The Strongman of Iraq Is Executed

Saddam Hussein on trial and in power

For three decades, Saddam Hussein inspired terror, hatred and awe. Jacques Pavlovsky/Iraq Special Tribunal-Pool/Sygma-Corbis/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jacques Pavlovsky/Iraq Special Tribunal-Pool/Sygma-Corbis/Getty Images
Celebrating Saddam in his birthplace i i

Tikrit celebrates its native son. The picture was taken in 1984, on Saddam Hussein's 58th birthday. Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images
Celebrating Saddam in his birthplace

Tikrit celebrates its native son. The picture was taken in 1984, on Saddam Hussein's 58th birthday.

Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images
Saddam Hussein with a child i i

The Iraqi dictator loved a good photo op. STR/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption STR/AFP/Getty Images
Saddam Hussein with a child

The Iraqi dictator loved a good photo op.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

Saddam Hussein is dead. Before dawn Saturday, the Iraqi government carried out the sentence an Iraqi court handed down in November — death by hanging.

Until he was toppled by the U.S. invasion in 2003, Saddam ruled Iraq for nearly a quarter-century, taking his nation into disastrous wars, first with Iran and then twice with the United States and its allies.

A man of immense and grandiose ambitions and profound and foolish mistakes, he was the pre-eminent strongman in Iraq for three decades. In Iraq and in the wider Arab world, he inspired, by turns, awe, terror and hatred.

But his name did not become a household word in the United States until Aug. 2, 1990, when his army launched a blitzkrieg attack against Kuwait. In response, the United States built up a military force half a million strong in Saudi Arabia and in the waters of the Persian Gulf. On Jan. 16, 1991, President George H.W. Bush gave the orders to go to war against Iraq.

"Tonight, 28 nations, countries from five continents — Europe and Asia, Africa and the Arab League — have forces in the Gulf area standing shoulder to shoulder against Saddam Hussein," the president declared. "These countries had hoped the use of force could be avoided. Regrettably, we now believe that only force will make him leave."

Casting himself as the great leader of the Arab world, Saddam Hussein also took to the airwaves that night. He appealed to Arabs everywhere to rise up against the United States in the titanic battle between the Arab world and the infidels.

"At 2:30 a.m. tonight, on the 16th of January, the treacherous fools and Bush the Satan has perpetrated this crime," Saddam said. "The great battle has been initiated, the mother of all battles."

The mother of all battles proved to be short-lived. Allied warplanes pounded Iraq and Iraqi forces in Kuwait for nearly two months. A ground invasion then took back Kuwait in 100 hours. Tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed; there were only 500 Allied deaths.

A History of Violence

Saddam Hussein's life was permeated by violence: in wars, in coups successful and unsuccessful, in assassination, treachery and terrorism. Born in the central Iraqi town of Tikrit in 1936, he learned violence at an early age. By the time he was a teenager, his biographers say he had carried out his first killing, murdering a Communist militant with a knife.

In 1959, he was a member of the hit squad that sought to assassinate Iraq's military leader, Abdul-Karim Kassem. Kassem's car was riddled with bullets, but he survived. Wounded in the leg, Saddam fled to Cairo. He returned to Iraq a few years later and began to organize gangs for the rising Baath Party.

When the Baath took power in 1968, Saddam became Iraq's second most powerful leader, turning his gangs into an intricate array of secret police organizations that would eventually infiltrate every aspect of Iraq's political life. Saddam took the supreme spot for himself in 1979, eliminating his rivals in a power grab captured on videotape. The scene was a meeting of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council.

"You have a cigar-smoking Saddam standing in the beginning chairing the session and then beginning to read out his speech to which he suddenly announces, to the amazement of his audience, that this huge conspiracy has been detected at various levels," said Kanan Makiya, author of Republic of Fear,a study of Saddam's Iraq. "And then he calls out people's names and you can see them standing up in bewilderment and then being taken out of the hall. He then goes and sits down in the front ranks, and one of the alleged conspirators gets up and details a whole long confession as to how he actually did participate in this obviously fabricated conspiracy."

Those who were taken out of the hall were shot by those who had allied themselves with Saddam.

