Terror, brutality marked 40-year reign

A dictator's career

Hussein Executed

December 30, 2006|By Borzou Daragahi and David Lamb | Borzou Daragahi and David Lamb,Los Angeles Times

Whether as president of Iraq, self-proclaimed leader of the anti-American insurgency or combative courtroom defendant, Saddam Hussein cast a large shadow over world events and the nation that he controlled for most of the past 40 years.

Saddam Hussein was executed by hanging early today in Iraq - about 10 o'clock EST last night. He was 69.

Though never an army officer, he frequently wore military uniforms and styled himself as a fearless strategist and warrior. The wars he started cost more than a million lives, but he never won any of them and lived in constant fear, seldom sleeping in the same palace two nights in a row and employing lookalikes to foil assassination attempts.

Nearly four years after U.S.-led forces toppled his Baath Party regime and a little more than three years after he was caught hiding in a hole in the ground near his hometown, his death further shuts the door on an era of secular Arab nationalism, now being eclipsed throughout the Middle East by Islamist ideas and figures.

Hussein took with him to the grave a trove of secrets. The former Iraqi leader allegedly ordered assassinations abroad and used his country's vast oil wealth to curry favor with Middle Eastern governments while maintaining undercover dealings with intelligence services throughout the region and the West.

One now-famous photograph shows Hussein in 1984 shaking hands with Donald H. Rumsfeld, the former defense secretary who served as an informal envoy to Baghdad at a time when the United States was aiding Iraq in its eight-year war with Iran.

But, for his country, now convulsed in civil war, Hussein's most lasting and damaging legacy was the way his selective patronage and brutal violence divided Iraqis along lines that continue to haunt them.

Hussein moved rivers to reward Sunni villagers loyal to his government and drained swamps to punish Shiites who rose up against him. He moved rebellious Kurds from the northern city of Kirkuk while selling cheap land in the city to Arabs to reward loyalists and upend the ethnic balance of the country's oil-rich north.

He imprisoned tens of thousands, ordered the murders of political enemies, real and imagined, including two of his sons-in-law, and used poison gas to wipe out whole villages in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. He granted construction contracts to favored Arab tribes, while depriving whole categories of people - such as Shiite Kurds - of their citizenship rights.

Such violence and manipulations might have established a semblance of stability. But they also built up a sense of entitlement by Sunnis and resentments on the part of Shiites and Kurds that fueled violence by death squads, militias and insurgents once the U.S. invasion of 2003 toppled his regime.

Hussein fostered a grotesque cult of personality around himself as the embodiment of the Iraqi state and all of Iraqi history. As he consolidated absolute power in the 1980s, his face and figure went up all over the country.

"With our souls, with our blood, we will sacrifice for you, Saddam," schoolchildren, old women and office workers chanted whenever Hussein arrived.

The result was a culture of dependence and subservience to the state that has hindered efforts to rebuild Iraq. To date, other than Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric, not a single Iraqi who suffered through Hussein's final years of rule has emerged as a credible political leader.

Perhaps the most telling illustration of Hussein's influence on Iraq is that nearly all of post-invasion Iraq's leadership has been culled from among exiles.

Humble origins

Saddam Hussein Abdul-Majid al-Tikriti was born into a poor Sunni household on April 28, 1937, to a family of peasants in the tiny mud-hut village of Al Auja, near the city of Tikrit on the Tigris River about 100 miles north of Baghdad. His father, Hussein al-Majid, died within a year of his birth, and his mother, Subha, married a man named Ibrahim Hassan.

Young Hussein earned money by selling watermelons to railroad passengers heading through town. When he was 10, apparently to escape his abusive stepfather, Hussein ran away from home and went to live with his uncle, Khayrallah Tulfah, a former general who had been dismissed from the army for supporting a coup attempt.

By then, Tulfah was an embittered man, living as a schoolteacher in Baghdad. He was also anti-Western, a fascist and a Sunni chauvinist. The influence he exerted over Hussein can be inferred in part from the title of a pamphlet the uncle wrote and Hussein had published years later: Three Whom God Should Not Have Created: Persians, Jews and Flies.

At his uncle's instigation, Hussein committed his first killing while still in his teens. The victim was Saadoun al-Tikriti, a Communist supporter of Gen. Abdul Karim Qassim, who later became Iraq's prime minister. He also happened to be Hussein's brother-in-law.

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