In early 1969, less than a year after his Baath Party seized power, Saddam Hussein spoke to an aggrieved family who complained that one of their number had been unjustly executed. Spurning a suggestion that they settle for diaya (blood money), they demanded justice and retribution.
“Take the money,” Saddam said quietly. “Do not think you will get revenge, because if you ever have the chance, by the time you get to us, there will not be a sliver of flesh left on our bodies.” In other words, should he ever fall from power, there would be too many others queueing up to tear him and his fellow Baathists apart.
Whatever other misconceptions he may cherish, the Iraqi dictator has never fooled himself that he is loved by his people. Saddam likes to emphasize his unsentimental toughness, nurtured, he has let it be known, by the rigor of his upbringing.
Born in 1937 and brought up in the village of al-Ouija (“the crooked one”), just outside the decayed textile town of Tikrit, on the banks of the Tigris 100 miles north of Baghdad, he was, so he later claimed, bullied and abused by a cruel stepfather, who would rouse him at dawn with the injunction: “Get up, you son of a whore. Go tend the sheep.”
Certainly it was a clannish, violent society, in which practically everyone carried a gun. Relatives who approved of his determination to defy his stepfather and run away to school in Tikrit at the age of eight sent him off with a pistol as a parting gift, so his official biography records.
Later in life he developed the habit of recording demonstrations of his ruthlessness, such as his purge of the Baath Party's higher echelon in 1979, on film and video and distributing them widely, the better to terrify opponents into paralysis. His most important assignment as a young Baath Party hitman — the attempted killing in 1959 of Abd al-Karim Qassem, then the Iraqi ruler — and his subsequent escape became the stuff of state-sponsored legend, complete with an epic film, The Long Days.
But there is and always has been more to Saddam's grip on power than mere thuggish ferocity. Despite his apparently miserable origins, he had the advantage of useful social connections, thanks to so many Tikritis having gravitated to jobs in the Government and especially the army.
One such was his uncle, Khairallah Tulfah, once jailed as an anti-British rebel, who was an early leading light of the Baath Party. Another was his cousin, Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, a brigadier who took over as Prime Minister when the Baathists briefly took power in 1963, and President after their more enduring coup in 1968.
Saddam was content to be the hard-working “Mr. Deputy,” an unobtrusive second-in-command, while building his power base in the party and, most crucially, the security services.
Potential threats to his power, such as rivals in the Baath Party, the still potent Communist Party and the religious hierarchies of the Shia South, not to mention the perennially disaffected Kurds, were successively emasculated. On a theoretical level, while paying obligatory deference to the woolly precepts of Baathism, Saddam displayed a keen interest in Stalin as a source of political inspiration. In the early 1970s he published a treatise on Building Socialism in One Arab Country, an echo of Stalin's maxim of the 1930s.
On the other hand the Soviet dictator might not have approved of Saddam's taste for making sudden, unpredictable gambler's throws, which he once described as the essence of politics. Later, this habit of rolling the dice was to get him into deep trouble. But in July 1979 he had certainly succeeded in surprising his rivals by pushing his cousin aside and seizing supreme power, presiding over a gruesome ceremony in which scores of his Baathist opponents were dragged out to be shot.
For most Iraqis his ascent was not unwelcome. Not only did he abandon al-Bakr's habit of altering Iraqi television's program schedule for programs of the gypsy dancing beloved by all Tikritis, Saddam had already displayed considerable management skills in running the country. In 1972 he had masterminded the takeover of Iraq's oil assets from the rapacious Western consortium that had exercised control.
The consequent revenue flowing into government coffers, boosted to fabulous heights by the 1973 oil price rise, allowed the regime not only to promote far-reaching education and health programs but also to create a loyal constituency of newly prosperous middle-class city dwellers.
This new technocracy also supplied the staff recruited by Saddam to administer the country. They have been an impressive group. Such individuals as Amer Rashid, until recently the Oil Minister, or Amir Saadi, chief negotiator with the weapons inspectors, or Naji Sabri, the Foreign Minister, are testament to their master's eye for talent.
He classifies this type of executive as “those who are expert.” Others who serve him fall into the category of what he calls “those who are loyal,” an attribute qualifying them for the really important tasks of manning the overlapping and competing security agencies that monitor and, when necessary, discipline the rest of the population (including the experts).
The essential qualification for a position in this second group is a blood or tribal relationship to the boss, coupled with undivided allegiance. Those linked in this way extend from an outer and extensive network of tribal ties to the President's own clan to, at the core, his family.
