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From Poor Boy to Dictator

In early 1969, less than a year after his Baath Party seized power, Saddam Hussein spoke to an aggrieved family who complained that one of their number had been unjustly executed. Spurning a suggestion that they settle for diaya (blood money), they demanded justice and retribution.

“Take the money,” Saddam said quietly. “Do not think you will get revenge, because if you ever have the chance, by the time you get to us, there will not be a sliver of flesh left on our bodies.” In other words, should he ever fall from power, there would be too many others queueing up to tear him and his fellow Baathists apart.

Whatever other misconceptions he may cherish, the Iraqi dictator has never fooled himself that he is loved by his people. Saddam likes to emphasize his unsentimental toughness, nurtured, he has let it be known, by the rigor of his upbringing.

Born in 1937 and brought up in the village of al-Ouija (“the crooked one”), just outside the decayed textile town of Tikrit, on the banks of the Tigris 100 miles north of Baghdad, he was, so he later claimed, bullied and abused by a cruel stepfather, who would rouse him at dawn with the injunction: “Get up, you son of a whore. Go tend the sheep.”

Certainly it was a clannish, violent society, in which practically everyone carried a gun. Relatives who approved of his determination to defy his stepfather and run away to school in Tikrit at the age of eight sent him off with a pistol as a parting gift, so his official biography records.

Later in life he developed the habit of recording demonstrations of his ruthlessness, such as his purge of the Baath Party's higher echelon in 1979, on film and video and distributing them widely, the better to terrify opponents into paralysis. His most important assignment as a young Baath Party hitman — the attempted killing in 1959 of Abd al-Karim Qassem, then the Iraqi ruler — and his subsequent escape became the stuff of state-sponsored legend, complete with an epic film, The Long Days.

But there is and always has been more to Saddam's grip on power than mere thuggish ferocity. Despite his apparently miserable origins, he had the advantage of useful social connections, thanks to so many Tikritis having gravitated to jobs in the Government and especially the army.

One such was his uncle, Khairallah Tulfah, once jailed as an anti-British rebel, who was an early leading light of the Baath Party. Another was his cousin, Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, a brigadier who took over as Prime Minister when the Baathists briefly took power in 1963, and President after their more enduring coup in 1968.

Saddam was content to be the hard-working “Mr. Deputy,” an unobtrusive second-in-command, while building his power base in the party and, most crucially, the security services.

Potential threats to his power, such as rivals in the Baath Party, the still potent Communist Party and the religious hierarchies of the Shia South, not to mention the perennially disaffected Kurds, were successively emasculated. On a theoretical level, while paying obligatory deference to the woolly precepts of Baathism, Saddam displayed a keen interest in Stalin as a source of political inspiration. In the early 1970s he published a treatise on Building Socialism in One Arab Country, an echo of Stalin's maxim of the 1930s.

On the other hand the Soviet dictator might not have approved of Saddam's taste for making sudden, unpredictable gambler's throws, which he once described as the essence of politics. Later, this habit of rolling the dice was to get him into deep trouble. But in July 1979 he had certainly succeeded in surprising his rivals by pushing his cousin aside and seizing supreme power, presiding over a gruesome ceremony in which scores of his Baathist opponents were dragged out to be shot.

For most Iraqis his ascent was not unwelcome. Not only did he abandon al-Bakr's habit of altering Iraqi television's program schedule for programs of the gypsy dancing beloved by all Tikritis, Saddam had already displayed considerable management skills in running the country. In 1972 he had masterminded the takeover of Iraq's oil assets from the rapacious Western consortium that had exercised control.

The consequent revenue flowing into government coffers, boosted to fabulous heights by the 1973 oil price rise, allowed the regime not only to promote far-reaching education and health programs but also to create a loyal constituency of newly prosperous middle-class city dwellers.

This new technocracy also supplied the staff recruited by Saddam to administer the country. They have been an impressive group. Such individuals as Amer Rashid, until recently the Oil Minister, or Amir Saadi, chief negotiator with the weapons inspectors, or Naji Sabri, the Foreign Minister, are testament to their master's eye for talent.

He classifies this type of executive as “those who are expert.” Others who serve him fall into the category of what he calls “those who are loyal,” an attribute qualifying them for the really important tasks of manning the overlapping and competing security agencies that monitor and, when necessary, discipline the rest of the population (including the experts).

