The most difficult month of Saddam Hussein’s life may not have been March 2003, when a U.S.-led coalition toppled his regime, but rather March 1991. It was then, shortly after his army was driven out of Kuwait, he faced a Shiite insurrection and briefly lost control of all but one of Iraq’s eighteen provinces. “Going back to the ‘68 revolution, everything pales in comparison to that very short, very intense two and a half-month period of time,” recounts Kevin Woods, an analyst at the Institute for Defense Analyses and coauthor of the Foreign Affairs article “Saddam’s Delusions.” Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi dissident and author of the Republic of Fear, called it the first “Iraqi revolt against barbarism” (the second, he says, would come during the Iraqi elections of 2005). “Nothing like that had happened before,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
At the time, Iraq’s Shiites had been encouraged by then-President George H.W. Bush to “take matters into their own hands” and force Saddam aside. When they did, tens of thousands of Shiites were killed by Saddam’s forces. The White House, its rhetoric notwithstanding, stood by idly. “We did not think… that Saddam would continue in power having suffered such a resounding defeat,” James A. Baker, III, then secretary of state, later told PBS.
This episode encapsulated the topsy-turvy relationship between Saddam and the Americans. Nobody in the West mistook Saddam, who rose to power from Tikrit’s al-Khatab clan in the 1960s, as a benign force. He was a seen as a buffer to the Islamic Republic of Iran, a secular influence in a region swimming in religious extremism. Hence, Washington reestablished relations with Baghdad in 1983 and backed Iraq both militarily and financially during the Iran-Iraq War. There was the famous handshake between Saddam and Donald Rumsfeld (who was President Reagan’s Middle East envoy at the time). In the late 1980s, the Americans turned a blind eye to Saddam’s chemical gassing of Kurds and Iranians.
But by 1990, Saddam would fall out of the good graces of Washington. His pan-Arab foreign policy had taken its toll. In the minds of many Americans, the word “Saddam” quickly became a pseudonym for a bloodthirsty dictator, or the “Butcher of Baghdad.” He modeled himself after Joseph Stalin. Enemies were executed. Ornate palaces in his honor were built. What motivated his pursuit of power most, writes Mark Bowden in the Atlantic, was simple vanity. “The sheer scale of the tyrant’s deeds mocks psychoanalysis,” he writes. “Repetition of his image in heroic or paternal poses, repetition of his name, his slogans, his virtues, and his accomplishments, seeks to make his power seem inevitable, unchallengeable.”
Like many a dictator, Saddam was prone to hyperbole. He warned the West in 1991 that an attack on Iraq would be “the mother of all wars.” He liked to refer to himself as a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter. “Saddam sees himself as an established member of the pantheon of great men—conquerors, kings, and presidents, scholars, poets, scientists,” Bowden writes. Iraqis called him their “Great Uncle.”
The wars and megalomania that marked Saddam’s final two decades in office obscured a period of relative progress. Under his rule, Iraq boasted perhaps the Middle East’s most modernized public health system (UNICEF). Saddam launched initiatives to pave roads, build hospitals and schools, and teach Iraqis to read. Perhaps most importantly, he held Iraq—a multiethnic tinderbox carved out of the ruins of Ottoman Empire by the British—together relatively peacefully, albeit with an iron fist and distaste for human rights.
In 1984, in the small village of Dujail, Saddam Hussein signed the death warrants of roughly 150 Shiites, accused of plotting his assassination (BBC). Saddam probably thought nothing of it at the time. Two decades later, however, an Iraqi court found him guilty (WashPost) of these townspeople’s deaths and ordered him executed by hanging (NYT), thus ending a long and painful chapter in Iraq’s history. While Iraq descends into sectarian violence, however, questions linger among everyday Iraqis over whether the country is better off with or without their “Great Uncle.”