A Tyrant's Life

In the end, Saddam Hussein was captured huddled in a dark underground bunker, bearded and unwashed. It was a humiliating end for the man who would rule Iraq with barbaric opulence for nearly 24 years.

Saddam Hussein was born on April 28, 1937 to a poor landless peasant family in the village of Ouja, near Tikrit. His father either died or disappeared before Saddam's birth, so the child was sent to live with his maternal uncle, Khairallah Talfah, an Iraqi army officer and devout Sunni Muslim nationalist. Under his uncle's influence, a 19-year-old Saddam joined the Arab nationalist (and anti-Western) Baath Socialist Party. A year later he was denied the admission to the prestigious Baghdad Military Academy, a humiliating blow to his career hopes.

In a grim foreshadowing of how bloody his rise to power would be, at just 22 he attempted to assassinate Iraq's dictator, Major General Abdel Karim Kassem. The botched murder landed Saddam in prison, which he managed to escape. When Egyptian President Nasser heard of the young revolutionary, Saddam was summoned to Cairo where he would study law for a year before returning to Iraq.

By 1968 Saddam had worked his way up the Baathist ranks, so when the party took control of Iraq in a bloodless coup, Major General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr held the title of president and Saddam became his vice-president. But it was really Saddam who called the shots, removing all non-Baathists from official posts through Stalinesque purges and other terror tactics. On July 16, 1979, at the age of 42, Saddam finally forced Al-Bakr to retire and was sworn in as President of the Republic of Iraq. Promoting himself throughout the country with 20-foot high posters and ubiquitous statues, Saddam portrayed himself to his people as a kindly young scholar, a desert Arab horseman or a military man sporting a beret.

But his ruling style was anything but noble. Throughout the 1970s, Saddam was personally responsible for mass deportations to Iran of Iraqi Shi'a, the razing of the Kurdish towns of Zakho and Qala'at Diza, the hanging of 17 alleged "spies" in Liberation Square, the "disappearance" of 8,000 Kurds from the village of Barzan, the elimination of an estimated 7,000 Iraqi Communists and countless other brazen acts of brutality that consolidated his power. The following decade would be even less kind to his people, his party officials, and his neighbors.

In 1980 Saddam initiated an eight-year war with Iran by invading its oil reserves, denouncing "the frequent and blatant Iranian violation of Iraqi sovereignty." The war is estimated to have caused one million casualties, including 250,000 Iraqi dead. In 1982, 300 more Baathist officers were reportedly terminated for rebelling against Saddam's strategy in the war with Iran-NEWSWEEK quoted the major Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram's report that "120 Iraqi officers had been executed for questioning the wisdom of the invasion." The final year of the conflict saw the dictator's attention split between waging war abroad and launching the Anfal Campaign at home. In one year alone, 180,000 more Kurds would "disappear" and 4,000 villages would be razed. Large swaths of eastern Kurdistan were completely depopulated and in the final months of his war on Iran, Saddam ordered the gassing of the Kurdish town Halabja-killing 5,000 and maiming 10,000. A number of Kurdish villages on Turkish borders were also gassed resulting in thousands of casualties.

Despite all the terror and violence, Saddam managed to remain popular in some segments of the Arab world. He exploited Muslims resentment about the positioning of American and other Western troops on what they consider holy land. Saddam also tapped into Arab resentment of wealthy royal families who control vast reserves of oil. Indeed, Saddam capitalized on this sentiment in August 1990-following disputes over territory, debt, and petroleum production - when he annexed Kuwait, declaring it the 19th province of Iraq. The United Nations responded by imposing sanctions on Iraq, and after Saddam refused to withdraw his troops, a multinational American-led force launched "Operation Desert Storm"--a series of air strikes on Baghdad followed by a ground offensive to liberate Kuwait.

Defeated in a few short weeks, Saddam withdrew his forces from Kuwait and accepted United Nations Security Council Resolution 687, which dictated the terms for a cease-fire, war reparation, and conditions for the lifting of sanctions against Iraq. Western bombing devastated Iraq's infrastructure and the UN sanctions led to hyper-inflation, the devaluation of the Iraqi currency, the rise of unemployment, and the decline of agricultural production. Most of the industrial development projects requiring foreign participation were suspended and political opposition intensified. And yet Saddam managed to rebuild his regime, starting with his secret police. He secured his political power base, reinforced his security and military apparatus, and continued to make his neighbors nervous. Saddam was able to use to his benefit the very sanctions that the west imposed as punishment. He blamed the UN for embargoes that left his people ill and underfed, successfully stoking anti-American sentiment within his borders.

Tensions between Iraq and the United States steadily rose throughout the 1990s and into the new century, as Hussein repeatedly violated UN mandates concerning weapons inspections and the no-fly zones set up after the First Gulf War. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001-and with a new Bush administration in the White House-the United States initiated a long and progressively tense series of discussions with Saddam regarding Iraq's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Accusing Saddam of harboring WMD (which have not been found) and failing to cooperate with weapons searches and the United States launched a new, preemptive war on Iraq on March 20, 2003. Within two months, Baghdad had fallen and the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein were unknown.

Until this morning.