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Sunday, 24 January, 1999, 12:11 GMT
Saddam Hussein: His rise to power
By Gerald Butt

Saddam Hussein, President of Iraq for the past two decades, has the dubious distinction of being the world's best known and most hated Arab leader. And in a region where despotic rule is the norm, he is more feared by his own people than any other head of state.

A former Iraqi diplomat living in exile summed up Saddam's rule in one sentence: "Saddam is a dictator who is ready to sacrifice his country, just so long as he can remain on his throne in Baghdad." Few Iraqis would disagree with this. Although none living in Iraq would dare to say so publicly.

The Iraqi people are forced to consume a daily diet of triumphalist slogans, fattened by fawning praise of the president.

He is portrayed as a valiant knight leading the Arabs into battle against the infidel, or as an eighth-century caliph who founded the city of Baghdad. Evoking the glory of Arab history, Saddam claims to be leading his people to new glory.

The reality looks very different. Iraq is bankrupt, its economy and infrastructure shattered by years of economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations following the invasion of Kuwait.

Saddam himself remains largely isolated from his people, keeping the company of a diminishing circle of trusted advisers - largely drawn from his close family or from the extended clan based around the town of Takrit, north of Baghdad.

The path to power

The Iraqi president was born in a village just outside Takrit in April 1937. In his teenage years, Saddam immersed himself in the anti-British and anti-Western atmosphere of the day. At college in Baghdad he joined the Baath party and in 1956 he took part in an abortive coup attempt.

After the overthrow of the monarchy two years later Saddam connived in a plot to kill the prime minister, Abdel-Karim Qassem. But the conspiracy was discovered, and Saddam fled the country.

In 1963, with the Baath party in control in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein returned home and began jostling for a position of influence. During this period he married his cousin Sajida. They later had two sons and three daughters.

But within months, the Baath party had been overthrown and Saddam was jailed, remaining there until the party returned to power in a coup in July 1968. Showing ruthless determination that was to become a hallmark of his leadership, Saddam gained a position on the ruling Revolutionary Command Council.

For years he was the power behind the ailing figure of the president, Ahmed Hassan Bakr. In 1979, Saddam achieved his ambition of becoming head of state. The new president started as he intended to go on - putting to death dozens of his rivals.

Holding together a disparate nation

President Saddam Hussein might defend his autocratic style of leadership by arguing that nothing else could have kept such a vast and diverse nation united.

Kurds fleeing Saddam's army at the end of the Gulf War
And, for all that Saddam Hussein is criticised and reviled, his opponents have not been able to nominate anyone else who might hold Iraq together - with its Kurds in the north, Sunni Muslims in the centre and Shi'ia in the south. What the outside world calls terror, Saddam calls expediency.

Some years ago a European interviewer nervously quoted reports that the Baghdad authorities might, on occasions, have tortured and perhaps even killed opponents of the regime. Was this true? Saddam Hussein was not offended. Rather, he seemed surprised by the naivete of the question. "Of course," he replied. "What do you expect if they oppose the regime?"

But his tactic of imposing his authority by terror has gone far beyond the occasional arrest and execution of opponents. In attempts to suppress the Kurds, for example, he has systematically used chemical weapons. And in putting down a rebellion of Shi'ia in the south he has razed towns to the ground and drained marshland.

Portraits of the Iraqi leader are a constant backdrop
Not that you would recognise the figure of a tyrant in the portraits that adorn every building and street corner in Iraq.

Here you see Saddam, usually smiling benevolently, in a variety of guises and poses - in military uniform, say, or in traditional ethnic dress, or tweed cap and sports jacket; he might be surrounded by his family or be seen jiggling a young child on his knee - the would-be father-figure of the Iraqi nation.

A question of judgement

The fiction of Saddam Hussein as a benevolent ruler was exposed by two major and catastrophic miscalculations of foreign policy for which his country and his people have paid dearly.

In 1980, Saddam thought he saw an opportunity for glory - to put Iraq at the forefront of the Arab world. He ordered a surprise cross-border attack on Iran. This was meant to be a swift operation to capture the Shatt al-Arab waterway leading to the Gulf.

But Iranian resistance was far stronger than he had imagined. Eight years later, with hundreds of thousands of young people killed and the country deep in debt, he agreed on a ceasefire.

Still, with enormous oil reserves, Iraq seemed to have the potential to make a swift recovery. An increase in oil prices, Saddam Hussein surmised, would speed up the country's revival still more.

Frustrated by his failure to achieve agreement on a price rise by conventional means, the Iraqi president allowed his long-harboured resentment against Kuwait to get the better of him.

On 2 August 1990, he made another costly blunder by ordering his army into the neighbouring Gulf state.

Fighting qualities

In the months that led up to the war of 1991, Saddam Hussein displayed qualities that still make him both adored and hated in the Arab world.

Iraqis burn the US flag
On the streets of Arab cities he is admired as a leader who has dared to defy and challenge Israel and the West, a symbol of Arab steadfastness in the face of Western aggression.

At the same time, Saddam is feared as a vicious dictator who threatens the security of the Gulf region as a whole.

With his older and favourite son Uday crippled in an assassination attempt, his younger son Qusay now controls the elite Revolutionary Guards and the Special Forces which guarantee the president's grip on power.

Gulf states and Western countries alike have come to realise that his grip is stronger than it seems - and stronger by far than his grasp of reality often appears to be.

He insists that the 1991 Gulf War, which he famously described as the Mother-of-All-Battles, ended in victory for Iraq.

By the same token, Saddam boasts that Iraq can shrug off any Western military attack. The Iraqi people have no choice but to nod in agreement.

So it will go on until the moment comes for bombastic slogans to be replaced by a succinct epitaph to one of the most infamous dictators of the century. For the overwhelming majority of Iraqis, that moment can not come too soon.

Gerald Butt is editor of Al-Mushahid Assiyasi, the BBC Arabic magazine.

See also:

12 Feb 98 | Monitoring
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