Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Saddam Hussein: Stalin on the Tigris

Saddam Hussein: Stalin on the Tigris

The hanging of Saddam Hussein on December 30, 2006, ended the life of a tyrant extreme even by Middle Eastern standards. Shaping himself consciously after Stalin, he ran Iraq for twenty-four years, earning the hatred of most of his people for his murderous methods. Saddam also spent half that time waging war against Iran and then Kuwait. He put Iraq into the front rank of states sponsoring terrorism. Yet, he enjoyed popular pan-Arab support and his execution occasioned indignation and protest. Therein lies a tale richly illustrative of both Middle Eastern political pathologies and the perplexed efforts of outsiders to deal with them.


When Saddam Hussein achieved supreme power at age forty-two in 1979, he was already an anachronism. The promise of his Baathist ideology, derived from fascism and communism, had soured: in practice, it justified a suffocating one-party state, anti-Western, pro-Soviet, and ruled by minorities in Iraq (Sunni) and Syria (Alawi) in the name of a pan-Arab cause in decline. These ideas commingled with a historic romanticism. Born near Tikrit in 1937 into an impoverished and chaotic family, Saddam’s meager formal education under the British-dominated Hashemite Monarchy mattered less than tutelage by his guardian-uncle, an army officer from whom he learned to hate the British, the Jews, and the “Persians” (Iraqi Shiites and Iranians). He dreamt of Salah ad-Din, born in Tikrit, the great Muslim hero of the Crusades, and associated Iraq’s future with its glorious ancient imperial past as the “cradle of civilization.” Saddam often invoked these notions and the Baathist ideology to exalt himself as the paragon of a new Iraqi man.

Saddam soon demonstrated a flair for violence in a failed attempt to assassinate General Kassem, the strongman of the military regime that had overthrown the Hashemites in 1958. Escaping to Syria and then Egypt, Saddam enjoyed Nasser’s patronage, enrolled briefly in university, then returned to Iraq in 1963 after a Baathist coup. He did interrogation and torture before taking the “Stalin” route, mastering the party organization behind the scenes through hard work and self-discipline. By 1968, he was instrumental in yet another coup, becoming second in command. Over the next decade, he consolidated his power throughout the party and government.

On July 16, 1979, Saddam emerged supreme, casting aside his long-serving relative, General Bakr. He began his rule by executing a select group of adversaries and allies in the party and the military. Stalin’s infamous aphorism became his guide: “Death solves all problems; no man, no problem.” Throughout his career, he sought out possible “problem persons,” and tried to eliminate them, sometimes only on suspicion. This penchant for violence on a personal, and on a larger, scale would distinguish Saddam from his peers.


Saddam moved swiftly to make Iraq a new pole of power. A capable civil service, a good higher educational system, a thriving oil industry, and extensive economic development gave him basic assets. This was backstopped by the 1972 alliance with the Soviet Union that equipped his army with modern weapons, augmented by secret efforts to acquire unconventional arms. Against these advantages, Iraq was torn by contending ethnic and religious rivalries. Saddam himself, the Vice Chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, had to compromise with the Shah of Iran over contested borders (the 1975 Algiers Accord) in order to end international support for a Kurdish rebellion. In the south, the Shiites, a majority of Iraqis, seethed under Sunni overlordship.

Saddam gained immediate international attention when he organized a Rejectionist Front (Syria, the PLO, Libya) that frustrated the American effort to expand Arab support for the Camp David Accords. At Iraqi instigation, Egypt was suspended from the Arab League in 1979 for signing its peace treaty with Israel. These maneuvers made Saddam a new force in the Middle East.

When the Shah fell in early 1979, overthrown by Ayatollah Khomeini, an event that stirred Shiites everywhere, Saddam saw an opportunity. He exploited Iran’s revolutionary disarray to end the Accord and invade the Khuzestan oil province, promising to make Iraq the key power on both sides of the Gulf. But he had miscalculated. The Western-equipped Iranian army and the middle class rallied in defense of Khomeini’s Islamic Republic. In short order, Saddam was fighting a bloody infantry war with inferior numbers on Iraqi territory.


The conflict quickly involved outside powers. Iraq’s ally, Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, gave plenty of arms and advice. France would also sell advanced missiles and fighter-bombers. Iraq’s reluctant Arab neighbors financed Saddam’s arms and also his policy of providing abundant consumer goods to assure domestic support. Saddam could not have fought the war without Soviet arms or Arab money.

The United States hesitated. Iraq was an enemy and Iran had become one. By 1982, the Reagan administration concluded that so long as the oil flowed, a bloody stalemate would do. Neither should be allowed to win.

