US government officials began to imply, without offering any proof, that Iraq might have been implicated in the terrorist plot. The US also charged that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons; UN weapons inspection teams found no evidence that those programs existed. Despite the lack of any ties to 9/11 or any proof of WMD ("weapons of mass destruction") development, the US launched a new invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003. This was the beginning of the Iraq War, or Second Gulf War.
Baghdad fell to the US-led coalition on April 9, 2003. However, Saddam Hussein escaped. He remained on the run for months, issuing recorded statements to the people of Iraq urging them to resist the invaders. On December 13, 2003, US troops finally located him in a tiny underground bunker near Tikrit. He was arrested and sent to a US base in Baghdad. After six months, the US handed him over to the interim Iraqi government for trial.
Saddam was charged with 148 specific counts of murder, torture of women and children, illegal detention, and other crimes against humanity. The Iraqi Special Tribunal found him guilty on November 5, 2006, and sentenced him to death. His subsequent appeal was denied, as was his request for execution by firing squad instead of hanging. On December 30, 2006, Saddam Hussein was hanged at an Iraqi army base near Baghdad. Video of his death soon leaked on the internet, sparking international controversy.