A lifelong pursuit of power

Saddam Hussein, whose capture came eight months after an American invasion ended his brutal rule in Iraq, had aspired to become an epoch-making leader of his people and a hero to Arabs and Muslims elsewhere.

He encouraged sycophantic writers to portray him as the modern Saladin, the 12th-century warrior credited with uniting Muslim armies to defeat the invading Christian Crusaders. An Iraqi stamp showed Hussein and Saladin, both from the area of Tikrit, side by side; an Iraqi children's book referred to Hussein as Saladin II.

But Hussein's real model in consolidating power and governing by terror was a different leader, from a different place: Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Hussein collected books on Stalin and consciously shaped his regime on the Stalinist model, using never-ending purges of his Baath Party to eliminate potential rivals.

Hussein "stopped a cycle of coups" that had bedeviled Iraq, promoted education and spread fairly widely the wealth from oil sales, said Phebe Marr, author of a widely respected history of Iraq and former fellow at the National Defense University. "But he fastened to Iraq a totalitarian system the degree of which has never been seen before in the Middle East."

"Saddam Hussein brutally forced a symbiosis between tribal traditions, Baath Party doctrine and his cult of personality," said Robert G. Rabil, manager of the Iraqi Research and Documentation Project in Washington, which compiled an extensive library of documents from Hussein's regime.

What Hussein built in Iraq, Rabil said, "is a replica of what Stalin did in the Soviet Union."

But by surrounding himself with grateful relatives and compliant fellow tribesmen from Tikrit, Hussein ultimately undid himself. "There were no checks and balances on his judgment," which sometimes proved terrible, Marr said.

Hussein, who by official accounts of his life is 66, had shared power in Iraq since the Baath Party came to power in 1968. He seized total control in 1979. Historians say he initially helped bring a measure of stability and oil-fueled prosperity to Iraq before squandering the country's wealth and world position in a series of disastrous miscalculations.

His catastrophic military ventures include his attack against Iran in 1980, launching an eight-year war; his invasion of Kuwait in 1990; and the pursuit at least until the early 1990s of biological and chemical arms in the face of United Nations sanctions and world opinion.

The United States and other Western powers courted Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war because they saw his secular regime as a crucial counterweight to the fundamentalist, anti-American Islamic rulers of Iran. In the early 1980s, American envoys - notably including current Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld - overlooked Hussein's suppression of dissent and use of chemical weapons and tried to improve relations.

But Hussein's invasion of Kuwait 13 years ago ended the United States' patience with the Iraqi leader, whose troops were driven out of the neighboring oil-rich emirate. Over the next 12 years, U.N. inspectors and regular airstrikes were used to try to limit the threat Hussein was thought to pose to his neighbors and the West. Finally President Bush, urged on by aides who had long called for Hussein's removal, ordered the invasion that ended his reign.

His impact on the country was devastating. "There are few leaders in Middle Eastern history who have played so dominant a role in pulling a state together," said Marr, the historian. "And few who brought their state so low." Long before the American invasion, the country's economy had been all but ruined, the population cowed by fear and distrust, civil society in a state of collapse.

Hussein was born in 1937 in a village near Tikrit, northwest of Baghdad, to a peasant family. His father either died or abandoned the family before his birth, and his mother named him "Saddam," or "one who confronts." Raised by an uncle from the age of 10, he failed to gain admission to the prestigious military academy in Baghdad. He found a place instead as an activist and enforcer for the small, nationalist Baath Party.

In 1959, Hussein was part of a group of Baathists who attempted to assassinate Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul Karim Qassim. Legend has it that Hussein was shot during the melee and dug the bullet out of his leg with a knife before fleeing to Egypt.

In Cairo, he completed high school, studied law and was influenced by the revolutionary pan-Arabism of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. But he rushed back to Baghdad in 1963 after Qassim was ousted in a coup carried out with the help of the CIA, which had previously tried to kill Qassim by sending him a poisoned handkerchief. Once in power, the Baath Party arrested and executed hundreds of Communists with the enthusiastic participation of Hussein, according to several accounts by Iraqi emigres.