Saddam wanted more from Washington. After the Israelis bombed the Osirak reactor in June 1981, the Iraqi government used the occasion to offer the United States a new relationship. Eventually, Saddam got himself a public handshake with Donald Rumsfeld (December 20, 1983), then on a special mission to the Middle East in the aftermath of the Lebanon War, but there was no alliance. The United States provided occasional intelligence and sold some U.S. agricultural surpluses to Iraq on humanitarian grounds. No American president could ally with a leader who, among other outrages, used poison gas most horrifically against the Kurds in the Anfal campaign, culminating in the destruction of Halabja on March 16, 1988. And the Iran-Contra scandal revealed President Reagan’s readiness to resume constructive relations with Iran, a “tilt” that surprised Saddam.

As the war exhausted Iraq, Saddam sought new allies, allowing Egypt’s return to the Arab League in 1989. The Iranians, for their part, tried to prevent Iraqi oil exports in Kuwaiti tankers, leading to American intervention to keep the Gulf open. An Iraqi Exocet missile struck the USS Stark, by accident, said Saddam. A U.S. warship also destroyed an Iranian civil airliner in error.

On August 20, 1988, the war finally ended with a cease-fire. Each regime had won simply by surviving the ordeal. Both peoples, however, had lost a million young men, dead or injured. A decade of economic progress was forfeit. The price of oil fell throughout the war.


Saddam had emerged nonetheless as a leader in his own right. An imposing, handsome man, he portrayed himself as a great Arab fighter who had defeated the Persians. He compared the defense of Iraqi towns to Stalingrad. And there were other resemblances to Stalin. These included the ubiquitous multiple images: Saddam as ennobled tribal patriarch; as religious pilgrim; as Western suit-tailored sophisticate; as soldier and strategist; as recipient of his people’s praise and poetry. Intellectual pretense, Stalin style, also appeared: the “thought of Saddam” emerged in twenty-plus volumes on various subjects, each compulsory reading for his subjects. Intelligent but haphazardly self-educated, Saddam composed long, meandering speeches (and poetry), full of obscure references, delivered in a flattish nasal tone, the earnest effort of a man who wanted to impress but was beyond correction. Complementing Saddam’s image as great leader were massive public work projects–Stalin style–including his numerous palaces, aping ancient imperial models.

Stalinist, too, was his political organization. Iraq became a “party state,” with membership mandatory for the educated and ambitious. Special Republican Guards, drawn from the Sunni tribes beholden to Saddam, backstopped the Shiite conscript army. The regime skimmed the economy, showering immense wealth on the dictator and his favorites. And the secret police enforced Saddam’s will everywhere. Fear was pervasive.

Saddam’s Stalinism, however, like every political import into Iraq, eventually encountered the reality of tribes, clans, and sects. Paranoia accelerated an inevitable drift from the party to family and kin. The party state became the family-party state.

Saddam promoted himself throughout the region, often paying cash to journalists. Other funds were lavished on terrorist organizations, especially Palestinian. Most of all, he exploited Iraq’s small cadre of highly trained scientists and engineers. Saddam sought technology as a force multiplier, especially weapons of mass destruction. Oil, money, arms, terror–these were the tools of the would-be Stalin on the Tigris.


After the war with Iran, however, Saddam confronted multiple constraints. Iraq owed a great deal of money. The “socialist” economy was capital short and low oil prices would not replenish its coffers. The country simply could not support its huge military force.

Compounding Saddam’s problems, Iraq’s chief ally, the Soviet Union, was declining fast and ended subsidies. France also insisted on payment for arms. And the price of American support might be human rights in Iraq and peace with Israel.

Saddam chose a different way. Among his neighbors and creditors, the prickly and independent Emirate of Kuwait especially irritated the Iraqis, who believed that the wealthy territory had been unfairly separated from them by the British Empire. If Iraq laid a hand on Kuwait, would the United States object? Saddam thought not. The Americans had no reason to fight, so long as the oil flowed–even if Kuwait’s landlord changed.

In Spring 1990, Saddam suddenly demanded that Kuwait cancel war debts and pay compensation for oil allegedly siphoned by the Kuwaitis from wells in the neutral zone between the two countries, and began mobilizing his army.

Saudi King Fahd, Jordan’s King Hussein, and Egypt’s President Mubarak all cautioned U.S. President George H. W. Bush to “stay low.” Saddam was posturing. It was all about money. Kuwait had it, Saddam wanted it, and the Arabs would find a “solution” that paid off the Iraqis. Bush, preoccupied with the end of the Cold War and still hopeful Saddam could be “turned,” took their advice.

These illusions were exploded on August 2, 1990, when Saddam’s army seized Kuwait, preceded by deceptive signals to his neighbors and U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie. Saddam had bid again for supremacy in the Gulf, this time at Arab expense.

