it is difficult to evaluate saddam hussain. he was a ruthless ruler but still it is worthwhile to see the circumstances which brought him to power and what he did for iraq. it is my belief that destiny brings up a person at the right time to do a right job. he may deteriorate later but still his contribution remains. it is with this idea that this essay is being written.
saddam hussain was born in 1939 in a small village al awja near tikrit in north iraq in a poor family. on the death or disappearance of his father, his mother married again and saddam hussain got step brothers from second marriage of his mother. the family lived from hand to mouth and the attitude of his step father was also not very favourable. saddam was forced to shift over, with the help of his mother, to a maternal uncle khairallah tuflah. his cousin adnan, though a year younger than saddam was attending school which saddam never got a chance to till later in life thorough his persistence. khairallah was in the army but was expelled and imprisoned for five years for leading a pro nazi revolt. later he became a school teacher. it may be mentioned that political upheavals were limited to baghdad, mosul and basra. backwater areas like tikrit were not involved.
after the world war one and eclipse of ottoman empire, iraq was placed under british mandate. in 1947, the first prime minister of modern iraq - saleh jabar - a shia – took over. the treaty with british was merely the extension of the terms on which british were ruling iraq. in 1948, israel was created and iraqi army along with other arab countries went to war. the performance of iraqi army was dismal and resulted in weeks long rioting in baghdad and elsewhere.
sometime in 1950, khairallah shifted to baghdad to teach at a school and saddam went with the family. the family lived in al karakh, where poor shias and sunnies stayed whereas tikrit area was purely sunni. sunnies did not consider shias to be true muslims. here saddam studied and did menial jobs. when he was 17, he married his cousin, sajida, daughter of khairallah. in 1920 he tried to join the army but failed to get in. some attribute his failure due to khairallah being part of earlier rebellion and due to his own part in rebellion of 1952. khairallah maintained his contacts with many persons from tikrit and encouraged them to join the army. one of these was ahmad hasan al bakr.
al bakr participated in the coup in 1958 which overturned the monarchy. he was also part of later coups. in 1968, al bakr assumed absolute power over iraq. on advice of khairallah, he appointed saddam hussain as his second in command.
a brief aside to describe the monarchy and the coups. after the world war, one faisal, an arab who had helped british against turkey, was made king of syria and then of iraq in 1921. he was king only in name and deputized for the british. many sunni elites held important posts in the country. shia majority was totally excluded and the kurds also resented the sunni monarchy because the promises british made while fighting against turkey were never kept. the british owned and exploited the oil resources.
Faisal was succeeded by his son ghazi. ghazi, half literate and naive but still resented the total control of british and, though not openly, would try to lessen their influence. he tried to establish regime something like that of kamal ataturk. due to his anti british moves, he became quite popular with the people. the british inspired rebellions occurred but were put down by ghazi. in 1937 he started his own radio station which was committed to arab cause. his broadcasts were well received not only in iraq but also in neighbouring countries. in fact, kuwait voted in favour of union with iraq. in 1939, ghazi was killed in a car accident, believed to be deliberate. his companions in the car also disappeared. in 1941, there was a coup led by one rashid ali and pro nazi group took over. the coup was unsuccessful as british quickly defeated the ill trained army, the british then ruled through martial law till 1946. monarchy was restored under british control till overthrown in 1958. nuri said was the permanent prime minister till then.
the army invasion of newly formed israel state in 1948 was a disastrous affair. it further aggravated the hatred of population against british masters. following nasser taking over egypt, there were riots in iraq too in which saddam took a leading part. in 1956, the invasion of egypt, when suez canal was nationalized, only increased iraqi resentment. saddam hussain joined the baathist party which was formed in various arab countries. they believed in arab unity. the success of nasser in 1958 made him a popular arab leader. finally in 1958, iraqi army overthrew the monarchy, blamed for its humiliation in israel, for murder of ghazi, the unsuccessful rebellion of 1946 and defeat in palestine. brigadier kassem, who had communist leaning, led the revolution. the agent of the minor king abdul illah was dragged in the streets, dismembered and hanged. the king, himself, was not disrespected but buried secretly. nuri said, the prime minister, was killed and dismembered and parts of his body taken out in processions. the riots in baghdad, basra, mosul, kirkuk and other places were equally brutal.
a people's court was set up and one of the appointees was al bakr, a resident of tikriti, and a relation of khairallah. because of revolution sunni elite lost their control and the lower level sunni cadres took over. brigadier kassem was not favourably inclined to join united arab republic, which would have reduced him to be just a follower of nasser. he was also favourably disposed in favour of british and allowed iraqi oil to flow to british. this caused resentment of fellow officers but kassem depended upon the communist support. he organized a militia which resorted to terror against the opponents of kassem. the opponents resorted to hit and run tactics. saddam actively anticipated in these and in distributing leaflets opposing kassem. saddam was arrested many times but was considered to be a minor player and let off. following a murder of a tikriti officer, saddam and his uncle khairallah were arrested and jailed but were later let off as there was no evidence against them. this served to enhance their popularity.