The essential qualification for a position in this second group is a blood or tribal relationship to the boss, coupled with undivided allegiance. Those linked in this way extend from an outer and extensive network of tribal ties to the President's own clan to, at the core, his family.

The most sensitive positions have traditionally been reserved for close relatives, although rivalries within this group have caused power to shift over the years from his half-brothers, especially Barzan, to his fearsome al-Majid cousins to, most recently, his capable younger son, Qusay, once described by Saddam as “two-faced,” who is anointed as the heir apparent.

Beyond this innermost group, the instruments of control are in the hands of Saddam's fellow clansmen and, beyond that, members of his tribe and others from the Tikrit area. The network penetrates deep into Iraqi society, especially the army and business community, with all lines of authority leading back to Saddam himself.

Any sign of disloyalty, no matter how close the perpetrator may be to the ruler, is immediately and mercilessly punished. His late sons-in-law, Hussein and Saddam Kamel, discovered this the hard way when, after defecting to Jordan in 1995, they returned to Baghdad six months later under a promise of clemency, only to be summarily gunned down by a family hit-team.

This efficiently totalitarian system of control has served Saddam well in consolidating and maintaining power. But it carries with it a disadvantage faced by so many dictators: no one dares disagree with him, even when they can see he is heading for disaster.

Thus, the best that Tariq Aziz, who has served him faithfully for so long, could do to dissuade him from occupying Kuwait in 1990 was to suggest invading Saudi Arabia as well to pre-empt the inevitable American counter attack. His hope, so he later told a friend, was to get Saddam to realize that he was risking war with the United States and so call the whole thing off. Instead, Saddam merely chided him for being too hawkish.

Once Saddam used to go among the people like a campaigning politician. That came to an abrupt end in July 1982 after an assassination attempt as he was visiting a town near Baghdad. Since then he has retreated to his palaces or, when threatened by American bombs or other lethal threats, to the secure anonymity of an ordinary middle-class house in Baghdad selected at random and at the last minute.

Even so, he retains his masterful understanding of how to keep the Iraqi people in subjection by skilful playing of tribal politics or fostering dissension and fear between rival communities, most notably the majority Shia population and the minority Sunni.

But while he knows Iraq, Saddam has never displayed an equal grasp of the outside world, which he has rarely visited. Coupled with his taste for geopolitical gambles, this has led to errors on an epic scale, most spectacularly his invasion of Kuwait in 1990 under the misapprehension that the US would permit him to control global oil prices.

Until then he had functioned mostly as a responsible Western ally. Encouraged by the Americans, he had attacked Iran in 1980 when Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution had pro-American Middle Eastern despots trembling in their beds; he could always be counted on as a moderating force in OPEC; he was a good customer who paid on time; and he even hinted at recognizing Israel.

The deference with which he was treated by Western statesmen may well have contributed to a fatal overconfidence, augmented by the worship he exacted at home. (In the 1980s Iraqi schoolchildren were winning prizes for essays comparing Saddam to the Prophet Muhammad. Saddam has always shown a keen interest in history, or at least his place in it.) Before the outbreak of war in January 1991, Saddam, relaxed and self-assured in the beautiful suits provided by his Armenian tailor, received a flow of important Western visitors, under the illusion that he was in a position to negotiate with the US.

The ensuing debacle of war and rebellion and the decade that followed forced him to the wall. Abandoning most of the army in Kuwait once the American offensive began, he withdrew the more useful Republican Guard units in good time. Even so, the fury of the uprising that followed caused him to think that it might be all over. But once it became clear the Americans believed that the Shia who were revolting were cat's-paws for the Iranians and so withheld aid to the rebels, Saddam knew that he was saved.

One of his enduring traits is his perennial optimism. “Things are not so bad,” he remarked to a confidant once when his subjects had been brought to heel again. “In the past, our enemies have taken advantage of our mistakes. In the future we will sit back and take advantage of mistakes made by them.”

The next 12 years seemed to justify his ebullience. UN sanctions ruined and starved the Iraqi people, but in no way weakened Saddam. CIA-sponsored initiatives to kill him were detected and snuffed out. Even his efforts to safeguard a few tattered and almost certainly ineffectual remnants of his old unconventional weapons program from the UN inspectors (whom he suspected, correctly, of being a front for a covert CIA operation) seemed to carry little penalty.

