Saddam wanted to leave his mark on history. This he did, as the man who destroyed Iraq

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The Independent Online

Iraq is littered with battered portraits of Saddam Hussein. At the entrance to every Iraqi town is a plinth with the picture of the Iraqi leader, his face now pock marked with bullet holes or half smashed by rifle butts, as he looks down on his ruined and occupied country.

In one respect only did Saddam succeed. He wanted to leave his mark on history, to make his name ring out across the world. Through the absurdities of his own personality cult at home and the sometimes equally exaggerated demonisation of his rule by his enemies abroad, the Iraqi leader's name will never be forgotten.

He destroyed Iraq. When he became president in 1979 he gained total control of a country with a well-educated population, an efficient administration and extensive oil reserves. In a quarter of a century, he impoverished his people, drove many of them into exile and left the Iraqi oilfields in the hands of foreign troops.

He was not without intelligence, but it was the intelligence of the secret policeman and at crucial moments it was almost always overwhelmed by his arrogance. His actions so dramatically affected Iraq, the Middle East and the world that it is easy to forget that he was in many ways a small-time operator whose political base within Iraq was always narrow.

An element of fantasy always surrounded Saddam, but it was a fantasy in which he steadfastly believed. Just before the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, he announced he was raising an army of one million men. I remember watching disconsolate Sudanese waiters being drilled in a dusty field in Baghdad as Iraq's answer to American armoured divisions.

How did a man of such cruelty and violence come to rule Iraq? He purported to have risen solely by his own efforts but in fact he was brought up in a family, city and community which were already making their bid for power. Born in 1937 near the city of Tikrit, he came from a clan and tribe which were acquiring important positions in the army while he was a teenager. He was a Sunni Muslim in a country in which Sunni Muslims had always been, in effect, in control under the Ottomans and the British.

Brought to power by a military coup d'état in 1968, the ruling Ba'ath party never gained a mass base, though at one moment it claimed 1.5 million members. Three quarters of the Iraqi population were Kurds or Shias who always feared and disliked the regime. It was not military government, with the ultimate security of possessing overwhelming armed strength, but was dependent on the security services whose grip was maintained by cruelty and terror.

It was a tribal regime. Saddam was a member of the Baijat clan, one of six clans belonging to the Albu Nasir tribal confederation from around the city of Tikrit. But there were further subdivisions. It was through the Albu Ghafar lineage, to which Saddam belonged, that the Iraqi leader ruled, giving his close relatives control of important security jobs. This tribal rule was concealed by the Ba'ath party's official policy of opposing tribalism and ordering people not to use names which would signal their tribal affiliations.

The weakness of Saddam's government was evident in the three wars he fought. He invaded Iran in 1980, but within two years the Iranians had thrown him back and Iraq lost 70,000 prisoners. In 1991, much of the Iraqi army in Kuwait deserted or did not fight. The "mother of all battles" promised by Saddam never happened.

Saddam prepared carefully for the war against the US and Britain this year. Security services, Fedayeen Saddam and Ba'ath party militants were deployed to stop desertions at the point of a gun. For a moment, this seemed to work. But as the US army approached Baghdad, the vaunted Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard divisions evaporated. The number of Iraqis prepared to die for Saddam - and die knowing that defeat was inevitable - turned out to be small. Television showed blazing tanks and wrecked armoured personnel carriers on the road to Baghdad but most had been sensibly abandoned by their crews before they were destroyed.

Saddam was at his most effective when facing defeat. It was only then that reality, normally obscured by flattery and wishful thinking, began to obtrude. He was able to stave off defeat by Iran in 1982, admittedly with the help of most of the rest of the world. Again in 1991 he survived total defeat in Kuwait and two great uprisings by the Shias and the Kurds. He was skillful in using the communal divisions within Iraq to his advantage and killing those of his enemies who were most dangerous.

After 1991, his room for manoeuvre was limited. He relied on an inner ring of family members to make himself coup proof. No military unit could be moved by its commanders without the approval of Iraqi security services. Sanctions reduced the Iraqi standard of living to that of an impoverished central African country. But it did not affect his lifestyle or prevent great empty palaces being built in Iraq's main cities. That 60 per cent of Iraqis were destitute, dependent on rations paid for under the UN's oil-for-food programme and efficiently distributed by the Iraqi administration, made the population even more dependent on the government.

Over the past 12 years, Saddam could survive in power because the US had no objection to a weakened Iraq, treated as an international pariah. Many Iraqis believed that Saddam was secretly in league with the US. "They shake their fist at each other over the table, but shake hands under it," was the whispered wisdom of Baghdad coffee shops. It was not quite true. Washington did want to get rid of Saddam and his family, but it did not want a revolution, as it showed during the uprisings of 1991.

In the run up to war in 2003 President George Bush and Tony Blair portrayed Saddam as a threat to the Middle East and the rest of the world. He was compared to Hitler on the eve of the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938. He supposedly had weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to deliver them hidden in deep caverns or beneath the sands of the Iraqis deserts.

They were never used and may never have existed in any quantity. The Iraqi army was weak and ill-equipped and its men had hardly enough to eat. The formation of so-called elite units such as the Republican Guard and the Special Republican Guard, drawn from Sunni tribes, was deeply demoralising for the rest of the army in which 80 per cent of the men were Shias.

Saddam did little after 1991 except stay in power. He weathered a series of crises in 1995-96 which saw an attempted coup, the defection of his son-in-law, General Hussain Kamel (later lured back to Baghdad and killed) and the nearly successful assassination of his elder son, Uday. But Saddam was not able to end sanctions or to break Iraq's international isolation.

In 2001, Saddam was even able to find time to write two novels, Zabibah and the King and The Impregnable Fortress, allegorical tales about the Iraqi people and himself. The Iraqi opposition abroad tried to keep up its morale by repeating stories that the leader was in poor health but his political position seemed as secure as it had been at any time since the invasion of Kuwait.

All this was changed by the al-Qa'ida suicide attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001. It was not difficult to portray the threat from Saddam as something about which every American should worry. The Iraqi leader could do little. From early last year, Washington seemed set on war. Saddam tried to delay the onslaught, allowing UN inspectors to return, but probably with little hope that a last battle could be long postponed.

His real thoughts in the final days of the regime are unknown. While expressing undying loyalty to the leader, senior members of the regime seem to have decided that they would not fight to the end. The strategy of withdrawing the Iraqi army to the cities, so the US could not use its air power, was sensible enough. But the defensive plan had curious failings. Baghdad was not fortified against a siege. Bridges across the Tigris and Euphrates were not blown up. The roads were not effectively mined.

Saddam's career ended in total failure and the destruction of Iraq. He had no noticeable redeeming features. The savagery of his authoritarian regime was exacerbated by the divisions within Iraq, but he did what he could to make sure that different Iraqi communities felt threatened by each other. In the weeks since the fall of Baghdad, however, Saddam may have drawn some pleasure from seeing the US so swiftly dissipate, in the eyes of Iraqis, any political capital they had gained from his overthrow.

The writer is the co-author, with Andrew Cockburn, of 'Saddam Hussein: An American Obsession'.