HE SAW himself as the new Saladin, his destiny to free the Middle East from the Western infidel and to establish Iraq as the dominant power in the region. Instead he has become the supreme demon of his age. He has inflicted upon his country military humiliation, impoverishment and international isolation - not to mention the loss of more than half a million lives in two futile wars. And yet, even as the bombs and cruise missiles rain down upon Baghdad, Saddam Hussein is still there.

Therein, almost certainly, will lie his true place in history. He will be remembered not as a conqueror but as a national leader who set new standards in errors of judgement and disasters which can be survived. In the 19 years since he became President, he has provoked an unwinnable eight-year war with Iran, and watched helplessly as Israeli aircraft destroyed the nuclear reactor crucial in his plans to endow Iraq with atomic weapons. Just two years after making weary peace with Iran, he ordered the invasion of Kuwait that led to crushing and humiliating defeat by a US-led coalition, the partial dismemberment of his country, and the UN inspections which have led to the latest air raids.

He has fended off attempted coups, assassinations and the machinations of the intelligence services of half a dozen countries. Iraq may be lurching from crisis to crisis, with hardly a friend even in the Arab world. But hidden deep in his palaces and command bunkers, Saddam still leads it along its wretched path. How does he do it? By feral cunning, impenetrable secrecy and sheer ruthlessness. The pattern was set within three weeks of his taking over from President Hassan al-Bakr on 16 July 1979 (though in truth Saddam, the regime's second in command, had been its driving force since the bloodless 1968 coup which carried his Baath party to power). At once Saddam claimed to have uncovered a Syrian-backed plot to remove him. He ordered the arrest of cabinet ministers, officials and senior Baath party members. On 8 August, "pour encourager les autres", he sent 21 of them before a firing squad.

Saddam's power is built upon the clan, in his case a clan deriving from the town of Tikrit, on the banks of the Tigris 100 miles north of Baghdad. There he was born in 1937, and as a child came to understand and resent Britain's then domination of Iraq. He passed through student protest, exile and imprisonment on his way to power. At first he used it to his country's profit. The Bakr/Saddam regime nationalised the foreign-owned oil industry, improved relations with the Gulf states to the south and the ancient enemy of Iran to the east, and used the Cold War to play off East against West to Iraq's advantage.

But then sensible autocracy turned to blind despotism and mad wars of aggrandisement. Saddam surrounded himself with relatives, toadies and a suffocating personality cult. The slightest hint of disloyalty would be punished by torture and death - on occasion, it is said, at the hand of Saddam himself. For the opposition the choice was exile or extinction. For the Kurds, his rule meant brutal suppression and the use of poison gas. For the Iraqi economy, that should be doubly blessed by a rich agriculture and huge oil reserves, it has meant collapse and bankruptcy. Saddam's follies have cost his country, by a conservative estimate, $150bn in lost revenues. But barring a lucky bomb or, at last, a coup which succeeds, Iraq's suffering will continue.