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Ruling With an Iron Fist

DW staff / AFP (sp)December 30, 2006

Ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, who was hanged on Saturday, brutally crushed any internal challenge to his despotic rule in Iraq for 24 years.

Hated, feared and demonized -- Saddam Hussein's legacy is a brutal oneImage: AP

The Middle East's most notorious strongman of the late 20th century went to the gallows on Saturday after losing his appeal against the death sentence handed down by the Iraqi High Tribunal over his role in the execution of 148 Shiite villagers in 1982.

The massacre in the village of Dujail followed an attack on his convoy there in 1982. In the aftermath, 148 inhabitants of the town north of Baghdad died in reprisals by Saddam's security services, who also destroyed homes and crops and sentenced survivors to four years of internal exile.

Saddam's ruthlessness and cruelty have been well documented by human rights groups, but his death order inspired conflicting emotions at home as the Shiite majority celebrated with rowdy parties and the Sunni minority protested.

"Malignant narcissism"

Under his leadership from 1979 to 2003, the Baath regime ordered army deserters' ears cut off, sentenced foreign currency traffickers to death and reportedly beheaded dozens of women for prostitution.

A former CIA psychologist once described Saddam as suffering from "malignant narcissism," exhibiting an extreme lack of empathy and a will to use violence, which he attributed to a troubled upbringing.

Saddam Hussein im Fernsehen
Saddam Hussein unleashed a reign of terrorImage: AP

Born poor in a mud-hut village near Tikrit on April 28, 1937, Saddam was orphaned at a young age and raised by an uncle who idolised Adolf Hitler. He overcame his impoverished roots and rose to Iraq's highest office, lived in the grandest of palaces, married three times and fathered six children.

In Arabic, his name means "the stubborn one" or "he who strikes." His self-importance and cult of personality were legendary. On his 60th birthday he commissioned a copy of the Koran to be inscribed in his own blood.

Saddam also groomed two of his sons, Uday and Qusay, in his own image. They became feared for their use of torture and rape. The two were killed during a fire fight with US forces in the northern city of Mosul in July 2003, five months before their father was captured in a farmyard hole in the ground.

Ruling with an iron fist

Saddam, who worked in the Baath party security apparatus, first made a name for himself by trying to murder Iraqi leader Abdul Karim Kassem in 1959.

Wounded in the leg, the future dictator fled abroad but returned four years later and was jailed in 1964. Within two years he had escaped and resumed clandestine work for the Baath party.

In 1968 he took part in the coup that brought the party to power, marking another step in his affair with brute force.

Massengrab in Basra
The discovery of a mass grave in Mahaweel, south of Baghdad, in 2003Image: AP

As party deputy secretary general and vice president of the all-powerful Revolution Command Council (RCC), he was already considered the real power behind President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr. Bakr lost his grip over the next decade as Saddam strengthened his own, and the president finally retired for health reasons.

Saddam seized the mantle on July 16, 1979, becoming state president, general secretary of the party and president of the RCC.

In the years that followed, the modern Arab state labelled the cradle of civilisation became an impoverished pariah, its fabulous oil wealth squandered.

Saddam guided Iraq through a 1980-1988 bloodbath with Iran and the rout of the 1991 Gulf war over Kuwait, emerging each time to claim Pyrrhic victories over the corpses of his people.

He defied attempts through the United Nations to ensure his disarmament -- the organisation's crushing sanctions and four nights of US and British missile strikes in December 1998.

Saddam extended frequent purges of senior figures to family and friends. Those who failed to make it into exile were detained, murdered and buried in the mass graves that have been uncovered across the country.

A humiliating end

Since his sensational capture by American troops in a hole in a ground in Iraq in December 2003, images of Saddam as a gaunt and greying prisoner have been splashed across the world -- with some controversial photographs even showing him just in his underwear.

The 69-year-old Arab nationalist, who once declared his determination to die at home and taunted enemies with outrageous bravado, was toppled days after the US-led invasion began in March 2003.

Saddam Hussein vom Sockel gestürzt
The famous toppling of the Saddam statue in 2003Image: AP

His massive statue in central Baghdad was pulled down on April 9, and nine months later Saddam was discovered, long-haired, bearded and bedraggled, in an underground crawlspace near Tikrit.

His ability to evade capture for so long was evidence of the profound influence he exerted over his people even after his ouster, as many ordinary Iraqis shrank from cooperating with the occupier for fear of Saddam's return.

But others saw him as a strong leader who rained inaccurate but psychologically damaging Scud rockets on Israel and at least briefly restored self-respect to the Arab nation.

Nevertheless, Saddam's reign ended in defeat, his ubiquitous portraits torn down and destroyed after the occupation of his capital. A lust for power matched by a ruthless streak had brought Saddam to the helm he determined never to leave, whatever the cost.

US soldiers who guarded him in prison told a US magazine last year that Saddam was an "oddly endearing crazy man" who still called himself the president and remained convinced the people still loved him.

Less than two years earlier, however, Iraqis called for his death when US civilian administrator Paul Bremer announced Saddam's capture to the world using the dramatic words "Ladies and gentlemen, we got him."

On November 5, Saddam finally learned what he must have known would be his inevitable fate: death by hanging, the fate of a common criminal, rather than his stated preference for the firing squad, which is reserved for soldiers.