Saddam: the final hours of a tyrant

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The Independent Online

Saddam Hussein's death warrant was signed last night. It happened as the nightly curfew brought Baghdad, the city where he exercised supreme power over Iraq for a quarter of a century, to a standstill. The leader who launched two disastrous wars that reshaped the politics of the Middle East and ruined his country waited to be hanged by the Iraqi authorities who had replaced him.

Saddam's principal lawyer, Khalil al-Dulaimi, said US officials who have been holding him at Fort Cropper near the airport outside Baghdad had asked him to pick up Saddam's possessions and those of his half-brother, Barzan al-Tikriti, also facing execution. His two other half- brothers, Watban and Sabawi, visited him on Thursday and he gave them his will.

I first saw Saddam Hussein making a speech on a distant platform in Baghdad in 1978. He was already known as "The Strong Man of Iraq" and the following year he executed several leaders of the ruling Baath party who were opposed to him becoming the all-powerful president.

Criticism of the leader and his family was highly dangerous. People in cafés in Baghdad were nervous if they accidentally spilled their coffee on their newspaper. They feared they might be accused of deliberately defacing the picture of Saddam Hussein that invariably appeared on the front page.

He wanted to be a world historical figure and in a way he achieved his ambition. He compared himself to the great heroes of the Iraqi past, such as Sargon of Akkad, Nebuchadnezzar and Saladin. At the height of the Iran-Iraq War, when resources were strained in Iraq, he rebuilt part of ancient Babylon with ugly yellowed bricks, on each of which was printed his name.

Surprisingly he succeeded in making the world ring with his name. But he did so through defeat and not victory. In 1980 he invaded Iran and started an eight-year-long war in which one million Iraqis and Iranians were killed and wounded. In 1990 he occupied Kuwait and was defeated by US-led forces.

Saddam destroyed his own country. When he came to power it had oil, money, a competent administration and a well-educated population. He left it in ruins. He inflicted on his people years of war that still show no sign of ending. UN sanctions from 1990 to 2003 so weakened the Iraqi state that it disintegrated with Saddam's overthrow.

He was cruel by nature. But he was also the product of a violent, deeply divided country. A Sunni himself, he always represented the minority of Iraq's population who only held power by force. Although he portrayed himself as a soldier, his real skills were as a secret policeman, tightening security measures against potential plotters. Even at the height of his power, tank brigades around Baghdad were issued with only a few rounds of ammunition to prevent them mounting a coup against him.

The Iraq Saddam ruled was a bizarre mixture of ancient and modern. The formal mechanism of the state resembled that of eastern Europe under communism. There was an inner circle of rulers and numerous security agencies. But he also held power through manipulating tribal politics. He came from the al-Bejat clan, part of the Albu Nasir tribe, which was strong in the town of Tikrit, north of Baghdad. His most trusted lieutenants were either closely related to him or came from Sunni tribes with close links to his own.

In dealing with Iraqi politics Saddam always showed a certain genius. His many enemies inside Iraq never came close to overthrowing him. But if Saddam was astute about Iraqi politics he never knew much about the world beyond its borders. He had only once spent an extended period abroad, when he lived in exile in Egypt after failing to assassinate President Abd al-Karim Qassim in 1959. In the invasions of Iran in 1980 and Kuwait 10 years later he blundered in calculating the odds against his success.

Despite many self-inflicted disasters he retained the self confidence of Inspector Clouseau. He had intelligent men around him but they were wary of contradicting him. Everywhere in Iraq there were giant portraits of Saddam in a variety of garbs. I always liked one picture of Saddam, with dark glasses and a short-sleeved shirt, looking like Noël Coward on holiday in the South of France.

There was an element of theatre about the Iraqi leader. His military defeat in 2003 was humiliating. In December of the same year Saddam was dragged from a hole in the ground by US troops. As he lay in prison, Iraqis began to forget him but when his trial began he had a platform once more. The court proceedings during which he spat defiance at his prosecutors were televised live. People across Iraq watched with fascination.

The trial of Saddam probably changed few minds. The Sunni Arab community sympathised with him as one of their own. The Kurds, so long his chief victims, wanted him to hang. The Shia agreed, though many reflect wryly that their lives had been safer under his rule.

For half a century Saddam's enemies have been trying to kill him. Had they succeeded 10, 20 or 30 years ago the history of Iraq, the Middle East and the world might have been different. But his death comes too late. The violence he played his part in is out of control. His execution may make little difference.

Saddam was very much the product of his background. He was born in Ouija, a typical Iraqi village, on 28 April 1937. His father, Hussein al-Majid, was a peasant farmer who died just before Saddam was born or a few months later. He was brought up by two of his uncles and his mother, Subha al-Tulfah.

