February 5, 1998
SADDAM HUSSEIN - HIS RISE TO POWER
By Gerald Butt
Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq for the past
two decades, has the dubious distinction of being the world's best known
and most hated Arab leader. And in a region where despotic rule is the
norm, he is more feared by his own people than any other head of state.
A former Iraqi diplomat living in exile summed
up Saddam's rule in one sentence: "Saddam is a dictator who is ready to
sacrifice his country, just so long as he can remain on his throne in Baghdad."
Few Iraqis would disagree with this. Although none living in Iraq would
dare to say so publicly.
The Iraqi people are forced to consume a daily
diet of triumphalist slogans, fattened by fawning praise of the president.
He is portrayed as a valiant knight leading the Arabs into battle against
the infidel, or as an eighth-century caliph who founded the city of Baghdad.
Evoking the glory of Arab history, Saddam claims to be leading his people
to new glory. The reality looks very different. Iraq is bankrupt, its economy
and infrastructure shattered by seven years of economic sanctions imposed
by the United Nations following the invasion of Kuwait.
Saddam himself remains largely isolated from his
people, keeping the company of a diminishing circle of trusted advisers
- largely drawn
from his close family or from the extended clan based around the town of
Takrit, north of Baghdad.
The path to power
The Iraqi president was born in a village just
outside Takrit in April 1937. In his teenage years, Saddam immersed himself
in the anti-British and anti-Western atmosphere of the day. At college
in Baghdad he joined the Baath party and in 1956 he took part in an abortive
After the overthrow of the monarchy two years
later Saddam connived in a plot to kill the prime minister, Abdel-Karim
Qassem. But the conspiracy was discovered, and Saddam fled the country.
In 1963, with the Baath party in control in Baghdad,
Saddam Hussein returned home and began jostling for a position of influence.
During this period he married his cousin Sajida. They later had two sons
and three daughters.
But within months, the Baath party had been overthrown
and Saddam was jailed, remaining there until the party returned to power
in a coup in July 1968. Showing ruthless determination that was to become
a hallmark of his leadership, Saddam gained a position on the ruling Revolutionary
For years he was the power behind the ailing figure
of the president, Ahmed Hassan Bakr. In 1979, Saddam achieved his ambition
of becoming head of state. The new president started as he intended to
go on - putting to death dozens of his rivals.
Holding together a disparate nation
President Saddam Hussein might defend his autocratic
style of leadership by arguing that nothing else could have kept such a
vast and diverse nation united.
And, for all that Saddam is criticised and reviled,
his opponents have not been able to nominate anyone else who might hold
Iraq together - with its Kurds in the north, Sunni Muslims in the centre
and Shi'ia in the south. What the outside world calls terror, Saddam calls
Some years ago a European interviewer nervously quoted reports that the
Baghdad authorities might, on occasions, have tortured and perhaps even
killed opponents of the regime. Was this true? Saddam was not offended.
Rather, he seemed surprised by the naivete of the question. "Of course,"
he replied. "What do you expect if they oppose the regime?"
But Saddam's tactic of imposing his authority
by terror has gone far beyond the occasional arrest and execution of opponents.
In attempts to suppress the Kurds, for example, he has systematically used
chemical weapons. And in putting down a rebellion of Shi'ia in the south
he has razed towns to the ground and drained marshland.
Not that you would recognise the figure of a tyrant
in the portraits that adorn every building and street corner in Iraq. Here
you see Saddam, usually smiling benevolently, in a variety of guises and
poses -- in military uniform, say, or in traditional ethnic dress, or tweed
cap and sports jacket; he might be surrounded by his family or be seen
jiggling a young child on his knee - the would-be father-figure of the
A question of judgement
The fiction of Saddam as a benevolent ruler was
exposed by two major and catastrophic miscalculations of foreign policy
for which his country and his people have paid dearly.
In 1980, Saddam thought he saw an opportunity
for glory -- to put Iraq at the forefront of the Arab world. He ordered
a surprise cross-border attack on Iran. This was meant to be a swift operation
to capture the Shatt al-Arab waterway leading to the Gulf.
But Iranian resistance was far stronger than Saddam
had imagined. Eight years later, with hundreds of thousands of young people
killed and the country deep in debt, he agreed on a ceasefire.
Still, with enormous oil reserves, Iraq seemed
to have the potential to make a swift recovery. An increase in oil prices,
Saddam surmised, would speed up the country's revival still more. Frustrated
by his failure to achieve agreement on a price rise by conventional means,
the Iraqi president allowed his long-harboured resentment against Kuwait
to get the better of him.
On 2 August 1990, Saddam made another costly blunder
by ordering his army into the neighbouring Gulf state.
In the months that led up to the war of 1991, Saddam Hussein displayed
qualities that still make him both adored and hated in the Arab world.
On the streets of Arab cities he is admired as a leader who has dared to
defy and challenge Israel and the West, a symbol of Arab steadfastness
in the face of Western aggression.
At the same time, Saddam is feared as a vicious
dictator who threatens the security of the Gulf region as a whole. With
his older and favourite son Uday crippled in an assassination attempt,
his younger son Qusay now controls the elite Revolutionary Guards and the
Special Forces which guarantee the president's grip on power.
Gulf states and Western countries alike have come
to realise that his grip is stronger than it seems - and stronger by far
than his grasp of reality often appears to be. To this day, for example,
Saddam insists that the 1991 Gulf War, which he famously described as the
Mother-of-All-Battles, ended in victory for Iraq.
By the same token, Saddam boasts that Iraq can
shrug off any Western military attack. The Iraqi people have no choice
but to nod in agreement.
So it will go on until the moment comes for bombastic
slogans to be replaced by a succinct epitaph to one of the most infamous
dictators of the century. For the overwhelming majority of Iraqis, that
moment can not come too soon.
Gerald Butt is editor of Al-Mushahid Assiyasi,
the BBC Arabic magazine.
Thursday, July 9, 1998
Bully boys in Russia's barracks
Around 40,000 conscripts have fled Russian regiments
The Russian Government is struggling to cope with a wave of
suicides and desertions from the country's armed forces because of alleged
Up to 40,000 young conscripts have fled their bases across the
country, many because of bullying from fellow conscripts.
Video tapes showing evidence of soldiers taking part in brutal
discipline sessions have been broadcast on Russian television.
Some of the footage shows young conscripts being repeatedly
beaten and kicked by senior soldiers.
One runaway conscript, who is wanted by the Russian army for
deserting a regiment outside Moscow, prefers to live on the streets rather
than face the brutality inside the barracks.
"They used a stick to hit us on the spine and legs," he said.
"I was afraid for my life."
The level of violence revealed has put pressure on the military
to take action.
According to Russia's military prosecutor, General Yuri Demin,
there are around 1,000 criminal cases being investigated.
"We will do our best to find them and punish them," he said.