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Hussein, 61, a longtime practitioner of violent means Born into peasant family, he rose to rule ancient land


At the end of Iraq's abysmal war with Iran, an eight-year debacle in which 120,000 Iraqis died, Saddam Hussein built a victory monument on the outskirts of Baghdad. The arch featured a pair of massive hands gripping two crossed swords.

"The most important thing to understand about Saddam is when given a choice between a peaceful or violent end Saddam prefers the violent way," said Laurie Mylroie, an associate of the Foreign Policy Institute in Washington and co-author of a book on the Iraqi leader and the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

"That is how he achieved what he has in life. That is what he trusts, and this is how he operates," she said.

The Baghdad arch -- built a year after the war with Iraq ended and a year before Hussein sent troops into Kuwait in 1990 -- is distinctive for another reason. The powerful hands brandishing the swords are replicas of the Iraqi leader's. It is a monument that symbolizes not only Hussein's penchant for violence, but his preoccupation with himself and his place in history.

Hussein, 61, has ruled Iraq for nearly two decades. He is described as a ruthless despot who relies on a network of security agents, secret police and elite military guards to retain power. He plays one group against the other and uses the police to foster a terrifying unease among the Iraqi people.

"The fear he inspires in his people, that his secret police instill, is so great that Iraq is a self-policing society," said Kenneth Pollack, a Persian Gulf analyst in Washington. "Nobody knows who is or who isn't an informant."

Hussein, the fatherless son of a peasant, presides over a country with a glorious past, the cradle of civilization that gave birth to a cast of historical figures, including the great Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, who enslaved the Jews. Saladin, the 12th-century Islamic liberator of Jerusalem, hails from Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.

Hussein has embraced their legacy and reinvented himself to meet the challenge -- his name is Arabic for "the one who confronts."

Ancient roots

A Sunni Muslim, Hussein claims to be a descendant of the prophet Mohammed. Educated late in life, Hussein awarded himself an honorary law degree when he was deputy chairman of the Revolutionary Council, the second in command in the country.

Hussein prefers the uniform of an army marshal. Unlike the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi men he has sent to war against Iran and Kuwait, the Iraqi leader has no military service experience. Nevertheless, he made himself a four-star general and took the mantle of staff field marshal upon his ascent to the presidency.

Hussein reached the president's office through a steady climb in the nationalist Baath Socialist Party. But his political career is marked by violence, not diplomacy.

At age 20, he was among the Baath Party hit men dispatched to kill the army general who overthrew King Faisal II. The failed assassination attempt forced Hussein into hiding. He fled to Syria and then Egypt. When the Baath-ists secured power in Baghdad in 1963 after murdering Gen. Abdul Karim Qassim, Hussein returned to Iraq. He was married then to his cousin. Family ties have figured greatly in Hussein's grip on power.

At 26, he joined the regime as an interrogator in an infamous prison known for its torture techniques. During a Baath Party split, Hussein landed a spot on the party's most important decision-making body. He followed an older cousin, Gen. Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, a well-known military figure in the party, to power.

Hussein recognized the need to unify the party; he set about building a security force answerable first to him. The price for disloyalty was death.

Within two years, Hussein became deputy secretary-general of the party.

When the Baathists seized power in a 1968 coup, Hussein became deputy chairman of the Revolutionary Council. His charge: internal security. Half-brothers and cousins joined him in that endeavor; family would become the mainstay of his support.

The new regime hanged spies. Political rivals were killed, enemies targeted for assassination. According to one account, Hussein personally killed only one person -- his brother-in-law, in a family dispute over politics. But biographers, human rights activists and others attribute hundreds of other deaths to the Iraqi ruler.

In July 1979, al-Bakr resigned, citing poor health. Hussein became president with the support of his family and clan. He also became commander in chief, head of the government, chairman of the Revolutionary Council and secretary-general of the Iraqi Baath Party. Hussein assumed the power he had methodically consolidated over 10 years.

But he wanted to ensure his power. In his inauguration speech, he spoke of traitors to the party. In the weeks that followed, nearly two dozen top party members were murdered, according to "Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf," co-written by Mylroie.

'The quintessential game'

"He is very good at playing the quintessential game of dictators -- divide and rule," said Pollack, the Persian Gulf specialist. "He has multiple, overlapping military and intelligence institutions. They all keep watch on each other."

Hussein may be known throughout the world for his brutality, but his early days in power were accompanied by improvements in Iraqi life. He launched social programs bankrolled by oil revenues; Iraq was second only to Saudi Arabia in production.

In 1980, he led Iraq into a war with Iran, where an Islamic revolution the year before returned Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power. The eight-year war ruined a generation of Iraqis, plunged the country into debt and divided it by wealth.

The war ended with a cease-fire, but Hussein claimed it was an Iraqi victory.

"He does believe it's a victory because he lived to fight another day. He carries on the struggle. It is a struggle to establish the position of the Arabs in the world against the American-led, secular, couch-potato existence," said Mylroie.

Two years later, Hussein invaded Kuwait claiming among other things that the Kuwaitis were stealing Iraqi oil and that, in any case, Kuwait historically was a province of Iraq. Iraqi forces terrorized Kuwait and set the oil fields aflame as the United States, backed by a coalition of Arab nations and other allies, geared up to respond.

The allies' war lasted 100 hours.

A cease-fire was called Feb. 28, 1991, under severe conditions: The United Nations banned trade with Iraq and restricted its production of oil. Weapons inspectors began a search for the weapons of mass destruction Iraq had used against the Kurds in the north.

Hussein may be feared by many, but he also is admired by some in the Arab world for his confrontations with the West.

L Eccentric, ruthless, clever, maniacal -- is he all of these?

"A weaker character with less ambition and intelligence might have ended up no more than a scoundrel and a petty thief," wrote Mylroie and her co-author, Judith Miller. "But Saddam Hussein never lost confidence in his own destiny."

Pub Date: 12/17/98

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