In much of the Middle East, however, Saddam was praised by journalists and hailed by joyous mobs–the “Arab Street.” But King Fahd and President Mubarak thought otherwise; Saddam now menaced them. King Hussein played neutral; his large Palestinian population, following Arafat’s lead, applauded Saddam and ignored Kuwait’s long record of financial and rhetorical support for the Palestinian cause. Meanwhile, American experts warned Washington that any attempt to dislodge Saddam with American forces would endanger pro-Western governments all over the Middle East.

Saddam was therefore surprised when an international coalition, led by the United States and including Arab states, formed rapidly against him and a U.N.-approved army arrived in Saudi Arabia. He played for time, hoping that the French and the Russians would save him. His forces, skilled at defense, dug in and prepared to bloody the United States; everyone knew the American could not take casualties. Saddam also upped the ante, explaining that he had invaded Kuwait on his way to liberate Jerusalem. If Iraq were attacked, he would attack Israel.


Surprising Saddam and many U.S. experts, the American-led coalition made short work of Iraqi forces, through a vast flanking movement after a punishing air bombardment that began on January 17, 1990. Then came the slip twixt cup and lip. Bush was persuaded to end the war after 100 hours of ground combat. Critical Republican Guard units escaped. The cessation of hostilities agreement on February 28, 1991, allowed Iraqi helicopters to fly “humanitarian missions.”

Facing catastrophe, Saddam kept his nerve. The Shiites and Kurds called to rebel by President Bush began revenging themselves on their oppressors, frightening the Sunnis into support of the regime. The Republican Guard units and secret police, ferried about by helicopter, began serial massacres of the rebellious population, while the Americans did not intervene. Thus was born the legend that the United States really wanted Saddam to survive.

In fact, the Bush administration could not believe its luck. The U.N. Security Council had endorsed the war and Arab armies, including Syria’s, joined with foreign forces on Arab soil to defeat a fellow Arab power. Israel had been kept out despite Saddam’s rocket attacks. All this had cost the United States under two hundred casualties and the war had been financed by the coalition.

These were stupendous achievements but Saddam survived them. Additional U.S. military actions, including no-fly zones, were necessary to save Kurdistan and southern Iran from the full weight of Saddam’s revenge. Meanwhile, Washington focused on the Arab-Israeli conflict, using the Iraqi defeat, Assad’s defection, and Arafat’s disgrace to convene the Madrid Conference (October 30, 1991).

Unwilling to seize Baghdad and still hoping for a coup, the Bush administration bequeathed the Saddam problem to Bill Clinton. Clinton settled on “dual containment” of both Iraq and Iran, using international economic sanctions, U.N. inspections, and occasional military actions to “cage” the Iraqi dictator pending his overthrow. But Saddam’s resilience was underestimated. His incompetent army proved loyal. And in 1995, the dictator agreed on humanitarian grounds to a U.N.-run “oil for food” program, which he used to control the population while corrupting suppliers and the U.N. itself.

Nor had Saddam lost his bravado. In 1995, exploiting an inter-Kurdish struggle, he nearly captured a CIA cell in Irbil. His forces began firing on U.S. and British warplanes enforcing the no-fly zone. And he dealt with the rebellion of the so-called Marsh Arabs by turning their watershed into desert.

Most important, Saddam resisted the mandatory U.N. arms inspections, which had already revealed unexpectedly advanced chemical and nuclear programs. His effort to develop biological weaponry went largely undetected until August 1995, when his sons-in-law suddenly fled to Jordan, fearing the dictator’s bloodthirsty son Uday in an obscure conflict over the father’s mistresses. Newly informed U.N. inspectors soon turned up evidence of a broad program.

Such a windfall struck a heavy blow at Saddam. He seemed more in danger from his family’s misbehavior than anything contrived by the CIA. The witless sons-in-law he persuaded to return, forgiving them for the sake of his daughters, but once in Baghdad, their own relatives were compelled to kill them. Within a year, Saddam also began a new crisis, not only by denying access and harassing U.N. investigators but also by threatening to expel them altogether. When he made their mission impossible, the United States (and the United Kingdom) bombed important physical assets for three days (December 16-19, 1998) but ended the attack without decisive results.


Although a frustrated U.S. Congress had voted on October 31, 1998, to “remove” Saddam and replace his regime with a democratic government, the new Bush administration had no plans to do so. Secretary of State Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time of the Kuwait War, tried to preserve the sanctions regime against Arab, French, and Russian demands to disband it. Meanwhile, Saddam continued his defiance of the U.N. and the daily firing at U.S. aircraft over the no-fly zones. He reentered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by subsidizing Palestinian suicide bombers.

These policies guaranteed a crisis with the United States sooner or later. It happened sooner because of the 9/11 attacks, Bush’s decision to target states sponsoring terrorism, and Saddam’s stubborn ambiguity about his WMD stocks.

In January 2002, President George W. Bush listed Iraq as a member of the axis of evil, along with Iran and North Korea. Saddam appeared a convenient target. He had defied U.N. Security Council resolutions, violated the cease-fire terms, and was thought by all intelligence services to hold chemical and biological weapons. And dislodging Saddam would reverberate around the region, encouraging others to “settle” with the Americans.

