Welcome to 5 Minute History, where you can read about our past in just a few minutes.
This first installment is about Iraq under Saddam Hussein, who ruled the country from 1979 to 2003.
Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti was born on 28 April 1937 in a poor village near Tikrit, in northern Iraq. He was abandoned by his family and raised by an uncle, Khairallah Talfah, who taught young Saddam to be a nationalist like himself.
Therefore, it wasn’t surprising when at 20, Saddam joined the Ba’ath Party, and made a name for himself as a ruthless thug and enforcer. The Ba’ath mixed nationalism and socialism, which they said was the only way to unite the Arab countries and restore them to their former glory.
They immediately sought to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim, possibly with help from the United States, as both were suspicious of Qasim’s increasing ties to the Soviet Union.
In 1959, Saddam led a failed assassination attempt on Qasim, and he fled to Cairo. There, he studied law and waited for the day when he could return to Iraq, which eventually came in 1963. That year, the Ba’ath took part in a successful coup, and Saddam came back to help run the new government of President Abdul Salam Arif.
However, Arif soon purged Ba’athists from his regime, and Saddam went to prison for two years. After escaping in 1966, he began climbing the party ranks with the help of his cousin, Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr.
Rise to Power
By 1968, another coup returned Iraq to Ba’athist control, and this time al-Bakr became president, with Saddam as his deputy and chief of security.
Throughout the 1970s, Saddam implemented many Ba’ath policies, which at first were popular among Iraqis. The party nationalized the country’s oil industry, and used the revenues to build modern hospitals and schools. It also redistributed land to peasants and supplied electricity to rural villages.
At the same time, Saddam grew his influence behind the scenes and brutalized opponents of the government, to the point where it was clear to outside observers that he was increasingly the real man in charge.
On 16 July 1979, Saddam finally forced al-Bakr to retire, and he became the President of Iraq.
His first act was to call a Ba’ath Party meeting, which he videotaped. While Saddam sat back and smoked a cigar, a list of dozens of supposedly disloyal members was read. As each man was removed and executed, those who remained fervently pledged their loyalty to Saddam.
The War on Iran
Next door, longtime Arab rival Iran had just been taken over by a radical Shia Muslim theocracy, which declared its desire to export their Islamic revolution to Iraqi Shi’ites.
Saddam thus felt that a war would deter the Iranian threat and make Iraq the undisputed leader of the Arab world.
Assuming post-revolutionary Iran would be weak, he planned to annex the southwestern province of Khuzestan, which has an ethnically Arab population. It would also give Iraq more oil fields and a longer Persian Gulf coastline.
In September 1980, Iraq invaded Iran, and just as before, Saddam received American support, along with the backing of Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait — all of whom opposed the new Iranian regime.
However, the war quickly bogged down into a bloody stalemate, with neither side making much progress. After eight years of horrific World War I-style trench warfare and chemical attacks in which over a million people died, a ceasefire was signed in July 1988. Saddam gained nothing, but declared victory anyways.
The War on Kuwait
Kuwait loaned Saddam $30 billion throughout the 1980s to finance the war effort, but afterward, he refused to pay them back.
First, he accused Kuwait of exceeding their OPEC production quotas and drilling over the border, depriving Iraq of $10 billion in oil revenue. When they offered only $9 billion in compensation, Saddam was infuriated.
Second, he claimed Kuwait historically part of Iraq and had only become independent due to British colonialism, which he routinely denounced even as he accepted Western support.
In August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, which was a much easier target than Iran. Within two days, Saddam had annexed the small emirate.
The United Nations Security Council responded by imposing sanctions and authorizing the United States to liberate Kuwait by force if need be. By January 1991, the US began bombing Iraq in Operation Desert Storm. They then staged a ground invasion from Saudi Arabia, freeing Kuwait.
However, the US decided that it would be too destabilizing to remove Saddam from power entirely. He was left in control after promising to destroy his chemical and nuclear weapons of mass destruction.
Saddam at Home
With the formerly prosperous nation ruined by war, Saddam spent the remainder of the 1990s dealing with Iraq’s internal issues.
Ironically, while he had fought Iran to secure his secular regime, he now claimed Islamic legitimacy of his own to smooth over other divides. He proclaimed a jihad or holy war against the West, added the takbir (allahu akbar) to the Iraqi flag, and had a copy of the Quran written in what he claimed was his own blood.
He also continued to put down resistance to his rule by force. In the immediate aftermath of the 1991 war, Shi’ites in the south and Kurds in the north rebelled against Saddam, only to be quashed indiscriminately.
The campaign against the Kurds in particular was part of a longer genocidal policy Saddam pursued against them. He settled Arabs in Kurdish areas and launched chemical attacks on Kurdish villages, most notoriously in Halabja in 1988, where 5,000 civilians died.
Meanwhile, Saddam’s secret police, the Mukhabarat, disappeared, tortured, and executed dissidents; it was said to employ millions of informants in every walk of life.
Ongoing sanctions led to mass starvation, even as Saddam and his cronies lived in luxury. In 1995, the UN created the “oil for food” program, which allowed Iraq to sell some oil in exchange for humanitarian goods only.
Nonetheless, tensions with the international community continued to build over Saddam’s failure to destroy his WMDs and his evasive responses to their demands for inspections.
In the new millennium, the end of the Cold War and rise of Islamic terrorism after the 9/11 attacks meant Saddam was no longer the quasi-Western ally he once was.
Instead, the administration of US President George W. Bush worried that Saddam could give his WMDs to jihadist groups like al-Qaeda, and branded him part of an “axis of evil” alongside Iran and North Korea.
By November 2002, the UN Security Council passed another resolution denouncing Saddam, but did not authorize a war. The US planned for one anyways. In March 2003, they issued an ultimatum to Saddam: leave the country within 48 hours, or else.
Saddam didn’t back down, and on 20 March 2003, the US invaded Iraq again. Baghdad fell on April 9, but Saddam was nowhere to be found, and neither were the WMDs.
As an Islamist insurgency broke out across the country and the Western public wondered whether they had been lied to about Saddam’s capabilities, US troops hunted him down.
He was finally captured in December 2003, hiding in a bunker near his hometown of Tikrit. The new Iraqi government tried him for crimes against humanity, and sentenced him to death.
Saddam Hussein was hung on 30 December 2006, after having ruled Iraq with an iron fist for a quarter century. The nation has never been the same since.