Costs (and Benefits) of His Military Plans

A year later, Saddam made the first of his great political and military miscalculations. The Islamic revolution was only a year old in neighboring Iran. Covetous of Iran's oil fields, Saddam ordered his troops to invade. The Iran-Iraq War lasted eight years, eventually ending in stalemate. During the war, Saddam used chemical weapons widely, against both the Iranian army and his own Kurdish population.

Saddam called the war the second Qadisiya, a reference to a battle in the seventh century in which an Arab conquering army brought Islam to Persia. His choice of words reflected his immense ambition to be the great leader who unites all Arabs into one of the world's richest and most powerful nations.

Oil and arms would be the means. Saddam spent billions to acquire a massive arsenal, including a crash effort to obtain nuclear weapons.

This arms race was not without benefits for the people of Iraq, says Kanan Makiya. Using oil revenues, "he built the infrastructure of this country like no other regime had. One way or another, he frog-marched the country into a very high attention to literacy, built universities all over the place, put enormous investment into technocratic technical elite, which was the basis of his military complex."

Devastated by the Gulf War

But the war with Iran put enormous strains on the economy. Saddam needed more resources. In 1990, he seized Kuwait and its oil fields, claiming that Kuwait was actually a province of Iraq.

The invasion of Kuwait was Saddam's second great political and military miscalculation, says Andrew Parasiliti, former director of the Middle East Initiative at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

"I think that Saddam Hussein believed that the United States suffered from the Vietnam syndrome, that he didn't believe that the United States had the military capability or — more importantly — the will to mount a sustained military attack on Iraq," Parasiliti explained. "Saddam felt that the first American casualties would divide the United States or undermine political will to conduct this operation."

The 1991 Gulf War devastated Iraq and nearly toppled Saddam. In the north, the Kurds rose up against his rule. In the south, Shiite Muslims rebelled. Saddam unleashed his military on both. The United States looked the other way, and Saddam retained his power in Baghdad.

After that, says Parasiliti, Saddam could no longer cast himself as the modern-day Saladin, who defeated the Crusaders and captured Jerusalem in the name of Islam 800 years ago.

"After the defeat in the Kuwait war, I think that Saddam's ambitions became more limited," Parasiliti said. "The war caused him to focus on survival. The devastating military defeat of the war, the uprisings that took place in 1991 — these were signals to him that his position was not as secure as he might have hoped."

Undone by Intransigence

In the years after the Gulf War, Saddam continued to fight the U.S. and the West, but it was a more subtle war. He played a hide-and-seek game with U.N. weapons inspectors over whether Iraq retained chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. And he waged an international propaganda struggle over economic sanctions, which the United Nations imposed in part to rid Iraq of its prohibited weapons. Saddam proved as intransigent on these issues as he had on all others.

This stubbornness proved his final undoing. Saddam never fully accounted for his weapons programs. Although U.N. inspectors could find no evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the Bush administration refused to concede how much the long years of war and sanctions had weakened Saddam Hussein.

In 2002 and early 2003, President Bush and Vice President Cheney led the United States into yet another war with Iraq.

"Saddam Hussein's regime is a grave and gathering danger," the president said. "To suggest otherwise is to hope against the evidence. To assume this regime's good faith is to bet the lives of millions and the peace of the world in a reckless gamble."

Cheney amplified Bush's words: "There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use them against our friends, against our allies, and against us."

After decades in power, Saddam Hussein was forced out of Baghdad with astonishing speed. Just a few weeks after the U.S. military began its assault on Iraq in March 2003, the Iraqi leader and his loyalists disappeared, but not before Saddam made a last futile attempt to rally resistance on Iraqi television, accusing the "junior Bush" of committing "shameful crimes against Iraq and humanity."

This time, though, the war did not end. Soon an insurgency exploded, spearheaded by Saddam's supporters. In the last three years it has only gained in intensity.

In December 2003, U.S. forces captured Saddam, who was found hiding in a hole in the ground.

The new Iraqi government put him on trial for crimes against his own people, but he used the pulpit of the trial, televised across the Arab world, to portray himself still as the legitimate leader of Iraq.

Defiant until the end, Saddam Hussein leaves behind an Iraq mired in turmoil and sectarian violence and on the brink of chaos.