(1937—2006) Iraqi President, Prime Minister, and head of the armed forces 1979–2003
Iraqi dictator (1979–2003), whose attempts to make Iraq a regional superpower led to the Gulf War of 1991.
Born into a Sunni Muslim peasant family, Saddam joined the radical Ba'ath party in 1957. In 1959 he received a death sentence for the attempted murder of Abdul Kassim, prime minister of Iraq, but escaped abroad. After studying law in Cairo, he returned to Iraq when the Ba'athists seized power in 1963. Following a second coup later that year, he joined a plot against the new regime, leading to his imprisonment in 1964. Escaping once more, he worked in the Ba'athist underground and took a leading role in the coup that brought the party back to power in 1968. As deputy chair of the Revolutionary Command Council, Saddam became effective ruler of Iraq, assuming absolute power in 1979 when he appointed himself president, prime minister, and head of the armed forces.
Domestically, Saddam's rule has been characterized by the systematic use of terror against political opponents and the creation of an extravagant personality cult. There has been widespread nationalization, notably of the oil industry in 1972. Internationally, his goals have been dominance in the Gulf region and the leadership of the Arab world. In 1980 Iraqi forces seized oil fields inside Iranian borders; resistance proved stiff and the ensuing Iran-Iraq war settled into a long stalemate, vastly expensive in both lives and resources. The conflict ended in 1988 with no significant gain on either side. During this period Saddam also used poison gas against rebellious Kurdish villages in northern Iraq, killing and injuring thousands and provoking widespread international protests.
The expansion of Iraq's armed forces continued unabated after the war, as did Saddam's stockpiling of sophisticated modern weapons. In 1990 he ordered the invasion of Kuwait and announced its annexation, in defiance of UN resolutions calling for Iraq's withdrawal. A US-led multinational force, authorized by the UN, was assembled in Saudi Arabia and, when Saddam still refused to comply, massive air attacks were launched on targets in Iraq and Kuwait, followed by a ground operation in which Iraqi forces were totally overwhelmed. Despite Saddam's personal humiliation, the destruction of much of his army, and the devastation of Iraq's economy, rebellions in several parts of the country after the war failed to dislodge him from power. In 1993 his defiance of UN peace terms led to US air strikes against Iraq. His continuing reluctance to cooperate with UN arms inspectors and his aggressive stance towards Iraq's Kurds have produced a series of minor crises.