By the summer of 2001 it looked as if he had almost made it out of the wood. Sanctions were collapsing, and Baghdad hotels were thronged with Western salesmen. Saddam himself found the time to publish, pseudonymously, two allegorical novels with romantic overtones that were, unsurprisingly, received with rapturous acclaim by Iraqi critics.

Then came September 11, and Saddam's luck took a turn for the worse as his foreign enemies sought to use the terrorist assault as an excuse to attack him.

Belatedly, he moved to take away the issue of weapons of mass destruction as a casus belli by co-operating with the inspectors. It appears to have been too late. 


  1. Mark Wilkinson Laszlo September 12, 2020

    Thanks for this opportune background biopic on Saddam Hussein, Editor. It may help to remind what atrocious sorts of dictators Donald Trump praises as role models and document Trump’s similar atrocities.

    I can only ask Trump’s supporters who read the AVA to read these articles. I do not expect them to, but some perhaps, with intelligent, open minds who are considering support for Trump may reconsider it when they read these articles from professional news organizations that have earned respect for many years.

    I write on Donald Trump here to help establish objective truth about him, to fight the curse of fascist thought influencing minds of some in our area, for the sake of the future here, if there is any. Take this warning please!

    Fascism is a movement of the far right, as proved by Hitler, who killed every communist socialist and anarchist, all leftist types he could.

    That fascism, that poison to civilization, that acid that corrodes it, is a movement of the right, is a historic fact i can prove if asked.

    Objective truth is not what we feel, but what we can prove, that exists on it’s own, regardless of anyone’s belief.

    To wit: Here is proof that Donald Trump praised Saddam Hussein, that Saddam Hussein caused torture of children and that Donald Trump causes torture of children.

  2. Mark Wilkinson Laszlo September 12, 2020
    • Douglas Coulter September 13, 2020

      We adore the narcissist while he lives
      We offer eulogies to our prophets only after death

  3. Douglas Coulter September 13, 2020

    I was in USMC when Jimmy Carter refused to rescue Iran hostages. 3 times we spent the day on Tarmac waiting to go bomb Iran back to the Stone Age, oorah!
    So I voted for Ronald.
    Ronald gave Saddam what ever he wanted, even WMDs and gas.
    History 101: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
    La Costra Nostra guided landings in Italy WW2
    We spent $40,000,000,000 that the B Word in Afghanistan to destabilize Russia, Osama got much of that.
    We built Hitlers army to take out Bolsheviks, Poppa Doc, Noregia, the Shaw, and the list goes on
    1982 – 1984 Reagan murdered 435 Americans trying to construct a war to rebuild our military. It was being dismantled because of Jimmy Carter’s longest peace in American History.

    • Mark Wilkinson Laszlo September 14, 2020

      I adore neither Saddam not Trump. Those who adore narcissists, who can love none but themselves, are most unfortunate.

      What prophets?

      • Douglas Coulter September 14, 2020

        The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls…Paul Simon
        How long will they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look….Bob Marley
        A prophet is anyone who speaks un welcomed truth, or as we now label it
        (Fake News)
        Censorship is always evil. I don’t need a government protecting me from information that might hurt my feelings.

        • Mark Wilkinson Laszlo September 16, 2020

          Simon and Marley, i like too.

          Prophets, seers, visionaries of truth, whether of God, gods, science or even just years of serious, amateur, research to find the truth of a subject, as if almost nothing else matters, even health and wealth, until a holographic picture emerges. Some want to know the fruit of it. Most do not, if it’s critical and scary. There’s a price to pay for bearing bad news, even with a logical solution.

          IT censorship of true information is more rife than ever in America. Big, consolidated corporate media are more tightly controlled by the security establishment or military-spy-industrial complex and criminally rich transnational, ultrawealthy, big banks and corporations than ever. Some good people exist in every class, but there are cabals, such as of Davos, Bilderberg, Skull and Bones, etc. that control and use both gangs of oligarchs in Congress and the WH and subvert the constitutional government to take life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness from the People.

