Saddam Hussein (1937-2006), former president of Iraq (1979-2003), who led Iraq into two devastating wars. Hussein’s regime was characterized by brutal suppression of internal opposition. Hussein was overthrown in April 2003 by a United States-led invasion. He eluded capture until December when he was arrested by U.S. forces. In November 2006 Hussein was found guilty of crimes against humanity and was sentenced to death. His execution took place in December 2006.
Born to a poor farming family near Tikrīt, a town north of Baghdād, Hussein was raised by his widowed mother and other relatives. He moved to Baghdād in 1955 and became involved in politics, joining the opposition Baath Party, an Arab nationalist movement. Hussein rose quickly within the party and in 1959 helped organize an assassination attempt on Abdul Karim Kassem, the military president of Iraq. Both Kassem and Hussein were injured in the gun battle, and Hussein fled to Cairo.
Hussein studied law in Cairo while continuing party-affiliated activities. He returned to Baghdād in 1963, married, and rose to the post of assistant secretary general of the Baath Party. The party remained in opposition to the government until 1968, when it seized power in a coup. Years of underground work gave Hussein a small core of like-minded friends, many related to him by blood or marriage and most from Tikrīt. After the coup, this clique established itself as a Revolutionary Command Council with absolute authority in the country. Hussein became vice chairman of the council in 1969. He worked closely with General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, the council’s chairman and president of Iraq.
Hussein took a leading role in addressing the country’s major domestic problems. He negotiated an agreement in 1970 with separatist Kurdish leaders, giving them autonomy. The agreement later broke down, leading to brutal fighting between the regime and Kurdish groups. He also played a part in the nationalization of the oil industry, Iraq’s major source of wealth. In 1973 oil prices skyrocketed, allowing the government to pursue an ambitious economic development program that included new schools, universities, hospitals, and factories.
In foreign affairs, Hussein at first helped Iraq play a leading role in the Middle East. In 1975 he negotiated a settlement with Iran that contained Iraqi concessions on border demarcation. In return, Iran agreed to stop supporting opposition Kurds in Iraq. Hussein also led Arab opposition to the 1979 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel. President al-Bakr gradually withdrew from politics during the 1970s and formally retired in 1979. Hussein became chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council and president of the country.
In 1979 Iran’s government was overthrown by Islamic fundamentalists and their supporters, and Hussein feared radical Islamic ideas were spreading inside Iraq, especially among the country’s majority Shia Muslim population (Shia Islam). In September 1980 Hussein abandoned his 1975 agreement with Iran and invaded Iran. After making some initial gains Iraq’s troops were stopped, and by 1982 Iraq was looking for ways to end the war. Hussein reached out to other Arab governments for financial and diplomatic support and began to target the Iranian oil industry. The Iranians, hoping to bring down Hussein, refused a ceasefire until 1988. During the war, Iraq used chemical weapons against Iranian forces.
The Iran-Iraq War left Iraq devastated with hundreds of thousands of casualties and a debt of about $75 billion. Still, Hussein had an experienced and well-equipped army, which he used to influence regional affairs, for example, by pressuring Kuwait to forgive its share of Iraq’s debt. In August 1990 Hussein sent troops into Kuwait and annexed it. An international coalition led by the United States evicted Iraq in January and February of 1991 in a conflict known as the Persian Gulf War. Though briefer than the Iran-Iraq War, it was equally devastating, leaving Iraq isolated and reeling from international economic sanctions.
Despite having led Iraq into two wars and, in so doing, squandering the country’s oil wealth, Hussein succeeded in facing down all internal challenges to his rule. In 1991, shortly after the end of the Persian Gulf War, Hussein suppressed an uprising among Shias in the south (see Shia Islam). Kurds who rebelled in the north were saved from complete defeat only because the international community protected them. Hussein’s small clique of friends and family was divided after the war, and in the following years Hussein arrested, exiled, and killed many among them who were thought to threaten his rule.
In the mid-1990s Hussein began interfering with the work of United Nations (UN) inspection teams assigned to Iraq after the Persian Gulf War to ensure that Iraq had ceased development of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and had destroyed any stockpiles of these weapons. His government insisted that the sanctions against Iraq should be lifted in return for its compliance with UN resolutions and accused the United States of seeking not to disarm Iraq but to overthrow the Iraqi regime. Arguments over the inspections led to a series of international confrontations. In 1998 Hussein averted conflicts in February and again in November by agreeing to allow inspections to continue. However, when in December he again blocked inspections, the United States and Britain launched a four-day series of air strikes on Iraqi military and industrial targets. In response, Hussein declared that Iraq would allow no further UN inspections.
In November 2002, after months of heightened pressure from the United States and the UN, Hussein submitted to a UN resolution ordering the immediate return of weapons inspectors to Iraq. However, the United States argued that Iraq was not complying fully with inspectors and was continuing to hide banned chemical and biological weapons. In March 2003 U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq with the goals of removing Hussein from power and destroying the country’s alleged stockpiles of banned weapons. When Baghdād fell to U.S. forces in April, Hussein’s regime crumbled and he went into hiding. Following the U.S. invasion, no weapons of mass destruction were found. U.S. intelligence officials concluded that Iraq had dismantled its biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons programs (see U.S.-Iraq War).
In December 2003 U.S. forces captured Hussein at a farmhouse near Tikrīt. Hiding in a concealed underground chamber, the deposed leader was apprehended without a fight. The Americans delivered him to Iraqi authorities, who constructed a special court known as the Iraqi High Tribunal to try those members of the deposed regime charged with serious crimes. After a yearlong trial, the tribunal found Hussein guilty of crimes against humanity in November 2006 and sentenced him to death by hanging. The tribunal found that Hussein had ordered the executions of 148 men and boys in Dujail, a largely Shiite town, in retaliation for an assassination attempt against him in 1982. His execution was carried out in December 2006.