- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 30, 2006

The dark eyes that for years mesmerized and terrified a nation finally closed when Saddam Hussein was hanged early today local time for crimes against humanity during his 24-year regime. He was 69.

The Sunni Muslim dictator was born April 28, 1937, into a poor village family near the town of Tikrit, and was raised mainly by his uncle, Khayrallah Tulfah.

Less than 40 years later, Saddam became Iraq’s most brutal and powerful president. He defied the world, started two regional wars, and goaded the United States into starting a third war with a 2003 invasion that led to his downfall.

To the end, he declared himself the only legitimate leader of Iraq.

Even after being dragged out of a small mud hole in the ground in December 2003, disheveled and disoriented, Saddam continued to insist that he was president — an arrogance that continued throughout his trial.

For those who met him, Saddam was both charming and intimidating, a ruthless ruler who had a vision of a modern, secular Arab nation.

Saddam’s uncle was a nationalist army officer who opposed the British-backed monarchy that once ruled Iraq, and under his influence, in 1957 Saddam joined the underground pan-Arab Ba’ath Party.

In 1958, a group of army officers led by Gen. Abdul Karim Qassem toppled the monarchy, and turned the country toward a communist-style state.

A year later, a 22-year-old Saddam and fellow Ba’athists tried to assassinate Gen. Qassem in a botched ambush. Saddam was wounded in the leg and fled to Syria and Egypt — reportedly with the help of the CIA.

Three years later, he returned to Iraq after a relative, Ahmad Hassan Bakr, had successfully overthrown Qassem. But the Ba’ath Party was once again driven into the underground — and Saddam with it.

During the five years until the next coup, Saddam worked his way up the security apparatus of the clandestine movement.

In 1968, when the Ba’athists overthrew the government of then-President Abdul Salam Arif, Saddam was put in charge of Iraq’s intelligence and security forces. From there, he began to eliminate all potential opposition, particularly among the Shi’ites in the south and the Kurds in the north.

He used Iraq’s oil revenues to modernize Iraq, pushing the country to be one of the most modern in the Arab world, with universities and hospitals that were the envy of the region.

Women were encouraged to study and work, and Western-style music and dress prevailed in the cafes and clubs of Baghdad.

In 1979, he was sworn in as president. Weeks later, scores of opposition leaders he had personally identified were executed. The reign of terror had begun.

One of the first Western journalists to interview him in 1973, before he became president, was syndicated columnist Georgie Ann Geyer — then a reporter with the Chicago Daily News.

“He was very handsome, not unlike what he looked like until his capture. He was in a French suit, with a silk shirt and a silk tie, very proper,” she recalled, recounting how she talked with Saddam through an interpreter in a gilded room of a Baghdad palace.

“In the four hours there was never any change of expression. He never smiled, or laughed or got angry, no matter what I asked him. It was like he had a curtain over his face,” Miss Geyer said.

“I asked him: ‘Critics say you kill your enemies with your own hands. Why do you do that?’ and he said: ‘Sometimes when you are in an underground movement, you have to do things you don’t want to do.’ ”

Saddam’s presidency was marked by periods of ferocious brutality and public displays of charm that kept his enemies off balance and his supporters eager to please him. Hundreds of thousands of people were tortured and killed.

Several Iraqis have said it was the only possible combination to keep the tribally, religiously and ethnically fractured society together. To those who suffered under his sadistic regime, nothing could justify his actions.

Saddam was determined to be recognized as the regional leader, and he challenged Iraq’s historical rival, Iran, by invading in 1980.

The United States tacitly supported Saddam at the time, and in 1983, then-special envoy Donald H. Rumsfeld shook hands with the Iraqi leader.

Two years into the fighting, Shi’ites from the small town of Dujail led a failed assassination attempt against Saddam. His response was typically swift and merciless: 148 persons were killed, many residents were jailed and tortured and the town was torn down and rebuilt later.

The war with Iran lasted eight years, and left almost half a million Iraqis dead and an estimated 300,000 Iranians dead. Iraq was weakened physically and financially.

In 1990, Saddam turned on oil-rival Kuwait, and in August of that year he invaded the tiny kingdom. A U.N.-backed coalition led by American troops threw him out of Kuwait and drove his forces back into Iraq.

Sensing another opening, the southern Shi’ites rebelled against Saddam, but the uprising was brutally crushed and thousands of Shi’ites were killed or imprisoned.

After more than 10 years of war and upheaval, as well as coalition bombing, the country’s economy and infrastructure were badly damaged.

An engineer involved in rebuilding Iraq at the time remembered Saddam visiting a number of engineers and workers at the Bayji oil refinery and rallying them to finish the work.

“He believed Iraqis were the best engineers and technicians, and he was proud of us, but he added that he wanted all Iraqi people to be happy on his birthday in 1991 and have enough gasoline, and he did not want to see any lines of cars at gas stations,” said Abu Nour, who asked that his full name not be used.

Abu Nour — a missile systems engineer who was later thrown into jail for punching an army officer who insulted his wife — said he met Saddam one more time that year, in a building close to the Al-Rasheed hotel in Baghdad.

“We entered the meeting room before him, then he came and at first he sat and watched everybody, and gave permission to key persons to explain what they were planning,” he said.

“As a man, he was very nice with strong eyes — when he looked at you, it was as if he was reading what you had hidden inside your mind,” Abu Nour recalled.

“He would not say anything if you made a mistake in your speech, but from his eyes you knew that you had disturbed him with your wrong words,” he said.

“At the end, he always gave his best regards to our kids and families and said he apologized for making us work 16 to 18 hours a day, and he said we were heroes for working like that and our families were heroes for being patient with us.

“I really liked him because he is a real man, but I didn’t like his attitude sometimes,” Abu Nour said.

It was a sentiment echoed in many Arab countries that admired Saddam’s defiance of the Western world while modernizing Iraq, but abhorred his methods. All were surprised at the easy surrender of Baghdad when U.S.-led troops invaded in 2003.

But it is Saddam’s arrogant attitude and barbaric acts for which he will most be remembered: the gassing of thousands of civilian Kurds, the torture chambers he encouraged and the perverse excesses of his two sons, Uday and Qusai. Both were killed by coalition troops in July 2003.

After Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, the international community led by the United Nations moved to contain the dictator and destroy his weapons systems.

The U.N. slapped sanctions on Iraq, forcing the government to use its oil revenues only for food and other civil needs. The U.S. and Britain imposed two no-fly zones to protect the north and south of the country, restricting Saddam to the central area.

The United Nations also began to inspect and rid the country of its biological, chemical and missile weapons.

But in late 1998, Saddam refused to allow U.N. inspectors to go through his palaces. The United States and Britain responded by bombing several targets around the country.

It was only after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States that Washington began to push for renewed inspections of Iraq, and President Bush included Iraq in what he termed the world’s “axis of evil.”

Despite mounting evidence that the United States was preparing to invade Iraq, Saddam defiantly refused offers to surrender or leave.

“We will die here. We will die in this country, and we will maintain our honor,” Saddam told Dan Rather of CBS News shortly before the invasion.

Ignoring strong international resistance to any military strikes against Iraq, Mr. Bush on March 20, 2003, invaded.

Nine months later, a bearded, bedraggled Saddam was pulled out of an underground hiding place and finally made to face those tortured under his rule.

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