          Censorship is bad, but editorship is part of the job of every responsible channel of news and views. Editors must decide what’s not fit to publish sometimes. The AVA and youtube are very liberal though, in the sense of letting readers say almost anything, even when they are a bad influence to society and then let readers settle the issues among themselves.

          • Douglas Coulter September 16, 2020

            The Blue Pencil
            Oh juvenile indecent line and phrases that dismay
            Provoking images in prose unsuited for the day
            Aminadvert aminadvert those things we loath to view
            All that offends we shall amend we bowdlerizing few

            To the tune America the Beautiful
            Published in Winning Words 2003 Mendocino Coast Writers Confrence

  4. Mark Wilkinson Laszlo September 14, 2020

    Must have been nukes that made so vast a pit where the conscience of a civilized nation would be. Who ever, in The WH or Congress, interrupts the deafening drums of war to remind us M5 and CIA deposed Iran’s beloved reformer Mohammed Mossedegh & re-installed the Shah, whose dynasty of sadistic despots the Brits knew very well. Should we bomb them back to the stone age for defying us with the wisdom not to start a war with us?

    You know what you got for voting for Ronnie. Like the Marine full of tubes in the hospital bed after the Beirut setup who told George HW Bush “Semper Vi!”

    The NSCs of Reagan & HW Bush both signed dual purpose export liscences to allow sales of chemical & bioweapon making materials & technology to Saddam.

    All of the US govt.’s hypocritical immorality you
    mentioned and more may be true.

    Do you cite it to condemn or to justify it?

    Jimmy Carter ordered a diplomat rescue mission but some of the copters crashed from terrain masking in a sandstorm that fouled the engines & they had to abort.

    Yes, Carter’s a rare exception, like Clinton & Obama – no angels, but they avoided some wars, with real diplomacy.

    Do you fault Carter or miss him for that?

    • Douglas Coulter September 14, 2020

      Call it karma, call it payback, Calvin called it providence. If we got away with it, it must be providence. If god fell asleep the universe would dissolve into sub atomic particles, all the laws of god are explained by physics, the law of the lord is perfect. Perfect laws are self inforcing. The bible is a collection of human errors, yet man refuses to learn those simple lessons.
      America has broken over 400 treaties yet we always find someone evil to bomb.
      After reading Tolstoy it all began to fall in place. War creates war, violence creates violence.

      Two dogs walk into a bar…..?
      They sniff butts
      Your butt stinks!
      So does yours, let’s have a beer.

      Two men walk into a bar…..?
      Did he just flirt with me? I don’t do Brokeback Mountain.
      We shake hands really firm and manly
      I hire a PI to go through his trash every week

      Dogs don’t go to war!

      • Mark Wilkinson Laszlo September 15, 2020

        “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just…” – Thomas Jefferson

        I believe some of the bible is true. More of physics, but will not venture into them here.

        War creates war, violence creates violence.
        True enough!

  5. Ahmed September 14, 2020

    I think there is a lots of none sense in the article. I live close to Oja in Tikrit and lots of observers don’t find it factual. Please go though Hebeeb Eskandar (Egyptian) book of Saddam history.

    • Mark Wilkinson Laszlo September 15, 2020

      I think child abuse and absolute power are common factors in history’s worst monsters.

      Where do i find that book?

    • Mark Wilkinson Laszlo September 15, 2020

      I smell a fascist who trolled me because none could prove Donald Trump is not insane and therefore that they are not insane for supporting him. Now it’s proved Trump has long believed Covid19 is deadly, but not only outdoes himself to lie about it, but causes Covid19 transmission
      most to his own core supporters & now he’s refusing federal aid to California fire victims,
      are you so crazy you think whatever you expect for your support can be worth it to you?

    • Mark Wilkinson Laszlo September 16, 2020

      It’s beyond surprising an Iraqi SH apologist would read this rural American journal and a book recommend w/o it’s title is – fishy.

    • Douglas Coulter September 21, 2020

      I wrote that while at Mendocino College after disabling car wreak took my day job. Paula Gun Allen shared the class and we sharpened each other’s words. I won two scholarships to the annual writers confrence and they published 4 of my poem 2003 in Winning Words and Good Words. This gave me confidence too keep writing.
      I used to play my songs at open mic all over Mendo and the Coast has 3 of my CDs but rarely plays them. My words scare the piss out of Mental Health workers
      Songs are more powerful than guns

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