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Iraq Journals

Glimpses of life in a war-torn country by GNS national security correspondent John Yaukey and photo director Jeff Franko.


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Friday, February 7

Saddam: A life of sticking by his guns

By John Yaukey

AMMAN, Jordan - Most despots have a grand vision for their people, if only as window dressing for their plundering.

Iraq President Saddam Hussein has long espoused dreams of a unified Arab superpower replete with nuclear weapons, stretching from the Euphrates River to the Suez Canal.

Unity has eluded the Arab world since it was carved into artificial sheikdoms after World War I. Now, it's more diffuse than ever.

Still, Saddam clings tenaciously - if not irrationally - to this Pan-Arabian vision, say writers and officials who have studied him or dealt with him diplomatically. His vision colors his politics, they say, and may be ultimately what pushes him into another war with the United States.

"Saddam has been driven by a lifelong hatred of the colonial powers that sought to divide and subjugate the Arab world,'' said Abel Hamdoon, a Jordanian writer who has tracked Saddam's life and political career. "But he also covets the military power of America. He desperately wants military parity with the West, or at least enough power to seriously threaten interests in the Middle East. He cannot stand Arabs being dictated to.''

Poverty and violence

Early poverty, humiliation and violence helped lay the groundwork for Saddam's bitter convictions.

Saddam, whose name roughly translates into "he who confronts," was born April 28, 1937, to poor peasants in the unforgiving Tikrit district of Iraq, north of Baghdad.

Witnessing as a young boy the arrest and imprisonment of his beloved uncle by colonial British forces instilled an early, visceral hatred of the West that radical politics would further inflame.

The rebellion against the colonial powers that saw Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nassar topple the British-installed monarchy there in 1952, then take the Suez Canal four years later, provided a young Saddam with heroes.

"Inspired by his uncle's tales of heroism in the service of the Arab nation, Saddam has been consumed by dreams of glory since his earliest days,'' wrote Jerrold Post, founder of the CIA's Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior, in a widely quoted psychological analysis of Saddam.

After running with street gangs, Saddam began his career in thug politics at age 20 by joining the Baath Socialist Party. It would prove a defining moment, giving shape and direction to his passionate anti-colonialism.

Founded in 1940 by Syrian intellectuals, the Harakat al-Baath al-Arabi, or the Movement of the Arab Baath, had gained considerable momentum in Iraq by the time Saddam signed on.

The Baath Party doctrine - essentially a combination of Marxist and nationalist ideologies blended under the banner of Arab ethnicity - advocated eliminating the artificial boundaries imposed in the Middle East by the colonial powers.

The message itself wasn't terribly radical.

''Most Arabs believe we are one nation obliged to be in 22 states,'' said Hani Khasawni, Jordan's former information minister who knows Saddam well.

Saddam would use assassination, torture and war to foment a more virulent strain of that Arab nationalism.

Coups and assassinations

His first assassination came in 1958 against a well-known supporter of then-Iraqi leader Abdul Karim Kassem, viewed as too cozy with the West. A botched attempt against Kassem sent Saddam fleeing to Syria and Egypt, where he studied law.

In 1968, following a brief stint in an Iraqi prison, Saddam helped lead a successful and nonviolent Baathist coup. The bloodless takeover would be an anomaly.

As a deputy party chairman in charge of internal security, Saddam wasted little time in purging the government of non-Baath Party members.

When he took the presidency in 1979 by forcing out Gen. Ahmed Hassan Bakr, a distant relative who helped him rise through the Baath Party, Saddam rounded up and executed some 450 potential adversaries.

"Saddam is very well insulated now," said Nadhem Odeh, a former university professor who fled Iraq for Jordan. "He has transformed the army into an instrument to protect himself rather than the Iraqi people."

To be sure, Saddam has survived numerous coup and assassination attempts.

But the would-be champion of Arab unity now finds himself an isolated pariah, facing what may be the next major campaign into the Arab world by the West - to remove him.