He became a member of the Baath party, which had few members but these were critically placed in the army. After holding power briefly in 1963 after a coup, the Baath Party - and with it Saddam Hussein - came to power permanently in July 1968.

For 10 years Saddam controlled security and intelligence while his cousin, General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, was president. But Saddam was always the coming man. He took extraordinary measures to protect himself, always keeping his movements secret. He not only institutionalised torture but publicised it, making sure that no Iraqi was ignorant of the fate of anybody who opposed the regime.

In 1980 Saddam invaded Iran, but discovered that the Iranian government could mobilise vast numbers of untrained but enthusiastic volunteers. Many Iraqi troops surrendered. It was only when the Iraninvaded Iraq that Saddam's appeals to Iraqi nationalism were answered. He was also supported by the Sunni regimes of the Middle East, the US, the Soviet Union and western Europe. They did not object when he started to use poison gas on Iranian troops. In a famous picture in 1983 Saddam beams as he clasps the hand of Donald Rumsfeld on a visit to Baghdad.

It was Iran that sued for peace in 1988 but Iraq had won little from the war. Saddam exaggerated belief in the extent of his success led him to invade Kuwait. Most Iraqis knew they could not fight the whole world and thought their leader was engaged in a political manoeuvre. When the first US planes came to bomb Baghdad in January 1991 they were astonished to find it "lit up like Las Vegas".

Saddam claimed to have amassed one million soldiers to fight the US-led coalition. In reality mass desertions meant the real number was far smaller. The Iraqi army in Kuwait was ordered home and broke into open mutiny when it reached Basra. Within a few days the Shia Provinces of southern Iraq and the Kurdish Provinces of the north revolted. Saddam's regime was tottering.

He was saved because he had good nerves. The Sunni army officers of central Iraq rallied against the Kurds and Shia. Above all the US did not want Shia religious parties sympathetic to Iran to replace Saddam. He survived but his power was limited by UN sanctions and by UN weapons inspectors. He grew weaker and lost control of Kurdistan, but he still crushed the conspiracies against him.

During all this time he lived in palatial splendour. He developed a taste for Cuban cigars. As if to compensate for his defeat in Kuwait, he built palaces for himself and his family all over Iraq. His also constructed mosques, often gigantic in scale. He began to write historical novels, of which great numbers were printed.

Saddam might still have survived. Indeed, up until the 11 September terror attacks, it seemed likely that he would.

In 2003 as in 1991, the Iraqi army did not fight for him. Saddam's career seemed to have ended in total humiliation. But as he sat in his prison cell in the huge US base by Baghdad Airport over the past three years, he must have realised that if he had lost, his captors had not won.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of 'The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq', published by Verso

The rise and fall of Iraq's dictator

* 28 April 1937: Saddam Hussein is born to a peasant family near Tikrit, north of Baghdad.

* 7 October, 1959: Joins assassination squad that wounds Iraq's military leader, Gen Abdel-Karim Kassem. Wounded in the leg, Saddam flees Iraq for Syria and Egypt.

* 1964-1966: Jailed for participation in Baath Party. Escapes to become leading party member.

* 17 July 1968: Saddam's cousin becomes Iraqi president.

* 15 July 1979: Takes power from his cousin as president of Iraq.

* 22 Sept 1980: Backed by the West, orders troops to invade Iran. The eight-year war, in which Iraq uses nerve gas against Iranians, kills hundreds of thousands on both sides.

* 8 July 1982: Survives assassination attempt. Purges town of Dujail; 150 residents executed on Saddam's orders.

* 28 March 1988: Uses chemical weapons against Kurdish town of Halabja in northern Iraq, killing 5,000 civilians.

* 2 August 1990: Iraq invades Kuwait.

* 17 January 1991: US coalition launches the Gulf War.

* 20 February 1996: Saddam orders killing of two sons-in-law who had defected to Jordan.

* December 1996: Saddam's son and heir, Uday, wounded in assassination attempt.

* 12 September 2002: President Bush calls on UN to confront Iraq - or stand aside as the US and like-minded nations act.

* March 20, 2003: US-led forces invade Iraq. "Shock and awe" bombardment followed by ground invasion.

* 9 April 2003: US forces enter central Baghdad.

* 13 December, 2003: Saddam captured by US forces.

* 19 October 2005: Saddam appears in court charged with crimes against humanity for Dujail massacre.

* 21 August 2006: Second trial of Saddam opens. He is charged with genocide and war crimes against the Kurds.

* 5 November 2006: Saddam sentenced to death by hanging. His half-brother Barzan al-Tikriti and Awad Hamed al-Bandar, a former chief judge, are also sentenced to death.

* 26 December 2006: Conviction upheld by appeals court.