there was a rebellion in mosul when the communists wanted to hold a big conference, it was crushed, brutally as usual. baathist party then decided to assassinate kassem and this was eventually attempted in october 1959. it was unsuccessful. saddam was injured in the event. he escaped to syria. the baathist party, considering him to be too young, sent him to egypt to be trained. he graduated from qasr al nil high school in 1961. he got admission in law school but dropped out.
meanwhile, a trial was held in iraq against the plotters caught by the police but they conducted themselves so well in the trial that it was embarrassing to kassem whom the plotters blamed as a communist as against their ideal of pan arabism. seventeen of the plotters were executed. saddam was tried in absentia and sentenced to death. in egypt he caried on his association with baathist party. he was elected as a member of the command of the student's body.
meanwhile americans were trying to topple kassem because of his communist leanings. it is believed that, in egypt, saddam was in touch with americans. on the other hand, iraqi army also started their move against kassem. al bakr was selected as the leader. in february, the rebels, alarmed by the news of conspiracy being discovered made a move with whatever weapons they could get. for four days their planes bombed kassems' ministry of defence. though the communists wanted to take up arms. kassem hesitated while the baathists, determined, armed themselves. to avoid further bloodshed, kassem surrendered. he was executed.
what followed was systematic elimination of the kassems supporters – the communists, socialists, peace partisans and others. the estimate runs from seven hundred to thirty-five. thousand.
united states. almost immediately, recognized the new regime. they supplied arms to iraq to fight the kurds in kirkuk though they had not sided with kassem. the american companies got new contracts and concessions. the russian planes were handed over to americans for study of their efficacy.
two weeks after the coup, saddam returned to iraq. al bakr, who had led the rebellion, handed over the presidency to aref and, himself, became the prime minister. al bakr persuaded aref to appoint saddam as member of the president's bureau.
as member president's bureau, saddam had a free run to various organizations. he utilized this to organize the young ones in the party. meanwhile differences arose between aref and al bakr. aref strengthened his republican guard, which was to protect him. as differences increased, al bakr was removed and arrested. saddam was on the run again but by this time, his was a known name. he went away to damascus and spoke forcefully about his concept of arab unity. aflaq, the head of baathist party appointed saddam as in charge of baghdad branch. in iraq, saddam organized an underground party. a plot to raid presidential palace was detected and saddam arrested. however, aref regime treated its prisoners liberally.
meanwhile, there was some developments in syria and chief of baathist party aflaq was removed. in iraq, aref died in a helicopter crash, succeeded by his brother. saddam, with the connivance of the guards, left the prison. though syria baathist party broke with iraq counterpart but saddam and friends continued their efforts.
in 1967, there was a bloodless coup. aref was forced to resign. a new council took over with al bakr as the president. the premiership went to a baathist leader nayyef. hardan al tikriti became chief of army staff. a new security organization was set up under the name 'office of general relation's and saddam was made in charge. he had direct access to president. when the army chief went to jordan to inspect iraqi troops there, saddam moved in, arrested nayyef and packed him off to morocco. al bakr made himself the prime minister and chief of army thus completing the revolution. harden escaped to saudi arabia where he stayed.
saddam added more departments to his charge including education and propaganda. khairallah became governor of baghdad. in 1969, saddam hussain became vice president. shortly afterwards, he started the process of cleaning, as he called it. a cia and zionist plan was said to be discovered and many were sentenced to death. a similar communist plot was discovered and led to execution of twenty communists. all the detainees were released., which proved to be a popular act. kurds were reconciled by a show of sympathy but the shias were diffident. but a large-scale recruitment was welcomed by them. he recruited people from mosul, tikriti to the party cadre who became supporters of the regime. the next effort was to control the army. this he did by appointing party commissars in the army who were answerable to the party.
it was more difficult to control the kurds and shias but with arabising towns like kirkuk, saddam achieved it. kurds rose in rebellion but it was crushed. shias were unwilling to give up easily and saddam invented a plot and executed seventeen sons and grandsons of shia leader sayyed muhsin al hakim. rest fled iraq. the arab unity was put on the back burner. the relations with ussr were sought to be stabilised despite persecution of known communists. ussr responded to deny the west to get concessions from iraq. the iraqi position those days was to stay out of foreign entanglement. when jordan tried to control palestinians, iraq just stood aside despite presence of its forces in jordan. but this inactivity was used by saddam to remove the army generals many of whom fled the country.
on the positive side, besides releasing the detainees, saddam introduced land reforms. the trade unions were allowed to continue and addressed themselves to problems of the workers, working condition as well as pay. an extensive social security system was introduced. he tried to improve the lot of women by protecting them against polygamy. the doors were opened to the women to join the army, especially the popular army. they were allowed to enter other professions also. the land taken over from the british by kassem were not returned to the british.