The most sensitive positions have traditionally been reserved for close relatives, although rivalries within this group have caused power to shift over the years from his half-brothers, especially Barzan, to his fearsome al-Majid cousins to, most recently, his capable younger son, Qusay, once described by Saddam as “two-faced,” who is anointed as the heir apparent.
Beyond this innermost group, the instruments of control are in the hands of Saddam's fellow clansmen and, beyond that, members of his tribe and others from the Tikrit area. The network penetrates deep into Iraqi society, especially the army and business community, with all lines of authority leading back to Saddam himself.
Any sign of disloyalty, no matter how close the perpetrator may be to the ruler, is immediately and mercilessly punished. His late sons-in-law, Hussein and Saddam Kamel, discovered this the hard way when, after defecting to Jordan in 1995, they returned to Baghdad six months later under a promise of clemency, only to be summarily gunned down by a family hit-team.
This efficiently totalitarian system of control has served Saddam well in consolidating and maintaining power. But it carries with it a disadvantage faced by so many dictators: no one dares disagree with him, even when they can see he is heading for disaster.
Thus, the best that Tariq Aziz, who has served him faithfully for so long, could do to dissuade him from occupying Kuwait in 1990 was to suggest invading Saudi Arabia as well to pre-empt the inevitable American counter attack. His hope, so he later told a friend, was to get Saddam to realize that he was risking war with the United States and so call the whole thing off. Instead, Saddam merely chided him for being too hawkish.
Once Saddam used to go among the people like a campaigning politician. That came to an abrupt end in July 1982 after an assassination attempt as he was visiting a town near Baghdad. Since then he has retreated to his palaces or, when threatened by American bombs or other lethal threats, to the secure anonymity of an ordinary middle-class house in Baghdad selected at random and at the last minute.
Even so, he retains his masterful understanding of how to keep the Iraqi people in subjection by skilful playing of tribal politics or fostering dissension and fear between rival communities, most notably the majority Shia population and the minority Sunni.
But while he knows Iraq, Saddam has never displayed an equal grasp of the outside world, which he has rarely visited. Coupled with his taste for geopolitical gambles, this has led to errors on an epic scale, most spectacularly his invasion of Kuwait in 1990 under the misapprehension that the US would permit him to control global oil prices.
Until then he had functioned mostly as a responsible Western ally. Encouraged by the Americans, he had attacked Iran in 1980 when Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution had pro-American Middle Eastern despots trembling in their beds; he could always be counted on as a moderating force in OPEC; he was a good customer who paid on time; and he even hinted at recognizing Israel.
The deference with which he was treated by Western statesmen may well have contributed to a fatal overconfidence, augmented by the worship he exacted at home. (In the 1980s Iraqi schoolchildren were winning prizes for essays comparing Saddam to the Prophet Muhammad. Saddam has always shown a keen interest in history, or at least his place in it.) Before the outbreak of war in January 1991, Saddam, relaxed and self-assured in the beautiful suits provided by his Armenian tailor, received a flow of important Western visitors, under the illusion that he was in a position to negotiate with the US.
The ensuing debacle of war and rebellion and the decade that followed forced him to the wall. Abandoning most of the army in Kuwait once the American offensive began, he withdrew the more useful Republican Guard units in good time. Even so, the fury of the uprising that followed caused him to think that it might be all over. But once it became clear the Americans believed that the Shia who were revolting were cat's-paws for the Iranians and so withheld aid to the rebels, Saddam knew that he was saved.
One of his enduring traits is his perennial optimism. “Things are not so bad,” he remarked to a confidant once when his subjects had been brought to heel again. “In the past, our enemies have taken advantage of our mistakes. In the future we will sit back and take advantage of mistakes made by them.”
The next 12 years seemed to justify his ebullience. UN sanctions ruined and starved the Iraqi people, but in no way weakened Saddam. CIA-sponsored initiatives to kill him were detected and snuffed out. Even his efforts to safeguard a few tattered and almost certainly ineffectual remnants of his old unconventional weapons program from the UN inspectors (whom he suspected, correctly, of being a front for a covert CIA operation) seemed to carry little penalty.
By the summer of 2001 it looked as if he had almost made it out of the wood. Sanctions were collapsing, and Baghdad hotels were thronged with Western salesmen. Saddam himself found the time to publish, pseudonymously, two allegorical novels with romantic overtones that were, unsurprisingly, received with rapturous acclaim by Iraqi critics.
Then came September 11, and Saddam's luck took a turn for the worse as his foreign enemies sought to use the terrorist assault as an excuse to attack him.
Belatedly, he moved to take away the issue of weapons of mass destruction as a casus belli by co-operating with the inspectors. It appears to have been too late.