The Life and Death of a Tyrant

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

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Coming up, Neruda love poems set to music. But first, Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq for nearly a quarter century before he was toppled by the U.S. invasion in 2003. He led his nation into disastrous wars, first with Iran, then twice with the United States and its allies. Saddam Hussein was a man of immense and grandiose ambitions and profound and foolish mistakes, mistakes that led to his death by hanging today in Baghdad. NPR's Mike Shuster has this look back on the career of Saddam Hussein.

MIKE SHUSTER: Saddam Hussein was the preeminent strong man in Iraq since the early 1970s. In Iraq and 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 August 2nd, 1990, when he launched his army on 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. And President George H.W. Bush gave the orders to go to war against Iraq on January 16th, 1991.

GEORGE H: 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. These countries had hoped the use of force could be avoided. Regrettably, we now believe that only force will make him leave.

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

SADDAM HUSSEIN: (Through translator) At 2:30 a.m. tonight, on the 16th of January, the treacherous fools and Bush, the Satan, has perpetrated this crime, he and the criminals (unintelligible) and the great battle has been initiated, the mother of all battles.

SHUSTER: The mother of all battles proved to be short-lived. Allied warplanes pounded Iraq and Iraqi forces in Kuwait for nearly two months. Then a ground invasion took back Kuwait in 100 hours, leaving tens of thousands of Iraqis killed, but only 500 allied deaths. 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, Saddam learned violence at an early age. By the time he was a teenager, his biographers say, he had carried out his first killing: the murder of a communist militant. The weapon, a knife.

In 1959, he was a member of the hit squad that sought to assassinate Iraq's military leader, Abdul Kareem Kasem(ph). Kasem's car was riddled with bullets, but he survived. Saddam was wounded in the leg and 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. Kanan Makiya is the author of a study of Saddam's Iraq, "Republic of Fear."

KANAN MAKIYA: You have a cigar-smoking Saddam Hussein in the beginning, chairing the session and then beginning to read out a speech in which he suddenly announces, to the amazement of his audience, that this huge conspiracy has been detected at various levels. 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.

SHUSTER: Those who were taken out of the hall were shot by those who had allied themselves with Saddam. A year later Saddam made the first of his great political and military miscalculations. With the Islamic revolution only a year old in neighboring Iran, and covetous of Iran's oil fields just across the border, Saddam ordered his troops to invade. The Iran/Iraq war lasted for eight years and eventually ended in stalemate. During the war, Saddam used chemical weapons widely against the Iranian army and his own Kurdish population. Saddam called it the second kottasea(ph), a reference to a battle in the seventh century in which an Arab conquering army brought Islam to Persia, reflecting 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, which would include a crash effort to obtain nuclear weapons.

But the war with Iran put enormous strains on the economy. Saddam needed more resources, and 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.

ANDREW PARASILITI: 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 will, more importantly, or will, to mount a sustained military attack on Iraq, and that the first American casualties would divide the United States or undermine political will to conduct this operation.

SHUSTER: The Gulf War devastated Iraq and nearly toppled Saddam. In the north, the Kurds rose up against his rule, and 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. In the years after the Gulf War, Saddam continued to fight the U.S. and the West, but it was a more subtle war. It involved a hide-and-seek game with U.N. weapons inspectors over whether Iraq retained chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. And it involved 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. And this proved to be his final undoing. 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.

GEORGE W: Saddam Hussein's regime is a grave and gathering danger. 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.

DICK CHENEY: 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.

SHUSTER: 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.

HUSSEIN: (Through translator) The criminal, Junior Bush, committed, he and his aides, his crime that he was threatening Iraq with, and humanity as well. His criminal act comes from and his - and the act of those who helped him and his followers, this is added to the series of their shameful crimes against Iraq and the humanity.

SHUSTER: 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, Saddam was captured by U.S. forces, who found him 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 on the brink of chaos. Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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