The first Baath regime quickly fell, and Hussein was imprisoned in 1964, finally escaping in 1967. The next year the Baath Party came to power again in a non-violent coup, and Hussein became vice president and the real power behind the president, his cousin Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr. In taking control of security agencies and working tirelessly at administrative tasks, Hussein followed the path Stalin took while Vladimir Lenin ruled the Soviet Union.

As minister of the interior and vice president he also oversaw the nationalization of Iraq's oil industry in 1972, directing the revenue into generous health and education benefits. He helped create a system of compulsory public education and led a national campaign to eradicate illiteracy.

In 1979, Hussein finally eased al-Bakr out of power, summoning Baath Party activists to a blood-chilling meeting that would set the tone for his regime.

A party leader who had evidently been tortured admitted to plotting against Hussein and read a list of his alleged co-conspirators, who were led from the meeting hall as the survivors shouted ever louder their outrage at the treachery and their love for the new leader. A videocassette of the proceedings - with a coda in which party loyalists proved their mettle by executing with a pistol some of those purged - was distributed throughout the country.

The Islamic revolution in Shiite Iran that year left Hussein feeling threatened as the Sunni Muslim ruler of a majority Shiite nation. He attacked Iran in 1980, winning the tacit backing of the United States and the Soviet Union for checking what the superpowers feared might be the uncontrolled spread of religious extremism.

In 1983, Rumsfeld traveled to Baghdad as President Ronald Reagan's special envoy at a time when Hussein's forces were using chemical weapons against Iran and the Kurdish minority in Iraq. Eager to patch up relations and to clear the way for an oil pipeline project, Rumsfeld omitted to complain to Hussein about the poison gas attacks, according to records of their meeting.

The war cost more than a million lives and left Iraq in a precarious financial position, with large debts to its oil-rich neighbor, Kuwait. In 1990, after Kuwait refused to forgive war debts, Hussein invaded Kuwait, a decision that ended the West's tolerance and led to the U.N. inspection regime designed to prevent Iraq from obtaining weapons of mass destruction.

Rather than comply fully with U.N. mandates, Hussein alternated partial cooperation with U.N. weapons inspectors with bombastic shows of defiance, expelling the inspectors in 1998. While the Clinton administration considered taking military action at the time, Iraq did not seem a serious threat to the United States, and the standoff continued.

By then, Hussein's sons Odai and Qusai had been placed in lucrative and powerful positions in the state, often matching their father's brutality. They remained in their father's good graces, unlike other relatives. Hussein's cunning and ruthlessness had been amply demonstrated in 1996, when he managed to lure back to Iraq his two sons-in-law, Hussein Kamel Hassan and Saddam Kamel, who had defected to the West. Hussein evidently persuaded the defectors that all was forgiven, but they were quickly killed.

In a sense, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks sealed Hussein's fate. Most experts believe Hussein had nothing to do with the attacks, and there was little love lost between the secular Hussein and the fanatically religious Osama bin Laden, who in 1990 had offered to lead a force of Islamic fighters to oust Iraqi troops from Kuwait.

But because of the attacks of Sept. 11, the Bush administration declared intolerable the combination of what was said to be Hussein's continued pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and past ties to some known terrorists. Despite vocal opposition from most of the world - and claims that the administration had distorted intelligence findings to exaggerate the Iraqi threat - Bush ordered an invasion to remove Hussein from power.

The United States alleged that Iraq had tried to assassinate the current president's father in 1993 with a car bomb that could also have killed the president's wife, mother and two brothers, so some foreign observers thought the war was a personal grudge match. Administration officials said the 1993 plot played no role.

The war began with bombing designed to kill Hussein, but he survived the initial onslaught and Hussein or a lookalike even made some televised walkabouts as allied troops attacked the capital.

By the time U.S. and British forces entered Baghdad, the Iraqi dictator had disappeared from public view. Intelligence analysts were divided on whether he had been killed or had gone into hiding.

In the end, nearly five months after Americans troops killed Odai and Qusai, soldiers found him hiding beneath a farm house, near Tikrit, not far from the village of his birth.

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