For dictator, a ravenous rise to rule


Saddam Hussein made sure it was all captured on video, that day in July 1979 when the new Iraqi ruler taught his Baath Party colleagues a lesson about loyalty.

The 42-year-old Hussein had deftly carried out a palace coup, arranging for his cousin and mentor, then-President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, to go on television and say that for reasons of health he was turning over power to his deputy, "cherished Comrade Saddam Hussein."

Now the new dictator would show just how carefully he had studied the methods of his hero, Josef Stalin. With 1,000 top Baath Party leaders gathered at short notice in a Baghdad auditorium, Hussein told them somberly that a plot against the regime had been uncovered.

"We used to be able to sense a conspiracy with our hearts before we even gathered the evidence," he said. "Nevertheless we were patient, and some of our comrades blamed us for knowing this but doing nothing about it."

Then he called on stage a top party officer who had been arrested and tortured after daring to protest Hussein's seizure of power. Brought from prison, where he had been threatened with the rape and murder of his wife and daughters, Muhyi Abdul Hussein Mashadi confessed that he had plotted with Syria to overthrow the Iraqi regime - and that his co-conspirators were in the audience.

Then a security official read the names of 66 miscreants, who were led from the hall as relieved survivors began to outdo one another with chants denouncing the plotters and declaring, "Long live Saddam Hussein!" Hussein sat quietly, wiping away tears at one point, as if saddened at the perfidy of his former friends.

Twenty-two of those arrested were executed with shots fired by Baath leaders offered the chance to prove their fealty. Hussein made sure footage of these "democratic executions" was added to the tape before copies were distributed to Baath activists across Iraq. It has been shown on international television in recent years.

As Hussein's 24-year rule appears to be nearing its end, that episode from its beginning captures not only the dictator's ruthless dedication to his power, but his careful planning and flair for showmanship. They were traits Hussein admired in Stalin, whose cult of personality he replicated and whom he sometimes quotes. One Stalinist saying said to be among his favorites: "Where there's a person, there's a problem. If there's no person, there's no problem."

To Americans, Saddam Hussein has come to stand for brutality to his own people and menace to other countries.

But at earlier times, U.S. officials valued Hussein for other qualities; one of those officials was Donald H. Rumsfeld, who visited Baghdad in 1983 as President Ronald Reagan's envoy to patch up relations.

Hussein pushed literacy, encouraged employment for women and invested Iraq's oil revenue in Western technology.

He was an avowedly secular leader when the spread of fundamentalist Islam made Washington nervous. Crucially in the 1980s, he was a bulwark against a rabidly anti-American Iranian regime that threatened to dominate the Middle East.

The man who has become the single-minded focus of U.S. foreign policy was born in 1937 near Tikrit, northwest of Baghdad, to a landless peasant family, according to official Iraqi and foreign biographies.

Raised by an uncle, he was rejected by the prestigious Baghdad Military Academy but found a spot as an activist in the small, nationalist Baath Party. In 1959, he participated in an assassination attempt against Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul Karim Qasim. Shot in the leg, Hussein dug the bullet out of his leg with a knife - or so says legend, by now hard to separate from biography - and fled 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 Qasim was ousted in a coup carried out with the help of the CIA, whose "Health Alteration Committee" had previously sent him a monogrammed, poisoned handkerchief.

With covert U.S. assistance, the Baath Party seized power, arresting and executing hundreds of Communists - with the enthusiastic participation of Hussein, according to several accounts by Iraqi emigres.

Though the first Baath regime quickly fell, the party seized power a second time in a bloodless coup in 1968. With his cousin al-Bakr in power, Hussein worked tirelessly as second in command, seizing control of the security agencies and accumulating power by taking on administrative tasks, just as Stalin had done while Vladimir Lenin ruled the Soviet Union.

"He had two qualities that put him ahead of his colleagues," Said K. Aburish, a Hussein biographer and former middleman in Iraqi arms deals, told the PBS show Frontline. "His ability to work an 18-hour day. Endlessly. And a sense of organization."

After seizing power in 1979, Hussein relentlessly purged rivals and built a regime based on terror and blood ties. When he eliminated a potential rival, he often had the rival's family killed, too, averting danger from vengeful relatives. For allies, he drew on his al-Khatab clan in Tikrit, built a Republican Guard within the army, and entrusted his sons, Uday and Qusay, with lucrative and sensitive jobs.

Uday, the elder, has a reputation as a playboy but has more recently maneuvered to be prepared to replace his father, 65. Speaking to reporters in January, Uday imitated his father's swagger in defying the United States: "If they use airstrikes against us," he said, "then what happened on Sept. 11, it will look like a picnic."

It may be that Saddam Hussein's success as a Sunni Arab consolidating absolute rule over majority Shiite, multiethnic Iraq led him to overreach abroad.

In 1980, he attacked Iran, starting an eight-year conflict in which the United States provided help to avert an Iranian win. As that war neared its end, Hussein launched a campaign against the Iraqi Kurds, razing hundreds of villages and attacking the town of Halabja with poison gas, killing thousands.

Then, in 1990, he invaded Kuwait, prompting a U.S.-led coalition to drive out Iraqi troops.

The gulf war drew international attention to Hussein's drive to build chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. The United Nations responded by beginning the weapons inspections process that President Bush has declared a failure.

Hussein's power seems to be nearing an end. But his fate is less certain. Aburish, the biographer, described his obsession with security, which could make him hard for U.S. troops to find.

"He never sleeps in the same place," Aburish said. "His dinner is prepared in five or six different places. He has doubles who stand in for him on occasions. There are two or three people who know of his movements. ... Getting to him is almost impossible."

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