[APRIL 28, 1937
Late-twentieth-century dictator of Iraq
Saddam Hussein (also, Husayn and Husain) al-Majid was born to a poor Sunni Muslim Arab family from al-Awja, a village in north-central Iraq. Sources vary as to whether Saddam was actually born in al-Awja, or in the nearby town of Tikrit. Saddam's father left (some sources say he died) prior to his birth. His stepfather, Ibrahim al-Hasan, was physically and psychologically abusive to young Saddam, forcing him to steal for him and refusing to allow him to go to school. Saddam ended up being raised in Tikrit by his maternal uncle, Khayrallah Talfa. He moved to Baghdad in 1956, and reportedly joined the pan-Arab nationalist Arab Socialist Renaissance Party (also called Ba'th Party) the following year. He quickly became a hired gun for the party, liquidating, for example, a relative who was a communist rival to the Ba'th.
Saddam continued as a Ba'th Party enforcer by taking part in a failed attempt to assassinate Iraqi president Abd al-Karim Qasim (1941963) in October 1959. He was wounded in the attack, and fled to Egypt via Syria. He returned to Iraq after the February 1963 Ba'th coup against Qasim, but was imprisoned from 1963 to 1967 along with other Ba'thists after another coup deposed the Ba'th several months later. Saddam rose in the ranks of the party's international, pan-Arab leadership known as the Ba'th "National Command," as well as of its local Iraqi "Regional Command." He was appointed to the leadership of the National Command of the party in 1965 while still in prison, and became deputy secretary-general
Rise to Power
On July 16, 1979, Saddam pushed aside ailing Iraqi president Hasan al-Bakr (1914982), to become the undisputed leader of Iraqi Ba'th and state apparati. He assumed the titles of secretary-general of the Iraqi Ba'th Regional Command, chair of the state Revolutionary Command Council, and president of the republic. For ceremonial purposes, he also became deputy secretary-general of the pan-Arab National Command of the Ba'th in October 1979 (the titular secretary-general of the National Command, aging Ba'th Party co-founder Michel Aflaq (1910989), was merely a figurehead kept in place for ideological reasons).
Saddam's ruthlessness continued unabated after 1979. A symbol of things to come was the infamous purge he carried out shortly after shuffling al-Bakr out of office. Saddam announced at a party meeting that twenty-one senior Ba'thists present at the meeting were part of an alleged Syrian conspiracy against him. One by one, he called out the names of the "traitors" while smoking his trademark cigar, filming them as they were led out of the conference hall to be shot. He later ensured that copies of the film were circulated throughout the country. Thereafter, Saddam took great pains to eliminate any possible rivals. He presided over a totalitarian regime in Iraq from 1979 to 2003, the cruelty and brutality of which were matched only by the fear it inspired. Saddam succeeded in using this fear to stay in power, which he did longer than any ruler in modern Iraqi history. An expert in the bureaucracy of terror, Saddam oversaw five overlapping intelligence agencies plus the Ba'th Party's own security service. These agencies not only spied on the populace, but on each other, so that Saddam could foil any plots from within the regime. To protect himself, Saddam also created two Praetorian Guard organizations. He presided over one of the twentieth century's most pervasive cults of personality as well. Photos and statues of the dictator were ubiquitous, and constituted a visible reminder throughout the country of his seeming omnipresence.
The Ba'th regime also persecuted entire groups of people. The large-scale deportations, destruction of villages, and executions Saddam ordered against the country's non-Arab Kurdish population during the 1988 "Anfal" campaign rose to the level of genocide. He is responsible for war crimes and/or crimes against humanity during the 1980988 Iran-Iraq War, when Iraqi forces used chemical weapons against Iranian troops. During the 1990991 Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait, such crimes went beyond the torture, execution, and disappearances mounted against Kuwaiti individuals to include large-scale looting of museums and archives.
U.S. Invasion of Iraq
Saddam's reign of terror ended in April 2003 when American troops entered Baghdad and put Saddam to flight. He was eventually captured in the village of Dura, near al-Awja, on December 14, 2003. The Americans held him until June 28, 2004, when the United States "returned sovereignty" to a provisional Iraqi government. That government immediately submitted papers to the Americans requesting the formal transfer of legal custody, whereupon Saddam ceased being a prisoner of war protected by the Geneva Conventions, and became a criminal suspect under Iraqi jurisdiction. He remained physically in U.S. custody in Baghdad, however.
In April 2003, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues Pierre-Richard Prosper announced that Iraqis charged with genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes would be tried by Iraqi courts. International human rights advocates urged that an international court try Saddam instead. The International Criminal Court (ICC) would not be an option in that
This domestic, Iraqi tribunal was empowered to investigate crimes committed between July 17, 1968 and May 1, 2003, the period of Ba'thist rule. The tribunal's jurisdiction covered acts of genocide, as defined by the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide; war crimes, defined as grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions; and crimes against humanity, defined as a number of acts spelled out in the law that are committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack. Saddam was arraigned before an Iraqi investigative judge of the tribunal on July 1, 2004, and faced seven preliminary charges. By mid-2004, the Kuwaiti government had prepared 200 major indictments against Saddam as well. Iran also indicated that it would bring charges against Saddam for war crimes.
Saddam's trial could well play a crucial role, both for the sociopolitical rehabilitation of Iraq and for the growing international legal consensus on prosecuting crimes against humanity, by exposing the breadth and scope of his crimes. The tribunal can avail itself of more than 6 million Iraqi military, intelligence, and Ba'th Party documents that were captured in 1991 and 2003. These offer an excruciatingly detailed view into the bureaucracy of terror employed by Saddam's regime, as well as devastating evidence in the hands of prosecutors. The trial could well become the most significant trial dealing with genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity since the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1961.
SEE ALSO Eichmann Trials; Iraq
Aburish, Said K. (1999). Saddam Hussein: The Politics of Revenge. London: Bloomsbury.
Cockburn, Andrew, and Patrick Cockburn (2000). Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein. New York: Perennial.
Makiya, Kanan (1998). Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq, updated edition. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Makiya, Kanan (2004). The Monument: Art and Vulgarity in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. London: I.B. Tauris.
Michael R. Fischbach
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