Saddam Hussein’s rise to power

Saddam had been trained as a lawyer yet he rose to power in Iraq through a coup

On September 22 1980, Saddam Hussain decided to launch a full-scale attack on the newly formed Islamic Republic of Iran. The world took notice. Who was this man? And was he a good guy or a bad guy?

Unlike other dictators in the Middle East, Latin American and South Asia, Saddam Hussein was not a military officer. Indeed, he had never studied at a military academy.

Saddam had been trained as a lawyer yet he rose to power in Iraq through a coup. At some point, he put on a general’s uniform, and photographs of him holding the latest weaponry became commonplace. Later, he would plunge his country into a series of wars, one more disastrous than the other. For all those reasons, it’s instructive to revisit his rise to power.

Saddam Hussein was born to a poor farming family in Tikrit, a town about a hundred miles north of Baghdad. He had the distinction of sharing his birthplace with the Arab hero, Salahuddin Ayubbi, who gained fame during the Crusades and would later exploit that connection.

Saddam’s widowed mother raised him with the help of other relatives. He was attracted to politics at an early age; and was only 19 when he joined the socialist Ba’ath party of Iraq.

He made his mark three years later when he participated in a 1959, assassination attempt against the military president, Brigadier Abd al-Karim Qassim. Saddam was shot in the leg during the botched attempt and fled the country for several years, first to Syria, then to Egypt. He studied law at Cairo University and returned to Iraq in 1963, to continue his legal studies at Baghdad University.

Saddam, who headed a Ba’athist regime based on secular tenents whose philosophy was based on Mussolini’s principles, was concerned at the emergence of a Shia theocracy in Iran. He realized the potential appeal such a regime would have on the 60 percent of Iraqis who were Shia, and wanted to nip this threat in the bud

In 1968, he helped lead the revolt that finally brought the Ba’ath party to power under General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr. He landed the vice president’s post, from which he built an elaborate network of secret police to root out dissidents. Eleven years later, in 1979, he deposed Al-Bakr and took over the presidency. He was just 42. Having seen what the army was capable of doing, he remained distrustful of his generals to the very end which would prove to be his undoing on the battlefield.

Two events of great strategic import happened in 1979. On Iraq’s eastern border, the staunchly pro-American, Shah of Iran was overthrown by a grass-roots religious revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini. On Iran’s eastern border, the Soviets marched into Kabul and took over Afghanistan. This invasion rekindled fears that they were about to fulfil one of the imperial dreams of Peter the Great, and obtain access for the Soviet Navy to the port of Gwadar.

The US, concerned at the strategic implications of these two developments in Iran and Afghanistan, looked the other way as Saddam Hussein proceeded to launch an attack in 1980, on the newly formed Islamic Republic of Iran. Saddam, who headed a Ba’athist regime based on secular principles whose philosophy was based on Mussolini’s principles, was concerned at the emergence of a Shia theocracy in Iran. He realized the potential appeal such a regime would have on the 60 percent of Iraqis who were Shia, and wanted to nip this threat in the bud.

Ostensibly, the war with Iran was intended to resolve the dispute over the Shatt-al-Arab waterway that leads to the Persian Gulf. But Saddam had greater ambitions, which included annexing Khuzestan, becoming a regional superpower, and replacing Egypt as the leader of the Arab world.

He had invested heavily in the Iraqi military, whose heavy arsenal included 2,000 main battle tanks and 450 modern combat aircraft. Iran’s army had begun to disintegrate and after the Ayatollah’s ascent to power, Iran was in turmoil. Saddam thought this was the best time to strike.

It was this economic plight which would lead Saddam to declare that Kuwait was an Iraqi province, and make the fateful decision to invade and occupy Kuwait in August 1990. He mistakenly thought the West was his partner. After all, they had supported him in the war against Iran. But in that instance he was fighting a religious theocracy that was disliked by the West

Iraq launched a full-scale attack on Iran on September 22, 1980. But the Iraqi Air Force failed to achieve strategic surprise over its counterpart. The next day Saddam launched a full-throttled ground invasion.

After some initial successes, the Iraqi army failed to prevail over the much more poorly trained and equipped Iranian army. In the mid-eighties, the Kurds in northern Iraq rebelled against Saddam. Saddam used chemical weapons to slaughter thousands of Kurd, and this ended the rebellion.

But things did not go as well in the Iran-Iraq war. It continued for eight years and ended in a stalemate. The war caused more than a million casualties, and left Iraq burdened with a military debt of $75 billion.

It was this economic plight which would lead Saddam to declare that Kuwait was an Iraqi province, and make the fateful decision to invade and occupy Kuwait in August 1990. He mistakenly thought the West was his partner. After all, they had supported him in the war against Iran.

But in that instance he was fighting a religious theocracy that was disliked in the West. When he attacked Kuwait, he threatened all the oil fields of the Gulf. Panic spread in the Arab world and much to Saddam’s surprise, the West turned on him.

He knew he made a monumental mistake but was unable to swallow his ego. He had little knowledge of international relations or generalship. Whatever wisdom he had had long deserted him. In its place, folly had stepped in. His journey on the road to self-destruction had begun.

The writer is a defence analyst and economist. He has authored Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan (Ashgate Publishing, 2003)

Published in Daily Times, September 26th 2018.