It did not turn out that way. Diplomatic malpractice, not limited to Washington, made the coalition much narrower and more limited that its 1991 predecessor. French, Russian, and German opposition encouraged Saddam. He stalled, prevaricated, and threatened, offering just enough for those seeking a way out. He also prepared for war, including televised consultations with his generals where Allah, rather than pan-Arabism, was frequently invoked.

Saddam actually expected to defeat the American-led invasion. Captured records suggest that he believed the relatively small U.S. and British forces would be attrited on the 300-mile fight from the Gulf to Baghdad and then overwhelmed by Iraqi infantry and armor. As in 1991, he interfered freely with operations and refused to believe the evidence of defeat. But he was also ready to fight on. And his regime depended in the end less on uniformed forces than on the secret police and the tribal loyalists.


Saddam was a “shape shifter.” As his regime collapsed, he transformed himself from Generalissimo to guerrilla fighter. A bungling occupation and the paucity of coalition forces allowed the die-hard Baathists to start an insurgency fueled by weapons, money, and foreign recruits, especially through Syria.

It took many months to find Saddam. His sons were killed in a shootout on July 20, 2003. Then, on December 13, Saddam himself was captured, hiding in a hole on a farm. Bearded and unkempt, he announced to his Marine captors, “I am Saddam Hussein, President of Iraq and I want to negotiate.” A jubilant Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, announced to the media, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we got him!”

Well, not quite. The capture of Saddam was not the same as the end of Saddam. Instead of a quick shooting, Washington decided to try him for crimes against the Iraqi people and then let the new, democratic Iraqi government pronounce sentence. The alternative, an international tribunal, ran the risks of European resistance to the death penalty and a repeat of the endless Milosevic trial.

It still took three years. Iraqi magistrates bungled the procedures while the rising insurgency threatened witnesses, judges, and lawyers. Saddam himself shifted shapes. By turns, dignified and indignant, master and martyr, he dominated the televised proceedings, defeating the trial’s purpose. By late 2006, the shaky Shiite-dominated government decided to execute him for his massacre of a Shiite village rather than pursue the Kurdish crimes.

Sensing his end, the dictator appealed for an end to sectarian differences, for unity in expelling the aggressor. There was a final effusion of poetry,

                                And our Baath Party blossoms like a branch turns green….

                                All people, we never let you down

                                I sacrifice my soul for you and for our nation….

Denying American requests, the Iraqis hung him on the eve of the Eid-al-Adha feast, according to Shiite reckoning, but already the first day according to Sunni calculations. An unauthorized video showed the condemned man, his head held high, being taunted. Saddam went down cursing “the traitors, Americans, the spies and the Persians,” and blessing Iraq, Palestine, and Islam.


Saddam’s death brought rejoicing by Shiites and Kurds, regrets by the Americans and British, and condemnation by many Sunni Arabs. While some criticized only the botch of his execution, Saddam still clearly cut a popular figure. Yet how could such a villain be accounted so heroic?

The answer may be found in what British Prime Minister Blair called the “grievance culture” of the Middle East. External powers are accounted the authors of all misfortunes, their plots demonic; the Arabs are victims of unprecedented crimes, justifying any and all acts of resistance. Most to be admired are those with the courage to defy the demons even though doomed to a tragic end.

Saddam was a paragon of the aggrieved. His life, in his own eyes, was devoted to righting the wrongs of the Arabs. His ego easily commingled the national and the personal. Possessed of considerable intelligence, a peasant’s cunning, and a megalomaniac’s self-confidence, Saddam aped Stalin’s methods – organization plus terror – to control a state. This toxic mix sustained him through crisis and defeat.

Saddam also surpassed his peers in villainy. They were ruthless; he was more ruthless. They killed enemies; he killed enemies and friends. They killed thousands; he killed hundreds of thousands. They worked a regional balance of power; he worked to overthrow the balance. They sought alliance with outside states; he defied an alliance he himself had done so much to bring together.

Saddam overreached even by Middle East standards. On the dubious foundation of an Iraqi state, two-thirds of its people hating him, he believed he could dominate the Gulf, challenge the Americans, and destroy Israel thereby becoming leader of the Arabs. Serially defeated in pursuit of these causes, pillager of Iraq, illusion for the Palestinians, Saddam found his ultimate refuge – and reputation – in the grievance culture.

Saddam’s harm will long outlive him. Iraq, too important to be left alone, yet too convoluted to be understood by outsiders, will take decades to recover. His country is already the curse of Americans. His ambitions in the Gulf, in the region, and in the world, now passed to Iran, may prove his curse on the Persians. And in Tehran’s pursuit of such follies, Saddam may yet have the ironic last laugh.