it may be observed that saddam enjoyed full powers but always deferred to al bakr, the father leader and aflaq, who had moved from damascus to iraq after leftists took over the baathist party there. he always stood a step behind them and did not speak unless they had stopped speaking. in the newspapers, his photo appeared below that of al bakr and aflaq. he never entered their office without being announced. saddam removed his competitors one by one but always took the advice of al bakr in this. thus, minister of defence was removed and sent as an ambassador to algeria. So was ammansh who was ambassador in stockholm, moscow and helsinki. shaikhally, foreign minister was removed and sent as ambassador to united nations.
by the end of 1970, saddam's monopoly on power was complete. instability and inefficiency were receding. but more was in store. in april 1972, saddam visited ussr and made up with communist party whose two members were to be ministers. on 13th may, saddam gave notice to iraq petroleum company two weeks to accept the iraqi term. it was ignored and on first june, saddam nationalized the iraqi petroleum company. as a strategy basra oil company was not touched to prevent stoppage of production of oil. the slogan was 'arab oil for arabs' and therefore arab countries could not oppose it.
it was superbly planned move. to prevent sabotage by non supply of spares, saddam had already finalised agreements with ussr, italy, brazil and other countries. on 31st may all employees were summoned and told to inform their families that they may have to stay overnight. around midnight, saddam appeared and announced the decision to nationalize. it was un arab like – a piece of organizational magic, which appealed to listeners. saddam personally informed stockwell, chief of ipr, of the decision with utmost politeness. in june, saddam travelled to france and asked french companies to explore for oil in new areas. he also entered into minor arms deal to reassure the french. true to his vont, bakr received as mush credit for the nationalization as saddam.
the opposition plotted to overthrow the government. the idea was to shoot dead president bakr on his return from visit to poland and simultaneously occupy radio station and tv studio to announce change of regime. the plan failed because of four hours delay in arrival of president. kazzar, the conspirator, was caught while trying to escape to iran and lost his life after a trial.
controlling the oil production was rewarding for the economy. largest development programmes, ever taken by third world economy, were begun. the army was to be strengthened. it was the time when saddam was building social forces while other arab countries were building palaces. saddam was determined to manufacture as much as possible locally, including storm windows and sandals. in 1975 he enacted an anti-bribe law and a stricter one in 1976. it prescribed death penalty for bribery. to show that he means business, two deputy ministers were executed for taking bribes.
to encourage private sector, he created agricultural, industrial and real estate banks. by 1977, it had grown three times compared to what it was in 1970. schools, hospitals, clinics followed. electricity reached four thousand villages. to encourage use of electricity, he supplied free refrigerators and televisions. he took care to build pipes for oil flow which could flow both ways, should the need arise. to attract shia population, he made the people of south come first with his beneficial schemes. nor did he ignore kurds in the north. he allocated three billion dollars to kurds area in 1974.
irrigation is a problem in the desert area where rate of evaporation is high and leads to salination of land. he started the use of sub soil drain network, starting with south. a large tract of area was reclaimed in kurdistan and elsewhere. starting with communist model of collective agriculture, he gave it up when it did not appeal to the iraqi farmers. 'our way is the arab way' became his campaign cry. private farms and cooperative farms were allowed.
education has already been pointed out. in 1977, he stepped it up requiring all persons between the age of fifteen and forty-five to learn to read and write. the alternative was imprisonment. in eighteen months, the number of teachers reached 62,000. by 1982, 20 lakhs persons had gone through the eradication of illiteracy programmed. in saddam's mind elevating women was same as making people literate. the proportion of women teachers rose to 46 %, of doctors to 29 %., pharmacists to 70 % and dentists to 46 %.
it is time to stop here. what followed is history. when egypt agreed to camp david agreement, bakr advocated union between iraq and syria to build up eastern front against israel. assad of syria was in no hurry to do it. neither was saddam. meanwhile khomanei ascendency in iran complicated matters. failing in his bid for unity with syria, al bakr announced his retirement on july 1979. whether it was the result of pro west arab leaders who wanted saddam to go forced saddam's hand to send bakr home will not be known. anyway, bakr announced that saddam would be the new president.
the dictator had arrived.
ultimately what undid saddam were his cruel elimination of rivals for power and the unseemly acts of his children, the eight years' war with iran, the invasion of kuwait and the final elimination on the false allegations of instruments of mass destruction. the events are too well known to merit writing up.
it may be noted that before the outbreak of the war with iran in september 1980, iraq's economic prospects were bright. oil production had reached a level of 560,000 m³ (3.5 million barrels) per day in 1979, and oil revenues were 21 billion dollars in 1979 and $27 billion in 1980 due to record oil prices. at the outbreak of the war, iraq had amassed an estimated $35 billion in foreign exchange reserves. it had the best education and health care systems in the middle east, and thousands of migrant workers from egypt, somalia, and the indian subcontinent came to the country to work in construction projects.