The main figure on the Iraqi side of the 1991 Persian Gulf

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1 Saddam Hussein s Rise to Power 2 The main figure on the Iraqi side of the 1991 Persian Gulf War was Saddam Hussein (1937 ; ruled ). After becoming president of Iraq in 1979, Hussein involved his country in two major wars over the next dozen years. The story of Hussein s youth and his rise to power helps explain his aggressive behavior toward his neighbors in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein, whose name means he who confronts in Arabic, was born in He grew up as a peasant near the Sunni Muslim village of Tikrit, which is located about 100 miles (161 kilometers) north of Baghdad along the Tigris River. After he came to power, Hussein invented or exaggerated many details of his early life to enhance his image as a powerful and ruthless leader. As a result, some facts about his life are uncertain. It is known that Hussein s father either died or left the family before Saddam was born. The main influences in his young life were his stepfather and one of his uncles. Hussein has said that he endured a difficult childhood, in which he was abused and often prevented from attending school. Some historians claim that his harsh upbringing taught him 9

2 to view other people with mistrust and to rely only upon himself. Hussein also realized at a young age that threats and violence would help him get what he wanted. He has claimed that he was ten years old when he first killed someone. It is known that when he was a teenager, Hussein killed his brother-in-law during a violent family argument and was sent to prison for six months. The Baath Party In 1957, as a twenty-year-old student, Hussein joined the Iraqi Baath Party. (Baath means rebirth or renaissance in Arabic.) Baathism was a radical political movement founded in the 1940s by Syrian revolutionary Michel Aflaq ( ). The idea behind the movement was to unite the Arab world and create one powerful Arab state. The Iraqi Baath Party was a small, disorganized splinter group of this larger movement. It was made up primarily of violent and ruthless men who were willing to do anything to take control of the Iraqi government. In 1959 Hussein was one of a group of Baath revolutionaries who tried to murder Iraq s military ruler, General Abdul Karim Qassem ( ). When the assassination attempt failed, Hussein left Iraq in order to avoid capture. He fled to Syria and eventually settled in Cairo, Egypt, where he entered a university and studied law. In 1963 the Baath Party succeeded in overthrowing the Iraqi government. Hussein immediately returned to Iraq and claimed his place in the new regime. Thanks to the support of his older cousin, Ahmed Hassan al-bakr ( ), Hussein was given a position in the Baath regional command, which was the party s highest decision-making body in Iraq. As soon as it gained control of the government, the Baath Party showed Iraqi citizens that it was willing to use violence and threats to remain in power. First, it proved that the former leaders would not be returning by showing Qassem s dead body on Iraqi television. A Baath Party official pointed out the bullet holes in the corpse and then spat into the murdered general s face. Over the next few months the Baathists turned Iraq s royal palace into a torture chamber for their enemies. Some prisoners who survived later testified 10 The War in the Persian Gulf: Almanac

3 that they had been questioned and tortured by Hussein himself. The Iraqi military managed to overthrow the Baathists and regain control of the government less than a year later. The military rulers threw Hussein and several other Baath Party leaders in prison. Hussein used his time in captivity to think about why his party had failed to stay in power. He felt that party leaders had placed too much trust in the Iraqi military to support them. He decided to build his own security force within the party so that the Baathists would not have to depend on the military to regain power. Hussein escaped from prison after two years and became the security organizer for the Baath Party. He created a large force that used violence to terrify citizens and remove rival political leaders. In 1968 the Baath Party again overthrew the Iraqi government and returned to power. Bakr became president of Iraq, and his ambitious younger cousin Hussein became deputy chairman of the party s Revolutionary Command Council. Hussein also served as the head of internal security for the Baathist government. Controlling the forces that helped the party maintain power through threats and violence, Hussein became the most powerful person in the government. He forged close relationships with other party leaders during this time, but he later betrayed many of these men to further his own career. Although the Baathist government kept many of its violent activities secret, it also sometimes used public displays of force to keep its critics in line. For example, in January 1969 Iraq arrested a number of foreign journalists and accused them of being spies for Israel. (Israel is a Jewish state in the Middle East that has a history of strained relations with many countries in the Arab world.) Seventeen of the journalists eleven of whom were Jewish were convicted in public trials and put to death by hanging. The executions were car- A young Saddam Hussein, who quickly rose through the ranks of the Baath Party. AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission. Saddam Hussein s Rise to Power 11

4 ried out in Liberation Square in Baghdad in front of a crowd of thousands of Iraqis. Despite the Baathist government s brutal reputation and its disregard for human rights, Iraq still enjoyed the support of the United States and many European nations during this time. This friendly attitude was due to the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union (along with their allies) were locked in an economic and military rivalry known as the Cold War. During the Cold War, which lasted from the 1940s until 1991, U.S. foreign policy focused on preventing the communist form of government practiced in the Soviet Union from spreading to other countries. (In communism the government controls all property and industry, and goods and money are in theory shared equally among all citizens.) The United States viewed the Baath movement, with its focus on Arab nationalism (the goal of uniting the Arab world to form one powerful nation), as a good alternative to communism. The U.S. government wanted to stay on good terms with Iraq in order to maintain its influence in the Middle East, which was located directly south of the Soviet Union. Hussein takes control of Iraq Hussein spent the 1970s gradually getting rid of Bakr s supporters and his own rivals within the Baath Party. In July 1979 he finally managed to force his cousin out of office and seize control of the government. Shortly after becoming president of Iraq, Hussein tightened his grip on power by carrying out a bloody rampage that resulted in the deaths of an estimated five hundred people. These included military officers, Baath Party officials, and even some of Hussein s close friends and associates. At one point, Hussein presided over an event that was broadcast on Iraqi television. He ordered twenty leading citizens to read confessions of crimes against the government and then had them taken outside and shot as traitors. Hussein used these brutal acts to inspire loyalty among the Iraqi people and ensure his absolute control of the government. He realized that Iraq faced both external threats from neighboring countries and internal conflicts among its different ethnic and religious groups. Hussein re- 12 The War in the Persian Gulf: Almanac

5 sponded to these tensions by using violence to maintain his hold on power and make himself appear to be a strong leader who could guide the country through its problems. I know that there are scores of people plotting to kill me, he said shortly after becoming president in 1979, as quoted in Understanding the Crisis in the Persian Gulf by historian Peter Cipkowski. And this is not difficult to understand. After all, did we not seize power by plotting against our predecessors [the political leaders who came before]? Fortunately, I am far cleverer than they. I know who is conspiring to kill me long before they can actually start planning to do it. This enables me to get them before they have the slightest chance of striking at me. Another way in which Hussein tried to look like a strong leader was by placing pictures of himself all over Baghdad. For example, his portrait appeared on the sides of buses and buildings and in every village, school, hospital, and government office. He wanted Iraqi citizens to feel his An armored car stands outside the Presidential palace in Baghdad, Iraq, after the Baath Party overthrew the Iraqi government in Corbis. Reproduced by permission. Saddam Hussein s Rise to Power 13

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