WAR IN IRAQ 2003: The Rise and Rise of a Tyrant

Article excerpt

RIFLE in hand and firing into the air from a balcony, or surrounded by khaki-clad members of his Revolutionary Command Council, Saddam Hussein has become the world's best-known Arab leader.

But the Iraqi president and prime minister is also the figure many in the West have come to hate - a tyrannical, power-crazed despot whose grip on reality appears even more fragile than the economically crippled country he rules.

Born in the village of Al-Awja near Tikrit, north of Baghdad, in 1937, Saddam became active in politics from an early age.

The new Iraq took shape following the break from British rule in 1932, and in 1957 he joined the fledgling Arab Socialist Ba'ath or Renaissance party, tapping into widespread anti-British sentiment.

Talk soon turned to action and Saddam, very much a product of his time, was involved in two failed plots: the first to depose the British-installed king in 1956 and the second to kill Brigadier Abdel Karim Qasim, who came to power in 1958.

The failed assassination bid on Qasim forced Saddam to flee to Egypt, but he returned after the Ba'ath party gained power in 1963. Qasim quickly regained power and Saddam was jailed for his political activities.

But he escaped in 1966, and was part of the successful coup that saw General Ahmed Hasan al-Bakr sweep to power.

The Ba'ath party has ruled ever since, Saddam portraying himself as the saviour of Iraq and the Arab world in the face of Western aggression.

Bakr and Saddam were close: the general was a relative and also came from Tikrit but once Saddam was appointed deputy president, he used his position throughout the 1970s to build up a feared security service and strengthen his own power.

However, his methods - particularly the signing of a 15-year treaty with the Soviet Union and the nationalisation of the country's oil industry - caused alarm in the West.

In 1978, the shift to dictatorship was almost complete with the declaration that membership of opposition parties was a capital offence.

Bakr stepped down as president in 1979, propelling Saddam to power and prompting an even bloodier - and ultimately costly - period in Iraqi history. Not only did he take Iraq into a misjudged eight-year war with Iran, but on taking over as president he immediately killed dozens of his rivals.

The Iran-Iraq war saw Saddam preside over the deaths of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen. Some believe it was a war for territory, others say it was an attempt to stop the clerics of Iran spreading their extremist Islamic ideology throughout the Middle East. Whatever the reason, the war showed Saddam's ruthlessness.

In 1986, the United Nations confirmed that Iraq had contravened the Geneva Convention by using chemical weapons on Iranian soldiers. Two years later, he used those chemical weapons on his own people, the Iraqi Kurds in the north of the country, a region known for its insurrection and desire for autonomy. …